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Interview With Rep. Peter Welch (D-VT); Trump Under Fire Over Whistle-Blower Complaint; A Source Says Trump Pressured Ukraine's President To Investigate Biden's Son In July Phone Call; Pentagon Briefing On Saudi Oil Strike; U.S. to Send Troops to Saudi Arabia After Oil Strike; Historic Floodwaters Force 400 Rescues in Texas. Aired 6-7p ET

Aired September 20, 2019 - 18:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


[18:00:00]

WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: CNN is in the disaster zone, where the water is high and the damage is worse.

We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

BLITZER: We're following breaking news on President Trump's contacts with Ukraine under scrutiny right now, after a secret whistle-blower complaint.

Tonight, CNN has confirmed that Mr. Trump pressured Ukraine's president to investigate Joe Biden's son during a July phone call. "The Wall Street Journal" is reporting that the president broached the subject about eight times.

President Trump is refusing to say what he discussed with the Ukrainian leader, claiming it doesn't matter, and calling the controversy ridiculous.

Democrats see it very differently, as they investigate whether Mr. Trump used his presidential power to pressure a foreign leader in hopes of hurting a potential 2020 opponent and helping his own campaign.

This hour, I will talk with Congressman Peter Welch. He's a Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee. And our correspondents and analysts are also standing by.

First, let's go to our chief White House correspondent, Jim Acosta.

Jim, President Trump is refusing to give a straight answer about his contacts with the Ukrainian president.

JIM ACOSTA, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf.

But, as you said, CNN has confirmed President Trump pressed the president of Ukraine to investigate Joe Biden's son in a call over the summer, and that the call, according to our David Shortell, was part of the whistle-blower complaint that has rocked the White House this week.

The White House is still not commenting on these latest revelations, but, earlier in the day, the president did not deny that Biden came up during that phone call. All of this is raising questions for Democrats as to whether the president attempted to collude with a foreign government, this time Ukraine, to impact the 2020 election.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ACOSTA (voice-over): Sitting in the Oval Office with Australia's prime minister, the president struggled to give straight answers about the mysterious government official trying to blow the whistle on Mr. Trump's interactions with a foreign leader.

First, the president described the whistle-blower as partisan.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Ridiculous story. It's a partisan whistle-blower. Shouldn't even have information.

ACOSTA: Then Mr. Trump said he didn't know the whistle-blower.

TRUMP: I don't know the identity of the whistle-blower. I just hear it's a partisan person, meaning it comes out from another party. But I don't have any idea. But I can say that it was a totally appropriate conversation. It was actually a beautiful conversation.

ACOSTA: Democrats want to know if the complaint is about Mr. Trump's conversation with Ukraine's president over the summer and whether it delved into potential 2020 rival, former Vice President Joe Biden.

"The Wall Street Journal" reports Mr. Trump repeatedly pressured the Ukrainian president to investigate Biden during that discussion. Asked directly about that conversation earlier in the day, the president wouldn't answer the question.

QUESTION: Did you discuss Joe Biden, his son, or his family with the leader of Ukraine?

TRUMP: It doesn't matter what I discussed, but I will say this. Somebody ought to look into Joe Biden's statement.

ACOSTA: But the president seemed to invite a Biden inquiry.

TRUMP: So, somebody ought to look into that. And you wouldn't, because he's a Democrat. And the fake news doesn't look into things like that. It's a disgrace.

ACOSTA: Reminiscent of Mr. Trump's call on Russia to find Hillary Clinton's e-mails in 2016.

TRUMP: I will tell you this. Russia, if you're listening, I hope you're able to find the 30,000 e-mails that are missing.

ACOSTA: Biden's ties to Ukraine have been a subject of interest inside Trump world for months. The president's personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, admitted on CNN that he had spoken to Ukrainian officials about Biden after first denying it.

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

RUDY GIULIANI, ATTORNEY FOR PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: No. Actually, I didn't.

CUOMO: You never asked anything about Hunter Biden? You never asked anything about Joe Biden...

GIULIANI: The only thing I asked about Joe Biden...

CUOMO: ... and his role with the prosecutor?

GIULIANI: ... is to get to the bottom of how it was that Lutsenko who was appointed...

CUOMO: Right.

GIULIANI: ... dismissed the case against AntAC.

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

GIULIANI: Of course I did.

CUOMO: You just said you didn't.

ACOSTA: Republicans have raised questions about Biden's threat to withhold aid to Ukraine over a Ukrainian prosecutor disliked by the Obama administration and alleged that had something to do with Biden's son Hunter's business dealings inside the country, an unproven connection.

JOSEPH BIDEN (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I said, we're leaving in six hours. If the prosecutor is not fired, you're not getting the money.

Well, son of a bitch.

(LAUGHTER)

BIDEN: He got fired. And they put in place someone who was solid at the time.

ACOSTA: Democrats fear the president or his associates have essentially invited Ukraine to meddle in the 2020 election, not unlike Donald Trump Jr.'s meeting with a Russian attorney at Trump Tower in 2016.

In 2017, the president defended his son's actions.

TRUMP: Most people would have taken that meeting. It's called opposition research or even research into your opponent, but it's very standard, where they have information and you take the information. ACOSTA: And just like the Russia probe, there are inconsistencies in

the president's comments on the whistle-blower. The president claimed that he hadn't read the whistle-blower complaint, while saying others have.

