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President Trump Welcomes Australian Prime Minister to White House; Mitch McConnell Flips and Backs $250 Million in Grants for Election Security; Giuliani Denies and Then Admits to Asking Ukraine to Investigate Joe Biden. Aired 9-9:30a ET

Aired September 20, 2019 - 09:00   ET



POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: All right. Good Friday morning, everyone. I'm Poppy Harlow.


Any minute now, the Australian prime minister will arrive at the White House for a meeting with President Trump and then we will hear from the president in a press conference, this for the first time since revelations of an alarming whistleblower complaint within the intelligence community. That complaint based on a promise that Trump reportedly made to another world leader. The details of which the White House and Justice Department are actively trying to keep from Congress and therefore from you.

HARLOW: And now we're learning, according to new reporting from "The New York Times" and "The Washington Post" this morning that it had to do at least in part with Ukraine. CNN has reported in the past that President Trump's lawyer Rudy Giuliani tried to pressure the Ukrainian government to investigate former vice president Joe Biden's family, specifically his son Hunter Biden's work on the board of a Ukrainian gas company.

SCIUTTO: And on that issue, notice this. The administration seems to have moved from denial to justification. In fact, in a fiery interview on CNN, the former New York City mayor denied asking for an investigation to our Chris Cuomo then just seconds later admitted he did.


RUDY GIULIANI, PRESIDENT TRUMP'S PERSONAL ATTORNEY: You want to cover some ridiculous charge that I urged the Ukrainian government to investigate corruption. Well, I did, and I'm proud of it.


HARLOW: Our team is covering all of the details on this story across Washington. Let's begin with our White House correspondent Kaitlan Collins.

Good morning, Kaitlan.

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Jim and Poppy. The president is about to come out here. It's only the second state visit of his entire presidency. The first was with the French. He's going to welcome the Australian prime minister and his wife and of course the delegation here at this welcoming ceremony behind me which is going to include an inspection of the troops, a 19-gun salute. All this pomp and circumstance. But what is hanging over this state visit and what the president was tweeting about just minutes before he was scheduled to come out here and greet the Australian prime minister is this whistleblower's complaint.

The president on Twitter this morning was implying this whistleblower is biased and is partisan, even though he provides no basis for why he believes that. And that's similar to an argument that his attorney Rudy Giuliani was making to Chris Cuomo just last night.


CHRIS CUOMO, CNN HOST, "CUOMO PRIME TIME": Did you ask the Ukraine to investigate Joe Biden?

GIULIANI: No. Actually, I didn't. I asked the Ukraine to investigate the allegations that there was interference in the election of 2016 by the Ukrainians for the benefit of Hillary Clinton for which there were already is a --

CUOMO: You never asked anything about Hunter Biden? You never asked anything about Joe Biden and his role with the prosecutor?

GIULIANI: The only thing I asked about Joe Biden is to get to the bottom of how it was that Lutsenko who was appointed.

CUOMO: Right.

GIULIANI: Dismissed the case against anti --

CUOMO: So you did ask Ukraine to look into Joe Biden?

GIULIANI: Of course I did.

CUOMO: You just said you didn't.

GIULIANI: No. I didn't ask them to look into Joe Biden. I asked them to look into allegations that were related to my client which tangentially involved Joe Biden in a massive bribery scheme, not unlike what he did in China.

CUOMO: Rudy.

GIULIANI: You explain to me how the kid got $1.5 billion when Joe Biden was still --


CUOMO: I have no problem with you launching allegations. But just be careful about what you say. I asked you, did you ask Ukraine to look at Joe Biden?

GIULIANI: I am very careful about what I said.

CUOMO: You said no. Then you went on to say that you did.


COLLINS: Now Giuliani's argument may have been hard to follow there, but he was contradicting himself about whether or not he had directed the Ukrainians to investigate Joe Biden. Of course, potentially the president's political opponent in 2020. But one other important thing he said is that if he did do that, if the president did tell Ukraine to, quote, "straighten up" in order to receive that aid money, aid money which we should note is in order to protect them from Russia, he said he believed it would be appropriate.

