Return to Transcripts main page


Trump Hosts Australian Prime Minister As Whistleblower Scandal Mounts; Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY) Flips And Backs $250 Million In Grants For Election Security; Interview with Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-CA. Aired 10-10:30a ET

Aired September 20, 2019 - 10:00   ET


POPPY HARLOW, CNN NEWSROOM: -- what is only the second state visit of his presidency.


After that, a press conference, where the president will face questions for the first time since that Washington Post reporting that he made a promise to a foreign leader, one that was so alarming, it triggered a whistleblower complaint.

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN NEWSROOM: Now, the president tweeted a denial about that complaint just minutes before meeting with his Australian counterpart. And now, we are learning, according to a new reporting from The New York Times and Washington Post that that call had something to do 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 and his family, specifically his son, Hunter Biden's work on the board of a Ukrainian gas company.

HARLOW: Well, when asked about that in a fiery interview with our Chris Cuomo, the former New York City mayor's denial came just seconds before his admission. Here it is.


RUDY GIULIANI, PRESIDENT TRUMP'S FORMER 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: You've got to watch that whole interview. It's 30 minutes worth taking in.

Meantime, our team is covering all of the latest details from across Washington. Let's begin this hour with our Kaitlan Collins who joins us at the White House.

Good morning, Kaitlan. Look, I mean, I don't want know who the president is going to call on today, but whoever he does should certainly ask all about this phone call. KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: And it's hard to see how the president doesn't get asked about it when he's standing there next to the Australian prime minister. And this is something that is really hanging over what you have described as, yes, the second state visit of Donald Trump's presidency, something he was tweeting about just moments before he came out to greet the Australian prime minister and his delegation here on the south lawn just moments ago.

The president accusing this whistleblower of being partisan, though it's unclear if the president knows the identity of this whistleblower who has filed this complaint, knows any of their personal politics. But that's a similar argument to what his attorney, Rudy Giuliani, was saying just last night. Not only accusing this person of potentially being a Democrat, trying to take down the president, but also contradicting himself when he was asked, did he direct the Ukrainians to investigate who could potentially be the president's political opponent?


CHRSI CUOMO, CNN HOST: 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 already --

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 get to the bottom of how it was that Lutsenko, who was appointed, dismissed the case against anti (ph) --

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

GIULIANI: Of course, I did.

CUOMO: You just said you didn't.


COLLINS: Now, Jim and Poppy, it's unclear how Ukraine fits into this whistleblower's complaint. That's something we're still reporting out. But it's important to keep in mind that also in that winding interview that Rudy Giuliani gave last night, he made the argument that it actually would be okay if the president did tell the Ukrainian government to, quote, straighten up in order to receive that aid money that they received, that military aid money, which is to protect Ukraine from Russia. That's an argument he made there last night.

We'll see if the president makes a similar argument when he speaks with reporters. We're going to see him in the Oval Office in just a few minutes from now.

HARLOW: Okay. We're waiting. Kaitlan Collins, thank you for that great reporting.

SCIUTTO: For the latest on the whistleblower complaint, CNN Senior National Correspondent Alex Marquardt joins me now.

The president this morning, without basis, alleging that the whistleblower is highly partisan. That, of course, ignores the fact that the inspector general appointed by this president deemed that complaint urgent, by his own judgment.

ALEX MARQUARDT, CNN SENIOR NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, that's right, Jim. This complaint was filed by someone from the intelligence community on August 12th.

And if we look at this timeline, now with this new reporting that this has to do with Ukraine, we know that in the final days of July, specifically on July 25th, that there was a phone call between the president of Ukraine, Zelensky, and President Trump. That complaint then filed on August 12th.

Now, this was of such urgent concern, the inspector general found, that he went to the Director of National Intelligence, the acting Director, Joseph Maguire, who is, in theory, supposed to forward that then on to the congressional oversight committees. Instead, he went to the Department of Justice, who counseled him that this was not, in fact, part of intelligence activity. It was not part of his jurisdiction.

But the inspector general for the intelligence community was so disturbed that he himself went directly to Congress. And yesterday, we saw him briefing the House Intelligence Committee behind closed doors.

Now, he was very careful, this is Michael Atkinson, the inspector general, to not delve into the details in this complaint. He talked about the process. He talked about the law. But what he did say is that there were multiple acts of concern to this whistleblower.


Now, we know that this centers around communications between the president and a foreign leader and a promise that was made. The New York Times, The Washington Post saying this has to do with Ukraine. We do not know what the promise made was.

But, Jim, I want to read part of the inspector general's letter to the House Intelligence Committee that underscores how urgent he felt this complaint was.

