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GAO: Trump Administration Broke Law By Withholding Ukraine Aid; Interview with GOP Presidential Candidate Joe Walsh; Impeachment Trial Takes Four 2020 Dems Off Campaign Trail. Aired 4:30-5p ET

Aired January 16, 2020 - 16:30   ET



JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: Welcome back.

In our politics lead, President Trump is on the attack and predicting a quick Senate impeachment trial as the nonpartisan independent arm of the government called the Government Accountability Office or GAO concluded that the Trump administration broke the law when it withheld security aid to Ukraine last year.

And as CNN's Kaitlan Collins reports to us, the president is also continuing to deny that he knows that Rudy Giuliani associate who calls himself "Trump's asset" in Ukraine.


KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Today, new revelations are complicating what the White House hoped would be an easy Senate trial.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I think it should go very quickly. It's a hoax.

COLLINS: A nonpartisan federal watchdog agency has determined that the Trump administration broke the law when it withheld military aid to Ukraine.

According to the Government Accountability Office, blocking that military assistance violated a law that limits the president's ability to withhold money already approved by Congress. And faithful execution of the law does not permit the president to substitute his own policy priorities for those Congress has enacted into law.

Today, the White House defended the move by saying the nearly $400 million in aid was eventually released.

KELLYANNE CONWAY, COUNSELOR TO THE PRESIDENT: I'm very glad that Ukraine got its aid and got it within the deadline.

COLLINS: While officials aren't expected to be prosecuted for the violation, the release is fueling more questions ahead of Trump's Senate impeachment trial.

SEN. CHRIS VAN HOLLEN (D-MD): This is a bombshell as we head into the Senate trial.

COLLINS: Democrats say it underscores the importance of having witnesses and new documents in the trial.

REP. NANCY PELOSI (D-CA): This reinforces again the need for documents and eyewitnesses in the Senate.

COLLINS: The White House spent the last several days finalizing its defense, but new revelations made by a recently indicted associate of Rudy Giuliani could turn plans upside down. Today, Trump denied knowing Lev Parnas despite having multiple photos with him.

TRUMP: I don't know Parnas other than I guess they had pictures taken, which I do with thousands of people.

COLLINS: Parnas says the president was aware of his efforts to get dirt on the Bidens, and was in close coordination with Giuliani.

But today, Trump said he doesn't think they have ever spoken.

TRUMP: I have never had a conversation I remember with him. I don't need the help of a man that I never met before.

COLLINS: Despite Parnas' claim he did nothing without the consent of Rudy Giuliani when it came to Ukraine, Trump stood by his personal attorney today.

TRUMP: Rudy is somebody that frankly having him on my side was a great honor for me. It has been a great honor for me.


COLLINS: Now, Jake, Trump was also asked about a letter that Rudy Giuliani had sent to then-Ukrainian President-elect Zelensky saying that he had President Trump's knowledge and consent to ask for a meeting with him. This letter released by House Intelligence Committee this week. Trump said he had no knowledge of the letter, but Rudy Giuliani had written it and sent it, he would not have a problem with it.

TAPPER: All right. Kaitlan Collins at the White House for us, thanks so much.

Joining me now in studio is Republican presidential candidate and former Illinois Republican congressman, Joe Walsh.

Thanks so much for being here, Congressman. We appreciate it.


TAPPER: So, the GAO, nonpartisan, highly respected watchdog, decided and ruled today, released a report that the Trump administration broke the law when it withheld the aid to Ukraine. Here's what the House Republican, a man who used to call colleague, Kevin McCarthy, had to say in response.


REP. KEVIN MCCARTHY (R-CA): These are taxpayer dollars going to another country that people believe there's corruption with a new administration. I think it was a rightful thing to do.


TAPPER: I mean, the GAO said it was against the law. He calls it the rightful thing to do.

WALSH: It's -- look, these are Republicans, Jake, scrambling because they don't know what to do or what to say. It's been this way since the beginning of the process. I mean, to me, the only question is what are Senate Republicans going to do?

