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Trump Communications with Foreign Leader Sparked Whistleblower Complaint; Trudeau Apologizes for Brownface Photo as He Fights for Reelection; Source: Bolton Criticizes Trump at Closed-Door Event; Iranian Foreign Minister Threatens War if U.S. or Saudi's Launch Strike. Aired 6-6:30a ET

Aired September 19, 2019 - 06:00   ET


ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.


ALISYN CAMEROTA, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome to our viewers in the United States and around the world. This is NEW DAY. It is Thursday, September 19, 6 a.m. here in New York. And we begin with breaking news. And this one is a bombshell that raises more questions about President Trump's handling of classified information.

CNN has learned that it was President Trump's communication with a foreign leader that led to a U.S. intelligence official filing a whistleblower complaint.

"The Washington Post" reports that the president made a promise that was so troubling to this official, that it prompted that official to come forward to report it. According to "The Washington Post," White House records show that President Trump spoke with at least five heads of state in the weeks before this complaint was filed.

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: Including, just for the record -- you see it right there -- Vladimir Putin.

Now the intelligence community inspector general determined the complaint was credible and was a matter of urgent concern. That language is crucial. It meets a crucial legal threshold. And the person using it, saying it is of urgent concern, is a Trump appointee.

Still, the acting director of national intelligence has refused to turn the complaint over to Congress. In just a few hours, that inspector general will brief the House Intelligence Committee behind closed doors, we assume on the complaint, while the acting director of national intelligence, Joseph Maguire, has now agreed to testify in open session next week.

Joining us now is Greg Miller. He's a national security correspondent for "The Washington Post" who cowrote this fascinating story. Greg, let me read a little clip of this so people can see it more in full.

"Trump's interaction with the foreign leader included a promise that was regarded as so troubling that it prompted an official in the U.S. intelligence community to file a formal whistleblower complaint with the inspector general for the intelligence community, said the officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter publicly."

A promise made to a foreign official. What does that mean?

GREG MILLER, NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT, "THE WASHINGTON POST": Yes, that's -- that's the big question right now. I mean -- I mean, we didn't completely solve this mystery, but what our story did was establish that -- that this whole controversy centers again on the actions of Trump himself.

It's not clear what he -- what he pledged or what he offered to deliver to this country. That's something that we are still pursuing.

BERMAN: And you say to this country. Again, we threw it up on the screen there. You talked about to whom this promise was made. We don't know for sure, but you do know which leaders he was speaking with in the weeks prior to this, correct?

MILLER: Yes. And two of the suspects here are Vladimir Putin of Russia and Kim Jong-un of North Korea. So he had spoken with Putin at the very end of July, and after that call, the Russian government gave a very interesting readout of the call, in which they indicated that they sort of expected to have fully normalized relations with the United States again.

And then, you know, this call also comes around the same time when Trump is saying strange things about his concerns about the CIA spying on North Korea and that upsetting the North Korean leader and that he would not allow that to happen on his watch as president.

BERMAN: So this complaint, this concern was raised with the intelligence community inspector general, a Trump appointee, who then determined and did what?

MILLER: Well, so that's right. That's a really important step here, because this is a complaint registered or filed by an employee of one of our nation's intelligence services. But then immediately, it is evaluated by the inspector general, as you mention a Trump appointee, who deems it an urgent concern. Right? He sees this as credible and worrisome enough that it meets a threshold that he believes requires immediate notification to Congress.

And that's where things get messy. That is where the director of intelligence, the acting director, Joseph Maguire, sort of steps in and starts scrambling and consulting others in the administration and officials at the Justice Department and puts the brakes on this process. And that's sort of where we are now and why this has -- has blown up into a big controversy.

BERMAN: On what basis has and did the DNI refuse to turn this information over to Congress to date? Because the law says if the inspector general deems this matter to be of urgent concern -- that is specific language -- then the information is turned over to Congress. MILLER: So the DNI, the director of national intelligence, is

basically disputing that this meets that legal threshold, in part by saying, look, this isn't -- this doesn't involve an employee who answers to me or who works for an -- one of our intelligence services. This is somebody outside the intelligence community. And therefore, this doesn't fall within my jurisdiction or our jurisdiction. It's not up to us to notify Congress.

They've also suggested that this might trip on executive privilege arguments, which almost always point to the president or senior officials at the White House.


