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THE SITUATION ROOM

Mitch McConnell: "We Remain At Impasse At Impeachment"; Trump Distressed As Uncertainty Clouds Impeachment Trial; Trump Won't Apologize For Suggesting Lawmaker's Husband In Hell; Impeachment Trial In Limbo As Pelosi Keeps Articles From Senate; Lindsey Graham: Pull Us Together, Your Joke "Is Not Funny"; Putin Slams Trump Impeachment Using GOP Talking Points; CNN Poll: Biden Leads Dems Ahead of Final 2019 Debate Tonight. Aired 6-7p ET

Aired December 19, 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]

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY): We have the curious situation where following House Democrats rushed to impeachment, following weeks of pronouncements about the urgency of the situation -- urgent situation.

The prosecutors appeared to have developed cold feet. The House Democrat prosecution seems to have gotten cold feet and to be unsure of whether they even want to proceed to the trial. Like I said, a very unusual spectacle.

And in my view, certainly not one that reflects well on the House, so we'll see whether House Democrats ever want to work up the courage to actually take their accusation to trial.

Let me close with this, Mr. President. I'm proud that the Senate came together today to confirm more well qualified nominees and to pass major legislation for the American people. I wish all my colleagues America Christmas, Happy Holidays and joyous New Year. I hope everyone enjoys this important time with our families and loved ones. We'll see you in 2020.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: All right. So there you have a very important statement from Mitch McConnell, the Senate Majority Leader, saying he's not budging - he's not budging at all if the House Speaker Nancy Pelosi doesn't want to send over the articles of impeachment.

He says that's fine with us. He says there's an impasse right now. He's offered, what he describes as a compromise, the precedent that was used during the Bill Clinton impeachment process in '98 and '99 begin with opening arguments from both sides -- the prosecution and the defense. And then at that point, have a vote on witnesses to come forward.

Lauren Fox, our Congressional Reporter is joining us right now. Lauren, it looks like there's a serious impasse. A lot of us thought there would be a trial beginning what early January, doesn't look like that's going to happen now. The Speaker is even refusing to formally send over those two articles of impeachment.

LAUREN FOX, CNN CONGRESSIONAL REPORTER: Well, that's exactly right, Wolf. And I think McConnell's words there, underscore what an impasse this is. Of course, we are waiting for this big meeting between Schumer and McConnell. It happened today, and clearly, it did not go well.

What we know is that Leader Schumer essentially was asking for those witnesses, the same witnesses he asked for in the letter on Sunday that he sent a Majority Leader McConnell, and he was not budging making that position clear during the meeting.

But it made it very hard for those two leaders to find even a simple date to come back to Washington to begin this trial. Of course, that was just the bare minimum that members were expecting from those two leaders to come up.

So not a good spot tonight in Washington as we await when this senate trial will be. I think what McConnell was underscoring today is, if Nancy Pelosi doesn't want to send us these impeachment articles, that's up to her. He said, quote, "I admit, I'm not sure what leverage there is in not sending us something we do not want." That pretty much sums it up, Wolf.

BLITZER: And so the pressure now is on the Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the House Democrats decide what they're going to do. They've gone into recess. I take it no more votes in the House of Representatives. So the earliest they could decide to vote on House Managers, who would be part of the senate trial - the impeachment trial on these two articles of impeachment that would be when they come back, what January 6th, or 7th? They're not coming back till then. Right?

FOX: Exactly. Wolf, and they have their three votes - the final votes of the year, just a few hours ago. And of course, they left without voting on those House Managers. So that made Republican Senators very confused about what their intentions were.

And, of course, we know now that the expectation is that these negotiations are going to have to pick up in January. Now, it's a long time over this holiday recess. Might there be some phone calls between the two leaders. I think that's still a big open question, Wolf.

BLITZER: Well, he says that the some of the Democrats are getting cold feet. That they're the prosecution is getting nervous, and as a result, they may not even want to begin a trial - a full scale impeachment trial in the senate involving the President of the United States. What are you hearing behind the scenes there, Lauren, from Democrats?

