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Dems Renew Calls for White House Officials to Testify in Senate Hearing; Democratic Senator May Vote Against Convicting Trump; Trump Administration Says Courts Shouldn't Weigh in on McGahn Testimony; Taliban Claims Responsibility for Killing U.S. Serviceman. Aired 6-6:30a ET

Aired December 23, 2019 - 06:00   ET



UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Newly-released emails reveal that the White House's order to freeze Ukraine aid came roughly 90 minutes after President Trump's call with President Zelensky.


SEN. CHUCK SCHUMER (D-NY): This email is explosive.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: There's nothing new in these emails about the timing, truly.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Presidents make mistakes. I don't know if this call was a mistake.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: They're looking for a fair trial, not a fake trial.

EDDIE MURPHY, COMEDIAN: This is the last episode of 2019. But if you're black, this is the first episode since I left back in 1984.

If you had told me 30 years ago, that I would be this boring, stay-at- home, you know, House dad, and Bill Cosby would be in jail. Who is America's dad now?


ANNOUNCER: This is NEW DAY with Alisyn Camerota and John Berman.

ALISYN CAMEROTA, CNN ANCHOR: That -- his impression of Bill Cosby is impeccable. That was a great moment.

JOHN AVLON, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST/ANCHOR: So good. Got to love Eddie Murphy back on "SNL."

CAMEROTA: It was so great. I mean, we watched it with our kids and tried to explain to them the significance of Eddie Murphy and that he was gone so long. They didn't quite absorb it all, but they're getting it.

AVLON: Did the Gumby character, did that translate across the decades?

CAMEROTA: No. And Buckwheat didn't exactly either.

AVLON: I'm not surprised by that.

CAMEROTA: But still, it was really funny. And we're going to have a whole segment about why he was gone for 35 years.


CAMEROTA: We'll have the inside story.

Meanwhile, welcome to our viewers in the United States and all around the world. This is NEW DAY. It is Monday, December 23, 6 a.m. here in New York. John Berman is off. John Avlon is here.

Great to have you here. I'm going to try not to get you sick, even though I'm battling a cold.

AVLON: It's going to be fun. We're going to have fun.

CAMEROTA: OK. We begin with Democrats continuing their calls for key Trump administration officials to testify in President Trump's upcoming Senate trial, especially now that we've seen these newly- released emails.

The emails reveal an official from the White House Budget Office ordered the Pentagon to suspend that military aid to Ukraine 90 minutes after the July phone call between President Trump and Ukraine's new leader.

You'll remember, it was on that call that President Trump pressured President Zelensky to investigate President Trump's political rival, Joe Biden, and his son. The emails also show that the White House budget official knew the hold would raise concerns, so he told others to keep quiet about it.

AVLON: Meantime, lawmakers are on a holiday break as the stalemate on impeachment continues. Speaker Nancy Pelosi is refusing to send the articles of impeachment to the Senate, as she wants assurances that the Senate trial proceedings will be fair.

Now one Democratic senator now says he's even open to acquitting the president if the evidence doesn't add up.

Let's begin our coverage with CNN's Kristen Holmes live in West Palm Beach, Florida, where the president is vacationing -- Kristen.


Well, these emails are certainly shedding new light on the timeline of events around this July 25 phone call. But they're also giving Democrats what they believe is new ammunition in the ongoing stalemate over what exactly this Senate impeachment trial would look like.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) HOLMES (voice-over): Democrats renewing calls for witnesses in President Trump's Senate impeachment trial following the release of emails that show the order to freeze aid to Ukraine came about 90 minutes after President Trump's July 25 phone call with Ukraine's new president.

The 146 pages of heavily-redacted government emails were obtained by the Center for Public Integrity.

One email between White House budget official Mike Duffy and the Pentagon says, "Based on guidance I have received, and in light of the administration's plan to review assistance to Ukraine, please hold off on any additional DOD obligations of these funds." Duffy adding, "Given the sensitive nature of this request, I appreciate your keeping that information closely held to those who need to know to execute direction."

