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Origins of U.S. Hong Kong Involvement; Officials' Text Messages on Ukraine Released; Trump to Send Letter to Nancy Pelosi. Aired 10:30-11a ET

Aired October 4, 2019 - 10:30   ET



JIM SCIUTTO, CNN ANCHOR, NEWSROOM: -- 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?

MARY MCCORD, ACTING ASSISTANT ATTORNEY GENERAL, NATIONAL SECURITY DIVISION: Well, I think a number of things are concerning. One is that, you know, this will certainly not encourage other whistleblowers to come forward, right? Because they would see themselves, potentially, in the middle of an experience like this.

SCIUTTO: Seems to be partly by design, yes.

MCCORD: It does seem to be. And also concerning is, even if you assume sort of good faith on behalf of the Office of Legal Counsel, in their advice to the DNI, and even if you assume good faith on the part of DOJ attorneys in deciding there was nothing criminal to investigate, just putting aside good faith, then you have a gap, right? Then you have the potential for a whistleblower not to be protected because it's deemed not to be within the Whistleblower Protection Act.


MCCORD: And I think that's also something that Michael Atkinson was very concerned about, and remains concerned about.

SCIUTTO: He does. And we know. I mean, there were a lot of references to this whistleblower in public. It appears there is pressure to do exactly that.

Mary McCord, we appreciate your experience on this.

MCCORD: My pleasure.

SCIUTTO: I'm sure we'll continue to draw on this because this is not going to end any time soon.

MCCORD: Thank you.

SCIUTTO: Coming up, I'm learning new details about a call between President Trump and the leader of China, in which the U.S. president promised the U.S. would keep quiet about the ongoing pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong.

And be sure to watch this Sunday night to find out more true stories of the agencies protecting U.S. national security, on the original CNN series, "Declassified: Untold Stories of American Spies," it airs 9:00 Eastern time.

And that will be followed by another provocative episode of "This is Life" with Lisa Ling at 10:00, all of this only on CNN.



SCIUTTO: My colleagues and I are learning new details this morning about a call between the president and Chinese leader Xi Jinping, in which President Trump promised that the U.S. would remain silent about pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, while U.S. and China continued their trade talks.

Widespread demonstrations have continued for months in Hong Kong, some leading to violent clashes between protestors and police. Just a few days ago, an 18-year-old protestor was shot in the chest by a Hong Kong police officer.

Joining me now, CNN chief political analyst Gloria Borger. She and I reported out this story together.


SCIUTTO: So the U.S. president gets on a call with the Chinese president, the leader of an authoritarian country, and says, I'm not going to raise pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong. How significant is that?

BORGER: Well, it's the way Trump does business. And given everything else that's going on, it's just part -- a piece of this, it's all a piece of this. But it's sort of like, you scratch my back, I'll scratch yours. And for a president who says he's being tough with China, he's -- you know, they're going to beg him for a trade deal, you know, he offers to say, OK, I'm not going to touch a human rights concern, which the United States has apparently --

SCIUTTO: A priority for the U.S. for decades, yes.

BORGER: Exactly. I'm not going to touch this, so long as these trade talks continue. And you know, I think it's significant in that sense.

SCIUTTO: We -- one detail that's interesting here is that this message clearly went out in the administration --

BORGER: Oh, totally.

SCIUTTO: -- everybody's got to shut up. Tell us how that played out.

BORGER: And -- and this is important for people to understand, Because the State Department is big and has a lot of people working there, and there's someone named Kurt Tong, who was the U.S. general counsel in Hong Kong. And he was scheduled to give a couple of speeches in Washington about the circumstances in Hong Kong, what's going on, the human rights considerations, et cetera, et cetera.

And the message came to him from the State Department, no. You have to cancel these speeches because we in the State Department are not allowed to speak about Hong Kong because this has come from on high.


BORGER: And so this is how this kind of stuff filters down. I should point out that Tong did eventually give a speech on Hong Kong, but that was only after he left the State Department. But his orders were, from the Pompeo-led State Department, you are not allowed to speak about this.