FOX: Well, we know that Democrats in the Senate are essentially arguing that they want these witnesses. They're saying that this is not at all about them feeling insecure about their case against the President. This is about the fact that they want to hear from people like Mick Mulvaney, the President's Acting Chief of Staff. They want to hear from John Bolton, the President's Former National Security Adviser.

And they say those are things that they do not want to compromise. What you heard from McConnell, however, was that look, during the Clinton impeachment, we essentially did this in two parts.

We had an agreement, a resolution that 100 Senators agreed on when it came to when to start this trial and how to have the first presentations of evidence from the House Managers and from the White House Counsel. Then we got two witnesses. And essentially, that's something that Democrats aren't willing to do this time around.

BLITZER: Yes. And then when they did get witnesses, those witnesses, were testifying behind closed doors, and then they released some of that during the actual trial. I remember it. Well.

[18:05:00]

All right, Lauren, thank you very much. All of this is certainly distressing the President as he continues to denounce the impeachment.

Let's go to our Chief White House Correspondent, Jim Acosta. Jim, the President clearly has been lashing out.

JIM ACOSTA, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf. And even after impeached, President Trump is not sounding very apologetic about his actions in Ukraine, or his nasty comments on Democratic Congresswoman Debbie Dingell.

As one of Mr. Trump's own advisors told me earlier today, that President's low blow aimed at Diggle was a quote, "unforced error." The President is also ripping into House Speaker Nancy Pelosi as she is warning she might hold up a trial in the Senate.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REP. NANCY PELOSI (D-CA): Article 1 is adopted.

ACOSTA (voice over): One day after he was impeached in the House, President Trump is sounding anxious, ready for the Senate to get on with it and hold a trial where Republicans are in charge and expected to acquit him.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Well, I don't feel like I'm being impeached, because it's a hoax, it's a setup, it's a horrible thing they did.

ACOSTA (voice over): House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is causing heartburn at the White House, holding out the possibility she may wait to turn over the Articles of Impeachment to the Senate until she can be assured GOP leaders will conduct a fair trial.

President called this impeachment unconstitutional even though impeachment is actually in the Constitution. TRUMP: They're playing games. They don't want to put in their articles. Their ridiculous, phony, fraudulent articles. And I think they're not allowed to do that. It's unconstitutional, a lot of other things, but they don't want to put them in because they're ashamed of them.

ACOSTA (voice over): President is stressed out the trial could be delayed, peppering his allies with questions about how the trial was taking shape.

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R-SC): He called me about 7:30, I think, and he said, sort of what's going on? And I said, Mr. I really don't know.

ACOSTA (voice over): Democrats are demanding that top administration officials testify about Mr. Trump's alleged dirt for dollars deal with Ukraine.

SEN. CHARLES SCHUMER (D-NY): I have little doubt that if we tell the President that he can escape scrutiny in this instance, he will do it again and again, and again.

ACOSTA (voice over): In a sharp contrast with his impeachment, there is bipartisan outrage over the President's mean spirited comments aimed at Michigan democrat Debbie Dingell, widow of longtime lawmaker John Dingell.

TRUMP: Debbie Dingell, that's a real beauty.

ACOSTA (voice over): At his rally in Michigan, the President mocked Dingell over voting in favor of impeachment, suggesting her late husband was possibly looking up from hell.

ACOSTA (voice over): Maybe he's looking, I don't know.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Do you regret your comments sir?

ACOSTA (voice over): The President refused to take questions about Dingell who was reminding him she's still in mourning.

REP. DEBBIE DINGELL (D-MI): I don't want to politicize my husband. I don't want to politicize his death. It is still something that I'm really grieving over. This Thanksgiving was really hard and Christmas is harder.

ACOSTA (voice over): White House Press Secretary Stephanie Grisham defended the president by saying Mr. Trump was just punching back, but that's not true. The Dingells didn't punch first.

STEPHANIE GRISHAM, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: As we all know that President is a counter puncher. It was a very, very supportive and wild crowd. And he was just riffing--

ACOSTA (voice over): Speaker Pelosi said the President's remark revealed his character,

PELOSI: Just because he gets a laugh for saying the cool things that he says, doesn't mean he's funny. It's not funny at all. It's very sad.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ACOSTA: President used his appearance in the Oval Office to introduce the newest member of the GOP Congressman Jeff Andrew, who bolted from the Democratic Party. But the President also told reporters he's all been settled on White House Counsel Pat Cipollone to be his lead attorney in a Senate trial if that happens.