SCHUMER: If there was ever an argument that we need Mr. Duffy to come testify, this is that information. This email is explosive.

HOLMES: A spokeswoman for the budget office writes in a statement to CNN, "It's reckless to tie the hold of funds to the phone call. To pull a line out of one email and fail to address the context is misleading and inaccurate."

But critics say the emails are further proof that key administration officials should testify in the Senate trial.

SEN. AMY KLOBUCHAR (D-MN), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: If the president is so innocent and claims he's innocent, why would he not allow, just like Richard Nixon did, the people that were closest to him to testify?

HOLMES: Lawmakers are away from Washington for the next two weeks as the impeachment battle is at a standstill. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is still refusing to send the articles of impeachment to the Senate until the majority leader, Mitch McConnell, and the minority leader, Chuck Schumer, agree on the trial's format and scope.

SEN. CHRIS VAN HOLLEN (D-MD): She is focusing a spotlight on the need to have a fair trial in the United States Senate.

HOLMES: Trump's Republican allies blasting Pelosi for the move.

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R-SC): She's actually trying to tell Mitch McConnell how to run the Senate. She's trampling on the separation of powers.

HOLMES: One White House official saying the delay is frustrating the president.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He's also anxious to get not just acquitted but exonerated in the Senate. So he's looking forward to his opportunity to have a fair trial in the Senate.

HOLMES: And some Democrats are frustrated, too, saying McConnell and the GOP have already made up their minds before the start of the trial.

SEN. DICK DURBIN (D-IL): He's not interested in evidence. He's not interested in the facts. He wants to get this over with. That's really a serious problem.


HOLMES: And with Speaker Pelosi holding onto these articles of impeachment, it's not only just delaying the Senate trial, but it's also putting a hold on her naming who is going to be from the House presenting this case against the president in the Senate.


And Alisyn, I cannot stress this enough. We are really in uncharted waters. There are just not enough precedent here. And I talked to numerous Democrats and Republicans who spent the entire weekend on the phone with legal scholars, with Constitution experts, with impeachment experts, all trying to figure out what can and can't be done and what happens next.

CAMEROTA: Well, it would be great to have those answers, Kristen. But I mean, generally, Americans believe that trials have witnesses. And so thank you very much for your reporting.

Democrats are hammering home that same message: how do you have a trial without witnesses? We discuss all of that next.


CAMEROTA: The stalemate over President Trump's upcoming Senate trial is deepening this morning. Democrats are seizing on newly-released emails to renew their calls for testimony from key administration officials. Those emails show that the White House Budget Office ordered a freeze of security aid for Ukraine just 90 minutes after Mr. Trump spoke to Ukraine's president in July.

Joining us now, we have CNN justice correspondent Laura Jarrett and CNN political commentator Joe Lockhart. He was President Clinton's press secretary during impeachment.

Well, these are interesting. These add a new wrinkle to what we've already known.

So here's the timeline. At 9:03 a.m., President Trump had the call -- the beginning of the call with Zelensky. It wrapped up a half an hour later. An hour and a half later, the White House Budget Office orders the hold on Ukraine aid.

September 9, Congress gets notified about the whistle-blower complaint. September 11, the aid is released.

And so Laura, as John was pointing out during the break, it's that he -- President Trump asked Zelensky for this favor, applied pressure that he'd sure like this favor done. It would really help. And then it was top of mind and said, while we're at it, let's just freeze the aid until the favor's done.

LAURA JARRETT, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: I think the biggest issue in this entire impeachment inquiry has been intent. And that's what this email, I think, speaks to, is what was the president's intent?

And if it was a perfect call, as he used to say, then why is the OMB telling the Pentagon an hour and a half later, Keep this closely held. It's a sensitive nature.

And we already know that the call transcript, White House aides were scurrying around trying to put it in some secret server. And so if all of this was on the up and up, why the necessary secrecy?


AVLON: And let's pull that quote up from the emails, because I think it's significant. It says, "Given the sensitive nature of this request, I appreciate you keeping that information closely held to those who need to know to execute direction."

