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White House Attempts To Stonewall Impeachment Inquiry; Interview With Rep. David Cicilline (D-RI); Syrian War Defector Calls On Congress To Take Action After Revealing Atrocities Committed By Assad Regime. Aired 6-7p ET

Aired October 8, 2019 - 18:00   ET



BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN HOST: What did Ambassador Gordon Sondland do during a mysterious break in his texts about Mr. Trump's phone call to Ukraine? Tonight, CNN has learned that he placed a phone call of his own to the president.

And crazy and frightening -- that's how a White House official described Mr. Trump's conversation with Ukraine's president, as he pushed for an investigation of Joe Biden. We have new details about the Trump team's urgent attempts at damage control.

We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. Wolf Blitzer is off today. I'm Brianna Keilar. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

KEILAR: We're following breaking news on the White House issuing a new declaration of defiance against impeachment investigators.

The president's lawyers just sent a letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. It spells out the administration's refusal to participate in the Democrats' inquiry, arguing that it's unconstitutional.

The letter all that dares Pelosi to hold a formal vote to open an impeachment probe, a step that she has resisted. And this comes only hours after new stonewalling by the White House. It blocked a key witness in the Ukraine scandal from testifying on Capitol Hill today.

Tonight, Democrats are firing back with a subpoena for Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to European Union.

I will be getting reaction from Democratic Congressman David Cicilline. He is on the Judiciary and Foreign Affairs committees. And our correspondents and analysts are also standing by.

First, let's go to CNN Chief White House Correspondent, Jim Acosta.

And, Jim, the president is ramping up his constitutional class with House Democrats.


The White House is starting a constitutional fight with House Democrats over the impeachment inquiry. The president's legal team has just fired off a letter to Speaker Nancy Pelosi refusing to cooperate with the investigation.

The president is stoking these tensions, declaring that he won't cooperate with what Republicans are calling a kangaroo court. Meanwhile, CNN has also confirmed the whistle-blower at the center of the inquiry wrote a memo describing a White House official who listened in on Mr. Trump's conversation with the Ukrainian president and characterizes that conversation as -- quote -- "crazy and frightening."

The official was -- quote -- "left shaken" by what Mr. Trump was saying during the call.



ACOSTA (voice-over): Escalating his standoff with House Democrats, President Trump is refusing to cooperate with the impeachment inquiry.

In a letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the White House accuses Democrats of trying to play politics, stating: "Your unprecedented actions have left the president with no choice. In order to fulfill his duties to the American people, the Constitution, the executive branch and all future occupants of the office of the presidency, President Trump and his administration cannot participate in your partisan and unconstitutional inquiry under these circumstances."

A key signal the White House is ready for combat, the administration block the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, Gordon Sondland, from telling what he knows about the president's phone call with the leader of Ukraine about Joe Biden.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was mum on the subject.

QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, why did you instruct Ambassador Sondland not to testify?

ACOSTA: House Democrats warn, White House stonewalling won't make their inquiry go away.

REP. ADAM SCHIFF (D-CA): The failure to produce this witness, the failure to produce these documents, we consider yet additional strong evidence of obstruction of obstruction of the constitutional functions of Congress, a co-equal branch of government.

ACOSTA: The president tweeted: "Sondland won't be testifying. I would love to send Ambassador Sondland, a really good man and a great American, to testify, but, unfortunately, he would be testifying before a totally compromised kangaroo court," an echo of GOP talking points. REP. MATT GAETZ (R-FL): What we see in this impeachment is a kangaroo

court. And Chairman Schiff is acting like a malicious Captain Kangaroo.

ACOSTA: A source familiar with internal White House discussions said the decision to silence Sondland is part of a new aggressive counter- impeachment strategy.

That source told CNN -- quote -- "The days of playing nice are done."

The defiant posture comes even as the president continues to insist his call was perfect.

TRUMP: The people understand it's a scam. They're trying to win an election in 2020 by using impeachment. If you look at that call, it's a perfect call.

ACOSTA: Democrats are zeroing in on an exchange of texts between Sondland and a top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine, Bill Taylor, who appeared worried that the administration was holding up aid to Ukraine around the time of Mr. Trump's July 25 call.

"As I said on the phone, I think it's crazy to withhold security assistance for help with a political campaign."

Sondland replied: "Bill, I believe you're incorrect about President Trump's intentions. The president has been crystal clear no quid pro quos of any kind. I suggest we stop the back and forth by text."

Before Sondland sent that response, he called the president.

CNN has learned White House and national security officials scrambled to contain the fallout of Mr. Trump's comments on the call, including moving the rough transcript of the conversation to a more secure system.