And despite being impeached, the President finally secured the legislative win he's been seeking over the last three years. This just in, it happened this afternoon, as the House has passed his new trade deal with Canada and Mexico. And all week long, Wolf, the Republicans have been complaining that Democrats simply hate this President, but they did hand him a significant legislative victory

BLITZER: Certainly is a very significant legislative victory indeed. Jim Acosta, thanks very much. Let's get some more in all of this. Democratic Senator Chris Coons of Delaware is joining us. He's a member of both the Judiciary and Foreign Relations Committees. Senator, thanks so much for joining us.

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

BLITZER: All right. So we just heard the Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell say he objects to creating, what he describes as, new impeachment rules with Senator Schumer. He says - he wants to make the case to use the same process they used some 20 years ago during the Bill Clinton impeachment. The trial in the Senate with the question of witnesses left until later in the trial. What do you make of that?

COONS: Well, frankly, it's striking to me, Wolf, that Majority Leader McConnell has waited so long to begin negotiations with Senator Schumer over the impeachment trial that will begin as soon as we return.

I do think we should be looking to the Clinton precedent, which was that ultimately the rules were adopted by 100 to zero unanimously in the Senate. And that produces a trial, that even in a bitterly divided parties in time, was respected as being fair and fulsome.

[18:10:00]

There were witnesses who were deposed by videotape, not live witnesses, there was access to evidence.

Bu, Wolf, let me remind you of one other thing. President Clinton and President Nixon both directed their closest advisors, their cabinet officials to cooperate with the impeachment inquiries that they were subject to.

It was our current President, President Trump, who directed his staff and his cabinet not to respond to subpoenas, who blocked requests for documents and from witness testimony.

That's why the second count of the impeachment that was passed last night by the House was obstruction of Congress, which prevents the American people from knowing what really happened and from what defense Trump might mount

BLITZER: But in both the Nixon and the Bill Clinton impeachment processes and the inquiries the White House initially refused, but then it went to court. And then they decided they had no choice. In this particular case, the Democrats in the House, they didn't want to go to court, because it would take too long.

COONS: Well, they did go to court on a number of the witnesses, it's taken eight months to get an initial court ruling on one of those witness subpoenas. There was a conclusion, you're right Wolf, that it would take much longer to get all the way to a final decision and then enforce it.

And given that what President Trump is centrally accused of doing here, interfering in our upcoming presidential election by seeking foreign assistance for his own political campaign. There was a decision made that we didn't have the time to wait until November of next year while the court process ground through for all of the witnesses that would be directly relevant to the proceeding.

BLITZER: Would you be willing to accept the ground rules, the rules that were accepted unanimously during the Bill Clinton impeachment trial in this Senate going forward right now?

COONS: Well, Wolf, if I think this ought to be worked out between Majority Leader McConnell and Minority Leader Schumer. We've got a different record here. I'll remind you that President Bill Clinton - his impeachment followed a many, many months long searching and thorough investigation by Judge Ken Starr, who was the independent counsel who developed a huge amount of background detail and record.

The House impeachment inquiry here has been relatively brief in comparison. So frankly, not knowing all the details about what that Clinton era rules agreement produced in terms of documents and witnesses, I hesitate.

but if it if we could get to a unanimous agreement, something that all Republicans and Democrats could support, I do think that would be a great thing.

BLITZER: Do you believe that any of your more moderate republican colleagues in the Senate would agree to go ahead and call witnesses - these four witnesses that the Minority Leader Chuck Schumer is demanding be called?

COONS: Well, I think as members of the Senate are sort of turning their minds to the reality that we will be having an impeachment trial here, they're taking it more seriously. They're focusing on the way in which the constitution entrusts the Senate uniquely with this role of conducting a trial.

And despite disagreements over the process in the House between Republicans and Democrats, I do think there are some fair minded Republicans who would like to see the evidence, who recognize that President Trump didn't really mount a defense in the House other than to issue hundreds of tweets denouncing the process.

