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Speaker Pelosi Holds Press Briefing; GAO Finds Trump Administration Illegally Withheld Assistance from Ukraine; Parnas Implicates Top Trump Officials in Ukraine Plot; Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) Discusses the GAO Report, New Information from Parnas, Impeachment. Aired 11-11:30a ET

Aired January 16, 2020 - 11:00   ET



KATE BOLDUAN, CNN ANCHOR: And so the impeachment trial begins. Moments from now, the newly appointed Democratic House impeachment managers will formally present the articles to the Senate, kicking off a series of really formal start of the third impeachment trial in American history. We're going to bring you all of those moments live and they're starting very soon.

We're also, though, waiting for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, as you see there. Any moment, she will be speaking to reporters.

And one thing that she is sure to be asked about is the decision that just came out from the nonpartisan government watchdog the GAO. Just releasing its finding that the Trump administration broke the law when it withheld military aid to Ukraine that had been approved by Congress. The move, of course, that is at the center of the Ukraine scandal.

Let's get the lay of the land now. CNN's Lauren Fox is on Capitol Hill. She joins me now.

Lauren, let's start with the news that came out about the GAO report. What are they saying?

LAUREN FOX, CNN CONGRESSIONAL REPORTER: It is very significant that they made this ruling. This is considered the nonpartisan body that handles the situations for Congress. And they are saying essentially the president and his administration broke the law when they withheld millions of dollars in U.S. military aid to Ukraine.

The Democrats were very frustrated behind the scenes and Republicans as well as to why this money was being withheld over the summer. They couldn't figure it out. They couldn't get answers.

Then when it was finally released in September, there was a sense that something had changed. But no one could quite put their finger on it.

This is a significant step because this is just more evidence, Kate, that information is coming out in a drip/drop manner. There's more information constantly coming out as this all moves over to the Senate impeachment trial.

And as you know, there are still questions as to whether or not witnesses will be a part of that Senate impeachment trial. We expect to get more guidance as this process goes on.

Next week, we will get answers --


BOLDUAN: -- beginning to meet with reporters.

REP. NANCY PELOSI (D-CA): -- every day we're involved in this impeachment, it is a sad day for America. Yesterday was one when we were given no choice but to send to the Senate two articles of impeachment against Donald Trump, the president of the United States for his -- the president necessitated this by his abuse of power and his obstruction of Congress and his actions, which undermined our national security, violated his Oath of Office to protect and defend the Constitution and jeopardized the integrity of our elections. Every day, new incriminate -- evidence -- information comes forward. You're well-aware of the hearing last night. I think that only speaks very clearly to the need for the Senate to -- to enter the documentation into their discussion.


Today -- and this is the (inaudible) -- the Government Accounting Office confirmed that the president's actions at the center of our impeachment articles withholding congressionally approved military aid from Ukraine was illegal, and these are their words. These are the words of the GAO: "Faithful execution of the law does not permit the president to substitute his own policy priorities for those that Congress has enacted into law. The Office of Management and Budget withheld funds for a policy reason which is not permitted under the Empowerment Control Act. The withholding was not a programmatic delay, therefore we conclude that OMB violated the Empowerment Act." The -- the OMB, the White House, the administration broke -- I'm saying this -- broke the law. They say, "We conclude that they violated the Empowerment Control Act." This reinforces, again, the need for documents and eyewitnesses in the Senate.

When I was in grade school, there was a sign in -- on -- on the wall in one of the corridors. It said, "What a tangled web we weave when we first practice to deceive." We see this more and more and more in all of this -- this tangled web to deceive that the administration is engaged in.

Also on appropriations matters, I'm very sad about what has happened in Puerto Rico. We pray for the families who have lost loved ones and -- and injury to others. The appropriation -- it's unacceptable that the administration illegally withheld, for over a year, the federal assistance that Congress appropriated and that Puerto Rico needs. We're concerned that the administration may be looking for excuses to create unnecessary obstacles to the timely flow of assistance based on reports of new restrictions on the aid. We hope that -- that can be interpreted more loosely, but we're concerned. We hope that the president will soon sign a major -- major disaster declaration for its recovery. He has signed a -- a emergency one. We need the major disaster.