Fellow Republicans see no wrongdoing.

REP. JIM JORDAN (R-OH): The president is doing his job. The president -- when you're talking about the hard-earned tax dollars of the American people going to a foreign government, the president's going to make sure that there is no corruption there.

ACOSTA: Still, a new "Washington Post" poll found 58 percent agree that the impeachment inquiry should have begun, a huge jump from over the summer.

Trump ally Senator Lindsey Graham is calling on the president's personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani to talk to lawmakers. Giuliani's response: "Love Lindsey, but I am still a lawyer and I will have to deal with privilege."

For now, Democrats sound like they want to hear from Sondland first. REP. ADRIANO ESPAILLAT (D-NY): This is sort of like classical Nixon- type Watergate action, which is that the cover-up often becomes even worse than the crime itself. So the White House and the State Department continued to orchestrate this massive cover-up by stopping witnessing that had actually prepared to testify.


ACOSTA: Now, senior administration officials just wrapped up a conference call with reporters about this letter to the House speaker, Nancy Pelosi.

Officials were asked on that call what Democrats would have to do in order to secure the cooperation of the White House in the impeachment inquiry.

One administration official said the White House did not want to get into hypotheticals at this point, an indication that the White House at this point is digging in its heels and daring Pelosi to take Mr. Trump to court.

Brianna, it is not a stretch to describe what we're seeing right now playing out here in the nation's capital as a constitutional battle that is headed for the courts. The stakes have not been this high, I would say, Brianna, since the days of Bill Clinton's impeachment, and perhaps Watergate -- Brianna.

KEILAR: Jim Acosta at the White House, thank you.

And let's head to Capitol Hill now for more on this breaking news.

CNN Congressional Correspondent, Sunlen Serfaty is joining us now.

So, Sunlen, what does this letter mean for Democrats and how they're going to conduct this impeachment inquiry?

SUNLEN SERFATY, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, no doubt, Brianna, this will most certain escalate the already very intense clash that's going on right now between House Democrats and the White House.

But Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, she has been very clear that she is not going to succumb to White House pressure when it comes to at least putting pressure on them pushing for a full House vote to -- on the full House floor to authorize an impeachment inquiry.

She has not ruled it out in the past. But she's been very clear that she does not believe that she is required to do so. Many Republicans in the meantime, too, are arguing for a full House vote, arguing that it would potentially give them more power than they have right now, potentially giving them even a chance to subpoena their own witnesses, subpoena their own information here.

But this letter most likely tonight not only just essentially will just throw a lot of more fuel on the fire for Democrats. And the White House and Democrats have made it very clear that this essentially only adds to this case that they are building, this White House stonewalling just adds to their case about obstruction, which they say will potentially factor in to articles of impeachment -- Brianna.

KEILAR: Sunlen Serfaty on the Hill, thank you.

And joining me now is Congressman David Cicilline, a Democrat who serves on the Judiciary and Foreign Affairs committees.

Sir, thank you so much for joining us.


KEILAR: In this letter, the White House argues that your impeachment inquiry is illegitimate and unconstitutional. What's your response to that?

CICILLINE: Well, it's certainly not appropriate or permissible for the subject of the impeachment inquiry to challenge the process.

This is an impeachment inquiry that has been under way and now under way by six committees of jurisdiction. This is an effort by the president and his legal team to distract from the core allegations of the impeachment inquiry.

The president of the United States pressured a foreign leader to gin up dirt on a political opponent and withheld military aid as the leverage to do that. This is shocking behavior.

It was confirmed by the president's own admissions on camera. It was further confirmed by the transcript of the telephone call and, of course, finally confirmed by a very elaborate whistle-blower report that details the entire scheme.

Every day, we learn new evidence which corroborates this shocking behavior of the president. And rather than confront or answer or be held accountable to those -- to that conduct, he's attempting to challenge the process by which Congress is doing its oversight work.

These are lawfully issued subpoenas. This is oversight and now an impeachment inquiry that Congress has a responsibility to do to demonstrate no one's above the law and to hold them accountable.

And despite their best efforts to distract the American people away from the facts, we're going to continue to press for the truth, to gather up evidence and hold this president accountable.

KEILAR: Congress' oversight role here is being neutered by the White House. Is this a constitutional crisis?

CICILLINE: Well, I think the chairmen of the six committees of jurisdiction have made it very clear that, when subpoenas are issued and documents are requested and witnesses are directed to appear, that the White House's continued obstruction of Congress will be considered just that, obstruction of Congress, which was the third article of the Nixon impeachment articles. [18:10:16]

I think we're going to make every effort to collect additional corroborating evidence. We already have more than sufficient evidence to move forward.

