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Pelosi Statement On Formal Impeachment Inquiry; Interview With Rep. Chris Stewart (R-UT) On Impeachment Inquiry; Trump Slams House Impeachment Probe As Presidential Harassment. Aired 5-6p ET

Aired September 24, 2019 - 17:00   ET

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


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WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST (voice-over): Breaking news. We're standing by for the House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to momentarily announce the opening of a formal independent inquiry into President Trump. We'll bring that to you live just moments from now.

And just a little while ago, President Trump said he'll release a transcript of the call with Ukraine's president, which has pushed Democrats to open their inquiry.

And the head of the House Intelligence Committee now says the whistleblower who flagged that call now wants to talk directly to lawmakers. Let's go to our congressional correspondent Manu Raju up on Capitol Hill.

Manu, within a minute or so, we expect to hear Nancy Pelosi make a rather historic announcement.

MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes. She is going to say that she supports --

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: Here she is. Here she is.

REP. NANCY PELOSI (D-CA), HOUSE SPEAKER: Good afternoon.

Last Tuesday, we observed the anniversary of the adoption of the Constitution on September 17th. Sadly, on that day, the intelligence community inspector general formally notified the Congress that the administration was forbidding him from turning over a whistleblower complaint on Constitution Day.

This is a violation of the law. Shortly thereafter press reports began to break of a phone call by the president of the United States, calling upon a foreign power to intervene in his election. This is a breach of his constitutional responsibilities.

The facts are these: the intelligence community inspector general, who was appointed by President Trump, determined that the complaint is both of urgent concern and credible.

And its disclosure, he went on to say, relates to one of the most significant and important of the Director of National Intelligence's responsibility to the American people.

On Thursday, the inspector general testified before the House Intelligence Committee, stating that the acting Director of National Intelligence blocked him from disclosing the whistleblower complaint. This is a violation of law. The law is unequivocal.

The DNI staff -- it says the DNI, Director of National Intelligence, shall provide Congress the full whistleblower complaint.

For more than 25 years, I've served on the Intelligence Committee as a member, as the ranking member, as part of the Gang of Four, even before I was in the leadership. I was there when we created the office of the Director of National Intelligence. That did not exist before 2004.

I was there even earlier in the '90s when we wrote the whistleblower laws and continued to write them, to improve them, to ensure the security of our intelligence and the safety of our whistleblowers. I know what their purpose was. And we proceeded with balance and caution as we wrote the laws.

I can say with authority the Trump administration's actions undermine both our national security and our intelligence and our protections of the whistleblowers, more than both.

This Thursday the acting DNI will appear before the House Intelligence Committee. At that time, he must turn over the whistleblower's full complaint to the committee. He will have to choose whether to break the law or honor his responsibility to the Constitution.

On the final day of the Constitutional Convention in 1787, when our Constitution was adopted, Americans gathered on the steps of Independence Hall to await the news of a government our founders had crafted.

They asked Benjamin Franklin, "What do we have, a republic or a monarchy?"

Franklin replied, "A republic, if you can keep it."

Our responsibility is to keep it. Our republic endures because of the wisdom of our Constitution, enshrined in three co-equal branches of government, serving as checks and balances on each other.

The actions taken to date by the president have seriously violated the Constitution, especially when the president says Article 2 says I can do whatever I want.

For the past several months, we have been investigating in our committees and litigating in the courts so the House can gather all the relevant facts and consider whether to exercise its full Article 1 powers, including a constitutional power of the utmost gravity, approval of articles of impeachment.

And this week the president has admitted to asking the president of Ukraine to take actions which would benefit him politically. The actions of the Trump presidency revealed dishonorable fact of the president's betrayal of his oath of office, betrayal of our national security and betrayal of the integrity of our elections.

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PELOSI: Therefore, today, I'm announcing the House of Representatives moving forward with an official impeachment inquiry. I'm directing our six committees to proceed with their investigations under that umbrella of impeachment inquiry.

The president must be held accountable. No one is above the law.

Getting back to our founders, in the darkest days of the American Revolution, Thomas Paine, wrote, "The times have found us."

The times found them to fight for and establish our democracy. The times have found us today, not to place ourselves in the same category of greatness as our founders but to place us in the urgency of protecting and defending our Constitution from all enemies foreign and domestic.

In the words of Ben Franklin, to keep our republic.

I thank our chairmen, Chairman Nadler of Judiciary; Chairman Schiff of Intelligence; Chairman Engel, foreign affairs; Chairman Cummings of Oversight -- and Chairman Cummings, I've been in touch with constantly; he's a master of so much -- but including inspectors general and whistleblowers. Congresswoman Richie Neal of the Ways and Means Committee; Congresswoman Maxine Waters of the Financial Services Committee.

I commend all of our members, our colleagues for their thoughtful, thoughtful approach to all of this, for their careful statements. God bless them and God bless America. Thank you all.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Madam Speaker (INAUDIBLE).

Was this accomplished (INAUDIBLE) --

BLITZER: Very important, historic announcement from the Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, announcing today the opening of what she calls an official impeachment inquiry into the president of the United States, as she repeatedly suggested, there were violations of law, there was violations of the Constitution and, as a result, it justifies the beginning of a new phase in this entire impeachment potential process.

Manu Raju is up on Capitol Hill.

Manu, we anticipated this. Obviously a very dramatic moment.

RAJU: Yes, we absolutely. After more than a year, about a year of Nancy Pelosi resisting calls for moving forward in the impeachment, throwing cold water on moving forward, saying that the existing investigations were good enough, she has made a dramatic shift that could lead President Trump to be just the third president in United States history to get impeached.

Now that she is behind this effort, a lot of Democrats here on Capitol Hill believe it's almost inevitable that the House Judiciary Committee ultimately will move forward on articles of impeachment against this president.

It's clear that the revelations about the president's handling of this whistleblower complaint, the president acknowledging he spoke to Ukrainian president about the Bidens, questions about whether or not he sought to withhold aid to Ukraine in exchange for pressuring this investigation of the Bidens, was a bridge too far for the House Speaker and for other Democrats.

He and Democrats believe this is a message that's much easier to deliver to the American public because they say it's very clear, in their view, that the president may have broken the law and that's what -- necessitates a formal impeachment inquiry.

