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DOJ Declined to Open Criminal Probe Into Whether Trump Broke Campaign Law in Ukraine Call; Adam Schiff: Trump's Actions in Call a "Shakedown" of Ukraine's President; Rough Transcript Shows Trump Pushed Ukraine to Investigate Biden. Aired 12-12.30p ET

Aired September 25, 2019 - 12:00   ET




JOHN KING, CNN HOST, CNN NEWSROOM: Welcome to "Inside Politics." I'm John King. We begin the hour with major breaking news a declassified White House memo that Democrats say proves President Trump should be impeached for asking a foreign government for 2020 election help.

Now the President says that's a joke and that he did nothing wrong. We're likely to hear more from the President shortly. He has a big meeting with Japan's Prime Minister at the United Nations and you're seeing their pictures from the United States Capital. We'll hear momentarily from the Chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Adam Schiff.

We will take you there live. In the meantime, the memo runs five pages and details that July conversation with Ukraine's President. In that call the President mentions the United States is "Very, very good to Ukraine. Ukraine's President then talks about potential military aid. President Trump then immediately asks for a favor, for Ukrainian prosecutors to investigate something 2016, specifically the cyber security firm hired by the Democratic National Committee in the aftermath of the Russian meddling".

And the President asked the Ukrainian President to cooperate with the United States Attorney General William Barr. Ukraine's President then says he wants Rudy Giuliani to travel to Ukraine. Giuliani of course the President's Personal Lawyer, promises a meeting and commits to doing all investigations "openly and candidly".

It is then in this call the President Trump talks about what he called "The other thing", Joe Biden's son Hunter and the abandoned investigation into the Ukrainian Natural Gas Campaign. The President again asked the Ukrainian President to coordinate with Attorney General Barr. Ukraine's Zelensky then guarantees a new prosecutor will look into the situation.

President then says his Personal Attorney will call as well as the Attorney General. And they with Ukrainian prosecutors "Will get to the bottom of it". CNN's Pamela Brown live for us at the White House, Evan Perez at the Justice Department. Pamela, first to you at the White House, the President says I did nothing wrong, but if you read this transcript, aid comes up, then investigating Biden.

PAMELA BROWN, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That's right. So the President and Republicans big talking point here John is that there is no quid pro quo. It is true, there is not the explicit quid pro quo of unless you investigate Joe Biden we're going to withhold military funds.

Let's break this apart here and also keep in mind the context of this President who rarely ever directly asks for anything. Michael Cohen his former fixer testified that oftentimes he speaks in a certain language and you just know what he wants. So let's go through this because very early on in this conversation, between President Trump and President Zelensky, the President teed up the conversation by talking about how much the U.S. helps Ukraine?

He goes on to say the U.S. has been very, very good to Ukraine in comparison to European countries. Later on it was President Zelensky who alluded to military aid, thanking the President for the United States' help with defense. It was after that the President said I'd like you to do me a favor, though and that's when he brings up the first ask which had to do with election interference in 2016.

The President asking without evidence for Zelensky to look into something he had heard that the Ukrainians had the DNC server from a company investigating everything and so that's how this all starts with this conversation after the presenter is done.

It was after that on page 4 of this 5-page transcript that the President brings up Joe Biden. Now, it is true President Zelensky brought up outreach to Rudy Giuliani, the President's Personal Attorney. Then the President said, 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. The President asking Zelensky to look into this unfounded allegation that Joe Biden asked had the prosecutor fired in Ukraine in order to stop the investigation into accompanying tied to his son.

Joe Biden has publicly push forward that prosecutor to be fired but because he wasn't doing enough on corruption. So that just gives you a sense of this phone conversation between the President and the President of Ukraine. John.

KING: And Pamela before I let you go, in this polarized environment where the Democrats say this is terrible and the President says it's nothing, the President just moments ago tweeted about you. What was that about?

BROWN: Yes. That's about this notion of explicit quid pro quo because that is something that Republicans really hit on, that the President didn't bring up military aid and say that he would withhold it in exchange for you know, if Ukrainians didn't do anything on Biden. Certainly obliquely it is referenced because even the President of Ukraine did bring up military aid and the President said I'd like you to do me a favor, though. White House aides say, yes, but he was talking about this Russian interference, Ukrainians role in that. He wasn't talking about Biden when he follow this add, I'd like you to do me a favor though.


BROWN: And Democrats have made clear that quid pro quo aside, they view the President asking the President of Ukraine to investigate his political rival as enough to open up the formal impeachment inquiry. John.