So I think you will see the chairmen of the committee continue to do their work. But they have already made it very clear to the president and to the White House that they will consider any efforts to defy these subpoenas as further evidence of obstruction of Congress in our effort to get to the truth. And, ultimately, that will very likely be one of the articles of impeachment that we move forward on.

KEILAR: So this is not a constitutional crisis? What do you think about that?

CICILLINE: Well, I mean, I think this is unprecedented, to have a president of the United States direct members of the administration to defy subpoenas, to refuse to testify, to refuse to produce documents.

This is really unprecedented. Congress has a responsibility to conduct oversight. It's a particularly serious responsibility in the context of an impeachment inquiry. And, certainly, the executive branch doesn't have the ability to end that or limit it by simply refusing to comply.

So my guess is, the courts will ultimately direct their compliance. But the important thing is, we're not going to engage in a protracted legal battle and let the president and his administration run out the clock.

We have sufficient evidence. We will do...

KEILAR: But you don't have a choice. I mean, he's forcing you into a protracted legal battle.

CICILLINE: No, we do have a choice. No, I disagree. We do have a choice.

We already have sufficient evidence. We have an admission from the president. We have a transcript of the recording. We have the whistle-blower reports.

I think we will continue to make efforts...

KEILAR: So, when will the vote on impeachment be, do you think?

CICILLINE: Well, I mean, that will be up to the committees of jurisdiction to complete their investigations and make a referral to the Judiciary Committee.

KEILAR: When do you want to see it happen?

CICILLINE: But I think it needs to happen quickly. We want to be thorough, and we want to be careful about collecting all the evidence.

KEILAR: Is quickly weeks? Is quickly months? Is quickly before the end of the year? Is it before the end of the fall?

CICILLINE: I think it's months. I think we -- I think before the end of the year. I think before the end of the year, for sure.

We cannot allow the president to obstruct Congress, to try to run out the clock. We have the whistle-blower who has provided this information. We have the president's own admission to the misconduct. We have this transcript of the phone call in which it's laid out plain and simple.

And there is really no additional evidence you need. We're being very careful to collect more. But, in my view, there is more than enough evidence to move forward with articles of impeachment. The president betrayed his oath of office. He betrayed American national security.

He undermined the integrity of our elections. This is serious. As the inspector general said, it is urgent and credible. And we need to move forward because Congress has a responsibility to protect the national security interests of the United States.

KEILAR: It is serious. You say you have enough information to move forward with this impeachment inquiry and ultimately impeachment, which you would like to see soon.

Do you have enough information in order to convince voters and maybe to convince some Republicans to make this actually a successful effort?

CICILLINE: Well, I think we see public opinion is turning. A majority -- I think it was 58 percent of the American people -- believe it's appropriate to move forward with the impeachment inquiry.

So we have seen a big change, as the American people see in real time. This is the president of the United States using the power of his office. We should remember, Ukraine is an ally of the United States. They were attacked by the Russians, who took a part of their country.

Their lifeline to hold onto their democracy is American military aid. And here's the president of the United States saying, I need a favor from you, though. And he asked him to basically gin up dirt on his political opponent in exchange for this military aid.

And we see these text messages in which a diplomat is saying, this is crazy to link military aid to this investigation that the president is seeking.

We shouldn't lose sight. This is the president of the United States asking a foreign power to interfere with an American election.


KEILAR: He said that, as you know, to Gordon Sondland. And you were not able to hear from Gordon Sondland, because the White House directed the State Department to block him from testifying.

You found out at the last minute. Can you move forward without some of that contextual information that obviously someone like Sondland...

CICILLINE: Absolutely.

KEILAR: ... or maybe the former Ukraine ambassador, who you're supposed to hear from, but maybe you won't, without them talking to you about it?

CICILLINE: Absolutely.

We -- again, we have -- we should remember, we have the admission from the defendant. That is Donald Trump. He's admitted the wrongdoing. It's on television interviews. He's acknowledged he had the conversation.

It's corroborated by his own words in the transcript of the phone call. And it's detailed, the entire scheme is detailed in the whistle-blower report.

We have all that's necessary. Our effort now is to collect additional evidence to further corroborate it. But the president is engaged in an ongoing cover-up, an obstruction of Congress.

This is a pattern, his effort to prevent Congress from getting the balance of the story. But we will consider that obstruction of Congress, which, in and of itself, is an impeachable offense.


So we're going to do our best to gather up corroborating evidence over the next several weeks. But if the president thinks, by delaying this and by attempting to obstruct Congress, that he's going to prevent us from moving forward, he's sadly mistaken.

