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Renewed Calls for White House Officials to Testify; TSA Screening Changes; Trump's Grip over Republican Party. Aired 7-7:30a ET

Aired December 23, 2019 - 07:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


[07:00:00]

SEN. CHUCK SCHUMER (D-NY): That we need Mr. Duffey to come testify. This is that information. This e-mail is explosive.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

JOHN AVLON, CNN ANCHOR: Meantime, lawmakers are away for the holidays as the stalemate on impeachment continues. Speaker Nancy Pelosi is refusing to send the articles of impeachment to the Senate. She wants assurances that the Senate trial proceedings will be fair. And one Democratic senator now says he's open to acquitting the president if the evidence doesn't add up.

Joining us now, CNN political commentator Errol Louis, he's a political anchor for Spectrum News, White House reporter Toluse Olorunnipa, and CNN political analyst Margaret Talev, she's the politics and White House editor for "Axios."

It's great to have you all here with us on NEW DAY.

MARGARET TALEV, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Good morning.

AVLON: Margaret, let me begin with you. What's the White House's response to many of their arguments being sort of blown out of the water by this new e-mail chain that was released?

TALEV: John, the White House is -- the White House is treating like this as if it is not a substantially changing story. And so are Republicans right now. What we're really seeing is that they are saying, hey, we already knew all of this, it doesn't make any difference.

But I think there are two things to look at. One is, what we can't see in those e-mails, the redacted portions could be very interesting. And the other is the conversation that must have happened at that -- some point during that hour and a half. What did the president say after the phone call and before those e-mails that were released that caused the e-mails to take place?

ALISYN CAMEROTA, CNN ANCHOR: Errol, here are just a couple of portions for these e-mails that have been released because of the Freedom of Information Act request. So we wouldn't have seen these. You know, obviously, the White House is not voluntarily turning over all the documents that House and Senate Democrats say they need to connect all these dots. So, luckily, we know a little bit about this.

This is Michael Duffey, who is the -- who was the person who was tasked with trying to freeze this aid. He's the associate director of national security programs. He says, given the sensitive nature of the request, I appreciate your keeping that information closely held to those who need to know to execute direction.

In other words, he knows that the idea that he's freezing these aid that was congressionally approved and signed off on by the secretary of state and secretary of defense, he knows that this is trouble.

ERROL LOUIS, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Oh, absolutely. And, listen, look, first of all, credit where it's due is the Center for Public Integrity that asked for these documents and kind of went to court and really pressed the administration, and that's the only reason we have these e-mails now.

The reality is that lots of people knew immediately after that call was over, as we now know from a lot of the testimony that led up to the impeachment, national security staff started contacting lawyers. People started locking up information. And now it appears that budget information as well, budget officials, immediately recognized that there was something a little bit amiss here. In fact, two subordinates of Mr. Duffey ended up quitting over what they saw was a violation of the law.

You know, one of the underlying stories that hasn't really gotten enough attention here in the rush to impeachment is that it is actually illegal for the president to not spend money that has been dually appropriated by Congress. And that's partly why I think you see a lot of this -- these e-mails going back and forth and the sensitive nature of this, that they know they're supposed to spend this money. They know that they've been told to do something that's not quite right and possibly illegal and they started to behave accordingly.

AVLON: Toluse, over the weekend, Senator Doug Jones of Alabama went on the Sunday shows and said that he was open to acquitting the president because he wasn't sure if all the dots had been connected. Let's take a listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

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 I -- what I really want to see, though, is to -- to fill in the gaps.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

AVLON: Toluse, how much do the e-mails like this connect the dots and fill in the gap? TOLUSE OLORUNNIPA, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, they start the process

for Democrats that aren't quite there yet. You know a number of Democrats in the House that are already there. They say the evidence is already overwhelming. In the Senate they are calling for more witnesses. They say that they need to hear from people like Mr. Duffey and like Mick Mulvaney, the chief -- acting chief of staff, and John Bolton, in order to fully connect the dots and make sure that they know for sure that this was a scheme, an improper scheme to leverage this military aid specifically as a quid pro quo to get these investigations. There are a lot of dots that need to be connected for some of these Democrats and for someone like Doug Jones, who has a prosecutor background, he is looking at this evidence, he's sort of taking this all in and also realizing that he's a politician as well and he comes from a state that Trump won by almost 30 points and he's up for re-election in November. So he's weighing both of those things and trying to figure out the best path forward.