So, effectively, he was muzzled from talking about this human rights concern.

SCIUTTO: Listen, I spent two years in government. In China, the easiest thing for a U.S. official to do is to call out support for human rights --

BORGER: Exactly.

SCIUTTO: -- and democracy in a country like this.

You know, I had the White House trade advisor, Peter Navarro, who's directly involved, as you know, in these talks with China. And I asked him a very simple point-blank question. Did you ever bring up investigating Biden in trade talks? Listen to how he dodged that question. I want to get your reaction.


SCIUTTO: Have you ever raised investigating Joe Biden or his son during your contacts with Chinese officials?



NAVARRO: Now, here's the thing. I will never talk about what happens inside the White House.

How is it that a U.S. president, going forward, is ever going to be able to have a candid conversation with a foreign leader about any sensitive matter, if the jackals are always wanting (ph) to get things revealed? You guys want every transcript revealed of everything.

SCIUTTO: -- well, but just before we go, I'll just give you the opportunity. Have you ever raised investigating Joe Biden or his son in Chinese negotiations?

NAVARRO: Have -- have you ever given me a source that's -- other than anonymous, for any of this crap?


SCIUTTO: Frequent talking point.

BORGER: I think that's a non-answer.

SCIUTTO: Why can't he answer? I didn't --


BORGER: Because maybe he -- look, it's a non-answer. And he's clearly on his talking points. And, by the way, I would remind Peter Navarro that it was the president who wanted the transcript released.



BORGER: It wasn't us -- what did he call us? Jackals?

SCIUTTO: Yes. Jackals.

BORGER: And -- that's a new one. And I -- but it was the president who said, release the transcript because his phone conversation was perfect and beautiful.

SCIUTTO: Yes. And beautiful.

BORGER: And beautiful. And so this -- these things don't happen in a vacuum. You weren't asking that question in a vacuum. You were asking that question because there's a possibility that, yes, Biden was raised.

But, you know, I think that what's interesting to me, this morning, that we're hearing, the talking points are going out to Republicans on Capitol Hill. All of them are about the Democrats, they're about the media. Not one talking point that I have read is about saying what Donald Trump did is OK --



BORGER: -- not one. And Peter Navarro could not say that either.

SCIUTTO: Gloria Borger, nice to work with you on this story.

BORGER: Thanks.

SCIUTTO: Here's a look at "What to Watch," coming up today.

TEXT: What to Watch... 11:40 a.m. Eastern, A.G. Barr speaks at DOJ event; 4:00 p.m. Eastern, Dem candidates speak at forum; 4:30 p.m. Eastern, Trump delivers remarks at summit


SCIUTTO: Well, despite the fast-paced developments in the impeachment inquiry and Ukraine scandal, President Trump is not getting much pushback from lawmakers in his own party. Why are most Republicans staying silent? And how long can they keep it up?



SCIUTTO: We've been analyzing, really, the shocking new text messages that came out overnight. This one's standing out. It's from July 25th, the morning of the now-infamous call between Trump and the leader of Ukraine.

Kurt Volker, then-special envoy to Ukraine, texted a top advisor to the Ukrainian president, saying, "Heard from White House -- assuming President Z convinces Trump he will investigate/ "get to the bottom of what happened" in 2016, we will nail down date for visit to Washington."

There it is, seemingly in black and white, quid pro quo. And yet you have reaction from House GOP lawmakers such as Jim Jordan, saying this.


REP. JIM JORDAN (R-OH), RANKING MEMBER, OVERSIGHT COMMITTEE: He has said comports with any of the Democrats' impeachment narrative. Not one thing."


SCIUTTO: How could he say that, when so clearly, the text messages seem to corroborate many aspects of the whistleblower's complaint? We're joined now by our political analyst and former congressman, Republican congressman Charlie Dent, and Democratic strategist and CNN political commentator Paul Begala.