We have ample evidence. It's shocking behavior of the president. It's illegal. And he needs to be held accountable for it.

KEILAR: Congressman David Cicilline, thank you so much.

CICILLINE: My pleasure.

KEILAR: And we do have some breaking news in, subpoenas issued -- a subpoena issued for Gordon Sondland, both for testimony and for documents. We're going to follow that.

And at this point in time, the White House has issued a letter to House Democrats, but it's not saying that it will cooperate if House Democrats agree to their demand. What is the White House goal?



KEILAR: Breaking news tonight.

The Trump administration puts its impeachment stonewalling strategy in writing, the White House notifying Democrats that the president won't participate in the impeachment inquiry.

The president's lawyers arguing it's unconstitutional, in part because the House has not voted to open the investigation.

Joining me now, former U.S. attorney and CNN Senior Legal Analyst, Preet Bharara.

Preet, thank you for joining us to lend your expertise here.


KEILAR: So this letter from the White House accuses House Democrats of violating the Constitution, the rule of law, and every past precedent of impeachment. What is your analysis of this document?

BHARARA: So it's a -- it doesn't read principally as a legal argument. It reads like a rhetorical document. It reads like a political document. I, frankly, expected better argument.

But the one thing I think people need to be aware of and be considering as we move forward through this process is, these arguments are going to be couched in legal terms and couched in terms of precedent, but there are very few precedents when it comes to both this administration and also when it comes to impeachment.

It's only happened twice before successfully. So there's lots of circumstances that make it like other cases and lots of circumstances that make it a case of first impression.

And you know that this is not really based on legal principle and constitutional principle. And how do you know that? You know that for a couple of reasons, I think.

One, it took them a while to write the letter. Now, they had agreed to have, I think, Ambassador Sondland come and testify. He got on a plane from Belgium, was about to land, or maybe already had landed, when they changed their mind.

So if it was really out -- if it was really all about constitutional principle and everlasting dogmatic principles of law, I think they would have said that from the outset.

I think they made a tactical and/or strategic decision that they didn't want this to go forward. And the other example is, of course, the thing that set a lot of this into motion, they could have made lots of arguments, constitutional, precedential, legal, ethical or otherwise. Maybe they would rise, maybe they would fall.

But they could have made those arguments about the whistle-blower's complaint, and the readout of the conversation between President Trump and President Zelensky. And they chose not to make those arguments, because they thought those documents may not have been so harmful to them.

So I think, here, they have made a decided political strategic calculation that to cooperate would be terrible for them, it will be worse for them, and they're couching it in a lot of flowery language, which is their right.

KEILAR: We're now seeing at this point in time House Democrats really get bogged down in this process. They can't get access to a witness. They can't get documents here.

You're certainly familiar with trying to make a convincing case. So how to Democrats -- and, granted, they are seeing a shift in the polls here, but it may not be enough at this point.

How do Democrats make their case to the American people, in light of these obstacles, which may not be, this obstruction argument, as compelling as other arguments?

BHARARA: Well, first, they should turn over every rock, and they should follow the leads, wherever they find them.

They're going to have more luck -- given the status of this administration and the letter they just sent, they're going to have more luck talking to people who are not within the government. And they're going to have an easier time compelling people who no longer work in the government or ever worked in the government and maybe have some inside knowledge because people told them things.

They're going to have better luck with that. Second, with respect to things that they're not getting directly from the administration, they have already made it clear -- and there is precedent for this in other impeachment proceedings.

They made it clear that, to the extent they are not being cooperated with, to the extent they're not getting information they're asking for, testimony or documents, that they will draw an adverse inference, and they will call that obstruction.

And that alone, separate -- those are separate standing articles of impeachment potentially. And they have some -- again, all of this is infused with politics and public sentiment. They have some leg to stand on, because this is no longer what the White House might have called a fishing expedition, trying to see if there's some malfeasance.

The cat's out of the bag. We know about the conversation between the president and the president of Ukraine. We know about the other issues relating to the segregation of some of these conversations in a special secret server.

And so I think a lot of people have been affected by this information and know that it's bad. Will they get to the bottom of everything? Probably not. Lots of criminal cases are made with enough evidence to make the case and to prove the case to a jury, not the Senate, but a regular jury of people's peers.


BHARARA: And you can still do that without having everything.

But I think the adverse inference principle is going to weigh heavily here.

KEILAR: Preet, thank you. Preet Bharara, we appreciate your perspective here.

BHARARA: Good to be here.

KEILAR: We have more breaking news ahead on the White House all but declaring war on the impeachment investigation. Is this a constitutional crisis?


