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Russia Probe Inspector General Report Due Out Soon; Rudy Giuliani Under Fire; Interview With Rep. Don Beyer (D-VA); Ousted Navy Secretary Slams Trump In Scathing Op-Ed; Trump Distances Himself From Giuliani; Huge Explosions Spark Inferno At Texas Chemical Plant; Trump Signs Hong Kong Human Rights Declaration; Holiday Travel Snarls. Aired 6-7p ET

Aired November 27, 2019 - 18:00   ET

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


[18:00:00]

JIM ACOSTA, CNN HOST: And chemical inferno. Huge explosions rock a Texas chemical plant, causing extensive damage to the facility and the city. And, tonight, as the fire continues to rage, concern about the hazardous chemical that's burning.

We want to welcome our viewers here in the United States and around the world. Wolf Blitzer is off today. I'm Jim Acosta, and you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

ACOSTA: Breaking news tonight, mounting troubles for Rudy Giuliani amid a series of potentially damaging reports.

As President Trump appears to be distancing himself from his personal lawyer, "The Washington Post" and "The New York Times" say Giuliani was trying to strike personal business deals with Ukrainian officials at the same time he was pressuring them to investigate the Bidens, in hopes of unearthing dirt that would help Mr. Trump politically.

And "The New York Times" is also reporting that the highly anticipated Justice Department inspector general report on the origins of Russia -- the Russia investigation will find that the FBI did not try to place undercover agents inside President Trump's 2016 campaign.

That undermines the president's claim that the Obama administration spied on his campaign.

We will talk about the breaking news tonight and more with Congressman Don Beyer. And our correspondents and analysts are also standing by.

First, details of the new reports about the president's personal lawyer.

CNN's Kara Scannell is working the story for us.

Kara, according to these reports, Rudy Giuliani was conducting his own business in Ukraine, as well as Mr. Trump's.

KARA SCANNELL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Jim.

So, "The New York Times" and "The Washington Post" both reporting today that Rudy Giuliani was pursuing private business deals worth hundreds of thousands of dollars with the government of Ukraine and its top prosecutor, as he was pressing them to investigate President Donald Trump's rival Joe Biden.

Now, according to these reports, there were draft proposals. One was -- would have paid Rudy Giuliani's firm $300,000. Another proposed draft would have paid Giuliani's firm $200,000. And according to the reports, at least one of those contracts would have involved Rudy Giuliani working for the Ukraine's Ministry of Justice, helping them root out and find some money that they alleged was stolen.

So Rudy Giuliani, though, has said that none of these contracts had actually been executed. His attorney told me that Giuliani was not paid by the Ukrainians or by Yuriy Lutsenko That is the top prosecutor and one of the people that Giuliani was in talks with.

Now, all of this, though, does raise questions about how many hats Rudy Giuliani is wearing at one time, conflicts of interest. He is the president's personal attorney trying to advance his interests in Ukraine at the same time he's considering taking up the Ukraine's interests for them -- Jim.

ACOSTA: All right, CNN's Kara Scannell, very important story. Thank you very much.

As scrutiny of Giuliani grows, President Trump appears to be trying to distance himself from his personal lawyer, much the way he did with his former attorney Michael Cohen as his legal troubles mounted.

CNN White House correspondent Kaitlan Collins is near Mar-a-Lago, where Mr. Trump is spending Thanksgiving.

Kaitlan, the president has a new worry on his mind tonight, I'm guessing. And he's actually contradicting himself when it comes to Rudy Giuliani; isn't that right?

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Jim, you're right.

This new quote from the president about Rudy Giuliani sounds an awful lot like what he said about Michael Cohen once those transactions of those hush money payments were coming under scrutiny.

The president made sure to praise Giuliani, his longtime friend and personal attorney, in this new interview. But he claims now that he did not direct Giuliani to go to Ukraine and seek out these investigations on his behalf.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Well, you have to ask that to Rudy. But Rudy, I don't even know -- I know he was going to go to Ukraine,

and I think he canceled a trip. But Rudy has other clients other than me.

(END AUDIO CLIP)

COLLINS: He's pushed multiple times in that interview, did you direct Rudy Giuliani to go do this? Jim, he says no multiple times, even though, if you read the transcript that the president ordered the White House to release of that late July phone call with the Ukrainian leader, you see the president, in his own words, not once, twice, but three times telling the Ukrainian leader he's going to have him speak, not only to the attorney general, Bill Barr, but also to Rudy Giuliani, praising him in there, but also saying, I'm going to have Rudy Giuliani give you a call.

