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Why Was Trump Blocking Ukraine Aid?; Anonymous Author Promises to Expose Private Trump Conversations; President Trump Doubles Down on Lynching Comparison. Aired 3-3:30p ET

Aired October 25, 2019 - 15:00   ET




BARACK OBAMA, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: And, you know, this is a title that we confer on all kinds of people who get elected to public office, but -- but Elijah Cummings was honorable before he was elected to office.



BROOKE BALDWIN, CNN HOST: The Honorable Elijah E. Cummings, rest in peace.

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

BALDWIN: You're watching CNN. I'm Brooke Baldwin.

It was a decision that raised red flags among diplomats, Republicans and Democrats in Congress, and even staffers over at the Pentagon and the White House Budget Office. The question, why was President Trump blocking nearly $400 million in aid to Ukraine?

And while that decision was ultimately reversed, the weeks leading up to it are now at the heart of the Democrats' impeachment inquiry.

And, today, President Trump once again defended his phone call with his counterpart in Ukraine, where he repeatedly asked his foreign counterpart to investigate Joe Biden, sparking that whistle-blower complaint about Trump's behavior and these allegations of quid pro quo.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The level of unfairness for a perfect conversation with the president of Ukraine -- this was a perfect conversation. And, frankly, had they known what the conversation was, they wouldn't have even wasted everybody's time.

The president of Ukraine and the foreign minister came out, said there was no anything. There was no -- he used the word no blackmail. They said there was no pressure. There was nothing done wrong. This is a hoax.


BALDWIN: CNN political correspondent Sara Murray is the one breaking this story for us this afternoon.

So, Sara, you have learned that a conversation with Ohio Republican Senator Rob Portman was one of perhaps the final pieces here, before President Trump decided to indeed release the millions in military aid to Ukraine.

Can you just unravel all of this for us as fast as you can?


I mean, we know the president was under a lot of pressure at that point, but we just didn't realize how pivotal this phone call seemed to be when he spoke to Senator Rob Portman on September 11.

And on the call, Portman is telling him, you really need to release this money. And he essentially makes the argument that, look, now is the time to do it. If you don't do it soon, the fiscal year is going to end, that money is going to go away altogether.

And the president puts up his usual protest. He says the U.S. is being taken for a sucker. He says that European countries aren't paying their fair share, and this call ends.

And after that, the president basically surprises everyone by saying, OK, send the money out. And he tells his aides to move forward and release these funds that the White House had then put a hold on for months and months on end.

Now, this is just one of the factors that was bearing down at the president at that point. And Rob Portman was just one of the lawmakers that had been raising alarms. The White House at that point had been inundated with letters and with calls from people, members of Congress, expressing their concern.

President Trump also at that point has learned that there are diplomats who suspect that he's holding back the money as part of a quid pro quo. And, remember, at the same time, this whistle-blower complaint is beginning to circulate. More White House officials are learning that that is out there.

And it's unclear which one of these factors was ultimately the thing that pushed President Trump to shift his position on this. And this, Brooke, is a key question for impeachment investigators. What inspired the president to finally remove this hold on the funds?


MURRAY: The White House did not comment for this story. And they have offered shifting explanations in the past. They have pointed to a national security review, but all of our

sources are telling us that all of the work on that was done before the president ever paused the funds. Mick Mulvaney pointed to a review at the Office of Management and Budget, but our sources are saying that was sort of a cursory poll of the numbers. That wasn't something that would have held up the aid for we weeks at a time.

But this is certainly something, Brooke, that is of interest to congressional investigators. They definitely want to get to the bottom of why the president decided to freeze the money in the first place and then why he decided to move forward with it.

BALDWIN: Yes. Yes.

So you hit the key question. And I understand that the White House didn't comment for this particular piece, but, overall, what has their explanation been for the reasoning for President Trump to finally say, OK, I'm giving them the money?

MURRAY: Well, they have offered a lot of reasons.

But I think their overall sort of talking point is, essentially, this is bureaucracy. We had to make sure that this money wasn't going to a corrupt place, that it was being spent properly, that it has gone through all of these appropriate checks.

And all of the other sources that we talked to you are saying, yes, that's true, but the brunt of that work had already been done in May, before the president ever decided to put a hold on this money.

At the time that these funds were supposedly under review at the Office of Management and Budget and with national security teams, we're told that there weren't any real questions flowing from OMB. They weren't asking questions of the kinds of agencies you would expect if there was a real kind of policy review going on.


