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What Did the President Promise a Foreign Leader That Prompted an Intelligence Community Official to Blow the Whistle?; An Escalation in Tensions Today Between the United States and Iran; Beto O'Rourke Has Called For a Mandatory Buyback of Assault Weapons. Aired 12-12:30p ET

Aired September 19, 2019 - 12:00   ET



UNIDENTIFIED MALE: All walks of life, and that increases in goodness, and helps to cause a little light, elevates and eliminates all darkness.

JASON CARROLL, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: And those that we talked to say, what is also needed is more of a police presence in some of these orthodox communities. In addition to that, the New York City Mayor's office has also opened an anti-hate crime prevention office. That is something that should help as well.

KATE BOLDUAN, CNN HOST: Yes, more police needed. You wish they wouldn't need to be.

CARROLL: Exactly.

BOLDUAN: But that is news right now. Thank you, Jason, for shining a light on this. Thank you so much.

And thank you all so much for joining me today. "Inside Politics" with John King starts right now.


JOHN KING, CNN HOST, INSIDE POLITICS: Thank you, Kate, and welcome to "Inside Politics." I'm John King. Thank you for sharing your day with us.

A top secret spy drama grips Washington. Did President Trump make a reckless promise to a foreign leader? A whistleblower thinks so, and the intelligence community Inspector General who deemed the complaint urgent is on Capitol Hill right now giving select members of Congress a classified briefing.

Plus, two big shakeups by struggling 2020 Democratic contenders. Kamala Harris goes all in on Iowa and Bernie Sanders juggles staff in two early states, as he too tries to find a path to victory.

And it's unclear whether Congress can reach a compromise over new gun violence laws. But Beto O'Rourke has called for a mandatory buyback of assault weapons, already an attack line for at least one conservative Republican on the ballot in 2020.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: These liberal radicals want to confiscate our guns.

BETO O'ROURKE (D) PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Hell yes, we're going to take your AR-15.

Hell yes, we're going to take your AR-15.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Fortunately, we have Senator Tom Cotton on our side.


KING: We begin the hour today with a top secret Washington power struggle over a giant unknown. What did the President promise a foreign leader that prompted an intelligence community official to blow the whistle?

The President this morning says he knows people inside the government listen to all his phone calls and we would never promise anything inappropriate. "I would only do what is right, anyway, and only do good for the USA," the President says.

No specifics there in the President's tweet though to help us understand what this is all about. No specifics, either, from the inspector general for the intelligence community who is up on Capitol Hill this hour. It was might that IG Michael Atkinson who labeled this whistleblower's complaint an "urgent concern." But, in a classified session with House Intelligence Committee members, Atkinson so far providing no details about the whistleblower or the specifics of the complaint.

What we do know, CNN confirming, Washington Post reporting from last night that an intelligence community official red-flagged a communication between President Trump and a foreign leader. Two intelligence officials telling The Washington Post that the communication included a "Promise so troubling, it sparked the still unnamed and unknown official to file that formal complaint."

We don't know the leader or the alleged subject matter. We do know the Inspector General told Congress of the complaint after the Director of National Intelligence ignored a deadline for notifying lawmakers about such issues. Let's get straight up to Capitol Hill and CNN's Manu Raju. Manu, the IG agreed to come before the Committee, but apparently not agreeing to say anything.

MANU RAJU, SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT, CNN: Yes, he is laying out the process for how he handled this complaint, I am told, but he is not getting into the substance of that complaint, according to multiple sources.

Now, he's essentially telling lawmakers behind closed doors that the law - he's not permitted under the law to detail exactly what the complaint says, because under the Whistleblower Act, the Director of National Intelligence actually has to submit this complaint to Capitol Hill before the Inspector General can talk about the substance of that complaint.

And that complaint has not been sent to Capitol Hill because the Director of National Intelligence's office says it does not meet the threshold for sending it over to Congress. Now, Democrats contend the Director of National Intelligence is violating the law. They want to bring in the Acting Director next week to testify. He's agreed to come in open session. Expect that to be a very contentious affair.

