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THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER

White House Cover-Up?; White House Blocks Ambassador's Testimony Before Congress. Aired 4-4:30p ET

Aired October 8, 2019 - 16:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


[16:00:00]

BROOKE BALDWIN, CNN HOST: That is the same facility where the woman who killed Grammy Award-winning singer Selena is housed.

I'm Brooke Baldwin. Thanks for being with me.

"THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER" starts now.

JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: A source says that the White House is done -- quote -- "playing nice" with Democrats. So, the past three years, they were being polite?

THE LEAD starts right now.

Breaking news: new details on the scramble inside the White House right after the president pushed the leader of Ukraine to investigate Joe Biden, as CNN learns that impeachment could go far beyond just the Ukraine scandal.

A new twist. Trump allies in Congress now want a vote on the impeachment inquiry in the House, and Speaker Nancy Pelosi does not. Why?

Plus: the Supreme Court debating the meaning of sex in a critical case of LGBTQ rights, and a justice that President Trump appointed could potentially be the swing vote.

Welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

And we begin with the politics lead.

Today, House Democrats are saying they will issue a subpoena against a key witness in the Ukraine scandal for documents and his testimony, after the White House today blocked him from testifying on Capitol Hill, as Democrats probe details concerning President Trump using the power of his office to push a foreign country to conduct investigations to help him politically.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi called the president blocking this key witness a -- quote -- "abuse of power."

That key witness is U.S. Ambassador to the European Union and major Trump donor Gordon Sondland. Republican Senator Ron Johnson told "The Wall Street Journal" that Sondland told him that U.S. military aid to Ukraine was tied to Ukraine agreeing to -- quote -- "get to the bottom of what happened in 2016."

That is Trump-speak for a push to undermine the Mueller investigation and the larger conclusion by U.S. intelligence that Russia interfered in the election to help President Trump, that conversation on top of the recently released text messages linking U.S. aid to Ukraine to Ukraine investigating the Bidens.

The top diplomat in Ukraine, Bill Taylor ,wrote to Sondland -- quote -- "As I said on the phone, I think it is crazy to withhold security assistance for help with a political campaign" -- unquote.

Sondland waited about five hours and then replied -- quote -- "Bill, I believe you are incorrect about President Trump's intentions. The president has been crystal clear, no quid pro quos of any kind."

A source now tells CNN that, during that time gap, Sondland phoned President Trump himself.

Now, the president has said publicly that the Ukraine conversation was -- quote -- "perfect," that there is nothing wrong with what he's done, that there is no quid pro quo. That is what he says.

Now, what he and the White House have done, well, that is a different matter. They hid the rough transcript of the call with the president of Ukraine in a hyper-secure computer system. They tried to keep it from Congress after the whistle-blower went to the inspector general.

They're attacking the whistle-blower. And now, as of today, they're blocking witnesses. We will leave it to you to judge if that is how officials with nothing to hide behave.

CNN's Kaitlan Collins picks up coverage now with new reporting on how the White House immediately tried to bury that Ukraine call to keep it from the American people.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Today, the White House intervened for the first time to stop a key witness from cooperating with Democrats' impeachment inquiry, blocking top diplomat Gordon Sondland for showing up for his deposition, only hours before it was scheduled to take place.

REP. ADAM SCHIFF (D-CA): By preventing us from hearing from this witness and obtaining these documents, the president and secretary of state are taking actions that prevent us from getting the facts needed to protect the nation's security.

COLLINS: President Trump said he stopped it because the inquiry is illegitimate, calling it a "totally compromised kangaroo court."

His allies signaling this could be a broader strategy to stonewall, with one saying the days of playing nice are done.

REP. JIM JORDAN (R-OH): When you have a speaker of the House who says, we need to strike while the iron is hot, when you have a chairman of the committee who is so biased against this president.

COLLINS: The fight coming as CNN is learning more about the call that started it all. Sources say, as soon as Trump hung up with Ukraine's president in late July, a mad scramble began inside the administration.

At least one National Security Council official alerted the White House's national security lawyers that there were concerns about what Trump said. Those are the same lawyers who later ordered the transcript moved to a more secure server in order to limit those who could see it.

Several aides frantically asked if they should notify other senior officials who weren't on the call, like those at the Justice Department, since Trump had invoked the attorney general's name several times.

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The focus now turning to those who listened in during the call, including the secretary of state, top national security officials, and aides for the vice president and chief of staff.

Democrats say, despite White House efforts to stonewall, they will continue their investigation of whether Trump abused the power of his office.

SCHIFF: Through this impeachment inquiry, we are determined to find the answers. Thank you.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

COLLINS: Now, Jake, we're also learning that the White House has reached out to outside attorneys to get counsel on impeachment.

