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WAPO: Mulvaney Sought Legal Justification for Aid Freeze in Early August E-mail Exchanges; Today Judge Decides if White House Counsel Don McGahn Must Testify; Navy Secretary Richard Spencer Fired Amid Controversy over Navy SEAL Case; Bloomberg's Campaign Manager Kevin Sheekey Discusses Strategy to Win Democratic Nomination. Aired 11-11:30a ET

Aired November 25, 2019 - 11:00   ET



PHIL BLACK, CNN CORRESPONDENT: The people responsible for this collection, the officials who run this museum, say that would be an absolutely horrible thought given their cultural and historical significance -- Jim?

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN ANCHOR: Phil Black, thanks very much.

And thank you for joining us today. I'm Jim Sciutto.

"AT THIS HOUR" starts right now.

KATE BOLDUAN, CNN ANCHOR: Hello, everyone. I'm Kate Bolduan. Thank you so much for joining me.

We start this morning with new details of an extensive effort from inside the White House to justify President Trump's decision to withhold aid to Ukraine after the president ordered the money be held up.

According to the "Washington Post," a confidential White House review found e-mails from August between acting chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, and budget officials searching for a legal explanation for the hold after the fact. These discussions reportedly happening after President Trump's July 25th call with the Ukrainian president and after, of course, the freeze was put in place.

What was Mick Mulvaney trying to get at and what's the impact on the impeachment inquiry now?

Remember, this is what Mick Mulvaney told reporters from the White House just last month.


MICK MULVANEY, ACTING CHIEF OF STAFF: I have news for everybody. Get over it.

Elections do have consequences and they should, and your foreign policy is going to change. (END VIDEO CLIP)

BOLDUAN: Let's start there. CNN's Sarah Westwood is at the White House with much more.

Sarah, what is the White House saying about this new reporting coming out now?

SARAH WESTWOOD, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Kate, the White House, so far, is staying quiet. A budget office spokesman said there's been a legal consensus at every step of the process with regard to Ukrainian aid.

That's not what this internal review shows. This internal review, led by White House counsel's office, shows, in early August, there was a retroactive search, led by acting chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, to find an explanation for why that aid was suspended.

Keep in mind the hold, CNN has reported, was placed on that nearly $400 million of support for Ukraine in mid-July, about a week before the president had that now infamous phone call with Ukrainian President Zelensky.

According to the "Post," Mulvaney was e-mailing with budget officials in mid-August to try to find a legal rationale for the suspension of aid. And crucially, the was several days after the White House counsel's office had been put on notice that there had been internal concern raised in the Intelligence Community about the president's conduct on that July 25th phone call.

Weeks after the hold had been put into place and days after the White House was starting to register concern over the president's phone call with Zelensky, that's when the search for a rationale for the hold on this aid was started, according to the review by the White House counsel's office.

A senior administration official tells CNN that Mulvaney was not briefed on the findings of this view before the "Washington Post" story popped yesterday. That's sure to exacerbate tensions between Pat Cipollone, the White House counsel, and Mulvaney about the way the White House has been handling this impeachment inquiry.

But, Kate, this revelation about the timeline of events surrounding the aid is so crucial. It suggests that President Trump forged ahead with the hold on the aid before a documented legal rationale existed.

BOLDUAN: Great to see you, Sarah. Thank you very much.

I'm sure there's a lot more to be heard on this today.

Joining me right now to discuss is former federal prosecutor and CNN legal analyst, Jennifer Rodgers, and CNN global affairs analyst and "Washington Post" columnist, Max Boot.

Great to see you guys. Thanks for being here.

Jennifer, if this is true, what the "Washington Post" is reporting, how does this change things for impeachment?

JENNIFER RODGERS, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: I think what it shows is what we call in the legal community consciousness of guilt, right?

As soon as you have a cover-up happening where people are scrambling to find a reason for something after the fact, when people are doing several reviews to try to scare up some sort of helpful defensive facts, that's when you start to see that they knew what they were doing at the time was wrong and they're now looking to cover it up.

I think it will be helpful to the impeachment inquiry. It shows that what was going on was wrong, and they knew it, despite the president's current stance to the contrary.

BOLDUAN: It gets to a different picture, and Jennifer said this. If this is true, Max, is this a cover-up?

MAX BOOT, CNN GLOBAL AFFAIRS ANALYST: No question about it. The key fact here is that OMB was looking for a reason to stop the aid after the whistleblower came forward to complain about Trump's phone call on July 25th with Zelensky. It's clear there was no reason to stop that aid.

And I think that's one of the things that really emerged from the hearings. Gordon Sondland and all these other administration officials saying Donald Trump wanted a quid pro quo.