And, again, the State Department already wanted this money out the door. The Pentagon wanted this money out the door. The members of Congress who allocated this money wanted it out the door.

And so everyone was just confused about what the holdup was.

BALDWIN: OK. Sara Murray with the reporting -- Sara, thank you very much.

With me now, Sam Vinograd. She's a CNN national security analyst and she also served as a senior adviser to the national security adviser in the Obama administration. Asha Rangappa is a former FBI special agent and a CNN legal and national security analyst. And Michael Bender for us over there at the White House, he's a White House reporter for "The Wall Street Journal" and a CNN political analyst.

And so, Michael, I'm starting with you, because you're there at the White House. And this is what we want to start with. Numerous people -- to Sara and Jeremy Diamond's reporting, numerous people sounded the alarm about President Trump seemingly unwilling to give the millions in aid to Ukraine.

But at the end of the day, he is the one who decided to both block and release the funds. So how worried are Trump staffers about his involvement here?

MICHAEL BENDER, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, it's -- the answer is, they're not that worried.

We're getting a lot of the same kind of vibes we had during the Mueller report. There's a quite a bit of confusion here and overlap in duties.

But to understand where the White House is right now, where senior aides and staff are, you have to go back look at the Mueller report. And that report exonerated them on collusion with Russia, and they feel like this impeachment inquiry is just a another thing that they have to endure.

Obviously, there are some significant differences here, starting with some bipartisan criticism of Trump's call with Ukraine to start with, and bipartisan criticism of the president's decision to withhold this aid.

So there are some other factors that they have to deal with. And we're starting to hear more and more of that from Republican allies. We have heard Freedom Caucus members complaining that they're not hearing enough from the White House on this. Lindsey Graham obviously was very vocal over the last couple of days, urging them to follow the Clinton playbook on this, not their Mueller playbook.

BALDWIN: Interesting.

Michael, stand by.

Asha and Sam, over to you.

I mean, the key question, which Sara hit upon, is, what precipitated President Trump's decision to finally release this military aid, just keeping in mind that around the same time the whistle-blower complaint was out there? Perhaps he knew about it at the time. What do you think of this?

SAMANTHA VINOGRAD, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: Brooke, the only people that probably weren't worried about withholding this aid were Russians.

I think you would be hard-pressed to find a Republican or a Democrat or anyone in the U.S. government that wasn't concerned that $400 million in security assistance was being withheld and that would benefit Russia.

Ambassador Bill Taylor laid that out in his testimony, the stakes, the life-or-death stakes that were at play here. With respect to what ultimately changed President Trump's mind, we know that multiple Cabinet-level officials, State, DOD, CIA, and Ambassador Bolton, who may testify very soon, raised concerns about this.

What we also know is that there were concerns circulating in the White House. The NSC lawyers were contacted about concerns about the July 25 call. So it is likely that President Trump felt some kind of legal pressure -- and Asha, I know, can speak to that -- that ultimately led him to this decision.

But the macro takeaway, Brooke, is, the president was willing to do something that helped Russia because Ukraine would not cooperate with his politically motivated investigation. Countering Russia has had strong bipartisan support, and President Trump was willing to put that on the table for his own personal gain.

BALDWIN: And to your point, we know, at the end of the day, and the senior administration official is quoted in the office reporting saying, at the end of the day, it's President Trump who this is all up to whether or not he wants to release this aid.

VINOGRAD: It's not, though, to an extent.

One quick caveat is, Congress has the power of the purse.


VINOGRAD: So there is the issue here that President Trump was violating the separation of powers.


BALDWIN: Which is why bipartisan Congress was about investigating what was up with withholding.

You brought up John Bolton, so let me actually pivot to that really quickly, Asha, for you, because lawyers for John Bolton are in talks about a possible closed-door deposition, keeping in mind also swirling around this period of time was John Bolton being like go, right, from his duties as national security adviser.

Some Republican sources have admitted to CNN that Bill Taylor's testimony was a game-changer, but Bolton would be next-level.


ASHA RANGAPPA, CNN LEGAL AND NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: So, I think that Bolton kind of encapsulates why this is not like what happened with the Mueller report.

The Mueller report was about kind of these indirect and not establishable contacts between the Trump campaign -- well, at least Trump himself and Russia. The witnesses who were coming in were often hostile and not wanting to come in, or, if they did, they could be characterized as biased, like Michael Cohen, because they were under criminal investigation themselves. And, ultimately, this was about conduct during the campaign. This is

all very different. These are Trump's own people, his own appointees, Republicans, voluntarily coming in. They are not under clouds of investigation themselves.