Now what she said here, Wolf, was interesting. We've been hearing, she's been saying this behind closed doors this afternoon, how this is going to work. There are six committees that are investigating right now, already engaged in an investigation of this president, led in part by the House Judiciary Committee, the House Intelligence Committee.

Those investigations will continue. Ultimately they will decide how to move forward on articles of impeachment. They will draft presumably, down the line, if they decide to go down that route, articles of impeachment that will later move to the House Judiciary Committee which will formally vote to impeach this president.

At that point it would go to the full House, in which the House would vote to impeach this president. Again, that would be the third time in history that this would happen. But as we know, Republicans have no appetite for moving forward. They believe, they are defending this president. And if the House does move to impeach him, almost certainly the Republican-led Senate will not convict this president and remove him from office.

So in a lot of ways this will be a symbolic move of sorts but a very significant, a historic move if the House does move forward with a formal impeachment proceeding.

But Wolf, Nancy Pelosi coming out here, saying she supports launching an official impeachment inquiry, a very historic move from a Speaker who has been reluctant to move forward. But more and more Democrats, an overwhelming majority, believe it's the right thing to do. We'll see where this ends up.

BLITZER: A very significant shift on her part. As I said, a very historic moment. Manu, stand by. Dana, you've been doing a lot of reporting on this. She also said, no

one is above the law, referring to the president of the United States, and what he was doing was a betrayal of the Constitution.

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DANA BASH, CNN SENIOR U.S. CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: The fact she gave a preamble about her experience on the Intelligence Committees, that she comes at this not just from understanding the law, how things are supposed to work, but then, of course, talking about it in very big, very sweeping terms about the Constitution of the United States.

It's really hard to overstate how historic this is. As Manu said, it's barely one hand that you can count on, how many times this has happened. And it is a last resort. The House Democrats feel that they have reached that last resort.

And there has been so much pressure on her. She has resisted for so long since they took the majority, from many people in the base who have been saying, come on already. We gave you the majority.

Why aren't you using it?

Now she says she has seen an issue that she believes that the American public understands and should be outraged by, because her number one concern has all along been I can't do this until I have the public behind me.

She sees some public sentiment but she is clearly trying to marry that by pushing out her rank and file to support what she now has reluctantly gotten behind, which is an impeachment inquiry.

BLITZER: It's a significant moment.

David Chalian, you've been looking into the history of what we're seeing unfold right now.

DAVID CHALIAN, CNN POLITICAL DIRECTOR: Yes, I mean, if you include Nixon, who wasn't eventually formally impeached, this is the fourth time in history that a president has really faced the very serious threat of impeachment, Wolf.

But I just want to go to Speaker Pelosi's words here because I think she captured so brilliantly the moment we're in, which is a moment of, quote, "utmost gravity."

That's what she described as the congressional responsibility if, indeed, it comes to passing articles of impeachment, utmost gravity. And that's the moment that the country finds itself in.

I know how hard it is for people to sit at home and see this and say, oh, this is the latest back and forth with Republicans, the Democrats decided to impeach today and President Trump will fight back.

And we have days ahead of us that that will be the case. The spin machines on both sides will go into overdrive. This will become something that consumes all of the political oxygen. The presidential campaign will probably move to the sidelines a bit.

This is going to be a circus-like atmosphere because that is what we've seen in our history. But that should not undermine what this moment of gravity is for the country. This is those foundational principles of the forming of our country, that whole notion of checks and balances, of co-equal branches.

That's what's being tested here. And what Speaker Pelosi says, yes, violation of law but it's not just a violation of law. It is a breach of the president's constitutional responsibilities. That combination is what brings the House Democratic caucus to this moment of utmost gravity and what puts the country in a time that doesn't have much historical precedent.

And we know how fraught these times are politically. Putting this divisive, very sobering impeachment process front and center now in these extraordinary divisive times of where we are already, is -- that in and of itself is going to be uncharted territory.

BLITZER: It certainly is.

Gloria, she did not mince any words. She was very, very blunt in leveling charges against the president and announcing the opening of this official impeachment inquiry.

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: Right. I think she was very sober about the way she went about this and talked about, as David was saying, about the gravity of the situation.

And you can see the institutionalist in Nancy Pelosi, who has been a member of Congress for decades and who talked about the violation of law and the checks and balances we have in this country.

And she said the law is unequivocal. It says that the Director of National Intelligence shall provide Congress with the whistleblower complaint. The Director of National Intelligence has not done that.

She talked about a presidential phone call, in which he asked a foreign power to interfere in an American election. And that is a violation of law.

So she laid it out very clearly and ended up with the constitutional notion and said, look, just because this president says that Article 2 says I can do whatever I want, that doesn't mean that he can because that is not true, because there are limits on the president.

And what she was saying effectively was no one is above the law. She didn't make this about Joe Biden. She didn't make this about politics, although, of course, that will go back and forth. But you can see in her statement her struggle.

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BORGER: And what she finally came to after two years of the Russia investigation and finally this, I think, was the last straw, where you could see a clear, according to Pelosi, a clear violation of law and of institutions and of the things that have kept this country strong.

And she -- you could see her need to defend her institution and what she believes is a violation of the Constitution.

BLITZER: Let me get Jim Acosta into this conversation.

Jim, you're over at the United Nations right now. The president addressed the U.N. General Assembly earlier in the day.

I take it there's no official White House reaction yet to what we heard from Nancy Pelosi?

JIM ACOSTA, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, it depends on your use of the term "official," Wolf. The president is tweeting right now and it is a bit of a tweetstorm. He is over at Trump Tower, enjoying what White House officials are calling executive time. That's according to the White House pool.

The president just tweeted this a few minutes ago in response to what Speaker Pelosi just said in front of the cameras.

He is saying, "Such an important day at the United Nations. So much work and so much success. And the Democrats purposely had to ruin and demean it with more breaking news, witch hunt garbage. So bad for our country."

The president went on to tweet and it just seems to be tweeting out a stream of consciousness here. The president saying, "Pelosi, Nadler, Schiff and, of course, Maxine Waters," who the president likes to talk about at his rallies, "can you believe this?"

