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THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER

Impeachment Process Moves Forward; Sen. Chris Coons (D-DE) is Interviewed About the Impeachment Probe. Aired 4-4:30p ET

Aired November 26, 2019 - 16:00   ET

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


[16:00:03]

ERICA HILL, CNN HOST: President Trump gets an invite to his own impeachment hearing.

THE LEAD starts right now.

Breaking today, the House Judiciary Committee announcing its first impeachment hearing will take place next week, as President Trump says all of the stonewalling had nothing to do with him.

CNN goes inside of Northern Syria, where U.S. allies abandoned by President Trump's pullout are being forced out of their homes and into camps.

Plus, they were arrested on Thanksgiving Day 1983. Now, after 36 years in prison for a murder they didn't commit, three men are finally free.

Welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Erica Hill, in for Jake.

We begin today with the politics lead.

Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee scheduling their first impeachment hearing for next Wednesday, focusing on the -- quote -- "constitutional grounds" to impeach President Trump.

The news comes as the president insists he would love for Secretary of State Pompeo, Chief of Staff Mulvaney, Energy Secretary Perry and other current and former administration officials to testify, but says he must protect the presidency.

The impeachment inquiry is, of course, focused on the withholding of aid to Ukraine. And today we learned the first official action to withhold that aid happened on the very same day as President Trump's controversial call with the president of Ukraine, as CNN's Sara Murray reports.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SARA MURRAY, CNN NATIONAL POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): The House Judiciary Committee focusing its first hearing on the legal grounds for impeaching a president with a panel of expert witnesses.

The president and White House counsel are also invited to participate. As the House inches closer to impeaching President Trump, Democrats picked up a victory from a federal judge, who ruled that former White House attorney Don McGahn must testify before Congress.

REP. MIKE QUIGLEY (D-IL): I think it's a message to all the witnesses who obstructed and the White House for telling them not to appear, it's time to show up.

MURRAY: This comes as the White House is blocking key witnesses from testifying.

Today, Trump tweeted: "I would love to have Mike Pompeo, Rick Perry, Mick Mulvaney and many others testify about the phony impeachment hoax, but future presidents should in no way be compromised."

In her ruling, the judge asserted President Trump does not have the authority to assert absolute immunity for White House staff, saying: "The primary takeaway from the past 250 years of recorded American history is that presidents are not kings."

As House Democrats consider multiple articles of impeachment against the president, some are pushing to add obstruction of justice charges alluded to in special counsel Robert Mueller's report as a separate article of impeachment.

While McGahn's testimony could help move that needle for Democrats, the Justice Department is appealing the judge's ruling. So it could be some time before McGahn testifies, if he ever does.

The McGahn ruling also hasn't prompted other reluctant witnesses to come forward, like Deputy National Security Adviser Charles Kupperman and his former boss John Bolton, though some Democrats are still hoping Bolton will change his mind.

QUIGLEY: If this was that what he was just described as saying, a drug deal, if Rudy Giuliani was a hand grenade, if he felt as strong as I think he does about defending Ukraine as a U.S. ally, why would he even need a subpoena?

(END VIDEOTAPE)

MURRAY: Now, today, we are also learning new details about that hold on money for Ukraine.

We're learning through the House Budget Committee, which received some documents from OMB, that the first official action this came on July 25, the same day that President Trump spoke to the Ukrainian president.

And other witnesses have said that's the same day the Ukrainians first got an inkling that something was going on with this money. House Democrats say this is evidence that OMB abused their power. And OMB, a spokesperson says this is just the same old spin from Democrats -- Erica.

HILL: Sara Murray with the latest there, thank you. Well, as we look at all this, and specifically this letter from

Chairman Nadler, the president, who has complained, as we know, about the process and not being a part of it, now, Michael, look, he has an open invitation. Come on in. Come with your counsel.

In fact, here we go from Chairman Nadler as part of the letter. "At base, the president has a choice to make," Nadler writes. "He can take this opportunity to be represented in the impeachment hearings, or he can stop complaining about the process."

What do you think the White House will do?

MICHAEL STEEL, FORMER JOHN BOEHNER SPOKESMAN: My guess is, they're going to take option C, not participate in the hearings and continue complaining about the process.

HILL: It's funny. That would have been my gut too, actually.

Paul, and if, in fact, it is option C, right, they don't participate, continue to complain, could that end up hurting Democrats?

PAUL BEGALA, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: No. No. You never win by taking the Fifth. He's talking about future presidents.

I think the country is looking at, should future presidents be able to get away with stuff without accountability? I worked for a past president. He testified for hours and hours about his private life, about his sexual affairs. He gave blood.

His chief of staff testified. His closest aides testified, because the president is not above the law. And I think that the Democrats are on very solid ground when they say -- the president's one thing. But I would call him too, but certainly Mike Pence, Mike Pompeo, Mick Mulvaney, Rick Perry, the whole crowd, probably John Bolton, that whole crowd.