And frankly, there's, by poll after poll, an overwhelming majority of Americans of all backgrounds who would like to see directly relevant fact witnesses - the folks who are in the room as this happened, and would like to see the evidence that might clear the President. That's the basics for a fair trial.

BLITZER: Senator Coons, thanks as usual for joining us.

COONS: Thank you, Wolf.

BLITZER: Well, all right, just ahead, we're going to have more on the House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's refusal to send over the Articles of Impeachment to the Senate for a speedy trial. Also, the uncertainty surrounding the timing of President Trump's trial, we'll talk about that and more with the key House Democrats.

[18:15:00]

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Following the breaking news, the Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell just now declared and I'm quoting him now, "We remain at an impasse over how to proceed with President Trump's impeachment trial in the Senate. The House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is refusing to send over the impeachment articles until she's assured the Senate Republicans will hold, what she considers to be a fair proceeding, and the House is now adjourned until January 6."

Joining us now Democratic Congressman Sean Patrick Maloney of New York. He's a key member of the Intelligence Committee. Thanks so much, Congressman, for coming in.

REP. SEAN MALONEY (D-NY): You bet.

BLITZER: What do you think of the proposal that Mitch McConnell put forward just now we saw him live here on CNN basically, except the ground rules that were approved hundreds to nothing by the U.S. Senate in the impeachment trial of Bill Clinton. And I know you worked in the White House for President Clinton at the time.

MALONEY: Right. Well, the devil is in the details. And, remember, all the Speaker is saying the American public should see all the facts in a trial. A trial should be what we all know, it ought to be, an exposition of what happened and an opportunity to judge, both for the public and for the Senators who might still have an open mind.

Mitch McConnell, from the very beginning has made clear, he's trying to subvert that basic idea.

[18:20:00]

So call me skeptical about his proposal. I don't want to get ahead of the Speaker. I'm glad he's moving a little bit. I think that shows the wisdom of her course. But of course, we're on the Friday before Christmas, that House just did this last night. We've got a few days here for these details to be worked out.

But, remember, the Speaker needs to make decisions that depend on what the Senate does. We passed a resolution that laid out very clearly what was going to happen in the House. The Senate should do the same so that the Speaker can do things like appoint managers and the rest that she needs them do their work to be able to decide.

BLITZER: McConnell says if she thinks that this is leverage on him, she's wrong. She said, sending us something we do not want. In other words, he's saying, you know what, you don't want to send over these articles of impeachment. We're not going to have a trial, that's fine with us.

MALONEY: Yes. That that - that's a little cute. The fact is that the President is very eager, I think, to move this process forward. But what the real leverage is, is that Mitch McConnell is trying to construct a process that will conceal the truth.

The leverage should be that the American public demands to know what the President did and to hear from the people with that knowledge, why is the President withholding documents and witnesses who know.

BLITZER: He says you could have forced, gone to court and get those four witnesses that Schumer wants to appear during the House investigation, and you didn't?

MALONEY: Well, that's not true. We have been pursuing the court processes in the case of Don McGahn and others. But we're also not going to be denied justice by undue delay. That's another tactic. And so they come to that argument with unclean hands.

The fact is that there's nothing preventing the White House or the administration from coming forward with the documents of the evidence which have been subpoenaed together with the witnesses who have the knowledge and giving the American public the truth. That's all we want.

BLITZER: How worried are you that some of the more vulnerable democrats who won in districts that President Trump carried in 2016 - about 31 districts - that all of this puts them in - almost all of them voted in favor of these two articles of impeachment.

MALONEY: Well, you're speaking to one. So I represent a district that the President won. I'm sympathetic to the situation that those members find themselves in, because they have a lot of voters who hope for better from this President and who are skeptical about the need for this constitutional process.

What those voters deserve is the truth before the United States Senate. Let the witnesses speak, show us the documents, stop the cover up, make it fair. What those members are doing, by the way, is courageous.

They are saying that they're going to stand up for the rule of law against the presidential abuse of power. And they will lead as necessary to explain why they're doing what they're doing to their constituents. That takes political courage and I'm very proud of those members.

