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House And Senate At Odds Over Impeachment Standoff; Newly Released E-mails Show New Details About Ukraine Aid Hold; Axios Reports Bolton Calls Trump's North Korea Policy A Failure; Evangelical Leaders Rally Around President Trump. Aired 1-1:30p ET

Aired December 23, 2019 - 13:00   ET


MANU RAJU, CNN HOST: And if Rudy Giuliani actually comes to the Senate, as Lindsey Graham has suggested that he could come and testify in front of the Judiciary Committee. A lot to see in the New Year.

Thanks for joining us on INSIDE POLITICS. Brianna Keilar starts Right Now.

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN HOST: I'm Brianna Keilar live from CNN's Washington headquarters.

Underway right now, a political stalemate, Mitch McConnell and Nancy Pelosi digging in their heels on where the impeachment fight goes next, as the White House reportedly considers a new talking point that the president wasn't actually impeached.

An emboldened Kim Jong-un is set to take denuclearization off the table as President Trump's former national security adviser says the administration's North Korea policy is a failure.

And the Christian magazine that called for President Trump's removal office has lost some subscribers but gained three times as many since taking a stand against the president last week. Is Trump's support from evangelicals starting to crack?

Plus, the Saudi government sentences five people to death for their role in the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. But they bypassed top officials with close ties to crown prince Mohammed Bin Salman who ordered the murder, according to the CIA.

We start with the impeachment standoff between the House and the Senate. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has the articles of impeachment against President Trump but has not decided when or if to send them to the Senate.

And on the Senate side, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell doesn't seem to be in any hurry to give in to Democrats' demands on the Senate trial structure. This morning, he said this.


SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY): The papers have to be physically brought over to the Senate, and we can't go forward until the speaker does that. She's apparently trying to tell us how to run the trial. You know, I'm not anxious to have this trial, so if she wants to hold onto the papers, go right ahead.

I can't imagine what purpose it serves by her hold being onto the papers. So sooner or later, I'm assuming she's going to send them over.

It seems to be a rather absurd position to say after you've impeached the president, you won't send the papers over to the Senate for the impeachment trial mandated by the Constitution.


KEILAR: Our Lauren Fox is following this on Capitol Hill. Lauren, tell us what you're hearing from there about this standoff.

LAUREN FOX, CNN CONGRESSIONAL REPORTER: Well, Democrats think that they have leverage by holding back the articles of impeachment. You heard there the majority leader saying that's not the case. The Republicans aren't excited to have this Senate trial. They will have one and they are prepared to do so, but it is only a waiting game at this point as everyone is seeing what Nancy Pelosi will do next.

Now, McConnell said earlier today he expects that this won't be resolved until after the holiday, so lawmakers can enjoy their two- week recess and they will come back together in January and potentially figure this out.

But we stand right now with Democrats hoping, Brianna, to have witnesses as part of the Senate trial. And Republicans arguing they are not at a position to negotiate which witnesses they want to have just yet. Basically, McConnell's argument has been, what we want to do is we want to have the House managers present their case, the White House present their case, then we will make a decision about if and when and who the witnesses would be in this case, Brianna.

So that's where things stand today. Not a lot of movement expected over the next week-and-a-half.

KEILAR: All right. Through these holidays, Lauren Fox, thank you so much for that report.

There is a new argument that was filed overnight by the Justice Department in the case of former White House Counsel Don McGahn. A federal appeals court is considering whether McGahn will have to testify or the White House's assertion of actual absolute immunity is actually a thing.

Let me bring CNN's Senior Justice Correspondent, Evan Perez. And, Evan, take us through the argument here.

EVAN PEREZ, CNN SENIOR JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Brianna, this is an argument that the administration has been making all along, which is that the courts essentially should stay out of this fight, which is between Congress and the White House. The president says that he can grant absolute immunity to some of his closest aides, and Don McGahn, obviously, who was a former White House counsel, he was an important witness in the Mueller investigation, especially on the issue of obstruction of justice.

So the question is should the courts continue to look at this case, to hear these arguments at a time that the House has already impeached the president and the Senate is considering whether or not, obviously, there's going to be a trial. As you mentioned, just as you and Lauren were just talking about, that's kind of being held in abeyance right now.

But for now, the appeals court is going to hear arguments, scheduled to hear some arguments in January, but they're wondering whether or not this is actually something that is moot now, given the fact that the House has already voted to impeach the president. I suspect that the courts are going to want to hear more about this.

And despite the arguments from the administration that the courts should stay out, we know that a district judge has already said the president cannot give absolute immunity, that people have to show up if they've been subpoenaed by the House.


So we'll see whether this argument that the administration us making gains any currency with the appeals court.

