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Trump Under Fire Over Corruption Allegations. Aired 4-4:30p ET

Aired September 23, 2019 - 16:00   ET




Lisa France...


BALDWIN: ... thank you so much for all things Emmys. Have a wonderful rest of your day.

Thank you all for being with me. I'm Brooke Baldwin.

"THE LEAD" starts now.

JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: "This is a serious problem for us. He admitted it," a Trump adviser just told us.

THE LEAD starts right now.

Breaking news: President Trump at the United Nations seeming to admit more damning information about that phone call with the leader of Ukraine, this as key Democrat saying the House may now be at the point of no return on impeachment.

Also, breaking today, the FBI arrests a U.S. soldier accused of talking seriously about targeting a 2020 candidate and bombing a major news network.

And he likes the pop-in. Huge pop-in guy. President Trump popping in on a day-long meeting on climate change as protesters around the world demand action. Was the president's brief appearance worse than a snub?

Welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

We begin with breaking news in the politics lead today.

President Trump today meeting with several world leaders at the United Nations General Assembly in New York, as a phone call with another world leader puts his presidency in brand-new peril, with shocking reports that the president in July pushed Ukrainian President Zelensky over and over to investigate Joe Biden's son Hunter.

President Trump now has not only admitted that, when he spoke with Zelensky in July, he brought up the Bidens and his accusations against them, allegations that the Ukrainian prosecutor says he knows of no evidence to support.

Today, the president went a step further. While he denied today an explicit quid pro quo or putting pressure on Zelensky, the president seemed to acknowledge that he saw the $250 million in military aid that Ukraine was at the time trying to get from the U.S. as tied to his general desire to have Ukraine pursue the Bidens.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: It's very important to talk about corruption. If you don't talk about corruption, why would you give money to a country that you think is corrupt? It's very important that on occasion you speak to somebody about corruption.


TAPPER: One Trump adviser telling CNN's Jim Acosta today -- quote -- "This is a serious problem for us. He admitted doing it" -- unquote.

And, as the scandal has grown, the president's rhetoric has become more wild and untethered to reality. Here he is at the U.N. just a short time ago.


TRUMP: Joe Biden and his son are corrupt. If a Republican ever did what Joe Biden did, if a Republican ever said what Joe Biden said, they'd be getting the electric chair by right now.


TAPPER: Again, the Ukrainian prosecutor has said he knows of no evidence of any misconduct by the Bidens, as opposed to the intelligence community whistle-blower whose complaint about the president's phone call and more the Trump administration is blocking from Congress, a complaint that the inspector general of the intelligence community appointed by Trump called credible and urgent.

Consider, however, how much of this is playing out in front of our eyes and ears. In May, the president's lawyer Rudy Giuliani told "The New York Times" that he was going to Ukraine to push for this investigation into the Bidens, to do so, in fact, to help his client, President Trump.

Quote: "I'm asking them to do an investigation that they're doing already and that other people are telling them to stop," Giuliani told "The Times." "And I'm going to give them reasons why they shouldn't stop it, because that information will be very, very helpful to my client and may turn out to be helpful to my government" -- unquote.

Then, in June, President Trump told George Stephanopoulos that he would accept dirt on a 2020 opponent from another country.


GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS, ABC NEWS: Your campaign, this time around, if foreigners, if Russia, if China, if someone else offers you information on an opponent, should they accept it or should they call the FBI?

TRUMP: I think maybe you do both. I think you might want to listen. I don't -- there's nothing wrong with listening.

If somebody called from a country, Norway, we have information on your opponent. Oh. I think I'd want to hear it.

STEPHANOPOULOS: You want that kind of interference in our elections?

TRUMP: It's not an interference. They have information. I think I would take it.


TAPPER: Now we know not only would he take it; he would push for it.

CNN senior White House correspondent Pamela Brown has the brand-new details on how the president's inner circle is dealing with all of this.


PAMELA BROWN, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): President Trump arriving for the United Nations General Assembly today under a cloud of his own making.