We have known the basic outline now for a number of months. Trump extorted a foreign government to help him cheat in the 2020 election. Everybody knows that and that was just confirmed with Les Parnas.

There'll be -- there'll be another Lev Parnas next week and there'll be more evidence the following week. The only question is, are Senate Republicans going to put country before party, period?

TAPPER: You mentioned Lev Parnas, the man of dubious credibility.


TAPPER: The foreign minister for Ukraine says he doesn't believe a word out of his mouth. But you do?

WALSH: No, he adds to as you said earlier in the show, what he said generally fits the outline of what everybody else has said. But there will be another Lev Parnas. There'll be John Bolton, there'll be Mick Mulvaney.

I mean, every week we're going to learn something new. And the bulls- eye again, not to beat a dead horse, is on the Senate Republicans. Are they going to demand, I mean, demand a trial, a real search for the truth or not?


TAPPER: With witnesses.

WALSH: With witnesses, with examining current evidence. I saw a couple Republican senators today who said I don't want to see anything new. I don't care what Parnas said.

That's not putting country before party. That's putting Trump first. That's wrong.

TAPPER: Let me ask you hypothetically, because I'm sure you thought about this a lot. I sure have, which is, what do you think your former colleagues in the House Republicans or Republicans in the Senate, what do you think they would be doing exact same set of facts, OK, but it's President Elizabeth Warren or President Bernie Sanders doing this to a Republican?

Exact same set of facts. Do you think people would say it doesn't rise to the level? I mean --

WALSH: President Elizabeth Warren, same situation, same facts, would have been impeached three or four months ago and removed from office. And deep down, Jake, every Republican knows that. I have had enough private conversations with my colleagues over the last few months who know that Trump did wrong.

TAPPER: So, what do they say to you? How do they explain it?

WALSH: You know, it's about the 2020 election. Come on, Joe, we all got to be on our side. Yes, our guy did wrong, but we're up against those Democrats. So, we got to put party first.

This is one of those moments where you've got to put country first.

TAPPER: So, there are 10 -- you're running for president against President Trump in the primaries. Ten states have cancelled their primaries and caucuses.

Why are they doing that? Does that mean you don't have is a path?

WALSH: It's made the path more difficult. This should be a huge story. I get impeachment and the trial is going to be everything, but this is unprecedented, Jake.

Donald Trump, and make no mistake, this is team Trump has told the state party in ten states to cancel primary asks they have. I went to the head -- the Republican headquarters today in D.C. just to talk to somebody about it. I'm a lifelong Republican, former Republican member of Congress, Republican president -- for president and at Republican headquarters today in D.C., nobody would meet with me. It's outrageous. It shouldn't happen.

TAPPER: And you're very -- I know you and you're very conservative on any number of issues. Guns, immigration, whatever, I mean --

WALSH: Life's changed post-Trump.

TAPPER: All right. Thanks so much, former Congressman Joe Walsh. Thank you so much.

The impeachment trial's timing could not be worse for some of the Democratic presidential candidates. For others, it might be a real gift. That's next.



TAPPER: Four of the 2020 Democratic presidential hopefuls were forced off the campaign trail today. Instead, those four senators were sworn in to hear the president's impeachment trial. And while Senators Bennet, Klobuchar, Sanders and Warren are stuck in

Washington, D.C., former Mayor Pete Buttigieg is trying to take advantage. He added more campaign stops and days to his Iowa tour, including five events today alone.

Former Vice President Joe Biden is not on the campaign trail, but he doesn't have to be in Washington. Instead, he's raising money, attending fundraisers in Texas.

Let's discuss all of this.

Amanda, take a listen to Senator Sanders this afternoon talking about the trial's impact on his campaign.


SEN. BERNIE SANDERS (I-VT), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I would rather be in Iowa today. There's a caucus there in two and a half weeks. I would rather be in New Hampshire and in Nevada and so forth. But I swore a constitutional oath as a United States senator to do my job, and I'm here to do my job. I think the people of the United States understand that.


TAPPER: Amanda, in the last two polls out of Iowa that CNN did, Bernie Sanders showing a steady climb, including he was on top of the four frontrunners. This could really hurt his presidential contest.

