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The New York Times on a Meeting at the White House; Putin Asked for Release of Transcript; Former Diplomats Agree to be Deposed; Guyger Could Face Life in Prison. Aired 9:30-10a ET

Aired October 2, 2019 - 09:30   ET




JIM SCIUTTO, CNN ANCHOR: Take a moment to listen to this next story because in a flood of unusual stories, unprecedented stories, this one is particularly remarkable.

"The New York Times" pulling back the curtain on what it is like to work in The Trump White House. As a staffer, a cabinet member, even a family member. Listen to their reporting on a particular Oval Office meeting and I'm going to quote here, the Oval Office meeting this past March began as so many had with President Trump fuming about migrants. But this time he had a solution. As White House advisers listened astonished, he ordered them to shut down the entire 2,000-mile border with Mexico by noon the next day. Advisers feared the president's edict would trap American tourists in Mexico, strand children at schools on both sides of the border and create an economic meltdown in two countries. Yet, they also knew how much the president's zeal to stop migration had sent him lurching for solutions, one more extreme than the next, end quote.

POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: The article goes on to read, quote, privately the president had often talked about fortifying a border wall with a water filling trench, stocked with snakes and alligators, prompting aides to seek a cost estimate. He wanted the wall electrified with spikes on top that could pierce human flesh. After publically suggesting that soldiers shoot migrants if they threw rocks, the president backed off when his staff told him that was illegal. But later, in a meeting, aides recalled he suggested that they shoot migrants in the legs to slow them down. That's not allowed either, they told him, end quote.

SCIUTTO: Yes, not allowed because it's against the law.

HARLOW: CNN's senior Washington correspondent Joe Johns is live at the White House.

Joe, is the White House denying this happened?

JOE JOHNS, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: You know what, they haven't said too much, but there's a lot going on here right now. And, you know, this is -- this goes back to that time in March when there was all this talk about shutting down the border, what have you.

And, I mean, you just have to imagine in your mind the secretary of state, the chief of staff, Jared Kushner, the homeland security secretary at the time Kirstjen Nielsen, in a room with the president, and the picture this book and this story paints is that the president essentially is raging because he can't get anything done that he wants to. One example here, he looks at them and says, you're making me look like an idiot. He's shouting according to this book. And he says -- he throws in some -- a profanity and says, I ran on this. It's my issue. And it certainly is his issue. But as a lot of people have noted, the president made some pretty outlandish promises and claims during that campaign, including making Mexico pay for the wall, which everybody knew wasn't going to happen.

Jim and Poppy.

SCIUTTO: Joe, obviously the president suggesting an alligator filled moat along the border is remarkable it's its own right. It's also remarkable the sycophantic response, is it not, from aides who instead of attempting to convince the president otherwise, did a cost estimate on some of these things?

JOHNS: Yes, well, there -- there certainly were cost estimates. And, I mean, I asked about cost estimates here among the president's economic advisers just how much it would cost if you were to shut down the wall and it was always, we'll get back to you. But they did have some numbers that they would give to the president.

It's also interesting, I think, the way the president was lashing out, according to this book, it didn't matter who it was. Even Jared Kushner, as a matter of fact, the president's son-in-law, took some of this on. The president says, all you care about is your friends in Mexico, because Jared Kushner, of course, had developed some relationships with people on the other side of the border. The president says, I've had it. I want it done at noon tomorrow, which, fortunately, didn't happen. They were able to ask him to at least give them a week to figure something else out.

Jim and Poppy.

HARLOW: OK, Joe Johns, thank you very much for that reporting.

SCIUTTO: This is just in to CNN.

Russian President Vladimir Putin responding to the scandal over President Trump's call with the Ukrainian president saying that Moscow asked the Trump administration to release details of his 2018 conversation with the U.S. president in Helsinki. Helsinki, of course, the famous moment where the president stood next to Vladimir Putin and accepted his word that Russia had not interfered in the 2016 election.

CNN's Fred Pleitgen, he joins us now from Moscow.

Fred, do you see the Russian president trolling the U.S. president here, to some degree, saying release the details of that conversation perhaps because he knows it might be embarrassing? [09:35:07]


Well, I assume, on the one hand, somewhat trolling the U.S. president in a big way, trolling the U.S. government and the U.S. in general, but then also, in a certain way, standing by President Trump's side. It was quite interesting because he had a very long panel discussion that he was a part of at the Russian Energy Week which took place earlier today, and that's where he made those remarks where he said, look, he's been in the public life for a very long time and he's said things in his past -- obviously he's a former KGB officers -- have taught him that many things will come to light and could be published anyway.

So they said with the Helsinki protocol and with the transcripts there, that they told the White House just to release those, that they should put those out because he believes that there was nothing in there which could be damaging to either President Trump and obviously to the Russian side as well. So that's certainly one of the things that was quite interesting in there.

