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White House Sets Up War On Impeachment Inquiry And Constitution; Turkish President Says Attack In Syria Has Begun. Aired 10-10:30a ET

Aired October 9, 2019 - 10:00   ET




JIM SCIUTTO, CNN NEWSROOM: A very good morning to you. I'm Jim Sciutto.


The White House firmly draws its line in the sand, so what will Democrats do next? In a scathing letter to House Democratic leadership, the Trump administration essentially declaring all-out war on the impeachment inquiry into the the president, vowing not to cooperate with the investigations at all, setting up a constitutional battle that will have major implications.

SCIUTTO: House Speaker Nancy Pelosi standing firm, firing back in her own letter that the impeachment inquiry will not be stopped and that the president of the United States is not, in her words, above the law. It looks like an impasse though.

For more on what the administration is saying this morning, let's go to Sarah Westwood. She is at the White House.

So, Sarah, it's not really a new approach to congressional oversight. The White House has stonewalled for weeks and months on other investigations. But for an impeachment inquiry, it's significant.

SARAH WESTWOOD, CNN WHITE HOUSE REPORTER: That's right, Jim. And this is the White House outlining for the first time as an official policy that they are taking in response to this impeachment inquiry, and that scathing letter to House Democrats yesterday, the White House making clear that they are not going to cooperate in any way, shape or form with the Democrats unless they have an official impeachment vote. And even in that case, the president's White House Counsel writing that they won't necessarily even cooperate then. They don't want to speculate on what would happen.

But I want to read you a part of the letter that was sent to House Democrats yesterday. In it, Pat Cipollone, the White House Counsel writes, President Trump and his administration reject your baseless, unconstitutional efforts to overturn the Democratic process. 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.

Now, most of this eight-page letter is defending the president on the process that this impeachment has taken. We did not see a defense from the White House, President Trump, on the merits of the Ukraine case.

Now, for House Speaker Pelosi's part, she has made clear that the House Democrats will consider any obstruction of their impeachment inquiry as potential grounds for articles of impeachment, thus stonewalling the impeachment inquiry could, itself, be an impeachable offense. And she could call the president's bluff and hold this vote. Although there is nothing in the Constitution that states that she must hold this kind of vote.

The president's lawyers are saying all options are on the table at this point. The White House Counsel also bringing in outside counsel in Trey Gowdy, it's what sources told CNN yesterday. Jim and Poppy?

HARLOW: We'll get more on that Trey Gowdy move in a little bit. Sarah Westwood, thank you so much.

For more on congressional Democrat's next move, let's go to our CNN Congressional Correspondent, Sunlen Serfaty. She joins us on the Hill.

I mean, they do have the tool of inherent contempt that they have not used. They have subpoena power, which they are using. What else can they do?

SUNLEN SERFATY, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, it's very clear here, Poppy, that Speaker Pelosi is not going to fold to the White House pressure on this point of potentially having a full House vote on articles of impeachment. She has said in the past, of course, that she is not ruling it out, but making it clear she believes it is her option, her choice to make.

And for the moment, she says she doesn't feel that it's necessary, it doesn't feel like it's required under the Constitution. Of course, there is a political motivation here to protect some of her more moderate members in having to take that vote on the full House floor.

And that posture, essentially, on full display when she shot back to that White House letter last night saying in part, quote, the White House should be warned that continued efforts to hide the truth of the president's abuse of power from the American people will be regarded as further evidence of obstruction.

So for the moment, the Democrat's strategy in responding to this seems to be to continue to keep up trying to get these witnesses in for depositions, continue to issue subpoenas, if need be, of which there are numerous subpoena deadlines still out there, key deadlines coming up. And, of course, to continuing to highlight the stonewalling on the part of the White House in making it very clear that their strategy here is the stonewalling, the obstruction, every act of defiance essentially is another building block that they are piling on to make their case potentially to build on articles of impeachment.

