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THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER

Release of Ukrainian Transcript Call Creates Firestorm For Trump; Whistleblower Complaint About Trump Delivered to Congress. Aired 4-4:30p ET

Aired September 25, 2019 - 16:00   ET

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


[16:00:02]

JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: Of the Bidens, we should note again the Ukrainian prosecutor has already said there is no evidence that they did anything wrong.

The context of the president's call, Mr. Trump was holding up hundreds of millions dollars in military aid to Ukraine, aid that Zelensky desperately needed to fight off Russian aggression.

So much of what we do know about the scandal has already been admitted by the president or by Rudy Giuliani or stated out in the open.

Sitting with Zelensky this afternoon, for instance, the president attacked Hunter Biden, while noting that Zelensky is known for anti- corruption. He also brought up the aid that the U.S. is now providing Ukraine.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: When Biden's son walks away with millions of dollars from Ukraine, and he knows nothing, and they're paying him millions of dollars, that is corruption.

I think that is a horrible thing. I think it's a horrible thing. We have put up a lot of money. I gave you anti-tank busters that, frankly, President Obama was sending you pillows and sheets. And I gave you anti-tank busters. And a lot of people didn't want to do that, but I did it.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: Many Republican elected officials are today following the White House's lead and acting as if this transcript is somehow exculpatory and that the scandal is not real.

That is not accurate. The transcript is not exculpatory and the scandal is real.

That's according at least to Utah Senator Mitt Romney, who called the transcript -- quote -- "deeply troubling." And

And former Republican, now independent Congressman Justin Amash, who called it -- quote -- "highly incriminating. It seems the president doesn't know the difference between right and wrong," he tweeted.

Late today, "The Washington Post" noted that Joseph Maguire, the acting director of national intelligence scheduled to testify before both the House and Senate Intelligence Committees tomorrow, threatened to resign if the White House continued to force him to stonewall Congress. Maguire later denied ever considering stepping down.

Let's get right to CNN White House correspondent Kaitlan Collins, who's traveling with the president in New York.

And, Kaitlan, not surprising the White House is trying to say nothing to see here, but there certainly is.

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Yes, this is not the reaction the White House was expecting.

They thought they were going to put out this transcript, it was going to prove that the president didn't say anything inappropriate, tying military aid to the Biden family and potential investigations. And instead, in the president's own words, people can read how not only did he bring up Joe Biden, but he also told the Ukrainian president to be in touch with the U.S. attorney general and his personal attorney on potential corruption investigations.

He pushed a theory about stolen e-mails from 2016, tying that to military aid immediately after the Ukrainian president brought it up. And it's also raising questions about the conduct of his attorney general now that people are learning that this was -- actually had a criminal referral that the Justice Department dismissed, said it -- they weren't going to start an investigation into it.

So it's essentially having, Jake, the opposite effect of what the White House thought that it was going to do by releasing this transcript.

TAPPER: What are White House sources telling you privately about this call?

COLLINS: Basically, they thought this was going to get Democrats off their back.

And, instead, it's done the opposite, with Democrats now doubling down and focusing specifically, they say, potentially on the president's conduct with the Ukrainian president.

And, instead, in turn, President Trump has essentially been incredulous. He thought that his efforts to reach out to the House speaker, Nancy Pelosi, yesterday were going to get Democrats to back off of this. It's done, right, the opposite, Jake.

TAPPER: All right, Kaitlan Collins traveling with the president in New York, thanks so much.

As we wait for the president, let's chew over all this with our experts.

Bill, let me start with you.

Why do you think President Trump thought that releasing this transcript was somehow going to clear things up, as opposed to the reaction that it got from Democrats and people like Mitt Romney and people like yourself?

BILL KRISTOL, DIRECTOR, DEFENDING DEMOCRACY TOGETHER: I mean, I think, though I think the House had made clear enough that if he didn't release the transcript, that itself would be just impeachable for obstruction.

So maybe they're telling everyone, oh, it's going to clear us. They're so used to getting away with gaslighting and just having it be what they say it's going to be that I suppose they have told everyone, we thought it was going to clear us.