But another interesting point that I picked up is he was flat out asked what he thought of the phone call that President Trump had in the transcripts that came out with the Ukrainian president, Zelensky, and he said essentially that he felt there was nothing wrong with it. It was almost -- it was interesting to hear, Jim, because it was almost the exact same wording that President Trump used himself. He said that the Russians had viewed it. He believed that this whole thing about impeachment was wrong. He said people keep bringing up Nixon, but Nixon was a completely different case.

And then Vladimir Putin said he believed that there was nothing wrong in those phone calls. And then afterwards went into trolling the United States, as you very much correctly put it, and said, look, I'll tell you a little secret. Of course we're going to meddle in the 2020 election. Of course people in that room took that to be a joke. But, of course, we know from the past couple of years and from all the agony that that's caused in the United States and, of course, for the U.S., that cannot be a laughing matter.

So, to a certain degree, yes, trolling President Trump, but very much trolling the U.S. in general as well, Jim.

SCIUTTO: Yes, no question. And, you're right, oftentimes the talking points are remarkably similar between what you hear from the president and from the Russian president on these issues.


SCIUTTO: Fred Pleitgen, great to have you there in Moscow.

HARLOW: All right, ahead, a burning question today, what is so urgent that the State Department's inspector general asked for a briefing with congressional committees right away. It's going to happen this afternoon on Capitol Hill. We'll talk about that ahead. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)


SCIUTTO: Just this morning, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, taking questions from reporters in Italy, finally confirming that he was on the July 25th phone call in which President Trump pressured the Ukrainian president to investigate the Bidens. We know he did because it's in the transcript.

This comes as Democrats on Capitol Hill and Pompeo are fighting over whether State Department officials will testify as part of the impeachment inquiry into Trump. As the two sides clash, at least two diplomats named in the whistleblower complaint, they're still planning to go ahead regardless of what the secretary of state says. Former U.S. Special Envoy Kurt Volker set for tomorrow. Former ambassador to Ukraine, Marie Yovanovitch, who was set to testify today, now expected to do so next week.

Joining me now, Ambassador Steven Pifer. He's a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine.

Ambassador, thanks very much for taking the time this morning.

I just want to take a reference to a reporter we had on earlier, Josh Rogan. He said that Volker's testimony is going to focus on his efforts, as I'll describe them, to contain the damage that this president was doing to America's Ukraine policy.

That's a remarkable thing for a recently former special envoy to Ukraine to say. What does that tell you about the state of U.S. foreign policy and to Trump specifically as it relates to Ukraine?

STEVEN PIFER, FORMER U.S. AMBASSADOR TO UKRAINE: Well, I think if you're sitting in Ukraine over the last seven or eight months, you've seen two American foreign policy approaches. One conducted by Ambassador Volker and our diplomats on the ground in (INAUDIBLE), which is aimed at promoting traditional American national interests and the second conducted primarily by Rudy Giuliani, which has been aimed primarily at the president's personal interests, bolstering his prospects for re-election in 2020.

And that's a problem. I mean if you read the memorandum of conversation of the July 25th phone conversation, President Trump is not doing the nation's business there. He's not asking Ukraine to be supportive at the U.N. or to allow different American trade terms. He's not asking Zelensky, how is the conflict in eastern Ukraine going. He's talking about things related to crowd (INAUDIBLE) and this long discredited story about Vice President Biden that are solely tied to his personal interests. That's not right.

SCIUTTO: Well, does it strike you that the personal effort here is trumping, sorry to use that word, but trumping the national effort here? Because, after all, the president has his attorney general now traveling the world. Beyond his lawyer going to Ukraine, he's going to Italy, he's going to Australia, pursuing these -- some of these are conspiracy theories. It appears that that is winning the day.

PIFER: Yes. And this is what would worry me because, again, if you're an American diplomat and the Ukraine leadership is hearing from somebody like Rudy Giuliani, who is very, very close to President Trump. And, of course, the Ukrainians are trying to establish a solid relationship with President Trump.


The concern for the American diplomat is, you know, Ukraine is going to be paying attention to what Mr. Giuliani wants, whether when what U.S. -- the embassy, rather (INAUDIBLE), which is American interests.


PIFER: And I believe here there's a significant risk for Ukraine, which is, since 1991, when Ukraine regained independence, Ukraine has enjoyed strong, bipartisan support in Congress. Republicans and Democrats alike. If Ukraine becomes a political football in our 2020 election, that could be endangered.

SCIUTTO: Well, I always remind people, Ukraine is today at war with Russian. Russian has lopped off part of the country, annexed Crimea and has invaded and continues to hold territory in eastern Ukraine, 13,000 people, more than 13,000 people have died in this war.