BLITZER: I want to play a clip of the President last night at a political rally in Michigan, going after a Michigan Congresswoman Debbie Dingell, a woman, you know, who lost her husband just a few months ago, Former Congressman John Dingell. A beloved man in Michigan and in the U.S. House of Representatives and the President made fun of him. Listen to this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TRUMP: She calls me up. It's the nicest thing that's ever happened. Thank you so much. John should be so thrilled. He's looking down. He'd be so thrilled. Thank you so much, sir. I said, That's OK, don't worry about it. Maybe he's looking up. I don't know. I don't know.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: What do you think of that?

MALONEY: What do you say about that? You know, what do you say about that? You're talking about a grieving a widow, approaching Christmas without her husband, legendary public servant. He - she's talking about a phone call where he was gracious enough to thank him for doing - if she did thank him, what he should have done anyways, which is ordered the flags at half-staff or whatever he was talking about.

But just think about the humanity of someone who's going to prey on someone like that. Who goes out of his way to do it. But, of course, it's not the first time we've seen this from the President. But I'll tell you what, I don't want to be distracted by it either. I think sometimes we're all Golden Retrievers and the President's got the tennis ball.

Let's stay focused on the impeachment matter we have in front of us. That is about the abuse of his office, that's about the national security of the United States and he is desperate to divert and distract when we should focus.

BLITZER: Congressman Sean Patrick Maloney and I want you have a happy - Merry Christmas, a Happy New Year, and we'll continue this conversation when you guys get back to Washington. Thanks so much for joining us.

MALONEY: You too.

BLITZER: Just ahead President Trump said to be distressed and anxious by the uncertainty surrounding his senate impeachment process.

[18:25:00]

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: The Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Lindsey Graham, a close ally of the President just emerged from the meeting over at the White House and he was very, very critical of the President -- the President's comments on Congresswoman Debbie Dingell last night and a political rally in her home state of Michigan. Listen to this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GRAHAM: Mr. President, pull us together as a country. This joke does not help. It is not funny in my view.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: And we heard what the president said about Debbie Dingell late husband, John Dingell.

[18:30:01]

Let's get some reaction. Pamela, what do you think?

PAMELA BROWN, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, gosh. I mean, this comment didn't go over well, right, to say the least. To have someone like Lindsey Graham, a staunch ally of the president, come out and be so forceful against the president's comment.

I mean, even at the rally last night when he made the comment against this revered late congressman, John Dingell, even the crowd, it didn't even have great reception from the crowd, which is very unusual for the president at one of his rallies and to say that he might be looking up.

NIA-MALIKA HENDERSON, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL REPORTER: And he was in the Hill, essentially.

BROWN: Exactly. I mean, I think it's illustrative of this is a president who is upset. I know Jeffrey Toobin has a lot of thoughts on this.

BLITZER: Let him weigh in. Everybody will weigh in.

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN CHIEF LEGAL ANALYST: I want to hear Miss Brown's view.

No. But, I mean, there are people in this country who are actually religious and who think hell is a significant thing, and to make a joke about it. I mean, just because the president has no values and no class, you know, at least stay away from religion, you know? Heaven and hell are actual things to people. And to demean, you know, a recently dead person, and then lie completely about what went on. He said that she called him. Debbie Dingell, the congresswoman, in fact, he called her. I mean, everything he said was a lie about this.

But it's just another -- but is this a surprise to anyone?

HENDERSON: It isn't a surprise, right? Because we saw him go after John McCain in a very similar manner and noticeable that Lindsey Graham is speaking up in such a forceful way. Some people were upset about Donald Trump he says off-color things. Oh, I wouldn't have put it that way. And I think his spokesperson said, well, he's a counterpuncher. And good for Lindsey Graham for really denouncing what the president said because it was mean, it was cruel, it was distasteful and he's not apologizing. And he was asked today --

BLITZER: Let me get Bianna to weigh in as well. Go ahead, Bianna.

BIANNA GOLODRYGA, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: I mean, look, it was such an ugly incident. And I hated to see Debbie Dingell have to talk about this throughout the day. Her tweet last night really pulls at anybody's heart when you have to tell the entire world that you're still grieving and that it makes matters worse when the president says something like that.