AMANDA CARPENTER, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Yes, especially, he has a message like that, saying essentially, I don't like my day job. I'd rather be talking to voters in Iowa. I mean, seriously, if you're going to be off the trail, the voters have to believe you're doing something really important. And guess what? This actually is really important, but he's not treating it that way in this clip.

I mean, just think about, he could go back to Iowa and say, this is what I did this week. We were protecting democracy, you know, investigating what's going on with the Trump administration, making sure our officials stand up for our values.

But, no, he's like, eh, this is my day job, I don't like it. I want --

TAPPER: I don't know if he'd agree with that characterization.


CARPENTER: Well, I saw the clip.

TAPPER: But take a listen to Senator Amy Klobuchar and how she responded when asked on CNN about balancing her campaign and the Senate impeachment trial.


SEN. AMY KLOBUCHAR (D-MN), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I can do this because I've got -- I don't need a lot of sleep. I'll get back whenever I can leading into these caucuses. My husband and my daughter are ready to help, and I'm just going to make that case every single town.


TAPPER: It's a little more optimistic projection of it all.

JEN PSAKI, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: It is. And while she may not need a lot of sleep, I'm not sure she can fly herself through the night and return the next morning. So, there's no question that this is a challenge for these senators who will be here. As Amanda said, they are here doing something important.

But they won't have their phones. There's no opportunity for viral moments. At the same time, you're going to have Pete Buttigieg and you're going to have former Vice President Biden all across the state campaigning, meeting voters, engaging, and we know from the polls it's kind fluid there.

TAPPER: Very close, very close. And the Buttigieg campaign has also launched new ads in Iowa, focusing on specific counties in Iowa that President Trump flipped in 2016 from Obama counties to Trump counties.

Take a look.


ANTAVION ADAMS, IOWA VOTER: My name is Antavion Adams. I'm from Fort Dodge, Iowa. And I'm caucusing for Pete Buttigieg.

ALLISON RASMUSSEN, IOWA VOTER: May name is Allison Rasmussen and I'm Waverly, Iowa.

ALVIN KOBERNUSS, IOWA VOTER: I'm Alvin Kobernuss, a Worth County farmer.

DONTE, IOWA VOTER: Hi, everyone. My name is Donte. I'm a supporter right here in North Liberty, Iowa.


TAPPER: Dubuque, Des Moines, Davenport, Marshalltown, Mason City, Keokuk, Ames -- it's all local. It's all local.

LAURA BARRON-LOPEZ, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: It's a big piece of also Buttigieg's eligibility argument, which is that he says that he's one of the better candidates to bring over Republicans, bring over independents, it's him trying to make a push for the same voters that Biden says that he would be the best to win.


On the case for Sanders and Warren and the other senators that are stuck here, I think, right now, this time is when we're going to see whether or not they really saturate the field with their surrogates, and how important that will be for people like Sanders to maybe get AOC out there, or for Warren to get her other surrogates out there.

TAPPER: It is a big opportunity, though, for Biden and Buttigieg.


I mean, they have got the state to themselves. You have seen Buttigieg, obviously, with these digital sort of homespun ads going right to the voters. And there's only so much surrogates can do.

I think, if you're somebody like Sanders, you have clearly got a lot of energy behind you, right? That's his crowd, in many ways, in Iowa. You see the polls, he's doing well there.

So I think all of those of things will matter, the grassroots energy, and he clearly has some of that, as do some of the others.

TAPPER: Coming up, want to keep the president from yelling at you? Maybe keep the American people in the dark.

We will explain that next.



TAPPER: In our lead today, could fear of a presidential tweet or retaliation be the reason that the nation's top intelligence leaders quietly asked to have their congressional testimony moved to behind closed doors, instead of in open hearing?

Sources tell CNN the discussions have been in the works to have the annual and public worldwide threats hearings held privately.

But the House appears to be moving forward as planned, scheduling a public hearing for next month, and formally inviting the acting director of national intelligence, Joseph Maguire, to appear.

Last year, President Trump went after his own intelligence leaders after they contradicted him during the hearings by stating what they thought were correct analyses and facts.