And then just the latest tweet in the last couple of minutes -- keep in mind, Wolf, all of these tweets, within the span of about eight minutes, the latest tweet saying, "They never even saw the transcript of the call. A total witch hunt."

So the president is bemoaning the fact that the Speaker, Nancy Pelosi, is announcing that she is going to launch this formal impeachment inquiry before he's even agreed to release this call transcript, the call involving the president and President Zelensky of Ukraine.

The president announced earlier this afternoon he's going to release that transcript but he's going after Democrats, saying, you know, why are you doing this, hitting them for doing this when they haven't even seen the call transcript, as the president has been saying all day long, over the last couple of days here at the United Nations, it was a perfect call, it was a beautiful call, as he was saying, Wolf.

It was an extraordinary moment, I have to say, as the president was walking into the U.N. General Assembly to deliver the speech on just about everything under the sun, he acknowledged that, yes, he did order his top aides to hold up that military aid to Ukraine, hundreds of millions of dollars, just before -- about a week before he had a phone call with President Zelensky of Ukraine.

During that call, of course, as we all know now, the president has admitted he was pressuring the Ukrainian president to investigate Joe Biden. So all of this drama really culminating with this announcement from the House Speaker and the president now in the middle of a tweetstorm working out his aggressions on social media -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Stand by, Jim. I want to begin to get reaction. We're getting a ton of reaction already to this historic, dramatic statement from the Speaker.

Republican congressman Chris Stewart of Utah is joining us. He's a key member of the House Intelligence Committee.

Congressman, thanks so much for joining us. You just heard the House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announce the opening of an official impeachment inquiry into the president of the United States.

Your reaction?

REP. CHRIS STEWART (R-UT): Well, I'm not at all surprised. I mean, they've been trying to impeach this president since literally before he was inaugurated. And, Wolf, I think they're going to regret it.

And what Jim Acosta was just saying is just one example. I mean, they announced this rather than wait less than 24 hours to read the transcript and see if there is a reason for this. And Ms. Pelosi came on and she unequivocally said, this president has broken his oath of office. He has betrayed national security.

How in the world does she know that?

This inquiry hasn't even begun. For her to make a statement as definitive as that, that's why the American people are going to view this and roll their eyes because it's going to sound to them like much of the same thing they've been hearing for the last three years.

BLITZER: Well, if the president did what's been alleged, Congressman, if he pressured Ukraine's new president to investigate for damaging information on a political rival, namely former Vice President Biden, and withheld aid to Ukraine at the same time, do you believe that would be impeachable conduct?

STEWART: I don't know but I'll tell you, Wolf, I do want to find out the answer to that question. And I said last week to members of the media, I said, look, we should subpoena this information if we need to. I'm willing and I think it's important for us to find out everything that we can about this.

All I'm asking people to do is to take a breath and not draw a conclusion before they know anything about this because we know that they don't know that -- not only the details. They don't even know the broad outline of what this is about.

And some of the reporting on this I know from our previous hearings is simply inaccurate. Some of the reporting has changed.

So how can they so definitively say, as Ms. Pelosi said, he has betrayed his oath of office, he has betrayed national security? [17:20:00]

STEWART: If they want to have a serious impeachment proceeding, then they can't start out with already the guilty plea or the guilty finding, which, again, they've been looking for for three years.

BLITZER: But if he did what's alleged, wouldn't that be wrong?

STEWART: Well, I certainly think it would be wrong. And I wouldn't do it. But I don't think it's necessarily illegal. I don't know that it is. And, by the way, when Joe Biden did it, was it wrong?

Was it illegal?

I think that's a fair question as well. I think if we have got two individuals doing this, we should determine that and we should answer that question. But you don't start out with a guilty finding and then say, oh, by the way, I guess we'll have a proceeding.

BLITZER: Yes, I just want to point out there's no evidence that Joe Biden, when he was a sitting vice president, did anything about a political rival.

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: Let's talk about the president right now.

STEWART: Wolf, there is exactly the same amount of evidence about Joe Biden right now as there is about this president.

BLITZER: Well, hold on.

STEWART: Zero.

BLITZER: Hold on for a moment because we're talking about a sitting President of the United States. And I want to bring in right now what your fellow member of Congress from Utah, Republican senator Mitt Romney, said. Listen to this.

"If the president" -- this is Mitt Romney, Senator Mitt Romney.

"If the president asked or pressured Ukraine's president to investigate his political rival, either directly or through his personal attorney, it would be troubling in the extreme."

Do you agree with Senator Romney?

STEWART: Yes, I agree with that and I've already said that, Wolf. I said we should find out. And this is something I wouldn't have done.

The question is, is it illegal and is it impeachable?

Ad I think that's what Mr. Romney was expressing. But I'm not going to defense nor necessarily agree with Senator Romney. He can make his own statements but I'm not saying, hey, this is nothing to -- nothing here. Let's not even look at it. I'm not saying that at all. I'm just simply asking people to not draw a conclusion before you have

any evidence and they have zero evidence.

BLITZER: Well, let me ask you this, Congressman. You say everyone needs to take a breath and find out all the facts, which is certainly a fair statement.

Are you committed to working with Democrats on your House Intelligence Committee to uncover all the facts, to get the complete whistleblower complaint so that you can study it, the Democrats can study it and come up with some conclusions?

STEWART: You bet. And I think most Republicans on the committee, we all felt the same way. There's actually something, if you have time, I would like to explain why that's difficult.

But I would support that and I would ask them to then be fair about this and for my chairman, Mr. Schiff, to not come out and make some of the proclamations he's made over the last week.

If they're going to hold a serious hearing, they can't start out with the conclusion before you have any proceedings at all. And if they do that, then they'll have no credibility with the American people.

This is like Brett Kavanaugh of a week ago, they had reports and it blew up in their face and everyone was embarrassed by it or at least they should have been. Just be fair. Just say, let's get the information and then let's draw a conclusion. And none of them appear to be willing to do that.

BLITZER: Well, she said they were opening an official impeachment inquiry today, that's an investigation. They want to get the facts.