There's some kind of chip missing in a person emotionally when they continue to do that at the expense of somebody else. And like Nia said, we saw that with John McCain, he did that with the Cohn (ph) family. The president of the United States, my second grader would be sent home for far less damaging things that he said at school. And we've become accustomed to this and we should never become accustomed to this. She was on television having to relay what happened and then he called her. She shouldn't be doing this. No grown person should be going through this. And it's just unfortunate that he keeps doing it time and time again.

BLITZER: Especially on the eve of Christmas.

Pamela, let me get your thoughts speaking with all of this. Christianity Today, the magazine Billy Graham founded a long time ago, has just come out with powerful editorial and titled, Trump Should Be Removed From Office. I'll read a portion.

We believe the impeachment hearings have made it absolutely clear in a way the Mueller investigation did not that President Trump has abused his authority for personal gain and betrayed his constitutional oath. The impeachment hearings have illuminated the president's moral deficiencies for all to see. This damages the institution of the presidency, damages the reputation of our country and damages both the spirit and the future of our people. None of the president's positives can balance the moral and political danger we face under a leader of such grossly immoral character.

A publication a lot of evangelicals read and trust.

BROWN: Exactly. And the president needs evangelical support heading into the 2020 elections. So this could be a big warning sign for the president. I mean, you saw some evangelicals, they were unhappy with what the president did in Syria. Jeffrey makes a point about his comment last night on John Dingell. And this editorial is a big deal without knowing more about this publication itself. This is certainly a red flag for the president because he needs the support of evangelicals.

BLITZER: Go ahead, Jeffrey.

TOOBIN: But, come on, they have been the most loyal. And I'm thinking a lot now, of course, reminiscing about the Clinton impeachment, where we heard from these evangelicals politicians, oh, character counts, it's so important to have a role model in the White House. They don't care about role models. They're a bunch of political hacks. All they care about are judges who will ban abortion. That's what they want. As long as they get their judges who will ban abortion, Donald Trump can dance naked on the White House steps, they don't care. He can get married four or five, six times, it doesn't matter. All they want are judges who will ban abortion and Donald Trump can do whatever he wants.

[18:35:01]

GOLODRYGA: especially in swing states where it has popularity among evangelicals coming out of 2016. He had 87 percent approval ratings among evangelicals. The latest survey is 99 percent approval rating, so I'm with Jeffrey on that one.

BLITZER: We'll see if this editorial has any impact on any of that.

Everybody stick around. There's more breaking news we're following.

The Russian president, Vladimir Putin, denouncing the Trump impeachment using Republican talking points.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[18:40:00]

BLITZER: The House of Representatives has just adjourned for the holidays with no further action on the two articles of impeachment it passed against President Trump. And the speaker, Nancy Pelosi, is withholding from the Senate, at least for now, putting the president's trial in the Senate in limbo.

Let's get some more from our Senior Legal Analyst, the former U.S. attorney, Preet Bharara.

So, Preety, what obligations does the House speaker have under the Constitution and could she never send these articles to the Senate?

PREET BHARARA, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: Look, the Constitution doesn't have much to say about it. I think we've all been pouring over the last couple of days when it began to be floated, it maybe the articles of impeachment would not be conveyed immediately to the Senate. It's very clearly that the House has the sole power of impeachment and the Senate has the sole power of conducting a trial. It doesn't say when the conveyance has to happen. It doesn't even, as I read it, say that the conveyance has to happen.

So I don't know that it's a great idea to withhold but I think it's within Nancy Pelosi's rights to wait as long as she wants technically.

BLITZER: Before, you were the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York. You served as chief counsel to Senator Chuck Schumer. You worked on the Judiciary Committee. What are the best parameters that Democrats can hope for from the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, in terms of the guidelines for a Senate trial?

BHARARA: Well, it seems the best they can hope for is what the proposal I that Senator Schumer, the minority leader, has put forward. And he didn't ask for the moon. He asked for something fairly reasonable. There are a whole bunch of witnesses that the House Intelligence Committee tried to get to testify and pursued and wasn't able to get.

