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Transcript Shows Trump Pushed Ukraine To Investigate Biden. Aired 10-10:30a ET

Aired September 25, 2019 - 10:00   ET




POPPY HARLOW, CNN NEWSROOM: Top of the hour. I'm Poppy Harlow in New York.

We do have two significant developments breaking right now. The transcript of that call between President Trump and his Ukrainian counterpart has just been released. Let's bring in our Pamela Brown and our Evan Perez.

Pamela, let me go to you first. You have seen log. What does it say?

PAMELA BROWN, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: All right. Well, this is a five-page transcript. It appears to be a nearly complete transcript of the July call, Poppy, where President Trump asked Ukrainian President Zelensky several times to collaborate with Attorney General Barr and his attorney, Rudy Giuliani, his private attorney, to look into Biden and his son, Hunter.

Now, we should note, President Zelensky mentioned outreach to Giuliani first. Okay. That's five pages. This was on page four where Biden was brought up.

Now, after pleasantries were exchanged, President Trump starts off the conversation telling the Ukrainian leader about how much help the U.S. has offered to Ukraine in comparison to European companies.

Now, he doesn't specifically mention military aid but says the U.S. has been, quote, very, very good to Ukraine. So not an explicit quid pro quo, but the president was clearly teeing up his request to Ukraine.

So after that exchange about U.S. help to Ukraine, Trump then says, I would like you to do us a favor. He asked Ukraine to look into its role in the 2016 election where he claimed without evidence that Ukraine has the DNC server, and on Biden. He then mentioned Biden on page four. He says, there is a lot of talk about Biden and his son and a lot of people want to find out if Biden stopped the prosecution of a company tied to his son.

Now, we should note, there is no direct evidence to support this allegation that the president made in the call. Now, Zelensky said in response to the president bringing up Biden that the next prosecutor would look into it.

Now, we should note that at the bottom of this log there is a disclaimer, that this is not a, quote, verbatim transcript of a discussion. It goes on to say that the text of this document records the notes and recollections of situation room duty officers and NSE policy staff assigned to listen and memorialize the conversation in written form as the conversation takes place.

I do want to note, a senior White House official says that there is voice recognition software that puts the transcript out, what it calls a transcript, and then those who would listen to the phone call look over that to make sure that it is an accurate reading.

It is also important to take a step back here. This is just one part of the whistleblower complaint surrounding president Trump. It is not the full picture. The White House is preparing to release that complaint to Congress. We are told that that could actually happen today.

Back to you.

HARLOW: Okay, there is a lot to die just there. Pamela Brown, great job going through it. We'll get back to you for your analysis in just one moment, but I really appreciate you laying all that out.

Now, over to Evan Perez. Evan, you are live at the Justice Department with another significant development.

EVAN PEREZ, CNN SENIOR JUSTICE CORRSEPONDENT: That's right, Poppy. We learned for the first time just a few minutes ago that the Justice Department had received a criminal referral from the inspector general for the intelligence community to investigate whether or not this -- the contents of this phone call constituted a violation of campaign finance law. If you know, if you remember, this is something that has been looked at before, the idea that asking for a thing of value from a foreigner could be a violation of campaign finance law.

So the Justice Department received this referral back at the end of August. The Justice Department Criminal Division has been looking at this issue. The FBI also got a separate referral. They have been looking at this issue for the last few weeks. And just in the past week, the Justice Department determined that they did not have enough evidence here to go forward with a full investigation. They determined that they did not merit a full-blown investigation, and it is not actually a campaign finance violation.

Part of the issue here is that how do you put a value on this thing of value, this -- whatever the conversation was between President Trump and the president of Ukraine, in which he us urging this investigation of the vice president's son and this company that he was associated there with, and then whether or not that really rises to the level of a criminal violation. So the Justice Department in the end determined that it was not a criminal violation and so has closed this matter. Now, a couple of things that we should note. In the -- in the phone call, the July phone call with the Ukrainian president, President Trump mentioned that he wants him to talk to Attorney General Bill Barr. The Justice Department tells us that bill Barr did not have any such communication with the president, did not know about this phone call, did not communicate with either the Ukrainians about this issue, has never discussed opening an investigation into Biden with the Ukrainians.