As you know, the president -- and this is significant -- says he's now authorized the release tomorrow of the complete, unredacted transcript of that controversial phone conversation he had with President Zelensky of Ukraine.

First of all, do you think he will follow through on this promise?

You want to see that.

But will he also release the full whistleblower complaint to your committee?

STEWART: Yes, I mean, the answer to the first is, yes, I believe they will follow through with that. I can't imagine them saying they're going to do it and then not release it. And I would like to see the full whistleblower complaint.

And again, Wolf, this is kind of technical but people have said the law is definitive on this. It, in fact, is not. It does say that if this falls outside of the authority of the DNI, which this may and it may fall under executive privilege, then he's caught in a rock and a hard spot (sic). He's not trying to protect the president. The inspector general, I think, is sincerely trying to do the right

thing. It's just the law is not clear and he's trying to work his way through --

BLITZER: But I just want to point out to you, Congressman, what Michael Atkinson, the inspector general of the intelligence community, wrote to your committee, with Devin Nunes as the ranking member and the chairman, Adam Schiff, he said, not only the disclosure, the whistleblower's complaint, not only falls within the DNI'S jurisdiction but relates to one of the most significant and important of the DNI's responsibilities to the American people.

Atkinson, as you know, was named by President Trump, the Trump administration.

Does he have credibility in your eyes?

STEWART: Oh, absolutely. I think he's very credible, he's very sincere. We met with him for hours last week. I think he's trying to do the right thing, as I think the acting DNI is. I think the two of them are at loggerheads.

The Department of Justice is giving them counsel that, in their legal opinion, who has jurisdiction on this, that they can't release this the way they interpret the law, which is why I think one of the things we need to address is to clarify that law so this information should come to Congress.

I want to be clear on that, Wolf. I want this information to come to Congress. I want for congressional oversight to be something that is achievable and that is sincere and real.

[17:25:00]

STEWART: And we can't do that if they're not passing information on. But again, they feel they're in a rock and a hard spot (sic) with the discrepancies in the law.

BLITZER: What about the whistleblower himself?

We know it's a male. The whistleblower -- do you want the whistleblower on a classified, confidential basis to come before the House Intelligence Committee and answer your questions and tell us -- and tell you guys what he knows?

STEWART: Yes, absolutely. That would be ideal. If you were able to do that. What we have to do is to protect him so that he's not exposing himself to revealing information he's not authorized to disclose. And that's what we're trying to do, working with, again, the attorneys of the DNI and the inspector general and the Department of Justice. We want to hear from him.

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: Do you have any evidence, Congressman, to back up what the president alleged earlier in the week, that this guy is simply a political hack out to destroy the president of the United States?

We know he's an intelligence official.

STEWART: Yes, I have no idea who he is. So I couldn't make any determination at all about his motives.

BLITZER: Well, how is the president making that determination?

He's smearing this individual, who went through the proper channels, who went through the whistleblower laws that are on the books. And he did it the right way, clearly.

STEWART: Yes, well, you'd have to ask the White House that, Wolf. You know I can't answer that.

BLITZER: But it's awkward, to put it mildly, that the president would level a charge like this against a U.S. intelligence official, who felt it was necessary to bring this information to the attention of the Director of National Intelligence.

STEWART: Which is -- which brings me back to my point. Look, we've been doing that against individuals for years now.

How many people have been accused of treason for the last three years that we now know is not true?

And I have objected to that every single time and done so many times on your show. I've said these people might be innocent. It's unfair to have a cloud over them. This is another example of that. We should withhold judgment until we have information.

Do you have already some information about what exactly happened on that phone call between the president and the Ukrainian president?

STEWART: We don't. Members of the committee have not been briefed on that. None of us have which is, A, why I'm glad that they're releasing that information tomorrow and, B, saying it for the fourth, fifth time, people should withhold judgment before they make any determination or until they get the facts.

BLITZER: Well, you guys are going to get, I guess, get a lot of the facts on Thursday when the acting Director of National Intelligence testifies in open session before your committee. And then they'll be testifying behind closed doors before the Senate Intelligence Committee. Congressman Chris Stewart, as usual, thanks so much for joining us.

STEWART: Thank you, sir.

BLITZER: All right, Dana, let's talk a little bit about what we just heard. He's a very intelligent Republican on the Intelligence Committee, very serious. You heard some of the points he was making.

BASH: Yes, but it's a little bit of rope-a-dope here because he keeps saying he wants to get the information. So call your fellow Republican in the White House, tell his DNI to allow -- the Director of National Intelligence to allow the inspector general to give him the information.

It's not that hard. So you know, period. And so the idea that they're saying, well, we don't know, we don't know, we don't know, I mean, it's a little too cute by half.

(CROSSTALK)

SUSAN HENNESSEY, FORMER NATIONAL SECURITY AGENCY ATTORNEY: The other thing that makes it a ridiculous position is that the president of the United States has admitted at least part of the substance of the allegations, including the really troubling ones, that he brought up Joe Biden and his son in the course of this phone call, that he did, in fact order this delay and freeze on military aid, congressionally appropriated military aid, the week before they had that phone call.

So I do think it's significant that we see Republicans sort of trying to play this game when the president is clearly coming out very early to basically give the signal, hey, I did this.

That's why it's significant to see Republicans like Stewart basically refusing to endorse the behavior, to say, well, it would be really bad.

Just an hour ago in the Senate, they passed by unanimous consent, all Democrats and all Republicans, voted for resolution, saying the Senate believes this whistleblower complaint should come to Congress.

So it's not the same as Republicans turning on Trump but it is a very, very significant moment. The Republicans, at least to some extent, actually are standing shoulder to shoulder with Democrats to represent the interests of their institutional body against this sort of unprecedented assault.

ABBY PHILLIP, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: And it's not only Nancy Pelosi, when she talked about the allegations that prompted her to get to this point, she talked specifically about what President Trump admitted to.

She didn't go as far as she potentially could have, based on the reporting that was out there and that's clearly not by accident. She is mindful that a lot of Republicans will say what Congressman Stewart did.

But Republicans are clearly, like Stewart, in a really tough position. They don't like the fact pattern that exists, based on the president's own admission and they don't really know what to do about it.