And will it force House Speaker Pelosi to hold a formal House vote on the impeachment inquiry?


KEILAR: The Trump White House is drawing a line tonight against House Democrats, the president's lawyers sending a letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, declaring that Mr. Trump will not participate in the impeachment inquiry, arguing the probe is illegitimate.

We are following this breaking story with our correspondents and our analysts.

We have Pamela Brown, David Swerdlick, Laura Coates, and David Chalian with us.


And I want to see what you all think about a key part of this letter. It's rather long, right? This is several -- eight pages long and this is a key part, quote, given that your inquiry lacks any legitimate constitutional foundation, any pretense of fairness or even the most elementary due process protections, the executive branch cannot be expected to participate in it because participating in this inquiry under the current unconstitutional posture would inflict lasting institutional harm on the executive branch and lasting damage to the separation of powers. You have left the president no choice.

Consistent with the duties of the president of the United States and in particular his obligation to preserve the rights of future occupants of his office, President Trump cannot permit his administration to participate in this partisan inquiry under these circumstances.

I mean, Laura Coates, explain sort of what this is. This is like an accused dictating the terms of their investigation.

LAURA COATES, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: I mean, it's absurd in a word here, Brianna. How can there not be a constitutional legitimate basis when the Constitution is what outlines the process of impeachment.

Now, it's not specific enough to be able to say, here is all the House rules that will govern the actual process but it actually vests this entire power in the House of Representatives. We have, unfortunately, as a nation, done this several times before in the modern era.

But in order for the president of the United States to say this a kangaroo court, what he's missing is it would be a kangaroo court if, in fact, somebody who is accused of impropriety is allowed to dictate the terms of the investigation into that, particularly when it's founded principally in his own statements.

Let's talk about the Mueller report versus the Ukraine call and the discussion about the China interference discussion. With the Mueller report, the question was whether the president of the United States had engaged in behavior that may lead someone to believe in an abuse of power, let alone a crime. In terms of this accusation right now, it's more than that. It's based on the president of the United States' own statement.

Now, the question is whether it is in fact impeachable. The fact that the president is now saying that I can't possibly be allowed to participate or couldn't do so is really violating with the separation of powers and thumbs its nose at the power of Congress the founding fathers said they get to have.

KEILAR: David, what do you make -- David Chalian, what do you make of this letter?

DAVID CHALIAN, CNN POLITICAL DIRECTOR: Yes. Well, listen, this is not, as you know, impeachment is not a legal process. It's a political process. And so this is a letter of political posturing. This is a letter trying to sort of lay the groundwork here of how the White House is going to fight this politically, how they want to start swaying the American public before the House Democrats lay out all the evidence they have, vote on articles of impeachment. This is an opportunity to make this a pure partisan brawl in the minds of Americans to really try and convince America that this is broken politics as usual, nothing to see here.

But everything that Laura just said, make no mistake about this, this is a constitutional crisis. This is the executive and legislative branch now in an all out war. I don't know how that could be anything but a constitutional crisis.

KEILAR: I agree with you, David. I just posed to a Democratic congressman who would not bite when I asked that question perhaps because of the consequences it might trigger. What do you think, David Swerdlick?

DAVID SWERDLICK, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: So it could be a constitutional crisis. I agree with David's analysis, but I don't think it has to be for this reason. The letter on its face is actually doing a lot with not that much. The White House Counsel is trying to make this case that, essentially, we're not going to deal with the substance because the whole process is bogus. The problem with the letter is there's no muscle behind it.

The House, as Laura said, has the prerogative to impeach. Impeachment is not a trial and not removal, it's essentially an indictment and Speaker Pelosi and her caucus control the action here. If I were Speaker Pelosi, I would buy every member of my caucus a copy of Doyle Brunson's Super/System. The key to winning a high stakes poker showdown is to put the other side to a decision about everything they have got.

And what the White House is trying to do is make Democrats take a vote to say we're having an impeachment inquiry when the House can vote whenever it wants. The House has the option of voting at any time to put the Senate to a vote on whether or not they will convict even if the House comes back with one article of impeachment.

KEILAR: And, Pamela, you have some fantastic reporting that really sheds light. I kind of gets in the way of the president's argument that this was a perfect call and the White House's general argument there is nothing here. You have reported about what was going on in the White House. This is separate from the whistleblower. What was going on in the White House right after this call was made in late July?


PAMELA BROWN, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Brianna, our team was told by several sources that at least one NSC official, almost immediately after the call between President Trump and the president of Ukraine, raised a concern higher up to the NSC lawyers. This person was concerned that the president had talked about Joe Biden and asked Zelensky to look into his political opponent.