[07:05:02]

But I do think there are a number of senators, especially among Democrats, that want to get more information to connect the dots. There are some Republican Senators that do not want more information, even as these new e-mails have come out. They've said they don't shed any new light, they're already ready to vote, they don't want to hear anything more, they don't want to hear from the witnesses that have this first-hand information. So you do see these diverging paths between Republicans and Democrats in the Senate as to what the trial may look like. And it's not clear yet they will -- they're going to be able to come to an agreement on how to move forward with a trial.

CAMEROTA: How can you not want more firsthand information? How can you say you want the dots connected, but not want witnesses at the trial who have first-hand information?

I mean, Margaret, we've made the point before, but Americans believe that trials have witnesses.

AVLON: Crazy idea.

CAMEROTA: And 71 percent of Americans, Republicans and Democrats alike, believe there should be witnesses at this Senate trial because otherwise what is the trial?

TALEV: Well, and it's interesting, you know, Alisyn, we've been talking a lot about what is Nancy Pelosi really trying to get out of this delay? Does she really expect that Mitch McConnell is going to say, you got me, you can have -- Democrats can have everything they want. And, if not, what is she trying to get? And part of it, I think, is -- is just to let the president stew a little bit and let the political reality take effect.

But I think another part of it may be giving space to these Democrats who -- for whom it may be a difficult vote to explain to their constituents, look, I was, you know, on the fence about which way to go, but the -- the inability to get this information leaves me no choice but to vote this way. That's one alternative. And to also say to some of those Republicans who may not be willing to acquit the president, but have concerns, this is kind of a path of opportunity for them to voice some of those concerns. So that may be part of what's going on.

I still think there's a piece of these negotiations that we don't really understand yet and we'll see. But the -- these -- the e-mail revelations, while they don't like blow open any kind of new narrative that we didn't understand at all, they do create some additional points on the timeline --

LOUIS: Yes.

TALEV: And raise some new questions about what we can't see but they are obviously conversations that took place between that phone call and the time when the e-mails were sent.

AVLON: Yes, just to be clear, it's 91 minutes between the time the president speaks to the president of Ukraine and this e-mail is sent.

But, Errol, real talk here, just about Nancy Pelosi trying to withhold the articles of impeachment, what's her leverage?

LOUIS: Well, I think she's got more leverage than we think. When she says that she wants to hear about a fair process, she wants to hear about what kind of witnesses will be there, she's going to do that before she decides which of her team will go over to be the impeachment manager. Are they going to play it hard? Are they going to play it soft? Are they going to send over women legislators? We don't know what she has in mind. And so she's -- she's, you know, holding her own cards close to the vest and I think she's got leverage in the sense that, you know, Mitch McConnell, yes, he plays a very tough guy when he says he doesn't want to do it at all, he's going to sort of have it all his own way, but he's got members of his conference who are facing re-election. They've got some concerns. They've got some problems. They need to make sure that it looks fair as far as their constituents are concerned. And so Nancy Pelosi is well aware of this and I think she's going to use that to her advantage as well.

CAMEROTA: Toluse, in terms of the stonewalling, this just in, there's been some breaking news this morning, and that is that the Department of Justice, last night, filed basically a court -- a court filing, a stay, they're trying, against this federal appeals court that was going to decide whether or not Don McGahn, White House council, has to testify. So what you hear Republicans -- what they've been saying for weeks or months is, why aren't Democrats doing this the proper way? Why are Democrats rushing this instead of going through the court system? And now the Department of Justice is trying to stop the -- the one case that is making its way through the court system, Don McGahn, they're trying to stymie that.

