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"Washington Post" Shows White House Efforts To Justify Trump's Aid Holdup; Interview With Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-MD); Navy Chief Forced Out After Trump's War Crimes Intervention. Aired 1-1:30p ET

Aired November 25, 2019 - 13:00   ET



JOHN KING, CNN HOST: Bianna Golodryga is in for Brianna Keilar. She starts Right Now. Have a great afternoon.

BIANNA GOLODRYGA, CNN HOST: I'm Bianna Golodryga in for Brianna Keilar.

Underway right now, the anatomy of a possible cover-up. Reported email show how the White House scrambled to justify the hold on aid to Ukraine. Was it legal?

Fiasco at the Pentagon. The Navy secretary says he was ousted because he can't obey the president's unlawful orders. But that's not what his superiors are saying. So who is telling the truth?

Plus, Republican lawmakers in charge of keeping America safe are now embracing the president's debunked conspiracy theories that benefit Russia.

And why Rick Perry believes President Trump was sent by God as the, quote, chosen one.

And right now, we are waiting to hear the outcome of two monumental legal cases, and both could have a profound effect on the impeachment inquiry of President Trump.

A federal judge is expected to rule shortly on absolute immunity. That's the reason given the by the White House to keep former White House Counsel Don McGahn from testifying.

He was called to testify back in the spring but refused to appear on orders from the White House, leaving House committee members staring at an empty chair.

And the other case that's in front of the Supreme Court where the justices are weighing whether to side with the president over his taxes. President Trump is appealing a lower court ruling that the House has a right to see financial records prepared for the president by an accounting firm. And, of course we'll bring you more On the decisions as soon as they are handed down.

And possible new evidence of a cover-up involving acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney and the president's decision to withhold nearly $400 million in aid from Ukraine. The Washington Post reports that Mulvaney was actively talking with Office of Budget and the Management officials about finding any legal justifications for the president's decision.

Our Sarah Westwood is at the White House. And Mulvaney is acting chief of staff but he's still the current director of the OMB. Sarah, take us through what these emails tell us.

SARAH WESTWOOD, CNN WHITE HOUSE REPORTER: Well, Bianna, what this internal review led by the White House Counsel's office reportedly turned up was evidence that Mulvaney was conducting an after-the-fact search for a legal justification for the president's decision to do withhold that hundreds of millions of dollars in assistance to Ukraine.

Now, I want to walk you through the timeline here because it's really important.

In mid-July, CNN has reported that the president decided to temporarily suspend that military assistance to Ukraine. About a week later, he had that now infamous phone call with the Ukrainian president. And according to "The Washington Post," it wasn't until early legal August that Mulvaney has said to have been exchanging emails with budget officials trying to come up with this legal rationale for the suspension of the aid.

And, crucially, this search for an explanation came days after the White House Counsel's Office was put on notice that there had been concerns raised within the Intelligence Community about the president's phone call with Zelensky a couple weeks earlier. So this was an after-the-fact search for legal justification.

Now, a senior administration official tells CNN that Mulvaney and his team were not briefed on the findings of the White House Counsel's review before that Washington Post story popped yesterday, nor did they have a chance to even see the emails that are at the heart of this inquiry. This is sure to exacerbate tensions between Mulvaney and White House Counsel Pat Cipollone. They have clashed over how the White House has been responding to the impeachment inquiry.

Mulvaney, for example, has complained that he and his staff have not been kept in the loop when it comes to the development (ph) in the impeachment inquiry, this included. But, Bianna, this revelation is so significant because it suggests that President Trump made the decision to suspend that military assistance to Ukraine with no documented legal rationale at the time that he pulled the trigger on that. Bianna?

GOLODRYGA: And, of course, Sarah, remember that press conference where Mulvaney came out and said that the money was withheld and that there was, in fact, a quid pro quo and that we should all get over it. But this, in fact, seems to justify what he was saying and give more evidence to that.

Sarah Westwood, thank you. We appreciate it. Well, a reported search for a legal justification after-the-fact. Joining me now is Maryland Congressman Jamie Raskin, Democrat on both the House Judiciary Committee and the House Oversight Committee. Congressman, thank you so much for joining us.