You know, it should be mentioned that at the district court level, that has failed so far.

KEILAR: That is very important to mention. Thank you very much, Evan, Evan Perez.

Newly released e-mails now show that the Trump administration moved to freeze military aid to Ukraine roughly 90 minutes after President Trump hung up the phone with President Zelensky. 91 minutes to be exact there between the end of the, quote, perfect call and the hold on that nearly $300 million in aid. And it was OMB political appointee Mike Duffey who ordered that hold.

Let's talk about that with Sophia Nelson, former House GOP Counsel during the Clinton impeachment, Matt Lewis is with us, he's Senior Columnist for The Daily Beast, and Dana Bash, our Chief Political Correspondent here at CNN.

That timing, I mean, how do you argue that these two things weren't connected, 91 minutes?

DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes. I mean, it's hard to not argue that. The problem is the same, as so many of the -- maybe the pieces of circumstantial evidence or witnesses who heard from other witnesses who actually have firsthand knowledge is that those people, those four people, have been forbidden by the president to talk. And unlike some of the witnesses who did come forward and spoke in depositions and in public testimony in the House, they have said, no, we're not going to talk.

Will this, you know, convince some Republicans, perhaps, if they get in a Senate trial to the stage where there are individual witnesses called by the Democratic managers and they have to have votes for which -- you only need 51 votes, which would mean if all Democrats voted yes, four Republicans would have to vote with them. Perhaps, but even that doesn't guarantee that they would feel comfortable coming forward given what the Trump administration edict is, which is no.

KEILAR: What do you think, Matt, when you look at that? I mean, it's just -- it doesn't seem -- it seems a bit more than coincidental.

MATT LEWIS, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Yes, it seems awfully coincidental. But, look, I think it had already been very clearly established that Donald Trump, of course, tried to coerce the leader of Ukraine to announce an investigation of Joe Biden. That's obviously an abuse of power, it's obviously impeachable, and this just reinforces that. It's one more piece of evidence that demonstrates that that happened, that they were using military aid as leverage.

And yet I don't think it matters at all in terms of when it goes to the Senate. I mean, if Republican senators don't already realize that this is blatantly obvious, I'm not sure one more piece of evidence, as much as it just accumulates, I don't know that it would actually --

BASH: Except if you would have, and this is a big if, not likely Duffey testifying and saying, yes, I got a call that the president just hung up the phone with the leader of Ukraine and he said, hold the aid until we get this investigation.

LEWSI: And Mitch McConnell says no witnesses.

KEILAR: So you have a Democratic senator, Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, who is looking at that holdup because you have Democrats and Republicans who know that the aid was held up, but they're not finding agreement on whether it was okay or not, right? Then Hollen wanted to look into whether this is actually illegal. This is what he said earlier on CNN.


SEN. VAN HOLLEN (D-MD): What we're saying is, look, even if you took them at their word, this sort of Trumped-up idea that this was a policy review, they're still in violation of the Impoundment Control Act. They're still committing illegal acts.


KEILAR: Sophia, what do you think?

SOPHIA NELSON, FORMER HOUSE GOP INVESTIGATIVE COUNSEL: Well, he's absolutely right on the merits of whether or not they did this for whatever reason they did this. What Van Hollen is saying to the court is, tell me if they can do this and if they violated the law. That's very important.

But I agree with what Matt is saying. Tragically, look, we're in a constitutional crisis. And I don't say that to be dramatic. This is real. We have a real situation where the president of the United States did things that were impeachable. And, again, you're seeing a group of very different people agree on those set of facts. I think the problem is that the Republicans made a decision. They made a decision to not be impartial jurors.

And there is the problem there, because if they're not going to -- and look at the way Mitch McConnell is talking. If their goal is just to get this in and dismiss it and get rid of it, that's the problem we really have. We're not engaged in a search for the truth. We're not engaged for -- at a trial, by the way, the House indicts America, the Senate conducts the trial. They are very different. There should be witnesses. Would you want to be indicted and then hear one of the jurors stand up and say, I'm not impartial? I wouldn't.

So I see Nancy Pelosi, by the way, brilliant, crazy like a fox, I think what she's doing is smart because public opinion watching these facts come out little by little might have some sway.


They might.

KEILAR: So the holdup here though on sending the articles of impeachment over to the Senate, let's talk about that. Because right now they're at this impasse and McConnell has said, basically, oh, wait, you're not going to send me the articles for a trial I'm not really keen on having? Okay, whatever.

NELSON: And I'm not impartial about.

KEILAR: He is coordinating with the White House, he's made that clear. You actually talked to Republican Senator Roy Blunt on State of the Union. He said this.