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They are citizens too, and they are not above the law. I think that's -- I know from talking to people and from polling, that's the strongest argument the Democrats have, is that no one's above the law in this country.

HILL: So going through that long list that you just gave us, right, Secretary Pompeo, Mick Mulvaney, Rick Perry, John Bolton, the president, as we know, earlier today saying, look, I would be totally fine. They can all testify.

Raise your hand if you believe the president actually wants current and former officials to in fact testify?

SEUNG MIN KIM, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: I think we're all sitting on our hands.

(LAUGHTER) HILL: It's the opposite of yes, exactly, and which is interesting, too, because we know -- I mean, sometimes, you feel silly having these conversations, but it's important to point it out.

If the president did in fact really want them to, he could absolutely give them the green light.

KIM: Exactly.

I mean, we saw what the strategy was going forward when White House counsel Pat Cipollone wrote that eight-page letter declaring that the White House would not cooperate with this, and that has been the steady track all the entire impeachment inquiry.

And I think that's why, despite this very favorable ruling that we saw from the district court yesterday involving the former White House counsel, Don McGahn, saying he does have to testify in the separate matter, you're going to continue to see appeals from the administration.

We just saw the DOJ filed the formal appeal earlier today. And Democrats have made it adamantly clear that anything that slows down this timetable -- we got a first Judiciary hearing coming up next -- on December 4 -- they are not going to entertain that.

They can continue the investigation. But right now Pelosi and Adam Schiff and the leadership have an ambitious timeline. They do want to get this done by Christmas. And Pelosi has said over and over she does not want to be at the mercy of the courts.

HILL: It's also fascinating too when we heard Secretary Pompeo was asked earlier today about testifying. This was his response.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MIKE POMPEO, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: When the time is right, all good things happen.

(LAUGHTER)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

HILL: There's a little laugh. I'm not sure if that's a little smirk. I'm not sure what he's getting out there, how we're supposed to read it.

LAURA BARRON-LOPEZ, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: I mean, I wouldn't bet on Pompeo testifying, because, just as Seung Min said, it has been a pattern from the White House. We do not want to cooperate, and we don't plan on cooperating.

And Democrats are not going to hold up this process that they have started. And we still don't even know whether or not the articles that Judiciary is drafting up will be beyond the Ukraine investigation or not. There's a potential -- we have heard from some Democrats that they

will have the articles be focused on Ukraine, and then in the report that Judiciary ultimately releases, they will mention the other misdeeds that Trump has committed, that they feel he's committed while in the White House.

STEEL: Well, and it's not like if you pass articles of impeachment, it's a one-shot weapon.

The Democrats will continue to -- it's not like they go back to renaming post offices and designating rivers as wild and scenic and doing the other things that House routinely does. They will continue to investigate. And as shoes continue to drop, they may come back and get another bite of the apple.

BEGALA: I think it's a very good point.

The old prizefighter Joe Louis, they asked him why he kept fighting when he was past his prime. He said fighters fight. Criminals commit crimes. OK, Donald Trump's a one-man crime spree. He's going to continue.

He apparently called Ukrainian president the day after Mueller testified, and sought more interference in an American election. This is not his last impeachable offense, I guarantee you.

So, yes, this is just going to go on as long as he's our president.

HILL: There is the question which, Laura, which you just brought up, that we're hearing from sources that they may look at, right, adding in other articles, obstruction of justice, as laid out in the Mueller report.

And there is some pushback within the Democratic Party and among lawmakers that there is concern there as to whether or not that's a smart road to take.

STEEL: Well, I think there's two issues here.

One is, impeachment a good vote for House Democrats? There are 31 House Democrats sitting in seats the president won in 2016, half of them in seats the president won big. Two Democrats voted against opening this impeachment inquiry in the first place. I think that number will probably grow when it comes to convict -- when it comes to sending these counts to the Senate.

At the same time, and obstruction count is probably one of the strongest legs they have to stand on, given the stonewalling strategy that we have seen from this administration. Congress needs to assert its Article 1 responsibilities here and stand up to this administration.

KIM: I want to point out, though, whether it's a smart strategy to expand the impeachment issue or not, it wasn't the release of the Mueller report or the Mueller testimony that pushed Speaker Pelosi and those moderate Democrats over the edge in favoring the impeachment inquiry. It was the whole Ukraine matter.

It wasn't -- again, despite everything that was laid out in the lengthy Mueller report, it was the Ukraine matter that got those moderate national security-minded Republicans to write an op-ed together, saying, we need to start this impeachment inquiry.

So I think, if and when this debate continues to escalate about whether you add in all those other issues, I think that's going to be a very heated debate in the caucus.

HILL: And there is a good chance at that.

