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Federal Budget Office Defies Impeachment Subpoena; Giuliani Defies Subpoena For Ukraine Documents; Top Dems Weighing Impeachment On House Floor; State Dept. Official Alarm Over Giuliani This Past Spring; Sources: Growing White House Frustration Over Impeachment Probe; Rep. Ro Khanna (D-CA) Is Interviewed About Rudy Giuliani, Fiona Hill, Nancy Pelosi On Impeachment, And Democratic Debate; Former WH Adviser: Bolton Warned Me Giuliani Was A "Hand Grenade"; Dems Debate For First Time During Trump Impeachment Inquiry; Hunter Biden Tries To Quiet Critics Ahead Of Democratic Presidential Debate; Aide: Senator Harris Prepares For Democratic Presidential Debate, Continues Campaign In Iowa; Close Call In Syria Puts U.S. Forces In Harm's Way. Aired 5- 6p ET

Aired October 15, 2019 - 17:00   ET

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


(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[17:00:27]

WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: I'm Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM. We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. We're just three hours away from the CNN/"New York Times" Democratic debate here on the campus of Otterbein University in Westerville, Ohio.

A lot is at stake in this key battleground state tonight. It's the first time Joe Biden will step on to the debate stage without the status as the clear front-runner as Elizabeth Warren cements her place in the top tier as well. Biden is likely to face questions tonight about his son Hunter who just opened up about his foreign business dealings in a new interview.

The back drop for all of this, the impeachment investigation in Washington. Democrats are already seizing on very dramatic ongoing testimony from a top State Department official, on Rudy Giuliani's role in the Ukraine scandal. This, as Giuliani tells lawmakers he won't comply with subpoenas.

And the Federal Budget Office said disregards a deadline to turn over key documents. Let's go to Capitol Hill right now where Democrats are facing down defiant witnesses. Our Senior Congressional Correspondent Manu Raju is joining us.

Manu, the deadline was tonight, but the President's lawyer says he won't comply with a congressional subpoena and he's not alone. What's the latest?

MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: That's right. That's right. Rudy Giuliani's attorney sent a letter to Capitol Hill making it very clear that he would not comply with this congressional subpoena demanding documents to turn over information dating back from the beginning of the Trump administration pertaining to Rudy Giuliani's efforts to urge the Ukrainian government to investigate the Bidens.

Now Giuliani is not alone. Other aspects of the federal government are indicating, too, that they won't also won't comply including the White House's Office of Management and Budget, sending word that they would not provide information by today's deadline. And there are two other key entities where there are expectations that they are awaiting word here on Capitol Hill for a final determination, both from the Pentagon and from Vice President Mike Pence's office.

The expectations that they also won't comply and Democrats are warning that noncompliance could ultimately get rolled into an article of impeachment for, in their view, obstructing Congress. Now there are individuals who are complying with subpoenas including State Department officials like George Kent, who's a top State Department official. He has been behind closed doors today for seven hours and counting after getting a subpoena himself once the White House -- after the White House and State Department tried to limit his testimony, he has been answering questions.

And we are hearing from Democrat who have emerged from this close door hearing that Kent is essentially confirming elements of the whistleblower complaint that allege wrongdoing by the President also backing up the testimony of Fiona Hill who was a top -- former top Russia adviser who had explosive testimony yesterday raising concerns about what she viewed as improper action by the President, by Rudy Giuliani, and concerns she relayed that John Bolton, the former national security adviser, had as well.

We're hearing from Democrats, they believe she essentially backed up those claims. But this is still ongoing as part of a very intense week of witnesses, interviews and document requests as Democrats determine their next steps on impeachment, Wolf.

BLITZER: Also, Manu, we know the House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is getting ready within an hour or so if not sooner to meet with her Democratic caucus of the House of Representatives, the issue of impeachment certainly is on the agenda. What are you learning?

RAJU: Yes. We're hearing that she may make some news about what to do about an impeachment inquiry vote. As you know, Republicans have been demanding that the Democrats hold a formal vote to authorize an impeachment inquiry. Democrats have said it is simply not necessary. But when asked about this earlier today, she said this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Do you expect to hold formal vote to authorize --

REP. NANCY PELOSI, (D) HOUSE SPEAKER: I'll be talking about that later today after I meet with my colleagues.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

RAJU: Now, I am told that Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, the Democrat has actually been behind the scenes gaging the temperature of Democrats about whether or not to hold a formal impeachment inquiry vote and that is going to be discussed behind closed doors. Democrats and some who are pushing this believe it could blunt a key Republican argument.