OLORUNNIPA: Yes, we've seen Attorney General Bill Barr really act as President Trump's personal lawyer. You've heard from President Trump's personal lawyers in some of these cases in the courts say that the president should not have to agree to any subpoenas or not have to turn over any documents. And he has control over any of his former officials and he can direct them not to testify. Now you're seeing the Justice Department weigh in essentially not go

quite as far as saying that all of these people are immune from ever having to testify, but really going further than what we've seen in the past in terms of the Justice Department trying to protect the president and trying to protect him from having people testify. And even going up against the courts, who have already weighed in on this matter and said that, yes, Don McGahn should have to testify and that people who the president -- who worked for the president have their freedom, freedom of speech and can testify. The president can't direct them. He's not a king. He can't tell people what -- what they have to do, even after they leave his service.

[07:10:02]

So it's clear that Bill Barr is trying to push the envelope and really try to protect President Trump and try to shut down any of these investigations. He's been at the forefront of this and I'm not surprised that he's continuing and the Justice Department is putting its full weight behind trying to keep people who President Trump doesn't want to testify from testifying about whether it's obstruction of justice or any of the things that came out during the Mueller report.

AVLON: All right.

CAMEROTA: Toluse, Errol, Margaret, thank you all very much.

TALEV: Thank you.

AVLON: Thank you.

LOUIS: Thanks.

AVLON: OK, a TSA whistleblower is sounding the alarm over what he says are major security issues at U.S. airports.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JAY BRAINARD, TSA FEDERAL SECURITY DIRECTOR: My biggest fear is having something happen that costs American lives and I didn't step up and put a stop to it, or at least try, because it's going to happen. It's not a question of if, it's a question of when.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

AVLON: We're going to bring you this CNN exclusive. That's next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

AVLON: Now to a CNN exclusive that you need to hear as you travel this holiday week. A TSA whistleblower sounding the alarm about relaxed security at U.S. airports.

[07:15:03]

He's alleging that officials are putting speed ahead of safety. CNN's Rene Marsh has this CNN exclusive.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

RENE MARSH, CNN AVIATION CORRESPONDENT (voice over): More than 40 million U.S. airline passengers are expected to go through airport security checkpoints this holiday. But this TSA security director says you may not be as safe as you think.

JAY BRAINARD, TSA FEDERAL SECURITY DIRECTOR: What they're doing is injecting danger into the system.

MARSH: Jay Brainard is the top TSA official in his state and has been with the agency for 17 years. He says TSA is cutting corners on the screening process to shorten wait times.

One example, TSA reduced the sensitivity on all walk-through metal detectors at airports across America.

BRAINARD: They are reducing the concentration of metal that it would take to set off that alarm so that you can speed up lines and have fewer pat-downs.

MARSH (on camera): How do you know that's why they did it?

BRAINARD: Because there's a memo out that supports it.

MARSH (voice over): This TSA memo shows the order came in 2013, quote, changing all walk-through metal detector settings in all lanes to the TSA pre-check setting, to normalize the passenger experience.

Brainard says the practice continues today and he worries bomb-making components could go undetected.

BRAINARD: You could have a 30-minute wait time and they treat it like it's a national emergency. It is such an unhealthy obsession of placing speed over security.

MARSH: Brainard says that obsession also led the TSA to disable technology on x-ray machines that screen carryon bags in pre-check lanes. This internal memo states as of last month, those x-ray machines should be operated without the auto-detection algorithm enabled.

BRAINARD: Put simply, when the -- when the item comes through, a box will come around and surround the item. It says, hey, stop and take a look at this. That box is no longer on the screen. TSA has made changes to the settings, which really hamper the ability of the x-ray operator to detect explosives in carry-on baggage.