That's an important part for us to note here. The Justice Department says that never happened.

Also noteworthy that the attorney general has been involved in this issue. He has not recused from all of this, despite the fact that his name was mentioned. Obviously, again, the Justice Department says that he was not aware of this until weeks later when this referral came to the Justice Department. Poppy?

HARLOW: Okay. Evan, thank you. Stay there. Let's bring Pamela Brown back in.

Pam, that is an incredibly significant development that the intelligence community's inspector general took a criminal referral to the Justice Department on this with questions about whether this was a violation of campaign finance laws.

BROWN: A huge development coming from our Evan Perez to look into this. I mean, this is very significant. And now, we're gaining some insight into why that referral happened, even though we don't have the whistleblower complaint in full.

We do have what we know is a part of the complaint, and that is this transcript between President Trump and the Ukrainian president, Zelensky, where he mentioned on several occasions that he would have his own attorney general and his personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, work with the Ukrainians on two U.S.-related matters, one involving his political rival, the Democratic presidential candidate, Joe Biden, and his son, Hunter, and then also looking into election interference.

And It is also significant that even before the president brought that up and said, I would like you to do us a favor, he did talk about how much the U.S. has helped Ukraine.

Now, the president has spoken about that publicly. He did at the U.N. this week. So he didn't specifically mention any -- the explicit quid pro quo unless you do this, unless you investigate this, we're going to withhold this military aid to you, but he did sort of tee up the request by saying, look, we're very -- the U.S. is very helpful to Ukraine in comparison to European countries.

Now, we should note that it was actually President Zelensky of Ukraine who first brought up outreach to Rudy Giuliani. At that point, the president did say, one more thing, I do want you to work with Bill Barr and Rudy Giuliani to look into Biden and his role in firing a prosecutor that was looking into a company linked -- that his son was on the board of.

Again, there was no direct evidence of wrongdoing there, but this really gives some insight, transparency into what was going on behind the scenes, and that criminal referral we just found out about.

Now, in terms of why the White House is doing this, a senior White House official says it came down to transparency. They weighed the institutional concerns, they looked at the precedent that this could set, but in the end, the president made the decision that he wanted to be transparent. That's what a senior White House official is saying today.

HARLOW: Okay. Evan Perez, Pamela Brown, stay there. We're going to get back to you. We're going to have you read through some of this.

With me now is our Chief National Correspondent, anchor of Inside Politics, John King.

I mean, John, I'm just getting halfway through this thing. What's your read?

JOHN KING, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: The president says this call was perfect and beautiful, Poppy.

HARLOW: Right.

KING: The Democrats are going to say, based on what Pam Brown just laid out, that it is the foundation for impeaching the president of the United States. That's what they are going to say.

Now, they need more witnesses. As Pam very smartly laid out, the president did not say, investigate Joe Biden if you want your money, at least in what we have seen so far. But he did bring up aid before he brought up Biden. He brought up Rudy Giuliani.

So what are the Democrats going to say here? They're going to want a full transcript, not just a summary. They're going to want to know if there are recordings. They're going to want to bring in the people who were listening to that call. They want to see the full whistleblower complaint because we know the whistleblower complaint was about other things as well, someone in the intelligence community trying to connect the dots from this call to other actions by the president or his administration.

And Rudy Giuliani keeps going on Fox News and holding up his phone and saying, it is all on here. Guess what, the Democrats are going to want that phone and they're going to want Rudy Giuliani, under oath, testifying about if the president tees up aid, then he brings up Joe Biden, then he brings up, you Mr. Giuliani, explain the meetings. Explain the meetings. Did you bring up the possibility of clearing that aid? Did you bring up the possibility of a summit meeting with the president? Did the president -- here is the question, Poppy. Did the president abuse his power for personal political gain, that a Trump-appointed inspector general made a criminal referral to the Justice Department asking the question, was this a campaign finance violation, even if they decide in the end, no, or it's debatable, we're not going forward, that's a Trump-appointed inspector general.