And Jim and Poppy, you can bet this is something President Trump is going to be asked about when he holds a press conference with the Australian prime minister here in just a few hours.

HARLOW: Yes, OK. Kaitlan, there's a lot to digest there. It was a great interview that Cuomo did with Giuliani. Thank you so much. Jim.

SCIUTTO: So let's dig in more on this whistleblower complaint. CNN senior national correspondent Alex Marquardt joins me now.

So the president this morning accusing without basis that the whistleblower is somehow highly partisan here.


SCIUTTO: In fact, this is an elaborate process and a risky process for someone to come forward.


SCIUTTO: And say, listen, this is an issue of national concern.

MARQUARDT: Well, this was something that was of such urgent concern that the inspector general went to the director of National Intelligence, acting director of National Intelligence, Joseph Maguire, and said this is -- the situation is of urgent concern. Now what normally happens in that case is the DNI is then essentially supposed to forward that complaint to the House and Senate Oversight Committees. Instead what happened here is ODNI went instead to the Department of Justice who said, you know what, it's not your jurisdiction.


MARQUARDT: And the White House and the DOJ, we now understand, told ODNI this isn't of your concern. The inspector general, he respectfully disagreed, and we saw him, Michael Atkinson, go up to the Hill yesterday and give a closed-door briefing to the House Intelligence Committee. [09:05:07]

Now we understand from people who are in that room that he did not delve into what this complaint actually involves but instead talked about the process, talked about his concern and most importantly, talked about these multiple acts that were of concern to the whistleblower.

Remember, Jim, this focuses on communication between the president and a foreign leader in which a promise was made according to "The Washington Post." And now we have this new reporting from "The Post" and "The Times" saying that this was -- this centered on Ukraine. And when you look at the timeline.


MARQUARDT: We know that the president spoke with the new Ukrainian President Zelenskiy on July 25th. Just 2 1/2 weeks later, this official complaint was filed on August 12th. And we know from the readout from the Ukrainians, but not from the White House, that there was a discussion involving investigating corruption. Now I want to note some of the --

SCIUTTO: And improve -- and connecting that to improving collections with the U.S. Explicit connection.

MARQUARDT: Well, and we just heard Kaitlan Collins there talking about this release of $250 million in military aid that the U.S. had been holding up.


MARQUARDT: That many had been outraged over. I do want to draw attention, Jim, to one line from the inspector general's letter to the House Intelligence Committee. He felt that he was at an impasse because 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. So here we have acting DNI Maguire in a very, very tough spot. He's set to testify next week.

SCIUTTO: And you're making an important point. The president says the whistleblower is highly partisan again with no basis. It was the inspector general who determined that this whistleblower complaint was of urgent concern. Inspector general appointed by this president.

Just as we're watching there, Poppy, you see the president and the first lady greeting the Australian prime minister and his wife there on the official visit to Washington. We're going to continue to bring you details of the visit as it happens -- Poppy.

HARLOW: There you see the Australian prime minister, Scott Morrison, his wife, the First Lady Jenny Morrison. Only the second, Jim, interestingly formal state visit to the White House following Emmanuel Macron of France. We'll keep an eye on this. They've got some important issues to discuss. But now let's talk about this story as it develops with Elie Honig,

our legal analyst and former federal and state prosecutor, and CNN legal and national security analyst, Asha Rangappa, also a former FBI special agent.

Good morning one and all. So, Elie, just stepping back here, big picture, we have the president's personal attorney Rudy Giuliani on our air essentially making the case that collusion with -- or attempted collusion with a foreign government to influence an election not a big deal. New line here? New line potentially crossed here?

ELIE HONIG, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Yes, it was a startling admission, Poppy. To hear Rudy Giuliani admit that he had contact with the Ukrainians about investigating Joe Biden. There absolutely are lines crossed here. First of all, putting aside potential criminality, this is a wild abuse of power and it's way over the line. It's a disloyal act by Rudy Giuliani.

