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Ukraine Drama Raises Pressure On House Democrats To Impeach Trump; Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) Says, Impeachment May Be The Only Remedy; GOP Shows Some Signs Of Movement On Background Checks Bill. Aired 10-10:30a ET

Aired September 23, 2019 - 10:00   ET



JIM SCIUTTO, CNN NEWSROOM: A very good morning to you. I'm Jim Sciutto.


President Trump says he did it. And now, the question is what are Democrats going to do about it. The president now confirms that he did talk to the president of Ukraine about Joe Biden an investigation.

This follows several different talking points of the president over the past few days. First he denied it, denied bringing it up in the call at all, saying on Twitter, quote, another fake news story out there. It never ends. Virtually any time I speak on the phone to a foreign leader, I understand that there may be many people listening from various U.S. agencies, not to mention those from the other country itself. No problem.

SCIUTTO: Well, as often happens, a reversal followed that statement. On Friday, he called his conversations with Ukrainian officials, quote, totally, appropriate and beautiful, and then later said he couldn't remember them, and then he said he hadn't read the whistleblower complaint. But in the next breath claimed everybody has read it, they laughed at it. By the weekend, however, he was largely confirming the story, even now defending.


DONALD TRUMP, U.S. PRESIDENT: We had a great conversation. The conversation I had was largely a conversation that congratulatory, it was largely corruption, all of the corruption taking place. It was largely the fact that we don't want our people, like Vice President Biden and his son creating to the corruption already in the Ukraine.


SCIUTTO: To be clear, there is no evidence to that charge the president leveled there.

During all these contradictory statements, reversals, the president did find time to attack the whistleblower as a spy all the while with no evidence, continuing to say, again, that Biden acted inappropriately.

Joining us now, Boris Sanchez, he is at the White House with the latest.

So, Boris, four days ago, the president was denying this as fake news and then now by the weekend proudly copping to it, saying, hey, I have a right do it. Is that where the White House position stands?

BORIS SANCHEZ, CNN WHITE HOUSE REPORTER: Yes, that's right, Jim and Poppy. The president is saying that his conversation with his Ukrainian counterpart was perfect. We actually just heard from Stephanie Grisham, the press secretary, she was on Fox News this morning, saying that this whistleblower is nothing more than a partisan trying to go after the president, even though she and Trump have acknowledged they have no idea who this whistleblower actually is.

Now, to be clear, Trump has said separately that he wants the transcript of his call with the Ukrainian prime minister released despite the fact that some in his administration don't think that's a good idea. Listen to his Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, and the Treasury Secretary, Steve Mnuchin, talking on cable news over the weekend.


MIKE POMPEO, SECRETARY OF STATE: We don't release transcripts very often. It's the rare case. Those are private conversations between world leaders. It wouldn't be appropriate to do so except in the most extreme circumstances. There's no evidence that that would be appropriate here at this point.

STEVE MNUCHIN, TREASURY SECRETARY: I think that would be a terrible precedent. Conversations between world leaders are meant to be confidential.


SANCHEZ: We should point out the White House put out a readout of the conversation between Trump and the Ukrainian president around the time that it took place. It made no mention of any talk of corruption, certainly no mention of Joe Biden or his son, Hunter. We should point out there yet again, there is no evidence of any wrongdoing by the Bidens.

This is really the Trump playbook, though, Jim and poppy, the president launching accusations against a rival that are similar to the ones that he's facing. He's suggesting that Biden tried to intervene in Ukraine to try to earn favor for himself and for his son as he is openly acknowledging that he tried to sway the Ukrainians to go against one of his potential 2020 rivals and to investigate him, Jim and Poppy.

HARLOW: Boris Sanchez, thank you very much for all of that reporting.

Let's talk about what Congress is saying and what they're going to maybe do about it. Lauren Fox joins us on Capitol Hill with more.

We heard a significant shift in word choice and tone from Speaker Pelosi and House Intel Chair Adam Schiff over the weekend. But some Democrats like Elizabeth Warren and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez want to see a lot more.

LAUREN FOX, CNN CONGRESSIONAL REPORTER: Well, that's right, Poppy. And over the weekend, Nancy Pelosi sent a dear colleagues letter to her Democratic counterparts basically arguing that if they do not get that complaint by the end of the week that the Trump administration and President Trump himself could face dire consequences.