TRUMP: We had a perfect phone call with the president of Ukraine.

BROWN: An adviser telling CNN, "This is a serious problem for us," after Trump admitted this weekend he asked the new Ukrainian president to investigate former Vice President and Democratic front-runner Joe Biden and his son.


The president says he was well within bounds, because the new leader's campaign was all about cleaning up corruption, implying those efforts could be tied to USA aid to Ukraine.

TRUMP: If you don't talk about corruption, why would you give money to a country that you think is corrupt? One of the reasons the new president got elected is, he was going to stop corruption. So it's very important that, on occasion, you speak to somebody about corruption, very important.

BROWN: But later clarifying during a meeting with the Polish president.

TRUMP: I did not make a statement that you have to do this, or I'm not going to give you A. I wouldn't do that. I put no pressure on them whatsoever. I could have. I think it would probably, possibly have been OK if I did.

BROWN: While there's no direct evidence Biden, as vice president, had Ukraine's prosecutor fired to squelch an investigation of a company linked to his son, Trump insists something nefarious is afoot.

TRUMP: If a Republican ever did what Joe Biden did, if a Republican ever said what Joe Biden said, they'd be getting the electric chair by right now.

BROWN: Trump saying he would be OK releasing the call's transcript, sort of.

TRUMP: It would be fine to do it. I will give it to a respected source. They can look at it. But what I said was so good. It was a great conversation.

BROWN: White House officials are considering releasing the transcript, sources tell CNN, but some senior administration officials are firmly against the idea.

MIKE POMPEO, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: Those are private conversations between world leaders. And it wouldn't be appropriate to do so, except in -- in the most extreme circumstances.

BROWN: Concerned it could give Congress the ability to demand transcripts of calls with other leaders, like Russian President Vladimir Putin.

STEVEN MNUCHIN, U.S. TREASURY SECRETARY: I think that would be a terrible precedent.

BROWN: Trump instead shifting the focus to the unknown whistle-blower who raised the alarm about the call, tweeting -- quote -- "Who is this so-called whistle-blower who doesn't know the correct facts? Is he on our country's side? Where does he come from?"


BROWN: So, the president continues to go after the whistle-blower, even though he has said he doesn't know the identity.

And, Jake, President Trump is dangling the possibility of the transcript release, he has been known in the past to say he will be transparent, such as testifying before Robert Mueller on Russia, and then it never actually happens.

So it remains to be seen how this will play out -- Jake.

TAPPER: All right, Pamela Brown, thanks so much.

Let's chew over all this with my experts.

Margaret, I want to play these latest comments from President Trump about the Bidens once again, just because they're so strikingly bizarre.


TRUMP: Joe Biden and his son are corrupt. If a Republican ever did what Joe Biden did, if a Republican ever said what Joe Biden said, they'd be getting the electric chair by right now.


TAPPER: Again, the Ukrainian prosecutor said that he knows have no evidence of any wrongdoing by either Hunter or Joe Biden. He's talking about the electric chair.

MARGARET HOOVER, CNN POLITICAL CONTRIBUTOR: He -- look, if any -- it's hard to imagine any Democrat saying what President Trump is saying without the Republican right flank going nuts.

What I know is, there is a very reasonable, measured, thoughtful group of Republicans who are asking for more information. Right? Let's have cool heads prevail and let's get the transcript. Let's get the full whistle-blower complaint. And then let's see what we're dealing with here, rather than, by the way, on the flip side, rushing to electric chairs or to impeachment, right?


HOOVER: What we want is information, so that we can be collected and pragmatic about how to address this unfolding news.

TAPPER: And, John, one of the things President Trump had denied this afternoon was an explicit quid pro quo. In other words, I will only give you this $250 million in military aid that you want so much, Ukraine, if you investigate the Bidens.

But no one is alleging that there was anything explicit. You don't have to make an explicit quid pro quo.


I mean, the congressionally authorized quarter of a billion dollars in military aid was being withheld without explanation by the administration. It was suddenly released after the whistle-blower complaint was filed, and the inspector general, Trump's own appointee, said it was urgent and credible concern.