We're told after that, that is when the NSC lawyers then decided to put the transcript of that phone call into that secret code word server. The concern, we're told, had to do with wanting to suppress leaks, limiting who saw it. Also one person told me that they also thought maybe we should preserve this in case this becomes part of an investigation.

There was also this internal discussion of what did we do about DOJ. Bill Barr, the attorney general, was mentioned several times during the call. Should we loop in DOJ on this? Ultimately, DOJ says it was never looped in.

But what really stuck out to me in talking to sources was that the White House Counsel's Office tried to keep a very close hold on this early on. It was alerted to it by another agency before the whistleblower complaint was filed and it thought it could be dealt with within the executive branch and that these allegations wouldn't see the light of day.

When it became clear though that that whistleblower complaint would likely be turned over to Congress and they had essentially lost the battle to keep a close hold on it, that is when you saw a change of posture within the White House and, ultimately, the White House released that transcript that it's now using in this argument in the letter as an argument of, hey, look how transparent we've been.

KEILAR: It's so hard, Laura Coates, to fend off the sunlight that someone is going to come forward. This information gets out. And yet I think the question a lot of people have is to what end? Because here we have this information, Pamela has fantastic reporting, we're learning about this behind the scenes, but where does it take the country?

COATES: Well, the question I think a lot of people have is all of this an exercise in futility. There is that moniker of him is called a moniker called Teflon Don. I think a lot of people in America, and, of course, it requires the electorate to go along with the impeachment process. It's why they are there in trying to delicately go on the tight rope if you're a Democrat or Republican of whether your constituents are with you.

But the idea of whether all of this will run off the president's back, like water on a duck's back, and that will have really long-term consequences for the democracy. Because to answer your question, Brianna, frankly, we're only in a constitutional crisis if Congress truly backs down and pander to another branch of government. You're not in a constitutional crisis unless the other branches say, uncle. Okay, we're going to give in here.

But now that they are coming forward and saying, here is what we're going to do, here is how we're going to flex the power, and the question that the president could normally ask, you and what army, if that means nothing all of a sudden, the constitutional crisis is removed and democracy works as it is. But the American people are asking themselves, where will this take us, what will happen and is democracy really just dependent on one president's discussion about either his taxes or a phone call, is that all it's come down to after all these hundreds of years. I hope not.

KEILAR: All you stand by for me. We have so much more to discuss, including where the American people are on the issue of impeachment. There's been movement and you may be surprised.



KEILAR: We're back now with our experts. We're following all of the breaking news in the impeachment investigation, including where do the American people stand on this.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has not ruled out a formal vote. And now, we have some new polling on this issue. There's a new Quinnipiac University poll and it shows 53 percent support the impeachment inquiry. That number is even higher in The Washington Post poll, 58 percent.

David Chalian, how might that influence the House speaker's next steps?

CHALIAN: We should note, Brianna, that that 58 percent is some 20 points higher than it was back in July, which is why I think what is so critical in this polling that we're seeing is sort of the context is key here.

The two years of the Mueller investigation in Russia when impeachment questions were asked, the country just wasn't there at all. This seems to be a new context for voters as they are assessing this and they see that the impeachment inquiry, half of the American slightly more there in "The Washington Post," see this as a totally valid inquiry on this set of facts, on what they see here about the president's interfering potentially with the 2020 election, not something in the past, with his own direct actions on a released transcript, a phone call with the leader of Ukraine. I think because the fact patterns are different, we're seeing differences in the American people.

And to your question about Speaker Pelosi, she has to watch these numbers very carefully. Because in terms of pacing, the timing of this investigation and it being seen as fair, this is going to be critical for her and the Democrats, I've said this from day one when she started this, to bring the country along in this process for it to be successful.

KEILAR: And how do they know, David Swerdlick, what the critical mass is, Democrats, when they are looking at poll numbers, the critical mass that might signal to them that they can change minds of Republicans in Congress?

SWERDLICK: Sure. So I think Democrats have to look at these polls like you look at any polls as a snapshot at a moment in time. You have the Q poll and The Post poll with the majority of Americans saying, they support the inquiry, not necessarily the removal of president. That should tell Democrats that they are on sure footing than they were, as David said, than they were with the Mueller report.

Speaker Pelosi has credibility here because she was the one putting the brakes on impeachment until this set of facts came out and then it was like release the hounds. But they've got to see how the polls progress with each step of this process. I think Democrats have to look at this and say, things could change up or down. If this drags on until Thanksgiving, Christmas, maybe the polls will go in their favor. Maybe it won't as the facts get more muddied up and this becomes more about process, as we saw with this letter from the White House.