Now one of the questions is, could there be criminality here? Now it's going to depend of course on the specifics of the case. The devil often is in the details. But a bunch of statutes popped into my mind of, wow, they're getting into gray area here. First of all, foreign election aid. You think we would have all learned our lesson from the close call that happened in the Mueller report. You cannot solicit foreign election aid from a foreign national.

Could be bribery. Could be extortion. It could be what we call foreign corrupt practices act which means you can't bribe a foreign official. So they're getting into really dangerous gray area here.

SCIUTTO: Asha Rangappa, but two years of investigation, the Mueller report comes out. There's not sufficient political will to pursue prosecution or really any consequences for the evidence of cooperation or soliciting cooperation from foreign sources during the 2016 campaign. Could President Trump have reasonably taken from that that, well, it's OK, I can get away with it?

ASHA RANGAPPA, CNN LEGAL AND NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: That may be what he had taken from that, but it would have done him good to actually read the report. You know, in the factual scenario that the 2016 election presented, a lot of the so-called dirt on Hillary Clinton was being offered by the foreign government and kind of landing -- you know, according to these participants, landing in their lap and, you know, they may have been open to it, but they weren't -- you know, that intent requirement was very difficult to prove.

Here you have an active solicitation of assistance. So you have basically people going out trying to, you know, create an agreement which is what the heart of conspiracy in all of these other crimes that Elie noted are about.



RANGAPPA: So it makes a big difference. SCIUTTO: And, Poppy, using the levers of presidential power, if true,

right, would be denying key military assistance to get what you want in that case. And that's qualitatively different, too.

HARLOW: That's a very good point. Yes. That's a really good point, Jim.

So, Elie, just on the law and what power legally Democrats have here, Adam Schiff, of course the chair of the House Intel Committee who's been very outspoken about this because he believes our committee and Senate Intel should have gotten, you know, this report from the whistleblower within seven days, according to the law as it's written. He has threatened legal action if it's not turned over to Congress, even talking about the potential for withholding funding from the ODNI.

I wonder what sort of legal power does he and other Democrats have here and to what avail?

HONIG: Yes. So the Democrats have a very straightforward case to make based on the law itself. This is a very clear -- it's a shall law. It means it's not discretionary. Shall disclose. If the inspector general finds that a complaint is urgent and credible, he shall forward it to Congress.

Now what we're seeing here, and we've seen this dance before, is the Department of Justice blessing the administration saying it may say shall, yes, but you don't have to because you're the president. We've seen it with the tax returns.

HARLOW: Right.

HONIG: With the Department of Treasury. We saw it with the congressional subpoena to Don McGahn. Both of those things are mandatory. Both times Bill Barr's Department of Justice sort of rubber-stamped whatever Trump wanted to do and said, OK, maybe the statute says this and shall, but you don't have to because you're the president. I think it's a dangerous and extralegal extension of executive powers. Yes, the president has broad powers but, no, they are not unlimited.

SCIUTTO: Asha, for folks at home who have seen stories about and evidence of possible abuses of power or flouting of the law, what should give them confidence that there will be legal consequences here if such wrongdoing is established? What should give them confidence? Because there are a whole host of laws and there are a whole host of checks which have been repeatedly overruled, trampled on, ignored, bypassed. What should give folks confidence that something is going to work this time?

RANGAPPA: You know, Jim, I have been an institutionalist for a long time and tried to really have faith that they are going to hold through, but I do think that these checks are kind of failing one by one. I described it like the hull of the "Titanic." And it's because our systems aren't designed to address a national security threat when the threat is the president of the United States. You end up in all of these laws working across purposes of the president's presidential and Article 2 authorities. And you end up in these very thorny like constitutional questions.

So, you know, for example, here, impeachment would be an ultimate remedy if there has been self-dealing. But if Congress cannot obtain the evidence that would substantiate an Article of Impeachment then that -- even that remedy falls apart. So you end up with all these contradictions. I would love to give some reassurance. I'm not really sure what to say at this point.

