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Damning Text Messages Detail Trump Administration Pressure On Ukraine; Sources Say Kushner, Mulvaney Run Point On White House Impeachment Defense; Intel Inspector General Arrives On Hill To Brief House Panel. Aired 10-10:30a ET
Aired October 4, 2019 - 10:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
JIM SCIUTTO, CNN NEWSROOM: -- going to be the subject of questioning on the Hill today.
A very good Friday morning to you. I'm Jim Sciutto in Washington. Poppy Harlow has the day off.
The breaking news this morning, right now, the man who first delivered the whistleblower complaint that set the impeachment inquiry rolling is back on Capitol Hill. The briefing from the Intelligence Community Inspector General will happen as Washington is rocked by what sounds like a smoking gun, a series of text messages showing U.S. diplomats appearing to offer a White House to the president of Ukraine. In return, they wanted an investigation into the 2016 election, into the Bidens.
A senior Ukrainian aid texted about plans to announce that investigation and the visit, quote, once we have a date, we'll call for press briefing, announcing upcoming visit and outlying vision for the reboot of U.S.-Ukraine relationship, including among other things, Burisma and election meddling in investigations.
Of course, Burisma, that's the Ukrainian gas company that put Hunter Biden on its board. Another text message shows a senior U.S. diplomat questioning why hundreds of millions of dollars in crucial U.S. military assistance to Ukraine was being held up at the time. Quote, are we now saying that security assistance and White House meeting are conditioned on investigations? Response, call me. In other words, take it off the text messages.
This is all happening as the president openly admits to enlist the other countries to investigate political rivals. Heck, he went out on the White House lawn. He asked China to do exactly that, saying that China should raise -- should investigate the Bidens.
We have a lot of reporting today. Let's begin with CNN Congressional Reporter Lauren Fox. She's on the Hill.
The Intel Community Inspector General, he has just arrived. What kind of questions can we expect to him today and can we expect to hear how he answered? LAUREN FOX, CNN CONGRESSIONAL REPORTER: Well, Michael Atkinson is here on Capitol Hill, where he will meet with the House Intelligence Committee. I've been told from a Democratic member questioning him today that one of the things that they want to know more about is what took so long to get this complaint to Congress? If this was an urgent matter, why didn't Congress get it sooner? They want to learn, because this is part of the impeachment inquiry, exactly who this I.G. talked to as well. Who else was part of this investigation? Was there anyone who could corroborate this because perhaps the Democrats would like to talk to that person as well?
I'm also told that Republican strategy this morning is to go in and try to question the credibility of this whistleblower, what kind of political bias did this person have? They also want to know more about exactly what was in that complaint and whether or not it was secondhand. That's something Republicans have been pushing.
But I will tell you something that's very clear. From the transcript and from these text messages that we're seeing, clearly, what is in the complaint has been verified so far by reporting and documents that have surfaced since.
Also today on Capitol Hill, there is a deadline for Mike Pompeo, the secretary of state, to turn over documents as part of the Democratic impeachment investigation. Jim?
SCIUTTO: Lauren Fox, thanks so much.
Sources are telling CNN that the president has tapped his senior adviser and son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney to head up his impeachment defense strategy. Jeremy Diamond joins me now from the White House.
Jeremy, the White House, for weeks, pushed back against the idea of a war room like we saw during the Clinton impeachment. Is this a war room or something smaller than that?
JEREMY DIAMOND, CNN WHITE HOUSE REPORTER: Well, Jim, as of now, there is no war room at the White House and the president and officials around him have largely resisted doing so. There has been some strategizing at the White House that has primarily been led by the White House Chief of Staff, Mick Mulvaney, and senior adviser to the president and his son-in-law, Jared Kushner.
But what we have largely seen is the president alone, at least as it relates to the messaging around this impeachment strategy. And that led to some dismay among White House officials and allies who I spoke with over the last day, who said that they were disappointed to see the president go out yesterday on the south lawn of the White House and ask yet another country to investigate the Bidens, saying that the president is making matters worse for him.
Where there has been some effort at the White House, it's been largely to try and reconstruct the timeline and the circumstances surrounding this call between the U.S. president and the Ukrainian president back in July as the White House begins to prepare its impeachment defense. What we are also seeing from the White House, it seems, is an effort to potentially dare House Democrats to go a little bit further with their impeachment inquiry. The White House officials really believe that the House Democrats should go to the floor and take a vote on the House floor to move forward with a formal impeachment inquiry. The House speaker, Nancy Pelosi, has, so far, resisted doing so, saying that there is nothing in the Constitution that requires her to do that.