KEILAR: And, Pamela, the White House is now arming themselves. They are accepting some outside legal help. You have breaking news on this. What can you tell us?

BROWN: Yes, that's right. We're told that the former Republican South Carolina Congressman Trey Gowdy, who many of us know, was actually at the White House today. He had been asked to help from the outside in terms of council in the impeachment fight. And we are told by a colleague, Kaitlan Collins and I are told that he accepted this, that he is willing to help on that effort on that front, on the outside.

What is interesting about this is, as the White House tries to argue today in this letter that this even a formal impeachment inquiry and we're not going to cooperate with you, clearly, they are bracing for an impeachment fight ahead as they bring outside lawyers on board.

KEILAR: I want to look at this Washington Post poll and what it shows in terms of the breakdown among parties.

Twenty-eight percent of Republicans support the impeachment probe, Laura, and there are 57 percent of independents who do. What do you think about that?

COATES: Well, you look at that and say there are people who -- this is obviously not a partisan issue, specifically, and here is why I think that.


Unlike other issues about maybe litigating as was alleged, a past election or discussion about Hillary Clinton or about a deep state theory, the notion of abuse of power and foreign interference or soliciting the help of a foreign nation should be really a neutralizer for to say this isn't about Republicans or Democrats, nor is the issue of whether the executive branch can thumb its nose at the legislative branch and essentially emasculate the congressional leaders and congressional bodies in this way.

So, this -- it actually tracks for me why this would not be such an issue that is falling along partisan lines because abuse of power, frankly, is a victim of both parties and also both parties can many times be the ones who are in trouble.

KEILAR: David Chalian?

CHALIAN: And, Brianna, can I just -- I just want to say, that 28 percent, I mean, think about everything you've seen in polling in the Trump administration. How often have you seen three in ten Republicans be in a position against the president on something? Not that often. You just -- you don't see that kind of number.

So, that's a warning sign for the administration. And that 28 percent number, by the way, in July in "The Washington Post" was 7 percent. So, again, there's been movement here. I think it's why you saw a few cracks emerging.

Some Senate Republicans coming out and saying what the president did was wrong even if they're not ready to get behind an impeachment inquiry. But I do think that number is alarming to the White House and it's something you have to track very closely.

KEILAR: David Swerdlick, to Laura's point about abuse of power being something that both parties do.


KEILAR: It is so-- it is so noteworthy how people change their tune when they are on different sides of the situation. Trey Gowdy in the past who's now going to be working in this impeachment fight on behalf of the president, the notion -- this is a quote: The notion you can withhold information and documents from Congress no matter whether you're the party in power or not in power is wrong. Respect for the rule of law must mean something irrespective of the vicissitudes of political cycles. That will certainly be used against him.

SWERDLICK: Well, it certainly will if he's working on the president's legal defense because part of the president's legal defense has been to not cooperate with the investigation, whether it's his tax returns, whether it's not producing Ambassador Sondland today -- all of the things that the administration has stonewalled Congress on.

I think one of the things that's going to work against the president's defense. Again, not saying he's going to be removed, but one of the things will work against his defense both in terms of how his lawyers play and the public perception is that some of these documents are out there. People can see the text messages. People can see the transcript of the conversation.

They don't have to when you ask them in a poll, they don't have to say, what is this about? They say, oh, I read about it in the newspaper.

KEILAR: Thank you all so much.

And Laura Coates, we're going to be checking you out tonight because of programming note, she will be anchoring a CNN special report on the impeachment investigation at 11:00 Eastern.

Stand by, everyone. We're going to have more news in a moment.


KEILAR: Tonight, as President Trump's troop withdrawal in northern Syria is under fire from within his own party, we're getting a powerful reminder of what is at stake from a Syrian war defector.

CNN's Kate Bolduan joins us now.

And, Kate, you spoke with this defector who has risked his life to expose atrocities committed by the Assad regime.


I mean, if anyone needs to know what is at stake in Syria, all you need to do is look how one man risked everything to expose the atrocities of President Bashar al Assad and his regime. He just returned to Washington again to beg for action on what is described as the mother of all sanctions bill against the regime and it sits and it waits for action and we were there.

I do want to warn everyone that the images you're about to see are graphic and disturbing.


BOLDUAN (voice-over): We can't tell you his name. It's too dangerous to show his face.

He won't even allow his voice to be recorded as he speaks through his translator, but we can show you these. Almost 55,000 photos he risked his life to bring out of Syria. Some of which have never been seen publicly until now.

And he's risking his life again to plead with Congress to act.

(on camera): How are you feeling in this moment being back in Washington again?