So, not only is he contradicting himself, when he's saying, no, he didn't direct Giuliani to go to Ukraine, seek out these investigations. He's also contradicting sworn testimony from Gordon Sondland, the ambassador to the European Union, and a public statement from his own chief of staff when he spoke with reporters in now that famous press briefing.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GORDON SONDLAND, U.S. AMBASSADOR TO THE EUROPEAN UNION: I followed the directions of the president. We worked with Mr. Giuliani because the president directed us to do so.

MICK MULVANEY, ACTING WHITE HOUSE CHIEF OF STAFF: You may not like the fact that Giuliani was involved. That's great. That's fine. It's not illegal. It's not impeachable. The president gets to use who he wants to use.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

COLLINS: Now, of course, the question here is if this situation ends up in a similar one to Michael Cohen, who is now serving three years in prison after pleading guilty to violating those campaign finance laws.

[18:05:07]

Right now, we're still waiting to see that. But you can see the parallels in what he's saying about Rudy Giuliani and what he said not so long ago about Michael Cohen.

ACOSTA: And, Kaitlan, there is other breaking news tonight that we're following, "The New York Times" reporting that the DOJ inspector general's report is expected to find the FBI did not spy on President Trump's 2016 campaign, as he has alleged over and over again.

What can you tell us about that?

COLLINS: Over and over again, yes, ever since that tweet, you will remember, when he said that Obama had wiretapped Trump Tower, something he never backed up.

And now this highly anticipated report that a lot of Washington has been waiting on is expected to come out on December 9. And according to "The New York Times" and what they're reporting, it's not going to find that the FBI tried to place any informants in the president's campaign.

It's also not going to find there were political motivations behind that wiretap of Carter Page, the former campaign aide, though it is likely to be critical of FBI leaders and the way they conducted some parts of this investigation, but, certainly Jim, not what the president was counting on.

ACOSTA: All right, Kaitlan Collins, thank you very much. We appreciate it.

As the president and his allies try to defend him from allegations of wrongdoing in his dealings with Ukraine, a new report is undermining one of their central arguments.

CNN Senior National Correspondent, Alex Marquardt is working that part of the story for us.

Alex, we now know more about when Mr. Trump knew about this whistle- blower complaint that's at the heart of all of this.

ALEX MARQUARDT, CNN SENIOR NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Right.

And, Jim, this really adds a lot more to what we knew about what the president knew when he finally released that military aid money for Ukraine.

As the White House was getting more and more questions about why this $400 million was being held up, we're now learning that the president reportedly knew about and had been briefed on the whistle-blower complaint that had been filed against him, which accused the president of threatening national security.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

MARQUARDT (voice-over): New revelations deflating the White House's and Republican allies' defense over the president's actions with Ukraine.

TRUMP: There was no quid pro quo.

MARQUARDT: According to "New York Times," by the time the president released the aid money for Ukraine on September 12, he had been briefed by White House lawyers about the whistle-blower complaint against him.

So, Trump knew about the complaint, which accused him of using the power of his office to solicit interference from a foreign country in the 2020 U.S. election.

Republicans have argued there was no quid pro quo because Ukraine got the U.S. military aid money in the end, without launching the investigations that the president wanted into the Bidens and the 2016 election.

REP. JIM JORDAN (R-OH): They got the call, they got the meeting and they got the money, and there was never an announcement of any type of investigation.

MARQUARDT: But the president knew the whistle-blower was trying to out him.

REP. MADELEINE DEAN (D-PA): It shows a consciousness of guilt. Then the president tries to backpedal and say no quid pro quo, and then, ultimately, because he's been caught, has to release that aid.

MARQUARDT: As the aid was held up over the summer, two officials in the Office of Management and Budget resigned, testimony just released showing they expressed concerns about the hold, though an administration official disputes that was the reason they left.

The testimony also undercuts another late White House argument, that aid was withheld to Ukraine because other countries weren't contributing enough.

A senior official in the OMB, Mark Sandy, who had questioned the legality of the hold, told lawmakers he wasn't given that argument until early September. But that was two months after he was told to halt the Ukraine funding by the acting chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney.

MICK MULVANEY, ACTING WHITE HOUSE CHIEF OF STAFF: I have news for everybody. Get over it. There's going to be political influence in foreign policy.