But the White House, we're told, is now considering sending a letter to House Democrats, saying that they are not compelled to release documents to the House committee until they take that vote. Jim?
SCIUTTO: Doesn't appear to be constitutional basis for that but they'll likely go forward. Jeremy Diamond, thanks very much.
For more on these texts, let's bring in CNN National Correspondent Suzanne Malveaux. Walk us through this to some degree, because what's clear here now is that many of the elements of the whistleblower complaint appear to be corroborated now by texts supplied by Kurt Volker.
SUZANNE MALVEAUX, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: That's right. And, Jim, there are certain texts that they are really zeroing in on the committee, one of them, of course, around Kurt Volker. Who is he? He is the former U.S. special envoy to Ukraine who resigned immediately after the whistleblower complaint became public so he could speak freely.
He is mentioned in the whistleblower complaint and he is the one who connected Rudy Giuliani, the president's personal attorney, with Zelensky's adviser, Andriy Yermak. He has also served as executive director of Arizona State University's McCain Institute, so he is not hyper-partisan pro-Trump individual necessarily, but he is in touch with Andriy Yermak.
Now, who is he? He is the top Ukrainian presidential adviser, who is also part of this text change who Volker put in contact with Rudy Giuliani.
A couple of critical texts here. One of them happened before President Trump's phone call with the Ukrainian president. This was on July 19th. This is Kurt Volker. He says he had breakfast with Rudy Giuliani and he is texting the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, as well as the U.S. Diplomat, Bill Taylor, saying, teeing up call Yermak Monday. Must have helped. Most important for Zelensky to say he will help investigation and address any specific personnel issues if there are any.
Then on the morning of the call before the July 25th call, that critical call, again, a series of text messages. This one here, Ambassador Volker advising Yermak. This happens at
8:36 in the morning. He says, heard from White House, assuming President Z or Zelensky convinces Trump he will investigate investigation. Get to bottom of what happened 2016. We will nail down date for visit to Washington. He then wishes him good luck. All of this, Jim, as the inquiry and those who are investigating believe shows a quid pro quo.
SCIUTTO: Indeed, Suzanne Malveaux, thanks very much.
Let's discuss all these messages with my guests, Dana Bash, CNN Chief Political Correspondent, Shan Wu, former federal prosecutor, and Mark Mazzetti, Washington Investigative Correspondent for The New York Times.
But, first, just a few days after President Trump's call with the Ukrainian president, Ukraine's top diplomat, Andriy Yermak sent a text to then special envoy to Ukraine Kurt Volker, who said the following. Once we have a date, we'll call for press briefing announcing upcoming visit and outlining vision for the reboot of U.S.-Ukraine relationship, including among other things, Burisma and election meddling in investigation.
Dana Bash, help me out here, because we're so far through the looking glass here that contradictory facts, evidence don't change opinions. For days, the president and Republicans attacked the whistleblower as just not believable.
DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Right.
SCIUTTO: Now, you have text messages that corroborate each of the whistleblower's complaints here. Will this move the dial?
BASH: It could. It absolutely could. There were some Republicans, the ones who wanted to come out wanted to come out. But everything that they have said so far in their attempt to spin has been, you know, chopped to pieces with facts, you're exactly right, and with more corroboration, like what we saw last night, and, frankly, with what the president himself has said because he is just saying the quiet part out loud over and over again and adding to the problem.
And that is what I'm already hearing this morning from Republicans that this is why earlier in the week we've reported that they were waiting for -- worried about more shoes dropping. They're dropping loudly. The president is dropping them, slamming them on the ground.
And then, of course, that was the last night's release of these text messages that you were just talking about, corroborating the notion that the president and Rudy Giuliani and others in the administration were trying for a quid pro quo, even though, apparently, there was a text in there. The Republican on Capitol Hill pointed out to me this morning that says this is not a quid pro quo. But that is something that you would imagine somebody would text just in case the text would become public, right?
SCIUTTO: Yes, so much discussion.
I mean, Shan Wu, from a legal perspective, we already read that text which talks about connecting some sort of public statement by the Ukrainian saying, yes, we're going to go after all these political investigations that you want with a key meeting between the Ukrainian president and U.S. president. These meetings matter to these countries to meet face-to-face.
Let me read another one because this gets at what is another potential quid pro quo, and that is about U.S. military assistance to Ukraine.
This is from longtime U.S. diplomat Bill Taylor. He served as ambassador to Ukraine for a number of years, and he said the following. Are we now saying that security assistance and White House meeting are conditioned on investigations? In this case, Gary Sondland, a Trump appointee, ambassador to the E.U., he had an opportunity there to say, no way, absolutely not, we would never do such a thing. He says, call me.