KING: Pamela Brown, for us live at the White House; appreciate all the reporting you've done on this. I want to go to Evan Perez now at the Justice Department. Evan one thing we do know is that the Trump appointed Inspector General for the Intelligence Community sent a referral, raised a question for the Justice Department asking was this a campaign finance violation when the President reached out for help against a potential Democratic opponent Joe Biden? What do we know about that? And how is that handled?

EVAN PEREZ, CNN SENIOR JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: We know John that the Justice Department determined that it did not constitute a crime that decision was made just in the past week. But it began, as you mentioned, in late August. That's when the Inspector General for the Intelligence Community first sent this over to this building, to lawyers here from the National Security Division, the Criminal Division. Some of the public corruption prosecutors all took a look at this over the last few weeks.

They also sent a separate referral to the FBI, which then deferred to the analysis that was being done here by the criminal division. In the end what they determined was that this did not reach to the level to merit a full-blown investigation. They determined that there wasn't enough evidence here that this was even a crime.

So one of the big questions is, is why would this even come over here? And under federal election law, it's illegal for you to accept anything of value for a campaign to - set anything of value from a foreigner. That's one of the issues here, was whether or not this was essentially a thing of value. In the end, the legal analysis done in this building was that it did not reach that.

The big question is because Bill Barr, the Attorney General, was mentioned by the President, what was his involvement? We're told by justice officials that he was minimally involved, that he was aware that this referral had been made but in the end this was something that was done by the Brian Benczkowski Head of the criminal division taking a look at all the legal facts here.

According to the Justice Department, Barr did not know that the President had brought his name up, that he didn't make any phone calls to the Ukrainian President or anybody else over there to try to investigate Joe Biden. He didn't have any involvement in any of this, but the fact that the President brought him up obviously makes this a big problem for Bill Barr going forward.

KING: To that point before I let you go and I might have to interrupt you, we're waiting for the President of the United States. We're waiting to hear from the House Intelligence Committee Chair so I may have to interrupt you. But I want to just get to this point you're making right here.

The President of the United States talking to the Ukrainian President about investigating Biden then says, so whatever you can do with the Attorney General would be great? And he said Biden went around bragging that he stopped the prosecution. Biden went around bragging that he fired the prosecutor.

That's grossly out of context. The whole western world, all the European Democracies reformers inside Ukraine wanted this prosecutor fired because they viewed him as the problem, they viewed him as corrupt. But to the point where the President says whatever you can do with the Attorney General, he's essentially asking the Ukrainian President to reach out to the United States Justice Department on some kind of investigation that involves Biden, right?

PEREZ: That's exactly right. That's what created this problem here for this building for the people here in the Justice Department. I should add that Barr and the justice lawyers in the past week went over to the White House and urge them to release the transcript. I think they'll knew that this--

KING: Evan, I'm sorry to interrupt you. Adam Schiff the Chairman of the House Intelligence Committee up on Capitol Hill.


REP. ADAM SCHIFF, (D) CHAIRMAN, INTELLIGENCE COMMITTEE: Notes of the call between the President of the United States and the President of Ukraine as well as the legal opinion drafted by the Department of Justice in an effort to prevent the whistleblower complaint from coming to our Committee.

And I have to say that I'm shocked by both. The notes of the call reflect a conversation far more damning than I or many others had imagined. It is shocking at another level that the White House would release these notes and felt that somehow this would help the President's case or cause.

Because what those notes reflect is a classic mafia-like shakedown of a foreign leader. They reflect a Ukrainian President who was desperate for U.S. support, for military support to help that country in a hot war with Putin's Russia, a country that is still occupied by irregular Russian forces and in which people face a very dangerous and continuing and destabilizing action by their aggressive neighbor.

And at the same time, a President of the United States who immediately after the Ukraine President expresses the need for further weapons, tells the Ukraine President that he has a favor to ask.

[12:10:00] SCHIFF: The President communicates to his Ukrainian counterpart that the United States has done a lot for Ukraine. We've done an awful lot for Ukraine, more than the Europeans or anyone else who has done for Ukraine, but there's not much reciprocity here. This is how a mafia boss talks. What have you done for us? We've done so much for you but there's not much reciprocity.

I have a favor to ask you and what is that favor? Of course the favor is to investigate his political rival, to investigate the Bidens. And it's clear that the Ukraine President understands exactly what is expected of him and is making every effort to mollify the President.

What adds another layer of depravity to this conversation is the fact that the President of the United States then invokes the Attorney General of the United States as well as his personal lawyer as emissaries in the case of the Attorney General as an Official Head of a U.S. Department, the Department of Justice that he says will be part and parcel of this.