And before I get to that latest headline, I do want to talk to you about the breaking news reported by The New York Times, Defense Secretary Mark Esper confirming that President Trump ordered the Pentagon not to remove Chief Petty Officer Eddie Gallagher from the Navy SEAL unit. Clearly, this is something the president has a right do as commander-in-chief, but was it the right move? I want to get your reaction to that.

REP. JAMIE RASKIN (D-MD): You're two steps ahead of me on that particular bit of news. So I have not read about that. But it's consistent with the way that the president has behaved, which is completely impetuously and erratically and outside of the normal channels.


And oftentimes he seems to be at war with his own professional staff. And this seems like just another case of that.

GOLODRYGA: Yes. Just so you know, news breaks every few minutes. So it's not your fault that you weren't able to look at your phone before you came on with us. But that is the latest development we've seen there and we'll be covering that as well.

I want to turn back to this is story from The Washington Post though, and that's the inner agency emails exposing what really appears to be a lot of justification from OMB and Mulvaney to withhold military aid for Ukraine.

Given what The Post is reporting, what questions does this raise for you?

RASKIN: It raises profound constitutional questions. Remember, the framers set it up so that Congress would have the exclusive power to appropriate money. So we voted $391 million to support Ukraine in its efforts to defend itself against Russia, which was occupying the Crimea and engaged in active military hostilities against the people Ukraine. The people held it up as part of this political plot to get information that he wanted and to get a statement that he wanted from President Zelensky saying that the Bidens were under investigation. That upsets the constitutional balance of powers and congressional control over spending.

There's a law which dealt with this problem called the Impoundment Control Act from 1974. It was adopted after Watergate where Nixon did something similar. The president has got to come to Congress if he's going to hold that money for any reason and explain why there is a public interest to do so and give Congress the opportunity to either say no or to go along with it. But they just went ahead and held this up for the president's personal political scheming. GOLODRYGA: And you mentioned that impoundment law in 1974, which requires the OMB to spend the money appropriated by Congress by the end of the fiscal year. The fiscal year was just a few weeks away from when that money was finally released on September 11th.

Given this new information, are you going to want to hear now from Mick Mulvaney? We know that the request is out there, but are you willing to wait through what could be months of a courts' long process to hear from him?

RASKIN: Well, we've been waiting for Mick Mulvaney to speak for a long time. Now, of course, he's gone public and essentially admitted to the shakedown, the coerced quid pro quo as the M.O. of the White House. That's basically their way of doing business. He told everybody to accept it, to get over that. So we know basically what they were up to.

He should come forward and speak forthrightly to the committee, but that's obviously going to be tough do.

The point is that we understand all of the material elements of this plot. The president developed and executed a plan to shakedown the Ukrainian government using that $391 million and a White House meeting as the leverage to coerce them to participate in his political plans.

GOLODRYGA: Congressman, I want to ask you, as a member of the Judiciary Committee, we know the Intelligence Committee is wrapping up its report and will be passing it along to you. And you, of course, will be using that as reference for an impeachment. What articles of impeachment are you looking at right now from everything that you've seen over the course of the past few weeks?

RASKIN: Well, we're going to wait to get the report from the Intelligence Committee and any other information that's turned over by the Foreign Affairs Committee, the Oversight Committee, to try to assemble all of the facts, inventory them and to see what patterns emerged. And those committees also may have very specific recommendations about what articles of impeachment might be.

This is a good time for us to be reviewing articles of impeachment from the past. In the Nixon case, for example, we saw that there was a claim of obstruction of justice because the president, in that case, tried to interfere with investigators and prosecutors. There were claims about abuse of power, the abuse of the proper authorities of the president and the different departments of government.

And then there was a claim there also about interference with congressional investigation. And there are actually specific dates when there was supposed to be witnesses who were blocked by President Nixon, specific depositions that didn't take place, witnesses that were interfered with and evidence that was withheld.

So that's a powerful historical analogy for some of the things that we're looking at in this case.

GOLODRYGA: And is there enough evidence -- I appreciate that you are waiting for the report, but is there enough evidence that you've seen over the past two weeks from the testimony of these 12 witnesses to impeach the president?

RASKIN: Oh, I think that what we saw was not only overwhelming evidence of potential high crimes and misdemeanors but uncontradicted evidence of high crimes and misdemeanors.

We have people like Mick Mulvaney who come forward, including the president himself and essentially bragged of the material offense that is shaking down the Ukrainian government.