Now the defense of Trump and his defenders is he never said I want a quid pro quo, but it's pretty obvious what he was after because there was no other legitimate reason to hold up that aid other than the extortion scheme of Ukraine, that so-called drug deal, that had been cooked up at the highest levels of the White House.

BOLDUAN: When you're searching for an explanation after the fact, what else is there?


Jennifer, chairman of the House Intel Committee, Adam Schiff, he made pretty clear just yesterday that he is not intending to wait around, really, any longer to get the likes of Mick Mulvaney in to testify, among other top White House officials, quite frankly.

His point is that he sees it as a delay tactic. Even when you look at the grand scheme of impeachment investigations, this has been relatively short.

With this new information coming out about these e-mails, about this review, would you suggest that he has to get at least Mulvaney in the chair before he wraps this up to make a full case to the public?

RODGERS: I don't think so, Kate. There's no question that Mulvaney has very relevant information and that he should testify. But they're right. If they continue -- "they," meaning the White House -- continue this stonewalling, it could be months before Mulvaney is forced into the chair if the House doesn't wrap up the impeachment inquiry.

A lot of people are suggesting that the time to get Mulvaney is in the Senate trial. If they go ahead and vote on the impeachment, it moves to the Senate.

With Chief Justice Roberts in the chair presiding, they can subpoena witnesses to the Senate trial and Justice Roberts will rule then and there about any applicable privileges so that witnesses, even if they are claiming some sort of executive privilege, might be forced to testify there. That may be what they're thinking.

I think they do need to move ahead. They have enough information there. All of this is coming out. And the obstruction count is going to be very robust in terms of what the White House has withheld in terms of witnesses and documents. I think he's smart to move on.

BOLDUAN: Go ahead, Max.

BOOT: Kate, the key point here is no one has ever tried to prevent the testimony of a witness who is going to exonerate them, right? If Mulvaney's testimony, Bolton, Giuliani's testimony, any of that was going to help Trump, why wouldn't Trump say, go ahead and testify, this is going to be great for me?

It's pretty clear, in fact, that their testimony would be just as devastating for him as the testimony of the 12 other administration officials who testified publicly before Congress. So, that's why they're trying to prevent this testimony.

BOLDUAN: And while, you know, the statement we heard from the president previously is that they don't want to give any more to this investigation than has already been had, you can be sure when it comes to the reality of Donald Trump, the reality is, he doesn't care about norms and practices,

If -- you're right, if he wanted someone to testify, if it would be good for him, you could be sure he'd be fine breaking all presidential norms, anything like that, it would be out there.

Separate but related, Jennifer, by the end of the day today, a federal judge would decide whether or not to force former White House counsel, Don McGahn, to comply with a congressional subpoena to testify. I believe this court case goes back to April with regard to obstruction on the White House when it comes to the Russia investigation.

What could this mean decision today mean for the here and now, and impeachment and what we're talking about here?

RODGERS: Well, many have suggested that the impeachment inquiry should also include some of the obstruction episodes from the Mueller report. If Don McGahn were to come and testify, they could fold in, if they wanted to, a few of the obstruction counts that Mueller found in his report.

The problem is that I think he will not testify soon because, even if Don McGahn loses that court battle, which I expect, he will probably appeal. We're probably still in wait-and-see mode until an appellate court looks at this question.

I don't think Don McGahn, even if he's not friendly with the president right now, is the sort that will come in voluntarily. I think he will keep fighting this.

BOLDUAN: So, overall, Max, thinking after two weeks of really -- I mean, it was impeachment hearings, which, said another way is, inundation of information for people to take in, inundation of new detail and sworn testimony coming from folks in the circle of the impeachment inquiry.

There's no sign after these two weeks of convincing Republicans to change position. We haven't seen that, at least publicly yet, and breaking from the president and supporting the president.

Do you think that means that they're not -- that there's going to be no movement, there's going to be no change, that the lines are drawn, that the vote count could be taken today, as it could have been taken two weeks ago in how it's going to land in the House, or as some have suggested, that there's so much information that folks need to marinate on it before they decide? What do you think?

BOOT: I think that's certainly possible, Kate. You could see a handful of Republicans in the House and Senate breaking with the president on this.

But the overall message that the Republican Party has sent over the last few weeks is pretty clear. We don't care about the facts. Don't confuse us with the evidence. All we care about is our loyalty to Donald Trump. And we will ignore the overwhelming weight of evidence, if necessary.


And in the course of doing that, of course, Republicans have engaged in these crackpot conspiracy theories, cooked up in Moscow. This is the party of Ronald Reagan.

BOLDUAN: And John Kennedy, for speaking out yesterday --

BOOT: John Kennedy is one of them.

BOLDUAN: -- saying it could have been Ukraine instead of Russia, who hacked the DNC.