You know, Charlie, we're so far through the looking glass, as I said a few moments ago, that even when you have what seems to be black and white evidence -- I won't call it proof, I'll just call it evidence -- to exactly what the whistleblower said in their complaint, you know, these signs of a quid pro quo, pressure, leverage on the Ukrainian government to do what the president wanted here. Why isn't that changing the narrative, convincing, really, any Republicans to come out and call it like it is?

CHARLIE DENT, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, Jim, I think the reason why they're not calling him out is because elements of their base have not turned on the president yet. But we have to be very clear. What the president has done here, he's used his resources -- the resources of the federal government -- to try to dig up dirt or investigate the Bidens.

That's simply -- it's wrong, it's inappropriate, it is -- frankly, I don't know if it's criminal or not. But this is a major problem. You know, I served as chairman of the House Ethics Committee and I'll tell you, if these sorts of things were brought up about a member of the House, using his office for these purposes --


DENT: -- this would have triggered an immediate investigation, and probably a referral to the Department of Justice at some point.

SCIUTTO: Here are the numbers. Because CNN did its legwork here, reached out to more than 60 sitting Republican senators and members of Congress. Those in the Senate, there, also many members of the House. And we asked them a simple question: Is it OK for the president to ask the president of China, authoritarian China, to investigate an American, Joe Biden? And there was silence there.

Paul Begala, you know, they're clearly looking, as Charlie said, at the numbers. They're looking at their local constituents' support for the president, and determining that this is politically risky for them. Does that change?

PAUL BEGALA, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: No. It could. I mean, all things change. The president has about 80 percent support among Republicans. That's actually down, he got about 88 in the election. But still, that's a remarkable strength in the base of his party.

So arrogant is he about that support, that our president as a candidate said, I could shoot somebody on Fifth Avenue and not lose any votes. This is the test, this is the shoot-a-man-on-Fifth-Avenue. And it's interesting. For example, Congressman Jordan, looking at the evidence that says, quid pro quo, he says, well, there's nothing here.

This is also a guy, Congressman Jordan, who famously, for many years, was assistant wrestling coach at Ohio State, where there was enormous scandal of sexual abuse of the athletes he was coaching.

SCIUTTO: Although it was not --

BEGALA: And he turned a blind eye to it.

SCIUTTO: -- but it was not -- that was not proven in the end, that he defended himself. There's was not a conclusive finding, that he had --

BEGALA: That's right.

SCIUTTO: -- knowledge of those --

BEGALA: But he certainly -- he knew or should have known. In other words, he has a terrific capacity to turn a blind eye. Seven of those wrestlers said he did not. It just -- I guess all of us are this way. if we don't want to recognize a fact, we just don't.

But this is now the Shoot-a-man-on-Fifth-Avenue Party. That's what this is. I mean, if you care about your oath of office, you have to say -- just an inquiry, they don't -- you know, that's the thing. I think the place to be here is where Nancy Pelosi is. Not some of the more radical Democrats, impeach the blank-blank, right?


SCIUTTO: Is to investigate, is what you're saying?

BEGALA: Just look at the facts. Just do an inquiry.

SCIUTTO: Charlie, I wonder if it is -- and I've spoken to a number of Democratic and Republican lawmakers about this, who -- and Democrats will grant this as well. This is -- it's Ukraine. Seems a million miles away. Their names are difficult to pronounce here. Doesn't seem connected to their daily lives, whether they're going to -- their wages are going to go up, that kind of thing. And China too.

Is that part of the issue here, that for constituents as we head into 2020, it just seems too far away, difficult to understand, for them to get their heads around this?

DENT: Yes. I think there's a lot of truth to that, Jim. I had noticed that during the whole Mueller Russia investigation, that many people had tuned the whole thing out. They became fatigued by it all, hard to understand. Although I would argue that this Ukrainian matter is a lot simpler to understand, you know, withholding foreign aid in return for an investigation of the Bidens, that was pretty clear.