He writes 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.

Now, the House Intelligence Committee had subpoenaed Joseph Maguire to testify yesterday. He declined, but he will now be appearing in front of both the House and Senate intel committees next week. You can be assured that they have some very significant questions for him then. Jim?

SCIUTTO: No question. And the language from the inspector general there, very clear about just how seriously he's taking it. Alex Marquardt, thanks very much.

HARLOW: Let's talk about this with our experts. CNN Legal Analyst, Michael Zeldin is with us, former federal prosecutor, and CNN Political Analyst, Rachael Bade, Congressional Reporter for The Washington Post.

Good morning to you both. Thank you for being here.

And, Michael, let me begin with you, because a number of the president's allies are comparing this to President Obama. And they're specifically bringing up that sort of hot mic moment when President Obama told Medvedev, essentially, let me get through this and I'll be much more open to negotiate post-election.

Listen to Matt Schlapp and his argument on that front.


MATT SCHLAPP, CHAIRMAN, AMERICAN CONSERVATIVE UNION: He has very wide authority, really, unchecked authority, to talk to world leaders about anything he deems appropriate, as he's representing the United States of America.

If this were able to go forward, any staffer in an agency could constantly hobble a Democratic president, duly elected.


HARLOW: Michael Zeldin, unchecked authority? Is that what the president has?

MICHAEL ZELDIN, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: He has broad authority, but that authority is checked by his obligation to act on behalf of the United States and not on behalf of himself. And the allegations here, the facts of which we don't know, all seem to imply that the president may have been acting on behalf of his own interests, his own campaign interests, and not the interests of the United States.

So were it the case that he was only acting on behalf of the United States, then Matt's argument may have some value, but it's not known yet how the president was acting and what gave rise to the complaint.

SCIUTTO: Rachael, it strikes me listening to Rudy Giuliani last night, that in a moment, even, his position moved from defending and denying to justifying, frankly. What he did here, which was, you know, go there and try to pursue, pressure the Ukrainian government to further investigate someone who happens to be a political opponent of the president. Is that where this administration is on this now?

RACHAEL BADE, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Sort of like foreshadowing what their position would be should these reports, you know, these suspicions be true, right? I mean, Giuliani has done this before with the Mueller report, where he said, oh, you know, the president didn't do anything wrong. But if he did something, it wasn't illegal. And so, you know, we've sort of heard that argument before.

But it's interesting, because on Capitol Hill, you know, Democrats, they're trying to get a copy of this complaint to see exactly what the allegation is. And we have seen the White House over and over again stonewall Congress, and this is just sort of following in that vein.

And I talked to a lot of Democrats between Corey Lewandowski's appearance on Tuesday, where he was very defiant, talked over members, promoted his own campaign, and was otherwise very disregarding of congressional authority. And then this, where the whistleblower complaint, they're not allowing it to come to Congress when it should, there's a real frustration.

And democrats, they don't know how to hit back right now. And they're in this real pickle where they're having to wait for the courts to rule in. They could take this to the courts, but it could clearly be months, if not, years until we see what this complaint actually is.

SCIUTTO: That seems to be part of the administration's strategy, drag it out.

HARLOW: Michael Zeldin, simple question, but I think an important one. If you were the first reporter to get called on in the press conference today, what would you ask the president about all of this?

ZELDIN: What did he say to this foreign leader that may have triggered the determination that this was an urgent matter that required congressional oversight? Explain to us what is at the heart of this complaint, to your understanding?

SCIUTTO: Fair question, simple. Will he give a straightforward answer?

Yes. Rachael, and to be clear, if you look at past precedent on this, the president has, in the past, said that he would accept, for instance, foreign help in a campaign. He's justified that. Well, listen, if they offer, this is something that we'd have to look at. So it's possible the president goes that path here, is it not?

BADE: Yes, no. He's really -- it's clear that the White House and the president in particular feel emboldened. I mean, the Mueller report, the Russia investigation was sort of hovering over his head, his whole presidency so far.


After that wrapped up, you know, we've just seen him make comments like that. Well, we'll see if a foreign government offers help. We'll see what it would be, instead of saying, absolutely, I wouldn't do this.

I mean, the G7, talking about having the G7 at one of his hotels in Florida. You know, people saying that 100 percent goes against the emoluments clause that said a president cannot be accepting any sort of gifts from a foreign government.

And over and over again, he is showing that he doesn't care about defying Congress. And you know, it's -- we're getting a sense from the White House that they feel like the Democrats aren't going to do anything in the House, and they can pretty much do whatever they want.