BOOT: Right, right. John Kennedy is one of man, propagating these crazy conspiracy theories that our own Intelligence Community has said have no basis. Fiona Hill testified last week it's a Russian plot and the Republicans are propagating that.

They're also vilifying these dedicated civil servants, military officers and others who have testified, including this disgusting campaign to question Lieutenant Colonel Vindman's loyalty to this country.

They're willing to say and do anything, Kate, to defend the president. The only thing they're not able to do or say is mount an effective defense because there is no defense. It's clear Donald Trump is guilty. And Republicans keep trying to change the topic because, when it comes to the evidence, they don't have a case.

BOLDUAN: Let's see what two more weeks bring, or maybe just another day.

Great to see you, Max. Thank you.

BOOT: Thank you.

BOLDUAN: Jennifer, thank you so much.

Coming up for us, chaos at the Pentagon. The secretary of the Navy pushed out over the war crimes case of a Navy SEAL, and a whole lot of involvement by President Trump. So, what really happened? And what is the impact now?

We'll be back after this.



BOLDUAN: The Pentagon in turmoil right now after Defense Secretary Mark Esper fires the Navy's top officials, Secretary Richard Spencer. This is all over the controversy surrounding Navy SEAL Edward Gallagher.

He had been demoted following his conviction for breaking regulations by posing next to the dead body of an ISIS fighter while Iraq in 2017. President Trump reversed that decision.

And then a Pentagon review was undertaken. That is what created something of a standoff between military officials and the White House, and kind of gets us where we are today.

Secretary Spencer, in issuing his -- well, acknowledging his resignation on Sunday, made clear his issue is with the president.

Let me read you what he said, in part: "I no longer share the same understanding with the commander-in-chief who appointed me in regard to the key principle of good order and discipline. I cannot, in good conscience, obey an order I believe violates the sacred oath I took in the presence of my family, my flag and my faith to support and defend the Constitution of the United States."

CNN Pentagon correspondent, Barbara Starr, joins me now with much more.

Barbara, there's yet more news coming out. Secretary Spencer -- Secretary Esper, rather, just spoke to reporters. What did he have to say today?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, he did. And I think it's fair to say that the Pentagon, right now, is befuddled by Spencer's letter, to say the least.

What Spencer doesn't acknowledge in this letter, while he makes this very strong case for his conscientious objections to what the president was doing, he does not acknowledge that he himself was conducting back-channel negotiations, back-channel discussions with the White House that would have allowed a review of Gallagher to go forward but would have been, according to the Pentagon, a precooked deal that Gallagher could have kept his trident status, Navy SEAL status essentially.

That would have been a violation of an impartial review of Gallagher's status.

What's striking here is Esper now, very publicly, adamant that he knew nothing about what the Navy secretary was up to with the White House. And because he knew nothing about it, he felt very strongly that Spencer had essentially gone behind his back, violated chain of command, and that Spencer had to go -- Kate?

BOLDUAN: Barbara, thank you so much. Really appreciate it.

Here with me now, Paul Rieckhoff, founder of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America and the host of the podcast "Angry Americans," and David Lapan, a former spokesman for the Pentagon, a retired Marine.

Great to see you guys. Thanks for being here.


Paul, I have to say, it's almost like the detail of this and the twist and turn of every day is confusing. Overall, what do you make of all of this, how it went down, when it goes from Eddie Gallagher's case to the president stepping in, getting involved in his case, getting involved in his demotion, and then what's going on between Esper and Spencer. What do you make of it?

PAUL RIECKHOFF, FOUNDER, IRAQ & AFGHANISTAN VETERANS OF AMERICA & PODCAST HOST, "ANGRY AMERICANS": It's chaos. It's chaos He's President Chaos. Now it's flowing over into the Pentagon.

This is not new. He's been at war with the Pentagon politically on a number of issues. You go back to the trans ban, to the Kurds, to Mattis, now this. Trump is at odds with his own military. We'll find out what happened with Esper and Green who spoke to who.

But the bottom line is, if you're in uniform right now, you see chaos at the top, you see the leadership that's not on the same page, and you see a senior leader saying that the president gave him an unlawful order and he's not going to follow it, and that guy is out.

It comes on the back of the resignation of Mattis. A deep division on what it means to be in the military. What good order and discipline means, what it means to be lawful in the military. When the commander-in-chief is at odds with the Navy SEALs, we've got a problem. BOLDUAN: Another shade of exactly what Paul is talking about, David,

is when it comes to what has happened here, this comes down to a question of chain of command. The president is the commander-in- chief. Who is stepping out of line here?