MARQUARDT: Right before the president released the money, he insisted to a point man on Ukraine, Ambassador Gordon Sondland, on a call that there was no quid pro quo. But Trump did tell Sondland that he wanted the Ukrainian President Zelensky to do the right thing.

TRUMP: I want nothing. I want nothing. I want no quid pro quo. Tell Zelensky to do the right thing.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

MARQUARDT: President Zelensky and his team had been told for weeks that doing the right thing meant launching those investigations.

He was planning to announce them right here on CNN, in fact. But the chorus was growing louder on Capitol Hill for the president to release that money. And he did, knowing what was in the whistle-blower complaint, and right after Democrats launched their investigation -- Jim.

ACOSTA: All right, thank you very much, Alex. We appreciate it.

Let's get more on this with Democratic Congressman Don Beyer of Virginia, a member of the Ways and Means Committee.

Congressman, thanks very much for joining us.

I want to begin with your response to this reporting that Rudy Giuliani was pursuing business deals in Ukraine while he was pushing for investigations he thought would benefit the president.

What do you make of that? Doesn't that raise some big red flags?

Congressman, can you hear me there, sir?

[18:10:00]

You know, we're going to settle this technical issue with Congressman Beyer.

We will have a quick break, and we will be right back. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ACOSTA: And we sorted out that little technical issue.

We're back with Democratic Congressman Don Beyer of Virginia, a member of the Ways and Means Committee.

[18:15:01]

Congressman, let's get right back to it.

I want to get your response to the reporting that Rudy Giuliani was pursuing business deals in Ukraine while he was pushing for investigations that he thought he would -- would benefit the president.

We should point out, in just the last several minutes, Giuliani has put out a tweet denying this, saying he did not pursue a business opportunity in Ukraine.

But what are your thoughts on all of this? What's your response?

REP. DON BEYER (D-VA): Well, the first thing, when the president said that Rudy has other clients, I don't think Giuliani had any other clients that wanted the Ukrainians to investigate the Biden family or the false theory that it was the Ukraine that interfered in the 2016 election, rather than the Russians.

I worry, because Rudy said that he's afraid of being disappeared. And you have seen the president distance himself not just from Michael Cohen, but trashing Rex Tillerson, firing Jeff Sessions. He's been moving away Pompeo.

It'll be fascinating to see what -- quote, unquote -- "dirt" Rudy has that he's going to let go if he gets thrown under the bus.

ACOSTA: And, as you know, Mr. Trump is now denying that he directed Giuliani to seek out these investigations in Ukraine, even though that contradicts what he's said in the past and essentially what is in the rough summary transcript of his July 25 phone call. Do you think the president will be successful in sort of shifting the

blame here?

BEYER: I don't think so, especially not after what we heard from Gordon Sondland, what we heard from Holmes and others, the testimony before the Intelligence Committee.

The Trump-Giuliani connection with Ukraine has been documented again and again.

ACOSTA: And do you think Rudy Giuliani should be called to testify up on Capitol Hill before these investigators?

BEYER: Yes, the heart of this impeachment investigation is Trump trying the attempted bribery, withholding this aid to get Ukraine to investigate the Bidens.

And Rudy seemed to be actually absolutely central to this, that he was the one over there trying to make the case for Zelensky and the Ukrainians to do this.

So, yes, absolutely.

ACOSTA: You would like to see? Because there are some of your colleagues, as you know, Congressman, who are saying, you know what, we don't want to get bogged down in the courts, we don't want the administration to run out the clock and so on.

But your feeling is, is that this is more important than that, that Rudy Giuliani should be brought up here to testify?

BEYER: Well, Jim, I don't want to second-guess Chairman Schiff.

We had the same things in the last couple of days, with the court saying that Don McGahn should testify. And yet -- and, also, John Bolton doesn't seem to be protected by this wide-ranging presidential immunity.

However, if they can play rope-a-dope for a couple of weeks or a couple of months, I'm sure that Chairman Schiff and Speaker Pelosi don't want to let that drag on. So it's a balance.

If we can get him in the short run, yes. In the long run, there's enough stuff out there right now, I think, to proceed with articles of impeachment.

ACOSTA: And, Congressman...

BEYER: And, as you know, next Wednesday at 10:00, that hearing will start in the Judiciary Committee.