And this all comes to play too as we look at the first CNN poll since the public impeachment hearings, that poll now out. So the big question, of course, did the witnesses change anyone's mind? Talking about voters here.

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We will take a look at that.

Plus, they have never owned a cell phone. And put that aside. They have never had the chance to start a family, to launch a career. They spend 36 years behind bars for a murder they didn't commit. But now three men are free.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

HILL: Moments ago, President Trump left the White House. He is Florida-bound for a rally tonight.

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It's a state he wants to really firm up ahead of 2020, considering he won by just 1 percent in 2016.

But as CNN's Boris Sanchez reports, a new CNN poll shows half the country wants the president impeached and removed from office now.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BORIS SANCHEZ, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): While two Thanksgiving turkeys were spared today by President Trump --

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: They've already received subpoenas to appear in Adam Schiff's basement on Thursday.

SANCHEZ: We're now learning the House Judiciary Committee has scheduled its first public impeachment hearing for December 4th and today, a new CNN poll suggests the country overall as divided as ever on the proceedings, after five days of public testimony from 12 witnesses not swaying Americans opinions in either direction.

FIONA HILL, TRUMP'S FORMER TOP RUSSIA ADVISER: Russia security services and their proxies have geared up to repeat their interference in the 2020 election.

SANCHEZ: Fifty percent say Trump should be impeached and removed from office, 43 percent say he should not. That number unchanged from October. The lack of movement a possible cause for concern for Democrats with at least one Democrat seeming to have second thoughts.

REP. BRENDA LAWRENCE (D-MI): We are so close to an election. I will tell you, sitting here knowing how divided this country is, I don't see the value of taking him out of office.

HOST: Wow!

LAWRENCE: I want him censured.

SANCHEZ: Today, she's walking it back, saying in a statement, quote: The House Intelligence Committee followed a very thorough process in holding hearings these past two weeks. The information they revealed confirmed that this president has abused the power of his office, therefore I continue to support impeachment.

Republicans are seizing on the moment. RNC chairwoman bashing Democrats and vowing Senate Republicans will call Joe and Hunter Biden to testify if the House votes to impeach.

RONNA ROMNEY MCDANIEL, CHAIRWOMAN, REPUBLICAN NATIONAL COMMITTEE: When they had two weeks and it was all to themselves and they didn't allow the president to defend himself and they still lost ground, I don't know how the Democrats feel good about where they sit right now.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SANCHEZ: Erica, President Trump is on the way to Mar-a-Lago for the Thanksgiving Day. Before he gets there, he's stopping for a rally in Sunrise, Florida. It's a bit of a homecoming rally for President Trump. This his first rally in the state since officially becoming a resident of Florida earlier this summer -- Erica.

HILL: Boris Sanchez at the White House for us -- thank you.

When we look at what we have all watched and listened to over the last couple of weeks, days worth of public hearings, and witnesses talking about a quid pro quo, right, Gordon Sondland -- yes, there was a quid pro quo. We've heard from Dr. Fiona Hill, this very moving testimony about how it was, in fact, Russia who meddled.

And then let's look at these numbers. So, the latest CNN polling since the hearings is the poll numbers on impeachment, they haven't moved. Could numbers like this, do you think is there a chance they could stop Democrats from moving forward in any way?

BEGALA: No. I don't think the Democrats see impeachment as a huge winner for them politically I feel like they have no choice. And maybe I'm projecting, that was my view. I was against impeachment. I was with Nancy Pelosi who's in May said impeachment is not a legislative agenda. She's right. The Democrats have passed 300 bills, prescription drugs, gender

equity, gay rights, campaign reform, but nobody knows about that. So, I'm not sure it's political or any way. I know that they believe this is their duty under the Constitution. I think Seung Min was right when she said that Ukraine call was so blatant, so clearly in the eyes of Democrats bribery. Bribery is named in the Constitution as one of the three reasons we can impeach a president -- treason, bribery or other high crimes and misdemeanors.

So, I think they feel like they have no choice. The fact that it is at 50, by the way, with Bill Clinton, it never got above 30. With Nixon, it never get to 50 until his final days. So, it's actually extraordinarily high that 50 percent of America wants to remove the president.

HILL: So interesting, to your point, leading up to the public hearings, we did see a rise in the polls, right? A fairly steady rise going up in terms of support. Is there a chance this is as high as it gets?

STEEL: I think that's probably right. I think that this is not going to be a political winner for the Democrats. I think that in addition to the 31 seats that the president won, the American people see that the investigation never happened and the aid flowed and if it was a crime it is an attempted crime and they have not made the case this rises to the level of a high crime and needs to be impeached. They have made that case, particularly less than a year before an election.