Even the idea that the whistleblower report should come out is one that not even the White House is really quite there yet. The transcript that we will get tomorrow is going to be part of this story. It's not the whole story. And I think Republicans are not quite sure about what to do about the totality of what we don't know.

[17:30:00]

And they're struggling. They're really struggling. (CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: You heard -- you know, Gloria, you heard Congressman Stewart say, why didn't the Democrats at least wait until they got the official unredacted, complete transcript of the phone conversation with President Zelensky of Ukraine and then go ahead with this announcement?

BORGER: Because -- because, as Susan was saying, the President himself said, I did this and so what if I did? You know, I did this. I --

BLITZER: But the President said various things. He said --

BORGER: Well, he gave different (ph) reasons.

BLITZER: On the one hand, he said he did this because he wants the Europeans to give --

BORGER: Yes. Well --

BLITZER: -- the Ukraine more money, not the United States. He also raised other --

BORGER: He shifted --

BLITZER: You know, he had various explanations.

BORGER: Well, let's just say this is not unlike Stormy Daniels. And we've seen other instances of this with the President, where there are shifting explanations, as you point out. The -- you know, the first explanation was, you know, I care about corruption. There was a lot of corruption in Ukraine, and I told him you have to get rid of the corruption. The -- you know, the second one was, well, why isn't anybody else chipping in? We're giving them too much money.

So the President has changed his explanation, but why didn't Nancy Pelosi wait? Why didn't Democrats wait? Why have these national security freshmen come out so strongly? Because the President himself said that he had a phone call with a foreign leader, in which he asked a foreign leader to intervene in an American election by looking at Joe Biden and his son. I mean, why wouldn't that be enough?

HENNESSEY: Right, and I think Pelosi has been quite explicit on her reasoning. She doesn't believe that there needs to be some explicit or implicit quid pro quo.

BASH: Right.

HENNESSEY: Of course, that would make the situation worse. She is saying that the mere fact that the President of the United States, as Gloria said, brought this up, has now acknowledged that he brought this up in a phone call with a foreign leader, essentially inviting and encouraging foreign interference in a U.S. election, violating the civil liberties of a U.S. citizen, namely Hunter Biden, and violating his constitutional oath by using the powers of his office, not for the public good, for -- but for his personal political gain, that itself is impeachable.

And so, I do think that she is -- she is actually being quite shrewd in drawing the line here and not playing this game that the White House clearly wants people to go down of, well, is there an explicit quid pro quo? Is this sort of -- is there precise legal elements here that we have -- we have seen sort of -- we see the Mueller report 2.0 playing out again? She is saying, no, what the President has admitted to is enough.

BLITZER: If there is an official transcript of this conversation, would there also be an audiotape that would back that up?

HENNESSEY: So all White Houses have slightly different procedures, but, yes, we have reason to believe that the White House, at a minimum, tapes these phone calls, potentially prepares transcripts either as a matter of course; or if they don't, for very, very sensitive phone calls potentially like this one, are now prepared to make one now. One big question though is, will a White -- will the transcript coming out of this White House be fully trusted, right? The President has sort of eroded his credibility.

BLITZER: That's why the audiotape -- you used to work at the NSA, the National Security Agency, which records a lot of international conversations. I assume they would have something.

HENNESSEY: No. So it's unlikely that the -- certainly, the National Security Agency is not going to release of its own accord --

BLITZER: Not release it necessarily, but have a tape.

HENNESSEY: I --

BASH: Don't answer that.

HENNESSEY: -- don't think that I can answer that on national --

(LAUGHTER)

BLITZER: All right, never mind.

HENNESSEY: Thank you.

BLITZER: We do what we --

BORGER: But it's not just the one conversation, Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes.

BORGER: I mean, what the reporting --

BLITZER: Well, that's -- they're only releasing the transcript of one conversation.

BORGER: That's right, but the reporting is that there were multiple incidents, so we had to press (ph).

BLITZER: That's why we need that whistleblower's complaint.

BORGER: Exactly.

BASH: Exactly.

BORGER: Exactly.

BLITZER: Because that whistleblower apparently talks about other conversations as well.

PHILLIP: But if we hear from the whistleblower --

BLITZER: Everybody, stand by. I want to play some reaction we're getting from Democratic Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who just spoke out on this. Listen to this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REP. ALEXANDRIA OCASIO-CORTEZ (D), NEW YORK: You know, I think it's -- we're just hearing from our staff (ph) we are, in fact, proceeding with impeachment (INAUDIBLE) has advised that it's an extremely urgent matter in the national security sense (ph).

(CROSSTALK)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: -- you had pushed House Democrats to go a little further. Is this the type of action that you were asking for when you spoke on Friday afternoon?

OCASIO-CORTEZ: No, I think that we all -- you know, many of us, especially from districts that are experiencing the brunt of the President's decisions, are -- have been feeling a sense of urgency around this. But I think the development around the whistleblower, I think these developments were exactly, you know, where we need to be.

MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Have you been -- has the caucus been too slow, though, to move on this, to move on impeachment?

OCASIO-CORTEZ: I think -- honestly, at that -- at this point, it doesn't matter. We're moving forward with it now. And what we're seeing with these developments from Ukraine are extremely serious, and whether -- you know, we can't ask ourselves about whether we're moving too slow or too quickly. We have to ask ourselves what we're doing right now.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Why do you think this has been --

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What happens if they -- if they open up this inquiry, but then, it doesn't result in impeaching the President of the United States? You've been on the record on that. You said many of the constituents in your district support that, but what if it doesn't ultimately get there?

[17:34:56] OCASIO-CORTEZ: Well, ultimately, I think what's -- what is going on

is that the President has committed several impeachable offenses. He himself -- what he has admitted to is already impeachable regardless of future developments. What he has already admitted to is an impeachable offense among others.

I anticipate and I believe there will be discussion as to whether, when we draft or when the Judiciary examines the question on filing potential articles of impeachment, what those articles will include could articulate several different offenses, including emoluments and asking foreign assistance. So it is possible that the articles could be encompassing, but with that consideration, I defer those to the Chairman of the Judiciary Committee as well as some of the other investigative committees.

