Return to Transcripts main page

CNN LIVE EVENT/SPECIAL

Parnas Implicates Top Trump Officials in Ukraine Plot; Intel Officials Ask Congress Not to Hold Public Hearings on World Threats Fearing They'd Anger Trump; Ukraine Police Investigating Possible Surveillance of Yovanovitch; Interview with Former Ambassador James Melville; Soon, Supreme Court Justice Will Be Sworn In, Starting Senate Impeachment Trial. Aired 1:30-2p ET

Aired January 16, 2020 - 13:30   ET

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


[13:30:00]

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That was a big bone of contention between the president and John Bolton during the end of his time as national security adviser.

Separately, we should note the vice president's office has denied what Lev Parnas said there, talking about the vice president being aware of this. They said he wasn't aware of this pressure campaign. And of course, this was a big question given he was the one that sat down with the Ukrainian leader when he went in substitution for the president overseas.

Now, the thing is, this is only fueling more questions. And as the Senate trial is getting ready to get kicked off, this is something the White House legal team that is preparing to deal with that Senate trial is now having to grapple with.

JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: Kaitlan Collins, thank you so much.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: This just coming into CNN. We're getting word that intelligence officials here in Washington have asked the U.S. Congress not to hold public hearings on worldwide threats out of fear that it will anger President Trump. We're going to get details on that right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[13:35:53]

BLITZER: As we await the swearing in of U.S. Senators at the president's impeachment trial that's supposed to happen right at the top of the hour, this just coming into CNN. We're now learning that U.S. intelligence officials have asked the House of Representatives and the Senate to not, repeat, not hold public hearings on worldwide threats for fear of angering President Trump.

We're joined by our senior national correspondent, Alex Marquardt.

Alex, what's behind this request? ALEX MARQUARDT, CNN SENIOR NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, this is

extremely extraordinary. Every year, there's what's known as a worldwide threats assessment put out by the Intelligence Community about the various threats they see around the world.

And the heads of the various intelligence agencies traditionally give both classified behind closed doors and public briefings to the Intelligence Committees both in the House and the Senate.

Now, this year, a source is telling my colleague, Zach Cohen, officials from the Office of National Intelligence have asked those two committees if this cannot be done in public. That was part of the discussions as they look to arrange these hearings that were supposed to take part later this month.

This, according to a source, is because intelligence officials are afraid of angering the president, which is exactly what happened last year.

Last January, this time last year, the heads of the Intelligence Community led by Dan Coats, the DNI at the time, and Gina Haspel, head of the CIA, came out and told about different threats around the world, including North Korea, ISIS and Russia.

On all of those subjects, in fact, they were diametrically opposed to the positions the president has been taking.

For example, they downplayed the threat from Iran. They said North Korea was significant when he was trying to make amends with that country. So he came out swinging, calling the heads of the Intelligence Community naive. He said they should go back to school.

And that at the time, and really since, is just the latest in this fraught relationship between the Intelligence Community and the president that essentially started on day one.

Wolf and Jake, you'll remember that he went over to the CIA right after his inauguration, stood in front of the stars in that famous hallway at the CIA which are symbols of the CIA agents who have fallen on the field of battle, and he talked about the crowd size at his inauguration. Later on, he compared the Intelligence Community to Nazis.

So this has been a very tough relationship between the Intelligence Community and the president. And now we are seeing the Intelligence Community fearing again that they will raise the ire, that they will anger the president if they come out in public with these threats briefing.

I should note that there's no expectation that the actual report will not come out. In fact, as expected, the committees will reject this request for no briefing. So we will expect to get that report.

And as things stand now, there's an expectation that this public briefing from the heads of the Intelligence Community will happen -- Jake, Wolf? BLITZER: It's a pretty amazing development when you think about it,

especially --

TAPPER: Unbelievable.

BLITZER: Alex, thank you very much.

Those of us who have covered the Intelligence Community for years. It comes out every year. They brief Congress. There are public statements. It happens every time.

Remember, last year, when the president was repeatedly criticizing the Intelligence Community's leadership, at one point, you'll remember, he actually recommended that they should go back to school.