ACOSTA: Right. And the House Intelligence Committee says it will turn over its impeachment report to the Judiciary Committee shortly after Thanksgiving, as you were just saying.

New information coming out every day. Do you worry your colleagues are rushing this process?

BEYER: I don't think so.

I think, as Adam Schiff has said a number of times, most investigations, you discover the big reveal at the end. Here, we knew what it was from the very beginning.

And, in fact, Jim, what is fascinating just in the last 48 -- 24 hours, the notion that Trump was briefed about the whistle-blower far before we had understood or had been admitted, and only two days later, he actually released the aid, obviously trying to put the lid on a bad situation.

ACOSTA: OK, Congressman...

BEYER: Trying to take away the perception of the bribery that was going on.

ACOSTA: OK.

Congressman Don Beyer, thanks for joining us and hanging in there. And happy Thanksgiving to you. We appreciate it.

BEYER: Thank you, Jim.

ACOSTA: All right.

BEYER: Happy Thanksgiving.

ACOSTA: Thank you, sir.

And let's bring in senior legal analyst and former U.S. attorney Preet Bharara.

Preet, thanks for joining us.

You know Rudy Giuliani. He was the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, a role you have also held.

I want you to listen to Giuliani speaking out about the president this weekend.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

RUDY GIULIANI, ATTORNEY FOR PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I have seen things written like, he's going to throw me under the bus.

QUESTION: Right.

GIULIANI: When they say that, I say, he isn't, but I have insurance.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ACOSTA: Now, he says he was being sarcastic. But you have heard this kind of talk before in the midst of these kinds of investigations.

Could that be seen as a veiled threat?

PREET BHARARA, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: I suppose.

I find it, frankly, hard to interpret the things -- hard to interpret the things that come out of the mouths of Trump himself and his allies. They will say something that sounds quite serious, and is not a joking or laughing matter. Then they will say later, when there's criticism, that it was a joke or it was sarcasm.

I mean, in the general sense, it is true that the personal lawyer to a client, particularly if that client is engaged in misconduct, or even not misconduct, but embarrassing behavior, the person who tends to know about that information and that material that's embarrassing is the lawyer.

[18:20:01]

So, in a sense, personal lawyers, to principals everywhere, have -- quote, unquote -- "insurance" about their clients. It's an extraordinary thing, A, to make some reference to it, serious or otherwise. And it would be quite an extraordinary thing to do something about it and actually use it in some way.

And you have seen the rift it's been developing. And I think earlier in the broadcast, there was a parallel made between Rudy Giuliani and a prior personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, where Giuliani has said over and over and over again that he went to Ukraine and did all these activities and engaged in his conduct at the express direction of the president of the United States.

The president of the United States in the last day or two did a radio interview, I think, with Bill O'Reilly, saying, you have to ask Rudy, I didn't send him to do anything.

So you see a rift developing. Whether it's sarcasm or not, it's a serious thing to say, potentially unethical, if it was meant or if it's done. But I'm at a loss to understand exactly what kinds of communications are happening on the airwaves between two people who are associated with each other through a legal contract.

ACOSTA: Yes, they seem to be speaking to you over the airwaves. That's very true.

And "The New York Times" is reporting the Justice Department's inspector general found no evidence to support the president's often repeated claim -- you have heard this too -- that the FBI spied on his campaign. He's never offered any proof that, but they have repeated it over and over again.

The I.G. is expected to offer some criticism of FBI leaders, but not giving the president what he wants in terms of undermining the entire investigation. What impact do you think this will have?

BHARARA: I mean, I don't think it will have any impact on the rhetoric of the president or the president's allies. I mean, I feel like it's not too much of an exaggeration to say you

could literally see a draft indictment of the president, and he would say he's totally exonerated by that document. Those words don't mean anything to him.

He literally talks about the readout of the call between him and President Zelensky as a verbatim transcript. He says that over and over again. The document itself says, this is not a verbatim transcript on the front page.

So with respect to what impact it will have on the arguments that he and others make, I think almost none.

Back here on planet Earth, which I like to call where rational people discuss and review these things, I think it'll have some impact. The bottom line is, if the reporting is correct -- and I caution everybody to wait until they see the report to see what it says, and not just rely on the reporting.

But if it is correct that the top line is that the investigation was properly predicated, that there was nothing inappropriate or political in the overall investigation, it was launched properly, and that there is some criticism of some people at I think mostly the lower level -- and they should be held accountable, if that's appropriate, and they should be disciplined if that's appropriate.