The office says they are absolutely following the law, so they're pushing back. So, right now, what lawmakers are getting on the Intelligence Committee, a briefing of how the complaint was actually handled. But there are questions, ample questions, John, about who this foreign leader the President apparently communicated with was, exactly what promise allegedly the President gave, as well as whether the President himself intervened in any way to prevent this complaint from coming to Congress.

Those are questions that at the moment it appears the Committee has not yet answered, so expect members to come out expecting - demanding more information, because at the moment they're getting a briefing of how this was handled, but they still don't know exactly what was in that complaint, John.

KING: This seems like a frustrating circle, if you will, at the moment. Manu Raju on Capitol Hill will come back to us if we get any new developments.

In the hour ahead with me in studio to share the reporting and their insights, Catherine Lucey with The Wall Street Journal, Toluse Olorunnipa with The Washington Post, POLITICO's Melanie Zanona and Lisa Lerer with The New York Times.

We don't even know what we are talking about. I mean, it's a stunning thing to say in the sense that, if you look at the President's tweets this morning, you knew this playbook was coming. I didn't do anything wrong and there are people in the intelligence committee who don't like me. That's my summary of it, but that's what the President is trying to getting at.


So, if and when we get to the substance of this, the President has laid the predicate, I didn't do anything wrong, and the intelligence committee with whom he's been at war from the beginning is out to get him.

But this is a pretty serious if the IG says it's an urgent concern. And now you have this power struggle with the DNI - Acting DNI named by the President, after he pushed out his former DNI, says I'm not going to tell you, Congress.

TOLUSE OLORUNNIPA, WHITE HOUSE REPORTER, THE WASHINGTON POST: Yes, that's very urgent concern, it has both legal implications as well as political implications. If you hear, as my Washington Post colleagues reported, that this is about the President, about a call he had with a foreign leader and the fact the Inspector General says it's an urgent concern and a whistleblower is coming forward to bring complaints about what transpired on that call.

It is politically damaging for the President, even though we don't know the substance of what the complaint is. It's also a legal issue where Congress feels like they definitely have the right when the Inspector General says it's an urgent concern, it's Congress' right to get the full briefing on what happened, and the fact that they are being stonewalled on this and on many other issues is the reason why this is going to become sort of a legal battle between the Executive Branch and the Congress.

MELANIE ZANONA, CONGRESSIONAL REPORTER, POLITICO: Right, and I would look out for Democrats to start coming out in favor of impeachment. One of the chief arguments for impeachment is that it will strengthen their legal hand in court to get documents that they're unable to get.

And I can tell you Democrats are now growing exasperated with the stonewalling between the hearing this week with Corey Lewandowski and the other efforts. They are growing frustrated and the time is running out on the clock and they need to make a decision.

KING: This is the town we live in right now, though. You have an administration that says no. Congress says, what day is it? The White House says no. I don't say that as a joke. I don't say that as a joke. This is a very serious matter, and some of these other oversight issues are a very serious matter.

The White House just says go away. And then you have some Democrats in Congress, who not knowing what they're talking about, say impeach. Wouldn't it be nice?

Just step back. They are going to argue now over the semicolons in the law, in the intelligence laws and the Whistleblower Law. Someone has filed what the IG determined to be an urgent concern complaint about the President of the United States.

We are at a point where there is such distrust and lack of cooperation between the branches of government that the Director of National Intelligence just wouldn't go up to Congress and say, I can't tell you everything, but let me at least give you a baseline, let me give you a threshold, we're investigating this, gone. The town is broken.

LISA LERER, NATIONAL POLITICAL REPORTER, THE NEW YORK TIMES: Yes, and so that's definitely true. And part of what I'm curious about is whether there are fractures within kind of the coalitions here.

So, when the President calls a foreign leader, generally speaking, it's not just the President and the foreign leader on the line, right. It's being recorded, there's people from the White House. So, so who else was on this call, who else heard what was said? Did they raise any red flags internally? What's going on there?