It could blunt what the White House is saying this is an invalid inquiry and strengthen their claims of obstruction of Congress. Others though are concerned about the risk of putting such a sensitive vote on the floor at this key time believing it could be a distraction. So we'll see what the Speaker has to say potentially on this very significant topic in just a matter of moments here, Wolf.

[17:05:04]

BLITZER: Yes, that could be really significant indeed if she makes that dramatic announcement. We'll stand by. We'll have coverage, of course. Manu, thanks very much.

Our Sara Murray is tracking all of the new impeachment developments as well. Sara, concern inside the White House was growing well before that phone call with the President of Ukraine.

SARA MURRAY, CNN POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf. Obviously this phone call has gotten a lot of attention and it really set off this impeachment inquiry. But now we are learning from witnesses as part of the investigation that concerns about how U.S. foreign policy with Ukraine was being conducted or percolating in the White House and in the Trump administration for weeks.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

MURRAY (voice-over): Tonight, new insight into how administration officials were sounding alarms weeks before President Trump pressed the Ukrainian President in July to investigate the Bidens.

Behind the scenes then National Security Adviser John Bolton was concerned about Rudy Giuliani shadow diplomacy efforts calling the President's personal attorney a "hand grenade" who was "going to blow everybody up." That's what Fiona Hill, Trump's former top Russia adviser, told lawmakers on Monday. Sources familiar with her testimony recounted the details to CNN.

REP. STEPHEN LYNCH, (D) OVERSIGHT COMMITTEE: It corroborates a lot of the other information that we had previously about Mayor Giuliani freelancing as President Trump's private attorney.

MURRAY: Hill testify behind closed doors that she saw wrong doing when it came to U.S. foreign policy toward Ukraine and she tried to report it.

REP. JAMIE RASKIN, (D) OVERSIGHT COMMITTEE: All of the witnesses are filling in the picture of what was taking place because the famous or infamous July 25th telephone call was not some kind of one-off. MURRAY: Hill told lawmakers that the U.S. ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland and Acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney were caring out a rogue operation, an operation that Bolton likened to a drug deal. She also said Sondland was in direct contact with the President.

GORDON SONDLAND, U.S. AMBASSADOR TO THE EUROPEAN UNION: President Trump has honored me with the job of being the U.S. ambassador to the E.U., but he's also given me other special assignments including Ukraine.

MURRAY: In a July 10th meeting on Ukraine, Sondland mentioned the investigations, which was seen as a reference to the investigations into the Bidens. Unsettled, Bolton urged Hill to report it to the National Security Counsel lawyer. Prior to her appearance, Hill's attorneys braced for pushback from the White House, particularly over whether she could block from testifying due to executive privilege. "We understand that deliberative process privilege disappears altogether when there is any reason to believe government misconduct occurred," Hill's lawyers wrote to White House attorneys.

As Republicans continue to protest impeachment inquiry --

REP. JIM JORDAN, (R) RANKING MEMBER, OVERSIGHT COMMITTEE: Look, three days out of testimony and all behind closed doors, three unique perspectives that the American people didn't get to see in this partisan and unfair process.

MURRAY: The investigation continues today with testimony from George Kent, the Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian affairs.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

MURRAY: Now, Wolf, George Kent is still testifying and as Manu reported, Rudy Giuliani does not plan to show up and he's had plenty of other headlines coming out today. He has parted ways with his attorney who he brought on to make this decision about whether or not to show up in front of these impeachment committees.

Giuliani also said via Twitter that he doesn't need a lawyer any more. But, Wolf, as you know, two of his associates have been indicted. They've been charge with campaign finance crimes and Giuliani's own activity has been under scrutiny. So we will see how long he lasts out there on his own. Back to you.

BLITZER: We shall, indeed. All right, Sara, thank you very much. Sara Murray reporting.

Let's go to our White House Correspond Kaitlan Collins right now. Kaitlan, you have some new reporting that there's growing frustration inside the White House surrounding this impeachment inquiry.

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Wolf, today you saw the President in the Rose Garden dismissing this saying he's not worried about impeachment. But we're being told by sources that behind the scenes there is this growing frustration inside of the White House over this parade of administration officials who are making their way to Capitol Hill to give depositions, testimony, sometimes by request, sometimes because of a subpoena.

And essentially what Manu just laid out, you saw George Kent go today, you saw Fiona Hill, the President's former top Russia adviser there yesterday, they are sitting with these investigators for large chunks of times, sometimes several hours like Fiona Hill who was there for 10 hours yesterday. But so far the White House is unable to figure out exactly what these officials current and former are divulging to these investigators because they don't have a White House lawyer in the room.