Our fellow Americans in Puerto Rico, American citizens all need assistance now. That's why today, the House will release the text of a bill to provide supplemental assistance for earthquake relief to be taken up soon. Again, we pray for the families of the two Americans who died in the disaster-related tragedies, but we're concerned about those who are -- have to physically and also traumatically by the earthquake and by the uncertainty that we are not there for them.

As you know, in the election, Democrats ran on a platform of For The People. For the people, we would lower the cost of health care by lowering the cost of prescription drugs. We would increase lower health care costs, bigger paychecks by building the infrastructure of America in a green, resilient way, and that we would have cleaner government. We passed H.R. 1 to do that.

In terms of lower health care costs, right before Christmas we passed H.R. 3 to lower the cost of prescription drugs. It's been widely and popularly received throughout the country. We're very proud of it. It's, yes again, another bill sitting on the desk of the Grim Reaper on the Senate side. Four hundred bills have we passed; 275 of them bipartisan sitting on the leader's desk. One of them is about -- is about gun violence, and that's passing -- passing that bill and having it signed into law would save lives. But that's just one of many.

But in terms of prescription drugs, we should -- they have a bill. We have a bill. Let's pass them and go to conference. But they're not only not taking up our bill; they're not even taking up their bill.

PELOSI: Increasing paychecks -- when we come back, that first week, we will be rolling out our infrastructure legislation, the work of more than one committee, but led by the Infrastructure and Transportation Committee, Peter DeFazio. It is -- it's pretty exciting. It's something we talked about during the campaign. It's something the president talked about as a priority during the campaign. We thought we would be able to move in a positive way on this. So far, they have not come on board, however, we decided now we'll just have to go forward. And we do believe that now, with the passage of the -- the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement, that they might be interested in cooperating in other ways.

And on that score, I'm pleased that the Senate is going to be taking up the bill this morning. I think it will be passed, and then we'll sign it and send it over. The legislators will sign it and send it over to the president.

What is amazing to me is that the leader over there was saying, "If she doesn't send me the articles of impeachment, I'm going to pass the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement." OK, that's good news for all of us, because we view that as a jobs bill.

And I want to commend Richie Neal and our members, our eight members who are part of our task force to make sure we changed -- the bill that they sent us, we could never have supported, the treaty that they had sent us. But what we sent back to them, in terms of, again, enforcement -- enforcement, enforcement -- but enforcement of labor rights, environmental protections and eliminating their giveaway to Pharma that was in the bill, among other -- other improvements that we made on the bill.

So we're pleased we had a big, strong vote in the House, and glad that, because we didn't send over and -- it gave them enough time to bring it up this morning, because the -- the chief justice won't be able to be there until this afternoon.

And when we talk about health care -- I mentioned yesterday, we had a beautiful ceremony yesterday -- I don't know if any of you saw it -- giving a gold medal to Stephen Gleason, former NFL New Orleans Saints football star. And -- and he has -- he's been diagnosed with ALS the very, now, late stages of it. But in the course of meeting his challenge, helped with so many things for other people with ALS, or neuromuscular diagnoses. It was a beautiful thing.

But it points out that all of us are one diagnosis -- our families are one diagnosis, one phone call, one accident away from needing really affordable, quality health care. We all need it every day, but this catastrophic -- so very important, and that is -- again, we're particularly proud of the progress that we've made.


Now, what we're up against is the president, on every front, in the Congress and in the courts, is trying to undo the Affordable Care Act, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. And right now, he goes out and says he's the protector. I mean, where is it again? What a web we weave when we practice to deceive? How can he possibly go out there and saying he's protecting the pre-existing condition benefit and things like that, when he is in court trying to overturn it?

Instead of the Justice Department protecting the law of the land, which is their responsibility, they're trying to overturn the law of the land in the courts.

So that's your fight (ph). And we have asked for expedited decision from the courts, so that the public will know what we are up against. They have said, "Take it slow; take it slow; take it slow." But this is a very, very important issue to the health of the American people, but also the financial help of the American -- of the American people.