In the letter, she wrote, quote, if the administration persists in blocking this whistleblower from disclosing to Congress a serious possible breach of constitutional duties by the president, they will be entering a grave new chapter of lawlessness, which will take us into a whole new stage of investigation.

We also heard yesterday from the intelligence chairman, Adam Schiff, basically arguing that impeachment could be a potential avenue to deal with this latest whistleblower accusation. Here's what he told our colleague, Jake Tapper, yesterday.


REP. ADAM SCHIFF (D-CA): We cannot afford to play rope a dope in the court for weeks or months on end.


We need an answer. If there's a fire burning, it needs to be put out. And that's why we're going to have to look at every remedy. And if these two issues are, in fact, one issue and it relates to deplorable conduct, a violation on president's oath of office and a cover-up in terms of this whistleblower complaint, then we're going to have to consider impeachment as well a remedy here.

FOX: And Pelosi and Schiff were in constant communication over the weekend, we're told. But this just is part of the broader debate within the Democratic caucus about whether now is the time to move forward with impeachment. You heard from people, like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, that now is the time, the Democrats have already waited too long. But we're going to have to wait and watch what Nancy Pelosi says the rest of the week. Jim and Poppy?

HARLOW: Okay, we'll watch very closely. Lauren, I appreciate the reporting. Thanks so much.

SCIUTTO: Let's discuss now with Andrew McCabe. He's the former deputy director for the FBI.

Andrew, you spent 21 years in the FBI. Did you ever see a political figure pressure a foreign government to investigate his or her political opponent?

ANDREW MCCABE, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: No, Jim. It's absolutely unqualified no. This is not something I have ever seen before. In fact, it's remarkable to have an American political figure, much less the president of the United States, pushing a foreign government, especially one that we have concerns about corruption issues within their own criminal justice establishment, pushing that foreign government to begin investigation of a U.S. citizen. It's really incredibly dangerous and a questionable practice.

It is true that while we have our own investigations going, there are times that we reach out to foreign governments for information that might be relevant to our investigations, but we do that through official channels, through the Justice Department and the FBI and we do it through those official channels for this exact reason. So there is no question that politics has played a role.

SCIUTTO: So after initially denying this whole narrative here, the president is essentially copping to it and saying he's justified. We don't know yet whether he connected the delayed military assistance to Ukraine, which we should note was delayed around the time of these discussions here. We don't know if he made that connection here. But independent of that, a sitting president pressuring, asking eight times, according to The Wall Street Journal, a foreign government to investigate his political opponent. From a legal perspective, does that amount to a violation of U.S. campaign laws?

MCCABE: It certainly could. As you know, the campaign laws are very clear that you cannot seek the assistance or accept any assistance or anything of value from a foreign national or a foreign government. In this fact pattern, which, of course, we don't have all the facts because we haven't seen the whistleblower complaint yet, but it certainly seems just based on the president's own admissions and the other remarkable reporting that's come out on this issue, that the president addressed this issue, not just addressed the issue with the foreign leader but also sent his personal emissary to interact with agents of that foreign leader in third party locations, which is, again, incredibly suspicious.

If this were activity that was just normal foreign relations conducted within the president's very broad scope of the president's authority to do foreign relations, why is he sending his personal attorney overseas to do that, a person who has no official standing or authority, whatsoever? It's all very, very suspicious.

SCIUTTO: We noted last week the timing of this call, July 25th, to the Ukrainian president, one day, 24 hours after Robert Mueller completed his testimony on the Hill, which in the view of many Republicans, even some Democrats, signaled the end without some oomph to the Special Counsel's investigation. Do you see the president there being emboldened to some degree by the end result of the Mueller investigation to then pick up the phone and say, I'm going to make a call here and see if I can get some political help?

MCCABE: Yes, that is certainly possible. I cannot, of course, tell you what the president was thinking. I wouldn't try to put myself in his head for any moment. But as you look at the facts that we know, it certainly seems like somebody who has finally escaped a two-year investigation over essentially very similar allegations, allegations of conspiracy or collusion with a foreign government.

And then the very next day after what some may consider to be sort of a symbolic end to that investigation, the very next day, pressuring a foreign leader for what would, no doubtedly, amount to assistance in his own campaign effort. It's confounding and really remarkable.

SCIUTTO: This came to light with a whistleblower inside the intelligence community who got a readout, in effect, on this call and was so concerned, it appears, made a complaint via the established and legally established whistleblower path within the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.