SCIUTTO: And, you know, Poppy, the phone call with the Ukrainian president came one day after Bob Mueller's less than exciting testimony on Capitol Hill, to Rachael's point about the possibility of feeling emboldened.

HARLOW: Yes, absolutely. Michael Zeldin, just as we go, something that struck both Jim and I this morning is the difference between the readouts of that call with the Ukrainian president, between the White House's readout and Ukraine's readout. This line was not in the White House version, where the Ukrainian readout said the president is convinced Ukraine can improve its image by, quote, complete investigation of corruption cases, which inhibited the interaction between the Ukraine and the United States.

Is there a there there, because Rudy Giuliani last night was talking about corruption, anti-corruption and the White House didn't include that part.

ZELDIN: Right. So if the president of the United States said to the president of the Ukraine, look, your country is filled with corruption. If you want to be our ally, if you want to receive our foreign aid, straighten up, clean up your house. That would be, I think, appropriate. If, however, it was more along the lines of, look, I know you're investigating the Bidens or Hunter Biden. If you pursue that more aggressively, then we'll release the foreign aid money, that would be inappropriate.

And so the statement boldly is not clear, but the implications are of what one wants to read into it.

SCIUTTO: Yes. It could have been a positive promise as opposed to a demand. Michael Zeldin, Rachael Bade, great to have both of you.

ZELDIN: Thank you.

SCIUTTO: Other news, Senator Mitch McConnell now says he will now support an amendment that gives $250 million directly to states for election security, a real concern going into 2020.

HARLOW: A real concern. I mean, it's good that they will have this extra amount of resources, but this is an about-face, a real about- face for the Senate majority leader who has resisted for months that additional funding.

Our Congressional Correspondent, Lauren Fox, joins us on Capitol Hill. And he took a lot of flak for this. I mean, this is what got him that nickname, Moscow Mitch.

LAUREN FOX, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Right. And I was in Kentucky in August and Moscow Mitch had really caught on, even sort of in the local sphere of politics there. I saw a lot of signs, a lot of buttons, a lot of T-shirts.

So, obviously, McConnell announcing yesterday on the floor that he supported this amendment. Then they voted on it in committee. It passed out of committee. Now, the question is, will it go to the Senate for a full vote, then how do they conference that with the House, and will the president sign it?

But, ultimately, this is a substantial amount of money. McConnell's team is pushing back, saying, this is not a reversal for the majority leader. In fact, he has supported more money for election security in past appropriations bills. And he was simply waiting for the appropriations process to unfold on Capitol Hill. That's what they're doing right now. That's why he was willing to introduce this amendment right now.

But Democrats claiming that the majority leader relented, that their pressure over election security, this nickname that he doesn't like, all were too much pressure and that McConnell ultimately had to change his mind about giving more money for election security. Poppy and Jim?

SCIUTTO: You think it might have been an easy call given how seriously U.S. intelligence agencies are taking the threat to the upcoming election. Lauren Fox, thanks very much.

And still to come this hour, we are expecting to hear from the president very soon. Will he address the growing whistleblower scandal?

HARLOW: Plus, new doubts about the political future for Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. He has apologized again after those new images of him in black face surfaced. And he actually admits that he doesn't know how many times he may have worn blackface.

And it may be the biggest day of climate demonstrations ever, hundreds of thousands of people joining these marches all around the world. We'll tell you more, ahead.



SCIUTTO: Right now, President Trump and the Australian prime minister are sitting down for a bilateral meeting at the White House. The two are expected to discuss security and trade, as the president hosts Scott Morrison and his wife. It is only the second state visit of Trump's administration. But a big question, will the president address the growing questions about a whistleblower?

Joining me now, Congressman Eric Swalwell, Democrat from California, and member of both the House Intelligence and Judiciary Committees, who are very much in the middle of it.

Congressman, thanks so much for taking the time this morning.

REP. ERIC SWALWELL (D-CA): Of course, good morning, Jim. Yes. SCIUTTO: So first question, you were in the room yesterday for testimony from the inspector general of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. Now, I know this was a closed session though, not classified. Can you tell us, did he reveal anything about the nature of this whistleblower complaint?


SWALWELL: Jim, it was so frustrating, because he's been silenced. And you could just sense the frustration that he had, because his job, as the inspector general, is to be a channel that a whistleblower can go to if they see something wrong. And then he is, you know, to put a report together that ultimately makes its way to Congress. And his job is being impeded right now by the Department of Justice, the acting DNI, the director of National Intelligence, and a claim of privilege be made by the White House. So it was frustrating.