PELOSI: So we were very proud when we passed the Elijah Cummings, H.R. 3, Lower Drug Costs Now. That is something so remarkable, so transformative, in terms of meeting the needs of America's working families, but also taking the money saved from Big Pharma's rip-off and greed and using it to transform Medicare in a way that it hasn't been transformed since its inception, and that is to take about a half a trillion dollars out of Pharma profits and use it for dental, hearing and the visual benefits. So we're very excited about that.

And again, on this pre-existing conditions, about 130 million families are affected by pre-existing conditions, and president is -- is in court trying to overturn that. So no longer will that benefit be available to people, and no longer will the benefit of -- of no lifetime limits or annual limits on it. And the list goes on and on about that.

When we come back, we'll also be addressing surprise billing issue, but that's one of the -- when we come back we'll have -- the first week we'll have -- roll out infrastructure, probably on the floor. This will be all up to the Democratic leader, but he has told me -- had told our caucus that expect in the first week we would be bringing out the Ro Khanna bill, which says no funds for war in -- in Iran unless Congress would approve that; and also, Barbara Lee's legislation, which repeals the antique authorization of the use of military force to AUMF that has been used for justification that is beyond it -- its scope.

So there we are. The -- again, we are very pleased with -- since we returned from Christmas, we passed the PFAS -- that is, to clean up toxic chemicals. These are forever chemicals. You can practically not get away with them. Get -- get rid of them. But it impacts millions of families, and many of them are on our own military bases, who are affected by these chemicals that are in the water supply in our -- they serve our country, these people, and their families are negatively affected. And I've met with some of the families and it's such a tragedy. It's such a tragedy.

Then we passed the War Powers Resolution to limit the president's military actions in Iran, and soon, the Senate will be taking up Senator Kaine's version of that. Then we passed the CRA to reverse an administration rule denying debt relief to students defrauded by predatory institutions. It's just a stunning thing. These kids, they incur debt. The institutions have disappeared. Their degrees are not worth what they have -- have borrowed money to obtain, and this administration wants to protect not the students, but the predatory lenders.

So with that, I'm happy to take any questions you may have.


PELOSI: No, you were last question yesterday. Nancy (ph), please.

QUESTION: Thank you, (inaudible).

Madam Speaker, what's your response to Senate Republicans who say they shouldn't have to consider new evidence like the Parnas material because it wasn't included in the House investigation?

PELOSI: No, it's -- it's -- they are afraid of the truth. The American people have seen the allegations, and their allegations, we need to see more evidence that was -- would be contained in the documentation. So there -- this is just another avoiding of the facts and the truth on their part. They don't want to see documents. They don't want to hear from eyewitnesses. They don't want to -- they want to ignore anything new that comes up.

We saw a -- a -- a strong case and -- and infallible, undeniable case for the impeachment of the president. So no future president would ever think that she or he could get away with what President Trump has been getting away with, in his view. Any further evidence should not be avoided, and now it's in the -- the ball is in the court of the Senate.

Public opinion will have a lot to do with this. Since we passed ours and then sent it over, public opinion has grown enormously for seeing witnesses, eyewitnesses and documentation, and they'll just have to contend with the public on that.



QUESTION: Thank you, Madam Speaker.

A question on the role of Facebook, if I may. In a new New York Times editorial board interview, Mayor Pete Buttigieg is questioning the influence of Facebook chief Mark Zuckerberg. I know Facebook is in your congressional district, Freemont Street (ph), if I'm not mistaken. Do you similarly feel as if Mr. Zuckerberg or other tech executives have too much power?

PELOSI: I think that they're different. The Facebook business model is strictly to make money. They don't care about the impact on children. They don't care about truth. They don't care about where this is all coming from. And they have said even if they know it's not true they will print it. I think that they have been very abusive of -- of the -- the great opportunity that technology has given them.


(Inaudible) my thought about them is they don't want -- all they want are their tax cuts and no antitrust action against them, and they schmooze this administration in that regard because so far, that's what they have received. But I -- I think that they're -- what they have said very blatantly, very clearly, that they intend to be accomplices for misleading the American people with money from God knows where. They didn't even check on the money from Russia in the last election, and everyone thought they should. So they had been very irresponsible.

And again, as you say, these are people that we've known and worked with over time. Actually, Facebook's down the peninsula, but they do have an office in my district, and I think their behavior is shameful.


PELOSI: Yes, ma'am?