SEN. ROY BLUNT (R-MO): I frankly don't think the speaker has the right to do this or the power to do this. The speaker has a lot of power. But once the House has spoken, the speaker doesn't get the decision as to whether or not she transmits that decision to the Senate, in my view. I think we'll have this all handled by the time we get back in January.


KEILAR: What do you think the end game is here? And when are we going to see this all happen? Do you expect it will happen in the Senate?

BASH: Well, you just heard Roy Blunt, who is a member of the Republican leadership and chairman of the Rules Committee, which generally helps to set this, although this very much is a sort of McConnell-Schumer thing at this point. But he's been around a long time, as you know, and he thinks it's going to be done by the time they had hoped to start the trial the second week in January.

What I asked him and his response was was about whether or not it is possible for the Senate to just start without technically getting the articles of impeachment, because that was one of the sort of things floating around, and he said, he doesn't think it's going to come to that, basically.

KEILAR: So one of the talking points that the White House is considering, this is according to a reporting from CBS News, is this idea that because the articles haven't been sent over -- and, look, we heard this from Noah Feldman, one of the constitutional experts who actually testified at the behest of Democrats, and this idea that he's not technically impeached. What do you think of that talking point?

NELSON: That's ridiculous. Of course, he's impeached. The House took a vote. They voted he is impeached. Whether or not you walk the articles of impeachment over for the trial, when I'm indicted, I'm indicted. Whether or not we have the trial date a year later, I've still been indicted for a crime.

BASH: What if there's no trial?

NELSON: Well, that's up to the Senate.

But, constitutionally, again, like I said, I think the courts have to weigh in. I actually -- as someone who was admitted to the bar of the Supreme Court, I'd like to hear from him on this exactly what happens here when you've got Article I and article II in a fist fight and how do we settle it? Because, really, at some point, the supremes are going to have to get involved here.

KEILAR: I want to talk about Alabama Senator Doug Jones, surprise, upset, because he's a Democrat from Alabama, right, when he came into the Senate. But he's making headlines because he's talked about how there are gaps in the case the Democrats have made.

A lot of Democrats would say, what are you talking about, there aren't gaps. So the fact he's saying there are gaps, and I was talking to him last week, and he said that he's looking for a fair trial and he wants to see all the evidence now, now it's gaps. What do you think, Matt, as you hear him say that? What does it mean for what the vote might be?

LEWIS: I wonder if he thinks he has a chance for re-election or if he just wants to be left alone when he goes back home and be a hero to the Trump lovers or this is just him talking now and he's ultimately going to vote with Democrats.

But I would say, as much as we agree that I think Nancy Pelosi is very shrewd, very smart, I just feel -- I think the real question was should Democrats have held open the House impeachment? Because then you could have tried to have compelled people, like Bolton or Pompeo to testify, and then Doug Jones really would have no argument at that point.

And I get why Democrats --

BASH: Doug Jones might not be in the Senate by the time they get to that. LEWIS: That's the problem, right? That's the problem.

KEILAR: I mean, he must be eyeing re-election, right? That would be shooting the moon.

BASH: Yes, no, absolutely. But just like it's a different dynamic than, say, the Kavanaugh nomination, but there are similarities in that one of the calculus -- calculi?

KEILAR: Calculations.

BASH: Calculations. It's Monday.

KEILAR: It is Monday of a holiday week, you all.

BASH: That the moderate Democrats and the moderate Republicans have to make going into this if they're going to put the politics in the mix of their decision is if I vote against my party, am I going to anger my base so much that even if I get some Republicans and Independents, it won't make up for it. And that's true for Doug Jones. If he doesn't vote against the president for the articles of impeachment, there are Democrats, there is a Democratic base in Alabama, and if they stay home, he's in trouble.

KEILAR: Thank you so much, all of you, Sophia, Matt, Dana, I appreciate it.

That special relationship with the president has touted with Kim Jong- un, well, it appears to be over. North Korea is set to adopt a new hard line policy with the U.S. that includes taking denuclearization off the table.

Plus, hundreds of evangelical leaders step up to defend the president after a Christian magazine calls on him to be removed.


And Saudi Arabia hands down death sentences in the case of murdered journalist Jamal Khashoggi. But are those most involved in this brutal murder just getting a pass?


KEILAR: President Trump's former National Security Adviser John Bolton is delivering some of his sharpest criticism of the White House yet, saying that President Trump is failing in his approach to North Korea. In a new interview with Axios, Bolton accuses the president of bluffing about his efforts to stop North Korea's nuclear ambitions. Saying in part, quote, the idea that we are somehow exerting maximum pressure on North Korea is just unfortunately not true.


