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White House Transcript Shows Trump Pushed Ukraine To Investigate Biden; Rep. Ted Lieu, D-CA, Interviewed about Trump- Zelensky Phone Call. Aired 1-1:30p ET

Aired September 25, 2019 - 13:00   ET




BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN RIGHT NOW: I'm Brianna Keilar, and we begin with this bombshell transcript, what some Democrats are calling a smoking gun of a July 25th phone call between President Trump and the newly elected president of Ukraine.

This is the call that was part of an official complaint by a whistleblower in the intelligence community. And the intel community's independent inspector general determined this was an urgent concern and that Congress should see it. The Department of Justice blocked the release of that complaint. But now, the White House has released a transcript of the call, though not the complaint.

So what the call transcript clearly shows is President Trump specifically asking the president of Ukraine to investigate Joe Biden whose son, Hunter, sat on the board of a Ukrainian energy campaign while his dad was vice president.

Here's one of the key lines. I would like you to do us a favor. And here is how this call goes. It starts with general congratulations on the Ukrainian president's success in the parliamentary elections.

Then almost immediately, President Trump mentions how much the U.S. does for Ukraine, especially compared to Europe. He tells Zelensky, quote, I will say that we do a lot for 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.

Zelensky responds, I'm very grateful to you for that because the United States is doing quite a lot for Ukraine. I would also like to thank you for your great support in the area of defense. That would be military aid. Zelensky then adds that Ukraine is almost read to buy American-made missiles.

And these are the president's very next words. 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. I would like you to find out what happened with this whole situation with Ukraine. They say CrowdStrike. I guess you have one of your wealthy people the server, they say, Ukraine has it. There are a lot of things that went on, the whole situation. Now, CrowdStrike is the American internet security company that initially investigated the Russian hack of the DNC in 2016 that led to the release of embarrassing emails for Democrats.

The president goes on here, quote, I would like to have the attorney general call you or your people and I would like you to get to the bottom of it.

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. And then here's a key line. Whatever you can do, it's very important that you do it if that's possible.

Zelensky responds by noting that his people have already been in talks with the president's personal lawyer. Quote, for me as a president, it is very important that we are open for any future cooperation. I will personally tell you that one of my assistants spoke with Mr. Giuliani just recently. And we are hoping very that much that Mr. Giuliani will be able to travel to Ukraine and we will meet once he comes to Ukraine.

I guarantee, as the president of Ukraine, that all the investigations will be done openly and candidly, that I can assure you.

President Trump then specifically mentions former Vice President Joe Biden and his son, hunter, and again says that he'll have both Giuliani and Attorney General Bill Barr reach out.

The president says, quote, good, because I heard you had a prosecutor who was very good and he was shut down, and that's really unfair. A lot of people are talking about that. I will ask him, meaning Giuliani, to call you along with the attorney general. Rudy very much knows what's happening and he is a very capable guy. If you could speak to him, that would be great.

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, it sounds horrible to me.

All right, so let's explain what this is about. The prosecutor that Trump is talking about is Viktor Shokin. This is Ukraine's former prosecutor general, who during the Obama second term, actually failed to rein in corruption, which is something that has historically plagued Ukraine. The Obama administration wanted him out and he resigned.

Shokin though had actually failed to investigate the head of the energy company whose board the vice president's son sat on. So Shokin's ouster could have meant more scrutiny for the company, not less.

The president begins to end this call with another key line here. Quote, I will have Mr. Giuliani give you a call and I am also going to have Attorney General Barr call and we will get to the bottom of it.


The president here involving his supposed to be independent attorney general in his attempt is push an ally to investigate a political rival, an ally whose hundreds of millions of dollars in U.S. military aid the president had specifically and personally singled out to freeze just one week before.

We have CNN White House Correspondent Kaitlan Collins who is here with us.

And, Kaitlan, the Department of Justice spokesperson actually said the president has not asked the A.G. to contact Ukraine on this or any other matter. He's really stayed away from this because it's bad, but the White House released this. And the president has said this is basically a nothing burger. But, privately, is that what officials around the president think?