QUESTION: Madam Speaker, following up on Nancy's (ph) question, Senator Susan Collins called the timing of (inaudible)...

PELOSI: Of Senator who?

QUESTION: Senator Collins... PELOSI: Oh, (inaudible)

QUESTION: ... said the timing of the Parnas documents was perplexing to her. Can you lay out why these documents are being released now, and whether more may be coming?

PELOSI: Well, they were released now because that's when they were obtained, and then his going further into public interviews on that is very compelling. But again, why would they not want to find out? Under other circumstances, if somebody like Parnas came forward and there was evidence -- there was reason to believe that there was -- some of that factual, there would be a special prosecutor appointed. Does anybody think that the -- the rogue attorney general is going to support a -- a -- appoint a special prosecutor? No, because he's implicated in all of this. This is an -- an example of all of the president's henchmen, and I hope that the Senators do not become part of the president's henchmen.


PELOSI: Somebody new. You can't get every question (inaudible).

Yes, ma'am? Cheryl (ph)?

QUESTION: Madam Speaker, given the Parnas interviews last night...


QUESTION: Do you believe that Lev Parnas should be a witness at the trial? And if so, do you believe he would be credible?

PELOSI: Well, credible relates to the documents and the rest. It certainly raises questions. But now I've appointed to the managers. You've haunted me, have tracked me. Who are they? When are they coming? Well, they're here and they have a responsibility, and I'm very confident in how they will proceed. And the -- again, there seems to be documentation that would validate what Parnas is saying, but that all has to be subjected to scrutiny.

QUESTION: But Parnas is under federal indictment, so would he be a credible witness?

PELOSI: He'd be a credible witness if what he's testifying to relates to the issue at hand -- the president's behavior. But again, they -- they -- there's a process for -- for how you go forward with witnesses, and that's not done in the basement of the congressional visitors' center, but in -- among those who are making those decisions about how to go forward.

And I'm so proud of our managers. Our members have been so positive and -- about it. And, you know, this is not without risk. They're going to give a great deal of their intellect -- as an intellectual resource, as a -- as patriots, giving a great deal of time, of course, but also they're courageous. Let me just say it that way, they're courageous in doing it.


QUESTION: ... attorney general is implicated? What -- what evidence do you have that (ph) the attorney general is implicated in this?

PELOSI: Excuse me -- I'm -- excuse me.

I told you I wasn't answering -- you had a question yesterday.


PELOSI: When I said that the attorney general was implicated, as I said, this testimony implicated the rogue attorney general, who has been the puppet of -- well, I don't know who's the puppet, or -- or the attorney general. But this is not -- he says, this is my attorney general. This is my Department of Justice. Really?

So in any case, it's not a question of saying what proof. It says, what allegations have been made, and that has to be subjected to scrutiny as to how we go forward. But it should not be ignored, and the context of other events that have happened that would substantiate some of that.

Yes, ma'am?


STAFF: Last question.

PELOSI: I want to have more women than (inaudible).

QUESTION: Do you think it would be appropriate to delay the State of the Union until after the impeachment trial has concluded?

PELOSI: It's up to the president. I mean, the president has some options. He can come that day and we are prepared to welcome him that day. He could send a printed copy, which was, for a long time, the tradition, the president would send a copy of his State of the Union address, or he could ask us to postpone it, if in fact he wants to have it after all of this is resolved.


But the timing of the investigation of the trial of the president for obstructing Congress and abuse of power should not be hastened because of the speech he wants to make to the Congress of United States.

Thank you, all, very much.


BOLDUAN: House Speaker Nancy Pelosi speaking right there to reporters.

Let me bring in CNN legal and national security analyst, Asha Rangappa.

Asha, one of the things we heard Pelosi -- she was asked about new evidence that has come forward, new documents, the new interviews from Lev Parnas, speaking to Anderson Cooper last night.

I want to get -- what she said is when Senators say that they question the need for that to be included in the Senate trial, they said they're afraid of the truth.

Do you -- what does that mean? What does this new information mean for the Senate trial, do you think?

ASHA RANGAPPA, CNN LEGAL & NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: What the Senate is -- or the Republican members of the Senate are trying to do is say, we want to just review this case on the papers, essentially, the record. That's what an appeals court does.