And in the Senate, Senator Schumer is not even demanding that all of those witnesses come and testify in front of the Senate. I think he's asked for four, a few which seemed natural and central to the proceedings.

And with respect to the bipartisan involvement on both sides in connection with the proceedings, the fact that it's modeled off of what's happened before during in the Clinton impeachment era, so I think it's more modest than it could have been and more reasonable than I think maybe the Republicans expected.

And so that's what they should shoot for. I mean, on the flipside, Mitch McConnell is not necessarily one to do what other people want. And a good example of that is witness the Merrick Garland hearing that never happened. So I think it's a reasonable thing to ask for. We'll see what happens.

BLITZER: So far, it doesn't look like any of the moderate Senate Republicans are actually jumping to help the Democrats call witnesses. What will it say if the president is acquitted in the Senate trial that doesn't involve any witnesses?

BHARARA: I don't know what it would say as sort of an objective matter. I do know what people will say about it. And on the Democratic side, they will say, and they'll have some basis to say it, that it was a sham trial, and that the way that it unfolded did not do justice, and they will call into question the legitimacy of the acquittal, which is what is expected.

I think that what's more important here, which side can call victory and which side can denigrate what the other side has done is history.

And whether or not this happens again in a generation or two generations or not for several, I think people will look back at this time the same way we here on television and around the country look back at the Clinton time and the Nixon time for guidance as to how people should exercise their powers under the Constitution.

Some of these things are vague. You mentioned the issue with Nancy Pelosi and conveying the articles of Impeachment. Yes, the Constitution does not say but the precedent that get set now are ones that are going to be important in future debates long after we're gone. I think that's important.

BLITZER: I think you're right. Preet Bharara, thank you very much for joining us.

BHARARA: Thanks, Wolf.

BLITZER: All right. Just ahead, the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, standing firmly behind President Trump as he denounces impeachment.

Plus, a new CNN poll was just out as the Democratic presidential candidates, they are about to gather and debate just a little bit, more than an hour or so.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[18:48:59]

BLITZER: The Trump administration is pushing back on a new Russians sanctions bill meant to punish Moscow for past election interference and deter more meddling, the senior State Department official calls the bill unnecessary. At the same time, Russian President Vladimir Putin is defending President Trump in the wake of his impeachment with some rather familiar language.

Our senior international correspondent Fred Pleitgen is in Moscow for us tonight, with details.

Fred, Putin is standing up for President Trump using actually some of the same talking points we're hearing from Republicans.

FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: You're absolutely right, Wolf. And the similarities really are striking, between some of the things that Vladimir Putin said today at his marathon four-hour press conference that he held in Moscow, and some of the Republican talking points that we've been hearing over the past couple of weeks really. President Putin made an effort to defend President Trump and also say he believed that President Trump was being impeached for what he called, made up reasons.

Here's what we're learning.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

PLEITGEN (voice-over): Tonight, after the historic House vote to impeach President Trump, Vladimir Putin showing his support for the U.S.'s embattled president.

[18:50:06]

At his annual marathon press conference, the Russian leader called the impeachment proceedings phony and ineffective.

VLADIMIR PUTIN, RUSSIAN PRESIDENT (through translator): It still has to go through the Senate, whereas far as I know, the Republicans hold the majority. So, it is unlikely they will want to remove the representative of their party for some made up reasons.

PLEITGEN: President Trump and Vladimir Putin frequently praise each other and at the recent press conference, Putin blasted impeachment.

PUTIN: One party that lost the election, the Democratic Party, is now trying to achieve its goals in new ways as it accused Trump of collusion with Russia, but then, it turned out there was no collusion, and it can't be the basis for the impeachment. So, now, they came up with some pressure on Ukraine.

PLEITGEN: Putin's words closely mirroring Republican talking points like this one.

REP. TOM COLE (R-OK): Democrats have been looking for a reason to impeach President Trump since the day he was elected.

PLEITGEN: Republicans have often claimed President Trump could not have pressured Ukrainian leader Volodymyr Zelensky because the Ukrainians didn't know military aid to Ukraine was being held.