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: So far, they're dismissing it. And that's essentially what they told reporters before this came out. They said it wasn't going to be as explosive as Democrats had built it up. Then you this comes out and you see the lines that you just read there where they're talking about military aid and the next few lines is where the president is talking about favors he wants from the Ukrainian president.

So the question going forward here is was it the best decision for the White House to put these out amid these calls?

It's interesting that Bill Barr is throughout this letter so much because he was one of the officials pushing for the White House to put out the transcript much to the chagrin of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, the Chief of Staff, Mick Mulvaney, officials who argued, no it wasn't a good decision to put this transcript out because then it's going to lead them to send out other transcripts of the president's calls.

Now, the president hasn't really been able to see the coverage since this letter came out. He was confident it was going to clear him. He was just speaking with reporters during these meetings with world leaders and he said that he believes Nancy Pelosi and Democrats are in the middle of what he calls a manufactured crisis.


DONALD TRUMP, U.S. PRESIDENT: And I don't think Nancy Pelosi will have time. She's wasting her time on -- let's use a word they used to use a lot, a manufactured crisis.

Remember when they came up with a word nobody ever heard of, that every media group in the country used the same word that same day. Nobody ever heard of the word in relation to what they were talking about. They said it was a manufactured crisis, okay?

So they came up with a manufactured crisis. I don't know whether or not they're going to have time to do any deals. I don't think they can do any deals. We were working on guns, gun safety. They don't even talk -- all they're talking about is nonsense.

We released something today that was fantastic. And, you know, you look at that, it's all fake stuff that the media makes up with the Democrats, which are their partners. The Democrats and the media are one and the same. They're partners. So I want to thank you.

But I just don't know. MCA, you could tell me, Bob Lighthizer, are they going to get to take a vote? All they had to do -- the agreement is signed. It's approved by Canada, it's approved by Mexico.


COLLINS: So the president is making this argument that Democrats aren't going to be able to get anything done if they're busy trying to impeach him. It's interesting because the day that Nancy Pelosi came out, launched this formal impeachment inquiry, earlier that day, they still had their typical caucus meeting where they discussed things like the USMCA trade deal, something that actually Democrats have been sounding pretty positive about. Then August, they continued to talk about guns. But the president is framing this as they won't have time to discuss anything else besides impeachment.

KEILAR: All right. Kaitlan, thank you so much for that report.

Utah Senator Mitt Romney is the Republican who's really expressing the most concern about this whistleblower claim. Just a short time ago, he reacted to this newly-released transcript of President Trump's call with the Ukrainian president.


SEN. MITT ROMNEY (R-UT): There's just a question, and I said that in my first reaction, which is if the president of the United States asks or presses the leader of a foreign country to carry out an investigation of a political nature, that's troubling. And I feel that.

And so, clearly, if there were a quid pro quo, that would take it to an entirely more extreme level.


KEILAR: CNN's Senior Congressional Correspondent Manu Raju is following all of this from Capitol Hill.

And, Manu, that's Mitt Romney, but what about other Republicans?

MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Most Republicans are falling in line and defending this president, saying the transcript, in their view, shows the president did not do anything wrong because there was no explicit ask in exchange for anything. There was no, in their view, quid pro quo by the president threatening directly to withhold military aid in exchange for investigating the Bidens. So they say this is much ado about nothing. They're not buying that circumstantial evidence that Democrats see is very damning.

Now, I just spoke to David Perdue who's a Georgia Republican, a close ally of the president. He told me that a small group of House and Senate Republicans actually went to the White House this morning to read the transcript before its official release. And Pat Cipollone, the White House Counsel, was in the room, the president called into that room. And nobody expressed any concerns. In fact, Perdue told me no when I asked him if anyone had any concerns and raised them with the president about what they read in the transcript.

Now, other Republicans from the president's close ally, Lindsey Graham, to the top House Republican leader, made clear that they believe the president is in the right.



SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R-SC): From my point of view to impeach any president over a phone call like this would be insane.

RAJU: He talked about the Bidens in that call. Is that okay, Mr. Leader?