But the overall message that has been coming out of the president and his allies for a while, if the reporting is correct, from this I.G. is that the investigation was appropriate and proper, not political.

And, by the way, this is an I.G., an inspector general, who has not shied away from criticizing other adversaries of the president, including Andy McCabe at the FBI and Jim Comey at the FBI, in two scathing reports criticized those men, I think overall three reports, criticized those men.

So this is not someone who bends over backwards to try to make any particular side look good. So I think he has, I think, more relevance and more credibility because of what he's done before.

ACOSTA: But, Preet, you know this has been going on for three years. I mean, the president -- or nearly three years -- the president tweeting back in March of 2017: "How low has President Obama gone to tap my phones during the very sacred election process? This is Nixon, Watergate. Bad or sick guy."

The president has been using this kind of rhetoric for nearly three years, undermining the credibility of the law enforcement community, the intelligence community in this country. Will an I.G. report clean all that up? Will it restore what was once there before the president was going after it?

(CROSSTALK)

BHARARA: Look -- and I hate to sound cynical about this. In the universe that we used to live in, I believe, where truth mattered, and people had credibility, and people looked at the facts, and they looked at the circumstances, and they looked at rationality, yes, I think it would have cleaned up a lot of this.

But as I said, earlier, it doesn't matter what particular report is put out. It doesn't matter what people say. In the president's mind, if there's something negative about him or something positive about an adversary, he chimes in, in the way he likes to chime in, which is to say he's either exonerated, or the other party is excoriated.

There was a critical report in some ways of Jim Comey in a prior iteration of an inspector general report. The president of the United States I think, literally said something like, it's the worst accusations against an FBI director or against a political official in the history of the country.

He's prone to exaggeration. Rational people can look at this document and decide for themselves, does it hold up, does it not hold up? We need to see what all the facts are.

Typically, inspector general reports -- and I have read many of them -- are very detailed, very plainly written, with a lot of backup material and quoting from the people who gave interviews and quoting from documents. I mean, they're pretty rigorous documents.

So, yes, in a world in which people cared about those things and the truth really mattered, I think it would have a -- an important effect on what people's understanding should be.

[18:25:05]

We, unfortunately, at this moment, given the person who has the greatest microphone in the world, we don't live in that world.

ACOSTA: All right.

Preet Bharara, thanks for that perspective. Thanks for joining us. We appreciate it.

BHARARA: Happy Thanksgiving.

ACOSTA: You as well.

Just ahead: a scathing new op-ed just published by the former Navy secretary. You will hear what he has to say about President Trump.

Plus, explosions and fire at a Texas chemical plant and concern about the chemical that's still burning tonight.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[18:30:00]

ACOSTA: Breaking news, the former Navy secretary forced out by President Trump has just penned a scathing op-ed in The Washington Post. This is breaking right now. Richard Spencer was dismissed after the president intervened in the case of a Navy SEAL accused with war crimes.

Let's dig in deeper with our experts and analyst.

And, Mark Mazzetti, let me go to you first because there may be some new information in all of this coming from the former secretary of the Navy. He says that the president was involving himself in this case from the very beginning. And he says, before the trial began in March, he received two phone calls from the president asking him to lift Gallagher's confinement in a Navy brig. He says -- the former Navy secretary says, he pushed back twice.

And he says -- he goes on to say, I came to believe that the president's interest in the case stemmed partly from the way the defendants' lawyers and others worked to keep it front and center in the news media, which means, by and large, on Fox News, which he watches all the time. What do you make of all of this?

MARK MAZZETTI, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: There is new information that's out, right? He is actually giving new details about the president's involvement in the case.

ACOSTA: Right.

MAZZETTI: And as you said, what it boils down to is the president watches Fox News and this was a case that was championed by analysts on Fox News and it sort of painted as a hero against a system that was unjust. And, I mean, this is a very, very important thing for the military and the military justice system having committed what they call command influence, people above superior officers in the case including the president of the United States weighing in on the military justice system because it could prejudice the entire system. They try to avoid it as much as possible.

And this is an extraordinary case of the president talking again and again, intervening in a case thateven after it's resolved, to try to restore what he says, is justice for a hero. So it's incredibly unusual in the military justice system to have this case of the president getting so directly involved.

ACOSTA: Yes. Sam Vinograd, it sounds like the like the president was pressuring the Navy secretary to get what he wanted out of this, to get what Fox News wanted out of it.