[18:05:07]

TRUMP: No, I haven't. I just tell you, it is -- everybody has read it. They laugh at it.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ACOSTA: The president tried to subject the today and announced that the administration is imposing new sanctions on Iran's national bank to punish Tehran for an alleged strike on an oil refinery in Saudi Arabia.

As for the matter that has overshadowed the White House all this week as it prepares for a state dinner this evening with Australia's prime minister, even the president's own supporters are concerned about these new questions about the whistle-blower and these apparent connections to Ukraine.

Three different sources close to the White House told me, Wolf, that the president's personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, only made matters worse.

And, Wolf, unlike what we saw during the 2016 campaign, when these Russia questions were emerging toward the end of that campaign, we're finding out about this Ukraine matter well ahead of the general election campaign. That means many more revelations to come -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Jim Acosta at the White House, thank you.

Tonight, Joe Biden is responding to President Trump's call for an investigation of his family's connections to Ukraine. Biden denying any wrongdoing and slamming the president.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BIDEN: Wait, wait a second, wait a second. Not one single credible outlet has given any credibility to his assertion. Not one single one. And so I have no comment, except the president should start to be president.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Let's dig deeper into President Trump's interest in the Biden family's Ukraine connections.

Our political correspondent, Sara Murray, is here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Sara, this goes back to when Joe Biden was vice president.

SARA MURRAY, CNN NATIONAL POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf.

And essentially what the president and his allies are saying is they believe that, as vice president, Joe Biden tried to use his political influence to help his son's business interests.

Now, there's not a lot of evidence that actually backs that up, but obviously that's not stopping the president from pushing Ukrainian officials to keep investigating.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

MURRAY (voice-over): Years after Joe Biden ousted a corrupt Ukrainian prosecutor, he was still touting his accomplishment.

BIDEN: I look at it. I said, we're leaving in six hours. If the prosecutor is not fired, you're not getting the money.

Well, son of a bitch.

(LAUGHTER)

BIDEN: He got fired.

MURRAY: As Vice President Biden threatened to withhold a $1 billion in U.S. aid if the country refused to oust its top prosecutor.

By 2015, the Obama administration, the International Monetary Fund, and other Western leaders had grown frustrated that the prosecutor, Viktor Shokin, failed to crack down on corruption in Ukraine. After Biden's ultimatum, Shokin was removed in 2016.

But this is what has President Trump and allies like Rudy Giuliani all riled up. At the same time that Biden was cracking down on that Ukrainian prosecutor, his son Hunter Biden was serving on the board of Burisma Holdings, a Ukrainian natural gas company.

Trump's allies claim Biden wanted that Ukrainian prosecutor out because his son's company, Burisma, was under investigation.

GIULIANI: I found out this incredible story about Joe Biden, that he bribed the president of the Ukraine in order to fire a prosecutor who was investigating his son. That is an astounding scandal.

MURRAY: For a time, Burisma was under investigation, but at least one former official in the prosecutor's office said the investigation into Burisma had already been shelved by the time Biden threatened to withhold U.S. aid. And there's no evidence that Joe Biden or Hunter Biden did anything wrong, even if the optics are not that great.

BIDEN: There's not been one scintilla of evidence that my son ever interfered, that I ever asked anything, that I ever got involved in anything, other than doing the job I was supposed to do, or that he ever contacted anybody in the American government to do anything.

And so I'm proud of him. I have -- I just think it's the way these guys play. MURRAY: Hunter Biden told "The New York Times" earlier this year he

never discussed company business or his decision to join the board with his father. He added: "I have had no role whatsoever in relation to any investigation of Burisma or any of its officers."

Hunter Biden also said he left Burisma's board earlier this year, deciding to part ways with the company in a political season "where my qualifications and work are being attacked by Rudy Giuliani and his minions for transparent political purposes."

Of course, that hasn't stopped Giuliani from digging for dirt.

GIULIANI: It's a case that's crying out to be investigated.

MURRAY: Earlier this year, Giuliani planned, then canceled a trip to Ukraine to press officials about Biden-related investigations. He later met with a representative for Ukraine's president to discuss Biden.

Meanwhile, Ukraine Prosecutor General Yuriy Lutsenko said in an interview in May that he had no proof Joe Biden or his son did anything wrong.

An entity connected to Hunter Biden made a millions from its work with Burisma, but: "From my point of view, a board member can be paid whatever a company decides. They didn't violate any Ukrainian laws," Lutsenko said. "Whether Burisma's board members violated U.S. laws is not for me to judge."

(END VIDEOTAPE)

MURRAY: Now, Wolf, Joe Biden is on the campaign trail. He's talking about this little bit to the Iowa Starting Line and talking about the president having these discussions.

[18:10:02]

He said it's totally inappropriate for a president to try to get a foreign leader to say something that is untrue about any political opponent. He said he's glad that Congress is looking into it.

BLITZER: Very significant developments, indeed.

Sara Murray, thank you very much for that report.

Joining us now, Democratic Congressman Peter Welch. He's on the House Intelligence Committee that's been fighting with the administration to obtain that whistle-blower complaint.

Congressman, thanks so much for joining us.

CNN has confirmed that President Trump pressured his Ukrainian counterpart to investigate Joe Biden's son in that July phone call. And according to "The Wall Street Journal," the president made this request about eight times. What's your reaction?

REP. PETER WELCH (D-VT): Well, first of all, as a member of the Intelligence Committee, I can't confirm it.

We heard nothing about that in our interview with the inspector general. But, second, I know what you have reported, and it's shocking, because, essentially, you have the president, whose principal responsibility in relationship to foreign leaders is to protect the national security of the United States, injecting his own personal campaign into those discussions.