SCIUTTO: Well, that's demoralizing, but listen, all we can do is report the news and, you know, draw on your analysis.

Listen, we appreciate it, Asha and Elie. Thanks very much.

What you've been watching there is the beginnings of an official state visit to Washington by the Australian prime minister.


SCIUTTO: We should note that the president is going to speak. It will be a press conference later this morning. And of course, we will bring that to you live. And we'll be right back.



POPPY HARLOW, CO-ANCHOR, NEWSROOM: All right, you're looking at the president of the United States, first lady Melania Trump hosting their -- only their second formal state visit. Beside them you see the Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison and the first lady Jenny Morrison standing there. They have meetings.

And then at 11:45, the president will hold a press conference, a joint presser. Of course, there will be questions about this reporting over the whistleblower. It will be interesting to see, Jim, who the president calls on in terms of the journalists in the room and what is asked.

JIM SCIUTTO, CO-ANCHOR, NEWSROOM: Yes, has a habit of calling on friendly outlets. Well, the U.S. does state visits well, nothing like a fife and drum --

HARLOW: There you go --


HARLOW: Beautiful morning --

SCIUTTO: They are special events. In Washington, Senator Mitch McConnell now says that he will support an amendment that gives $250 million directly to states for election security. This isn't about- face for the Senate Majority leader who had resisted the additional funding for more than a year. HARLOW: Senate Democrats have argued that local election officials

need more resources to replace outdated voting machines, protect against hacking and cyber attacks ahead of the 2020 election. Let's go to our Congressional reporter Lauren Fox who joins us from Capitol Hill.

Good morning, Lauren, I mean, I have to ask, why now? Because this is such an about-face. I mean, he talked about modern day McCarthyism, said this isn't something we need before he called this bill clearly not a serious effort to make a law. Total about-face, why?


LAUREN FOX, CNN CONGRESSIONAL REPORTER: Well, Senate Democrats are arguing that he relented because of their pressure. They're arguing they brought up more money for election security multiple times on the Senate floor, and they've also brought up broader legislation to change the way states can deal with elections.

Major leader McConnell has argued in the past that he doesn't want to federalize these elections. But this is just more money. And what McConnell's staff is arguing is, look, the majority leader has, in the past, supported more money for election security funding.

They're arguing that he was just waiting for the appropriations process. That process is now under way. They voted out of committee yesterday, this amendment. Of course, there's a big question of whether or not it will be on the Senate floor and then whether it will pass the house in conference, and then of course, whether the president would actually sign it into law.

We're a little bit ways from that process, but obviously, this is a big moment for Democrats. They're arguing that the Majority leader simply had to cave to their pressure, McConnell's staff pushing back on that. Jim and Poppy?

HARLOW: Well, they got the money, right? So they got what they wanted in the end. Frame it however you want, Lauren, thank you for that reporting. Jim?

SCIUTTO: Let's speak now to Alex Burns; national political correspondent for the "New York Times" and White House correspondent for the "Daily Mail" Francesca Chambers. Thanks to both of you for joining. Alex, it was just two months ago that McConnell in blocking once again this election security funding said clearly this request is not a serious effort to make law. Clearly something so partisan that it only received one single solitary Republican vote. Why is he relenting now?

ALEX BURNS, NATIONAL POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT, NEW YORK TIMES: Well, Jim, I think for a couple of months, there's been a sense among both Democrats and Republicans on the Hill that if the Majority leader was going to bend on anything, if you were going to get bipartisan agreement on anything related to foreign interference in American elections, it would be on this kind of a forward-looking package. Saying, you know, whatever happened in 2016, we don't need to litigate

that on this specific item on the agenda. Let's talk about what we're going to do to stop this from happening in the future. McConnell has said in the past that -- you know, privately, not publicly, that the difficulty with talking about election interference is that the president sees any conversation about Russian interference in American elections or foreign interference generally as a referendum, a statement on his own legitimacy as the president.

That's something that comes somewhat less into play if you're talking about this in a forward-looking way, and on the substance, this is a tough idea to oppose.