So I don't you give out points for saying he didn't explicitly threaten the Ukraine over this quid pro quo. This is something -- Jim Acosta -- our Jim Acosta had a quote from a senior Trump aide saying, this is a real problem for us because he admitted it.

It is a real problem. The answer is to release the whistle-blower report and the transcript, transparency, if indeed, it was a perfectly beautiful call, as the president says, a perfect 10.

In the absence of that, in some ways, them admitting the problem is that the president admitted is self-damning evidence, because their greatest defense has always been a lie. And, instead, we're in the cycle again, and it's serious, because the president has admitted it.

S.E. CUPP, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Trump explicitly tied withholding the aid to this investigation.


TAPPER: Just now at the U.N., yes.

CUPP: Explicitly himself said, why would you give money to a foreign country if you thought they were going to be corrupt?

He tied it together. It's hard to follow, which is in some ways why this is the perfect story for Donald Trump, because it is. It's complicated. There are moving parts. Some of this happened years ago under a different administration.


The only part he cares that you heard was Joe Biden and his son are corrupt. Doesn't have to be true. He doesn't have to prove it. It doesn't have to -- he doesn't have to provide evidence.

All he cares about is sowing those seeds of distrust and doubt in the American electorate months before an election.

TAPPER: Except the idea that a president is actually asking a foreign country and using the power of his presidency -- and, by the way, even if he didn't have an explicit quid pro quo, if you're the president of the United States, you're the most powerful person in the planet.

There's obviously a threat and a carrot and a stick that you have there asking a foreign country to get involved.

KEITH BOYKIN, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Yes, this is the second time we know of that the president has attempted to engage a foreign country to interfere in a U.S. election.

He did in 2016 overtly when he asked Russia to find Hillary Clinton's e-mails. He's done it again in 2020, apparently, by asking Ukraine to interfere in the election to dig up dirt on Joe Biden or Hunter Biden.

And this is impeachable conduct. I know that's what Margaret is saying we shouldn't talk about yet. But the Democrats in Congress have a duty. In fact, all members of Congress have a duty to hold the president accountable.

When you have somebody who is interfering in our elections and engaging in a smear campaign against his opponents time after time again, and violating the law repeatedly without consequence, what on earth will it take before finally he's held accountable?

HOOVER: You can go straight to impeachment, and I know this one wants you to too.

But let me just...

TAPPER: This one.

AVLON: This one


HOOVER: This one on my right, I know him was pretty well.

Here's the deal. Impeachment, guys, is still a political act. This is still a political act that will have political consequences that, by the way, may benefit Democrats, but may not.

Why not first get information and then see...


AVLON: I have never been an impeachment enthusiast.

But I think, actually, this gets to the -- a really important point. There's the politics of it, which is people saying, look, Republicans control the Senate. It's never going to happen, folks.

But I think what Democrats are starting to do and some other folks -- say, the principle trumps the politics, no pun intended, because there are certain actions that if an impeachment investigation is not begun, you normalize it.

And one of the things that's a bright red line is the president of the United States using his leverage to ask a foreign power to dig up dirt on a political opponent.

CUPP: Look, but let me just ask you -- and I'm not leading you. I'm sincere in this, because I just had on a congressman on my show who said, the Democrats just don't have the votes, unfortunately.

If principle trumps politics, would you take that calculus if they brought impeachment, Democrats did not have the votes, it was voted down? Then what? What's so great about the principles or the politics?


AVLON: Principles are transcendent.

It's about what you -- to some extent, politics should be conducted in the rear-view mirror. What will history say in 20 years about our actions today?

CUPP: Yes.

AVLON: That standard is not remotely being used, because everything's short attention span theater.

But if there are certain actions that rise to the level that the founders imagined, then there's an obligation on the part of public servants to try to fulfill that.

The politics...


BOYKIN: Can I just say, as Democrat and as somebody who's worked in the White House -- I know you have as well.

AVLON: Margaret has.