RAJU: Why do you think it would be a bigger scandal, as you said, that Congress would not move forward versus what the President has done? You said it would be a bigger scandal for what -- if Congress doesn't move forward on impeachment versus than what the President does. Why did you say that?

OCASIO-CORTEZ: Well, I think we have to hold this president accountable, and we have to protect our democracy. And I believe that we'll be doing it shortly.

RAJU: Thank you, Congresswoman.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Thank you.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Congresswoman, why do you think this is making --

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: All right, that's the reaction from Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

Dana, she's obviously got a very influential voice right now with a certain element of the Democratic caucus.

BASH: Yes, very much so. I mean, she was one of the early backers of impeachment. And she got very aggressive with her own Democratic leadership late last week, saying that it is the fault of the Democratic leaders that the republic is in trouble because they're not using their power as the majority. I'm not sure that that was what pushed Nancy Pelosi over the edge. It was, you know, other factors, but that, certainly, you know, was very loud and very clear.

One other point I want to make is that the political peril of moving forward has not changed dramatically. I mean, it is still there. The idea that Nancy Pelosi was expressing quietly to her members for the past year and a half, particularly during Mueller, that we want to make sure that we don't do anything that will help elect the President is still a viable political concern.

And you already are seeing -- Jim Acosta was reading some of them since we've been talking. The President has continued to tweet about presidential harassment and how bad this is. That is very strategic.

He is already beginning the effort to gin up his base, to make them angry, and to try to get them out to the polls, not just -- as Nancy Pelosi said earlier today, not so much about the House majority. This is about whether or not he's going to be re-elected. And the concern that this impeachment inquiry will galvanize Republicans who say that this is not fair and help him be -- get re-elected is still very real.

BORGER: It also could provide him with an excuse for not getting anything done. I mean, I was talking to a source who speaks with the President who said he was worried about, well, what do I do on gun control, for example.

Now, as you see him tweeting, he can blame the Democrats and say, well, the Democrats don't want to do anything for the country; all they want to do is harass me. And that is -- you know, that's a political line that he's used before, and he has used it to great success. And he will, clearly, use it again as we see today.

HENNESSEY: Look, and that's one reason why Pelosi needs to be really, really disciplined. Now that she's taken this very significant step of endorsing formal impeachment, she can't let things spiral out of control.

There's going to be a temptation now for members to want to include in the articles of impeachment absolutely every grievance they have with the President. Whether or not it truly falls on impeachable conduct, rather than just policy differences, and whether or not there is significant evidence to back it up, right? We have a very, very wide range of possibilities here.

So one thing that Pelosi and these six committee chairmen are going to have to do at this point is exert a lot of discipline over the other members and saying, OK, we are taking this step, this train is definitely moving, but we don't want things to spin out of control because if they do, we're going to have that political problem.

BLITZER: I want to bring in John Kirby who's also watching and listening very carefully to all of this unfold. Could there have been another reason beyond politics, beyond trying to get dirt about a potential presidential political rival, for withholding the aid that had already been authorized and appropriated by the House and the Senate for Ukraine?

JOHN KIRBY, CNN MILITARY AND DIPLOMATIC ANALYST: Yes, actually there is, Wolf. I mean, I don't know if it's true or not, but, I mean, remember, Ukraine was going, this summer, through a presidential transition. They were transitioning to the Zelensky administration. There are legitimate and has been long-standing legitimate concerns about corruption in Ukraine, even before this new president took office.

And so, the White House story at the time was, well, it's under review because of this administration turnover. And that is actually not all that implausible a reason to hold up the money just to kind of see, you know, what's shaking out with the new administration and to lay a marker down for what your expectations are about how that money is going to be spent.

BLITZER: You know, let me bring David Chalian into this as well. David, as you know, the Speaker, until today, had been very reluctant to call for a formal impeachment inquiry, fearing the political fallout could be damaging to a whole bunch of Democrats who are, let's say, on the bubble over there. They're worried about getting re- elected. She certainly wants to stay in the majority in the House of Representatives, not, once again, revert to the minority. So the concern seems to have gone away, at least right now.

[17:40:13]

CHALIAN: Yes, but as Dana was saying, Wolf, I don't think it's clear at all that the politics have changed dramatically on this. But I will note one thing here. The midterm elections last year, I think, were an indication of sort of how the country was responding to all of the Trump allegations out there and the way in which he was behaving.

And in addition to the Democrats fighting on health care and other issues that matter at kitchen tables, what we saw was that, in response to Trump's behavior, independents, which he won in 2016, fled his party dramatically and went to the Democrats and really helped bring the Democrats into the majority in the House.

And while, yes, there is the chance that this is going to drum up the President's base -- we saw Rudy Giuliani, last week, start laying the groundwork just like he did with Mueller, all the arguments are going to get made and they're going to make it into a partisan brawl -- what doesn't seem clear to me yet, and why I think Nancy Pelosi may feel not as worried that this is a total loser for Democrats, is that, at its very core, is Donald Trump's unpresidential behavior.

That is the thing that has sent independent suburbanites fleeing the Republican Party, fleeing this president, and that's what's going to be front and center. So it may drive up Republican turnout, but Donald Trump has got to win back some of those folks in the middle. And I think these allegations make it very difficult for him to do so.

BLITZER: You know, Abby, if you take a look at the tweets from the President in the last few minutes, you know, not surprising. He says presidential harassment. They never even saw the transcript of the call, a total witch-hunt -- Pelosi, Nadler, Schiff, and of course, Maxine Waters. Can you believe this? He's going on and on. He is ranting even while he's at the United Nations.

PHILLIP: Right. He got back to Trump Tower just in time to watch Nancy Pelosi deliver this speech, and he's literally live-tweeting the way that he feels about it. But included in those tweets is a video that was produced by somebody in the White House, detailing all the Democrats, many of them Democratic presidential candidates, talking about President Trump and a desire to get him out of office.

So even within the White House, even while the President is tweeting his feelings, people within the White House are prepared to push back on this narrative. Because they also know that, as David points out, this is part of a political argument that a lot of Democratic candidates on the campaign trail are making right now.

They're talking about corruption. They're talking about President Trump corrupting the office of the presidency. That is, actually, in a lot of ways, central to what's happening out on the campaign trail, so the White House and his political advisers are trying to push back on that narrative.