Now, I know the Attorney General is denying involvement in this, but nonetheless you can see why the Department of Justice would want this transcript never to see the light of day. You can see why they have worked so hard to deprive our committee of the whistleblower complaint?

And in fact, the opinion by the Justice Department is startling in its own regard, because in that opinion the Department of Justice advances the absurd claim that the Director of National Intelligence has no responsibility over efforts to prevent foreign interference in our elections.

That will come as news or at least it should to the Director of National Intelligence, who is charged with among other things with detecting interference in our elections and with reporting to Congress about foreign interference in our elections.

But it is apparently the view of this Justice Department that the Director has no jurisdiction in this area. It is a sad fact that the Director of National Intelligence would agree to be bound by that view, that the Director of National Intelligence would adopt the view that he had no jurisdiction over an effort to seek foreign interference in our election.

That will be the subject of our hearing with the Director tomorrow. What's more the Department of Justice opinion doesn't even preclude the Director from providing that complaint to our Committee and yet he has withheld it in violation of the law.

But the fact that the President of the United States would invoke the Attorney General sends a further message to the Ukrainian President that this is not just me asking, this is not just Rudy Giuliani asking, this is the United States government asking and we plan to effectuate that through the Department of Justice. Whether those steps have taken place or not or whether those steps have now been prevented by the whistleblower complaint and all that has followed from that revelation. So here we have the President of the United States engaged in a shakedown of a foreign President, a President of the United States even as he is withholding vital military support to an ally, asking a favor of that ally to investigate his opponent. Just by way of background here so we know what's at stake.

In 1994 we tried to get Ukraine to give up nuclear weapons it inherited from the Soviet Union. They were reluctant to do so because those weapons might be a guarantee against aggression by their neighbor. That is, by the Soviet Union. But we and our allies persuaded the Ukrainians nonetheless to give up those weapons and we assured Ukraine that we would help guarantee its territorial integrity.

Well, Russia would then invade Ukraine and over the years since that invasion United States has provided, albeit not enough, military support to Ukraine. But the most recent support to Ukraine was held up by this President, hundreds of millions of dollars, for reasons that the President would not and the secretaries were not able to communicate even to leaders of their own party like Mitch McConnell, who said yesterday that he couldn't find out why this aid was being withheld.

Well, I think we know why the aid was being withheld, notwithstanding President's now conflicting explanations. Well, it was because we wanted them to investigate corruption. No, it was because we wanted Europe to give them more money even though Europe has given them even more than we have.


SCHIFF: I think we know why the President was withholding that assistance but regardless Ukraine understood exactly what was being asked of it? Ukraine understood exactly what they needed from the United States and that the President of the United States would interfere with our National Security, would interfere with the National Security of our ally and do so for the elicit purpose of trying to advance his election campaign having already sought foreign help in his first presidential campaign.

He would abuse his power of his office yet again this time to seek the help of another nation in his presidential campaign is the most fundamental betrayal of his oath of office. I'd be happy to respond to your questions, but one final point about the whistleblower.

We still don't have the complaint. Now that we have the Department of Justice opinion, I think it telling that they have released that and yet not released the Inspector General's legal analysis that takes issue with it. This is again Bill Barr's Justice Department trying to put out a misleading spin, in this case in the form of the department's opinion.

But nevertheless, that complaint needs to be provided to our Committee, it needs to be provided in its entirety. That whistleblower needs to be given instructions about how to come to our Committee and that whistleblower needs to be given the complete freedom to report any allegations of wrongdoing that have come to that whistleblower's attention.

We will not brook any kind of interference given how pervasive this cover up apparently is. Now I'll be happy to answer your questions. Yes.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: The White House says that this call summary proves that there was no quid pro quo because the withheld military aid never even came up in the conversation. What's your response to that?

SCHIFF: My response is the President of Ukraine brought up his country's need for military assistance and immediately thereafter the President of the United States said I have a favor I want to ask if you and would not let the subject go. There was only one message that that President of Ukraine got from that call, and that was this is what I need, I know what you need.

Like any mafia boss, the President didn't need to say that's a nice country you have, it would be a shame if something happened to it because that was clear from the conversation. There is no quid pro quo necessary to betray your country or your oath of office. Even though many read this as a quid pro quo, I'm not concerned whether it is a quid pro quo or not.

Ukraine understood what this President wanted. He made it abundantly clear, he made it redundantly clear. He had his emissaries making it clear. Ukraine knew what it needed to do if it wanted to get military assistance, and that is help the President of the United States violate his oath of office.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: So what specifically do you see as the impeachable offense here?