REP. KEVIN MCCARTHY (R-CA): How many times did he mention Biden?

RAJU: He mentioned --

MCCARTHY: No, he didn't. He mentioned it one time.

RAJU: Have you seen this transcript?


RAJU: Do you have any concerns about what the president talking, to bring out the Bidens --

MCCARTHY: I think this is a great example of what the president said is true and some of the reporting on it has been absurd.

RAJU: What about Biden?


RAJU: Now, the Republicans are saying about Biden, one Republican, Mike Conaway, who led the Russia investigation in the last Congress in the House Intelligence Committee. He told me that they were just talking about a culture of corruption, the Ukraine president and the president of the United States. So there's nothing wrong about bringing up investigating the president.

Of course, Democrats see this much differently. Adam Schiff, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, I asked him, will this almost leave no doubt that the House will impeach this president? He says what the president has done here is perhaps among the most damaging revelation that he has seen of the president's conduct yet. Brianna?

KEILAR: All right. Manu, thank you so much.

I want to get more reaction now from Capitol Hill. We have Congressman Ted Lieu, a member of the House Judiciary Committee, which up until yesterday was the only committee that had begun an impeachment inquiry. He's with us now. Sir, thanks for joining us.

REP. TED LIEU (D-CA): Thank you, Brianna.

KEILAR: All right. So the Judiciary Committee has now got quite a bit of company, right? Five other committees are now operating their investigations as part of this broadened impeachment inquiry. And now you've got this call transcript. What is your reaction to what you've read?

LIEU: Thank you for your question. The notes of this phone call are damning for the president. It's important to understand that this call occurs a week after Donald Trump inexplicably halted critical military aid to Ukraine. Then on this call, he requests the Ukrainian leader to investigate Trump's political opponent. And then he raises this right after the Ukrainian leader talks about military aid or Javelin missiles from the United States to Ukraine.

I'm a former prosecutor. This looks just like a shakedown of a foreign leader to benefit Trump politically. It is a betrayal of our values and abuse of the president's power.

KEILAR: What did you think of Kevin McCarthy, the top Republican in the House, saying in response to what's your reaction to the president mentioning Biden? He said, how many times did he mention Biden, one time. What's your reaction to that?

LIEU: If you look at the notes of this phone call, if you take away the pleasantries, a lot of what this phone call was about was asking the Ukrainian leader to open a bogus investigation into Biden, into Trump's political opponent. Now, that is an abuse of the president's power. Donald Trump should not be putting his own re-election campaign above the interests of the American people. He should not be halting critical military aid to Ukraine and then trying to shake down the Ukrainian leader to open an investigation with this military aid being halted.

KEILAR: Do you think the sole reason the president made this call was to ask Ukraine to investigate Biden and his son?

LIEU: Much of the phone call was about the investigation that he wanted the Ukrainian lead to open into Biden and his son. It's a completely bogus charge. There's no evidence that Joe Biden or Hunter Biden did anything wrong.

But in addition, Trump now asked his attorney general to also get involved, and that's using the Department of Justice to also target Trump's political opponent for nefarious reasons. This is a massive abuse of power and a betrayal of our values. KEILAR: The DOJ says Trump did not ask Barr to intervene on this issue, that Barr has not talked to Ukraine about this issue or other issues. Does that change anything to you?

LIEU: Should we trust the DOJ that Barr heads or should we trust the notes of this phone call? The notes of this phone call say that Donald Trump is going to ask Rudy Giuliani and Bill Barr to get involved with the Ukrainian leader to open this bogus investigation into Trump's political opponent.

KEILAR: Speaker Pelosi in this decision to widen this impeachment inquiry is really betting that Americans can wrap their heads around this and that they will understand this as Democrats do, tying millions in aid for a foreign government to a favor to investigate an American political rival. Why do you think that Americans are going to be more swayed by this than by the Mueller report?


LIEU: This is a very simple situation to explain. Based on the timing of this phone call, the fact that Trump halted critical military aid to Ukraine, it's simply, you want the money, you investigate Biden. It is as simple as that.