And also, the Republicans, we have seen the rare moments where Republicans have broken with the President, has almost entirely been over foreign policy. So how did they handle this? How do those guys - how does that party move forward?

CATHERINE LUCEY, WHITE HOUSE REPORTER, THE WALL STREET JOURNAL: That actually raises - Lisa raises a really good point about the way these calls are documented and reported, because while we don't know the content of this call specifically, we have heard these concerns about the President's communications with foreign leaders before.

I mean, you remember there were transcripts leaked early in the administration of calls with Mexico and Australia. He - and there were also concerns after the meeting with Vladimir Putin last year where there were just translators present and even sort of high-ranking officials where they didn't exactly know what was discussed in the meeting. So - and there have been efforts by the White House to limit how much information is put out about a lot of these conversations.

KING: Dramatically, you don't get the traditional readouts. I covered the White House for almost ten years, Democratic and Republican administrations. The President has a phone call with the leader of, pick your country, and you get - sometimes it doesn't tell you much, it's a couple paragraphs, but it says - at least you have on the record that there was a conversation.

We don't know which leader is at issue here. We do know around this time frame the President spoke with five leaders right around the time the complaint was filed on August 12. In the days and weeks right before that, he spoke to Vladimir Putin the Russian President, Kim Jong-un, the North Korean leader, the Pakistani Prime Minister, the Dutch Prime Minister and the Leader of Qatar.

So, obviously, the anti-Trump crowd says, aha Putin. We don't know that. But, again, you have a whistleblower complaint against - the White House declines any comment. And the President tweets which says, I did nothing wrong, don't give us any clue as to what it's about. One suspects he knows by now what it's about. So, where do we go?

OLORUNNIPA: Well, the President does have a long history of sort of giving things over to Putin in one-on-one conversations. Even in 2017, the President said we're going to set up a joint cyber operation with the Russians, after the Russians interfered in our election.

So there is a lot of concern among people who are close to the President that he - when he gets into these one-on-one conversations with Putin, he's willing to give away the store, and that's why there's a lot of speculation that maybe that July 31 to Russia call.

But it's not clear yet exactly who he was talking to, but it was definitely something that he said that caused this whistleblower to go forward, make a complaint to the IG, and the IG looked at it and said it was an urgent concern.


And now there is a stonewalling by the White House that has the most expansive view of executive privilege of any White House we've seen in modern history and they are using that on this issue as well. KING: And so you're left - and again whatever your partisan instincts

are at home, you are left with a whistleblower who has a complain, a whistleblower complaints, an Inspector General who says - a Trump- appointed Inspector General, let's be clear about that, this is not a holdover, this is not the Deep State - a Trump appointee says this is an urgent concern and wants it acted on.

The IG is the one who told Congress, when the Director of National Intelligence did not. The IG believes the Director of National Intelligence is required to do that. The Director of National Intelligence - the Acting Director appointed by the President says there is a dispute about that.

And now you have a Congress trying to investigate something they don't know anything about. Jim Himes is a member of the Committee. He says, I'm not sure.


REP. JIM HIMES (D-CT): Well, look, it could be anything, including nothing. Not all whistleblower complaints are about serious stuff. The point is, of course, it's up to Congress to decide that, because the law says that these complaints will be transmitted to the appropriate committees in the Congress.


KING: The IG will say nothing but the Acting Director of Intelligence, Mr. Maguire, is scheduled to testify in an open hearing next week. Do they cut a deal by then, do we get at least the parameters of what this is about, or does he take - sit in the chair and say, I agreed to come but I'm going to tell you anything.

ZANONA: It'll probably be that. They've already subpoenaed for this information, haven't gotten it. And if behind closed doors, the Inspector General isn't giving anything, I highly doubt that the Acting DNI, that Trump appointed, is going to give much information either.

But look, going forward, whether this sways public opinion is another question. As such, if we don't any information about what was actually said in the complaint and on this call, I think the public is so desensitized.

In the Mueller report, there was so damning details about his conversations with Russia and foreign leaders and their willingness to accept help, and that didn't move the needle. And that's the struggle for Democrats right now is trying to move those - that middle area into their side here.