One of those, according to what a source told my colleague Pam Brown, is a former congressman from South Carolina, Trey Gowdy. Now, that follows CNN reporting that the president had been initially resistant to the idea of performing an impeachment defense team or bringing in new attorneys, believing that doing either would make him look weak.

TAPPER: Hmm. All right.

Kaitlan Collins at the White House, thank you so much.

Let's chew all over this with my experts.

Amanda, I'm interested in your opinion on this.

To me, just having covered enough of these things, Taylor's texts in which he says, just as I said on the phone call, blah, blah, blah, I don't approve of this, is what he's saying, read like somebody trying to establish a paper trail.

AMANDA CARPENTER, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Yes. TAPPER: And Sondland's text, which came five hours later or so, to

me, read like somebody who just talked to a lawyer and said, what should I write back? Do you agree?

(CROSSTALK)

CARPENTER: Yes, I agree.

And that's why I wonder why the House isn't going after Bill Taylor more. He is the key to this. He is the guy who clearly saw something was going wrong and tried to document it. And maybe they are trying to work something out behind the scenes.

But this sort of goose chase to try to get Sondland and try to the president's lackeys, I don't understand that. Talk to people who want to talk. Talk to people who are trying to document this, rather than trying to go after hostile witnesses, in building up a case about obstruction.

TAPPER: I'm sure they're -- I don't know. But I'm sure they're going after Taylor, too.

Phil, I want to get your take on this? How does this read to you? Taylor says -- quote -- this is a text message on WhatsApp. "Are we now saying security assistance and the White House meeting are conditioned on investigations?" which was basically a quid pro quo.

Sondland writes back, "Call me."

What does that mean to you? Call me.

(LAUGHTER)

PHILIP MUDD, CNN COUNTERTERRORISM ANALYST: I only spent 25 years in government, just only.

(CROSSTALK)

CARPENTER: He could have just called him.

MUDD: But this is pretty simple. You're correct. This is called record copy.

That is, the appointed official, that is, the non-Trump official, the ambassador, is saying, I want it on the record what we're doing here, because phone conversations are going to be he said/she said if it ever goes public.

That individual on the other end of the line, in this case text messaging, is saying, I don't want that on the record. Call me, because a phone call is going to be, it is months ago, nobody -- both of them are trying to, as you suggested -- it is not what you think, Jake. This is a fact. It is what you suggested. They both want a record copy.

Each of them, the career guy wants a record copy saying the president just screwed us. The political guy wants a record copy that says that never happened.

TAPPER: And how is the White House preparing for this, other than mean tweets and just having their minions in Congress go out there and lie?

ABBY PHILLIP, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: It is very telling that even though Sondland's testimony has been scheduled for many days, the decision to pull his testimony only came last night.

They are making a lot of these decisions on the fly, responding in large part to what the president wants. The president himself made it clear that he was the one who was not comfortable with Sondland testifying.

Here is why all of this previous conversation we were just having and that question are related. Sondland is the person who was communicating directly with President Trump about all of this, all of it. So Bill Taylor knows what he thinks was going on. Sondland knows what was actually going on, because he was communicating with the principal about it.

That is what makes him such an important witness. It's also what makes the White House and the president nervous about him getting in a setting where he's testifying under oath and cannot lie to Congress without risking potential jail time.

TAPPER: And let's talk about Sondland for one second. OK?

He's a very, very wealthy hotel guy. He was a Jeb Bush backer, then gave $1 million to President Trump's inaugural committee, got in that way.

Now, he is the U.S. ambassador to the European Union. Now, I'm no expert on international affairs, but last I checked, Ukraine is not in the European Union. So what is he doing here, in your vie?

NAYYERA HAQ, FORMER STATE DEPARTMENT SPOKESPERSON: Well, I think he's trying to execute the orders of the boss man. And that is the challenge with political appointees, often vs. civil service or career officials, who are dedicated to the cause, rather than to the person.

The entire State Department right now has been rattled, not just by this incident, but previous I.G. reports from even this past summer about how political appointees have been calling holdovers traitors and questioning their loyalty to Donald Trump.

And it underscores how important it is to have a service that is dedicated to American values and the Constitution. That is ultimately what is being tested here with this. Unfortunately, the Trump administration seems to be hanging their hat on this idea they argued in court today, that the Nixon impeachment process was improper.

[16:10:02]

And that is your argument, that Nixon was railroaded. When you have gone that far down the line, it shows that you are far more interested in obstructing justice than you are in telling the truth.

TAPPER: Geraldo Rivera told Sean Hannity the other day -- I'm paraphrasing -- but something like, thank God for you. If you had been around during Nixon, he never would have been impeached.

MUDD: This, to me, is kind of painful as a former government guy.