So all of this anyway, Poppy, is eye-popping presidential behavior, that it happened after what we went through in 2016 with Russian interference and the Mueller investigation, it's just beyond the realm.

HARLOW: And I'm so glad that you point out, John King, the order of what happened in this call and the order of when they were brought up, that aid was brought up, then Biden.


And, yes, it was Zelensky who brought up Giuliani first, but the way that the president followed up on that and talked about the prosecutor that was ousted, all significant.

Stay right there. Let me bring in Jeffrey Toobin with this.

Jeffrey, as John King just said, the Trump-appointed inspector general took this to the Justice Department with a criminal inquiry into whether this was a campaign finance violation.

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN CHIEF LEGAL ANALYST: Okay. Just to back up and talk a little bit about the law, it is unlawful to obtain a thing of value from a foreign source in an American political campaign.

HARLOW: And there is no question that an investigation into the leading candidate in the Democratic Party and his son would be a thing of value.

TOOBIN: I don't know about no question. I mean, I think the legal complexities could get considerable very quickly. But it is certainly possible and it certainly seems to be the basis of this investigation, this criminal investigation that the president was seeking a thing of value from a foreign source, and possible, and I emphasize possible, violation of American campaign finance law. That seems to be the basis of this criminal referral which now is before Attorney General William Barr.

William Barr is in this transcript. William Barr becomes a very important person in this investigation at several different levels. He is now presumably, at least for the time being, unless he has to recuse himself, in charge of deciding what to do with this criminal referral. He is also someone that the president is saying in this transcript, talk to him, Mr. President, Mr. Zelensky, President of Ukraine, cooperate with him in the investigation of my rival, Biden. So William Barr is now a central figure in all of these developments.

HARLOW: And as you said, he has the ultimate authority to decide where this question went.

TOOBIN: Unless he recuses himself. And in light of his being all over this transcript, he is going to have a lot of pressure to recuse himself.

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: But this is also a good time to remind people that Barr was one of the people pushing for the release of this transcript. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was saying they shouldn't release it because he said it would set a dangerous precedent. We were told by people that Barr was actually pushing it.

But this is pretty problematic for him because you see just through the same lens that the president views Rudy Giuliani and the attorney general. He is saying here, of course, as Pam pointed out, the Ukrainian president brings up Rudy Giuliani first, talking about him. And then President Trump says, quote, I will ask him to call you along with the attorney general.

He goes on to praise Rudy and he says, quote, 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.

HARLOW: Whatever you could do with the attorney general would be great.

COLLINS: So he is essentially saying, talk to Rudy Giuliani, talk to Bill Barr, talk to Rudy Giuliani, talk to Bill Barr, interlinking the two of them.

TOOBIN: And let's just be clear about what this conversation is about. This has nothing to do with American interests in Ukraine. This only has to do with the political interests of the president of the United States. The only reason that Biden comes up here at all, the only conceivable reason is that the president wants dirt on Biden.

What went on here with Biden and his son is almost a decade ago. It has no relevance to contemporary relations between Ukraine and the United States except as a source of campaign fodder for the president.

HARLOW: Hold that thought, Kaitlan. Let me get Dana Bash in here.

Dana, there is so much here and yet the White House chose to put this out. What does it mean for the president?

DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, there's something else in the following sentence from what Kaitlan was just reading from, which I think is the key when it comes to what the House Democrats did yesterday, the question of impeachment. And that is the president didn't just say, please talk to the attorney general, he personally said, about Joe Biden. So if you can look into it, dot, dot, dot, it sounds horrible to me.

The president of the United States himself asking the leader of another country to look into something that he thinks is bad for his political opponent, full stop. That sentence in and of itself is exactly why you have Democrat after Democrat who -- for whom it was politically perilous from Trump districts to come out and say, I'm now for impeachment, that is the reason they said it.