HARLOW: Could it be, Francesca, an optical thing as well for the Majority leader? Even if he does feel this way still about the legislation. Remember, this is what got him that nickname Moscow Mitch by blocking those bills. That's not a good look.

FRANCESCA CHAMBERS, WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT, DAILY MAIL: Absolutely, and you don't want to be in a situation heading into 2020 where if, for some reason, there was some discrepancy, some sort of election interference, where you are then charged with the fact that you, again, did nothing about it, and you knew that this was a possibility.

And so for Republicans who, you know, have a reasonable chance of President Trump keeping the White House, that's something that they have to consider because you certainly don't want to spend the next -- if he does win, the next three, four years re-litigating this all over again the same way they had to re-litigate the last election because of Russian interference.

SCIUTTO: Alex, shifting to the whistleblower complaint, it was an interesting moment last night to watch Rudy Giuliani shift from denying to in effect justifying. It was almost a few good men moment, you know, you're damn right, I ordered that code red.

HARLOW: Right --

SCIUTTO: And I wonder what that means to you. Does that mean to you that there's a belief that, well, you know, it may be substantiated that the president made an explicit connection between investigating and an investigation that involves Joe Biden and his son and this military assistance?

BURNS: Well, what it certainly does between what Rudy Giuliani said on CNN last night, and what the president has been tweeting this morning, it certainly given all kinds of encouragement and material to work with to people who do see the kind of connection or do speculate about the kind of connection that you were just describing.

If there was going to be an effort by the administration as it seems there has been over the last couple of weeks to just kind of stonewall any further investigation or conversation about this. You know, there are giant-gaping holes in that kind of strategy now. It's really hard to see how we don't ultimately end up getting much

more of the story than we have this morning. And if what Mayor Giuliani was trying to do was kind of pre-spin what people will find out later, and we don't know for sure that he was being that strategic, but if that was what he was trying to do, I think it's a highly questionable strategy.


HARLOW: Francesca, building on that a bit. You know, the White House could -- let's not forget, easily clear this up by explaining the contact, even without giving a lot of specifics. The White House, if they think there's nothing to see here, right? As the president tweeted yesterday, they could lay out the --

CHAMBERS: And the president --

HARLOW: Go ahead.

CHAMBERS: The president has a press conference today. And so, you have to -- you have to imagine that one of the questions will most likely be what was the context of that conversation, and the president could be put on the spot to answer that question. So we might know the answer to that in a few hours. But to --

HARLOW: But do we know, Francesca, on that front? Do we definitely know that the president -- it's gone -- the president knows exactly what is contained in the whistleblower's report to the IG and the IG's report?

CHAMBERS: Right, and we don't know that. You're absolutely correct. But he could be put on the spot to answer himself whether or not he ever spoke to the Ukrainians about Joe Biden. And that's something that Vice President Mike Pence had been asked in Poland. And I was sitting in the room at the time and he was really shaken when he answered it.

He said, no, that he had not explicitly discussed Joe Biden, but he did affirm that they discussed corruption. And so maybe that gives us a little bit of a clue about maybe what happened in the conversation given what Rudy Giuliani said last night as well.

SCIUTTO: Yes, and the read-out, the Ukrainian read-out of the call says explicitly --

HARLOW: That's a good point.

SCIUTTO: That the conversation connected corruption investigations and improving relations between the two sides. Of course, the White House read-out of the call did not say that, but White House read-outs of calls if you've been reading them the last few months, don't say a whole lot.

CHAMBERS: Well, and again, Vice President Mike Pence did explicitly discuss corruption when he was --


CHAMBERS: In Poland during that conversation --


CHAMBERS: We know that for a fact.

HARLOW: Thank you, both --

SCIUTTO: Indeed.

HARLOW: Have a great weekend, Alex Burns, Francesca Chambers, we really appreciate you joining us this morning. Meantime, next, we're going to take you to Texas where there's torrential rain and flooding really that has brought Houston to a standstill. Even shutting down one of the city's major highways. We'll have the latest on this dangerous and already deadly flooding.