And notably the House Democrats who have been on recess the last two weeks, they have been holding a conference call this Friday. Certainly, many members very eager to hear that strategy laid out before they head back to Washington on Monday. Jim and Poppy?

SCIUTTO: Sunlen Serfaty on the Hill.

Joining us now to discussion, Margaret Hoover, she is a Republican consultant, host of PBS' Firing Line, John Avlon, CNN Senior Political Analyst.


Margaret, it strikes me that the Democrats don't really have a plan to react to this. I spoke to Steve Cohen, a member of the House Judiciary Committee yesterday. He said, listen, it will probably going to end up in the courts. But as you know, this stuff drags out in the courts for weeks and months. It doesn't get you to a resolution in the impeachment inquiry any time soon or ever.

MARGARET HOOVER, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Right. And then the timing is actually the critical piece, right? Remember, Nancy Pelosi and leadership are trying to wrap this up before the primaries start in February and March.

SCIUTTO: It ain't going to happen.

HOOVER: By the end of march, 60 percent of the delegates will be selected for whoever the Democratic nominee is going to be. We'll have a really good sense of where it's going.

Impeachment is going to be a part of this primary. That's what this is telling me.


HARLOW: John, do you believe, if you were Nancy Pelosi, would you hold a vote on an impeachment inquiry or is it just politically too risky for her to do? Because it does then set ground rules, do you give the minority the right to subpoenas, et cetera.

JOHN AVLON, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: I try not to role play Nancy Pelosi. However, I think there is no reason for Democrats to take marching orders from the White House. There is no requirement that there be an official vote. Impeachment inquiries have happened in the past.

HARLOW: But it's not just the White House. I mean, Beto O'Rourke said to Anderson this week it would be a good idea. Mike Quigley said to us yesterday, yes, take a vote.

AVLON: Look, I think that it's not the issue of whether a vote is necessary. The point is that there is no White House ability to determine the order or process of an impeachment inquiry. They are careening towards a Richard Nixon situation of obstruction, abuse of power and contempt to Congress. This is a stonewall stall strategy. They are trying to buy time. But they actually are not in a position of strength.

That note that they put out. I mean, you know, that was pure nonsense. I mean, that was sort White House Counsel Lionel Hutz's argument. Because you can't -- you can argue a lot of things in this world but you can't argue that impeachment is unconstitutional. It's right there.

SCIUTTO: Well, they're arguing a lot of things. I mean, in the D.C., they argued that Nixon should not have been ordered to release the tape. We are going there.

Margaret, just -- you know, forgive me for wondering if, you know, if there were politics at play here, but let's say that the Democrats do vote for an impeachment inquiry, does the White House then start responding to subpoenas and start sending witnesses to the Hill?

HOOVER: Yes, right, exactly. You think, suddenly, oh, they've done what we asked. Now, we're going to comply. Yes, it seems unlikely, right? But they will though (ph). The other flipside of this though is that if they do vote for an impeachment inquiry, they will have far broader authorities under the law to get documents and do investigations.

In a way, I understand that Nancy Pelosi is trying to walk this fine line between all the new members that she won from Republican seats that are moderates and not put them in a difficult position. On the other hand, they have lost the narrative battle right now. There is no difference in terms of an impeachment inquiry and impeachment to the regular mass of Americans who are following this. That is too fine line for those 2019 members to really parse to their constituencies.

HARLOW: So, guys, the White House, according to our sources, they're going to bring in Trey Gowdy in some fashion to help them with this impeachment inquiry, not necessarily as outside counsel, but it sounds like being a public voice, he will be on television arguing about this, et cetera.

He is a good lawyer, for sure, whether you like his politics or not, but he stepped down from Congress, he told CNN, because facts matter and facts are important.

Well -- and then there is this moment from the Benghazi hearings 2012. Here he was.


FMR. REP. TREY GOWDY (R-SC): The notion that 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 science.


HARLOW: So, Avlon, when he was asked, Mr. Gowdy, where is the respect for the rule of law? What does he say?