And that is yet another example of trying to bring foreign interference into a decision that should be made solely by American citizens.

BLITZER: You heard yesterday, as you point out, from the intelligence community's inspector general, but he's been barred from sharing any details from the whistle-blower complaint, barred by his boss, the director of -- the acting director of national intelligence, who's relying on a Justice Department memorandum.

If the complaint is actually what "The Wall Street Journal" is now reporting, does the administration's rationale for withholding the complaint from your committee, the Intelligence Committee, hold up?

WELCH: No, it doesn't at all.

I mean, this law is very, very clear. If a whistle-blower comes forward, they have to follow a careful statutory procedure. Otherwise, they're in jeopardy, because what they're presenting is information that may have classified content.

They present that, as they did, to the inspector general. The inspector general has two weeks to review it, where, in order to forward it, he has to make a finding that it's urgent and it is a matter -- and it's credible.

And our inspector general made that finding, sends it to the director of national intelligence, who then has a ministerial responsibility within seven days to refer that to the Intelligence Committee for our review.

And we're talking about classified information. We're talking about secrets, and we're talking about protecting whistle-blowers who can actually present evidence that allows us to do oversight.

And that process was short-circuited. We don't know why exactly, but, obviously, it was someone who had more authority than the director of national intelligence.

This is the first time it's happened, to our knowledge.

BLITZER: Do you think there's an actual audio recording of this phone conversation that the president had with the president of Ukraine, or at least the transcript out there?

WELCH: I would think so.

I think that's standard operating procedure when you're having presidential discussions with foreign leaders.

BLITZER: I suspect you're right.

So the question then becomes, is that audiotape something your committee, the Intelligence Committee, will try to get ahold of?

WELCH: Well, that's something, frankly, that I think all of Congress would want to see.

I mean, we have got two issues here. One is the content of this report. And, again, as I'm emphasizing, that we in the Intelligence Committee don't have knowledge of this, so we can't confirm it or deny it.

But it's a very serious allegation that the president, in a conversation with a foreign leader, was essentially injecting his own personal political fortunes into the mix. No place for that whatsoever.

If Donald Trump and his campaign wants to go after Joe Biden and his son, he can do that. What he can't do is, as president, leverage a situation where there's $250 million in aid to Ukraine that Congress has approved as a quid pro quo for getting something on -- that will help his campaign.

But what's really at stake for us in the intelligence community, and I think Republicans and Democrats, is the integrity of the whistle- blower system. With intelligence, if a whistle-blower is going come forward, they have to be very careful, because if they present information without authorization, then they're subject to prosecution and losing their job.

And, by definition, with classified information, it's got to be done according to the law. And we set this up to protect whistle-blowers. And now, as a result of what the director of national intelligence did, not refer that information to us, we don't know. We're in the dark about this.

So the report from "The Wall Street Journal" very important on the content, but the whistle-blower protection system is absolutely vital, whether it's a Republican or a Democratic president.

BLITZER: Do you want to see the Intelligence Committee chairman, Adam Schiff, pursue this battle in court?

[18:15:03]

WELCH: Yes, I do.

I want to get -- I want to stand for the integrity of the whistle- blower system. And, frankly, this is a question that should concern all of us in Congress. I mean, what is happening now -- and it's a real dire situation for our country -- is the separation of powers, the equal branches of government, is under assault.

The president has a tendency, in this case and in others, to just do whatever he wants. And whether you're a Republican or Democrat, you have got to stand up for that constitutional principle of co-equal branches of government.

I mean, when you have a president who does an end-around, it appears, on this statute, or where he diverts funds that were appropriated for a day care center to a military base and uses them to construct a wall on the southern border, that should be a concern to anyone who wants to preserve our constitutional order.

BLITZER: But if this goes to court, that would certainly give the administration the opportunity to drag this out in a lengthy legal battle, right?

WELCH: Well, that's true. And this is, I think, a matter of great concern to us, but also, I think, to the American people, because the M.O. of the Trump administration is to stall, delay, go to court, refuse to provide documents, to be in denial mode, not present witnesses.

And I think that's a challenge to our constitutional order. I think it's very dire, and it's unique with this administration. Wolf, there's always been tension between the legislative branch and the executive. The legislative branch wants information because it has a duty of oversight.

Sometimes, it gets political. But the bottom line is, in the past, by and large, it's been worked out. The Trump administration is on strike. The Article 1 powers of Congress don't exist, as far as the Trump administration is concerned.

BLITZER: Would you encourage the whistle-blower, the intelligence official, to come directly before your committee?

WELCH: Well, I would be hesitant to do that. I would like it, but keep in mind, this whistle-blower followed the rules. And the rules give that person some protection against retaliation.

Also, there's real apprehension, I think, among any whistle-blower, potential whistle-blower in the intelligence community, if they come forward without the benefit of the protections of the statute, that they will be making an unauthorized disclosure and therefore be subject to prosecution and firing from their job.

So that's the tragedy here. We need a strong whistle-blower statute to allow people to bring forward information that would be of concern to the committee, Republicans and Democrats.

BLITZER: What can you do to protect the whistle-blower from potential retaliation? Because you're absolutely right. This whistle-blower acted according to the regular legal channels.

WELCH: That's right.

No, the whistle-blower acted according to the rules. And, by the way, the inspector general acted according to the rules. This is a career person, had private practice, but then a Justice Department prosecutor, appointed by the Trump administration, and is scrupulously following the letter of the law in the carrying out of his duties.