And this comes as North Korea is preparing to send the U.S. a, quote, Christmas gift, which, according to sources, means they're considering taking denuclearization off the negotiating table or possibly even testing a missile that's capable of reaching all the way to the U.S.

With me here now is Samantha Vinograd. She's a former security adviser on the National Security Council in the Obama administration. Sam, thank you for joining us.

And John Bolton, obviously, he's known as someone who is pretty hawkish on a lot of things, including North Korea, Iran. How much of this is him just trying to stoke the flames and maybe take a jab at his former boss and how much of this is really just his opinion?

SAMANTHA VINOGRAD, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: Well, John Bolton is certainly spending a lot of time speaking with the media, a time he could be spending talking to Congress. But John Bolton has been at odds with the president over North Korea, even when he was national security adviser.

But with respect to the specific claim that President Trump is bluffing, the proof is in the pudding, Brianna. We have seen North Koreans' test missiles since President Trump and Kim Jong-un began their special relationship. We have seen President Trump fail to take action when North Korea has tested missiles. And let's remember, short-range missiles, which North Korea has resumed testing, directly threaten Americans. Hundreds of thousands of Americans live in range of these short and medium-range missiles.

So the North Koreans have very little reason to think that President Trump is actually going to do something concrete if they implement another test.

KEILAR: So where did this fall apart or was it ever really something that was happening in the first place?

VINOGRAD: Well, the premise was wrong, Brianna. The North Koreans have now said that denuclearization is off the table. This is the most honest the regime has been. Remember, our intelligence community assessed last January that the Kim regime would not denuclearize. President Trump refused to accept that intelligence assessment, so the whole premise of negotiations with the North Koreans was off the mark (ph) from the get-go.

The question now for President Trump is whether he will accept reality. Reality bites for him in this scenario because it's not where he wants it to be. And whether he will acknowledge that North Korea is not going to denuclearize, and in some way try to figure out, instead he can try to get the next best option, which is a freeze on their current program.

KEILAR: This issue has -- you said reality bites for President Trump. Reality has bitten for so many presidents now in a row here when it comes to North Korea. So the best case scenario then would be a freeze.

But, long-term, what is the reality that the U.S. is going to be confronting when it comes to North Korea and nuclearization?

VINOGRAD: Well, Brianna, I'm glad that you raised that because the North Korea nut has been tough to crack for several presidents. It's not just President Trump. The difference with this president is that he has tied his personal campaign needs, his political needs, with, quote, unquote, success with North Korea. So the reality is that North Korea, over the last 18 months, since Singapore, has improved its arsenal, it's gotten more advanced technology and it's started to get more revenues from sanctions busting. It is in a better place when President Trump resumed these negotiations. So whomever is in the Oval Office after the 2020 election is going to confront a stronger North Korea.

KEILAR: Sam Vinograd, thank you so much.

VINOGRAD: Thanks, Brianna.

KEILAR: One publication sparking a religious divide. Why an op-ed about the president has nearly 200 faith leaders up in arms, plus, the fight for votes in the 2020 race.


SEN. AMY KLOBUCHAR (D-MN), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I don't think that Donald Trump has some kind of monopoly on votes in rural America or in suburban America, not for a second.


KEILAR: CNN takes a closer look at the state of Amy Klobuchar's presidential campaign.



KEILAR: A group of conservative evangelicals are now rallying around the president following a scathing op-ed in Christianity Today, which called for President Trump's removal from office. In a letter to the magazine's president, nearly 200 church leaders condemned the op-ed writing this, we are not far right evangelicals, as characterized by the author.

Rather, we are bible-believing Christians and patriotic Americans. Your editorial offensively questioned the spiritual integrity and Christian witness of tens of millions of believers who take seriously their civic and moral obligations.

Here to discuss now, we have Father Edward Beck and Sarah Posner, who is the author of the forthcoming book, Unholy, Why White Evangelicals Worship at the Altar of Donald Trump.

And, Sarah, you wrote recently a New York Times op-ed titled that the Christianity Today editorial won't change anything. Tell us why.

SARAH POSNER, AUTHOR, UNHOLY, WHY WHITE EVANGELICS WORSHIP AT THE ALTAR OF DONALD TRUMP: Well, Christianity Today is a flagship magazine for evangelical America founded by Billy Graham in the 1950s. But since the magazine was founded six decades ago, evangelicalism have changed a lot. There have been a lot of sub-movements and new religious movements within evangelicalism that we now see rallying around President Trump, new political organizations, new types of organizing, televangelism, new kinds of media.

So a magazine like Christianity Today doesn't have the singular resonance that it might have had back in the '50s, '60s or even the '70s.