SCIUTTO: I understand. Now, as you know, the inspector general, who is, of course, appointed by this administration found that the whistleblower's complaint was both urgent and credible. By the whistleblower law, that should then be reported to Congress. Is -- how is the Justice Department therefore justifying not allowing you and other members of the relevant committees to get the details on this?

SWALWELL: Yes, there's no wiggle room here. So let me walk your viewers through, you know, how this works.

So a whistleblower, if they say, I have an urgent and credible, you know, complaint about something I saw relating to national security, the inspector general receives it. He has 14 days to investigate it, to corroborate it, to see, you know, if it is, in fact, something that is urgent and credible for the Congress to know about. And then once he sends that to the Director of National Intelligence, that's it. Congress has to be told within seven days. And here, instead, the Department of Justice and other entities have become involved.

Something that stood out though, because he said, not only was this urgent and credible at the time that it was made, he said it's still urgent and credible today, and that's why we should know. It's not like the urgency lapsed, like the urgency still is here.

SCIUTTO: As you know, this is a consistent strategy and approach from this administration, whether it be congressional subpoenas, the demand for the president's tax returns, et cetera. What an Congress do? You have a majority, Democrats have a majority in the House of Representatives, to force the administration's hand here, to force, it seems, to comply with the law.

SWALWELL: Well, first, we can fine anyone who is lawless. And that is something that is still being considered. We can go to court. Now, something we're not going to do is we're not going to break the law because they're breaking the law. We shouldn't meet lawlessness with lawlessness. As tempting as it is, if that would get us the result that we wanted, we're just not going to do that. So we're not going to get the results that we need as fast as we want. But, Jim, we're on the court on so many issues here. We're on president's taxes, we're in the courts on the Mueller report, we're in the courts on witnesses who refuse to testify, and now, we may have to go to the courts for this. There's going to be a cascade of court rulings very soon that I think are going to go against the president, and the popular opinion, if it hasn't already shifted against this president, who's under 40 percent of approval rating, it's going to shift even more.

SCIUTTO: Okay, as we watched the Giuliani interview with my colleague, Chris Cuomo, last night, it struck me that what's happening here with Trump world and the administration is that they are moving from denying to justify, in effect. Giuliani saying proudly, you know, I was going there to pressure them on corruption cases, which you should read as corruption cases related to someone who happens to be the president's possible rival in the upcoming election. Is that wrong?

SWALWELL: Yes. But if you look at their approach here, this is the play that was run in part in the 2016 election. They embraced Russian help. The president said, Russia, if you're listening, keep hacking my opponent's emails. They didn't really pay a price for it. They won. And so now, why not go to another foreign government and ask them to go after your opponent? And so that's why we have to make it very clear, if that's indeed what happened, that we're not going to tolerate it. Again, we have to learn more about whether that is what happened.

But last night, I watched that interview. It was very uncomfortable, it was very alarming, and it looks like they're leaning in. So there's going to have to be consequences.

SCIUTTO: I noted the timing of the call with the Ukrainian president came one day after Robert Mueller's testimony on the Hill, which disappointed many, because he was not as explicitly as many hoped to making a judgment on the president's possible wrongdoing here. I wonder if with the end result if this investigation, no charges, no indictments, et cetera, that the president felt emboldened, felt, in effect, that seeking this kind of help is okay, at least, even if it's not okay by the standards of our country, at least you can get away with it?

SWALWELL: That's my fear. My fear is that there's a green light, you know, given to Russia and any other country that wants to help the president.

Here's where he should proceed with caution. There are other countries with similar capabilities who could interfere in our elections.


They may not help the president. And this is an opportunity for Republicans and Democrats to unite and say, we don't want this in our democracy. You know, that's why I wrote the Protecting our Democracy Act, to, you know, have a bipartisan commission look at this. I also, Jim, have legislation called duty to report. If you get information from a third party foreign agent, you have to tell the FBI. Again, there's so much we're going to have to do to make sure that this doesn't happen again. But right now, there's an urgency for us to hear from the acting DNI.

And if the acting DNI is listening, Jim, I want him to know, you do not have to be a part of a lawless administration. You can send this information right to Congress, you would be a patriot, and you would save us if from a potential national security risk.

SCIUTTO: That's quite a call. Congressman Eric Swalwell, we appreciate you coming on.

SWALWELL: Thanks, Jim, my pleasure.

SCIUTTO: Coming up this hour, new images coming into CNN. We are at the site of the Saudi oil facilities that were attacked last week, covering this story in a way only CNN can. It's alarming to see the damage that attack caused.