BOYKIN: Worked in the administration for Democrats, and wants to support Democrats, I don't care if Democrats lose every seat.

And I'm not saying I want this. I don't care if they lose every seat in the Congress, if they go and fight for what is right. This is not about politics. It's about what is constitutionally obligated of people in our country to lead.

It is morally wrong to allow Donald Trump to continue to lead our country in the way that he's doing, and if we don't do something, then we are all responsible.

TAPPER: So we're going to keep this conversation going. I need to sneak in a quick break.

More Democrats today say they do want an impeachment inquiry over this. Republicans may be sending a message of their own simply by staying mostly silent.

SStay with us.



TAPPER: Welcome back.

Are House Democrats at a tipping point for beginning an impeachment inquiry on President Trump in the wake of that Ukraine phone call? And what about Republicans?

Just three years ago, Republicans such as Senator Marco Rubio announced they would not even look at the WikiLeaks about Hillary Clinton since they were from a foreign source. But today, Republicans are largely mum, even given what the president and his team have admitted publicly.

As for Democrats, the House Intelligence Committee chairman, who is a close ally of Speaker Pelosi, told me there may no longer be a choice but impeachment.


REP. ADAM SCHIFF (D-CA): This seems different in kind, and we may very well have crossed the Rubicon here.


TAPPER: I guess the question for Congress right now is do we now live in a world where a U.S. politician can use the power of his office and American tax dollars to push a foreign government to give him dirt on an opponent to help retain power? Is that the world we live in?

CNN's Sunlen Serfaty reports now from Capitol Hill.


SUNLEN SERFATY, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): House Democrats' long simmering impeachment push is about to boil over.

REP. VICENTE GONZALEZ (D-TX): I don't think we have a choice. Under the Constitution, we must move forward with impeachment proceedings.

SERFATY: President Trump's admission that he pressed Ukraine to investigate Joe Biden and then blocked Congress from seeing the whistleblower's complaint about it is now flipping Democrats' impeachment drive into super charge. Currently, 137 Democrats have come out in favor of starting impeachment proceedings, with sources telling CNN that additional Democrats skeptical of impeachment in the past are now ready to announce their support for impeachment proceedings within days.


SCHIFF: We may very well have crossed the Rubicon here.

SERFATY: A potentially significant warning shot from Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, too, in this letter to House members, ratcheting up her own language saying that if the administration does not turn over the whistleblower's complaint to Congress, they will be entering a grave new chapter of lawlessness, which will take us into a whole new stage of investigation.

House Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff, who has resisted calling for Trump's impeachment in the past, kept in close contact with Pelosi over the weekend before saying this to Jake on "STATE OF THE UNION."

SCHIFF: That may be the only remedy that is co-equal to the evil that conduct represents.

SERFATY: Despite this, some Democrats are growing increasingly frustrated with leadership's pace and calling them out. House freshman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez tweeting the bigger scandal isn't the president's lawbreaking behavior, it is the Democratic Party's refusal to impeach him for it.

All this as many Senate Republicans are trying to avoid wading into the controversy, with one outlier. Utah Senator Mitt Romney tweeting: It would be troubling in the extreme if the president pressure the Ukrainian president to investigate Biden and it was critical for the facts to come out.


SERFATY: And just in the last hour, three House committee chairs, they are now threatening to issue subpoenas if the State Department does not hand over the documents they requested, and they want those documents, Jake, by Thursday of this week.

TAPPER: All right. Sunlen Serfaty on Capitol Hill, thanks so much. Let's continue our conversation.

Keith, are you frustrated with Democratic leaders? You have just -- you just said in the previous panel, you don't care if Democrats lose seat in the general election in 2020, in the House and Senate, that it's important to begin an impeachment inquiry.

BOYKIN: Look, Nancy Pelosi has already said that Donald Trump is unfit for office. She said that he belongs in prison. And she's said that he's self-impeaching. If that's not enough to initiate at least an inquiry, then I don't know what is.