BERMAN: It is interesting to me, because as we know, the president does have power to declassify information. We also know the president has been loose with classified information. He just has. This has been an issue dating back to White House Oval Office meetings with the Russian ambassador, where he revealed plans about Syria. He tweeted maps from Iran.

But there is a distinction here, maybe, and it may be an important one between classified information and a promise. This may not be the divulging of classified information. This was something that was promised that was of such national security concern that this person went to the inspector general.

MILLER: Yes. And so what is that? Is that promising the suspension of U.S. intelligence operation? Is that promising the -- an explanation or insight into how the United States gets some of its most precious secrets?

I mean, it has to be something troubling enough that it not only triggers this complaint but then prompts the inspector general regarded as so urgent and concerning that Congress needs to know about it.

BERMAN: That's right. A Trump appointee deems it of such urgent concern that Congress needs to know about it.

Greg Miller, thank you for helping us understand this reporting. Terrific, terrific work.


Joining us now is CNN national security analyst Shawn Turner. He is the former director of communications for U.S. national intelligence.

John, thank you very much for being with us this morning. You just heard all of the reporting from "The Washington Post." What do you make of what we're finding out about this whistleblower complaint?

SHAWN TURNER, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: Alisyn, I'm sorry, I missed your question. Can you say that again? I had some feedback?

CAMEROTA: Yes. Just tell me your take on the new details that we're learning this morning about the whistleblower complaint.

TURNER: Yes, you know, look, Alisyn. And Greg hit on a lot of this. If this promise was a promise that was made to a foreign leader primarily if it was made to Vladimir Putin, then that raises a lot of serious questions.

So look, here's my take on this. This was a matter that was so serious that a member of the intelligence community believed that they needed to go to the inspector general.

And the reason I need to point that out, to reiterate that, is because people in the intelligence community understand the kinds of things that would trigger an inspector general investigation. This is not the kind of thing that would have to do with some sort of fraud, waste, or abuse. This is the kind of thing that would have to do with some sort of concern over national security, some sort of concern over the way that intelligence information is being used.

And so, you know, as Greg pointed out, this is -- this is of serious concern for the intelligence community, primarily because it's been for a long time, the intelligence community has been uncertain about the president's use of intelligence. How he's talked to other world leaders about intelligence matters.

And so while he does have the ability to declassify absolutely anything, the inspector general would know that. And so that tells me that there's something more than a simple issue of declassification here. There's something of great concern.

CAMEROTA: So then explain why the acting DNI, Joseph Maguire, would not comply with the law that states that, within one week of receiving this, he must transmit it to Congress and their oversight committees.

TURNER: Yes. And you know, that's particularly the cure. You know, look, I've spent quite a lot of time with the intelligence community. And while I worked for the director of national intelligence, I cannot recall a single instance in which the attorney general exercised his statutory authority to validate a -- to validate a claim and then to notify members of Congress, in particular the congressional Intelligence Committees about that claim.

What the -- what the DNI has done here is the DNI has stepped in and, without -- truly without any authority, made a claim that what the inspector general is authorized to do is something that he -- that the DNI feels as though he can tell the inspector general not to do. That's of real concern here, because the statute is very clear. It says that the inspector general shall notify the congressional Oversight Committees within seven days.

And there's absolutely nothing in the statute that gives the DNI or the Department of Justice the authority to circumvent that -- that notification.

So I think there's a fight brewing here. The real question is, if this is a matter that did not rise to that level of urgency, then why didn't the DNI simply say, well, it's fine. Go ahead and notify members of Congress. It's not a big deal. I'm sure they will think it's not a big deal.

Instead, what he's done is he's saying, this is not a matter of complete urgency, but I'm going to protect this information. I'm going to conceal this information from -- from members of Congress.

CAMEROTA: Which is also the opposite of what the inspector general determined, which was that it was of, quote, "urgent concern."


I think that the larger point is doesn't this sort of blow up the very nature of whistleblower complaints? The whole point of a whistleblower complaint and the way that the statutes are written is that you don't need your boss's permission. You can't rely on your boss's permission. You need -- this is you are so concerned by something that you've seen within your organization that, of course, you don't need your boss's permission to blow the whistle on this, or you wouldn't be doing it. And so this -- the whole system is built so that something like this doesn't happen.