Maybe it was just desperation.

TAPPER: And, Mike, as a former FBI agent, and as a former chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, in looking at this transcript -- and we know that this is just one part of what the whistle-blower was concerned about -- but do you understand why an intelligence professional listening to that call would have his antenna go up?

MIKE ROGERS, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Yes.

And it sounds like in the complaint, the whistle-blower complaint, there's other issues as well.

TAPPER: Yes.

ROGERS: But of course it would.

You never use domestic politics overseas. And you never try to entangle domestic issues overseas. For even members who travel overseas of both parties, you don't go overseas and bad-mouth the president. I don't care if it's of your party or not of your party. It's not done for the interests of the United States.

So when you start dragging domestic politics overseas, it's going to send off all kinds of red flags. And if -- the intelligence professionals around that conversation are going to say, hey, wait a minute, you can't stop the money for a domestic political issue.

You can -- this happens a lot. You don't do, X-country, Y, we're going to Y. That's going to happen, right? That's not a quid pro quo. That's kind of tough negotiation.

[16:05:05]

TAPPER: Right.

ROGERS: This smells like something different.

They have a long way to, in my mind, to get to impeachment, but this does smell like something. TAPPER: And, Laura, is there are crying here potentially?

LAURA COATES, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: At least one, Jake.

You have -- number one, you have the idea of asking a foreign national, a foreign government, the president, to interfere with an election here in the U.S. That's a crime.

You have the idea of -- remember, everyone talks about high crimes and misdemeanors as kind of a nebulous concept? Well, also in there is the word bribery, a specifically outlined part of impeachable offenses.

And bribery in a sense is asking you to give me something in exchange for an official act. Before I give you money for military aid, you have to scratch my back and give me dirt on a political opponent.

TAPPER: Although this is not a direct quid pro quo.

COATES: It is not a direct quid pro quo.

But when you get into the idea of semantics about whether or not you are actually giving something of value here for what I'm asking you to do, you are already in losing territory when, politically speaking, Congress has the ability to say, this is definable as that.

You also have the idea of whether you're asking for somebody to essentially have an abuse of power here and corruption, using taxpayer dollars to finance your campaign initiative and incentives. You have a whole host of things wrong here.

But, remember, this happened the day after he thought Robert Mueller poorly performed in his hearing and thought maybe he was emboldened and maybe the bright, shiny objects over time, he thought, blinded him in his own intellect.

TAPPER: Is there a risk here for Democrats? I mean, impeachment is a very drastic step. We have only seen it happen a few times in our nation's history.

JEN PSAKI, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: It is, of course.

We don't know where this is going to head. We haven't seen confirmation that there will be a floor vote. We don't know exactly what the process will look like.

But I think that, because of her strategic patience, I'll call it, what happened for Speaker Pelosi is that this was led by seven Democrats who are freshmen from red and purple states, who have national security credentials, who are not seen as political and not seen as grandstanders.

They became the face of the move to actually move forward with impeachment. I think that is politically far more advantageous for Democrats than it would have been just a few weeks ago.

(CROSSTALK)

KRISTOL: I just -- this was a phone call made by the president as dates from the Oval Office to a foreign leader two months ago asking for -- basically trying to get dirt on a political opponent.

And I believe also, and the foreign leader would know that the aid has been held up, congressionally appropriated aid, not discretionary aid for the president.

This isn't something that happened in a campaign three years ago, a confusing meeting in Trump Tower, and kind of who knows what Don Jr. told the president. This isn't even the cover-up in 2017 in the kind of chaos of Air Force One and they put out a misleading statement about who knew what.

I think the degree to which this is -- and there's no Mueller. I think that's a very important fact. A year ago, the reaction of House Democrats in order to avoid confronting this would be, well, let Robert Mueller investigate it. We will see what he finds out.

TAPPER: Right.

KRISTOL: This is their responsibility.

If he is not -- if there's no impeachment process, the House of Representatives of the United States is saying, this is fine.