The phone call establishes it. The timing of the phone call establishes it. It's a gross abuse of power by Donald Trump.

KEILAR: Are you expecting this -- this call is only part of the whistleblower complaint. Are you expecting to see the whistleblower complaint?

LIEU: Absolutely. You had the Republican-controlled Senate yesterday go on record saying that they want the whistleblower complaint to go to Congress. And it's required by law. Right now, the ODNI acting director is violating the law. He's supposed to have provided this whistleblower complaint to Congress weeks ago. There's no reason that we don't get the full complaint.

KEILAR: Have you heard anything on timing about -- have you heard any confirmation that that is going to be coming?

LIEU: I have not. But with every passing day, they continue to be in violation of a law that requires Congress to see this whistleblower complaint.

KEILAR: I's still possible that this now broadened impeachment inquiry goes forward. You have these six committees investigating. This gives them more leeway to get information. But in the end, there's not a house-wide vote on impeachment. Do you see that happening?

LIUE: The Ukraine scandal has raised this to a whole new level. You have the president as president using his powers to ask a foreign government to meddle in our elections to investigate his political opponent. And he does this in the context of halting military aid to that foreign power. This is something easy for Americans to understand. It's a betrayal of our values, a gross abuse of power. And I think we're going to act with urgency on this issue and we'll see what the additional evidence holds when the whistleblower comes forward.

KEILAR: But will there be a house-wide vote, do you expect?

LIEU: If the evidence in the whistleblower complaint establishes what we're already seeing established in this transcript, I do believe there will be a House-wide vote sometime in the future.

KEILAR: Okay. All right, Congressman Ted Lieu, thanks so much.

LIEU: Thank you, Brianna.

KEILAR: We have our legal analysts standing by on what could be the most damning for the president in this transcript and Bill Barr's questionable role in all of this.

Plus, the politics of impeachment, how Republicans are already spinning this, but not all of them. This is CNN's special live coverage.



KEILAR: Attorney General Bill Barr is emerging as a key player in the president's call with the Ukrainian president. Trump mentioned that he was going to have Barr call Ukraine several times throughout this rough transcript.

And joining me now to discuss is Elis Honig, CNN Legal Analyst and former Assistant U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York. We also have Kim Wehle, a former federal prosecutor and former Associate Independent Counsel in the Whitewater investigation. And she is also the author of How to Read the Constitution and Why. Thank you so much to both of you for joining me today on this.

And, Elie, I wonder how problematic is it that the president mentions Bill Barr essentially as someone who is going to help shepherd an inappropriate investigation of a Trump political rival by a foreign country and then you have the DOJ actually blocking the whistleblower complaint of which this is all a key part from going to Congress?

ELIE HONIG, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: It's hugely problematic. So, first of all, who does the attorney general work for? Yet again you see Donald Trump acting like Bill Barr works for Donald Trump personally. Bill Barr is the top lawyer for all the people of the United States. This is a completely inappropriate thing for him to be doing.

Second of all, why on earth is the attorney general involved in Donald Trump's effort to get political dirt on his opponents? And one thing that jumped out on me about this transcript or log is it's a one- purpose call. The one purpose here is he wants dirt on Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton. Bill Barr should have no part of that. And that's one of the key questions, what was his role here. KEILAR: And, clearly, Kim, the DOJ knows that because they put out a statement saying that he didn't have a part in this, right, that he did not -- that the president didn't actually come to Barr about this issue, that Barr didn't talk to Ukraine about this issue or other issues.

I just talked to a Democratic congressman, who said, yes, right, I don't believe that, essentially. What do you make of what DOJ is saying and what you're reading in this transcript?

KIM WEHLE, FORMER FEDERAL PROSECUTOR: Well, you have to imagine there are many people inside this White House who get asked to do things that they're extremely uncomfortable with.

KEILAR: He says he wasn't even asked. He says -- the DOJ says he wasn't asked. Do you believe that?

WEHLE: Well, I mean, I thought his very careful testimony in response to Kamala Harris' questioning as to whether he'd ever been asked to undergo an investigation at the president's behest, I think that's particularly telling.