MARSH (on camera): But TSA will say this is pre-check.

BRAINARD: They have been putting millions of passengers into TSA pre- check who aren't pre-check. So you do not have an entire population in pre-check that are vetted.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Good morning, everybody.

MARSH (voice over): CNN put this to TSA Administrator David Pekoske. He said the agency is not prioritizing wait times over security.

DAVID PEKOSKE, TSA ADMINISTRATOR: No, I won't discuss any of our particular security procedures, because that's really not appropriate for me to do. But rest assured that we do provide the level of security that we think is appropriate based on the risk of a passenger.

MARSH: Brainard says the issues he's raised are especially problematic for an agency with a 95 percent failure rate in detecting dangerous items at the checkpoint. That's according to a government audit in 2015. Another audit two years later found there were still vulnerabilities.

BRAINARD: When you sit back and watch these things happen, it is the most frustrating thing you can imagine.

MARSH: Going public is his last resort. He's filed an official whistleblower complaint with the Office of Special Counsel. He sent complaints to DHS, TSA, and sent letters to Congress. Not just about the metal detectors, but also the x-ray machines. A policy change allowing some passengers with medical devices to do a self-pat-down and a new policy called blended lanes, where pre-check and standard passengers are mixed in one line, something that could confuse screeners.

BRAINARD: They now have to mentally switch themselves on and off about what's permitted, what's not permitted, with every other passenger. You know, the last time I checked, our detection rates were not stellar. And it doesn't make any sense to introduce this kind of variable.

MARSH: Last year the special council ordered DHS to investigate Brainard's complaints, writing, there is a substantial likelihood that the information provided to OSC discloses gross mismanagement and specific danger to public safety.

BRAINARD: My biggest fear is having something happen that costs American lives and I didn't step up and put a stop to it, or at least try, because it's going to happen. It's not a question of if, it's a question of when. We are long overdue for another attack.

MARSH: TSA did take action on one of Brainard's complaints. He says they continued to use an ineffective test to determine if new hires were color blind, a disqualifying medical condition, even after concerns about the tests' effectiveness were raised.

BRAINARD: If you had something in a bag and if somebody were color blind, they wouldn't see the bomb if it were the only thing in the bag.

MARSH: TSA is now using a new test for new hires. But according to this TSA memo, the agency will not finish retesting the existing workforce until the end of next year. Brainard knows despite whistleblower protections and consistent top ratings on his TSA performance evaluations, speaking out could cost him his job.

BRAINARD: And I fully expect that the first discussion that they're going to have is how they can fire me.

MARSH: But he believes these issues are too urgent to keep quiet.

MARSH (on camera): To be clear, no changes have been made to the body scanners that travelers go through.

[07:20:01]

Now, CNN reached out to both agencies investigating Brainard's complaints, but no comment from either. Brainard has secured a whistleblower attorney. In response to the complaints raised in our story, the head of TSA told me that whistleblowers, and I'm quoting, provide a very valuable service and it's our responsibility to fully investigate those concerns to see if they represent a valid security risk or not.

But the TSA say they have not completed their assessment.

Renee Marsh, CNN, Washington.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

CAMEROTA: Our thanks to Rene. I sure hope they fully investigate it since those were really troubling claims by that whistleblower.

AVLON: Unbelievable. And he's a pretty senior official to be raising these concerns. So, a big deal. Critical point.

CAMEROTA: All right, as you know, Republicans appear to support the president, regardless of any evidence that comes out against him. Why are so many in the GOP unable or unwilling to speak out? New reporting, next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

CAMEROTA: President Trump demands undying loyalty, especially from members of his own party.

[07:25:00]

But how does he get it? This was a party you'll remember that was largely critical of him as a candidate. What magic trick has he done?

Joining us now with the answer to this, CNN political analyst Jonathan Martin, he's a national political correspondent from "The New York Times" who wrote a fascinating piece about this over the weekend, and CNN political commentator and former Republican Congressman Charlie Dent.