COATES: And, by the way, you don't have to have the full investigation the same way you did with Robert Mueller, because the president has told you what he's done.

You have almost facilitated the idea and you have streamlined the process and said, I wonder whether the president has engaged in behavior.

When he says, here is what I did, it accelerates the entire thing to then say, well, now it's a matter of if what you did constitutes for us an impeachable offense, not whether you actually did it.

I think, more importantly too, we were talking about looking retrospectively, looking in the background and saying, do we want to maybe have this partisan re-litigation, they thought, of an actual election, as opposed to looking ahead, can I nip something in the bud? Can I stop interference in the future?

The American people have a very different stance, and they should, on prospective conduct.

PSAKI: And that -- I was going to say, I mean, I think the politics also have shifted a bit, because there's been a lot of focus for months on where Democrats would be, where House Democrats would be, how many would come for impeachment, if any from red or purple states would come for impeachment.

We know where they are. They're moving toward that direction. Now the question will, I think, and should shift to Republicans in the Senate, where they are on this.

People who are vulnerable, like Susan Collins and Cory Gardner, are they going to stand by the president of the United States who was going to hold back military assistance to get political beneficial information his opponent? Is that where they're going to be in their vulnerable races?

So even on the politics of it, I think it's shifted a bit as well.

ROGERS: And just to be fair, though, the Senate voted unanimous to move forward on getting the whistle-blower.

And if you're ever going to get to an investigation, you need the facts.

PSAKI: True.

TAPPER: Yes.

ROGERS: So, to be fair, those Republicans came out and said, yes, we're going to -- we're going to get to the bottom this, we're going to support the effort to get this document.

(CROSSTALK)

PSAKI: I agree, but they have also been quite quiet, and quite quiet to date.

And I think they're -- that's not going to stand for much longer. The focus will shift.

(CROSSTALK)

KRISTOL: This is so much more manageable than the giant Mueller report. It's such a discrete act, set of acts, with Giuliani going over there, the phone call.

It's one country. It's pretty easy to investigate. There are a couple of documents, the transcript and the whistle-blower report. There 10, 20 people who you would want to have testimony from.

[16:10:05]

If they don't testify, then that becomes itself a question of whether that kind of obstruction is impeachable. This is a much more manageable way to go forward in terms of investigating and conceivably impeaching than a whole medley of things that have happened over the last three of four years.

TAPPER: Although, to be fair, as Congressman Rogers pointed out, there is a medley that we're going to get, because the whistle-blower complaint is about more than one thing.

So there are going to be other items, including potentially, I would guess, Giuliani's outreach and more.

KRISTOL: But all Ukraine-focused.

TAPPER: All Ukraine-focused. I see what you're saying.

(CROSSTALK)

KRISTOL: Yes, I'm saying it's one set of events over three, four, five, six months.

TAPPER: Yes, OK.

KRISTOL: With a certain set of actors, Mike Pompeo, John Bolton, various people from the intelligence community. Who said what, when?

I mean, Mr. Giuliani, what did you discuss with the president? He will say, oh, attorney-client privilege. Well, you actually weren't acting as the president's personal attorney there. You were just acting as kind of an envoy abroad for political purposes.

So I think it's a more manageable thing for the Democrats to manage.

TAPPER: And let me just -- I want to bring in CNN senior White House correspondent Pamela Brown now. She has more on this rough transcript of this call between President Trump and the president of Ukraine, Zelensky.

Pamela, walk us through exactly what this rough transcript says, because I know the White House thought this was going to clear them, but it's really actually had the opposite effect.

PAMELA BROWN, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: It appears that way.

You're hearing President Trump today defending himself, saying, I never pressed the Ukrainian president to investigate Joe Biden.

But we have the transcript. It is illuminating. And the reader and the viewer can decide for themselves what they think.

Let me walk you through it here.

The president starting off after exchanging pleasantries with reminding Zelensky of all the U.S. has done for Ukraine, saying -- quote -- "When I was speaking to Angela Merkel, she talks Ukraine, but she doesn't do anything. A lot of the European countries are on the same -- are the same way. So I think it's something you want to look at. But the United States has been very, very good to Ukraine.