SCHIFF: Well, I think in its most naked form and this is what our inquiry is going to look into, the President has now admitted the notes of this call and we don't even know if these are the complete notes of that call, indicate the President of the United States shaking down a foreign leader, essentially undermining the National Security of this country for a personal political gain and one that violates his oath of office.

It is very powerful evidence of that kind of potential impeachable offense, but we want to get the full facts before the American people and we also want to make sure we take corrective action. I want to thank the whistleblower. We still don't know whether this is a subject of the whistleblower's complaint, but I think this single courageous individual may have had the effect of forcing the White House to provide Ukraine with this funding knowing that these matters were going to come to light.

But this whistleblower has already had a tremendous impact in exposing wrongdoing of the President of the United States and helping protect our National Security in a way that his or her boss was unwilling to do. By that I mean the Director as well as the President of the United States. UNIDENTIFIED MALE: --calls for impeachment for some time. Yesterday you came out in support of what the Speaker announced. After you seeing what you saw in this transcript, is that there any doubt in your mind that House Democrats will move to impeach this President?

SCHIFF: I don't want to get ahead of ourselves here. I think what we have learned, what has been admitted and now what we've seen in writing is about as damning as you can imagine. It will be a decision for us when we conclude our investigative work whether to bring this or other matters in the form of articles to a vote.


SCHIFF: And we'll cross that bridge when we come to it. No one should have any illusions about the seriousness of what is already uncontested and that is the President of the United States has betrayed his oath of office and sacrificed our National Security in doing so.

That I think is quintessentially what the framers were concerned about. I think it's quintessentially what the framers thought was the sum and substance of what might warrant a President's removal from office. So I don't want to understate the significance of what's already been revealed but I also don't want to get too far ahead of ourselves.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Do you expect to hear from the whistleblower as early as this week? What more do you expect to learn from him or her or from the full complaint that you can't already glean from the memo of this interaction between President Trump and his Ukrainian counterpart?

SCHIFF: Well, certainly I hope to hear from the whistleblower this week and perhaps as soon as tomorrow after the Director testifies. That whistleblower is trying to make sure that whistleblower is not subject to further retaliation. I say further because the President has already retaliated against him or her, retaliated by suggesting that the whistleblower is disloyal to our country, maybe they're representing some other country, that they're a partisan hack, that they have some hidden bias.

So there's already been retaliation by the President. I would have thought and I would have hoped that the Director of National Intelligence would have spoken out publicly in defense of his employee or contractor. That is someone reliant on the Director to protect them.

So I don't know whether it will happen tomorrow or not. I can tell you the whistleblower, I think, is eager to come and meet with our Committee. This is already a month overdue, at least a month overdue, and we are determined to make sure that that whistleblower has an opportunity once more that no one is sitting next to them trying to put a gag on what they can say.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I know the election specifically is not your foremost concern. If I'm not mistaken, today is 131 days until the February 3rd that's the Iowa caucus. So I'm curious from your prospective, what is the timeline that like how aggressively do you and your colleagues need to move so that you're not interfering with a Presidential election? You don't get too late into next year's cycle, is that a concern?

SCHIFF: I don't know what the timeline will look like except that we all feel a sense of urgency here. The Inspector General - and this is, by the way, not contested in the Department of Justice Sham Legal Opinion. No one has taken issue with the fact that this is urgent. DOJ comes up with this completely contorted rationalization that the Director of National Intelligence has no responsibility over foreign interference in our elections, which is completely bogus.

But nevertheless, they don't take issue with the urgency here. I'm not talking about the statutory definition, the fact that this needs immediate attention. So we need to get to the bottom of this whistleblower complaint ASAP.

In terms of ultimately how long it's going to take us to develop the full facts, I don't know. I would not have imagined things would have moved as swiftly as they did over the last week. But the cascade of admissions by the President, by Rudy Giuliani, who now gives a bizarre explanation that the State Department was involved in urging him to undertake these activities on behalf of the President to investigate his rival.

If he's being truthful there, and obviously that's a huge if, then there's a whole separate scandal involving the State Department, which by the way there probably is given the circumstances of the firing of the U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine. But I can't tell you what the timeline looks like. Yes.


KING: You've been listening to Chairman Adam Schiff of the House Intelligence Committee. He's a key player now as the Democrats build what they say is an impeachment inquiry build the case. Chairman Schiff said he didn't want to put the cart before the horse, but making clear he believes the Democrats do have threshold evidence that the President violated his oath of office.

He said at one point the President had a classic mafia like shakedown of Ukraine's President. He said that the Justice Department had a Sham cover up to help the president try to hide these documents in the Democrats we continue to push not only for more information but also the whistleblower who complained to the Intelligence Committee Inspector General that he believed the President had done something nefarious, something that at least involves this phone call with the President of Ukraine that we now have a transcript released, a rough transcript of today.