They're not given any kind of a transcript or substantive read-out when these officials leave the room. And of course mostly they're finding out what officials like Fiona Hill are saying from press reports about what they've said to these Republicans and to these Democrats who were in the room with their staff.

Now, the White House, you'll remember, Wolf, sent the eight-page letter telling officials that they are telling Democrats they were not going to comply with this impeachment inquiry because they don't see it as legitimate. They've decried the fact that they feel like they have no rights here. I.E. meaning they don't have anyone in the room representing the White House's point of view in all of this. But so far, Wolf, they've been unable to stop officials current and former from being able go up on Capitol Hill and comply with the requests.

[17:10:12]

BLITZER: Kaitlan Collins over at the White House. We're going to get back to you. I know there are developments unfolding there as well.

In the meantime, let's discuss all the breaking news with Congressman Ro Khanna of the House Oversight Committee. He's also a co-chair, by the way, of the Bernie Sanders campaign.

Congressman, thanks so much for joining us. I want to get to this debate that's about to happen in just a few moments. But first, let me get your reaction to Rudy Giuliani's refusal to cooperate. Do you see potentially evidence of criminal behavior by Rudy Giuliani?

REP. RO KHANNA, (D) OVERSIGHT COMMITTEE: Well his continuing to dig his own grave. I mean, the non-cooperation with Congress is just further evidence that he has something to hide. And it's very concerning. I mean, you have two Ukrainian nationals who have been indicted in New York on alleged campaign finance reform.

The public needs to understand what was Rudy Giuliani's role in that? Did he encourage them to investigate Biden? What influence did he have on this whole conspiracy that these people have been indicted for?

BLITZER: What is your reaction, Congressman, to Rudy Giuliani's refusal to cooperate? KHANNA: It's outrageous. I mean, again, what is he hiding from the American people? Why doesn't he just come and tell the American people what he knew about these two individuals who have been indicted. Did he ask them for help in getting a Ukrainian prosecutor to go after Biden? What did he know about their contributions to the Trump campaign? So, it's very clear that there is something that he is hiding and he's not going to get away with it.

BLITZER: The President's former top Russia adviser Fiona Hill who testified for hours and hours that this was simply a rogue operation with Ukraine and that former National Security Adviser John Bolton himself directed her to alert White House lawyers of potential legal problems. Have you ever heard of a situation like that before?

KHANNA: Wolf, I haven't. You know I've had a lot of disagreements with John Bolton but it is unheard of that the President's own national security adviser is concerned that there is a rogue operation happening in the administration. And that's what we need to focus on. This really was a threat to our national security.

You have people who have no business conducting American foreign policy influencing and directing our decisions. And that has to stop. And Republicans like Francis Rooney now started to speak out about that, saying who are Rudy Giuliani or others to be conducting American foreign policy?

BLITZER: We know that the Speaker Nancy Pelosi is about to meet you and all of the Democratic members very soon to discuss this impeachment inquiry. How seriously you think she is considering changing her position and allowing a full vote on the House floor authorizing an impeachment inquiry?

KHANNA: Wolf, I don't think that is necessary. I don't think she's going to do it. And she believes that the constitution and the House rules and House precedent clearly allow the speaker and the judiciary chair to begin an inquiry. We're going to have a vote in the House once the articles are referred to us. But right now we need to focus not on the distractive debate but on getting the information and building the case.

BLITZER: But legally if you had such a vote and it was approved, which I assume it would be given the Democratic majority, wouldn't that give you stronger legal basis to fight Giuliani's refusal to comply, for example, with subpoenas and other Executive Branch refusal stonewalling on these subpoenas?

KHANNA: I don't think so, Wolf. I mean, yes, technically it may give a slightly greater legal authority under U.S. versus Nixon. But the reality is, the administration is just going to continue to stonewall. And they're trying to run out the clock.

They hope to keep appealing these decisions, appealing to the Supreme Court and hope that the Supreme Court won't hear this until 2021. So, anyone who thinks they're getting slightly more legal precedent is going to enforce compliance by the administration isn't watching their strategy which is to just delay, delay, delay and hope the President runs in 2020 without having to hand over any of these documents.

BLITZER: Let me get your thoughts quickly on a political question. The debate that's about to take place behind me in just, what, 2:45, you've endorsed Bernie Sanders in this race. He slumped in the most recent polls a bit while his progressive rival Elizabeth Warren is on the rise. Sanders, as all of us know, is recovering from a heart attack. What does he need to do tonight on this stage?