SAMANTHA VINOGRAD, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: That's exactly right, Jim.

But just for a macro level, I mean, think about it. You can get a Navy secretary fired because he disagreed with the president. You can get an ambassador to Ukraine recalled just by putting something on Fox News. I mean, this has larger implications than just the military justice system. This really signals to anyone around the world that if they have a bone to pick or axe to grind on anything, they just need to feed it into certain media outlets. And I will also note that Spencer writes in his op-ed that he did something that a lot of other people in his position in the government haven't done. He said that he also sent a note directly to the president basically telling him to stop and telling that what he was doing was unhelpful, that something we have not seen a lot of officials do. And Spencer also writes that the president has no understanding, a reminder the president has very little understanding of what it means to be in the military, to fight ethically or to be governed by a uniformed set of rules and practices. That is a former secretary of the Navy commenting on President Trump's behavior. That is a damning statement from the secretary of the Navy and unfortunately it's been true in so many instances.

ACOSTA: And, David Swerdlick, I mean, talk about damning statements, here's another one.

DAVID SWERDLICK, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Yes.

ACOSTA: We put this up on-screen. Our allies need to know that we remain a force for good and to please bear with us as we move through this moment in time.

This is the former secretary of the Navy talking about the president of the United States.

SWERDLICK: Yes. To follow up on that quote and on what Sam just said, Jim, Secretary Spencer is saying essentially, look, if we are holding ourselves up as the finest fighting force in the world and that we fight not just with ferocity and with strength but to a standard of ethics, we're in a moment right now where that's teetering on what happened in this case.

And he says that in some places indirectly directly and in some places directly, let me just add one other thing that's a little off point here. But as someone who edits analysis pieces and has also edited opinion pieces, I will say, the strength of this piece is that he also acknowledges his own mistake in this case and says, look, I should have better briefed Secretary Esper. That makes this argument stronger, not weaker, because he's saying, look --

ACOSTA: He's acknowledging he did something wrong.

SWERDLICK: Right. I'm pointing the finger at the White House but I'm also owning my role in this. That's a stand-up guy. People should read this piece.

ACOSTA: And Susan Hennessey, let's get to the overarching issue here. And that is, it seems to be that the former secretary of the Navy is saying to the rest of the world, please excuse us while President Trump is the commander-in-chief of the United States of America, that we have a problem. He's essentially saying, we have a problem with the president.

SUSAN HENNESSEY, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY AND LEGAL ANALYST: Right. I think what he's doing is acknowledging something that's been plain from the facts throughout, and that's that, yes, Donald Trump, as president of the United States, is commander-in-chief of the military.

[18:35:02]

But he is discharging his constitutional powers not to maintain good order and discipline into the benefit of the United States and United States' military in order to lead it in a way that he believes serves the interests of this nation, he's doing it because of his political interests, because of what he sees on Fox and Friends, because of sort of his interest in reaching down, because captivated by a particular narrative.

I also think Spencer is speaking to members of the Armed Forces, members of the U.S. Armed Forces. Keep in mind Gallagher's own men. His fellow sailors actually turned him in. He's accused of actually threatening them for doing so. These are people who risked their careers because they saw somebody who they believe was doing something wrong, was violating the law.

And so I do think that people like Esper and also like Spencer need to be concerned about what message this sends to members of the military who want to do the right thing and see other people doing the wrong thing, is this going to send the message that you should just turn the other way and pretend as though you weren't seeing the kind of serious abuse that Gallagher is accused of.

ACOSTA: But, Sam, I want to get back to this quote that I read earlier. But I think we have already put up on screen. I came to believe that Trump's interests in the case stemmed partly from the way defendant's lawyers and others had worked to keep it front and center in the media.

Now, former Secretary Spencer is saying the media here, but what he really means is Fox News. And it seems to be yet another glaring example of this sort of symbiotic relationship between the president and his favorite network over at Fox and how they can affect national security decisions and military justice decisions, you name it. What do you think of that?

VINOGRAD: Well, Jim, networks and analysts are paid to express their opinions. It's one thing for Fox analyst to offer their opinions, let's say, on Gallagher's case. It is another thing for the president of the United States to make decisions based upon those analysts' opinions and not the opinions of his secretary of the Navy, members of his cabinet or people that are paid and swear an oath to uphold the Constitution. So the fault her to me lies less with Fox News and more with the president.