AVLON: He'll say that was then, this is now, and we were investigating Hillary Clinton. Look, I would love for Trey Gowdy to be consistent on this. I would love to see any philosophical consistency in Congress than just pure situational ethics.

But, you know, the problem is that he didn't need to shout it and be it, we don't expect it because everyone is sort of knee deep in hypocrisy on this stuff. The problem is it is the Constitution at stake. This isn't a Benghazi type here. This is really serious stuff.

HOOVER: So let's just get the facts straight. Trey Gowdy is not in Congress anymore.

AVLON: Correct.

HOOVER: Trey Gowdy is a private lawyer practicing in South Carolina, a state that has a 7 percent approval rating for Donald Trump. And if you put yourself in his -- 7 plus percent. Trump is doing very well in South Carolina. If you're a private lawyer practicing in South Carolina with the credentials that he has, and the White House says, the president would like a fair defense, will you be a part of his legal team, there is no reason, as a private lawyer, that you wouldn't defend the president.

John Adams defended the British Red Coats in the Boston Massacre. If you believe that everybody deserves a fair defense, just try not to draw it out too soon, okay?


AVLON: Okay.

HOOVER: But, seriously, I mean, Trey Gowdy has good reason to defend the president, to join the president's legal team as a private practicing lawyer in South Carolina, who is familiar -- it's a very reasonable --

AVLON: I wouldn't bring South Carolina to this.

HOOVER: And do you believe that people are not entitled to a fair defense, even the president of the United States?

AVLON: Of course, they're entitled to a fair defense. He's going to get a lot of it. The problem is the hackish defense that doesn't represent any continuity between what they said then and what they said now, as we've seen from also fellow South Carolinian Lindsey Graham between '98 Clinton impeachment and now.

HARLOW: We have it. Can we play it, guys? We have Lindsey Graham. Let's just go with this (ph).

HOOVER: Also from South Carolina.



REP. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R-SC): Article 3 of impeachment against Richard Nixon, the article was based on the idea that Richard Nixon, as president, failed to comply with subpoenas of Congress.

The day Richard Nixon failed to answer that subpoena is the day that he was subject to impeachment because he took the power from Congress over the impeachment process away from Congress and he became the judge and jury.


SCIUTTO: I just don't know how these folks explain that. I mean, everybody has a right to a lawyer. But if you are a lawyer making an argument that the president does not have to hand over these documents or witnesses but -- and you've made a legal argument seven years ago to the opposite --

HOOVER: We haven't seen him make that argument, to be fair. I mean, Trey Gowdy has not in his private capacity defending the president said, I'm not going to send you any documents, we're not going to comply. We haven't seen it yet. He has

just said that he will be outside counsel.

Look, I'm not -- and by the way, I don't think he and Lindsey Graham in this case deserve to be compared. Lindsey Graham, that is utter rank hypocrisy that you see right there, an elected member of Congress saying exactly the opposite thing because the party of the president is different. That is a little different.

AVLON: And there's still time to see whether we'll see the same kind of hypocrisy from Trey Gowdy.

HOOVER: Again, as private lawyer, not an elected member of the House of Representatives, and that is different.

AVLON: We all know that -- if Trey Gowdy is indeed being hired to work on the court of public opinion, as Rudy Giuliani has done in many cases in the past, I think it would be the triumph hope over experience to think we're going to get a more honest accounting and that he will shift the White House strategy fundamentally from stonewalling.

SCIUTTO: We have to be clear, there is a fair amount of hypocrisy all around in Washington.

HARLOW: No. SCIUTTO: A little bit. Just a little bit kind of dose of politics --

HARLOW: Come back tomorrow, guys.

HOOVER: Totally fair.

HARLOW: It makes our morning. Thank you very much, Margaret Hoover, John Avlon.