KING: There's an easy way to fix this. The President clearly knows what it is about. He's tweeting this morning he did nothing wrong. Great, declassify the transcript, release the transcript of the call. This could be over by nightfall. Simple, easy. Won't happen, but it could be over by nightfall. Up next, Iran warns of all-out war if the United States orders

retaliatory airstrikes. What it means for tensions in the Persian Gulf region, that's next.


KING: Welcome back. An escalation in tensions today between the United States and Iran. Iran's Foreign Minister sending a sharp warning to the United States and Saudi Arabia. This, of course, after last weekend's attacks on Saudi oil facilities. Both the Saudis and the United States blame Iran. Listen.


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

MOHAMMAD JAVAD ZARIF, IRANIAN FOREIGN MINISTER: An all-out war. We don't want war, we don't want to engage in a military confrontation, we believe that a military confrontation based on deception is awful. We'll have a lot of casualties. But we won't blink to defend our territory.


KING: Tough words there from Foreign Minister Zarif. Senior administration officials here in the United States say trump's National Security team meeting again today to discuss their options to respond to those attacks on Saudi oil infrastructure. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo heading back from the region right now after urgent talks with leaders from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. The President says he doesn't want a military confrontation, but he also says it's possible.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Why did you tweet locked and loaded, if you don't want to go to war?

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We'll see what happens. I mean, you may have some very strong hint we are the strongest military in the world by far. If we can have a peaceful solution, that's good. It's possible that that won't happen.


KING: CNN's Kylie Atwood joins our discussion. Secretary Pompeo, quite clear again, Iran is the bad actor here. He calls it an act of war.


KING: What is his recommendation to the President? What do we know about the - the President has gone back and forth. He says possible, could be a big hit, but that's not what he wants. ATWOOD: Yes, so Secretary Pompeo did call this an act of war

yesterday, but he also explicitly said it was an act of war against Saudi Arabia, not against the US, echoing what President Trump has said that this was not something that was targeted at the US, it was going - an attack on Saudi Arabia.


And we also heard from Secretary Pompeo today, kind of dialing back any military rhetoric and saying, talking about building a coalition, talking about a peaceful resolution. These are not the words of drumming towards war. These are kind of, okay, let's take steps back.

He also acknowledged what we heard from Foreign Minister Zarif saying that there would be an all-out war if there were a military strike. So Pompeo, trying to seem like the U.S. is the balance actor here, the one who is trying to pull in the countries in the region to come up with a solution that's a diplomatic solution. Not indicating a military solution right now, but all options are still on the table, as he (ph) tells us.

KING: And to your point, let's listen to Secretary Pompeo because the words matter here, not just the words saying all-out war potential or could be a heavy strike, that's important to listen to, but sometimes people get muscular to try to get leverage in negotiations. If there were such negotiations, here's the Secretary of State.


MIKE POMPEO, UNITED STATES SECRETARY OF STATE: I think it's abundantly clear and there is an enormous consensus in the region that we know precisely who conducted these attacks was Iran. We are still striving to build out a coalition.


I was here in an act of diplomacy. While the Foreign Minister of Iran is threatening all-out war to fight till the last American, we're here to build out a coalition aimed at achieving peace and a peaceful resolution to this. That is my mission set.


KING: The question is, how do you achieve a peaceful resolution, if you are - right now, there are no talks with Iran. Iran has ruled that out of the United Nations. Sometimes - (inaudible) go through third parties, but there's no evidence of that at the moment. He's talking about a regional coalition. You can the Saudis and the Emirates, they - Iran to them has always been the boogeyman and now you have this confrontation.

The Europeans are not with the Trump Administration, at least have not been in recent months because they're mad at the President for pulling out. Can this president, whether it's at the United Nations or elsewhere, build a coalition when he has, in the views of many people, broken and busted previous coalitions? OLORUNNIPA: It's going to be very hard. I mean the President does have the rubric of what happened with North America where there was all of this rhetoric back and forth, the President said he was going to completely destroy the country. That North Koreans were attacking the President publicly. So, there is this background that the President could follow in this right now, war of words with Iran where they attack each other publicly and eventually they sit down and talk.