Now, as you know, the Justice Department and the White House standing in the way of that report being reported to Congress as is required by the whistleblower law saying that, somehow, this complaint doesn't fall under that law.

You know the law decently well. Tell us if that excuse makes any sense to you.

MCCABE: Yes, sure, so two things to point out here. I am not an expert in the law in question but I have taken a close look at it. Quite frankly, I cannot agree with the Justice Department's interpretation of the law in question.

I would point out that the whistleblower statute here is very specific and that it grants to the I.G. only the ability and the authority to determine whether or not the complaint is credible and urgent. And then the DNI simply has the ministerial role of handing that complaint over to Congress. Nowhere in the statute does it explicitly give the DNI the authority to review or rescind the I.G.'s determination of urgency and credibility. So it's an odd theory that I think DOJ is pointing to here.

And the second thing I would point out, Jim, is this person did exactly what we expect and hope whistleblowers to do. They stood up, raised their hand, used the systems and the laws that are in place exactly for this sort of a complaint and put themselves at great risk in doing so. And I certainly hope that they continue to receive the protection that all whistleblowers are entitled to under the statute. That, I think, is an open question right now.

SCIUTTO: And the law was designed to give them that kind of protection. We'll see if that stands up. Andrew McCabe, thanks very much.

MCCABE: Thanks, Jim.

SCIUTTO: At this hour, world leaders are gathering for a major summit on the global climate crisis at the U.N. General Assembly. There is one notable absence, the U.S. President. We're going to tell you what he's doing instead. Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of travelers are stranded all over the world after a major tour operator abruptly shut down. Find out what caused the company's unexpected collapse.

HARLOW: And later, CNN exclusive interview with George Clooney, what he is doing to get the international community to step up their efforts to stop alleged corruption in South Sudan.



HARLOW: Okay. So President Trump now says that he did talk to former -- he did talk to the Ukrainian president about former Vice President Joe Biden and his son, Hunter, over the summer. The president's story has shifted. Listen to this.


TRUMP: The conversation I had was largely congratulatory, was largely the fact that we don't want our people like Vice President Biden and his son creating to the corruption already in the Ukraine.


HARLOW: Biden says this is a clear case of abuse of power. He's calling on Congress to investigate. To be clear, there is no evidence of wrongdoing by Joe Biden or his son, Hunter.

I'm joined now by Representative Vicente Gonzalez. He serves on the House Foreign Affairs Committee. It's good to have, sir. Thanks for being with me this morning.

REP. VICENTE GONZALEZ (D-TX): Good to be here.

HARLOW: Okay. You heard the president. That is the latest version he has of what happened. If it does turn out that the president indeed withheld aid to Ukraine for any amount of time because he wanted Ukraine to begin an investigation into Biden and his son, Hunter, what should the reaction of Congress be to that?

GONZALEZ: Well, I think it will be a pretty dramatic reaction. I think it's already happening now just on speculation of what may have been said. But I think we need to get to the bottom of it. I think we need to get a full report from this whistleblower. And as of right now, they're not in compliance with federal law. You've got to remember that rule was created to promote for exactly what the purpose is occurring now for whistleblowers to feel comfortable to call out discrepancies such as this. They have.

The inspector general classified it as urgent and credible. He had 14 days to investigate it under the rules, under federal law. Then they give it to the director of intelligence. He has a week to turn it over to the intelligence committee and he has not.

HARLOW: Right. I mean, it's exceeded that. And that law is so explicitly laid out.

GONZALEZ: It couldn't be clearer.

HARLOW: Let me ask you this, because you have also been clear, sir, at least up until now that you are not supportive of impeachment against the president. You said just in June, quote, the best way to impeach Trump is to defeat him in 2020. But if The Wall Street Journal reporting bears out and we have no reason to believe that it won't that the president, eight times, demanded this investigation by Ukraine, and if there was any quid pro quo for U.S. aid to Ukraine, do you then support impeachment of the president?


GONZALEZ: I don't think we have a choice. Under the Constitution, we must move forward with impeachment proceedings. I don't think we'll have much of a choice. It seems like the president is really pushing us for impeachment proceedings. I don't know if he's baiting us because he has some personal agenda that he thinks this might be helpful to him. But I don't have any idea why they wouldn't comply with federal law.

Clearly, the inspector general says, I'm not going to jail for you, informed the committee that, in fact, this investigation was ongoing, that he thought it was credible and urgent and he clearly wanted the committee to have notice of it. That's how Chairman Schiff found out about this in the first place.