That's contradicted by this former top Ukrainian official, then-deputy foreign minister Olena Zerkal, who told CNN she saw a cable from Ukraine's embassy in Washington saying the aid wasn't coming.

OLENA ZERKAL, FORMER UKRAINIAN DEPUTY FOREIGN MINISTER: It was in the end of July and it was one of the cables we receive usually on the permanent ground from our embassies. It was mentioned that without any reasons the issue is not solved.

PLEITGEN (on camera): It was one sentence, the issue of the foreign military aid has not been resolved.

ZERKAL: That's right.

PLEITGEN (voice-over): While the deputy foreign minister said the Ukrainians did not know President Trump had placed a hold on the aid, they did know there was a problem with the release of the funds.

Vladimir Putin did not acknowledge the facts as the Russian president continues to stand firmly behind President Trump during the impeachment battle.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

PLEITGEN: So, as you can see there, Wolf, President Trump can very much apparently count on Vladimir Putin as that impeachment battle continues. The pattern, of course, that we've been seeing very much from the Russians as they criticize the United States at the same time rarely ever criticize President Trump and as we can see, supporting president Trump at this very critical time -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right. Very interesting, indeed. Fred Pleitgen in Moscow, thank you.

Just ahead, we're counting down to tonight's presidential debate as the new poll shows which candidate is leading the pack.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[18:57:13]

BLITZER: We have a new CNN poll out on the Democratic race for the White House, and we're counting down to the final face-off of the year, the PBS NewsHour Politico presidential debate tonight, 8:00 p.m. Eastern, airing right here on CNN, and your local PBS station. Our senior Washington correspondent Jeff Zeleny is joining us with a

little preview from Los Angeles.

Jeff, first of all, a new CNN poll has Biden in the lead.

What will the other Democrats be challenging him on tonight?

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, so interesting this new CNN poll. It's really ending the year as it began at least for Joe Biden. Joe Biden is leading the way in the national poll.

Let's take a look at those numbers which speak to the dynamics of the debate this evening. Joe Biden is leading the way nationally at 26 percent, followed by Bernie Sanders at 20 percent. Elizabeth Warren, 16 percent and it goes from there. Pete Buttigieg, also Mike Bloomberg, former New York City mayor at 5 percent.

But, Wolf, that really sets the tone for Joe Biden is going to be center stage as he has been throughout the year. But perhaps the center of attention will be on Elizabeth Warren and Pete Buttigieg.

Since the last debate, a month ago in Georgia, those two candidates have been going after each other in ways they have not the entire year. Senator Warren has been calling out Mayor Buttigieg on healthcare for a lack of transparency, in her words. He has been going after her on healthcare, as well.

So, Wolf, that is going to be a central issue tonight at this debate. What is the size and scope of health care? Is Medicare-for-All the way to go or is it not?

And Elizabeth Warren actually has been changing some of her language in recent weeks on that. Of course, she's been stung on the price tag for Medicare-for-All. So, those are some of the dynamics.

But also look for Amy Klobuchar, the senator from Minnesota. She's been making some waves as well by going after Senator Warren.

And then Bernie Sanders, of course, has been strong throughout the year.

So certainly, seven candidates on stage tonight here and those are some of the top line, Wolf.

BLITZER: Interesting number, about which candidate has the best chance to beat the president in this new poll?

And that is the central question. Electability is on everyone's mind. Take a look at these numbers, Wolf.

Joe Biden leading the way at that 40 percent of voters in our survey say they believe he has the best chance at beating Trump. Bernie Sanders right after that at 16 percent. A big drop-off there.

So, electability center stage here. Are voters looking for a healer or a fighter? A pragmatist? A progressive? Those are some of the questions that are going to define this race.

The debate coming up tonight just in here two hours, Wolf.

BLITZER: We'll be watching. All right. Thanks very much.

The PBS "NewsHour" Politico Democratic presidential debate starts actually in one hour from now. You can watch it on CNN and your local PBS station.

To our viewers, thanks very much for watching. I'm Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM.

You can follow me on Twitter and Instagram @WolfBlitzer. You can tweet the show @CNNsitroom.

"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.