So Joe Lockhart, you've worked in the White House. What does that kind of an email tell you? Is this just a normal CYA? Or is this a sign of more nefarious intent, as Laura suggests?

JOE LOCKHART, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: I think, to answer Laura's question, if this was all on the up and up, guess what? It all wasn't on the up and up. I don't think you even need to have worked in the White House.

That's an extraordinary communication, to be telling other people in writing -- you know, in writing, hold up. Because that is -- that's a little CYA from the person in the OMB. Because you know, normally, you'd call someone and say, hey, this is, you know. But he was putting it down there to say, this isn't me.

I mean, this is -- you know, if you get into Adam Schiff's head and you think this is what I think the documents would say if they'd actually give them to me. This is even better than what he thought. This is just direct communication saying that, going to intent, we are going to squeeze them, and we're going to cover up the fact that we're going to squeeze them.

And it will just do -- it will just increase the appetite for more information and, more importantly, increase the pressure on a handful of Republican senators to have to get to the truth in the Senate with either documents or witnesses or something more than what they have now.

CAMEROTA: Well, I mean, by the way, this is -- these emails, we only know about them because of a freedom of information request. So the public and journalists can put in these Freedom of Information act requests, thank goodness. And so we wouldn't have known about these.

But they're heavily redacted. And so here is another one. This is from the day that the aid was released. Why that day, people have wondered? Well, Michael Duffy, who of course, is the one who wrote that it had

to be covered up, the sensitive nature, is what he first wrote, he writes to the deputy undersecretary of defense: "Elaine, I will be issuing an apportionment this evening to immediately release all the aid funds for obligation. I will alert you as soon as I have signed the apportionment. Thank you."

Elaine, this deputy undersecretary, says, "Copy. What happened? Thanks."

He responds, and it's redacted. So we don't know what he says. But then he says, "Still waiting for my staff to send me apportionment. Hoping to sign tonight. Glad to have this behind us."

I mean --

JARRETT: Absolutely. And we already know from previous emails that there were two -- at least two officials in OMB who were so concerned about this freeze that they said, "I want out of here." Like, this doesn't make any --

AVLON: That's right.

JARRETT: This doesn't make any sense. And he's saying, I'm glad this is behind me? I mean, come on. This is --

CAMEROTA: And also, I mean, the reason that it would be great to have witnesses at the trial is because then Michael Duffy could answer, what did you redact here?

AVLON: What have you got? What did you mean?

CAMEROTA: When she said what happened, what was your answer to what happened?

JARRETT: And he also says, based on the guidance that I received?

AVLON: And who gave you the guidance?

JARRETT: Who gave you that guidance and when? And what did they tell you about why it was being frozen?

AVLON: Was it the acting chief of staff, Mulvaney, who also oversees OMB?

Joe, quickly before we go, Nancy Pelosi is withholding these impeachment declarations right now. What is her leverage over the Senate?

LOCKHART: Well, it's -- she -- let's put it this way. She started with no leverage, and she created out of nothing limited leverage. Will she be able to withhold these indefinitely? No, of course not.

But was she able to set the narrative for the next two weeks with this and put pressure on Republican senators as they go home for the Christmas break? Absolutely. So I mean, this -- It's kind of a silly debate that some people are

having that will go -- that they'll never go over. It will go over. My guess is it will go over in mid- to late January. But she has created an atmosphere where it's more likely rather than less likely that we're going to see some witnesses.

CAMEROTA: Thank you, guys, very much.

AVLON: All right. Now stick around, because up next, will a Democratic Senate vote to acquit the president? New comments from Alabama Senator Doug Jones. That's next.



SEN. DOUG JONES (D-AL): I've been trying to read this. I'm trying to see if the dots get connected. If that is the case, and I think it's a serious matter, I think it's an impeachable matter.

But if those dots aren't connected and there are other explanations that I think are consistent with innocence, I will go that way, too. I've got to make sure that -- what I really want to see, though, is to fill in the gaps.