"I wouldn't say that it's reciprocal, necessarily, because things are happening that are not good. But the United States has been very, very good to Ukraine."

Following that, President Zelensky brings up the military aid that the U.S. gives to Ukraine, thanking President Trump for that.

And President Trump went on to say: "Well, I want to ask you a favor, though." He started off talking about his conspiracy theory that Ukrainians might have the DNC server from the 2016 election. And then on page four of this five-page transcript, he brings up Biden, saying: "There's a lot of talk about Biden's son, that Biden stopped the prosecution, and a lot of people want to find out about that. So whatever you can do with the attorney general would be great. Biden went around bragging that he stopped the prosecution. So if you can look into it" -- dot, dot dot -- "it sounds horrible to me."

So this was his first time where he actually mentions Biden them by name, but, Jake, it's important to note that he obliquely references the Biden investigation, reopening that, several times throughout the course of the conversation, urging President Zelensky to work with his own Attorney General Bill Barr and private attorney Rudy Giuliani on the matter.

We should also note that there is no evidence of any wrongdoing by Joe Biden in this case.

The president -- then we should we should know how President Zelensky responded to that, saying: "First of all, I understand and I'm knowledgeable about the situation. Since we have won the absolute majority in our Parliament, the next prosecutor general will be 100 percent my person, my candidate, who will be approved by the Parliament and will start as a new prosecutor in September. He or she will look into the situation specifically to the company that you mentioned in this issue."

And we know that prosecutor is now in office, Jake.

And so White House officials and Republicans are saying, look, it's not so damning, there was not an explicit quid pro quo.

But, Jake, it is certainly implied here. And we know the president talks in his own language. His former fixer, Michael Cohen, once said that he speaks in code.

And it's clear he started off this conversation discussing all that the U.S. does for Ukraine to tee up the later requests in the conversation.

Now, Democrats say it doesn't matter whether there was quid pro quo or not. What matters is that key graph on Joe Biden, where the president asked the Ukrainian president to essentially reopen an investigation to his political rival, Joe Biden.

Again, the president defending himself, saying, no, he didn't pressure him. But what's interesting, if you look at this in a larger context here, Jake, this is also illuminating because, once again, you have the president working with his -- trying to work with his own attorney general to investigate a political rival too.

What makes it clear in this transcript is that he wants his attorney general to be involved in this. Our past reporting is, he has done the same with his acting attorney general, Mark (sic) Whitaker, with his White House counsel, to investigate Hillary Clinton, to investigate James Comey.

So it's interesting in light of that as well. And it's one piece of the puzzle, though, Jake. This is one conversation between President Trump and President Zelensky from July. There's another conversation in April we don't know the contents of.

TAPPER: All right, Pamela Brown breaking it down for us, thank you so much.

While we continue to wait for President Trump to come out, let's continue to talk about this.

[16:15:03]

And, Congressman Rogers, I'm thinking in my head, the comparable analogy would be Barack Obama in 2011 asking Ukraine, Russia, whoever to investigate one of Mitt Romney's sons and if it came out in the exact same transcript except it was Obama saying it to a foreign leader about Romney and one of his sons, I don't think that there is any doubt that the Republican Party would be up in arms and calling for impeachment immediately.

This doesn't seem to be anything other than pretty clear-cut to me about how people would respond if the shoe was on the other foot.

MIKE ROGERS, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY COMMENTATOR: Yes, and I would get closer. The fact -- I was one of them that was adamantly opposed and objected to Hillary Clinton using foreign surrogates into an adversarial country to try to find campaign dirt. I thought --

TAPPER: When she hired the research firm.

ROGERS: Absolutely. And I was very vocal then and I argue this doesn't look all that much different to me and we should be outraged at his actions. I think what you are seeing with Republicans is we need a lot of other data to make sure that this impeachment is the right answer.