And I think it also explains why some Republicans are a little bit nervous about this, too. A corruption narrative is terrible for down- ballot candidates. It really -- it really is a sort of corrosive narrative that can start impacting people, not in -- not just Donald Trump. So there is a desire to sort of get ahead of this and not let it sink in, that what we're seeing here is a president with a pattern of this kind of behavior.

BORGER: Well, and also, given Donald Trump's behavior in the past, it's not as if --

PHILLIP: Yes.

BORGER: -- there are lots of members of the public who would say, oh, he would never do that. Oh, I don't believe Donald Trump would ever do that. That Rubicon, to use the cliche of the day, has been crossed --

PHILLIP: We're all past it, yes.

BORGER: -- you know, a long time ago. But the Democrats have a real issue here because they have to continue to explain this narrative to the American public. And explain why it is important and why it is shredding the constitution, to use the phrase that Joe Biden said today. And explain to the public why it is -- why it puts checks and balances out of sync. And that is what they have not done --

BASH: No.

BORGER: -- with all the Mueller investigation and all their hearings so far. And they -- and they really have to do a much better job of it.

PHILLIP: I think Pelosi has reason to believe that this is easier than some of the other ones.

BORGER: Well, I think so but --

PHILLIP: Because it's --

BASH: She does think that.

PHILLIP: It's very clear. There is a phone call in which --

BORGER: Yes.

PHILLIP: -- he is asking someone to investigate his political rival. That's a much easier message to encapsulate than the Mueller investigation. BLITZER: You know, Susan, if the President has nothing to hide -- he

did nothing wrong, the phone conversation was excellent, very productive, congratulatory, all of that. They spoke a little bit about corruption. He's releasing the transcript of the phone conversation.

But why not release the whistleblower complaint, at least on a classified, confidential basis, to members of the House and the Senate Intelligence Committee? If he has nothing to hide, why not at least make that available, so they can study what this whistleblower, an intelligence official in the U.S. government, had to say?

BORGER: And that's the law, by the way.

HENNESSEY: I think the answer to that is that there is something to hide, right? If you had nothing to hide, you would lean forward and provide this. This is not a question of sort of unprecedented executive privilege here. This is what the law actually requires, and so all we're asking is for the White House to comply with the law. That's all Congress is asking, and that's all the public is asking at this point.

[17:45:06]

I do think it's significant that Nancy Pelosi began her remarks today talking about the constitutional convention --

BORGER: Exactly, yes.

HENNESSEY: -- about Ben Franklin saying, a republic, if you can keep it. I do think this is about clarifying this message, making the case that these are the stakes for people who are coming out to the polls for the 2020 election.

The stakes are the future of the separation of powers, the nature of the United States presidency, and whether or not we want individuals we elect in office to be working on our behalf or on their own behalf. Whether it's their own personal financial interests or whether or not it's their political interests.

BASH: And you can argue that her reluctance for -- since she became Speaker gives her more credibility to do this. As she said earlier today, there have been a number of cases that she could have made for impeaching this president or moving forward with this -- with the impeachment inquiry that she did today and she didn't, and she waited for this.

There are a lot of factors that went into it, not just the substance of what the President says himself that he did in his phone call about Joe Biden, but she's hoping that it gives her credibility. But Gloria is exactly right, the stakes are so high.

And the way that they articulate it has got to be on the level of what you just heard Nancy Pelosi said -- say, day in and day out, to be successful. Not necessarily with a House vote because it's hard to see this not going all the way through the House, given where their numbers are right now, but with regard to public opinion and keeping that level. Because you are up against a very, very big megaphone with a guy who has been political Teflon so far.

BLITZER: Let me get Admiral Kirby, who's -- well, you spent more than 30 years in the U.S. Navy. You worked your way up to admiral. When you -- when you hear -- and we heard Congressman -- Republican Congressman Chris Stewart of Utah, a member of the Intelligence Committee, say, you know, it's not clear where the law is on this. Did the whistleblower complaint really have anything to do with the intelligence community or were the complaints about other stuff? What do you think?

KIRBY: Yes, I'm not sure I understand where he's coming from on that. First of all, all whistleblower complaints should be taken seriously. This, in particular, the law is pretty clear that they need to be forwarded to the intelligence committees. And it is within this administration's power to do that, so I'm not really sure why he is so confused about process here. It seems to be -- to me, to be pretty cut and dry.

And I think, you know, they've got an opportunity here on Thursday with Mr. McGuire coming talk. And now it looks like, according to Representative Schiff, they're talking to the counsel for the whistleblower, him or herself, so that that individual can come and testify. And I think, you know, you can certainly get to the bottom of this a little bit more directly that way.

It is important to remember that there's more context here. Tomorrow, the administration is going to spike the football. This transcript is going to come out. It's not going to reveal a transaction between him and Zelensky. No quid pro quo, if you like. And they'll be able to say, look, see, we told you there's nothing there.

The whistleblower complaint, though, at least alleges to outside context and additional activity that needs to be considered. So it's going to -- this is -- this is going to be a lot more complex than just, tomorrow, him declaring victory.

BLITZER: Well, do you think, David Chalian, that the Republican members of the House Intelligence Committee and the Senate Intelligence Committee will demand the release, at least on a confidential, classified basis, of that whistleblower complaint to the committee?

CHALIAN: Do I think they will? No, I don't think that they're going to demand that. But do I think that they should? Yes, to a person, they should. Because that's what the law requires here, and the process serves both sides in terms of having clarity with the country in the end result here. So I certainly would love to see members of both parties of those committees demand the full complaint in their hands to be able to have all the facts that we're dealing with.

(CROSSTALK)

BORGER: Well, Adam Schiff has already said he's going to -- he wants the whistleblower to appear before his committee. Isn't the -- BLITZER: And it looks like the whistleblower is ready to do that.

BORGER: Well, it depends.

BASH: Yes, but is he allowed?

BLITZER: Yes.

BORGER: Does he have to go through the DNI?

BASH: Exactly.

BLITZER: He's got to get authorization from the DNI.