So there is the law that Jeffrey was talking about. There is the criminal complaint. There's a question about whether he violated campaign finance laws. That's all fine and good. But when it comes to the Constitution and the question of whether the House of Representatives should impeach a president high crimes and misdemeanors, that's more murky.


And that is a determination of the House of Representatives, and you have so many people saying, this is exactly why, and now they have it in black and white.

HARLOW: And, Dana, you point out the dot, dot, dot. I should note again, as Pam Brown said at the top, the White House says this is not a verbatim transcript of the discussion. So that's such an important sentence that you just read, so if you can look into it, dot, dot, dot, it sounds horrible to me, what else is there as well.

BASH: Right. There's no obvious quid pro quo, as we've seen. But as we have heard again from Democrat after Democrat who changed their positions, doing a 180 to impeach or not to impeach, they don't need a quid pro quo. They just see the idea of a president of the United States asking another leader to look into something that could hurt their political opponent and say, that's beyond the pale, that's an impeachable offense.

And even if we see nothing else, I'm telling you based on all of the conversations I had with House Democrats who changed their mind yesterday, that sentence is going to be the one that sticks out to them.

HARLOW: And this that was so striking here, Asha, that you had the Trump-appointed inspector general refer this and bring this over to the Justice Department to say -- you know, to bring a criminal complaint and to say was this a campaign finance violation, what strikes you the most?

ASHA RANGGAPPA, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY AND LEGAL ANALYST: What strikes me the most is what Jeffrey pointed out, is this conflict that Bill Barr is implicated in this call or at least verbally being enlisted to assist in this effort. He's now in charge of evaluating whether this criminal referral has any merit under U.S. law. It's a conflict of interest.

So, technically, there should be Special Counsel 2.0 to evaluate this because it's not really clear that he is able -- it's clear to me actually that he is not able to evaluate this because he himself is involved in this in some way.

HARLOW: So Jeffrey Toobin, to Asha's point, Bill Barr conflicted. Special Counsel 2.0?

TOOBIN: Well, there are a couple of possibilities. It may just be that the -- he would recuse himself and the deputy attorney general would take over the investigation, Rod Rosenstein's successor.

HARLOW: Remember when we saw that? TOOBIN: Yes. But, again, remember the historical and political context here. Donald Trump was enraged at Jeff Sessions for two years, embarrassed him, humiliated Jeff Sessions because he recused himself in what became the Mueller investigation. Is Barr going to now recuse himself?

Again, I don't see how he can't recuse himself in light of the fact that he's named, you know, by name in here, and obviously has had some sort of prior dealings on the subject of Rudy Giuliani's investigation of the Biden Biden relationship in Ukraine.

I mean, I don't think a Special Counsel is necessary right away, but that is a determination that I think has to be made by the deputy attorney general of the United States, not by Barr because Barr has to be recused here.

HARLOW: Hold that thought. I just want to go back to Pamela Brown and I will get right to you, Kaitlan.

Pamela, I think it would be instructive and helpful for people to hear some of the words. We are looking at live pictures of the president. You know, he is on the world stage. He is at the U.N. This is a meeting with the delegation about Venezuela. This is his moment on the world stage, in the spotlight, and this is what has come out. Can you read some of the most telling parts of this call?

BROWN: And just quickly, not to mention the timing here of meeting in person with the Ukrainian president, Zelensky, on the sidelines there of the UNGA.

And in this transcript from July 25th, that the key here is on page four, and this is when he first brings up Biden. Zelensky had mentioned he had reached out to or the Ukrainians had reached out to Rudy Giuliani. The president then goes on to say, well, the other thing, 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 there you have it.

And as Dana rightly pointed out, that is what Democrats will seize on. You have the president of the United States asking a foreign government to open up an investigation into his political rival.


We should note that this allegation from the president that Joe Biden had the prosecutor in Ukraine fired to shut down the investigation of a company tied to his son, that there is not direct evidence to support that allegation of wrongdoing.

