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President Trump Heads to Florida; Impeachment Stalemate; Sen. Doug Jones (D-AL) is Interviewed About Risking Reelection with Impeachment Vote. Aired 4-4:30p ET

Aired December 20, 2019 - 16:00   ET



BROOKE BALDWIN, CNN HOST: In the meantime, let's go to Washington.


BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN HOST: Impeachment has reached an impasse. THE LEAD starts right now.

President Trump wants a trial right away, but Speaker Pelosi wants to make sure it is fair. Who will blink in the standoff over the Senate impeachment trial?

Piling on. Mayor Pete, Democrats clash over a wine cave in the last debate of the year. What has the candidates seeing red as they approach the Iowa caucuses?

Plus, a sitting Republican state rep accused of domestic terrorist by taking part in three armed conflicts. There was a time when that kind of thing would end your political career, but these are not normal times.

Welcome to THE LEAD . I'm Brianna Keilar, in for Jake Tapper.

And we begin with the politics lead.

You would think it would be a great gift for President Trump, Speaker Pelosi holding onto the articles of impeachment, instead of sending them over to the Senate to begin the formal impeachment trial, but not when the president is looking for total exoneration.

As CNN's Sara Murray report Speaker Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell are now at a stalemate as Congress goes on a holiday break.


SARA MURRAY, CNN NATIONAL POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): President Trump's impeachment trial may be officially stalled, but, behind the scenes, House Democrats are getting ready.

Staff for the key House committees are expected to work over the holiday recess, consulting with Democratic leadership and prepping for a trial as early as the week of January 6. But that depends on House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who says she won't send the articles of impeachment to the Senate until parameters for a Senate trial are set.

REP. NANCY PELOSI (D-CA): When they wrote the Constitution, they suspected that there could be a rogue president. I don't think they suspected that we could have a rogue president and a rogue leader in the Senate at the same time.

MURRAY: In the Senate, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell this afternoon arranged for White House staff to get a lay of the land in the chamber after failing to cut a deal Thursday with Minority Leader Chuck Schumer on the rules for a trial.

SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY): We remain at an impasse.

MURRAY: McConnell argued rules from previous impeachments should suffice.

MCCONNELL: I continue to believe that the unanimous bipartisan precedent that was good enough for President Clinton ought to be good enough for President Trump. Fair is fair.

MURRAY: While Schumer pushed for an agreement to include testimony from witnesses, such as former National Security Adviser John Bolton and acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney.

SEN. CHUCK SCHUMER (D-NY): Leader McConnell is plotting the most rushed, least thorough and most unfair impeachment trial in modern history.

MURRAY: The standoff means lawmakers are leaving Washington with the status of an impeachment trial in limbo until the new year.

But if Pelosi's power play was meant to unnerve McConnell, he insists it's backfiring.

MCCONNELL: Other House Democrats seemed to be suggesting they'd prefer never to transmit the articles.


MURRAY: Now, despite the acrimony between the two parties, today, Nancy Pelosi extended an invitation to President Trump to deliver the State of the Union before a joint session of Congress on February 4. The president, Brianna, has accepted.

KEILAR: All right, Sara Murray, thank you so much.

And let's talk about what Pelosi actually wrote in that invitation, shall we?

Quote: "In their great wisdom, our founders crafted a Constitution based on a system of separation of powers, three co-equal branches acting as checks on each other. To ensure that balance of powers, the Constitution calls for the president to from time to time give the Congress information of the state of the union."

I -- it just seems -- I mean, am I just being too cynical? It seems a little bit like shade to me, would you say, Melanie?

MELANIE ZANONA, POLITICO: Yes, a little -- maybe some subtweeting in there.

KEILAR: Subtweeting.

ZANONA: Maybe that's the language Trump can understand.

But, look, the timing of this could really be incredible, given that we don't know the timing of the Senate impeachment trial. It could coincide at the same time that Trump delivers his State of the Union address, which actually happened in Bill Clinton's impeachment.

But he didn't talk about impeachment, Bill Clinton. He talked about the economy. He talked about Y2K. And you can imagine this president might take a different approach if he's being impeached at the same time.

KEILAR: Y2K, what a blast from the past. Takes you back. You may sort of realize how long ago that was.


KEILAR: I mean, if what would you expect from that, Chairman, the idea that President Trump -- I don't think he'd be able to have that kind of discipline, do you?

MIKE ROGERS, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: I do not. I think that he would not be able to contain himself being in the chamber that impeached Trump.

I mean, he would be smart if he would talk about some of the successes. And there are some things in the economy really strong; 76 percent saying that they are happy where the economy is going is huge for any political figure going into an election.

And I don't know. The president -- if the president goes in and doesn't try to highlight those things and talks about impeachment, he continues to kind of shoot himself in the foot, as he...