But, it seems like this a little bit different than that. The world is not navigating and focusing on making sure that the world is altogether with the President. I mean there is a lot of dissension within the global community over what to do with Iran and the U.S. is actually more isolated on this issue than the President was on North Korea. So, it makes it much more difficult, even with the U.N. General Assembly next week, to have a global consensus on this.

KING: To that point, everyone condemning the attacks on Saudi oil infrastructure. Everybody will condemn Iran if they see and believe the intelligence that the United States says proves Iran is responsible. But, the world is also mad at the Saudis for the Khashoggi murder, for Saudi activities in Yemen, not just the United States, other countries around the world, especially the bloody civil war in Yemen that they believe the Saudis have their kept finger on the thumb there.

They are made at President Trump for pulling out of the Obama Nuclear Deal. So listen to Zarif, a veteran diplomat, he knows the United States is making phone calls saying, let's increase sanctions, let's increase pressure on Iran; he says, here's the way out.


ZARIF: We did not leave the negotiating table. There is a negotiating table; that is there. The United States is welcome to come back to that negotiating table.

WALSH: What do they do to have to get back to that table?

ZARIF: Well, they have to respect their signature. Leaving that nuclear deal was not a lawful act, because that deal is not a deal between Iran and President Obama, it's not a deal between Iran and the United States, it's a Security Council resolution.


KING: Now, the president is not going to listen to that, Secretary Pompeo is not going to listen to that, but that's a smart play to European capitalists who are still at the Trump Administration for ripping up a deal that took months and months and months to negotiate.

LUCEY: That is an issue. I mean the President now is - or the White House certainly now is trying to figure out ways to build a coalition, build support, work through the U.N. potentially, but they've done a lot of coalition busting in the last two-and-a-half years. So, that presents problems for them. But really what we are seeing with the President over the last couple of days is pretty much in keeping with the way we have seen him engage on the world stage, which is he likes tough talk, he wants sort of stress military might, but when he comes down to it, he is not that interested in military intervention.

KING: Not that interested in military intervention.


KING: And in the case of North Korea where he has had direct negotiations, also no evidence that if he ever got there with Iran that he can get the results, in the sense that in North Korea, he has had two summits and still no results. We will keep our eye on this one.

As we go up next, domestic politics here at home. The Kamala Harris campaign laying down the campaign red line, bronze or bust, in Iowa.



KING: A big change of strategy today from Kamala Harris. Her campaign's version of win or go home cracked the top-three in Iowa. Harris campaign officials say today that's the finish they need to give the California Senator a chance heading on to the later contest, especially Super Tuesday.

The plan now, commute Harris to Iowa at least once every week in October and to add 60 organizers in the state. The Harris reboot is for obvious reasons. She's in single digits in national and most early state polls, and she's not alone in looking at the polls and the calendar and deciding it's time to shake things up.

The Bernie Sanders campaign just this week juggling its teams in both Iowa and New Hampshire. So, 137 days until Iowa votes, but -- I keep saying, "Gee, that's a long time, that's 19.5 weeks, that's forever." Except it's not if you're a campaign.

And so, what do we make of this? Harris entered the race. A lot of people is thinking here is the potential rising star in the party. Female senator out of California, California moved up its primary, now all-in in Iowa which, no offense to Senator Harris, we've heard before from a number of people, always when they're struggling.

Senator Chris John (ph), Senator John Edwards, and so forth.

OLORUNNIPA: Yes. I mean, 137 days until the first votes. What has happened over the last 137 days? We've seen the poll numbers for Senator Harris fall sort of precipitously and not very many people moving in these polls, but Harris has moved and Warren has moved up. And the fact she's sort of slipping in the polls, especially since that first debate, means that they have to figure out a way to re- strategize the idea of going into South Carolina and having that as a firewall. Doesn't really seem to be holding up right now, so she does need to do well in Iowa in order to try to change things in those states that follow and specifically in South Carolina--