When new people come into town, whether it is Democrats or Republicans, people like me reviewed a suspect. It's like two dogs at a fire hydrant. They're sniffing out each other saying, who is the other dog here?

When the new guys come in, the political guys are saying, these guys know a lot at the CIA, the FBI and the State Department, but they are not reliable. This is a reliability test. The political guy is saying, I can't trust you. You better call me, because I'm afraid you are going to take these texts and give them away to somebody. Very simple.

TAPPER: And, Amanda, I believe that has been reported that these texts were on personal devices on the WhatsApp app, which is to keep stuff from individuals.

CARPENTER: This is clearly official communication.

TAPPER: Yes. Obviously, this is about official stuff.

And Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff said today the State Department also has personal devices belonging to Sondland with more texts and more e-mails they want to see.

I recall them being offended when somebody else had like...

CARPENTER: What was her name?

TAPPER: Yes, had a system for avoiding -- for avoiding this kind of way that the government could easily get to something.

CARPENTER: Yes, these secret servers and secret messaging apps are going to come back to bite you.

But there is an interesting talking point I'm seeing gain a lot of steam in conservative circles among Republicans who are really trying to rationalize this. They just come out and say, you know what? This is bad. All this is bad, the messages, the Secret Services, but it's not impeachable. We need an election to decide what's going on.

And after the Mueller report, I thought that was a decent rationale, let the election decide it. But the thing that you have here, you have the president and a lot of his men participating in election offenses.

So how do you ensure that you're going to have a free and fair election in 2020 when the president has shown a willingness three times, with Russia, Ukraine and China, to cheat? This is what it goes down to. People keep talking about election interference, foreign interference. It's cheating to win an election. So Republicans, if you don't want to impeach him, what are you going to do to stop it?

I don't know that answer.

TAPPER: All right, everyone, stick around. We got a lot more to talk about.

The two moves congressional Republicans just made on the Hill in an attempt to push back against the impeachment inquiry.

Plus, the NBA now saying that they're not sorry for that tweet that could cost the league billions of dollars in China.

Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

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TAPPER: We're back with the politics lead as House Democrats grapple with how to respond to the new stonewalling from the White House, Republican lawmakers are pushing for a vote to formalize the impeachment inquiry.

CNN's Sunlen Serfaty is on Capitol Hill for us.

Sunlen, Speaker Pelosi says she does not need a full House vote. Why are the Republicans pushing this?

SUNLEN SERFATY, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Really, Jake, for political and practical reasons. First on the process, Republicans believe that if they have a full House vote to authorize the impeachment inquiry, it potentially could give them power that they don't have right now, at least more power than they have right now, potentially even giving them a chance to subpoena their own witnesses, subpoena their own information that they want.

And politically speaking, Republicans certainly here see this as an opportunity to delegitimize the Democrats-led impeachment inquiry to try to reframe the narrative essentially that as we've heard them say over and over again, as we have heard out of the White House, that the Democrats have not voted on the full floor to authorize the impeachment inquiry and as you said, Speaker Pelosi, she has not ruled out a full House vote but she doesn't believe that it's necessary.

TAPPER: At the same time, obviously, Democrats control the House, Republicans control the Senate and Senator Lindsey Graham there said, as chairman of the Judiciary Committee, he has invited Rudy Giuliani, the president's personal attorney to testify.

What will that accomplish?

SERFATY: That's right. And this would essentially put Rudy Giuliani in front of a much, much friendlier audience over here in the Senate than he would be in he were to appear in front of the House and even in making -- in that announcement today, the fact that this committee is not only chaired by a top Republican here in the Senate, Lindsey Graham, but one of the fiercest defenders and friends of Trump, and Graham making that announcement acknowledged he wanted to hold a hearing on corruption and other improprieties in Ukraine and not even really saying anything about the format, no word if it would be an open session or not.

So, certainly much better set of circumstances potentially laid out before him Senate side than House side. Giuliani today telling CNN he's still a lawyer, will still have to deal with privilege, but he added: Given the nature of Graham's invitation about my concerns, I might be able to do it without discussing privileged information -- Jake.

TAPPER: All right. Sunlen Serfaty on Capitol Hill for us, thanks so much.

I want to bring in former federal prosecutor Elliot Williams, along with former FBI general counsel, Jim Baker.

Thanks so much -- so much for being here.

Elliot, let me start with you. I understand the political arguments for not holding a formal vote on the impeachment inquiry. They don't want to give the Republicans more power including subpoena power, the Democrats, and cloud everything up. They don't -- they want to protect the vulnerable members.

Those are politic arguments. I don't have a legal argument.

[16:20:01]

And I don't hear like a principle beyond wanting to control the process. Am I wrong?

ELLIOT WILLIAMS, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: No, you're absolutely right. There isn't a legal argument here.

