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Giuliani Under More Legal Scrutiny as Trump Distances Himself; WAPO: No Other Testimony or Documents to Corroborate Sondland's Description of Sept 9 Call; Federal Judge Issues Stay or Order for Don McGahn to Comply with Subpoena; Fired Navy Secretary: Trump Has "Little Understanding of What It Means to Be in Military"; Trump Administration to Cut NATO Budget. Aired 11-11:30a ET

Aired November 28, 2019 - 11:00   ET



ANA CABRERA, CNN ANCHOR: Thank you for joining us. Happy Thanksgiving to you and your family. Wishing you the very best today. I'm Ana Cabrera.

"AT THIS HOUR" starts now.

ALEX MARQUARDT, CNN ANCHOR: Hello, everyone. Welcome to a special Thanksgiving edition of AT THIS HOUR. I'm Alex Marquardt, in for Kate Bolduan. Thank you for joining me.

We start with someone who may not be having the happiest Thanksgiving today. Rudy Giuliani, the president's personal lawyer, is under growing legal scrutiny this morning following new reporting the "New York Times" and the Washington Post."

The claims that Giuliani was going after hundreds of thousands of dollars in business from Ukrainian government officials at the same time that he was trying to dig up dirt on former Vice President Joe Biden and his son, Hunter.

Giuliani said repeatedly that he has had no business dealings in Ukraine and these deals were, in fact, never done.

But it does come as President Trump tries to put some distance between himself and Giuliani.

During an interview earlier this week, the president said Giuliani has, quote, "other clients," and he denied ever sending Giuliani to Ukraine on his behalf.

The president's efforts to separate himself from Giuliani is starting to sound awfully similar to his relationship with another personal lawyer, Michael Cohen. Which very quickly went south. Take a listen.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Michael Cohen is a very talented lawyer.

Rudy Giuliani is a great lawyer.

I always like Michael.

I think Rudy is a great gentleman.


TRUMP (voice-over): Well, you have to ask that to Rudy.

(on camera): They got Cohen totally unrelated to the campaign. I'm not involved.

(voice-over): You know, Rudy has other clients other than me.


MARQUARDT: Our Kaitlan Collins is in West Palm Beach where the president is spending his Thanksgiving.

Kaitlan, we heard from the president now saying that he doesn't know what Giuliani was doing in Ukraine, even though we do know he was there for the president. Do we have a sense today of how the White House is reacting to this news that Giuliani was looking for other deals?

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Alex, they haven't said anything publicly. But for a long time now White House officials have really tried to put some distance between themselves and Rudy Giuliani because he caused problems for them time and time again.

Even before the impeachment inquiry got started, back when it was involving those hush money payments the president made, comments that Rudy Giuliani would go on cable news and make and, of course, those extensive interviews he so frequently gave.

So essentially they have never thought that Rudy Giuliani was helpful to what they're trying to do inside the White House.

But of course, he's something that they have had to deal with time and time again because he and the president are close. And he's made that clear over the last few days.

You have seen the president essentially trying to put some distance between the two of them, saying he didn't know what Rudy Giuliani was up to in Ukraine.

You've seen Rudy Giuliani responded to that, not only making that joke, as he calls it, about having insurance on the president, but also saying he speaks to the president often and makes pretty clear they talk on a regular basis. So right now, no comment on that.

But the question is what the president does here. Ever since those two associates of Giuliani's were arrested, the president saying he didn't know them, even though there were photos of them. And now he's trying to say he didn't know what Rudy Giuliani was doing

in Ukraine and he wasn't the one who sent them there to seek out those investigations on his behalf. Even though you can read the president's own words where he is telling people to work with Giuliani when it came to Ukraine.

So far, we know that Giuliani has not representing the president when it comes to Ukraine. According to White House officials, he is still his attorney.

Whether or not that changes, it's certainly something the president is keeping his eye on, what is happening not only with this story about what he was doing with that then top prosecutor but also now that we have those reports that federal prosecutors are looking into Giuliani's consulting business -- Alex?

MARQUARDT: That is a very important point. In that transcript between -- the phone call between Presidents Trump and Zelensky, President Trump specifically asking Zelensky to work with Rudy Giuliani.

Kaitlan Collins, in West Palm Beach, thanks very much.

COLLINS: Yes, three times.

MARQUARDT: Here with me now to discuss all of that and more are Abby phillips, CNN political correspondent, Renato Mariotti, a CNN legal analyst and a former federal prosecutor, and Doug Heye, CNN political commentator and Republican strategist.

Thank you all for joining me on this Thanksgiving. Happy Thanksgiving to all of you.


MARQUARDT: Abby, I want to start with you. Bouncing off of what Kaitlan was saying, how do you see the president's attitude changing towards Giuliani? Does this new reporting in "The Post" and "The Times," does it make the president more likely, do you think to distance himself from Giuliani?