And, by the way, that's a humbling experience to see a civil servant who, at great jeopardy, personal jeopardy, and clearly no personal political interest, doing his job. And the whistle-blower is in the same category.

But the bottom line here is that we have got to enforce the whistle- blower statute. And I'm really hopeful that my Republican colleagues are going to share with us concern about the upholding of our whistle- blower system.

BLITZER: Congressman Peter Welch, thanks so much for joining us.

WELCH: Thank you.

BLITZER: I want to bring in our senior legal analyst, former U.S. attorney Preet Bharara, to continue this conversation.

Preet, thanks so much for joining us.

Does the acting director of national intelligence need to turn this whistle-blower complaint over to Congress?

PREET BHARARA, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: So, that's the controversy that we're trying to figure out.

There's been something that's sort of an astonishing battle of letters and legal conclusions between the intelligence community's inspector general and the acting DNI.

The DNI has taken the position that this material doesn't have to be turned over to the Intelligence Committees because it doesn't relate to the conduct of an intelligence person, someone in the intelligence community, and doesn't relate to intelligence activity.

In an extraordinary letter, I think, that was sent by the inspector general for the intelligence community to Adam Schiff, he says: I respectfully disagree with that analysis. I have sent a letter setting forth chapter and verse to the DOJ as to why I disagree with that analysis, and that, in fact, not only does it relate to intelligence activity, it goes to the core of what the DNI's responsibilities are to the American people.

[18:20:00]

So that's pretty strong language. You and I are not yet privy to what -- the legal arguments back and forth. I mean, based on the reporting, we understand that what is at issue here is conversations between the president of the United States and the president of Ukraine about this sort of shady business of trying to get a benefit with respect to his election prospects in the future.

Whether it technically make meets the requirement of the statute, I'm not sure. The legal answer is, we don't know how good the arguments on are on either side. I will give you a pragmatic answer, though. And that is, it's very alarming to see, if you're sitting as an American citizen or a member of the public in any capacity, that the president on the one hand will say -- look into the camera and say, no conversation I had was inappropriate, everything was hunky-dory, it was all wonderful and great, because that's the only kinds of conversations I have, and, on the other hand, try to enforce a strict, narrow, legalistic interpretation of the statute to hide that information from the public.

If it's not a big deal, if nothing bad happened, then call for its disclosure. And we see this over and over and over again. This is not a new thing. It's a pattern.

BLITZER: If the president did ask the Ukrainian president to investigate Joe Biden's son, would that be illegal?

BHARARA: So we have been down this road for a couple of years now. And I think the answer, as I always think it is when we don't have all the information, is, it could be. There are various statutes that could be implicated.

But I want to say, as I have been thinking about this for the last couple of days, one thing that I think it's important to remember -- and I don't want to be, as a former prosecutor who naturally opines on whether or not something violates a statute, because that's the business I used to be in, to create a climate in which the only way that someone can cast aspersions on the conduct of the president is if the technical elements of any statute were violated with proof beyond a reasonable doubt after an exhaustive inquiry.

I think there should be an exhaustive inquiry, but the standard is not, is the president OK so long as he didn't violate a statute?

The president is not OK if it turns out that the fundamentals of this reporting are correct. And that is, for a second time, as a, shall we say, recidivist, the president of the United States, after having gone through what he calls presidential harassment over the course of two years, appears to have asked a foreign power to do something or give him something of value in order to win an election against a possible opponent in the next election.

That is very clearly -- whether it violates a criminal statute or not, I think, if you're an American, and you have seen what we have gone through in the last two years, that is an abuse of power. That is a violation of ethics. That is a violation of the oath of office.

And you can't let that stand. In fact, if you were to say that it's OK, again, assuming that the facts are true and we get more information about it, then what is the president not permitted to do?

Is the president then permitted to call any leader in the world and either offer an inducement of aid or something else for them to do something damaging to a potential opponent and/or extort, in a manner of speaking, and say, we will take this negative action with respect to you, whether it's on trade or aid or anything else, unless you do this damaging thing to my opponent?

If we don't say that this is bad and wrong, whether or not it violates a criminal statute -- and, by the way, whether it violates criminal or not, as we all know now -- and I think was saying from the beginning -- there's an Office of Legal Counsel opinion that says you cannot prosecute a president.

So I appreciate the issue. I will probably be spending a lot of time answering questions and speaking on my own podcast about the issue of whether or not a criminal statute has been violated.

But I want to be careful that we don't think that that's the only thing that matters here. What criminal statute is possibly violated? There could be conspiracy to violate campaign finance laws. It depends on what the other information is.

It could be conspiracy to violate bribery statutes and/or extortion. It depends on what the quid pro quo was, if there was one. It depends on what was offered, how clear it was offered, and what the party's understandings are.

I think we're way too early in the process to understand what those things are. We are not too early in the process, to repeat again, to be very, very alarmed and, in fact, horrified that multiple outlets have now reported and confirmed that the president of the United States reached out to a foreign power for aid in winning an election next year.

BLITZER: Strategically, Preet, what does the House Intelligence Committee need to do to try to get their hands on this whistle-blower complaint?

BHARARA: So I think Adam Schiff, as any member of Congress -- and we have seen this for the last couple of years also -- is at a little bit of a disadvantage, because the president, this president, with his counsel, and the Department of Justice, have taken the position basically on most things that they're not going to be transparent.

Even when they say there's nothing to see here, they will be like, there's nothing to see here, but you also can't see it. It's a little bit difficult.