SCIUTTO: Still to come this hour, breaking news, and this is significant. The Turkish military has begun an offensive in Northern Syria. According to witnesses, hundreds of civilians in Northern Syria have fled areas on the border just within the last 30 minutes. We have our correspondent live in the middle of it. That's coming up.

HARLOW: And this same as Senator Lindsey Graham, same one we were just talking about but on a different issue, turns on the president, warning that the president's decision to pull U.S. troops out of Northern Syria may be, quote, the biggest mistake of his presidency and saying it may cost him the presidency. More on that as our breaking news coverage continues ahead.



SCIUTTO: Folks, an invasion is under way in Northern Syria. Turkey's President Erdogan said the military offensive there has begun. Hundreds of civilians have been fleeing areas on the border within the last 30 minutes. According to the Syrian Democratic Forces, of course, America's close ally in the fight against ISIS, there is, quote, huge panic right now as warplanes have started to carry out airstrikes.

Those allies, by the way, say they have been abandoned by the U.S.

CNN's Nick Paton Walsh is on the phone right In the middle of it on the Turkish-Syrian border. Tell us what you are seeing and hearing now, Nick.

NICK PATON WALSH, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes. Jim, since we last spoke, I actually didn't correct myself, it seems that much of the shelling we can see have slowed down. All the comms and the cell phone towers seem to be switched off in the area around where the attack occurred. We had to move away. I can see what looks like possibly another plume of smoke on the horizon here. But an initial barrage of shelling that we heard that clearly heralded the beginning of this invasion and also was matched by statements with that effect (ph) by Turkish President Erdogan.

That may have slowed. It may be also occurring elsewhere (ph) Turkish state television has been playing aircraft at a nearby base here. It's called (INAUDIBLE). It seems preparing to launch the bombing run that you referred to earlier on.

But as far as what we have seen so far, it does appear this is mostly artillery. The gun is operational. And I should say, clearly, the shells that we have seen land have been landing in areas that didn't appear to be populated from our vantage point.

So, clearly, this is the beginning part of what the operation intends to do, perhaps softening up the ground they intend to move into. We have seen plumes of smoke in the vast expanses here, plumes of dust, I should say, which could be Turkish military convoys on the move. And we've seen large amounts of Turkish hardware on the highways around this particular area.

But it is a vast expanse, Jim, as you know, that this is an enormous operation, as Turkey intends to take 18 miles worth of the corridor border area, as was suggested by president of the U.N. recently.

Maybe a smaller objective, initially. We know, of course, that U.S. forces pulled back from (INAUDIBLE), the Syrian town where we were precisely about an hour ago and exactly on the other side of the Turkish border. And there is another town called Ras al-Ain, which they've also pulled back from too. That's possibly where it begins. They are, themselves, about an hours' drive apart from each other. Vast differences here really to be covered.

But, as you know, Turkey's military is the second largest in NATO, and so very possibly they have the numbers here to do what they wish.


The question is how long do they have the appetite for potentially a Syrian-Kurdish certain insurgency, a war of attrition against them.

As we would, the Syrian Kurds themselves, watching them fight ISIS, they likely (ph) complained about not having the heavy weapons, the armor they needed to fight ISIS. Well, families are very poorly defended, frankly, in the face of a NATO-equipped army with air power possibly. I haven't heard jets from the sky, I should say, but air power possibly backing them up too.

So while the Syrian Kurds, I think, have a morale possibly hanging on towards a homeland in Northeastern Syria, they certainly haven't got the equipment. But we're into a whole new phase now sadly in Syria's civil war. Many have perhaps are beginning to find messy conclusions (INAUDIBLE) bloodshed.

But it seems now that Turkey has long sought pushing back the Syrian Kurds that shed so much over the losses, took so much of the brunt of the bloodshed when they fought ISIS back with U.S. power, that Turkey was so keen to push the Syrian Kurds back. Frankly, they even seem to be risking now the possibility of U.S. sanctions with this military operation. But it's clearly (INAUDIBLE) that the Turkish president has now announced the operation is underway, Jim and Poppy?