CNN's Kylie Atwood joins me now.

Kylie, this is pretty unusual.


I mean, the fans that this briefing in public is likely going to happen is noteworthy. But the backdrop here is that last year, after this public hearing happened, President Trump was extremely frustrated. He came out, and he came out against the fact that the intelligence community officials provided assessments that contradicted his policies and his statements on specific foreign policy issues with regard to Iran or North Korea.

So this creates the perception that the intelligence community is worried about coming up against President Trump and getting into this battle with him about what the facts are and what the intelligence community assessment is on these issues.

And it's incredibly noteworthy. This is the worldwide threat assessment. This takes a lot of work for the intelligence community to put together. And so this is no small document. This is really an overarching assessment of every intelligence community official and what they have looked at for the U.S.

TAPPER: It does look like the hearings will be held publicly, that the House of Representatives at the very least is not going to buckle to the fear of the president's tweets or whatever.


TAPPER: Why is it important, in the view of individuals, to have these hearings publicly?

ATWOOD: Well, the U.S. government works for the U.S. American people, right?

And so there is a degree of transparency that is expected. Now, of course, this is the intelligence community. So there are certain things they can't say. There are certain things that they have to talk about behind closed doors.

But the bottom line here is that there are emerging threats to U.S. national security on a daily, on a weekly and a yearly basis. And so this really boils it all down.

For example, last year's worldwide security threat assessment said that Russia and China were emerging threats because of how much they were challenging the U.S. and allies. And so there are specific things that change. And this is a really, really good way to look at the overarching themes here.

TAPPER: The president's war on facts continues.

Kylie Atwood, thanks so much.

On our world lead, it's a power grab that would make the emperor from "Star Wars" jealous.

A new Russian prime minister has now been appointed, after President Vladimir Putin proposed changes to the Russian government that would intentionally weaken the presidency, conveniently, after Putin leaves office.

It would pave the way for Putin to keep his grip on power after his term is finished.

And, as CNN's Fred Pleitgen reports for us now, it looks as though Putin may be following another controversial leader's path to stay in power.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): It's something President Trump repeatedly brings up, including this week, claiming it's a joke.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: And 10 years from now, when I run yet again...


PLEITGEN: But in the past, he's praised Chinese leader Xi Jinping for making it happen.

TRUMP: He's now president for life.


TRUMP: I think that's great. Maybe we will have to give that a shot someday.



PLEITGEN: Today, Russian President Vladimir Putin possibly started taking that shot, cementing his grip on power, officially appointing a new prime minister after his entire government resigned following Putin's proposed sweeping changes to Russia's constitution, changes that would give Parliament and the prime minister significantly more power and weaken the office of the president after the Putin leaves office in 2024 due to term limits.

Many speculate this move sets him up to stay in power after his term ends.

ANGELA STENT, BROOKINGS INSTITUTION: Putin is telling his own population and the rest of the world. I'm in charge now, and even after 2024, when I have to resign the presidency, I'm still going to be around and I'm still going to be a player.

PLEITGEN: The move means Putin could be appointed as prime minister or to another possibly newly created post to effectively still run the country.

An influential Russian opposition figure responded to Putin's announcement, saying, Putin's only goal is to -- quote -- "be the sole leader for life," taking ownership of an entire country and appropriating wealth to himself and his friends."

The move follows in the footsteps of several leaders who have changed the rules in their countries to stay in power indefinitely, including Putin's close friend Chinese President Xi Jinping, who abolished term limits in 2018.


Xi and Putin have struck up a bromance. Last year, Xi called Putin his -- quote -- "best and bosom friend."


PLEITGEN: And, Jake, Vladimir Putin moving along at a lightning pace, the Russians saying that these changes to the constitution could be put to the Russian Parliament as early as February or March.

So, Vladimir Putin clearly putting those chips in place to possibly stay in power for a very long time -- Jake.

TAPPER: All right, Fred Pleitgen in Moscow for us, thank you so much.

He's running for Congress and was just implicated in the Ukraine scandal. Now the FBI is looking at him.

Stay with us.