What I do think bodes well for how Adam Schiff is conducting himself is, I think he's been strategically smart to this point. Now, the only reason we know about any of this is because the exchange of letters between the inspector general for the intelligence community and Adam Schiff, Representative Schiff decided to make those public.

So the reason we are all speaking in this way, and lots of people are trying to follow up on the reporting, is because he has undertaken, I think, an appropriate public strategy, so that there's momentum to the issue, and people can express in the public and in the world generally how strongly they want to have answers about this, because, in congressional investigations, sometimes, it's not the law that carries the day, but public sentiment.

[18:25:22]

He's already subpoenaed the document, the complaint that they don't want to provide, and we will see where it goes from here. But I think, so far, he's been strategically smart.

BLITZER: And we will see if there is some sort of audiotape of that conversation between the president of the United States, the president of Ukraine, if Congress gets their hands on that audiotape as well, or at least the transcript.

Preet, thank you so much for joining us.

BHARARA: Thanks, Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, just ahead, we will have more on the breaking news.

CNN has confirmed that President Trump's pressure on Ukraine's president to investigate Joe Biden's son prompted a whistle-blower complaint.

Also, we're getting new details into THE SITUATION ROOM of that really frightening scene today as an SUV plowed through a Chicago area mall.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[18:30:00]

WOLF BLITZER, CNN THE SITUATION ROOM: We have more now from our legal and political experts on the breaking news that we're covering. Let's go to Susan Hennessey right now.

Susan, as you know, The Wall Street Journal is reporting that the president in a phone conversation over the summer with the president of Ukraine raised the issue of Joe Biden's son, that Ukraine should investigate what Joe Biden's son was up to in Ukraine about eight times. If that's true, about eight times, we've confirmed that he raised the issue several times, how inappropriate would that be?

SUSAN HENNESSEY, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY AND LEGAL ANALYST: So let's set aside for a minute the question of an explicit quid pro quo. For the president of the United States to pressure a foreign leader to investigate a United States citizen absent a criminal predicate when that country's law enforcement has determined that it is not appropriate to investigate, for the purpose of benefiting him personally and politically, and influencing a U.S. election, that is an egregious civil liberties violation. It is impeachable conduct right then and there, full stop.

Then we go on to the aggregating factors of whether or not the president in the course of doing this actually threatened or suggested that he might withhold congressionally authorized funds to that foreign nation in order to effectively extort them into performing this civil liberties violation in order to benefit him politically for the purpose of influencing an election. The -- it's hard to fully capture the scope of how big a violation, how big a breach this would be. There's a little bit of a risk here of getting overly focused on sort of the specific criminal elements. Was there a quid pro quo? Did he make a promise? Of course, we can infer quid pro quo from the context and circumstances, but, honestly, that's almost besides the point. What we're seeing reported already is really beyond the pale.

BLITZER: Where is the legal line, Jeffrey Toobin, here?

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN CHIEF LEGAL ANALYST: I don't know. But what I keep thinking about is like what kind of country do we live in? I mean, like could anyone even conceive of a president of the United States doing something like this? I couldn't. It didn't occur to me, even, you know, the possibility that this existed until this story arose.

You know, I actually don't think, based on The Wall Street Journal's story, that there is a crime in the sense of a violation of federal law described there. This conduct, if true, is simply a violation of his oath of office. It is a violation of every norm, every rule. It is a complete abuse of power. It is an impeachable offense, because there is no requirement under the constitution for an actual crime to be committed.

But I don't think this is a crime, as far as I -- as far as I can tell, based on the limited information available to us.

BLITZER: Maybe inappropriate, but maybe not necessarily --

TOOBIN: I mean, Wolf, wait a second.

BLITZER: Yes.

TOOBIN: Inappropriate is not --

BLITZER: All right.

TOOBIN: Inappropriate is like, you know, spitting on the sidewalk. You know, this is not inappropriate.

BLITZER: It's beyond inappropriate.

TOOBIN: That, in my opinion.

BLITZER: I'm not disagreeing with you at all.

You know, it's interesting, Sara, we're getting a statement there from Joe Biden himself, a lengthy statement. We've got a graphic. I want to put it up on the screen a part of the statement. Here it is.

If these reports are true, then there is truly no bottom to President Trump's willingness to abuse his power and abase our country. This behavior is particularly abhorrent because it exploits the foreign policy of our country and undermines our national security for political purposes. It means that he used the power and resources of the United States to pressure a sovereign nation, a partner that is still under direct assault from Russia, pushing Ukraine to subvert the rule of law in the express hope of extracting a political favor.

A very tough statement.

SARA MURRAY, CNN POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: It is. And he goes on to say that the full transcript of this conversation should be released and that, you know, the DNI should stop stonewalling and that they should make this whistleblower available to share this information with Congress.

[18:35:04]

So Joe Biden is not happy, as you might imagine. You know, I'm sure it's not a comfortable place to be that realize that, you know, as Toobin was just saying, that this president doesn't really care about what norms are.

Look, we would be alarmed if Donald Trump was using the Justice Department in the United States to investigate his political foes and using that his own sort of personal tool of political retribution, so, obviously, we should be alarmed that he's going to foreign governments and say, hey, by the way, would you mind looking into, again, this case you've already closed, this investigation you've already closed into the former vice president's son?

BLITZER: Shawn, you used to work in the intelligence community. How do you see it?

SHAWN TURNER, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: Well, look, you know, I think that what the president said today really kind of sheds a light on what his thinking is. You know, when the president looks at this and he says, you know, it doesn't matter what I said.