KEILAR: Let's talk about what's going on with impeachment right now.

Seung Min, Pelosi has said she's not going to hand over these articles of impeachment until she sees that the process on the Senate side is fair.


So, she either has to extract something from Mitch McConnell, who's very savvy, as we know. Speaker Pelosi is savvy. He's very savvy, right?

I'm not saying one over the other. I'm just saying maybe there's a match there, right? Or she has to cave. Is she in a bit of a box here? SEUNG MIN KIM, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, it's a puzzling move, to say the least, because if you're -- you're trying to put leverage over McConnell by withholding something that he does not want, and is totally fine not having.

So I think what Democrats were trying to do here -- and you kind of saw hints of it yesterday, when Senator Lindsey Graham went to the White House and spoke with President Trump privately -- I think what Democrats had sort of strategized at the outset was that perhaps hold on to these, delay the trial and delay the acquittal, or, in the president's view, the exoneration that he so wants from a Senate trial.

And while the president was out there very kind of almost mocking Nancy Pelosi and Democrats for their strategy yesterday, I found Graham's comments really interesting when he said, I just left a meeting with President Trump. He is -- quote -- "mad as hell" that they would delay this trial.

So maybe the strategy will work in that sense. So Trump gets angry at McConnell ,tries to get him to move. But, for now, I'm not sure how this strategy will play out at the end. And I'm not sure it's to Nancy Pelosi's benefit just yet.

KAREN FINNEY, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: But, to some degree, it's doing what it's intended to do. It's making him crazy. It's making him tweet even more, as if that were possible.

And, also, I mean, look, it is a very serious matter that you have Mitch McConnell and Lindsey Graham saying they're actually already going to not honor the oath that they're supposed to sign when we start the impeachment process in the Senate.

And they are supposed to sign a note to say that they are impartial, they're going to consider all the evidence. They have both already said, we're not doing that.

So she is well within her right to say, until we can have some assurance we're going to have something of a fair process, I'm going to hold back and give us some more leverage. And it's such a contrast to how it was in Clinton's impeachment, where Trent Lott and Tom Daschle were trying to be statesmen.

They really tried to make it a more thoughtful process in the Senate than it had been in House.

KEILAR: Do you worry, though, that maybe it makes her and House Democrats and Democrats in general look a little partisan, considering she's been talking about being prayerful, and she's been talking about how this is solemn, and perhaps this could undercut that a bit?

FINNEY: I don't, because, again, when you have Mitch McConnell saying he -- I mean, he is supposed to be the leader of this process. And he's basically already said, when I sign that oath, I'm a liar, because I'm not even going to be impartial. I'm not going to be unbiased. I know what I'm going to do. Lindsey Graham has already said, I know what I'm going to do. And I

think that makes them look very petty.

KIM: The one question I have to, though, and what Democrats perhaps may need to explain is that they talk about the issue of time. I mean, that was the main reason why they did not litigate issues of the subpoenas that were being defined by the administration in the courts.

They said the president appears to be a significant danger ahead of the 2020 elections. That's why we have to move expeditiously on this impeachment process.

But if you're holding out and delaying the trial and delaying kind of that second major part of the impeachment process, that's a question that I think a lot of us have had for the Democratic leadership.

KEILAR: It was really interesting. And I'm curious what you think, Chairman, about this Harvard law professor, Noah Feldman, who wrote -- quote -- "If the articles are not transmitted, Trump could legitimately say that he wasn't truly impeached at all. That's because impeachment under the Constitution means the House sending its approved articles to the Senate, with House managers standing up in the Senate and saying the president is impeached."

And he's an important voice, because Democrats in the House had him on their handpicked panel of constitutional experts who really thought Trump should be impeached.

ROGERS: I'm not buying it.


KEILAR: You're not buying -- you think this is some crazy kind of...

ROGERS: That's a stretch for an argument for me.

KEILAR: All right.

ROGERS: The president was impeached with the vote in the House. Like it or not, love the president, don't like the president, he was impeached in the House.

What I see here is -- and I think it is going to work against the Democrats, because most of the public that's out there wondering, I don't know what to think, that is a cesspool of partisan politics back in Washington, D.C., if the impeachment looks even more political than they think it already has, I think it cuts against the Democrats.

And so you have Democrats in tight seats. They're going to have to try to explain why they made their vote. And, oh, by the way, we're playing this political game on trying to frame the narrative that I want when it goes to the Senate.

I just think this is fraught with political trouble. I think Schumer talked Pelosi into it over a conversation, and now they're trying to dig their way out. I don't think this was well thought through on behalf of the Democrats.

KEILAR: Up next, where President Trump is heading that has some of his aides worried.