SCIUTTO: Yes. Listen, Turkey calls those Syrian forces terrorists.

HARLOW: Right.

SCIUTTO: A reason to be skeptical of that, of course, is that U.S. fought alongside them, fighting actual terrorists, ISIS there.

Nick, tell us, as you're watching this, and these are live pictures folks at home should know of the offensive, this withdrawal helps Russia as well, does it not?

WALSH: Oh, no doubt about that. Absolutely, yes. I mean, the key possible avenue that Syrian Kurds first turned to a Syrian regime in Damascus. We haven't seen concrete results of that yet, but they are an ally of Russia or Moscow. And so that (INAUDIBLE) this part of the territory into a more favorable condition for Russian influence, firmly.

And, of course, any point in the Middle East, as we've seen, when Russia first moved after Barack Obama decided not to bomb when the Syrian regime broke its redline in 2013 and used chemical weapons. Russia stepped in to what they perceived as a power vacuum. They will to do so again here, absolutely, no question of that.

And Syrian Kurds themselves find (INAUDIBLE) in an impossible position. I think they knew this moment was eventually going to come. Donald Trump trying to pull troops out in December of last year, but was convinced not to by his sort of security elements at his cabinet.

But it appears that he signals he wants to do that now. I should stress that U.S. troops have left Northern Syria and (INAUDIBLE) positioned themselves in small numbers so as not to be caught in the crossfire here.

But the message has been clear, either the Syrian Kurds probably have to find new alliances here. And that that will leave them furious, the bloodshed they have suffered, the promises they felt they had with support in the future and now facing the Turkish military's wrath.

This is a vastly strategically important part of the Middle East. It spans between Iran, Iraq and Israel. It's been the corridor through which the Iranians are shipping materials to assist their allies north of Israel, pretty much anything, which has been a problem in the past two decades in the Middle East, potentially stems back to here, particularly when it comes to U.S. policy.

So they're just really throwing, I think, another hand grenade into an area which is already smoldering and rubble. Jim?

SCIUTTO: Well, Nick Paton Walsh, good to have you on the ground there covering this, as only CNN can. Thanks very much.

HARLOW: All right. We'll stay all over that, and let's talk about the situation Syria more with the With Democratic Congressman of California, John Garamendi. He is a senior member on the House Armed Services Committee. Thank you very much for being with me, Congressman.

Of course, you were just on the Syrian border this summer. The president wrote this morning that the U.S., quote, should never have been in the Middle East, defending his action once again. Republican Congresswoman Liz Cheney writing this morning, quote, impossible to understand why the president is leaving America's allies to be slaughtered and enabling the return of ISIS. Is she right?

REP. JOHN GARAMENDI (D-CA): Well, she's absolutely correct. And the president could not be more incorrect. Does he forget about ISIS? Does he forget about what ISIS was doing, taking over -- not only southern -- most of Syria but most of Iraq also.

This man is totally out of touch with reality and he has unleashed a new very, very volatile and dangerous situation in the Middle East. When we were there in March looking at what was going on, we knew then, and I was saying to everybody that would listen, we have to have a stabilization plan put in place. We've got to deal with those ISIS fighters that are in the camps.

I would expect right now that the Syrian Kurds are moving away from the camps, the guardian of those camps and moving to defend their people as Turkey invades their part of the world.

It's going to be a very volatile situation going forward.

HARLOW: Let's remind people, of course, Turkey views the Kurds and the Kurdish fighters as terrorists. They were, until days ago, U.S. allies that we fought alongside in Northern Syria.

Senator Lindsey Graham, who generally rushes to the president's defense on all things, could not disagree with him more here.


He's told Axios yesterday that the president is putting national security at risk, risking his presidency with this move. And he suggested that NATO -- that Turkey rather be suspended from NATO if they attacked the Kurds and also pushed -- imposing more sanctions on -- imposing sanctions, period, on Turkey. Do you support -- would you be supportive of both of those measures?