ABBY PHILLIP, CNN POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Absolutely. I mean, we've already seen the president trying to do that, as Kaitlan said, for several weeks now.

And the ways in which this really parallels what happened with Michael Cohen is that the president is aware at this point that there's this ongoing inquiry into Giuliani's consulting business, that federal prosecutors are looking into what he was doing in terms of that business.

And similarly, around the time that the president started distancing himself from Michael Cohen, his former personal attorney, was when it became clear that Michael Cohen was also under federal investigation.

So, you know, it's not clear to me if the president is fully aware of everything that was going on. But he's aware enough to know that, at this point, he wants to have very little to do with the part of this that could become a part of this criminal investigation.


And also Giuliani himself points out that the reason that he may not have pursued some of these deals, these hundreds of millions of dollars-worth of deals with Ukrainian officials at -- around that time, is because he knew it looked bad.

The president is also aware that this kind of double dipping that Giuliani was apparently interested in doing also looked bad. And the president clearly wants to try to step back from some of that, even if he's not fully aware of all of the details of what was going on.

I think we just don't know yet how many how much exactly he knows about what Giuliani has been up to.

MARQUARDT: Doug, if the president continues down this path and he continues to distance himself from Giuliani, does this give Republicans a scapegoat? Could this be effective, even though we know, as we have been saying, that Giuliani was in Ukraine on behalf of the president?

DOUG HEYE, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: For Republicans, this could be the ultimate scapegoat. There's an old phrase in Washington that you serve at the pleasure of whether it's the president, the Senator, the member of Congress. That's no more true than for Donald Trump than it is for -- that's more true for Donald Trump than it is for anyone else.

What we have seen so often with Trump is that you are a great and trusted and valued aide, very publicly, until the minute you're not. Michael Cohen learned that and we can go through countless examples of people who have learned that. But more specifically for Rudy, look at what happened with Michael Cohen.

One thing I'm hearing from a lot of Republicans and I think would make sense to a lot of viewers, is we have seen so many interviews Rudy Giuliani where we scratched our head. This isn't just a political problem. He's put himself in more legal jeopardy.

If he's going to be thrown under the bus, he may be thrown under a very long bus that goes back and forth over him.

MARQUARDT: Renato, I want to ask you about that, that legal jeopardy that he may be in. We know that federal prosecutors are looking into Giuliani's business dealings. Of course, we know two of his associates have been indicted. How hot, Renato, is the water that he's in right now?

RENATO MARIOTTI, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: It's scalding. Realistically, if you are dealing with people who are under federal indictment, receiving large quantities of money from them and you are doing business with them, you're in potentially in very hot water anybody, no matter who you are. You are going to be seriously looked at by the feds.

And we have seen evidence that they are devoting substantial resources to investigating Mr. Giuliani.

So if he's not the target of their investigation or a target meaning somebody who will be indicted, he's somebody they want to try to build a case to indictment.

And there's a laundry list of charges that they are looking at him for. If I was Mr. Giuliani's lawyer, I would tell him to expect an indictment.

MARQUARDT: I want to hit on another topic that of Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union. There are new questions about his credibility this morning.

He told Ukraine that they would have to carry out investigations into the Bidens, into the 2016 election, in order to get that military aid from the Trump administration.

Now the "Washington post" has this headline, "Witness Testimony and Records Raise Questions about Trump's Account of No Quid Pro Quo Call."

Now, that piece claims that no other witness testimony or documents corroborate Sondland's description of the September 9th call that he had that he said he had with the president. That call is a key part of the president's defense that no quid pro quo took place.

Abby, on that call, Sondland says that Trump told him, tell Zelensky, tell President Zelensky to do the right thing. Abby, do you think that this new reporting moves the needle at all considering the wealth, the magnitude of all the other testimony that we heard?

PHILLIP: Well, you know, I do think it raises more credibility about Sondland as a witness, who has been trying to straddle this line between not offending the president or not incriminating the president too much but also trying to clear his name after it became very clear that he wasn't telling the truth about certain incidents that other witnesses had testified to.

But I also think that we got to keep in mind here that that call based on the reporting that we have had just in the last week, it happened long after President Trump was aware that there were -- that there was a whistleblower complaint that was raised about the withholding of aid.

At the time, the president said Sondland had this call with him, knew that people were complaining that there was a possible quid pro quo happening in this situation.

So, this call has always been a minimal importance because just because the president says he's not doing a quid pro quo, doesn't mean that's not actually what was happening.

And so whether or not the call happened probably doesn't change the facts as we know it. But it certainly does kind of discount Sondland even further as a reliable witness for either side in this investigation.