KHANNA: Wolf, he needs to remind people why he's running. He's running for those people who have been counted out, those people who have been ridden off for the working class. And he's running on an economic vision that says communities and people who have been left behind are going to get a fair shot.

I'm headed to Iowa this weekend for him. A poll there by CBS has him actually in a virtual tie with Elizabeth Warren and Joe Biden. He's right in the thick of things and I think he's going to be -- continued to be a very strong contender for the nomination.

[17:15:22]

BLITZER: Congressman Ro Khanna, thanks as usual for joining us.

KHANNA: Thanks, Wolf, for having me.

BLITZER: Stay with us. We have much more ahead in our special coverage as we count down in the first Democratic presidential debate since the start of the Trump impeachment inquiry.

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[17:20:25]

BLITZER: We're following multiple breaking stories as we count down to the first Democratic presidential debate since the start of the Trump impeachment inquiry. Among the stories just now breaking, President Trump's personal attorney Rudy Giuliani telling Congress he will not comply with a subpoena for documents on his dealings in Ukraine.

Let's discuss all of the news with our political analyst and our experts. And Maggie Haberman, you've been covering this so closely. How significant are the developments as these candidates get ready to debate very soon? How significant are these impeachment developments back in Washington?

MAGGIE HABERMAN, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: They're so fast-moving that it could be hard for candidates and reporters to keep track of. But Rudy Giuliani has said today he is not going to comply with this congressional document subpoena. He's waiting to see what they do in terms of enforcement.

I think what this is going to result is a harder call from the candidates on the debate stage saying they believe the President should be impeached. I think that this has all led to a moment where you're going to have sort of a unified chorus of that, whereas you might not have that even a couple of weeks ago.

BLITZER: How do you see it, Michael Smerconish?

MICHAEL SMERCONISH, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: The members of the diplomatic core who are testifying and if the reports are to be believed and I think that they are, everyone is telling us similar story. It occurs to me that this is much less a factual dispute as the events unfold.

You know there was the whistleblower complaint, there was the "transcript of the July 25 telephone call." Everything tells the same story. So it's really not a factual dispute as much as it is one of interpretation and whether it rises to an impeachable offense.

BLITZER: It looks like the intensity back in Washington among these House Democrats, Andrew, is really, really escalating.

ANDREW GILLUM, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Yes, Wolf. First of all I want to applaud the Democrats for setting the politics of this moment aside and frankly giving real homage to their responsibilities of the constitution. We see a very quick, yet deliberate-moving impeachment process, inquiry, if you will, right now over the objections of the secretary of state, over the objections of this President.

You've seen administration officials appointed by this President make their way down to the Capitol and tell their truth. And as Michael has already pointed out, you see great similarities between the stories that are being told and I think this makes it very, very difficult for Republicans to continue to call this a witch hunt or Democrats against the President Trump when you got that kind of similarity.

BLITZER: You know, Mitch Landrieu, you're former mayor of New Orleans, you come from that perspective in Louisiana. Is it important that Nancy Pelosi shift or change her position and allow a full House vote to authorize an impeachment inquiry?

MITCH LANDRIEU, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: You know, I know people are of both minds. I think she's actually led the House in a very thoughtful and smart way and I will defer to her thought on that.

BLITZER: What's the downside of doing that?

LANDRIEU: Well, I don't know that there is one at this particular point in time. Maybe she's thinking that she doesn't want to force people to vote. But it seems like we've gotten to a point now. And as Maggie said, this thing is moving so fast.

The cumulative effect now of what is happening is that the American people are beginning to understand that this is very serious, it's very deliberate. One of the things I don't quite understand is why Mayor Giuliani thinks that he is above the law and does not have to respond to Congress when the Founding Fathers drafted this impeachment process they did it in a way to give Congress the right to investigate like they are. So I don't know by what authority he thinks that he's above the law. And I'm really more interested in what she's going to do and they're going to do about that.

BLITZER: How worried are they, Maggie, inside of the White House?

HABERMAN: They're concerned. Listen, and it's not across the board. The President according to a lot of people who have spoken to him doesn't actually seem to recognize the gravity of the situation. He still seems to believe that he is going to push through this the way that he has pushed through any number of things and doesn't quite see this one as different.

Staff members, however, are much more concerned. People who have been around Washington are much more concerned. They recognize that there is a difference. And a key difference in the last week, I would say, Wolf, is that a lot of people who were told not to testify by the White House, by the State Department are doing it anyway. And would you not really seen that from witnesses who the House had called since Democrats took office.