And now the president, you know, just yesterday, calling out the Chinese, asking President Xi to --


DENT: -- initiate an investigation. I think this is pretty clear. And as Paul just said, you know, the arrogance of this is really striking. I mean, I can't begin to tell you that, you know, as a member of Congress, I spent so much time, trying to make sure that we were, you know, abiding by, you know, clear bright lines. You know, there's the campaign and then there's your official duties.

The president can't seem to -- he can't seem to distinguish between his personal interests, his campaign interests, and his governmental interests, which is really stunning.

SCIUTTO: Paul, there are, though, are there not, political risks for Democrats here? We had one of our reporters, going out in Michigan, talking to Republican and Democratic voters. And they're saying, man, you know, another investigation. And some of that's in some of the polling numbers, although they have changed a bit more in support of impeachment here. But let's not be naive here. There are political risks for Democrats as well.

BEGALA: Absolutely. The political loser here is the one who looks blindly partisan. And so if the Democrats begin by saying, let's remove him, let's incarcerate him --


BEGALA: -- somebody said that the other day. Wait, wait, whoa, whoa, time out. No. I think, though, if you, particularly at Nancy Pelosi, Adam Schiff, the faces of this to the Democrats, I think they've been very judicious. I know I've talked to her about it. Nancy Pelosi did not want --


BEGALA: -- to impeach this guy. She said that to me privately, she said that to everybody. It was on the level. She reveres the Constitution, she did not want to put the country through this. That's the right, frankly, political tone, too.

My friend Rahm Emanuel, who I worked with in the Clinton White House, he has -- and then he ran Obama's White House. He says, every time Democrats say the word "impeachment," the should add "inquiry." Because that's all this is. And so the Democrats should simply want to get the facts.

It's -- I think right now, the Republicans, who are saying, shoot a man on Fifth Avenue and we don't care.

SCIUTTO: Right. Well, we're going to see it in the numbers soon. Charlie Dent, Paul Begala, thanks to both of you.

A lot more to talk about. We'll be right back.


DENT: Thanks, Jim.


SCIUTTO: On his way to visit injured service members at Walter Reed, President Trump has just spoken to reporters on the White House lawn. Our White House correspondent Jeremy Diamond was there. Jeremy, a headline here. The president says he sent a letter to Nancy Pelosi?

JEREMY DIAMOND, CNN WHITE HOUSE REPORTER: That's right. The president, saying that he will be issuing a letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Now, it's not clear exactly what kind of a letter that would be. We're still waiting for the tape of the president's remarks to actually come in.

But we do know that White House lawyers have drafted a letter to the House speaker, Nancy Pelosi, essentially saying that they're not going to comply and that they're not compelled to provide documents requested by the House in their impeachment inquiry until they go to the House floor and vote formally to open an impeachment inquiry.

The White House, here, officials here have been pointing to past precedent and past impeachment inquiries, where there has been a House vote. But the speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, has insisted there's nothing in the Constitution that requires her to actually do that.

What we're also hearing from the president is, he's also defending his call with Chinese president Xi Jinping, back over the summer, in which, as we reported, Jim, that the president raised the former vice president, Joe Biden, and Elizabeth Warren in the context of the Democratic primary.

We also know from our reporting, Jim, that we did this morning, that the president also promised the Chinese president that he would not talk about or condemn Chinese actions in regard to the protests in Hong Kong. And the president, insisting again that all his conversations have been appropriate.

He's also, once again, continuing to defend his conversation with the Ukrainian president, and he's insisting that there has been no quid pro quo over U.S. security assistance to Ukraine.

Now, there may not have been an explicit quid pro quo there, but what we have seen in these text messages that have been released to the House committees, is that, clearly, Ukraine was facing great pressure over the security assistance, over these investigations since 2016 and into Joe Biden -- Jim.

SCIUTTO: Yes. And connections made between a presidential meeting and those investigations and also, it appears, military assistance. Jeremy Diamond at the White House, thanks so much to you for joining me today. I know it was a very busy day of news.


The news continues. I'm Jim Sciutto. "AT THIS HOUR WITH KATE BOLDUAN" starts right now.