DAVID LAPAN, RETIRED MARINE COLONEL & FORMER PENTAGON SPOKESMAN: Great point, Kate. The president is the commander-in-chief. So, does he have the authority to take these actions? He does. But that doesn't make it right. It doesn't make it the right decision. It doesn't leave it open that nobody should be able to question or criticize him.


So, beyond the authority, look at the ramifications. Look at what we've seen already. And look at the corrosive effects this has already had.

Go back just a couple of days before yesterday's firing or resignation, whatever it was, of Secretary Spencer. And look at the spectacle of an active-duty Navy chief going on television and publicly disparaging senior leaders in the Navy.

That just, again, demonstrates to me the corps corrosive effect this entire episode has had. And I don't think it's done.

BOLDUAN: Speak to that as well, Paul. Eddie Gallagher went on FOX News over the weekend, spoke out against his superiors. He's retiring, I believe, at the end of this month. He's still active duty, sitting on FOX News, trashing his superiors. What does that mean?

RIECKHOFF: You asked who is out of line. The president is out of line. He is reaching into the military and meddling with good order and discipline in direct conflict with a Navy SEAL.

And Gallagher is out of line. We can argue about what charges he should or should not have been convicted on. But he was convicted of one charge.


RIECKHOFF: And the rank was taken away. The Navy decided to take the rank away. The president reached in and decided to throw a grenade in that.

This really undermines the division that's supposed to exist between politics and our military. It's bad for our military, it's bad for the Navy SEALs, it's bad for our politics.

The only people it really benefits is our enemies. Our enemies are watching. They see our commander-in-chief and our military at war with themselves. And our enemies are licking their chops. They love this. That's bad for America.

BOLDUAN: David, you agree that the president getting involved here hurts the military, can actually endanger servicemembers. Why, then, do you think the president is getting involved? Not only in this case, but also in two other cases, two other military cases offering clemency just this month.

This is what's sticking out to me. If the military officials that he says he always has the best generals around him, he doesn't trust their advice, take their advice. Why is he doing it, do you think?

LAPAN: I think this is where it gets into, rather than acting as a commander-in-chief, it's acting as a reality TV show host or producer. It's all about conflict, controversy, ratings, making decisions on his own and ignoring the advice of people that are experienced and have the background.

Now, yes, they are advisers. Ultimately, the president makes the decision. But going against all the advice of the most senior people, the most experienced people around you, as Paul said, to reach down into the chain of command, he has basically taken a Navy E-7 and made him virtually untouchable.

BOLDUAN: Paul, David, this is not the last we'll be discussing this.

Thank you so much for being here. I really, really appreciate it.

RIECKHOFF: Thank you, Kate.

LAPAN: Thanks, Kate.

BOLDUAN: Coming up for us, he is jumping into the presidential race late. He is skipping the early states and he is not accepting -- not seeking or accepting donations. What is Michael Bloomberg's strategy to win the democratic primary? We'll talk to his campaign manager, next.



BOLDUAN: One day after officially entering the 2020 race, Michael Bloomberg is officially hitting the trail, campaigning in Virginia this afternoon. But even before that, the former New York City mayor is rolling out his first campaign ad, largely focused on introducing himself, reintroducing himself to some to voters. Take a look.


AD NARRATOR: Now he's taking on him, to rebuild the country and restore faith in the dream that defines us, where the wealthy will pay more in taxes and the middle class get their fair share. Everyone without health insurance can get it, and everyone who likes theirs, keep it. Where jobs won't just help you get by but get ahead. On all those things, Mike Bloomberg intends to make good.


BOLDUAN: This initial rollout, part of a massive nationwide ad buy that's over the next two weeks, at least $37 million on TV ads.

He has a lot of work to do. In the latest polling of voters in early primary states through Super Tuesday, only 20 percent say Bloomberg is a candidate they would consider. And 49 percent say they are not considering him.

So what is the Bloomberg game plan?

Joining me right now is Kevin Sheekey, the campaign manager for Michael Bloomberg's campaign.

Good to see you, Kevin. Thank you being here.


BOLDUAN: So you guys are hitting the trail right away. He's heading for Virginia today. We're told in a larger speech he will be making, you'll be very near the largest naval station in the world in Norfolk and he's getting right to the news and talking about the resignation or firing of Navy Secretary Richard Spencer.

Can you clue us in on what his take is?

SHEEKEY: Yes. It's obviously in the news today.


SHEEKEY: Your guest before this talked about president chaos. Obviously, Mike is going to comment on it.

Listen, Mike is getting in this race because he thinks that Donald Trump is an existential crisis and he thinks he's on a path to victory. He's getting in to alter that dynamic.


We'll run a campaign against the president. We'll run a campaign to try to make Mike the Democratic nominee. We'll try and bring those together.

Both of those things are happening right now. Obviously, he will talk about in Virginia the elections that occurred there recently.