So there's -- it's harder to say, oh, they're trying to get a deal with prosecutors to testify. And this is about his conduct as the president of the United States. And these are the closest circle of people observing him.

I think that he is in way more legal trouble than he understands and, definitely, with regard to impeachment, which even has a lower standard than beyond a reasonable doubt, I think that the Mueller playbook is the wrong one to do in this case.

BALDWIN: Do you want to jump in?


I think that John Bolton is a game-changer because John Bolton wasn't just responsible for Ukraine. John Bolton was a national security adviser who covered a whole host of countries, China, Russia, Ukraine and other areas. So he knows where all -- about a lot of different skeletons in the closet and he has nothing to lose.

He's already been fired, or, according to him, resigned. But I do think Bolton's credibility may be in question a little bit. John Bolton is looking to write his redemption song right now. And he's made comments behind closed doors that he may testify on Capitol Hill, but, Brooke, his signature is on a whole lot of memos related to Ukraine.

BALDWIN: President Trump knows that.

VINOGRAD: He does.

And he signed off on call memos. He signed off on memoranda of conversations. So he was at the White House and apparently had concerns and strong feelings, but was complicit in these activities insofar as, as far as we know, he didn't do anything to stop it. He signed off on them.


Mike, back to over at the White House, that the president is escalating his attacks on former Ambassador Bill Taylor, who, as we have been pointing out, had this groundbreaking testimony, even saying today that Secretary Pompeo made a mistake in calling him out of retirement to be the top diplomat in the country.

What did you make of that?

BENDER: Well, I mean, this is another -- as soon as there's someone who criticizes President Trump, the response is always to find a criticism of him.

And this wasn't the president's mistake. He didn't make any mistakes along the way. It was Pompeo's mistake in hiring him. And this is his game plan, his M.O. We see that at the White House. We see that at rallies. We saw that this week at an event in Pittsburgh, which was part event, part rally.

And they're just going to keep -- he's going to just keep doubling down and fighting. We have seen him using the strategy at recent rallies. They are passing out -- we are reporting on that they are passing out call sheets to people waiting in line to call members of Congress and urge them to give up the impeachment proceeding, support the president, and impeach Adam Schiff.


BALDWIN: No kidding. We thought we'd heard it all.

Michael Bender, I appreciate you and your reporting.

And, ladies, thank you very much. And I think you hit the nail on the head about John Bolton's testimony would be a game-changer, for sure. Thank you very much.

Still ahead, new details about a book written by this anonymous Trump administration official. And it reportedly includes details of private conversations with the president himself.

Plus, Trump defends his comment that the impeachment inquiry is a lynching. We're live in South Carolina as he speaks today at a historically black college.

And, later, former Vice President Joe Biden says he's not worried about fund-raising, as his 2020 rivals criticize him for giving this green light to super PAC funding.

You're watching CNN. I'm Brooke Baldwin. We will be right back.



BALDWIN: Right now, President Trump is speaking at Benedict College. It's an HBCU, a historically black college, in South Carolina, with no mention of the race controversy he ignited by sending out that tweet comparing his impeachment inquiry to a lynching.

It is a term that has been used by Democrats in the past when speaking of the impeachment of then President Bill Clinton. And instead of an apology, that is what President Trump brought up before his speech when asked about using the word that describes the murder and racial terror inflicted on more than 4,400 African-Americans.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) TRUMP: Well, it's a word that many Democrats have used. It's a word that many people have used over the years. But that's a word that has been used many times.


BALDWIN: His lack thereof any sort of apology there at Benedict, a historically black college, just really notable.

CNN's Sarah Westwood is there live in South Carolina following the president.

And so, Sarah, what did he say?

SARAH WESTWOOD, CNN WHITE HOUSE REPORTER: Well, Brooke, the president's remarks here at Benedict College are still ongoing.

He's spent the bulk of his time so far talking about criminal justice reform, something his administration did, something that he is ostensibly here to talk about. We did hear him, though, bring up impeachment at this criminal justice event. So that's clearly something that's still on his mind.

But, of course, as you mentioned, it's notable that he did not apologize when given the opportunity to for his decision to compare his political situation to lynching in a tweet, despite how much condemnation the president's language has drawn and how few defenders he's had within his own party.