BLITZER: And Michael, I'm sure you agreed, this -- the word now that John Bolton, the President's former national security adviser actually went to Fiona Hill, they went to the White House counsel, they were concerned that there were really potential legal irregularities going on thanks to Rudy Giuliani and Ukraine.

SMERCONISH: You know, Bolton who has not been someone that the media has always looked at in such a positive light all of a sudden I think is about to become a media darling if, in fact, that's accurate and he's now at odds with the President.

I just want to make one other observation. This is a five-alarm fire on the Acela Corridor. I'm still not sure how it's playing in the rest of the country. And I don't think that dust has yet settled where we really understand.

BLITZER: Let's ask Andrew Gillum, how is it playing in Florida?

[17:25:00]

GILLUM: Well, I mean, look, the President has his group of loyal supporters, there's no doubt about it. But as we can see from national polling, it is breaking the way of an impeachment inquiry.

What I do hope happens, however, is through this process and I understand why the congressional Democrats are handling it the way they are at this time, so that folks aren't sort of trading stories between what is being publicly made available. But I got to tell you, I do hope that this makes its way to the public view.

At some point we're going to have to see congressional hearings where you see firsthand testimony, information, knowledge being shared if we're really trying to move public opinion, public will on this issue. It's not going to be good enough to be reported by CNN and the pages of "The New York Times" or "The Washington Post."

People are going to need to be able to see eye to eye, do I believe this person? Is this person acting in the best interests of the country or is this just some political vendetta that's being played out?

BLITZER: We'll see how it plays out on the stage behind us very, very soon. We're going to have a lot more on all the breaking news. We'll be right back.

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[17:31:00]

BLITZER: We're counting down to the CNN/"New York Times" Democratic Presidential Debate now less than three hours away. Our senior Washington correspondent Jeff Zeleny is here with us, and he's got more on what to expect from these 12 Democratic contenders on the stage tonight. Set the scene for us, Jeff.

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, good evening. As you can see here on the floor of the debate hall, the audience is already taking their seats. They're finding their way here. This is a mix of -- of Democratic activists and other interested voters here in Westerville, Ohio, a key suburb of Columbus, Ohio.

But, Wolf, as you can see on the stage there, it is going to be Joe Biden at center stage. Of course, next to him, Elizabeth Warren but, also, Pete Buttigieg. So those are the three candidates at this point -- and Bernie Sanders on the other side of Joe Biden. Those are the four candidates that, you know, there will be a lot of attention on.

But it is the former Vice President Joe Biden who has been really working through so many issues with his son, Hunter Biden. And earlier today, Hunter Biden appeared on ABC to talk about the controversy about his dealings with Ukraine. Let's listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

HUNTER BIDEN, SON OF FORMER VICE PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: In retrospect, look, I -- I think there was poor judgment on my part, is that I think there was poor judgment because I don't believe now, when I look back on it -- I know that there was -- I did nothing wrong at all. However, was it poor judgment to be in the middle of something that is a -- it's a -- it's a swamp in -- in many ways? Yes.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ZELENY: So that is Hunter Biden there giving his first comments about this ongoing controversy that is at the heart of the impeachment inquiry. President Trump, of course, reaching out to the Ukrainian President asking for an investigation into the Bidens.

Now, in this primary debate, Wolf, talking to advisers from every campaign, no one is telegraphing that they are going to go after or raise questions about this incident to Joe Biden himself. If it's going to play an effect in the -- the larger election, we'll have to see how voters respond to this.

But, Wolf, tonight, so much different -- you know, such a different moment. Impeachment, of course. So much has happened in the last month since these candidates have debated, but there is a fresh sense of urgency from so many of these campaigns at the lower level of the 12 candidates. They need to have a moment.

So, Wolf, look tonight -- after talking to all the advisers of the campaigns, look for some interesting exchanges. Cory Booker likely to go after Pete Buttigieg on guns. Beto O'Rourke also likely to go after Pete Buttigieg. They're trying to get into his space, if you will. But Pete Buttigieg is making, you know, pretty clear that he's going to raise some tough questions to Elizabeth Warren about Medicare for all.

So that is just some of the dynamic going into this, Wolf. We'll see if Joe Biden comes under fire from some of his policy proposals, but it might be Elizabeth Warren this evening who is, you know, essentially at the head of this field now, at least in much of the polling, that might be answering some questions about her policies and proposals. So far, she's been very strong in all these debates, Wolf, but look for that dynamic here tonight. Wolf.