TURNER: Yes, absolutely, Alisyn. Look, you know, we complain a lot about those instances in which individuals say they have a whistleblower claim, and they don't go through the proper procedures, you know, in the intelligence community. People get worked up when whistleblowers go to the press or they go to other people around -- around the I.G.

In this case, you had an individual who did the absolute right thing. They went to the inspector general, and they raised this concern. And so what this does, this does have a chilling effect on the process, the proper process.

And so, you know, as -- for other individuals out there who have legitimate claims, legitimate concerns, they might think twice before going to the inspector general. And that's absolutely the opposite of what we would want to see in cases like this.

CAMEROTA: All right. Shawn Turner, thank you. A lot is going to happen with this case today, obviously. We are following it.

BERMAN: I think you're exactly right. A lot is going to happen today. I can't imagine the White House will be able to stay silent on this for six hours. I can't imagine the president of the United States, based on my forensic analysis of how he's responded to news over the last couple years --

CAMEROTA: Yes, what have you determined?

BERMAN: There's no way he'll stay silent here. I am very curious to see what he says about this.

CAMEROTA: Well, you're monitoring Twitter, so you'll be the first to know.

BERMAN: OK. Political upheaval strikes one of the most visible leaders. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau under fire for this photo showing him dressed in brownface. His explanation and the new betting on his reelection chances next.



CAMEROTA: Canada's prime minister, Justin Trudeau, says he is deeply sorry after this photo you're about to see was published by "TIME" Magazine, showing him wearing brownface at an Arabian Nights-themed gala. This happened nearly two decades ago when he was a teacher. This controversy is happening weeks before he faces reelection.

CNN's Paula Newton joins us with more. What's the back story here?


The photo is just jaw-dropping. And the issue is, guys, this guy built his political brand on being inclusive and that is what has a lot of people upset this morning. And we are getting new details about this in terms of what the prime minister -- remember, he's in the middle of an election campaign right now, and saying, in fact, that he apologizes. Now, there was a lot of contrition there, but take a listen to what's behind the story.


NEWTON (voice-over): Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau asking for forgiveness.

JUSTIN TRUDEAU, CANADIAN PRIME MINISTER: Pissed off at myself, obviously. I'm disappointed in myself, and I'm apologizing to Canadians.

NEWTON: After "TIME" Magazine tweeted this photo, showing him wearing brownface to an Arabian-Nights-themed party at a private school where he taught in 2001.

TRUDEAU: I dressed up in an Aladdin costume and put makeup on. I shouldn't have done that. I should have known better, but I didn't. And I'm really sorry.

NEWTON: The image surfacing just one week after Trudeau launched his bid for re-election.

TRUDEAU: I stand here before Canadians, as I will throughout this campaign, and talk about the work we have to do to make a better country together. And I'm going to continue to stay focused on that and continue to work to fight intolerance and discrimination.

NEWTON: Some other Canadian lawmakers immediately slamming the prime minister.

ANDREW SCHEER, FEDERAL CONSERVATIVE LEADER, CANADA: Wearing brownface is open mockery and racism. It was just as racist in 2001 as it is in 2019.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Seeing this image is going to be hard for a lot of people. It's going to bring up a lot of pain. It's going to bring up a lot of hurt.

NEWTON: In the past, Trudeau's been accused of cultural appropriation, during a visit to India last year, where the prime minister and his family dressed in traditional clothing. A move criticized and even mocked by many Canadians.

TRUDEAU: Whether I'm wearing traditional clothing or a suit and tie has been extremely encouraging in the Indo-Canadian friendship.

NEWTON: Trudeau's now being compared to two U.S. politicians who had similar issues surface earlier this year. Last month, Alabama governor Kay Ivey expressed, quote, "genuine remorse" for wearing blackface in a skit while she was a college student in the 1960s.

GOV. KAY IVEY (R-AL): I offer my heartfelt apologies for my participation in something from 52 years ago that I find deeply regrettable.

NEWTON: And in February, Virginia Governor Ralph Northam apologized, admitted, and then denied being in this photo from his 1984 medical school yearbook, showing a person in blackface and another in a Ku Klux Klan robe.

GOV. RALPH NORTHAM (D-VA): It is definitely not me. I can tell by looking at it.

NEWTON: Northam refused to step down, despite public pressure.

Trudeau is also facing those calls, but when pressed on whether that could happen, the prime minister offering yet another apology.

TRUDEAU: I didn't think it was racist at the time, but now I recognize it was something racist to do. And I am deeply sorry.