With me in studio to share the reporting and their insights, CNN's Nia-Malika Henderson, CNN's Jeff Zeleny and Karen Demirchyan with The Washington Post and Margaret Talev with Axios also our CNN Legal Analyst Michael Zeldin a Former Federal Prosecutor.


KING: One just note for our viewers, you might have seen in the bottom of your screen there President Trump signing some documents with the Japanese Prime Minister. That's the first step in a trade agreement. They're having a meeting now. We may still hear from the President. At that first signing he declined to take questions from reporters but we'll see if we hear more from the President.

Michael Zeldin, I just want to start with you on a legal question, if you just look at this five-page rough transcript. It's not a verbatim. There are a couple of ellipses in there that make you curious especially because of where they are in the document. If you just look at this, the Republicans say no "there" there, no straight-up quid pro quo, go away, leave the President alone. Democrats say it's the building block for an impeachment case. Impeachment is not a legal issue. If you were a prosecutor, would you see the seeds of a crime here or not?

MICHAEL ZELDIN, FORMER FEDERAL PROSECUTOR: There are two possible crimes that this memorandum outlines. The first is a pure campaign finance crime, which is that the President seems to have solicited from Ukraine information on Biden. That would be a thing of value. You could put it into the opposition research category of value. That in and of itself standing alone is a theoretical campaign finance criminal law violation.

The second is extortion bribery. That's where this quid pro quo language comes up. That is if you do this for me, I will do this for you. I think you can read implicit in this document the notion that Trump is saying if you do the Biden investigation, we will release the military aid that we promised you and the Senate approved long ago. There are two independent crimes that we need investigation on this memo.

The third point, of course, is that abuse of office, of violation of the public trust, which is what impeachment is all about, does not require criminal activity at all. One can violate their public trust and be clean of criminal law violations and still be impeached.

And in this document it does appear as if the President is using the powers of his office for his own personal benefit at the expense of National Security. That is military aid going to Ukraine as passed by the Senate and promised to the Ukrainians. I think there are three things here. They relate to one another, but they also are independently viable.

KING: Now let's bring the conversation to the room. There's the legal question, Michael Zeldin lays out if you wanted to you could try to make a case of legal violations. Then there's the political debate over impeachment, which is Michael smartly points out, you don't have to break the law to be impeached. That's a political decision to be made by the House of Representatives.

We see already everybody going immediately to their corners here. Let's talk a little bit about the political reaction. We're going to spend the hour on this. I just want to get to where we are politically. You see Chairman Schiff right there saying breach of oath of office, the President has violated his trust with the American.

Speaker Pelosi says the release of the notes of the call by the White House confirms that the President engaged in behavior that undermines the integrity of our elections, the dignity of the office he holds and our National Security. The President has tried to make lawlessness a virtue in America and now is exporting it abroad.

My question is the Democrats have enough votes. I think what changed yesterday is there's no such thing officially as an impeachment inquiry. The Democrats say they're having one but Pelosi for months has said if we impeach and the Senate then fails to act, the President will say Congress found me not guilty.

Now they have set up a scenario where if they don't impeach him, the President will say even House Democrats have found me not guilty. So they are on a path to impeach him. The question is can I get the country there?

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: I think that is the central question. One thing, as we step back from all this, you know this is fast moving a turn of events today. We thought a few hours ago that the release of this transcript was going to undermine Speaker Pelosi's argument for an impeachment inquiry.

It has done anything but that. It has fuelled the fire. Any Democrat who was wavering this morning they weren't quite sure if this was the right path? They are sure now because they believe that there is enough in this document to justify and validate what Speaker Pelosi did. So I think that is essential.

The White House is banking on one thing. I mean my conversations with Republicans in White House this morning. They are hoping to get it all out there and then say it's not true. So the President is going to have a press conference today at 4:00. He wants to put a bow on this today and he wants to drive this narrative.

We don't know what the politics ultimately will be of this. What we do know is day by day following the facts, there's no question now the Attorney General is going to be part of this, Rudy Giuliani is now going to be part of this. So what we've learned this morning, boy so much more than we thought we would just a couple of hours ago.

KING: Right, the document gives you, whatever you - I wish we could say people set aside your political views it doesn't happen in America anymore. This document gives you if you are looking into what happened, every reason to bring Rudy Giuliani up to talk about his meetings.

Every reason to ask the White House for the additional phone calls between President Zelensky and President Trump, to ask is it believable that the Attorney General's name comes up repeatedly in this phone call and it never makes its way to the Justice Department and if that is the truth--