ACOSTA: Okay. All right, stand by, everybody, we have more breaking news to talk about after this break.

Just ahead, President Trump threw one lawyer under the bus. Is Rudy Giuliani about to get the Michael Cohen treatment too?

Plus, breaking news, explosions rock a Texas town where a chemical plant continues to burn tonight.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[18:40:00]

ACOSTA: President Trump appears to be distancing himself from his lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, as scrutiny of his work in Ukraine intensifies. CNN's Tom Foreman is here now with more.

Tom, it seems very similar to the way the president pushed aside former personal attorney, Michael Cohen. All of this seemed very familiar.

TOM FOREMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, it's a little ground hog day for Thanksgiving weekend.

Well, here's the thing. There's a key thing that has to be asked in the middle of all of this. How much did Donald Trump know or direct about what was happening in Ukraine and how much of it might have been taken on by people in his team by themselves, and his lawyer is right in the middle of that.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

DONALD TRUMP, U.S. PRESIDENT: Well, you have to ask that to Rudy. But Rudy -- I don't even know --

FOREMAN: President Trump is putting distance between himself, his personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, and all the accusations of dirty dealings abroad. Never mind that Trump specifically told the Ukrainian president in that now infamous phone conversation, I will have Mr. Giuliani give you a call.

Now, he says of Giuliani.

TRUMP: No, I didn't direct him, but he is a -- he is a warrior. Rudy is a warrior. Rudy went -- he possibly saw -- but you have to understand, Rudy has other people that he represents.

FOREMAN: It's a familiar pattern. Trump praises his allies and friends effusively right up until they get into trouble, then he suggests he never knew them that well and certainly not what they were up to. Take his previous attorney, Michael Cohen, for two years worked hand-in-glove.

MICHAEL COHEN, PERSONAL ATTORNEY TO DONALD TRUMP: They say I'm Mr. Trump's pit bull, that I'm his right-hand man.

FOREMAN: But when Cohen came under intense legal pressure about campaign funds and payments to women allegedly involved with Trump, charges that would eventually land Cohen in prison, suddenly, Trump seemed to know nothing about what his lawyer had been doing.

TRUMP: I haven't spoken to Mike in a long time.

He's a weak person and not a very smart person.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Have you talked to President Trump in the last week or two?

FOREMAN: Cohen's successor, Giuliani, insists he and Trump are tight.

RUDY GIULIANI, PRESIDENT TRUMP'S PERSONAL ATTORNEY: You can assume that I talked to him early and often.

FOREMAN: Amid the allegations, Giuliani was making a sneaky end-run on official U.S. foreign policy. Giuliani tweeted, the investigation I conducted concerning 2016 Ukrainian collusion and corruption was done solely as a defense attorney to defend my client against false charges. But that doesn't say Trump ordered it. And the acting chief of staff's assessment.

MICK MULVANEY, WHITE HOUSE ACTING CHIEF OF STAFF: It's not illegal, it's not impeachable, the president gets to use who he wants to use.

FOREMAN: Still, Trump is leaving room for doubt that he was using Giuliani or aware of his actions.

[18:45:04]

TRUMP: He's done a lot of work in Ukraine over the years. And I think -- I mean, that's what I heard.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

FOREMAN: In short, the president has pardoned the Thanksgiving turkey, but with impeachment still running very hot, many political analysts say it maybe that he's yet cooking up a side dish of scapegoat -- Jim.

ACOSTA: Might be other pardons on the menu.

Tom Foreman, thank you very much.

Breaking news next, a chemical inferno is burning this hour in Texas following huge explosions. We'll get a live update, next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[18:50:12]

ACOSTA: We have breaking in southeast Texas where a chemical plant is engulfed in flames tonight following huge explosions.

CNN's Ed Lavandera is working the story for us.

Ed, officials are monitoring the air around this chemical plant? I hope everything is OK. What's the latest?

ED LAVANDERA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes. So far, we've not received reports of air quality issues around the plant, but that is of little consolation to the thousands of residents who live around this chemical plant that is owned by the company there in southeast Texas and this is where the fire continues to burn. This after an explosion rocked the area just after 1:00 in the morning, a second explosion this afternoon.

Company officials say that, right now, they are simply just trying to contain the fire, to keep it spreading throughout the facility, igniting more explosions and that they are simply waiting for these chemicals to burn themselves out in the fires to extinguish themselves.