From a legal perspective, as you look at these things, does that provide evidence that this was an exchange here or a proposed exchange?
SHAN WU, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: It certainly looks like the call me message indicates somebody who is very concerned about what that means legally. That's the question I say to my clients, quit texting me, call me, let's talk about it.
The quid pro quo aspect is all over the evidence in this case. And it's very obvious that State Department officials, White House officials were concerned about the propriety of it, that's why they hid the messages the way they did. But we should remember legally, you don't have to establish a crime for there to be an impeachable offense.
Ultimately, Trump has only one direction to go in, which is his executive privilege defense. That would be weakened if there was a criminal case going on. In Nixon, let's remember, it was a criminal case, unlikely to happen here with Barr, head of the Justice Department. But it doesn't have to be a full charged criminal offense for it to be impeachable, and there's a lot of evidence here for the impeachment inquiry.
SCIUTTO: Mark Mazzetti I want to draw your attention to another text to you, and this, again, gets to that military assistance here, this, again, from Bill Taylor, longtime U.S. diplomat. He says, the nightmare is they give the interview and don't get the security assistance. The Russians love it and I quit.
I mean, the point, just to remind folks at home, Ukraine is at war with Russia. For five years, Russia invaded, lopped off a part of its the country in Crimea, still occupying big parts of the country in Eastern Ukraine. It needs U.S. military assistance here.
So this is a significant weight of leverage, it is it not, to hold over the Ukrainian's head?
MARK MAZZETTI, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: Yes. And this is, I guess, the essence of the whistleblower's complaint, that American foreign policy, in essence, is being hijacked for the president's personal gain, that he is deploying Rudy Giuliani, the attorney general to kind of get people to go after his enemies and he's going to hold up the normal course of American foreign policy until that happens.
And what you see Bill Taylor expressing concerned about is, right, the Ukrainians need military aid and if there's a hold up to this aid, then Russia wins.
Now, what we need to know more about, I think, from these exchanges, of course, is where Taylor is getting his information about holding up the aid. Does he know this for a fact? Is he reading press reports? Clearly, he is a key actor here that everyone needs to hear more from because, presumably, he knows a great deal more than just in those text exchanges.
SCIUTTO: Absolutely. The Russians love it. That's key here. They win here.
Listen, stay with us Dana, Shan, Mark, a lot more to talk about we'll be right back.
SCIUTTO: Explosive new text messages released by the former special envoy to Ukraine underscore how Trump's personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, was involved in setting up the July 25th phone call between the two leaders. One text from Volker to the U.S. ambassador to the E.U. reads, quote, had breakfast with Rudy this morning. Teeing up call with Yermak, the presidential adviser, Monday. Must have helped. Most important for Zelensky to say that he will help investigation and
address specific personnel issues, if there are any.
Let's bring back our analysts, Dana Bash, Shan Wu and Mark Mazzetti.
Mark, specific personnel issues, that's notable there because, of course, the president fired the U.S. ambassador, a longtime diplomat, U.S. ambassador to Ukraine. Apparently, based on the perception, she was not playing ball in this politically motivated investigation.
MAZZETTI: Right. It does appear from all that has come out from the last couple of weeks is that President Trump made policy towards Ukraine entirely focused around his own political fortunes, whether, in fact, the leadership in Ukraine would investigate his rivals, namely, first, Joe Biden, and also whether investigating the 2016 election.
And so you have kind of two tracks going on. You have Rudy Giuliani carrying out this kind of shadow foreign policy meeting with Ukrainians to try to handle the Biden end of things. And then you have the Attorney General, Barr, Trump hopes, will carry out this investigation examining 2016. So these are the two tracks of what the president is interested in and what he brings up in the call with Zelensky. SCIUTTO: Okay. So, Shan Wu, what is the significance of the president's personal lawyer going to Ukraine, mixing it up in the midst of a key U.S. national security relationship here and pressuring and making arrangements for an exchange? It may be involving U.S. national security, getting in the middle it.
WU: Well, it's early October but Rudy cannot wait for Halloween because he has been dressing as Mike Pompeo for quite some time. There is talk about him being rogue or running shadow process, which is all true, but it's not really rogue.
I mean, it's clear that he is working at the direction of the president.
And, ultimately, I think Giuliani is going to be a big problem for Trump because he won't be able to hide is actions behind privilege. First of all, his own description of his role is all over the place. Sometimes he's working by himself. Sometimes he's working for the president. However, his actions won't be privileged. He was meeting with people who talked, what he talked about, he can't cloak that in privilege. So I think that's a big vulnerability (ph).