GARAMENDI: Well, certainly, we need to move forward on all of those areas. There is no doubt that we have to try to regain the stability that existed before the president simply gave Erdogan a green light to do whatever he wants to do in the area. And I'm not only concerned about the Syrian Kurds but the Kurds in the country of Turkey are most likely to come under severe attack as the green light has been given to Erdogan to deal with the Kurds.

HARLOW: But just to be clear, you support a suspension of Turkey from NATO and sanctions on Turkey?

GARAMENDI: We already have some sanctions in place because of the, A, the s-400 aerial defense system.

HARLOW: Yes, purchased from Russia. Yes.

GARAMENDI: Exactly. So that's also -- we've had numerous problems with Turkey. And keep in mind that Erdogan is clearly destroying the democracy that Turkey once enjoyed before he became the president of Turkey. So there is a whole series of issues here. We have to push back. We got to try to regain the stability in the area. How can we do it? Certainly, we're going to have to realize that we cannot leave this area. If we do so, we're going to wiped up with ISIS being reinstated and we have to deal with Turkey. Pushing them out of NATO, I don't think, is a good idea. But holding them into account, continuing to put the pressure on with a variety of issued sanctions among them.

HARLOW: Congressman, let's move to Domestic politics, if we could, here.

Reading the White House response to a Democratic House Leadership, they're not playing ball. They're not going to give the committees, the relevant committees, any of the documents or the testimony that they are asking for in this impeachment inquiry. Is it time for Congress to use the tool that it has not used in a century, inherent contempt?

GARAMENDI: It may come to that. But, first, I do think that it's time for us to put a vote on the floor, a resolution for the inquiry structured in such a way that it can move forward with full power of the Congress behind it. I think that's probably going to come in the next week or so. That will further strengthen Congress' hand.

HARLOW: That's interesting, because Nancy Pelosi is not, you know, pointing to that all. She says, if I want to hold the vote, I will, if I don't, I don't. You not only thing Congress should, you think it's coming within a week. What tells you that?

GARAMENDI: Well, the letter from the White House, absolutely, they want a fight, okay. then let us arm ourselves completely and totally with the full power of Congress.

The votes, I am sure, are there for an impeachment inquiry structured in such a way we have the full opportunity to get all the information, call in the witnesses, get the details, get the -mails and all the rest.

With regard to inherent contempt, I have been for that all along. I think that when the witnesses come and they simply refused to answer questions, I think it's time to call in the Sergeant of Arms, march them off to a little jail, which we do happen to have in one of the rooms of the Capitol Hill. And let them sit there and cool off for a while.

HARLOW: So you'd put Ambassador Sunland, Bill Barr, Don McGahn in jail?

GARAMENDI: I would use the full power and among that is this question of inherent rights of the Congress to hold people. I think we ought to be prepared to go all out on this. We cannot -- this is a fundamental question of the Constitution and the separation of powers. And there are a dozen other issues in which this president has assumed powers of Congress, specifically money out of NATO and taking them more than 100 -- and, say, $1.6 billion out of NATO to build his border wall, completely ignoring the appropriation power of Congress, the power to purse. There are numerous things that we need to do to push back. And right now, the --

HARLOW: You are talking about different issues here. I'm specifically focusing on the Ukraine call and the focus of this impeachment inquiry right now, and that question of inherent contempt was to that issue. I mean, what do you say to critics who would listen to your argument and say, you're on the kitchen sink in here. You just don't want the president in office.

GARAMENDI: No. What I want is for the constitutional separation of powers to be abided now and into the future. If we let this go, we're going to have a very different government.

Yes, we ought to use the full powers on the Ukraine. And did somebody forget about the Mueller investigation and McGahn and others that have totally stonewalled that issue?


The stonewalling is on every single issue that's out there.

But we need to focus on the Ukraine situation, which is enough --