AVLON: All right. That's Democratic Senator Doug Jones of Alabama, raising the possibility that he could vote against convicting President Trump. Jones is facing a tough re-election battle in his home state, which he narrowly won last time around.

Back with us, Joe Lockhart and Laura Jarrett.

Laura, let me start with you. Folks look at this, and they say, look, Doug Jones has been a pretty straight shooter, but he represents Alabama. And is he going to vote his conscience or vote his district? And what are the implications for his reelect? Does this have an implication beyond Doug Jones or is this just about Doug Jones now?

JARRETT: He's in -- he's in a tough spot, right? He's facing a re- election in 2020. Jeff Sessions has re-emerged from his stint as attorney general, running again, he's now announced. So I think it's reasonable to say, I have questions. I think, you know, we always jump to the cynical view, which is obviously that he's just doing this to kowtow to voters.

But it's reasonable to have questions. But it might be so specific to Alabama that you're not going to see a lot of other Democratic senators out there mimicking Doug Jones on this.

CAMEROTA: Doug Jones says he wants the answers to fill in the gaps. That's his quote. Without witnesses at a trial, how do you -- how are you going to do that?

LOCKHART: Well, he's not going to be able to. So I think it's a very effective argument for just before Christmas on, you know, a Sunday show to say, I want all the facts so I can make a reasonable decision. So it puts more pressure on getting the facts.

You know, I think all of this involves several levels of politics. And we shouldn't shy away from that. Democrats have a chance to retake the Senate. They don't want people to do things that will mean they'll lose.

On the other hand, one of the main thrusts of the Democrats' message over the next month of two is this shouldn't be about job security. It should be about the Constitution of the country. So they're in a tough spot.


I didn't read Jones as saying, I'm not going to vote --

CAMEROTA: I didn't read it that way either.

LOCKHART: -- for guilty. And -- and he has had a couple of tough votes already since he's been in the Senate. And he's voted his conscience rather than, you know, looking at what helps him for re- election.

But this is exactly the argument we're going to be looking at from both sides over the next couple months of, you know, am I doing this for the country or am I doing this for me? And so far, Republicans have been arguing, I'm doing this for me. In fact, you know, Roy Blunt couldn't even say yesterday that the president made a mistake on the call. Couldn't even answer that question. So we know where they are. I think Democrats need to be a little bit careful that they don't fall into the same trap.

CAMEROTA: OK. This just in.

AVLON: Got some breaking news.

CAMEROTA: This is late night court filing from the Department of Justice. And they are making the argument to -- that this federal appeals court that's trying to decide whether Don McGahn, the White House counsel, has to testify, that they should -- the federal appeals court should stay out of it, because this impeachment is underway.

Here's what it says: "If the court now were to resolve the merits questions in this case, it would appear to be weighing in on a contested issue in any impeachment trial. That would be a question of propriety, whether or not such a judicial resolution preceded or postdated any impeachment trial."

AVLON: I mean, just to put that in plain language, what they're saying is, because one of the charges is obstruction of Congress, if the court were to weigh in on obstruction of Congress and, effectively, force or compel McGahn to testify, that it would complicate that charge. This seems like pretty circular logic.

JARRETT: So that's what courts are for, to weigh in on contested issues. And they're right, that there are federal questions that sometimes courts are weary [SIC] of stepping in on.

But on this one, I mean, it's beyond just McGahn. If the court weighs in and says, White House, your immunity defense is bunk. It doesn't matter. The president is not king. If they were to weigh into this, it could mean something for Bolton, Mulvaney, Pompeo, all of the people that the White House has blocked. It's much bigger than the McGahn question.

CAMEROTA: Doesn't this also put the lie, Joe, to the Republicans' talking point of why aren't they going through the court system? Why are Democrats rushing this?

AVLON: How dare you search for constancy?

CAMEROTA: They're not even trying to fight this in the court -- in the court system.