This explosion rocked the neighborhood just after 1:00 in the neighborhood. Videos taken from porch cameras captured the shock wave as it went through the surrounding neighborhoods, rippling walls and blowing out garage doors and front doors causing extensive damages throughout these neighborhoods around the area. So, tonight, the flames continue to erupt there from that chemical plant facility in the town of Port Neches, Texas, just south of the Beaumont, Texas, area, a great deal of concern and no word on how long it will take to put this out or what the cause might be -- Jim.

ACOSTA: All right. Ed Lavandera, we know you'll stay on top of it, incredible pictures. Thank you very much. We appreciate it.

There's more breaking news just coming into THE SITUATION ROOM. The White House says President Trump has signed Congress' Hong Kong's human rights declaration with some caveats.

Let's bring in CNN White House Correspondent, Kaitlan Collins.

Kaitlan, we weren't sure if the president was going to sign this one, but he did.

COLLINS: No, we weren't, Jim, and White House officials for days even though we've been asking would not say if the president was going to sign this bill one way or another. Normally, they would, typically on background, without attribution to themselves. But this time, they wouldn't even go that far because they weren't sure what the president was going to do.

And, of course, this was a pretty bipartisan -- overwhelmingly bipartisan and you saw people like the Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell calling on the president to speak out in support of Hong Kong. But, Jim, he had been wavering on that, but now he has signed this bill that has been on his desk for several days, a bill that's seen that's a pretty big rebuke to China because it's going to sanction officials now that he's signing this human rights legislation for Hong Kong.

And essentially, the question is going to be, how does China respond? Because the concern inside the White House and why we believed officials wouldn't go as far as to say what way the president was leaning on this is because they fear it's going to complicate those trade talks, those trade talks they've been trying effortlessly so far to get to a trade deal with China for several months and that was really the concern inside.

But, of course, Jim, we should note the president is signing this bill, even though there are questions on whether or not he was going to, but he really didn't have an option here because if the president had vetoed this, it likely was going to be able to have that two- thirds majority in Congress to override the president's veto because it was just that bipartisan.

And now, the president has signed it, you see people like Senator Marco Rubio coming out and thanking the president, essentially praising him for signing this, despite those questions over whether or not he was going to do it. And, Jim, you can see in this statement that the president put out along with the announcement that he had signed this bill on where he stands with this, because essentially saying it was in support of President Xi, China's leader, and in support of Hong Kong, because he essentially says he wants those two sides to be able to work this out themselves.

The question now is whether or not the president goes any further than this or if we just leave it here with him signing this bill -- Jim.

ACOSTA: All right. CNN's Kaitlan Collins, thank you very much for that update. We appreciate it.

Just ahead, severe weather from coast to coast snarls holiday travel. We'll get the latest forecast next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[18:58:46]

ACOSTA: Severe weather is hampering Thanksgiving travel for millions of Americans.

CNN meteorologist Ivan Cabrera has the latest forecast.

Ivan, we're seeing lots of wind, rain and snow. Lots of travel worries.

IVAN CABRERA, AMS METEOROLOGIST: Yes. It's been a mess. Over a hundred cancellations and we're still counting the delays at this point, over 4,100 delays over the Midwest and into the Northeast.

As far as storm number one, we have a second one coming, but this one is pretty much over as far as the preceps, right? No more rain, no more snow but we are still talking about significant winds and we've been dealing with that and we've seen O'Hare gusting north of 50 miles an hour. So , that's going to be a problem.

And then there's this, a slug of moisture coming through the Southwest. This is quite something for New Mexico. There will be heavy snow for you heading into Colorado and all the while we have a batch that's going to be coming in from the Pacific and that's the next storm and guess where it's headed? In the exact same direction here, and that's going to happen over the next few days. So, I think Thanksgiving Day itself will be fine for most of the country, safe for the Southwest.

But then as we put this into motion, you'll be able to see through the day on Saturday and then heading into Sunday as all of us try to get back home, we have a big storm across the east with heavy rain, wind and snow across portions of New England. So, timing terrible. It's been a mess and we still have one to get through.

Happy Thanksgiving to you, Jim.

ACOSTA: And Happy Thanksgiving to you.

CNN Meteorologist, Ivan Cabrera, thank you so much.

I'm Jim Acosta, thanks very much for watching. Happy Thanksgiving, everybody.

"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.