What struck me about the transcript of that phone call, the president did not once, once mention Russian in his conversation with the Ukrainian president. I wonder what signal Russian takes from that? Do they take that they can get away with what they want with this president?

PIFER: Yes, again, I mean, there was no mention of that conflict. There was no real mention of American support. It was a very strange conversation. I mean I spent time at the White House in the Clinton administration and you would never see a memorandum of conversation like this that was focused, you know, on the president's personal interests, not on what you're trying to achieve for the country.

SCIUTTO: And just briefly on those personal interests, because, as you know, the president continues to claim that Vice President Biden, as vice president, fired a prosecutor in Ukraine to help his son.

PIFER: Sure.

SCIUTTO: You tweeted the most concise response to that, shall we say. I'll quote it for our viewers here, utter bullshit. He threatened to withhold a $1 billion loan guarantee because Ukrainian prosecutor general Shokin was not doing his job.

And you note there that all of Europe wanted him fired because he wasn't being aggressive enough against corruption. Well, why can't that fact break through the fog of misinformation that this president is spreading and his allies are spreading?

PIFER: Yes, no, I don't know. I mean I think it -- you know there -- it's precisely that. It's trying to create a false narrative.

But back in 2015, 2016, everyone I knew in the U.S. government, the Ukrainians I talked to, the IMF, the World Bank, Europeans all thought Shokin was not doing his job and deserved to be moved out. And everybody that I talked to saw withholding that $1 billion loan guarantee as a smart application of American leverage to achieve that end.


PIFER: Moreover, there was no investigation into Hunter Biden, the vice president's son. So there's -- this is being created out -- created out of whole cloth. But I think some will believe that if they say it long enough, people will start to believe it. Unfortunately it's not true.

SCIUTTO: Well, facts are stubborn things. I suppose they're just not as stubborn things as they used to be.

Ambassador Steven Pifer, thanks very much.

PIFER: Thanks for having me.

HARLOW: Someone wise once said that.


HARLOW: And you're wiser and you've said it again today.

SCIUTTO: I don't know if I'm wiser.

HARLOW: All right, so, ahead, a former Dallas police officer convicted of murdering her neighbor is now facing life in prison. Just how much time will Amber Guyger spend behind bars? We'll take you live to Dallas.



SCIUTTO: Former Dallas Police Officer Amber Guyger could learn soon just how much time she will spend in prison for fatally shooting her unarmed neighbor in his home. Guyger was convicted of murder yesterday in the death of Botham Jean. She shot him in his apartment after mistaking that apartment for her own.

HARLOW: So with the murder conviction, she now faces up to life in prison.

Our Ed Lavandera once again this morning is live for us in Dallas around the developments.

This was a big question. You know, was she going to potentially getting a lesser charge here? But, no, she's been convicted of murder. So what do -- what's next? ED LAVANDERA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Boy, it was a shocking verdict,

Poppy. But now the sentencing phase, and that's what we're in the middle of. As you mentioned, she faces up to life in prison, could get as little as five years. So all that depends on the testimony and this same jury will decide her fate.

Prosecutors started putting on witnesses yesterday right after the guilty verdict was read in court. And one of the first people to testify was Botham Jean's mother, who talked about what a roller coaster her life has become since her son was murdered.


ALLISON JEAN, BOTHAM JEAN'S MOTHER: Because of his IT background, he assisted elderly people in setting up their computers. He told me he had set up a computer for an elderly couple so that they could have Skype contact with their children.


LAVANDERA: So Botham Jean's mother there kind of sharing some of the anecdotes of the charity work and philanthropic work and just the way he liked to help people. He's described as a beacon of light in his community. Clearly trying to get the jury to sympathize with what the family has been through over the course of the last year.

And one of the things prosecutors also shared was racially insensitive and offensive social media posts and texts that Amber Guyger had either liked or posted herself. So with all of that out there right now, this is in addition to her testimony from last week, we're trying to determine whether or not she is going to testify to try to minimize her prison sentence.

But if she does testify in this sentencing phase, she will have to answer those questions, which we would imagine will be scathing questions from the prosecutors as to, you know, what drove her to post some of those things online.


So the sentencing phase here will continue in probably in about 45 minutes or so here in the same Dallas courthouse where she was convicted yesterday.

Jim and poppy.

SCIUTTO: Just such a sad and useless loss of life there.


SCIUTTO: Ed Lavandera, good to have you on the story.

HARLOW: Thanks, Ed.

SCIUTTO: We are waiting now for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the intelligence committee chairman, Adam Schiff, to addressed reporters this morning. This as the Democrat's impeachment inquiry on President Trump enters its second week. Where going to bring those comments to you live.