TAPPER: It's remarkable. What people need to think about here is, first of all, these are facts, right? The Intelligence Community is presenting their factual analysis of national security matters for the United States.

That includes, for example, the countries that are trying to interfere in U.S. elections, which include Russia, but also include Iran and others. That includes terrorist threats to the United States. That includes all sorts of matters.

[13:40:06]

And the idea that the intelligence chiefs are so afraid of President Trump disagreeing with the facts that he will lash out or whatever they're afraid of is remarkable.

I guess we should be thankful that the guardrails still exist, that they're not changing their assessment. But it is disturbing that they fear a presentation of what the national threats are in the name of the national security for the United States, that they're afraid that the president will lash out at them for just presenting the facts. It's just stunning.

DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: It's also ironic given the fact it was a little more than two weeks ago that the commander- in-chief launched a strike and killed Soleimani based on what he says was intelligence.

(CROSSTALK)

BASH: It's obviously good intelligence, good enough to lay out a threat to the region and ultimately to the United States.

(CROSSTALK)

TAPPER: He's being polite by calling it Iran. It's hypocritical, is what it is.

BASH: It's hypocritical.

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: Also, last year, when Dan Coats, former --

BLITZER: Dan Coats.

BORGER: Dan Coats -- was giving his assessment, he said a couple things that angered the president. One was that Russia was still involved in its nefarious acts trying to hack into our election process.

And also he said at the time that North Korea would not give up its nuclear weapons.

And that was just as the president was preparing for his summit with North Korea. And Coats went out there and said, no matter what you do, they aspire to get these weapons and they're not going to give it up.

And he is no longer in the Trump administration.

JOHN KING, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: The fact that he's the former tells you why the current is reluctant to go sit in that same chair. You have acting DNI, but you have Gina Haspel --

(CROSSTALK)

KING: You have Gina Haspel, who is the CIA director, who was Mike Pompeo's deputy. This is another example of where the secretary of state has morphed.

We talk about how the transformation that Trump has imposed on people. Whether they impose on themselves. They're adults. But he's the one that challenged him. Now he won't stand up to the president.

We were talking about this earlier about transparency and accountability. This administration, either by its own actions, or now by the fear of its own officials, does not want to publicly account for facts. For facts.

This is the administration that brought us the term --

(CROSSTALK)

KING: -- alternative facts. They like to live by their own truth.

SOPHIA NELSON, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: The Constitution's on display today, literally. Right now, we're watching something that's playing out from an 18th century document that's playing out from the 21st century.

And I want to say that this notion that we can't anger the president of the United States is utterly preposterous and ridiculous. This is why you have a free press. It's in the Constitution. It's right there. It's one of the first things the founding fathers talk about. This notion of the checks and balances is really important.

I hope our intelligence agencies will back off that position, because it's not only their duty to share the information, as you said, Jake, but it's our duty as the press, but also Congress has a duty, to make sure this is aired out in the daylight so that the people know. TAPPER: Everyone, stick around.

New evidence reveals the possible surveillance of this ousted American diplomat, Marie Yovanovitch. Ukraine is announcing an investigation. Not the one the president wanted. But Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and the State Department, they've been silent. We'll discuss.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[13:45:00]

BLITZER: As we await the arrival of U.S. Senators to be sworn in for the impeachment trial that's going to happen in the next few minutes, police in Ukraine are now investigating the possible surveillance of former Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch.

It came after the House committee released notes as part of the impeachment probe suggesting Yovanovitch was being illegally spied on before she was removed from her role.

TAPPER: The text messages between indicted Rudy Giuliani associate, Lev Parnas, and a Republican congressional candidate, Robert Hyde, show them berating Yovanovitch, suggesting that Hyde was monitoring in some way the ambassador while she was in Kyiv, Ukraine, and relaying her movements to Parnas.

This morning, CNN learned FBI agents when to the home and business of Hyde in Connecticut. They did not answer questions about Hyde's' whereabouts or why they wanted to speak to him.

Remember, Yovanovitch was seen as a push to get Ukraine to investigate Joe and Hunter Biden.

BLITZER: Joining us now, the former U.S. ambassador to Estonia, James Melville.

Mr. Ambassador, thanks so much for joining us.