Plus, they have got millions of readers and the message for Trump's base -- why President Trump is attacking a major evangelical Christian magazine.


KEILAR: We're back with the politics lead.

In a matter of hours, President Trump will leave Washington for his Mar-a-Lago resort, where Mr. Trump often hobnobs with friends and outside allies, who have tremendous influence over his decision- making.

As CNN's Kaitlan Collins reports, it's a major point of concern for White House aides.


KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Fresh off impeachment and eager for vindication, President Trump is heading to his private Florida club tonight for a two-week vacation. But his aides are worried he will have too much time on his hands as his impeachment trial is looming.


Sources say the next two weeks will be critical and there are big decisions about his defense strategy to be made, leading to concern about outside influence on Trump as he dines and golfs with old buddies at Mar-a-Lago. That as a new report in "The Washington Post" sheds light on the outside influence a foreign leader has had on Trump.

Former White House officials say they fear Russian President Vladimir Putin led Trump to believe it was Ukraine, not Russia, that interfered in the 2016 election. One ex-aide said Trump explained it by saying, quote, "Putin told me", reminding many of this moment when he sided with his Russian leader over his own intelligence agency.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: President Putin, he just said it's not Russia. I will say this. I don't see any reason why it would be.

COLLINS: For now, the president is focused on his impeachment trial and demanding to know when it will be.

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R-SC): I just left President Trump. He's mad as hell that they would do this to him and now deny him his day in court.

COLLINS: After Trump said it's likely his White House counsel will lead his defense team --

TRUMP: Pat has been fantastic as White House counsel.

COLLINS: -- his close ally, Senator Lindsey Graham, advocated for this defense strategy Thursday night.

GRAHAM: I told him my view was you should treat this like a Supreme Court argument. If I were the president, I'd pick somebody outside of the political arena.


COLLINS: Now, Brianna, the president is expected to be well-staffed during his trip. At least during the second half when the White House counsel Pat Cipollone, Jared Kushner, the acting chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, and the press secretary among other top aides are expected to be on property with the president as he's got these pretty crucial decisions to make before game time.

KEILAR: Indeed. And we'll be watching.

Kaitlan, thank you so much. Kaitlan Collins there on the north lawn.

Let's talk about the president heading out to Mar-a-Lago for a couple of weeks. Aides are worried. Should they be?

ZANONA: Yes, what is he going to tweet, who is going to be talking to and who is going to be in his ear, is he going to make any brash decisions about these upcoming Senate trial. There are still a lot of decisions he hasn't made especially about his defense team. Is it Pat Cipollone who's be leading it? Is Mick Mulvaney going to have a hand? He's also trying to bring in some of his allies in the House to come in and shore up his defense.

So, clearly, he's thinking about this. He wants the most aggressive defense possible, especially because he's probably not going to get the witnesses he wants. So there is a lot riding on who he picks for the defense team.

KEILAR: And, Karen, if you put the shoe on the other foot, if this were a Democratic president, I mean, doesn't he have something to be frustrated about as he goes on vacation hanging over him one impeachment, he's in the middle of that, and also there is this sort of stall that's happening with the articles of impeachment?

FINNEY: Well, I can put the shoe on the other foot because I did work for Bill Clinton in this period, and this is part of why the strategy of having an outside strategy where you are talking about the economy and you are talking about your accomplishments actually works because while you might be frustrated, you know that you are still making headway an other issues. And at this point all Trump is talking -- he should talk about the deals he's got done in the last couple of weeks. All he's talking about is frustration and anger over impeachment, so he is defining the narrative for the next couple of weeks.

KEILAR: We know certainly where his mind is.

Something else that he may or may not be choosing to deal with is late today, we learned that 25 Jewish members of Congress are calling for Trump adviser Stephen Miller to be fired. This is for what they describe as his support for white nationalist and anti-immigrant rhetoric after emails showed that he was promoting the views and organizations allied with those views.

The Trump administration claims that is, in fact, Miller being subjected himself to anti-Semitism. I wonder what you think of this, especially as you've seen some of what are in these Miller emails.

ROGERS: Yes, I think everybody has the right to defend themselves before we -- in this era of social and all of that. You want to be accurate if that is, in fact, the case. But if it is, there is no place in the serious levels of government for anti-Semitic activities at any level in the government. So, that worries me a lot.

KEILAR: When you saw what is in the emails, that is just -- to you it is very clear?

ROGERS: Well, when you read the email, yes. But I have to tell you, I'm always suspect in this era with the ability to manipulate. You need to be sure.

It can't just be a social report on what is in an email any more because people overreact. I think it is really serious. If he's actually saying those things and believes those things and serving in that capacity in the White House, to me, that's a problem. You can't have it.