HILL: What is fascinating in this whole thing is if we look at women and put the numbers up on the screen. But you look at where women fall and it is clear, I mean, the president has some work to do with women. Is there a sense that is a focus right now for the campaign, for the administration, that they are noticing numbers like this? Certainly not publicly but privately.

KIM: Well, clearly, they are cognizant of all of the numbers here, but I think they've been focused, I mean, particularly the campaign and also Republicans on Capitol Hill, they've been really focused on the fact that independents also have been very divided and have not moved much either. I think it's very clear that Democrats have been very -- you're going to have a strong support of paying attention to the impeachment inquiry, of enthusiasm for the impeachment inquiry among the Democratic base.

Obviously, the Republican base would also be opposed. But the independent numbers have been pretty immovable and also very divided as well in the CNN poll just released, you had 47 percent who thinks he should be impeached and removed from office, 45 percent say no. Those are the numbers that I've heard a lot from House Republicans. They've also pointed to numbers from other polling where they say independents have moved a lot away from being pro-impeachment and I think that's the main focus for Republicans right now.

HILL: And it is fascinating through the context of Brenda Lawrence, who we just from in Boris's story, right? Swing state, obviously as we know who walked it back after talking to that Michigan radio station and now said she continues to support impeachment.

It makes you wonder two things, right? What was the pressure and what was she hearing at home from constituents and what did she hear after she made those comments on the radio?

BARRON-LOPEZ: That is true. Democrats have told my political colleagues they see what Lawrence said as more of a gaffe. That they think she stumbled over what she was saying and didn't really mean it. But they also have checked in with leadership and other moderates who say that they aren't getting cold feet. And when you're out on the trail, you don't hear Democrats talking about impeachment.

You don't hear the candidates talking about, you don't hear voters talking about it. I was in Nevada and Georgia last week and you continually hear the same issues that were big in 2018 which is health care and gun control and those issues led Democrats to take over the House. So if Democrats keep the focus on that they could potentially win big where they want to in 2020.

Of course, it is still difficult to beat an incumbent president.

BEGALA: There is a path for the president. Exactly what you said, Lara, 61 percent of the women say impeach and remove him. That's death for any politician, right? But what he ought to be doing is calling up Nancy Pelosi, Speaker Pelosi and the House Democrats passed HR-7, paycheck fairness act protects women in the workplace for equal pay and passed the Senate, passed the House, dead in the Republican Senate.

Mr. Trump could unlock that and get it passed. He should get with Nancy Pelosi on gun background checks. Seriously, this is what Bill Clinton did with Newt Gingrich while he was impeaching him. And we funded stuff for Head Start and at-risk kids. Do you think he'll do it?

HILL: Maybe he's listening. You never know. You never know.

BEGALA: Get back to work.

HILL: Right.

Well, in the meantime, as we're talking about whether Democrats made the case, right, in the House, there is, of course, the Senate where things matter a lot. Just ahead, I'll ask one of the potential jurors in a Senate trial for President Trump whether he feels his colleagues in the House did their job so far.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

HILL: This afternoon, the House Judiciary Committee announcing its first hearing in the impeachment inquiry will be next Wednesday. Sources say Democrats are considering multiple articles of impeachment against President Trump, including abuse of power, bribery and obstruction of Congress.

Joining me now, Democratic Senator Chris Coons of Delaware, who's on the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Sir, good to have you with us.

We have this new CNN poll.

SEN. CHRIS COONS (D-DE): Great to be with you.

HILL: Thanks for taking the time -- which you may have seen today after five days of public hearings, 12 witnesses as we know, support remains unchanged at this point. It is solid at 50 percent of Americans who say that the president should be impeached and removed from office.

Do you think House Democrats failed to make their case there. The needle didn't move?

COONS; Well, it is striking to me is that House Democrats made a strong case that across five days of testimony, a whole series of witnesses, folks who are both career professionals, foreign service officers and diplomats and people who worked in the Trump administration. Ambassador Sondland, most memorably among them, someone who was a major contributor to the Trump presidential inauguration and a hand-picked Trump representative as the ambassador to the E.U.

A wide range of folks gave damning testimony about the direct involvement of President Trump in an effort to shake down a vulnerable ally and hold military aid over their head until they agree to launch a politically motivated investigation against his strongest domestic political opponent for the upcoming presidential campaign. It is striking that 50 percent of Americans think our president should be impeached and removed and that number hasn't moved after that striking testimony --

HILL: So, do you think they simply didn't hear it? I mean, why do you think that is? Because as you say, you believe they made a very strong case in your eyes.

COONS: I do. I think the challenge now over this Thanksgiving break is for Republican House members and senators to reflect on what role they want to play in this. Whether they want to simply follow the polls and think about what's perhaps in their best interest at the next election or think about history and what precedent we're setting in terms of a president who is engaging in an unprecedented attack on long-standing traditions of keeping a personal, political and partisan interest out of how we conduct our foreign policy.

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