HENNESSEY: Well --

BORGER: Does he have to, but they're talking -- you know, they're talking to the attorneys, so we don't -- we don't know. There is a bigger story here. It is going to get more complicated. And what we see tomorrow is only going to be one little -- one little piece of the puzzle here. If the White House is releasing it, you can be sure that they believe that Donald Trump is fine in this -- in this phone conversation, but we're just going to have to see what he said.

HENNESSEY: Right. And one thing that Congressman Stewart, I believe, was eluding to was this question about whether or not a presidential phone call falls within the statutory definition of an intelligence activity, right? So these legal technicalities, who makes the final judgment? Does executive privilege trump the law in this case?

That's why I think this step that Pelosi took today of formally endorsing a formal impeachment inquiry is so significant because it's a message from the House of Representatives that they are not playing this game any longer. They are not going to do this thing where they're going to take weeks and weeks and months and months litigating over these interpretations of the law, interpretations that are being offered in bad faith in a stonewall strategy by the White House on every single angle, right?

The President's tax returns, the testimony of various individuals, people like Corey Lewandowksi who aren't even in the government, these broad assertions.

[17:50:14]

This is Nancy Pelosi saying, we're not doing this. This is serious enough, this is impeachable conduct, we are moving forward on this. And it actually does sort of shifts the burden to the White House. Instead of Congress having to beg for these documents to try and find some way to pry it out of the White -- out of the White House, sort of the executive branch, Congress gets to say, hey, we're moving forward.

We -- if you don't provide us with these documents, we will reach the negative inference. We'll assume you have something to hide and we will impeach you, in part, for your failure to produce them. And so, it really does change the calculus for the White House. BLITZER: The story has exploded, Abby, because the Department of

Justice, working in coordination with the White House, told the Acting Director of National Intelligence, don't release this whistleblower complaint, even on a classified, confidential basis to the House Intelligence Committee. But -- and that's why it's exploded.

PHILLIP: Right.

BLITZER: But if they had done what the law requires, release the complaint to them on a classified basis, where would the story be right now?

It would be behind closed doors in the House of Representatives and we probably honestly wouldn't be talking about it.

PHILLIP: It would be behind closed-doors in the House of Representatives. And we probably, honestly, wouldn't be talking about it.

BLITZER: Well, we wouldn't even know presumably, unless there was a major leak.

PHILLIP: We wouldn't even know about it.

BLITZER: But the theory --

PHILLIP: But it does --

BLITZER: The theory is there must be something --

PHILLIP: Exactly.

BLITZER: -- so negative about the President in that whistleblower complaint that they decided, for the first time, to ignore the law and not hand over the documents.

PHILLIP: It does suggest that they are concerned about even passing this information on in a confidential setting. I mean, the -- what -- there's an interesting phenomenon in this White House where people around the President often see him doing things that they know are wrong or that they know are inappropriate, but they think that -- they dismiss it because they think his heart is in the right place.

Sometimes when those -- that same fact pattern is given to other people who are not giving the President the benefit of the doubt, that is -- that's when the President will get into trouble. I think we might be in one of those situations. People around the President are looking at this and they're saying, you know what, he meant -- he didn't mean it that way. But if you -- if you pass this on in the context of a whistleblower account, it might look completely different. Even for the President, he might think it didn't -- it didn't look that way.

There was a debate in the White House this week about whether to release that transcript, and the President was kind of in the camp of saying, hey, put it out there, whereas others like Mike Pompeo and his chief of staff were saying, you know what, this is a bad precedent, we don't want to go down this road. So, you know, we'll see what it actually says, but it's one of those things, it's in the eye of the beholder often times when we're talking about the President.

BORGER: And also, what about members of Congress and their own job? What is their job, if not to oversee the executive branch?

BASH: And what --

BORGER: And what is the Whistleblower Act all about, if not to make sure that they can do their job? And how do you go home and say to your constituents, well, you know, the President wasn't serious? You know, he's just Trump being Trump and --

PHILLIP: Well, we'll see what they say tomorrow.

BORGER: Yes, right.

PHILLIP: Because I suspect that we will get --

BASH: Yes. That's exactly what they're going to say. They are going to say --

PHILLIP: We are going to get a lot of, well, he didn't mean it like this. I mean, this is the pattern.

BLITZER: And tomorrow, the President is meeting with President Zelensky in New York at the United Nations. I don't know if they're going to release the document before or after that meeting, but I assume we're going to hear some very nice things about the President and that phone conversation from President Zelensky, who is very dependent on U.S. economic and military assistance.

HENNESSEY: Right, I'm sure we will. This will be certainly an awkward encounter, but it demonstrates the extent to which their -- you know, that the Ukrainians depend on the White House. And so whatever the President of the United States directs them to do, things like violate the civil liberties of a United States citizen, you know, the sort of the coercive effects there.

And I think that gets to what might be in that whistleblower complaint. This is not about finding additional wrongdoing. The wrongdoing we've seen is already enough. But what the whistleblower complaint reportedly contains is more than just this transcript.

BORGER: Right.

HENNESSEY: It describes different conducts that Congress might take as sort of bread crumbs to find the larger context of what's going on. That might be what the White House is protecting.

BLITZER: All right, everybody, stand by. We're going to have a lot more in our special coverage. We're following all the breaking news. We'll take a quick break right now. We'll resume our special coverage right after this.

[17:54:19]

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Happening now, breaking news. Formal impeachment probe. Speaker Nancy Pelosi just made it official, announcing a dramatic new phase in the House investigation of the President. Democrats accusing Mr. Trump of violating the constitution by asking Ukraine to get dirt on Joe Biden.

Trump's Hail Mary. The President now says he'll release the full transcript of his phone call with Ukraine's leader, even as he's denouncing the Democrats' new impeachment inquiry. Will the transcript be complete and will it change anything?

Blowing the whistle. The person who sounded the alarm about the President's Ukraine phone call now wants to talk to Congress about his complaint. Will the White House try to block the whistleblower's testimony?

And no choice. As the President tries to sling mud at Joe Biden, the former Vice President now says Mr. Trump's attacks and stonewalling are forcing his party to pursue impeachment. What will all this mean for the Democrats' battle to take back the White House?

[18:00:01]

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