NEWTON: And of course, more confessions here for the prime minister. He also admitted that, during high school, that he was impersonating -- impersonating Harry Belafonte and did blackface there at a high school concert.

I mean, listen, guys, I'm going back to a Canadian election. We have it October 21.

The issue here is authenticity. He put himself out there as someone who is inclusive. This is his political brand. And voters everywhere just do not like that. Do not present yourself as one thing. You know, one thing he didn't answer was when were you going to tell us about this? Because he never said that he forgot that this had happened. He just didn't tell anyone that it had happened for many years now.

BERMAN: tough re-election just got tougher for him. Also, Paula, thank you very much. BERMAN: We're getting new details this morning about what former

national security adviser John Bolton just had to say about the president behind closed doors.

This was in a private lunch in New York, and one person that attended says Bolton was scathing in his criticism of the president's approach to several countries and, quote, "didn't have anything positive to say about President Trump." Full stop.

CNN's Abby Phillip live in Washington with much more on this. I know this was behind closed doors, but you get the sense that John Bolton's not holding back.

ABBY PHILLIP, CNN POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: That's right, John. The not-so-cold war between President Trump and his former national security adviser continues this week as John Bolton unloads on President Trump in this private meeting.

Now, a source who attended the meeting said that Bolton did not name Trump specifically but offered a scathing critique of the foreign policy led by President Trump.

Specifically, Bolton was critical of Trump's insistence on wanting to negotiate with Iran, North Korea and the Taliban. He talked about the president's plan a couple of weeks ago to bring the Taliban here to the United States during the week in which the United States would have marked September 11, those September 11th attacks. Bolton called that disrespectful.

And we also know, based on what sources told us at the time, that the night before Bolton resigned, he and President Trump had a shouting match in the Oval Office over this very issue.

Now in this meeting with foreign policy experts yesterday, Bolton made it very clear that he felt like President Trump's policy was emboldening Iran. He blamed Iran for drone strikes in the region and said that the president's unwillingness to respond to those attacks were simply emboldening the regime.

So it's clear that Bolton is not going quietly into the night.

Now, President Trump, for his part, is also strongly criticizing John Bolton, saying they disagreed on a number of different -- different issues. But beyond that, John, the two just simply never got along. And I think it's clear now some of the reasons why, some of them personal and many of them on the policy level.

BERMAN: Yes, no doubt. Abby Phillip, thank you.

Bolton said this to a room full of people who are prominent enough Bolton knew that everyone was going to hear about this, including the president. Thanks, Abby.

PHILLIP: Absolutely.

BERMAN: Up next, a CNN exclusive interview with Iran's foreign minister. What he says would provoke all-out war with the United States. Our dad was in the hospital.



BERMAN: New this morning, Iran's foreign minister threatening all-out war if the United States or Saudi Arabia launches a military strike against Iran. This is a CNN exclusive.

It comes after U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called the attack on Saudi oil facilities an act of war.

CNN's Nick Paton Walsh just interviewed Iran's foreign minister. This is part of that exclusive interview.


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


WALSH: You make a very serious statement there, sir.

ZARIF: Well, I make a very serious statement about defending our country. I'm making a very serious statement that 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.

WALSH: Put yourself in Saudi Arabia's shoes. If there was an attack on Iranian sovereign territory, with cruise missiles launched from Saudi Arabia, what would Iran's response be?

ZARIF: Well, they're making that up. Why do they want to make that up that it was from Iranian territory? The Yemenis have announced responsibility. They have provided information about that. They have answered all the Saudi disinformation campaign about the fact that they launched this attack against Saudi Arabia in self-defense. Now, they want to pin the blame on Iran in order to achieve something.

And that is why I'm saying this is agitation for war. Because it's based on lies. It's based on deception. But you lie and deceive when it serves your interest. It doesn't even serve their interest.

WALSH: There is weakness, though, to Iran's denial about involvement in all of this. And this is really the Houthi Yemeni rebels who you say and who say themselves were behind this.

This is a ragtag group of rebels who have been under siege for years. They struggle to get medicines. They struggle to get food. That, indeed, is part of your case why the war must stop.

How is the world expected to believe that they were able to magic up drones and cruise missiles of this technology that flew across hundreds of miles of Saudi Arabia, through tens of billions of dollars of air defenses, without any external assistance, and took out 19 targets? That's a big ask for people to believe.