Now, it's against that backdrop that the president makes this rare visit to a historically black college here in South Carolina. And ahead of his visit, the state chair of the NAACP released a statement encouraging skepticism of the president's policies and saying that the president's visit here so soon after invoking lynching created an unexpected and unpleasant situation for the students here.

Now, there are a number of protesters behind me who have come out here to protest the president's event, also a number of supporters who came out ahead of the president's visit. It's a very small event. A lot of the media was not allowed inside.

But, of course, the president also took this opportunity, Brooke, to say some words, in honor of the late Congressman Elijah Cummings. That took up a portion of the beginning of his speech as well.

BALDWIN: Sarah, thank you very much in South Carolina following the president there.

Meantime, that anonymous senior Trump administration official who is writing this book is teasing that it will have a lot of details from President Trump himself. The back cover of this book entitled "A Warning" was obtained by CNN.

And it reads like this: "Hopefully, others will remedy the error of silence and choose to speak out. In these pages, you will not just hear from me. You will hear a great deal from Donald Trump directly, for there is no better witness to his character than his own words and no better evidence of the danger he poses than his own conduct."

Daniel Meyer is the former executive director of the intelligence community whistle-blowing and is a whistle-blower himself three times over.

So, Dan, thank you so much for coming back.

And it just got us thinking. Here you were, you were willing to come forward and sacrifice and risk it all. But this person, this senior Trump administration official who's written this book, has chosen to do so anonymously.

Do you think that this person should reveal who he or she is?


Somebody coming forward has to be perfectly comfortable with the terms upon which they come forward. And if a person needs in anonymity, they need to be allowed to have it. Mark Felt had it on the Watergate scandal. We have also had financial crimes whistle-blowers who've been anonymous.

So it does affect what you can do with the information, because you can't follow up with it. But the bias should be to get the information out there and then let the inspectors, the investigators, the prosecutors decide what facts are corroborated and what facts are not.

BALDWIN: A number of people, though, would disagree, namely, our CNN political commentator Ana Navarro, who was not holding back when she was opining this morning. Listen to this.


ANA NAVARRO, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: I frankly have no patience for somebody who sees the level of chaos that we're in and that doesn't have the courage to come out and put a name and a face to this story.

I mean, let's focus on the people who are putting their names out there, their careers out there, their reputations out there, not somebody that is too afraid to give their names and their true identity. Come out, man.


BALDWIN: "Come out, man." She says this person, if not, would be cowardly. Does she not have a point?

MEYER: No, I don't think she has a point. Everybody has their own level of comfort bringing items forward. And the system should be biased towards getting the information out. If we insist on a common standard where people all have to identify

themselves, then we end up with a system that will end up restricting information coming out, rather than moving it out to where it can be reviewed and analyzed.

BALDWIN: Now, I know that the intelligence community has formal channels for whistle-blowers and protection. So if this is a senior administration official, what protections would he or she have?

MEYER: So, I'm assuming -- I could be wrong -- this person's a senior executive in the senior executive service or the senior intelligence service or is even a political appointee.

The protections are very limited, at best, maybe a constitutional case. And those are always very expensive and very chancy. So the reason why this person may be anonymous is that projections may be very thin for this person.


We read the back -- I read the back cover of this book, so this person, he or she, plans to disclose conversations with Trump directly in this book, quoting Trump directly. So that seems like this is a sort of information that would usually be screened by the White House to redact any classified information, anything too sensitive.

Just you as a lawyer, what would your -- what would your legal advice be to this author?

MEYER: So, if this was a client of mine, I would be very clear they need to get a pre-publication approved, because information can be retroactively classified after you have published.

You may have thought it to be unclassified. It may have been unclassified when you wrote it, but, afterwards, they may decide that it is classified and you're on the stick.

And if you release classified information without having it been redacted or removed in a pre-publication process, there are very stiff penalties. Those books may be purchased and destroyed and your proceeds may be confiscated by the government.


You have to be very careful if there's classified information.

BALDWIN: Speaking of proceeds, just reminding everyone this person apparently passed up a seven-figure advance and is donating it in part to journalists, to the White House press corps.

Daniel Meyer, thank you very much.

MEYER: Thank you, Brooke.

BALDWIN: Coming up next: Former Vice President Joe Biden promises his son will not have any role in his administration if, in fact, he is elected president. And he takes a dig at President Trump's children as well. We have details from a new interview with him.

And the DNC ups the ante for the December debate -- what the new criteria means for candidates and who might make the stage.