But what's interesting here, Poppy, is the response from President Zelensky when the president brought up Biden. Because he says, I wanted to tell you about the prosecutor. 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 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. The issue of the investigation of the case is actually the issue of making sure to restore the honesty so we will take care of that and we'll work on the investigation of the case. So you have Zelensky saying, yes, once my new prosecutor is in place, we will reopen that investigation.


BROWN: And it is also worth noting again, reiterating that the president mentioned several times that he would have his own attorney general and his private attorney, Rudy Giuliani, work with Ukraine on this matter. It is significant.

HARLOW: And I would note, by the way, that in this, you see the president use the word favor, Pamela Brown. You see the president talk about the U.S. being very, very good to Ukraine.

And let me get Kaitlan Collins back in here on this because we know from the person who perhaps knows the president best, and that is Michael Cohen, about the way that the president asks for things. Let me remind people about what Michael Cohen has said previously about the president, quote, he doesn't give you questions. He doesn't give you orders. He speaks in a code, and I understand the code because I have been around him for a decade.

COLLINS: And if you read the Mueller report about him wanting to fire Mueller, that is essentially what every person who has communicated to, they say it wasn't an explicit ask but they knew exactly what it was the president wanted them to do.

Now, this call with the Ukrainian president happened the day after Robert Mueller testified on Capitol Hill. Trump brings Mueller up pretty soon. He says, quote, as you saw yesterday, that whole nonsense ended with a very poor performance by a man named Robert Mueller, an incompetent performance, but they say a lot of it started with Ukraine.

Right before that, the president is asking him to look into CrowdStrike. That's the cyber security firm that the DNC hired after they were hacked to look into their servers, something the president has since taken and run with, brings it up multiple times dating back to that press conference in Helsinki when he implied essentially that the FBI and the DNC were hiding something when he was asked about election interference. He brings it up here and he says, quote, the server, they say Ukraine has it.

You see starting early on, this is only on page three, after essentially they've gotten through the greetings, that the president is bringing up Hillary Clinton, her emails, an election interference and this conspiracy theory that he has promoted that the DNC was hiding something not over the Russians interfering in the election.

TOOBIN: I mean, Kaitlan is clearly right that a lot of times the president speaks in code. This is not in code. This is explicit. I mean this is not something you have to -- you know, I would like you to do a favor. The favor is investigate Democrats. That's the favor. It's not help the national interest. It's not help our geopolitical situation. It has nothing to do with that. The only thing he wants from the president of Ukraine is dirt on Democrats. That's all the only request here.

HARLOW: It is a great point.

TOOBIN: And it's not in code. I mean, it's just explicit.

HARLOW: John King, to you, and to build on what Jeffrey Toobin just said. He also is calling on the president of Ukraine to talk to his personal attorney, not to talk to the White House, not to talk to his administration. Quote, Rudy very much knows what is happening. He is a very capable guy. If you could speak to him, that would be great. Rudy Giuliani does not work for the American people. He works for the president personally.

KING: Well, Rudy Giuliani is now going to be a witness in the Democrat's impeachment inquiry, whether the Democrat's impeachment inquiry becomes articles of impeachment is still an open question. And having covered the Bill Clinton impeachment, I would urge everybody out there watching, whatever your political view is, to leave your minds open to the facts changing as we go through these investigations. That happens. Trust me.

However, to Jeffrey's point, I want to make a point that Jeff made and that Pamela Brown made. Joe Biden did ask the government of Ukraine to fire a prosecutor. But Trump says it was because the prosecutor was investigating Hunter Biden. That's not correct. At that time, all of European democracies, all of the reformers in Ukraine, everybody wanted that prosecutor fired because they viewed as a crook. Now, maybe we'll learn other things. That's one thing.

To your other point, Rudy Giuliani talked to -- this is the president of the United States mentioning aid, asking for help investigating Democratic opponent, involving his personal attorney. Don Jr. meets with Russians at Trump Tower, no lessons learned from 2016.