HARLOW: That's a significant change for you, your position. You've been incredibly cautious on this up until now.

GONZALEZ: Yes. I think it should be a significant change for Republicans, for every patriot in America, any thought that you would have the leader of your country negotiating with foreign leaders for his personal political benefit, I think, is a huge issue that everyone in the country should be concerned with.

HARLOW: And we saw what Mitt Romney tweeted over the weekend. But there are not many Republicans speaking out on this.

Look, you have endorsed the former vice president, Joe Biden, for president in the Democratic primary. And, again, let me preface this question by saying there is no evidence of any wrongdoing by Biden, by Joe Biden or by Hunter Biden. But listen to this when Joe Biden was asked by a reporter about his son, Hunter Biden, and his position on the board of that Ukrainian gas company. Listen to this.


REPORTER: Mr. Vice president, how many times have you ever spoken to your son about his overseas business dealings?

JOE BIDEN, FORMER U.S. VICE PRESIDENT (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I have never spoken to my son about his overseas business dealings.

(END VIDEO CLIP) HARLOW: He says, never. And then The New Yorker piece from this summer in July, quote, Hunter Biden, as saying -- talking -- saying his father, and he did discuss that company, and said, dad said, quote, I hope you know what you're doing. I said I do.

Does it raise any questions for you?

GONZALEZ: Look, clearly, something needs to be cleared up at this point, right? So, yes, of course, I would want an explanation on that. And I hold whoever I support and responsible, regardless what party they're in. I think we should be Americans first and take care of our country and take care certainly of our secrets and the integrity of this institution.

HARLOW: So Adam Schiff has suggested a number of avenues that Democrats have at this point in time. And one of them that he has floated is to withhold some amount of funding from the ODNI. Are you supportive of that or do you believe that that would raise national security concerns?

GONZALEZ: Well, that's an option but we certainly need to look at the other side of it. What risk would that put us, what a move like that put us.

I don't think that should be necessary. I think the director should come and testify on Thursday and bring a full report of the whistleblower's report. He's bringing it to the intelligence community. He can do it behind closed doors. Everybody has top security clearance in there. I don't think he should have an issue with sharing what's known with the committee. I think that's his responsibility, in fact.

HARLOW: Congressman, final question on guns and gun legislation. You have been supportive of universal background checks. I'd like to know where you stand on what is gaining momentum within your party, which is a potential mandatory buyback program for assault weapons. It's something that, as you know, your former fellow congressman from the State of Texas, Beto O'Rourke, advocated passionately on the debate stage. Is that a bridge too far for you or do you support a mandatory buyback?

GONZALEZ: I have great respect for Beto and his opinions. I don't know if we need to go that far to cure the issue, but, certainly, doing intense background checks, cutting loopholes. I just recently bought a shot gun at a gun show and the lady just looked at my driver's license and handed me the gun. Certainly, something is wrong with that.

We need more intense background checks. We need to close the loopholes on private sales. We need to limit magazine capacity. We need to do so many other issues before we start going into the idea of buying people's guns back.

If you think back in the 70s and 80s, many of these guns were as available as they are now but we weren't having these mass shootings that we have today. So I think we need to really ask ourselves the question of what has socially brought us to this point in history and what have we done and what can we do differently to change society. That's certainly a question that needs to be continued to ask because I don't know that taking everyone's guns and buying everyone's guns back is going to cure the national massacres that we've had in recent history.

HARLOW: But would it save lives?

GONZALEZ: I'm not sure. That's what I'm saying. We don't know. It may be a social issue that needs to be addressed that hasn't, maybe an intense social study of what's happened in America in the last two decades that has brought to this point in history where we're having mass shootings almost every single month.

Clearly, if buying guns back, I mean, I think that should be the last resort.


We need to start with a path of least resistance and see what changes can be made that would cure the problem that we're having in this country.

HARLOW: Congressman Vicente Gonzalez, we'll have you back and we'll spend a lot more time on the gun issues. It matters a lot to Jim and I and to all our viewers. Thank you very much for being here.

GONZALEZ: I'd be happy. Thank you.

SCIUTTO: I get a view of the politics there, no question, even from a Democrat.

No clarity yet about Israel's political future as the country's second election in less than six months remains deadlock. Now, Israel's president is stepping in hoping to end the stalemate.