BLITZER: We certainly will. It's going to be lively to be sure, 8:00 p.m. Eastern. Jeff Zeleny, stand by, we'll get back to you.

You know, Mitch Landrieu, do you think there's going to be some serious sparring between the two front-runners, you know, Biden and Warren?

LANDRIEU: I think it's going to be a very exciting night, and I'm not sure that's going to be the dynamic. I think you're going to see exactly what Jeff said, that Cory and Pete and Beto are going to get after it with each other. I think Elizabeth Warren is going to take some heat tonight. And I think it's going to be a pretty rambunctious night, that's my guess.

BLITZER: The Hunter Biden comments this morning in the interview, how much is that going to play, if at all, do you think, tonight?

SMERCONISH: Well, I don't believe in coincidence. You can't convince me that, hey, that interview just happened to air today, the same night that we're having the debate.

I doubt anyone on that stage, apart from perhaps a moderator, actually references Hunter Biden per se. But I think the issue is going -- it's the elephant in the room, it'll be dealt with. And I expect that the former Vice President will say -- more than just deflect to President Trump and his children, I think he'll probably have a substantive reply to some of the allegations that have been made about him.

[17:34:59]

BLITZER: Let me play another clip from that interview he gave to ABC News earlier today. And let's listen to this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BIDEN: -- you know, we are what we are. AMY ROBACH, ABC NEWS ANCHOR: I think people at home are thinking, how

could that not have crossed your mind? I mean, you wouldn't have felt just a little bit in your gut, like, maybe this isn't a good idea to go and sit on the board of this --

BIDEN: Well, I just said to you --

ROBACH: -- Ukrainian company?

BIDEN: I said that -- I said to you, in retrospect, I wish that my judgment --

ROBACH: Right, but at the time, you never -- it never -- you never thought, this might not look right?

BIDEN: You know what, I'm a human. And you know what, did I make a mistake? Well, maybe in -- in the grand scheme of things, yes. But did I make a mistake based upon some unethical lapse? Absolutely not.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: This interview, Maggie, it's going to help his father or hurt his father?

HABERMAN: I think that this interview is going to raise more questions, frankly, than it answers because I think it does get to the question of, why didn't he think to do this? I mean, other than I made a mistake.

When he -- if there -- you know, the -- the Vice President -- or the former Vice President put out a plan that his son would not be involved in anything that relates to what he would be doing as President, he says he's stepping down from boards. It's going to make people wonder, why didn't he just do that in the first place several years back?

I think this issue -- despite the -- the manner in which President Trump has brought it up, I think it has now seeped in enough. And I think Joe Biden was struggling even before this came up. I think this has accelerated Joe Biden's struggles. I don't think this going to put anything to rest. I think it is going to continue the questions about it.

BLITZER: Andrew, how do you see it?

GILLUM: Well, I mean, I -- one, I found the timing today to be a little curious knowing that later this evening, obviously, in a few moments, the Vice President will be on the stage debating, and this is an elephant in the room.

But I agree with Megan, I'm not really sure what they expected to put to bed. I don't think this, in any way, will stop Donald Trump from being completely vicious, untruthful, and quite frankly, in many ways, unhinged when going after both the Vice President as well as -- as Hunter. So I'm -- I struggle with what is it that we're trying to put it bed here. And I -- and I have to tell you, it did make me wonder whether or not

it gives a little bit of credence to what Donald Trump has been trumpeting out there by leaning into it the way that they have. I wonder if there was another way to do that.

LANDRIEU: Well, but, you know what, you --

BLITZER: Do you think --

LANDRIEU: The country is not going to get distracted from these simple facts. There's no evidence that Joe Biden himself did anything wrong. There's a lot of evidence that the President of the United States worked with a foreign government to undermine our elections.

GILLUM: Right.

LANDRIEU: And the -- and the issue will come back to Trump's kids in comparison, about the fact that they're actually working in the White House right now and engaging in business with foreign countries. The -- the public is not silly. They might have been born at night, but they weren't born last night. They'll -- they'll figure this out.

GILLUM: And you know, this is -- this is why I have some issues with it because I don't think there is an equivalency at all, whatsoever, between what Hunter Bider -- Biden did as a private citizen versus what the President's children are doing with official titles from the White House. The fact that they are making money hand over fist with countries that we are in -- right now, in -- in negotiations with, the fact that you're getting patents out of China and out of Russia.