In addition to what everyone else here has said, that really does matter. Because what the president basically is saying is, if he is tying military aid to Ukraine, reopening this investigation, what he's basically saying is, not only do I want you to reopen the investigation, but you've got to find something.

We have to remember that Ukraine's prosecutor has already looked into this and has said very clearly that he doesn't see any evidence of any wrongdoing on the part of Vice President Biden. So the president is aware of that. He knows what the answer is. And so if he actually said to the Ukrainian president, look, I want you to open this investigation, I want you to look into this a little more, what he's saying is, you've got to come back with a better answer.

Certainly, it's not the case that Ukraine can call up and say, hey, Mr. President, we looked into it, we didn't find anything, now go ahead and put that check in the mail. So I think that while this is, as Jeffrey said, beyond inappropriate, it may not be a violation of law, but people really need to understand what the president is doing here, because ultimately it's going to be the public that's going to hold him accountable. TOOBIN: And by the way, there's also a journalistic issue here. Because now that this issue of Biden's son and Ukraine, we're going to -- a lot of journalists are going to feel obligated to start investigating this and talk about unanswered questions and then we're back into Hillary Clinton's emails again, to create false equivalency between a closed, ridiculous investigation in Ukraine and the incredible string of corruption that's gone on in the Trump administration.

BLITZER: All right, everybody hold on for a moment. There's breaking news. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, the Secretary of Defense, in a hastily arranged news conference, are about to make a major announcement on USA to Saudi Arabia.

MARK ESPER, DEFENSE SECRETARY: Well, good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen.

General Dunford and I just returned from the White House where we met with the president and his national security team to discuss options to deter Iran's continued aggressive behavior.

As we have seen, the Iranian regime is waging a deliberate campaign to destabilize the Middle East and impose costs on international economy.

In recent months, Iran has increased its military activity through direct attacks and support to its proxies in the region.

In the Persian Gulf and Gulf of Oman, which are vital waterways for global commerce, Iran has threatened the safe passage of ships by attacking commercial vessels and illegally seizing a British oil tanker.

In Yemen, Iran is perpetuating war by providing sustained financial support and advanced weapons to the Houthi insurgency.

And on June 20th, Iran shot down a United States unmanned aircraft that was flying over international waters.

Despite repeated calls for President Trump to begin diplomatic talks, Iranian aggression continues to increase.

In the face of this sustained maligned behavior, the United States and other countries have demonstrated great restraint in hopes that Iranian leadership would choose peace and reverse Iran's steep decline into isolation and economic collapse.

But the attack on September 14th against Saudi Arabian oil facilities represents a dramatic escalation of Iranian aggression.

It is clear, based on detailed exploitation conducted by Saudi, United States and other international investigative teams that the weapons used in the attack were Iranian produced and were not launched from Yemen, as was initially claimed. All indications are that Iran was responsible for the attack.

The United States has a responsibility to protect our citizens and our interests in the region. And the international community has a responsibility to protect the global economy and international rules and norms. All of this is threatened by Iran's significant escalation of violence.

This week, I have been in dialogue with the Saudi defense minister and other partners about this latest attack. To prevent further escalation, Saudi Arabia requested international support to help protect the kingdom's critical infrastructure. The United Arab Emirates has also requested assistance.

[18:40:03]

In response to the kingdom's request, the president has approved the deployment of U.S. forces, which will be defensive in nature and primarily focused on air and missile defense. We will also work to accelerate the delivery of military equipment to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the UAE to enhance their ability to defend themselves.

The purpose of the additional defensive support we will provide is as follows. First, to send a clear message that the United States supports our partners in the region, second, to ensure the free flow of resources necessary to support the global economy, and third, to demonstrate our commitment to upholding the international rules-based order that have we long called on Iran to obey.

As the president has made clear, the United States does not seek conflict with Iran. That said, we have many other military options available should they be necessary.

We urge the Iranian leadership to cease their destructive and destabilizing activities and to move forward on a peaceful diplomatic path.

General Dunford and I will now take your questions. Thank you.

REPORER: Mr. Secretary, thank you.

You said air and missile defenses primarily. Could you be a little more specific about -- are you talking about patriot missiles and what number of troops are you talking about sending?

GEN. JOSEPH DUNFORD, JOINT CHIEFS CHAIRMAN: Yes. So, Bob, Secretary Pompeo just came back this morning and the Saudis asked for enhanced defensive capabilities. So what we will do now is take the president's decision. I'll talk to CentCom over the weekend and we'll talk with our Saudi partners and we'll work the details of deployment and we'll be able to share that with you next week.

REPORTER: So there have been no decision on specific numbers?

DUNFORD: We haven't decided on specific units broadly -- as the secretary said, it will be capabilities to enhance their air missile defense. It's now my job to come back to the secretary with the details of what we believe would meet the Saudis' requirements and is sustainable. REPORTER: Just a follow up then. It wouldn't Iran. We're talking about thousands of troops, we're talking about hundreds of troops? And also just to the secretary, do you think this is going to be enough or why do you think this would be enough to deter Iran from further attacks?

ESPER: We think given the state of play now and based on whatever assessments we get from Central Command, what the joint staff and the chairman do and other discussions we're having with partners, we have to continually assess that. We think for now that would be sufficient, but that doesn't mean there could be additional deployments as needed, based on the changing situation.

REPORTER: And on troop numbers?

DUNFORD: I would say at this point, a moderate deployment, Phil, we'll have more details for you next week, but not ready to share the details.