I with was a law clerk with an appellate judge. When you appeal something, you look at the record before you, you're limited to that. That's not what a trial court does. A trial court looks at the evidence, allows anything relevant to the issue to come in and tests it.

So I think that one thing that the Senate should consider is all of this new information is coming out, not just Parnas, the unredacted e- mails showing Trump was behind the withholding of the aid, Bolton willing to testify.

For them to present an effective defense, they need to bring this evidence in and test it through cross examination, through questioning, because right now on the papers, there's no defense of Trump.

I'm not really sure how they intend to present a robust defense unless they've already made up their mind before it even starts.

BOLDUAN: Asha, thank you. Great to see you. I appreciate it.

As we mentioned at the top of the hour, we're just minutes away from the start of President Trump's impeachment trial on Capitol Hill. The House managers will be first walking over to the other side of the capitol, reading the articles of impeachment on the Senate floor.

And at the center of the impeachment trial and what kicked off the inquiry to begin with was in whistleblower report complaint, was the Trump administration's withholding of hundreds of millions of dollars in military aid to Ukraine.

And separate from the House investigation into the president, there has also been this question, which is, did the White House violate a federal law by withholding this money.

Well, you heard Speaker Pelosi talk about it. The nonpartisan government watchdog office, called -- called Government Accountability Office, has been looking into it and just this morning put out their report, concluding that the White House did violate the law.

Let me read one quote from the report: "Faithful execution of the law does not permit the president to substitute his own policy priorities for those that Congress has enacted into law." The Senator who has been pushing for an answer here is Senator Chris

Van Hollen, the Democratic Senator from Maryland. He joins me now.

Senator, thank you for coming in.

SEN. CHRIS VAN HOLLEN (D-MD): Kate, good to be with you.

BOLDUAN: This has been the answer. I remember hearing you ask a question in the hearing of the GAO. This has been an answer you've been seeking since the beginning of this. What does it now mean, though?


VAN HOLLEN: Well, that's right. This is a bombshell as we had head into the Senate trial. This establishes conclusively from an independent, nonpartisan agency, the GAO, that the Trump administration violated the law when they withheld money from Ukraine.

And we know from other public documents that it was the president who ordered that violation. So he made an order to commit an illegal act.

So this is all part of the overall scheme that the president had to withhold money illegally from Ukraine in order to put pressure on them to interfere in our 2020 elections on his behalf.

BOLDUAN: So senior administration official asked about this, has responded this way, this morning: "GAO's findings are pretty clear overreach as they attempt to insert themselves into the media's controversy of the day."

What do you say to that?

VAN HOLLEN: Well, GAO is doing its job. Its job as an independent agency is to protect the constitutional power of the purse and the separation of powers.

And the Congress passed the Empowerment Control Act many, many decades ago -- it was signed by a former president -- in order to prevent that constitutional abuse.

And so what the GAO findings also indicate, what is this total contempt for the Constitution by the president of the United States, by ordering this illegal action to not implement a duly enacted law, passed by both Houses of Congress and, by the way, signed by the president.

BOLDUAN: What is -- what recourse does Congress have? If GAO says the White House, the president violated the law here, what can you do about this?

VAN HOLLEN: Well, there are two things, if -- the Congress has now already compelled the administration and President Trump against their original intentions or against the withholding to commit these funds.

So we don't have to take them to court at this point to spend those funds because we already pushed hard, pushed back to make sure that that happened.

But this will definitely be part of the debate and conversation and the Senate trial because it establishes conclusively that the president's OMB at his direction violated the United States law, which is designed specifically to protect different powers under the Constitution of the United States.

So it goes to the heart of the impeachment trial. The president abused his power and he did it, in part, by ordering this illegal action to withhold the aid.

BOLDUAN: Another new element just as the Senate is about to begin the trial --


VAN HOLLEN: -- again, this underscores the importance of getting all the fact witnesses and all the relevant documents and having a fair trial.

BOLDUAN: That's a real debate going on now.

Senator, thank you for coming in.

VAN HOLLEN: Thank you.

BOLDUAN: Coming up, Wolf Blitzer, Jake Tapper will be picking up our special coverage, next.