LOCKHART: It's -- you know, it's -- that's just a plain Republican lie. Let's make matters worse here. This is the same White House Counsel's Office that was arguing six months ago that this isn't serious, because there's no impeachment process going on. We shouldn't have to turn anything over, because there's no impeachment. And that -- there's an impeachment process going on, and they're saying, we shouldn't turn it over, because there is an impeachment process going on. That's not circular logic. That's 3-year-old logic.

AVLON: Well, look. You know, and moving the goal post is a sport in Washington, but before we go, I've got to get your take on something Ken Starr, former independent counsel against Bill Clinton, who obviously you worked for, said this weekend. I want to get your reaction. Let's play it.


KEN STARR, FORMER INDEPENDENT COUNSEL: So this is a chapter in our history. It's already proving to be a very ugly chapter in our constitutional history.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Do you think this is an effort to overthrow the president?

STARR: Absolutely.



LOCKHART: Well, speaking of ugly chapters in our constitutional history. Let me just -- on the merits there, this is the Constitution working. This is the Constitution working exactly the way the framers said. Ken Starr's chapter is exactly the way it wasn't.

Ken Starr empaneled a grand jury and investigated 15 different things, found something to get the president on, and then proceeded to, over the next six months, leak selectively information every single week. And his entire -- and his -- one of his prosecutors quit, because he -- because he said what Ken Starr and his team is trying to do is force the president to resign, to overthrow the will of the people through embarrassing him and shaming him.

So if anyone says that, it's -- you know, it's wrong. For Ken Starr to say it, well, it's Ken Starr.

CAMEROTA: On that note --

AVLON: All right, then.

CAMEROTA: -- Joe, thank you very much.

Laura, thank you.

So now to this. This massive 69-car pileup in Virginia has left dozens of people hurt. Miraculously, when you look at your screen, no one died. That story and what you need to know if you are traveling this holiday week. Next.



CAMEROTA: We have some breaking news overnight. The Taliban is claiming responsibility for killing a U.S. serviceman in Afghanistan. This happened in the northern province of Kunduz. The attacks comes as peace talks between the U.S. and the Taliban reach a critical point.

Freelance journalist Jennifer Glass is live in Kabul with the breaking details. What do we know, Jennifer?

JENNIFER GLASS, FREELANCE JOURNALIST: Well, Alisyn, an American family getting that terrible news today that one American soldier, one American service member has been killed.

The Taliban say it was an improvised explosive device, the killer here, that they set off near Afghan and U.S. forces in Northern Char Dara province -- in Kunduz province, sorry, Char Dara district in Kunduz province in northern Afghanistan.

They say, in addition to that American killed, the Taliban claimed that another American was injured; as well was an Afghan special forces soldier. NATO has not confirmed that. U.S. forces here have not confirmed that yet.

Of course, it will call into question what is going to happen with those all=important peace talks with the Taliban. The U.S. and the Taliban have been negotiating for nearly a year.

But in September, President Trump called off the talks. He paused them after a bombing here in Kabul killed 12 people, including one American soldier. That is the reason that President Trump gave for pausing the talks. They resumed earlier this month. U.S. special representative Zalmay Khalilzad say -- says they are at a critical time right now. The U.S. wants a cease-fire, we understand, in exchange for that agreement. We don't know exactly where things stand.

But with this U.S. soldier targeted by the Taliban and the Taliban making an announcement, saying that they actually were the ones to kill this U.S. soldier, it's not clear what's that going to mean for those diplomatic talks that have been going on for nearly a year in Doha, Qatar -- John.

AVLON: Jennifer, thank you. Thank you for reporting near Kabul.

Meanwhile back at home, more than 50 people are injured in a massive pileup on an interstate near Williamsburg, Virginia. Sixty-nine vehicles were involved, officials say. Heavy fog and icy conditions led to the chain-reaction crash. And aerial photos show the extent of this huge pileup, which shut down traffic during the holiday travel rush.

CNN meteorologist Jennifer Gray has your forecast -- Jennifer.

JENNIFER GRAY, CNN METEOROLOGIST: John, conditions will continue to improve, but we're still looking at a rainy mess across much of the southeast for today.