And there are real issues with administration, and I would just hate to see -- and I've not endorsed any candidate, but I would just hate to see Joe Biden have to sit on the same plane as Donald Trump and defend the actions of his children versus what we see happening right now on the White House being carried out by this President, by this administration.

SMERCONISH: Can I just say that -- that I --

BLITZER: Yes. We'll see if it comes up tonight. Go ahead.

SMERCONISH: I happen to think that it was a wise move to -- to allow Hunter Biden to the extent that he needed to be allowed to speak today. He had been so caricatured in a despicable way on a personal level. Put aside the money, Burisma, and the financial -- just the -- the things about, you know, those issues that, frankly, I think, we're all a degree of separation away from.

And so, for him to make a credible appearance as I think he did, to show up and not have horns, and to be able to make some cogent points I think probably will dispel much of the myth that they were trying to create about him.

BLITZER: We'll see if how -- how much, if at all, this comes up in the debate later tonight. There is a lot more we're watching right now. We're counting down to the start of the first Democratic Presidential Debate since the start of the Trump impeachment inquiry. We'll be right back.

[17:39:04]

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: We're counting down to tonight's Democratic Presidential Debate here at Otterbein University here in Westerville, Ohio. This is the first debate since the Democrats opened up their impeachment inquiry. House Democrats are meeting right now to discuss their strategy. Rudy Giuliani is now defying a congressional subpoena for documents.

I'm joined now by the national press secretary for Senator Kamala Harris' campaign, Ian Sams. Ian, thanks very much for coming in.

IAN SAMS, NATIONAL PRESS SECRETARY FOR SENATOR KAMALA HARRIS: Absolutely, thanks.

BLITZER: Big -- big debate coming up. Do you think that's going to be a big issue tonight during the course of the debate, this impeachment inquiry, these late-breaking developments?

SAMS: Absolutely. It's hard to imagine it doesn't. I mean, there's nothing that's more taking over the oxygen and the consciousness of the country right now than that. And it should be.

We have a President who's going out on the south lawn of the White House and asking foreign nations to investigate his political rivals. He's going out on the south lawn of the White House and obstructing justice. They're -- they're refusing to comply with subpoenas just today, his personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani. This isn't behavior that the President should do, but it's also an abuse of power.

And so, all these Democrats who are on stage tonight are going to be talking about how, first, we have to hold him accountable for this. You know, I think everyone on this stage is for impeachment. Kamala has been out for impeachment since this spring, talking about the lawlessness that this administration and this President have been pursing across the board.

Now, he's just doing it out in the open. And we have the, you know, patriotic whistleblower who came forward to sort of blow the lid off of this --

BLITZER: Senator --

SAMS: -- but we all, I think, agree that this President has to be held accountable.

BLITZER: Senator Kamala Harris, your boss, is she in favor simply of impeachment but -- but what about conviction, removal from office?

[17:45:01]

SAMS: Absolutely. Based on what we know right now, all the evidence that we have at our disposal, she would vote to -- to -- to remove him from office, I guess is the word.

BLITZER: To convict.

SAMS: Yes.

BLITZER: In the -- if there's a full -- there's supposed to be a trial. If there's going to be impeachment at the House of Representatives, it goes to the Senate for trial. You need 67 votes, a super majority, which is unlikely given the fact that you need 20 Republicans to vote.

SAMS: Well, certainly -- that is certainly the norm, you know.

BLITZER: Yes.

SAMS: And I think if Senator McConnell tries to, you know, pull a little trick or a game to try to hide this and not have there be some sort of big proceeding in the Senate, that would be a disservice, both constitutionally and to the American people who deserve to see a full airing of all of this to understand what exactly is going on here and what is at stake. And I think that that would be good for the country, and he should do that.

BLITZER: Does she believe that a crime was actually committed?

SAMS: Well, I think, you know, we've seen -- seen the Mueller report where there are 10 demonstrated counts of obstruction of justice that have happened right, you know, out in the open in the Russia investigation.

BLITZER: But Mueller said you -- you -- you can't indict a sitting President.

SAMS: Right, but what Robert Mueller said was, Congress, take this up, this is basically on you. It's -- it's a congressional responsibility whether or not to impeach him for these actions.

And I think that what we're seeing is when he goes out in front of the White House and essentially tells foreign nations to investigate his political rivals, withholds aid throughout the process as something of a quid pro quo, that -- that's not OK. And it's certainly an abuse of power, and it may very well rise to the level of a crime.

BLITZER: What is she going to say if the whole Hunter Biden issue comes up tonight?