MARQUARDT: Multiple witnesses said eight days prior, on September 1st, Sondland told a top Zelensky aid, unless Zelensky launched those investigations they would not be getting that aid.

I want to hit one more topic before I let you all go. We're still getting more rulings regarding whether the former White House lawyer, Don McGahn, will have to testify in Congress. A federal district judge yesterday, he issued a stay on an order for McGahn to comply with the White House impeachment subpoena.

Renato, the president has lost a series of cases in court, but how much does this ruling play into his hands because essentially it does delay everything.

MARIOTTI: Well, that's right. Look, the president has taken positions that are, you know, really not within the mainstream of American legal reasoning. I would view them as delay tactics. They're not serious legal positions in my view. And that's why we have seen loss after loss after loss, but the point here is just to delay. And I think it has had success along those lines.

It's probably going to delay McGahn until after the impeachment inquiry and the impeachment process is complete. And that's really the only goal there, even if, as the judge noted, the position is being taken by President Trump are lawless.

MARQUARDT: Folks, we have to leave it there.

Abby, Renato, Doug, thank you very much and happy Thanksgiving.

Coming up, it was touch and go there for a minute, but the balloons made it into the air for the famous Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. We'll look at how the weather is holding up around the country.

Plus, the man just fired from his post as the Navy secretary is now firing back at President Trump. Why Richard Spencer is saying the president has very little understanding of what it means to be in the military.

Stay with us.



MARQUARDT: The recently fired secretary of the Navy, Richard, Spencer is not going quietly. Just days after he was fired, he's slamming President Trump in a new blistering op-ed in the "Washington Post" detailing why he was terminated and sharply criticizing the commander- in-chief for intervening in the controversial case of Navy SEAL Eddie Gallagher. Spencer writes: "This was a shocking and unprecedented intervention in

a low-level review. It was also a reminder that the president has very little understanding of what it means to be in the military, to fight ethically, or to be governed by uniform set of rules and practices."

This comes as top military officials worry about a moral problem festering in the Pentagon and they are growing increasingly frustrated with the president's sporadic and contradictory decision making.

Our Barbara Starr has that reporting, joining me now from the Pentagon.

Barbara, the military is famously, proudly, apolitical. But it seems to keep getting dragged into these political spats. How has this Eddie Gallagher affair made things worse?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, it has really brought this festering problem to the forefront, Alex.

You know, the military is a reflection of American society, obviously. There are many troops out there who do support the president, who believe -- very much believe that he is looking after them, getting them increased funding, getting them out of wars, that sort of thing. So he has support within the military.

But he also has, as you might expect, a lot of people who are very concerned about that erratic and sporadic decision making. And it really is the top commanders who are beginning to worry.

The Gallagher case put the president into what should have been, they feel, a military justice review handled by the military. They saw no reason for the president to intervene, especially when it became very publicly clear that FOX News -- and this is fact, not opinion -- FOX News was very much in his ear trying to urge him to intervene in these cases.

So, what you have now is Secretary Spencer spelling it out, the need for uniform application, steady command and control, steady orders.

You might recall, some weeks back, the president tweeted that U.S. troops were killing machines, trained to be killing machines and, of course, the U.S. military feels that is exactly not what they are.

They want to see some discipline return to this process. A lot of worry that the president will continue to do this -- Alex?

MARQUARDT: Barbara, terrific reporting.

You can read a lot more from Barbara Starr on

Barbara Starr, at the Pentagon, thanks very much.

STARR: Sure.

MARQUARDT: Joining me to discuss this further is retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling, a CNN military analyst and former commanding general of the U.S. Army in Europe.

General, thank you for joining me on this Thanksgiving.


MARQUARDT: And to you.

I want to start with a quote of yours that you actually gave to Barbara in her piece on, in which you talk about the current state of the U.S. military. And you wrote, "It may not break but it sure the hell is being bent by this and increasingly becoming brittle."

So how dire do you view this situation?


HERTLING: Well, I wouldn't put it in the dire category, Alex, but I would put it in the challenging category. Why I say that is because the military is a profession. Secretary Spencer said the other day, it is the profession of arms.

Whenever you define a profession, there are certain tenants that go along with that. They have an ethos and a set of values they abide by. Certainly all branches of the military have that.

Another tenant of professionalism is they are required to discipline or even dismiss their own when they violate the standards of the profession.

And that's what we're seeing right now with President Trump's involvement in this action against the two sailors and the Navy SEAL. He is trying to insert himself in professional norms where professionals are supposed to be the ones that discipline and dismiss others.

Certainly that's a part of the challenge that we're seeing.

But another part, too, is the fact that the understanding of what goes on in the military, for someone, as an outsider -- certainly I'm not saying all presidents should be required to serve in the military, I don't say that.