TAPPER: All right. We're going to take a very quick break. It's a very fast-moving afternoon. We're going to break down lots more coming up. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:20:48]

TAPPER: Breaking news in our politics lead, we're still waiting for the President Trump news conference expected in moments while the threat of impeachment hangs over his presidency. We have learned that the whistleblower's complaint has been delivered to some members of Congress.

So let's go straight to Capitol Hill where we find CNN's Sunlen Serfaty.

Sunlen, what do we know? Who has it? SUNLEN SERFATY, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, we know, Jake,

that the whistle-blower complaint at least -- has been definitely confirmed to be delivered Senate side to the Senate Intelligence Committee, and that's according to the chairman of the committee, Senator Richard Burr, he just came out of the SCIF, that classified location and confirmed to reporter that, yes, indeed, he has started to read the report and as well as other members in the room. He declined to offer any sort of initial impressions of what the whistleblower's complaint said but again confirming that now members of Congress have their eyes on this report.

And according to Senator Cornyn, a top Republican on that committee, the expectation is at least Senate side, the members of the Intel Committee will get to view it today and then potentially the whistleblower complaint could be opened up to additional members, more members outside of the Intel Committee tomorrow. So, potentially a broader group of members of Congress over Senate side.

Now, over in the House side, there is activity as well as the House Intelligence Committee also braces to potentially receive the whistleblower complaint. Just a few minutes ago, we saw the chairman of that committee, Adam Schiff, walk past reporters to go to the secure classified room where they do review these classified documents. And certainly we saw, according to the reporters outside a individual deliver a blue folder, that indicative of delivering sort of classified information.

So again all clues here is that House and Senate side are seeing their first look at this whistle-blower complaint -- Jake.

TAPPER: all right. Sunlen Serfaty on Capitol Hill with that breaking news, thanks so much.

You used to be the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee. Tell me about this process that is going on right now? Although I don't know that you saw a whistleblower complaint from the intelligence community, did you?

ROGERS: Not in that way. We did have people from the intelligence community with whistleblower complaints and come to the committee and we open up a file and assign an investigator, took them seriously. In this particular case, given this unique set of circumstances, it triggered all these legal questions.

I still believe that the committees have the right and authority based on the 1947 law as updated to talk to these individuals directly. That being said, both of the documents are going to be delivered to both chairman and ranking members all at the same time. They probably nipped that group down a little bit to make sure it doesn't leak.

And, remember, this is an incredibly important responsibility. If these folks are running out to the microphone saying, oh, here's the five things in the whistleblower report and anywhere get to -- to push an identity for that particular person, they are in violation of the law.

TAPPER: Right.

ROGERS: I worry a little bit about this hyper-partisan political nature that somebody can't help themselves. Now that they have it and they have it under the whistle-blower law, the way it was written, they have incredible responsibility to keep that quiet.

I think that is probably better. Go do the investigation, find all of the points, start doing your inquiry through the appropriate channels in each committee --

TAPPER: Right.

ROGERS: -- and we'll get to a better place. This hyper "run to the microphone and can't wait to tell you what I know" is really dangerous in this process.

TAPPER: I want to bring in Phil Mudd who used to work for both the FBI and the CIA. Phil, tell me your response to everything going on right now? What strikes you as important that we might be missing?

PHIL MUDD, CNN COUNTERTERRORISM ANALYST: Well, I feel like I'm defaulting into the investigative mode. We're looking at a small slice of the puzzle. That is what one official said he heard on a phone call. We don't know obviously the extent of the whistleblower complaint.

There is a lot of stuff I want to know that the whistle-blower knows which is why he or she has to appear in person. Who else was aware of the conversations including the specific conversation with the president but also any follow-up conversations with people like Giuliani?

Number two, is there other data out there? For example NSC, national security counsel emails in the aftermath of the presidential conversation saying this is what we're going to do.

And third and most important, were there peripheral conversations on the order of things like, well, the president said that, somebody, say the ambassador in Ukraine has to tell the Ukrainians, if you act on this you will get money related to defense assistance.

[16:25:15]

The whistle-blower report is important but, man, it is a small slice of the puzzle.