But all of the witnesses who came forward at the pains of perjury, like Sondland and like William Taylor, like Fiona Hill, like Ambassador Yovanovitch, all of them agree as to all of the material elements of this narrative and of these potential offenses.

Basically, the president waged this coercive pressure campaign against the Ukrainian government simply to get President Zelensky to come forward to say that the Bidens are under investigation and to validate this discredited conspiracy theory about the 2016 campaign, which was that the Ukrainians and not the Russians had interfered. That's pure Russian propaganda. That is Vladimir Putin's disinformation campaign, which continues to this very day. And yet we even have Republican colleagues who are continuing to repeat that nonsense.

GOLODRYGA: And we're going to be talking about that more later on in the show.

Congressman Jamie Raskin, we appreciate you joining us. Thank you so much.

RASKIN: Delighted to be with you.

GOLODRYGA: Happy Thanksgiving to you.

RASKIN: And to you too.

GOLODRYGA: Well, still to come, the Pentagon upended as the president inserts himself into war crime prosecutions. The Navy secretary's blistering words after he was forced to resign.

Plus, Republicans peddling the president's debunked conspiracy theories that benefit Russia and why Rick Perry says President Trump is the, quote, chosen one sent by God.



GOLODRYGA: The standoff between the president and the Pentagon takes another twist and complicated turn. Today, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper told reporters that President Trump ordered him to allow a controversial navy SEAL who was accused of war crimes to keep his status in the elite service despite Navy leaders wanting another review of the case.

Now, this comes one day after he fired his Navy secretary, Richard Spencer, for a case involving that SEAL, Eddie Gallagher.

Esper contends that Spencer went outside the chain of command, privately proposing a secret deal with the White House to guarantee that Gallagher would be allowed to keep his status as a SEAL.

In July, a military court convicted Gallagher of posing for a picture with a dead teenage ISIS prisoner and was then demoted. He was acquitted to charges related to that murder of that same ISIS prisoner. And in a controversial move that put him at odds with the Pentagon, the president then reversed that demotion.

And he also faced Pentagon resistance over the issue of Gallagher's SEAL status. And it's that disagreement that Secretary Spencer says is the reason why he was forced to resign.

Pentagon Correspondent Barbara Starr is keeping track of all of the developments. And, Barbara, this is just skims the surface of what is happening. There are a few times where I've seen you loss for words. This seemed to be one these circumstances.

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: This is a very confusing situation, Bianna, with not a lot of clear answers because there are competing narratives. The president says he fired -- Spencer was fired in part for cost overruns.

The secretary of defense says Spencer was fired because he went behind his back to the White House to try and cut a secret deal for Eddie Gallagher that would have allowed him to keep his SEAL status, even though Esper was advocating for an impartial review. The Navy secretary says he was thinking about resigning anyhow because he could not follow in good conscience the president's orders about Gallagher.

Look, you know, what this really gets to the bottom line when there's this much confusion, the risk, the real risk, of course, is for the troops, confusing chain of command, confusing orders. This is not the way the Pentagon works. There is supposed to be very clear direction, not competing narratives. And the reason for that, of course, is so troops know exactly what their senior commanders expect of them.

Now, the real question, I think, Gallagher will retire at the end of the month, but what is left is a Navy secretary out of a job and really critical questions about does this really impact morale, good discipline in the ranks, good order and discipline. And there's an awful lot of people that think that is a very heavy price that right now is, in fact, being paid.

GOLODRYGA: Yes, because it does appear the takeaway is that Gallagher gets to keep his trident and Spencer lost his job. So it appears the president got what he wanted. But the question is what is the fallout. Barbara, we appreciate you joining us and giving us that explanation right there.

But let's discuss this case now with retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling. He is the former Commanding General of U.S. Army in Europe in the 7th Army and a CNN Military Analyst. And retired Air Force Lt. Col. Rachel Vanlandingham, she is a former judge advocate who now teaches criminal and national security law at Southwestern Law School.

Lieutenant colonel, let me begin with you, because when Spencer resigned, when Navy Secretary Spencer resigned, you tweeted, the Navy secretary should have resigned last week. The secretary of Defense is an enabler who cares more for his job than doing the right thing. The Pentagon chief fires Navy secretary over SEAL controversy.


What did you mean by that tweet?