REPORTER: But not thousands? Thousands would be not moderate?

DUNFORD: That's fair to say, not thousands.

REPORTER: Are there any plans to hold the Lincoln Strike Group any longer than currently planned?

DUNFORD: We're not going to discuss any operational details at this time.

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Either of you, does this now represent a full U.S. commitment to defend Saudi Arabia and to defend the oil infrastructure of Saudi Arabia? And for General Dunford in particular, what is your concern about their ability, the Iranian ability to launch swarms of drones at very great distances without any air defense detection of this incoming attack?

DUNFORD: So, what I would say, Barbara, in terms of what we're doing is we're contributing to Saudi Arabia's defense. We would be looking, as the secretary said, for other international partners to also contribute to Saudi Arabia's defense.

And with regard to dealing with a specific threat like you just spoke about, you know, no single system is going to be able to defend against a threat like that, but a layered system of defensive capabilities would mitigate the risk of swarms of drones or other attacks that may come from Iran.

ESPER: I want to double down on the chairman's comments two ways. First of all, I agree, what we would be deploying to the theater would be what would be a necessary to help support and contribute to the kingdom's defenses. And at the same time, we are calling on many other countries who would also have these capabilities to do two things. First of all, stand up and condemn these attacks. And secondly, look to also contribute defensive capabilities so we could defend those things that I outlined in my remarks, whether it's the infrastructure in Saudi Arabia and then the broader issues with regard to freedom of the seas, navigation in the strait, and the international rules and norms that Iran is clearly violating.

REPORTER: So should we take this as, this is the president's decision about the response to the attack in Saudi Arabia and there's not a kinetic response that we should expect from the United States?

ESPER: This is the first step we're taking with regard to responding to these attacks. And, again, for the reasons I outlined, to help bolster the defenses of Saudi Arabia and provide equipment to both the Saudis and the UAE, second, to ensure the free flow of commerce through the strait.

[18:45:02]

And third, to ensure we protect and defend the international rules- based order. And try and convince the Iranians to get back on a diplomatic path.

REPORTER: But the deployment of these kind of assets can often take days and weeks. Is there -- should we expect any other kind of more immediate response from the United States?

ESPER: The United States has a robust presence in the Gulf already. We bolstered it further in May. So we feel quite capability -- quite confident in terms of our own defensive posture and our ability to do anything else as necessary.

But that's not where we are right now. Right now, we're focused on helping the Saudis improve their defenses of that infrastructure.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Last question, Nancy?

REPORTER: Mr. Secretary, Chairman Dunford, you mentioned that the international community should get involved, but I know some allies have questioned whether the attacks were, in fact, launched in Iraq. I was wondering if you could give us any sense on whether you will declassify any evidence that shows that those strikes were launched from Iran. And also if you could give a sense of timeline in terms of when these deployments could start?

ESPER: So, I say a few things. First of all, the United States is on the ground in Saudi Arabia. The Saudi Arabians are leading this investigation. And we will keep them in lead with regard to the forensics. So, we need to let that play out and let the evidence play out.

With regard to the partners and allies, first of all, I would commend Secretary Pompeo. He's been on the phone and on the road the past few days, speaking to numerous allies and partners about this incident.

And regardless of where you think it came from, the fact is, the Saudis were attacked by both drones and cruise missiles and are still vulnerable to attack. So, asking allies and partners to contribute resources to help defend themselves and defend those things I spoke about is I don't think is too much of an ask given the situation.

GEN. JOSEPH DUNFORD, JOINT CHIEFS CHAIRMAN: And we'll work the details, Nancy, over the weekend and I'll come back to the secretary early next week with some specific recommendations.

REPORTER: Can you confirm that the strike was launched from southwest Iran?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Thank you. Thank you, everyone.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: All right. So, there's the secretary of defense and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff with a major announcement that the United States is about to deploy troops to both Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, the UAE, in the aftermath of the attack on the Saudi facility -- oil facilities.

The secretary of defense saying it is clear that the weapons were Iranian produced, they were not launched, he said, from Yemen. All indications, the secretary of defense, said, was that Iran was responsible for the attack.

Barbara Starr is joining us from the Pentagon.

Barbara, they came to the briefing room pretty extraordinary development following over a meeting over at the White House, the National Security Council met to consider various steps. So they are about to deploy troops. About to deploy and give the Saudis and the UAE, the United Arab Emirates, some more sophisticated air defense systems.

These are significant developments, but they're only initial steps.

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, that's right, Wolf. And what General Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said, he will be back here next week to brief reporters on some of the details. He is calling it a moderate deployment of U.S. troops and weapons, saying that U.S. forces and air and missile defenses will be sent to protect Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

We should expect, I think it's fair to say, that this will involve Patriot missiles, which we have seen repeatedly deployed to the Middle East for so many years to defend against ballistic missiles. But this deployment is different. This, he said -- the secretary of defense, Mark Esper, said, is helping Saudi Arabia improve their defenses.

Remember, the U.S. has sold them billions of dollars in weapons over the years. And after this attack, it showed the vulnerability. They need additional help now. They are asking for that help.

This attack came against oil facility in northern Saudi Arabia, that they did not expect to be attacked by these Iranian weapons. It is requiring a very different look at Saudi Arabia's air defenses to protect its oil infrastructure and to protect the country. This attack is being viewed here at the Pentagon very differently. Swarms of cruise missiles, swarms of drones were able to get to these critical Saudi oil facilities without any detection.