SCIUTTO: Dana, let's talk about the politics here, because we often make the point impeachment is a political process. You need political support beyond one party to make it move in any significant way.
So over the last 24 hours, CNN reached out to more than 60 Republican lawmakers in the Senate and House to ask them just a very simple question. Did the president go too far to stay on the White House lawn and call on China, an authoritarian country with no credible history, credible rule of law to investigate a political opponent? And we got silence.
Here's a list. The exception to this is Will Hurd, who is an outgoing Republican member of Congress who came on CNN this morning and called it terrible, that presidential request. But look at that silence there. Why is that and will it change?
BASH: Because they don't know what to say and they don't have to say anything yet.
SCIUTTO: Why is it not simple to say that the U.S. president should not reach out to an authoritarian country to investigate an American?
BASH: It should be. But you're not a member of Congress with a very large Republican base who love the president and believe that he can do no wrong. But it shouldn't be that hard. You're absolutely right.
Which is why it is interesting that the House Republicans and the president himself now, they are pressuring the House speaker to take a formal vote to start the impeachment inquiry. She just said it. That's why there is an impeachment inquiry. In the past, there have been formal votes to start it. Now, the Republican argument is that it's politically dicey for a lot of Democrats. They don't want to be on the record because they can see the ads in, let's say, Elissa Slotkin's district in Michigan, where the president won by 7 percent. Elissa Slotkin --
SCIUTTO: A lot of them are already coming out publicly saying they support the inquiry, right?
BASH: Exactly. So I think what's noteworthy is -- and what could be problematic is for Republicans in the House because they're the ones who are going to have to be on record if their Republican leadership are successful enough in pushing for this vote. They're going to have to be on record even before there could be an actual vote on articles of impeachment, which could be politically dicey for them for the reason that you just said, depending on where they are.
SCIUTTO: Yes, all right. It cuts both ways, possibly. Shan, Dana, Mark Mazzetti, thanks to all of you. I think I'm going to be talking to you again about this at some point because there is probably going to be some more news, and we're going to follow it.
Right now, the Intelligence Community's inspector general, Michael Atkinson, he is on Capitol Hill briefing lawmakers about the whistleblower complaint.
Next, I'm going to speak to a former colleague of Atkinson's on how she thinks he is handling being in the center of an impeachment inquiry. That's all coming up.
SCIUTTO: Welcome back.
Right now, Intelligence Community Inspector General Michael Atkinson on Capitol Hill testifying. Atkinson finds himself in the middle of a political firestorm as he
briefs the House Intelligence Committee, this behind closed doors. Today is the first time Atkinson will brief the panel since the release of the whistleblower complaint.
Joining me to discuss is Mary McCord. She worked with Atkinson at the U.S Attorney's Office in D.C. and the DOJ's National Security Division. She is currently a senior litigator at Georgetown Law. Mary, thanks so much for taking the time.
MARY MCCORD, SENIOR LITIGATOR, GEORGETOWN LAW: Sure, my pleasure.
SCIUTTO: So you said this about the inspector general, Atkinson, as soon as you saw that he had recommended the whistleblower complaint to be sent to Congress, that's all I needed to know it was legit. Tell us why.
MCCORD: Well, I worked with Michael at the U.S. Attorney's Office in D.C. He was responsible for some of our most significant fraud and public corruption investigations. I know him to be careful, meticulous. He doesn't get ahead of himself. He doesn't seek the limelight. And so I knew that when he recommending this be brought to the attention of Congress, that was because he had done his job, he had applied the law as he understood it, he had done some investigation and he found it credible.
SCIUTTO: And we know the current environment that will not stop him from becoming a target of this administration or surrogates.
Let me ask you about the way that the Director of National Intelligence handled Atkinson's report but by first going to White House lawyers then the Department of Justice before reporting as the law requires to the relevant committee on the Hill.
MCCORD: Well, I think, as Michael Atkinson pointed out in one of his letters to Congress, that was an unusual way to handle it. I understand that the acting Director of National Intelligence has explained himself that this was an unusual whistleblower complaint because of the potential for executive privilege to be involved. But I think Michael Atkinson, to his credit, was worried that this information might never get to Congress. So he continued to persist in the face of what could have been DOJ and White House squashing the entire thing.
SCIUTTO: The president has attacked the whistleblower. The president's surrogates have attacked the whistleblower. They've attacked the whistleblower complaint. Many elements of which have now been corroborated by text messages that we've been reporting on the air now, tell us about the damage it does to the whistleblower process, which is designed for extreme circumstances, right, when you witness what you believe to be wrongdoing, the damage to that by having this kind of public raining down of questions and attacks.
MCCORD: Well, I think a --