RACHEL VANLANDINGHAM, FORMER MILITARY PROSECUTOR AND DEFENSE ATTORNEY: What I meant was that this is an undermining of process, that there was a board -- there was a court martial conviction of a violation of the law of armed conflict in which you don't disrespect dead bodies of enemy combatants. There was a conviction. Following that conviction, it's normal process to convene a board to determine fitness for certain training, certain certifications such as being a Navy SEAL, which requires good moral character.

However, since I made that tweet, it's come to light that perhaps Secretary Spencer's firing was very warranted. If in fact he did he did support having process but a sham process by guaranteeing a pre- ordained outcome, that's the antithesis of process and that goes to the heart of the personnel system of the entire Armed Forces, because the personnel system runs on such boards, runs on process so that individuals can trust that they are being dealt with fairly and in according -- and based on the fact and in according with due process.

GOLODRYGA: And that's what makes this so puzzling, Gen. Hertling, because we really don't know what the true story and the nature of the fallout is, whether he was forced out because he went around Esper to the White House to try to work out some deal or whether he really just wanted to resign because he disagreed with the president on his views.

How frustrating is this and unsettling is this for those in the Navy who are watching this all unfold?

MARK HERTLING, CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Yes. Well, two points I'll make, Bianna, and both of these things are critically important. The first is that, you know, we don't know what went on on Air Force One with all the service chiefs, with the chairman, with the secretary of defense passionately arguing to the president not to interfere with this action.

That could have been going on. If Secretary Spencer did in fact go around the system to work this deal, here is a safety tip. Never go to your boss' boss without telling your boss you're going to do it. And I'm sure he got insignificant trouble for that and the results are what we are seeing today.

But the second thing is critically important too. And that's what your other guest is saying. This is going to be the gift that keeps on giving. This is not over yet. There have been over 150 tridents that have been pulled from SEALs because of discipline issues or contrariness and according to either law or regulation since 2011. So there have been a lot of SEALs that have gone before these boards already.

What's going to happen to the very next SEAL that has to go before one of these boards because he was driving under the influence or committing a domestic disturbance or any kind of flagrant violation of rules or orders, they're going to say, hey, wait a minute, we got a guy who was posing with a dead body and he got away with it, how come I'm getting my pin taken away for a DUI or domestic disturbance? That's the problem here. And that's why a process has to be fair and has to be continual in terms of the way that it works.

You also have now a SEAL who is about to retire at the end of this month who is best friends with the president and everybody in the SEAL community knows that, and that's not good for morale because he can get away with just about everything now.

GOLODRYGA: And, Lt. Col. Vanlandingham, let me ask you about that, because it does appear that the president is cherry-picking which cases he wants to take on. And there appears to be some hypocrisy here, because on the one hand, he is defending Gallagher, but on the other hand, as you know, he's been tweeting negative comments about Lt. Col. Vindman last week. And so the question raises, is the president doing this because it benefits his own personal views versus supporting the military as a whole?

VANLANDINGHAM: There are serious concerns, Bianna. You're absolutely correct. So President Trump's actions really indicate rule of man versus rule of law. And rule of law is what helps ensure good order and discipline within the military.

Try this on for size. Let's say Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman goes up for colonel, for promotion to colonel within the next few months or next year. That's a board process. Let's say he doesn't make to colonel. What kind of faith does he have or should the rest of the army officers have in that process that it's one based on facts and not based on political proclivities of one particular individual in the White House?

That's scary because the military justice system regarding the pardons of war crimes, that only affects a few folks, right? The personnel system affects everybody or it affects promotion boards, line of duty determinations, qualifications to be an aviator, to be a Navy SEAL, et cetera. If these processes can't be relied on, the trust within the military starts to degrade and that's a dangerous place indeed.

GOLODRYGA: That's right. Every promotion and demotion should be merit-based and objective. And it seems that there is a lot of question about that given the president's interference.


Of course, we're going to continue to be covering this story today and the following days. Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling and retired Air Force Lt. Col. Rachel Vanlandingham, we appreciate your time. Thank you.

HERTLING: Thank you, Bianna.

VANLANDINGHAM: Thank you so much. Happy Thanksgiving.


Republican lawmakers echoing the president, embracing conspiracy theories in an effort to stave off impeachment even though the debunked theories benefit, guess which country, Russia.

Plus, Rick Perry compares President Trump to biblical kings and tells Fox News that Trump is God's chosen one.