And so, let's make sure that is accurate and, if so, then if I were the president I would make some changes. You just can't tolerate it.

FINNEY: But it certainly follows a pattern. I mean, we know that Stephen Miller has been involved in some of the most outrageous, cruel policies of the Trump administration when it comes to immigration.


We know that during the 2016 campaign, from our own reporting, with Sara Sidner, that he supposedly was running the -- he's like political editor of Breitbart and there was plenty of very inappropriate comments, racist, bigoted and sexist comments.

So, sure, let him have his day in court, but I think it's fairly clear, he's not something who should not be in any way, shape or form in the White House.

KEILAR: Let's talk about a key line in "The Washington Post" report on this push of this Ukraine conspiracy theory about the origins of interference in the election in 2016. One former senior White House official said Trump even stated explicitly at one point saying he knew Ukraine was the real culprit because Putin told me, because Putin told me, Seung Min.

KIM: That is remarkable reporting from my colleagues there at "The Post." We've seen publicly this fixation on the debunked theory that Ukraine had interfered in the 2016 election for some time from the president and what's really noticeable now and is that a lot of the Republican allies in Congress are deflecting attention towards that debunked theory. You've seen an increasing number of Senate Republicans talk about this, House Republicans. You've had chairmen in the Senate launch investigations and demand documents into Ukraine's again debunked theory.

And I think as the Senate trial heats up, I think you'll have some Republicans try to deflect to that even when national security officials, not just Fiona Hill, have said this is actually not true.

KEILAR: All right. Are Senate Democrats in lock-stop on impeachment? We're going to ask one Democratic senator who's facing a tough reelection fight in a ruby red state.



KEILAR: With a looming Senate impeachment trial, all eyes are on Democrats in vulnerable states to see if they'll risk reelection and vote to remove the president from office or across party lines and vote against it.

Joining me now is Democratic Senator Doug Jones of Alabama.

Sir, thanks for joining us.

SEN. DOUG JONES (D-AL): My pleasure. Thanks for having me.

KEILAR: You've been noncommittal at this point on impeachment. I know you're still, you know, making up your mind, waiting to see what happens. So, how are you feeling about the vote? What have you been hearing from your constituents?

JONES: Well, I think we're a long way from having a vote, Brianna. We haven't even got the rules of procedure yet. That's what the big news has been the last few days. What is -- what is the Senate going to do?

I mean, Senator McConnell is holding back. He accused Democrats in the house of having an unfair process but he seems to be wanting to take a playbook and have an unfair process and not a full, fair and complete trial with witnesses.

So, you know, from what I'm doing, I'm reading the record from the House, I don't know if we'll have additional record or not, spending a lot of time doing that. And I've got folks calling the office, emailing the office and it's a little both ways -- supporting the president, others want to have the president removed from office.

I think it is going to heat up more once we get back in January and we finally hopefully by then will have some rules and the articles of impeachment will be over and we'll know what we're doing.

KEILAR: There are House Democrats in vulnerable districts who voted to impeach in the house and they say they're OK with risking losing their seat. If -- I mean, you're a Democratic senator in Alabama. If your conscience leads to vote to remove President Trump from office, is that something you're willing to do knowing that you're going to risk losing your seat?

JONES: Well, I think my oath of office and my duty to the Constitution and the rule of law comes first. And so my conscience is going to be my guide. I've got a fair amount of experience prosecuting and defending cases, I'm looking at this record, I'm going back and forth. But at the end of the day, we take a second oath to do fair and impartial justice, according to the Constitution and the laws of the United States.

And that's another reason why I'm looking at this because if I violate that oath, I violated the oath of office I took as a U.S. senator. I'm perplexed how somebody can now take a oath of office and say they are impartial when they haven't been impartial. They're not going to be and proclaiming they are not going to be impartial.

So my duty and conscience will rest with that oath of office and that's where I'll stand.

KEILAR: Do you think that senators could say they are impartial and they really are impartial?

JONES: Well, I do believe that. I think you're looking at an example of that. I am trying to do what I think is in the best interest of the country. This is about the future of the presidency. It's about the future of the Congress. It's about the future of the country.

That is a pretty weighty -- that's pretty weighty on anybody's shoulders and I think once we get in that and the solemn of the occasion will weigh on some people. This should not be a partisan issue. When all of this first broke, before we left in October, I gave a long speech on the Senate floor about people getting out of their partisan corners.

It is not easy to do in the political divide we're seeing in this country today but the fact of the matter is that is what we're in the Senate to do and that is what we're supposed to do and that is what the oath requires. And I think what we need to focus on is a process to give the president of the United States a full trial, fair trial.

He has been waiting, as he said, over and over and over again, for a fair trial in the U.S. Senate. But that fair trial is also got to be fair to the American public and not have gaps in the evidence.