Great to have both of you to try to crack this code.

Jonathan Martin, your piece with Maggie Haberman is fantastic. You went back and talked to some Republicans who had to leave Congress after they expressed any criticism about President Trump.

JONATHAN MARTIN, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Right.

CAMEROTA: If Republicans ever express any displeasure with something that he's done or discomfort at something he's said, what happens to them?

MARTIN: Well, it's hard to stay in Congress. It's certainly hard to stay in the GOP caucus. And so what happens is, you have a lot of members who vote with their feet, like the gentleman on the screen to my left there, Mr. Dent, who retired instead of staying in Congress. And I think that's what happens. People obviously leave, they quit, they resign, they retire because they don't want to have to defend some of his conduct.

And, look, with President Trump, you know, it's less about supporting the agenda than it is about supporting him. And all politics is personal for this president. And he watches the shows, as the calls them, religiously, and knows who is saying what good and bad about him literally every day and keeps tabs about that.

So it's different than past presidents who I think sort of tolerated a certain degree. They didn't like it, by the way, but they tolerated a certain degree of criticism because they recognized that it was founded at usually some home state political demands on the politicians.

CAMEROTA: Yes.

MARTIN: With Trump, there's no acceptance of that. And it's not about, you know, policy, it's about him personally.

CAMEROTA: Yes.

MARTIN: And oftentimes he says something, pushing the rhetorical envelope. And when you criticize that, then he comes back and blasts you. So it doesn't usually start on policy, it often starts on his personal comments and conduct.

CAMEROTA: But, Congressman Dent, a lot of people wish for undying loyalty. How is it that President Trump achieves it from Republicans?

CHARLIE DENT, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: You know, it's amazing. Too -- I think too few members have spoken up since the president took office. And that excellent reporting by Jonathan and Maggie, I mean they -- they focused on Dave Trott from Michigan. But the problem was there weren't enough people like Dave Trott and myself and others who were speaking up at the time. There -- there would have been -- we could have altered the president's behavior, I believe, if more of us had spoken up and called out some of the outrages. But because most members were afraid, as Jonathan said, they were -- they were concerned about being attacked by the president.

And, again, this had nothing to do with policy. It all had to do with being local to the man. And that was really what was so troubling for so many, as they pointed out in that report too, 40 percent of House Republicans have either retired or were defeated since Donald Trump took office. That ought to tell you something.

CAMEROTA: But, Jonathan, what are they so afraid of?

MARTIN: Why? So here's the why --

CAMEROTA: I mean why are grown men and women afraid of a nasty tweet?

MARTIN: Yes. Yes. Right.

CAMEROTA: I've gotten one. It's not that bad.

MARTIN: Because if you are in elected office, you respond to incentives. The incentives often rotate around three things, money, media, and votes. And President Trump controls all that. Voters, donors, and press, he has enormous influence over. And so if you are in office, oftentimes you looked at those three elements, and that deterrent, if you get re-elected -- if you're in office you'll want to stay in office. And if you speak out against him, he is going to imperil your chances to win a primary the following year if you're in the House and stay because if you come after him, he's going to come after you and ensure that you don't survive your primary.

And so that's why people who do want to critique him usually retire, or in the case of Mr. Amash from Michigan, they dropped their partisan affiliation. He's not running as an independent next -- or this year. So, you know, it's purely a matter, Alisyn, of political survival. They just don't think that the voters are going to let them criticize Trump going into their next primary.

It's not about President Trump himself. He's the vehicle. It's the voters that frighten them. And he has enormous sway with the voters.

CAMEROTA: But, Charlie, this is what I think that people who have never served in Congress don't understand, is being a member of Congress that great that you are willing to forsake your principles, not speak out when he, you know -- when he insults John Dingell?

[07:30:01]

That you're willing to walk away from whatever spine you had beforehand? I mean why do they make these sacrifices?

END