What they're trying to do is two things, number one, make it about process because, you know, if you're talking about process, you're not talking about the substance. And if you're talking about the process, you're not talking about the president's conduct.

And number two, what they're trying to do is put vulnerable Democrats in the position of having to vote on whether they proceed with impeachment, these Democrats in Trump won districts.

But no, there isn't a legal basis here. What happens is when an article of impeachment is introduced, the House of Representatives will vote on it. But you don't have to have a vote to decide you're moving forward with impeachment. That's silly.

TAPPER: And, Jim, let me ask you, as a law enforcement person, how would you tell, advise Democrats to proceed, to make this as much about law and standards of law and standards of behavior and not about all of the political mess?

JIM BAKER, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Well, focus on what the law is that applies in this area. And the law that applies in this area is the Constitution directly. That's where the focus should be. Not on statutes or the procedural rules and so on.

And so, to echo what Elliott was saying, the president and the outsiders don't get to tell the House of Representatives how to deal with impeachment. That is by the Constitution reserved so them. They're the ones that decide the process. They decide the substance, they decide whether to go forward or not.

And so, we're talking directly about the law here, it is the Constitution of the United States and the House gets to decide, not these extraneous bodies, and the minority can't force the majority what -- to do what they don't want to do.

TAPPER: Elliot, the top lawyer for the House Democrats told a federal judge today that President Trump could be impeached for lying to the American public, that's not a crime, lying to the American public. It is a crime to lie to the FBI but not to the American public or to prosecutors, but not to me.

And the president would not have to be -- to commit a crime to be impeached. That sounds like they're kind of outlying -- outlining what the strategy in the House might be in court.

WILLIAMS: Right. So, ultimately, Congress has sort of said, there's no real rules on what constitutes a high crime and misdemeanor which are the words in Constitution was impeachable. Typically, what Congress has found is number one, if a president or a high official has abused power. Number two, engaged in behavior that's incompatible with the roles of the office, or three, acted in personal gain.

So, certainly, acting in an obstructive manner would fall in that conduct but there doesn't have to be a crime committed in the sense that, you know, he met the standard for obstruction of justice or something like that. If one of those three areas is met, absolutely, it's impeachable.

TAPPER: And, Jim, the House lawyer, the Democrats lawyer said also that impeachment threads could also include, theoretically, findings from the Mueller investigation, and the Mueller report, and that Speaker Pelosi is on board with that. Do you think that's smart or would it be better just to keep it focused exclusively on this Ukraine story?

BAKER: Yes, I -- so, I think, technically, they could do it. And Doug Letter who represented the House is a suburb lawyer and so, they could do it. I'm just worried that is going to drag them, it's going to delay things and have the focus lost.

Right now, it seems like the American people, at least a significant number of them, are upset about the president's conduct with respect to Ukraine and his comment about China. And so, I guess I would try to focus on that. When you're investigating or prosecuting any type of case, you don't

want to load up, for example, your indictment with a bunch of extraneous stuff if you think it's going to distract the jury or open the door to the defendant making sort of a circus in front of the -- in front of the jury. So, a tight, focused proceeding is probably in their best interest.

TAPPER: All right. Jim, Elliot, thank you so much. Appreciate it.

Breaking news on president's call with Ukraine. "The New York Times" is reporting on one White House official's concerning description of that call. What that official told the whistleblower, that's next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:28:48]

TAPPER: Breaking news. "The New York Times" is reporting that a White House official who was listening to the Trump/Ukraine call in July described the conversation as crazy and frightening. Those words in quotes, crazy and frightening.

The official was, quote, visibly shaken by what had happened, according to a memo written by the whistleblower, "The Times" reports.

Let's chat about this.

Is this the kind of thing that would be in a whistleblower report, that other people reacted saying they were shocked and frightened?

MUDD: Boy, if I'm in the whistleblower team, I'm really careful about this. If you read the initial report -- as a former CIA guy -- very well-written, factual, sort of unemotional.

This adds emotion and judgment. I want that out of there. This is what happened. This is what the president said. I view -- I would view this from the whistle-blower's perspective as a problem.

That said, there is one angle on this that's critical. You have one whistleblower report and Republicans say it's secondhand. What this tells is there's lots of people on the inside saying, they're saying this is secondhand, I had the same response this person said. These kind of people I think are going to come out of the woodwork, people who didn't like what happened.

NAYYERA HAQ, FORMER OBAMA WHITE HOUSE SENIOR DIRECTOR: Here is the thing about inspector general report, they go throughout the department or throughout the agency and they take the type of anecdotal evidence and use it as a cultural statement about how things are going on. So I think it is important to recognize that these are statements that acknowledge there is a deep, deep problem with how Donald Trump and this administration --

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