And you add to that -- it's long before we get to Ukraine, long before we even get to Russia. If you look at the fact that he's hiding his tax returns, that he had his lawyer convicted, his campaign chairman convicted, his national security adviser pleaded guilty to federal crimes, he's been implicated in federal crimes, that there are 10 counts of obstruction of justice, if you look at all the different elements that are building up to this case, it's irrefutable that this guy deserves to be held accountable.

And we, who are citizens of the country and who have a platform, have a duty to do something. If we don't, we're just as responsible, I think.

TAPPER: S.E., where are -- other than Mitt Romney who issued that statement, where are the Republicans?

CUPP: Romney is sort of the Karan (ph) of Republicans. He wants to talk to your manager about this. Where is the courage?

TAPPER: You can say that but he's the only Republican office holder who has said anything.

CUPP: These are -- I mean, we're investigating exactly what happened, but we have the president admitting to what we're all talking about. And this should be troubling to Republicans, to Democrats, to schoolteachers, to children. It should be troubling in the extreme to everyone.

And it's a stain not just on Democrats for sort of threatening and not doing it, but for Republicans for standing by.

TAPPER: And take a listen to the Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell just moments ago, Margaret. He seems to be blaming this all on Democrats.



SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY): It is regrettable that House Intelligence Committee Chairman Schiff and Senator Schumer have chosen to politicize the issue.

(END VIDEO CLIP) HOOVER: Look, it's days like today where I really miss John McCain's voice in the United States Senate. John McCain, who was the voice of democratic values to authoritarians everywhere especially, to freedom fighters in the Ukraine and Russia.

I mean, think about the difficult position the Ukraine is in right now. Ukraine needs the USA to fight back Russia.

TAPPER: They need Trump to like them.

HOOVER: Yes. So, it's just the moral clarity from the right is missing. And we're all worse for it.

AVLON: It's totally MIA. But to address what McConnell just said, the politicization occurs when the DNI, who is required by law to release a whistleblower report that the inspector general deems credible and urgent, refuses to do so for the first time ever, apparently at the behest of the Department of Justice and probably the White House. OK? That's the politicization.

You want to solve this problem? Put forth the whistleblower report. We should not have to escalate to impeachment over an issue like this. But at the same time, you know, there's a problem that we've gotten an impeachment caucus on both extremes.

They've done the whole process down. Bill Clinton's impeachment was about lying over oral sex, for God's sakes, and the obstruction claims that Republicans are making, some of them in the Senate, still, including McConnell and Lindsey Graham, said they're not ready to pursing with regard to Donald Trump.


At some point you have to say we're going to move past transitional ethics and try to apply transcendent standards to our executive and our laws and our Constitution, or that defines deviancy down further and that's what we're doing.

TAPPER: And Lindsey Graham was in the House at the time when there was an impeachment.


TAPPER: And he was an impeachment manager.

AVLON: Right.

TAPPER: Take a listen to Democratic Congressman Jim Himes. He serves on the Intelligence Committee. He's in favor of impeachment, Keith, but he did raise concerns. Take a listen.


REP. JIM HIMES (D-CT): The presidential election is the single and only way Donald Trump will leave office, and it comes down to a couple of states. It comes down to Michigan, it comes down to Pennsylvania, it comes down to Wisconsin. If you do something this those states, not in Connecticut, or in New York or California, but that in those states, significantly reduces your chances of beating Donald Trump, you increase the chances of a second term.


TAPPER: Again, Congressman Himes supports impeachment but he's basically saying if Democrats go too fast, they could guarantee Donald Trump's reelection.

BOYKIN: I don't agree. I think Democrats should lead based on courage, not based on fear. I don't like an idea of taking an opinion poll and putting your finger in the wind to decide what's the right thing to do. I don't like the idea of making decisions based on what the political cost instead of what is the moral imperative. We have a constitutional duty to act.

TAPPER: All right. Thanks, everyone.

Stick around. We've got more to talk about. My next guest had a front row seat to private calls in the Oval Office with foreign leaders. He even offered advice on how to handle them. We're going to get his take on President Trump's administration. That's next.