SAMS: Well, look, I think what she said is this is exactly what Donald Trump does. Donald Trump tries to take a career public servant like Joe Biden and bring him down to his level and attack him with lies and with smears and false attacks.

And so, I think that we just can't be distracted by what Donald Trump is doing, trying to, you know, make Joe Biden into something he's not. Leave Joe Biden alone is what Kamala has said about this.

Because what -- what -- the clear issue here is this President's abuse of power, his willingness to sit in that Oval Office every day and put himself first instead of the country that he's supposed to be governing first. And you know, frankly, it's because he doesn't seem to care that much about the country, he only cares about himself.

BLITZER: Senator Harris has got to do something. Her -- this new Quinnipiac poll nationwide, Democrats and Democratic-leaning voters, she's only at four percent right now. What does she need to do to break out?

SAMS: Well, look, we still have four months almost I think until votes get cast in Iowa. That's a long time. We've seen --

BLITZER: Early February.

SAMS: We've seen -- yes, correct. We've seen in past elections cycles, 2007, 2003, at this -- this time, the -- the people who ended up winning the nomination were kind of back in the pack. They weren't leading all the way into Iowa.

And so, we still have a long way ahead. And what she's going to do is she's going to spend a lot of time -- she'd been spending a lot of time in Iowa on the campaign trail, saying something pretty simple to the American people with what's happening right now: justice is on the ballot.

When we have a lawless President who is threatening everything in our entire way of life and our constitutional order in this country, justice is on the ballot in 2020. But justice is also on the ballot when people can't afford health care every month but the health insurance companies are raking in billions, or when the environment is being wrecked by these big corporations and kids are getting sick from asthma, or when people can't afford their bills each month but big corporations are making record profits.

Those are unjust things happening in our country. And she's going to say, look, I spent my whole life fighting for justice as a prosecutor, as the attorney general of the largest state in the country and the second largest Department of Justice in America.

You know, this has been my life's work to take on people who have really been threatening our country and keeping the system unjust for regular people in America. So she's going to talk about that over the next four months. And as we get to Iowa, that's when you want to be doing really well.

BLITZER: Right.

SAMS: You don't want to be doing really -- you know, I mean, it's nice, I guess, to do well in the summer of the off year, but that doesn't determine the outcome of a race. We want to peak at the new year and be very competitive in the Iowa race.

BLITZER: We'll see how it unfolds.

SAMS: Absolutely.

BLITZER: But first of all, we'll see how it unfolds tonight.

SAMS: Absolutely.

BLITZER: We're looking forward to it. Just a little bit more than two hours from now. Ian, thanks very much for coming in.

SAMS: Thanks, Wolf.

BLITZER: We have a lot more as we countdown to tonight's Democratic Presidential Debate. Up next, though, an update on the crisis -- and it's the real crisis -- in Syria.

[17:48:49]

BLITZER: Breaking news, a very close call with Turkish-backed forces who put U.S. troops directly at risk in Syria today. Let's go to our Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr.

Barbara, what are you hearing from your sources?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, what we now know is that Turkish-backed forces came within three miles of a U.S. and coalition base in northeastern Syria. And three miles may sound like a lot, but for the U.S. troops that were there, it was too close for comfort. They don't want these people that close to them in this uncertain security situation.

They sent up an Apache helicopter basically to scare them off, and they did. Those troops retreated. But it just underscores the uncertain security situation as the Pentagon urgently is moving to try and get nearly 1,000 troops out of Syria in a secure and safe manner.

We also now can tell everyone that the first flight of U.S. military equipment with a few troops have left Syria. These flights will increase. There will be some movement out by land. There will be air cover overhead because there is so much concern about making sure they can get out safely.

The plan right now is to take the time to do it in a very orderly fashion, but we also know that U.S. troops have all the authority they need to fire back in self-defense and, if it came to it, to destroy their equipment in place if they do have to make a hasty exit -- Wolf.

[17:55:11]

BLITZER: A horrible situation indeed. All right, Barbara, we'll get back to you as well.

Coming up, top Democrats are considering holding a formal impeachment vote on the House floor. Will Nancy Pelosi make it official? We're standing by. She is about to make a statement.

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BLITZER: I'm Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM. We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. [17:59:50]

We're following two breaking stories this hour including tonight's CNN/"New York Times" Democratic Presidential Debate. For the first time, 12 candidates will take the stage here in Westerville, Ohio, a key battleground state. Among them, Joe Biden and Elizabeth Warren who are now locked in a very tight battle to be the front-runner.