But they should allow those who are serving, who are controlling the military, to pass information on how soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines should be dealt with in terms of these kinds of actions.

That's what's troubling to me. And it's actually bringing some challenges to the civilian/military relationship that's always existed in our country.

MARQUARDT: General, I want to get back to what Richard Spencer, the ousted secretary of the Navy, wrote in this really remarkable op-ed.

He writes, "Americans need to know that 99.9 percent of our uniformed members always have, always are, and always will make the right decision. 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 moment in time, obviously, not so subtle dig at the Trump presidency. It does sound like this, too, shall pass. How reassuring is that line, that op-ed to our allies reading that, to American citizens, and to members of the military?

HERTLING: Well, it certainly was a candid op-ed that the secretary wrote. And the fact that he ended it that way was interesting to me, truthfully, Alex, because I still talk to colleagues from other nations who I used to serve with, who we used to partner and engage with and build theater security cooperations or even allied forces for combat.

And every time I do question or have a conversation, they, in fact, question me about this. Is this the new norm. And sometimes you find yourself saying, hang on. We will get back to our institutions and our Democratic resolve. We just have -- we're going through a little bit of a tailspin right now and we'll get back to it.

But, Alex, I'll be honest with you and it's one of the things I told Barbara, I'm getting a lot of queries from high-ranking officials in other governments that are asking me what's going on in the military?

The military is a very adaptable organization. They can do things that they're asked to do. But sometimes some of our national security policies that get into the national military strategy are being challenged right now by some of the actions taken by the president and his administration.

MARQUARDT: And after Spencer was fired, the president said that he had been thinking about doing it for some time and talked about Spencer being part of this Deep State in the Navy. How do comments like that go down with senior Pentagon leadership?

HERTLING: Well, I don't think they go down well with anyone. I'm not sure how the Deep State is defined. If it's defined by people who raise their hand and swear an oath to defend the Constitution and live by values and under the rule of law, then color me a part of the Deep State.

I keep hearing that term used by a bunch of people who are new to government. I don't know what it means.

Just because you may have a different approach or different ideas, that's what we come together as a nation to do. Out of many one, E Pluribus Unum. There's times for people to come together and find the best ideas.

In my view, Alex, this Deep State is -- there's no such thing as a Deep State, so I don't know what the president is talking about on that.

MARQUARDT: And, General, you were a commander in Europe. We now have new reporting from our Ryan Browne at the Pentagon that the Trump administration is cutting or planning to cut its contribution to NATO's direct budget. How many of an impact is that going to have on NATO operations and perhaps, more importantly, on those allies attitudes towards the U.S.?

HERTLING: Well, not getting into a math lesson, Alex, but what's interesting is each nation in Europe is supposed to spend 2 percent of their GDP on NATO budget issues.


HERTLING: Now, this is part of the direct force. It's very different than the NATO budget, writ large. But 2 percent of our contributions from our GDP would be much larger than what we're providing to the direct force.


Some would say, hey, we're already giving 22 percent from the United States to that direct force. That seems like a lot when you think about the fact that there's 29 NATO members. But, in fact, our requirement, if we're abiding by the 2 percent the president keeps talking about, is much higher than 22 percent.

This in and of itself doesn't concern me as much, but it may be a harbinger of things to come. We have to watch this closely because the NATO alliance has been extremely successful for the last 70 years.

# And extremely strained in recent days.

I want to ask you about one more thing that you have talked about in the past, these calls that the president makes to serving troops overseas. Later today, he is set to speak with members of the military. I understand on a conference call.

In years past, he has gone into politics. He has talked about this strength of the economy. He has attacked federal judges for ruling on immigration, not subjects you might expect a president to talk about serving troops.

What you hoping to hear today from the president? Are you optimistic that he'll stay on message?

HERTLING: I'm always optimistic, Alex. But truthfully, what I would be concerned about is, if none of his advisers said, didn't say, stay away from the politics.

Those men and women who wear the uniform, who serve, especially those who are deployed or who are serving overseas right now, they want to just hear great job. You guys are doing -- you guys and gals are doing terrific in terms of defending our nation and our ideals.

Bringing politics into it is never a good thing because, you know, the militaries of the United States draw from all segments of society. There are certainly some Trump supporters and some Trump non- supporters within the military. Stay apolitical. Talk about their job and what they're doing to support and defend the Constitution. That would make for great calls.

But I'm not optimistic that that's what the president will do because he hasn't done it for the last two years.

MARQUARDT: All right. General Hertling, thanks as always, for your expertise and happy Thanksgiving.

HERTLING: You as well, Alex. Thank you.

MARQUARDT: Coming up, over 20 million people are under some sort of winter watch warning or advisory on this Thanksgiving Day. We will have the travel forecast next.