And just yesterday, a senior official said to me, that is something that is very worrisome, that the Iranians were able to pull this off without any detection that these missiles and drones were aiming at this critical oil facility. It disrupted oil markets, it was a very strategic attack. And it now basically internationalizes the Iranian threat, because it impacts oil supplies to so many countries that are dependent on Middle Eastern-owned Saudi oil.

That is why you heard both Secretary Esper and General Dunford just moments ago talk about trying to get other countries involved. Tonight, the Trump administration has made this commitment to try and help Saudi Arabia and to protect the Kingdom.

[18:50:07]

But it's a modest effort right now and they want other countries to join in. The Trump administration doesn't want to go this alone. You have heard the president talk already about wanting this to be a coalition effort. It remains to be seen, very much remains to be seen if other countries will join in with the U.S. in protecting Saudi Arabia -- Wolf.

BLITZER: And the secretary of defense and the chairman of the joint chiefs have both said this is the first step that has been approved today by the president of the United States and the National Security Council.

Barbara, stand by.

I want to go to Jim Acosta, our White House correspondent.

Jim, we know the president is not very happy when they have to deploy to the Middle East and certainly doesn't like the fact that the U.S. has thousands of troops still in Afghanistan and Iraq, some troops still in Syria.

JIM ACOSTA, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Right.

BLITZER: But he has approved the deployment of troops, initially, maybe hundreds of U.S. troops to both Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

ACOSTA: That's right, Wolf. And we heard the president urging caution earlier today in the Oval Office when he was there with the Australian prime minister. He was essentially saying that showing restraint is a sign of strength and the president is trying to get that point across, but I think underlining what Barbara was staying a few moments ago when the secretary of defense and the chairman of the joint chiefs come out and talk about sending U.S. troops to Saudi Arabia as a defensive maneuver. It sounds as though this is an admission on the part of the Trump administration, Wolf, that the Saudi air defenses are just not adequate at this point to repel these sorts of attacks from the Iranians if they come in the future.

And so, this is the beginning. This is, I guess, the first step as the secretary of defense was saying just a few moments ago. But, Wolf, as you know, there is such a thing as mission creep and even though this is just the beginning and less of thousands of troops that secretary of defense and the chairman of the joint chiefs were just talking about it a few moment ago, this always has the potential to escalate over time and that, of course, is something that the president has been wary of.

We've heard him talk about the campaign but just in recent days, he was going after one of his favorite senators up on Capitol Hill, South Carolina Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, criticizing Lindsey Graham for wanting to start wars in the Middle East, saying that's not where he's at right now.

But, certainly, Wolf, this is a move in a much more militaristic direction by sending these defense forces, U.S. forces in a defense posture to that part of the world, Wolf.

BLITZER: And let's see what the Iranian response to this is going to be.

ACOSTA: That's right.

BLITZER: The Iranians have not hesitated to escalate this crisis over the past few weeks.

Stand by. We're going to have a lot more on all of the breaking news right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[18:57:23]

BLITZER: Tonight at least two people have been killed in the flooding disaster in Texas. Hundreds of other lives saved as crews have been rescuing residents trapped in high water, more than three feet of rain falling in some areas.

CNN's Ryan Young is in Texas for us right now.

Ryan, so, what are the conditions like tonight?

RYAN YOUNG, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, they're getting better, but you can see how dangerous this was for so many people who live here.

Look down the street here. This is a neighborhood and people tell me the water was waist high. In fact, there were several rescues here where emergency crew his to go in and save people from their homes.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

YOUNG: Tonight, southern Texas recovering from heavy rains. As the rains slow, the receding floodwaters revealing a glimpse of the damage. Houston's fire department responding to over 2,000 emergency calls with sheriff's officers rescuing more than 400 people trapped in the water.

Friday morning, people were still being rescued. This family living north of Houston spent the night in their attic waiting for help.

In Kingwood, Texas, John Igoe's house is in rubble on his front lawn. His family is drying out after escaping water that rose surprisingly fast.

JOHN IGOE, KINGWOOD RESIDENT: It came half way to the driveway. My wife, my child, my son and the dog had to swim out.

YOUNG: The National Weather Service reporting dramatic differences in rain totals with the remnants of Tropical Depression Imelda and Harris County getting about 15 inches, while parts of neighboring Jefferson County got 43 inches. At least two people are dead including one man who reportedly drowned after he drove his car into this flooded intersection.

SHERIFF ED GONZALEZ, HOUSTON COUNTY, TEXAS: We always tell folks turn around, don't drown. In this case, it seems like he didn't heed that warning.

YOUNG: Chaos on the major highways as hundred of vehicles are abandoned, swallowed by the water. Police say they've towed more than 1,600 cars and are working to reunite them with their owners.

Interstate 10 shut down over the San Jacinto River. A loose barge crashed into the bridge causing severe damage, smashing the support beams. Underpasses under feet of roads like this also cracking to the pressure. Some Texans who lived through Hurricane Harvey's devastation just two years ago starting over again.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It's heartbreaking, you know, to lose everything twice.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

YOUNG: You can really understand the pain tonight, Wolf. Look, some people haven't had the chance to go back in their homes and you can see the water at that door right now. The good news right now is there are no rescues currently going on, but if there's a bit of bad news we are told the water behind us could have another two feet to crest before this is all over. It's going to be a long few hours for the people who live in this area.

BLITZER: Yes, good luck to all of them.

Ryan Young on the scene for us, thank you very much.

And to our viewers, thanks very much for watching. I'm Wolf Blitzer in THE SIUTATION ROOM.

"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.