One other point I want to make that the Democrats will look at very closely. In the call as well, and again, it's not a full transcript, he says or suggests, at one point, you should call my attorney general.

So put this together. This is a president who traffics in innuendo all the time. The president of Ukraine calls the attorney general of the United States, asks for help in an investigation of Joe Biden and that leaks. Think of the headline. Think of the headline. That's how Trump destroys his opponents. That's how he does it. He traffics in innuendo all the time.

If the president of Ukraine had called the attorney general and that leaked out, that's bad news for Joe Biden even if there's no there there. That's what Democrats are going to investigate. Is he using and abusing his power to damage his political opponents and to undermine U.S. national security?

TOOBIN: Poppy, I know we are dealing with a lot of stories here and obviously a big story here, the big story is the transcript. But Evan Perez mentioned something earlier, and I hope Evan is still with us.

HARLOW: He is.

TOOBIN: About the criminal referral to the Justice Department of a possible criminal offense by the president in terms of violating campaign finance laws. If Evan -- if we can just ask Evan, is it true that the attorney general has already declined to pursue this investigation?


TOOBIN: Has he made the judgment that there is no -- nothing here to investigate?

PEREZ: Yes, that is the final answer from the Justice Department. And what we're told by a justice official is that that final determination was made by the associate attorney general -- the assistant attorney general, Brian Benczkowski. He is the head of the criminal division. And that's under the way the Justice Department operates. That's the way these are handled according to justice officials who talked to us just a little while ago.

They said that once the referral came in, it is the first time that bill Barr, the attorney general, became aware of this conversation. He had not had any conversations with the president about Ukraine. He had not reached out to the Ukrainians. He had had no conversations about investigating Biden with the Ukrainians.

But, you know, the Justice Department decided that they were going to look into this. They interviewed people at the White House to make sure that they had an accurate record of the call. But the call is pretty much everything they looked at.

There was -- this was the evidence that they had to look at, and they didn't do any additional interviews. They didn't interview the president. They didn't interview Rudy Giuliani, as far as we can tell. So that's the extent of the investigation. They simply looked at the statute and determined that this did not meet the letter of the statute and could not essentially do a fuller -- a full-blown investigation.

In the end, they determined this did not meet what the statute says is a thing of value under campaign finance law.

TOOBIN: Well, that's really interesting. But I think Democrats and members of the House of Representatives are going to have a lot of questions about how that determination was made. Did the attorney general actually recuse himself from that decision even though it was referred to the assistant attorney general in charge of the criminal division? What was Barr's role in it? Second, what was the department's reasoning? I mean, just like there's nothing to see here, go away? I mean, I understand the argument that this is not covered by the campaign finance laws, but I think some sort of elaboration of the Justice Department's position on that will certainly be required.

And, of course, the other thing is, you know, Attorney General Barr is all over this transcript. What was his involvement with the president, with Rudy Giuliani, in the whole Ukraine story?

Now, I think what you are saying, Evan, is that, at the moment, they're saying the attorney general had no role. Well, then why was he mentioned so often by the president? Is that right?

HARLOW: The president --

TOOBIN: I'm sorry.

HARLOW: Go ahead. No. Evan, go ahead, and then I have a follow-up for you. Go ahead.

PEREZ: No, that's right. What they're saying is that the attorney general was not aware of these conversations, didn't actually do any of the things that the president was saying in the phone call he was going to ask Barr to do, and there was no consideration for Barr to recuse himself. They didn't even consider whether he should recuse himself because they believe since nothing happened with regard to Barr, it didn't merit that.

So, again, those are questions, Jeffrey, you are asking very big questions that I think obviously are going to come from the Democrats.

I should add one last thing, that while they're not investigating this anymore, this is a closed issue, this is done, according to the Justice Department. There is something that is still alive. And that is there is an investigation that's being led by John Durham, who is a respected prosecutor from Connecticut, who is looking into the origins of the entire investigation that we came to know as the Mueller investigation, correct?


And so one of the things that Durham is looking into is the role of countries, including Ukraine, in providing intelligence that became --