TAPPER: And let's talk about the whole quid pro quo thing. We've had people say like Mitt Romney and others, it doesn't matter if there is a quid pro quo. It's inappropriate to ask for a foreign leader about dirt on a domestic political opponent.

But let's go into this one part of the call, it's in the transcript. The Ukrainian president says, quote: We are ready to continue to cooperate for the next steps, specifically, we are almost ready to buy more Javelins from the United States for defense purposes.

So, that's a desire for military aid expressed by the Ukrainian president.

To that point, President Trump then responds, quote, I would like you to do us a favor, though. Because our country has been through a lot and Ukraine knows a lot about it. He then asks the Ukrainians for two things, the first one is to investigate CrowdStrike, that's the company that the DNC hired after it was hacked after CrowdStrike concluded that the Russians were to blame. President Trump apparently still doesn't believe that the Russians are to blame, and then he brings up Joe and Hunter Biden.

To you, is that a quid pro quo? Just to you.

BILL KRISTOL, CONSERVATIVE WRITER: Yes, especially in the context we're allowed to assume the people know what is going on in the world around them. There was aid appropriated by Congress after considerable debate incidentally. It wasn't like a little thing, lethal aid and that was debated back in the Obama administration and in think case they appropriated -- the Trump is holding it up.

So, the president of Ukraine is well aware that he hasn't gotten the aid he thought he was going to get a few months before, and it now turns out from reporting, quite reliable reporting there was a huge fight at the administration about this and the fact State and Defense and NSC, pretty much all the relevant players, all thought, hey, why is this aid held up? It was held up by OMB, the Office of Management and Budget headed by Mick Mulvaney who also happens to be the president's acting chief of staff. It was held up by Trump.

So, that's the context of this. Trump personally overrides the relevant agencies ever his own administration to hold up the aid. The aid has been held up. The president of Ukraine knows the aid has been held up and the president says, hey, do me a favor.

JEN PSAKI, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: And we also know from the Mueller report and all the time we've all spent talking about it that Trump and the team around him are willing to accept information about a political opponent from a foreign government. So, that is --

TAPPER: He told that to George Stephanopoulos in June. He doesn't see anything wrong with it, necessarily.

PSAKI: Well, it's knowable. And so, you know, I think anyone -- any member of Congress, any of us who are looking at this, that's the back drop. There is a willingness to -- in this case, he didn't just be willing to receive it. He asked for it. And the context of that I think kind of can lead us to conclusions.

LAURA COATES, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: And that makes all of the difference in the world. I mean, the idea -- the solicitation alone can be criminal activity. Imagine if you were in different scenario of a hit man status and if I ask you to commit a homicide you may not accomplish that for me or do it, it is a solicitation of the crime that is equally important. And you're a public official the public corruption statutes say you cannot ask for something in exchange for an official act. If you're thinking about the official act being what Congress has already appropriated to give military aid in some form or fashion and you're saying whatever way, scratch my back or let me ask you for a favor, this is more than what Mitt Romney said about problematic. It could be criminal behavior and remember impeachment.

TAPPER: Here is the president of the United States. Let's listen in.

ANNOUNCER: -- Secretary of Treasury, Steve Mnuchin.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Thank you very much. Thank you.

Well, thank you all for being here. We've had a tremendous three days in New York at the United Nations.

I want to thank the secretary general. It's been incredible what's been taking place and he's been a fantastic host to a lot of countries. The meetings I had on a bilat or close were pretty staggering. I think we set a new record but you'll have to check that out.

The -- we met very, very -- for pretty extended periods of time -- either two on two, one-on-one or just about at that level -- with Pakistan, Poland, New Zealand, Singapore, Egypt, South Korea, United Kingdom, India, Iraq, Argentina, Germany, Brazil, France, Japan, Ukraine, Honduras, El Salvador, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, Oman, UAE, Chile, Columbia and Peru.

Other than that we weren't too busy the last couple of days and unfortunately the press doesn't even cover it. You know, we have -- we've made some fantastic deals like --

[16:30:00]