"CAESAR", SYRIAN MILITARY POLICE DEFECTOR: My feeling being here is a feeling of a bit of disappointment, and at the same time frustration because after everything that I've done in order to expose what the regime has done, we have yet to see any real action.

BOLDUAN (voice-over): His code name is Caesar. He was a military photographer in Damascus when the civil war began in 2011. He says he immediately realized what he was then documenting were not accidental deaths, but torture.

"CAESAR": For example, many of the bodies had their eyes gouged out. Most of these bodies had very deep cuts. Most of them were emaciated, starved for many, many months and also marks all over their bodies from head to toe and I would see their jaws and teeth broken.

BOLDUAN: Instead of defecting right after the war broke out, Caesar says he decided to stay for two and a half years to bear witness, collect evidence and to expose what really was happening in his country, where any sign of sympathy for the dead could be interpreted as betrayal of the regime.

"CAESAR": I would work for hours taking photographs, loading the photographs and I would have to hide my emotions. I would have to pray that a tear does not come down my face because if they saw one tear, if they saw one expression on my face that showed sympathy, then I would be killed as would my family.

BOLDUAN (on camera): How did you do that?

"CAESAR": I don't know.

BOLDUAN (voice-over): In 2013, he finally fled, and brought with him what the FBI confirmed as authentic and the State Department's ambassador for war crimes described as stronger evidence than what existed against the Nazis.

The Syrian government has denied responsibility and called the photos fake. Caesar made his trip to Capitol Hill in 2014 testifying under cover in the exact same disguise he used for our interview.

"CAESAR": I honestly thought that if I could have the courage to go for the years that I did doing the work that I did endangering my life every single day that once I came out and showed the world what I had that the entire conscience of the world would move.

BOLDUAN (on camera): And then that didn't.

"CAESAR": Five whole years, the world did not move. REP. ELIOT ENGEL (D-NY): I'll never forget what he showed us.

BOLDUAN (voice-over): The sanctions bill sparked by Caesar's testimony and photographs has passed the House three times with bipartisan support, but has yet to make it to the Senate floor.

"CAESAR": So what I am pleading is for the American people to please save the Syrian people, save these people that do not deserve the hellish nightmare that they're living in.

BOLDUAN: One of the lawmakers Caesar made his case to this time, Senator Lindsey Graham. Not only is he a longtime critic of Bashar al Assad, Graham also has had the ear of President Trump and he revealed to CNN that he's introducing a resolution to declare Assad a war criminal.


SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R-SC): To the people in Syria, we're not turning our back on you. I wish we can do better. The administration needs to do more, quite frankly. We don't have a coherent strategy in Syria and I am committed 100 percent to not letting Assad get away with it and standing by people like Caesar. And I'm going to make my colleagues in the Senate vote.

BOLDUAN: Until then the bill sits on Senator Mitch McConnell's death and leads Caesar right back where he began, putting his life on the line to try and convince the world to care and once and for all not look away.

(on camera): We're in the Holocaust Museum, and after the Holocaust the world said never again, and I'm really struck by seeing the atrocities coming out of Syria and the fact that the world is not saying that.

"CAESAR": You're right. How many more children must be killed? How many more men must be tortured to death? How many more women must be raped until you mean it when you say never again?


BOLDUAN: This bears repeating. The Caesar sanctions bill has passed the house with bipartisan support three times since 2016 and most recently in January and yet when I contacted Senator McConnell's office they had no update to offer on action in the Senate.

So, the Caesar bill sits and waits still -- Brianna.

KEILAR: We know you will keep asking that question of the Senate majority leader's office, Kate, and we'll keep following up with you.

BOLDUAN: Thank you.

KEILAR: Thank you so much for that impactful report.

And just ahead, the British parents of a teenage car crash victim appeal to President Trump. They blame the wife of the U.S. diplomat for their son's death and they're demanding justice.


KEILAR: Tonight, a deadly road accident in Britain has turned into an international dispute and President Trump is being asked to intervene. Nineteen-year-old Harry Dunn died after his motorcycle was hit by an SUV driving on the wrong side of the road in late August.

Authorities say the suspected driver is the wife of a U.S. diplomat Anne Sacoolas. She's claiming diplomatic immunity, allowing her to avoid prosecution and return to the United States even though she had promised to stay in Britain. Dunn's parents are now making an emotional appeal to President Trump, asking him to waive Sacoolas' immunity so that she could be brought to justice.

CNN was unable to contact Sacoolas for a comment. The Trump administration says diplomatic e diplomatic immunity is rarely waived.

I'm Brianna Keilar in for Wolf Blitzer. Thank you so much for watching.

"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.