I haven't read the document from DOJ. This White House -- these lawyers are very, very careful at threading very fine needles. We saw that with their response to the I.G. report justifying turning over the whistleblower complaint. I think that's a very weak argument, frankly. But this isn't the first or probably the last time we'll see this legally.

KEILAR: I want to go back and listen to something that Bill Barr said during the May hearing. This is his response about receiving dirt on a competitor.


DONALD TRUMP, U.S. PRESIDENT: Just so you understand, it's the single greatest witch hunt in American history, probably in history, but in American history.


It's a disgraceful thing. The letter was a great letter, meaning the letter revealing the call. That was done at the insistence of myself and other people that read it. It was a friendly letter. There was no pressure. The way you had that built up, that call, it was going to be the call from hell. It turned out to be a nothing call other than a lot of people said I never knew you could be so nice.


KEILAR: That is not Bill Barr. That is President Trump. Let's listen to what Bill Barr said in May.


SEN. CHRIS COONS (D-DE): Let me get to a question, if I could. Going forward, what if a foreign adversary, let's now say North Korea, offers a presidential candidate dirt on a competitor in 2020? Do you agree with me the campaign should immediately contact the FBI? If a foreign intelligence service --

WILLIAM BARR, U.S. ATTORNEY GENERAL: Foreign intelligence service?

COONS: A representative of foreign government --

BARR: Yes.

COONS: -- says we have dirt on your opponent, should they say, I love it let's meet or should they contact the FBI?

BARR: If a foreign intelligence service does, yes.


KEILAR: All right. Elie, keep in mind, this is May. That's May. July is when this conversation happens. And it's going in a different direction. It's not the foreign government volunteering. This is an ask from the President.

HONIG: Right. So, first of all, he's wrong, Attorney General Barr there, when he says only if it's from a foreign intelligence agent. Getting foreign election aid from any foreign national, intelligence agent, president, civilian, is a federal crime. And so that was a really curious answer. Could it be that this was already underway or he had some inkling of it at the time? Possibly.

I think what he was also doing there, Bill Barr is trying to cover for Don Junior who had that Trump Tower meeting, both civilians (ph).

KEILAR: Yes. Obviously that was a big part of the Mueller report.

HONIG: Right.

KEILAR: All right. So, Kim, you read this transcript and the question is then is it a crime? Is there enough wiggle room or is it a crime?

WEHLE: Well, the question with respect to impeachment isn't, as you know, whether it's a crime, it's a political judgment. And we now see tremendous number of Democrats basically making the decision that this is sufficient for impeachment.

The transcript itself, I mean, I think we just see a small piece of it. When the president comes out and says everybody thought this would be such a big deal, it's the White House that unilaterally made this public, not the Congress that asked for it. So we have to see additional information.

But there's potential campaign finance violations, that is asking for something of value that could influence a campaign. If it turns out that there was more information, and there're hints of it in these five pages that the president actually dangled the foreign aid and basically as a threat, you either investigate my opponent or you don't get this money that's promised to you that the Senate authorized, that would be extortion, potentially.

But more broadly, we have a situation where we have an unaccountable presidency in this moment. There's a lot this president has done to run through the red lights and the stop signs in our government and our system of laws. And if Congress doesn't step in in this moment to actually hand some tickets out or put some halts up, right, then we could move inadvertently into an unaccountable presidency, a presidency that whoever is in that office can do whatever they want and say, so what, what are you going to do about it?

And I think from Trump all the way down, Bill Barr as well, the issue is here, they're saying, I'm not going to comply with the law requiring that we turn this over to the whistleblower. I'm not going to comply with the law that requires that the president's tax returns be turned over to Congress. Make me. And at this point, no one is making them and that creates a problem for the structure of government.

So I think regardless of what happens to Mr. Trump, it's absolutely vital that this oversight continue.

KEILAR: All right. Kim, Elie, thank you so much to both of you.

2020 Democrats are already reacting to all of this, including, some who say, that this transcript is a smoking gun.

Also, Cindy McCain says the Republican Party is no longer the party that she and her husband belonged to.