What's your reaction to Ukraine now beginning a formal criminal investigation into this, but not the U.S. State Department or the U.S. Justice Department, as far as we know?

JAMES MELVILLE, FORMER U.S. AMBASSADOR TO ESTONIA: It's amazingly ironic that this is the investigation that the Ukrainians are going to wind up doing. It's unbelievable to me that we're in this kind of circumstance.

I also think that -- I don't know the credibility of Mr. Parnas or Mr. Hyde or any of these people. But I do know that the State Department and the U.S. government put an awful lot of effort into the safety of missions and the safety of ambassadors.

And in a place like Ukraine or Estonia, where I was quite recently, we work closely with the government to make sure our facilities and our personnel are protected and are safe.

[13:50:01]

It's hard for me to imagine a couple amateurs, and unserious people could pose a real threat to the mission given the layers of resources and attention that we always place behind keeping our personnel safe.

BLITZER: The State Department, including the Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, they've been silent during almost all of this. How unusual is that?

MELVILLE: Well, it's amazingly -- it's unbelievable to me really, but it's of a piece with the way the whole administration -- I mean, you know the White House hasn't had a press conference in how long? The State Department hasn't had a legitimate press conference in a similar period, you know.

It used to be, when I was a foreign service officer and certainly when I was an ambassador, the fuel that we went on were the words of the leaders in the administration. And you know, silence is just another way that you can see the whole functions of the government, especially in foreign policy, are just atrophying.

TAPPER: Mr. Ambassador, my understanding of the actual embassy in Kyiv is that it is in an area where there are high-rises around, and there could be people looking into the U.S. embassy. I hear you on the credibility of both Parnas and Hyde, but obviously the Ukrainians think that there are some security implications, right? What might they be?

MELVILLE: Jake, I was the executive director of the European bureau when we opened the embassy in Kyiv. So I went to the opening of the new embassy a few years ago. And it's -- it's built to an amazing security standard. And the new embassy is rather removed from the center of town and high-rises.

I don't know that anything has been built since it was commissioned and opened a few years ago, but I do think that the attention of the Ukrainian security officials would help to make sure that there wasn't a danger being posed to the new facility.

That's the -- it is the case that in many older facilities around the world. They're located in places that are a lot more vulnerable.

(CROSSTALK)

MELVILLE: But I don't think the one in Kyiv is in that category.

BLITZER: Ambassador Melville, thanks so much for joining us. Thanks for your service over the years as well. We appreciate it.

TAPPER: And back to our breaking news right now, the chief justice of the United States, John Roberts, has arrived at the capitol. Any minute now, he will be sworn in, and then he will swear in all 100 U.S. Senators for the president's impeachment trial. We will take you there when it happens.

Stay with us. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[13:56:06]

TAPPER: And moments from now, Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts will be escorted into the Senate chamber where he will be administered the trial oath.

The chief justice of the United States will repeat a phrase only uttered by two chief justices before him, quote, "Do you solemnly swear or affirm, as the case may be, that in all things appertaining to the trial of the impeachment of" -- "in this case Donald Trump" -- president of the United States now pending, I will do impartial justice according to the Constitution and laws, so help me God."

BLITZER: That's what he'll have to affirm. The chief justice will then administer the same oath to the Senate before each Senator signs the impeachment trial oath book.

Let's bring in our Supreme Court analyst, Joan Biskupic.

Walk us through exactly what the chief justice of the United States is about to do?

JOAN BISKUPIC, CNN SUPREME COURT ANALYST: Well, here he is. This is a function that's listed in the Constitution and it says he will preside over the Senate. A much different role than what he has across the street at the Supreme Court where he actually is a judge and will be casting a vote.

Here he will be following the lead of the Senate Majority, Mitch McConnell. He will be working off of a script. Today, when he comes there, it will be mostly scripted as he takes his oath and then has each Senator come up to sign the oath book.

And then he will take as his Bible -- the parliamentarian rules that date back to 1986 that have been long entrenched to the Senate -- to make sure all the procedures are met, all the rules are met.

But there's one time when he might have more of a hand because, under the rules, he can actually make determinations on evidence and witnesses. However, he can be overturned by a majority of the Senate.

And I believe that Chief Justice John Roberts will not want to get to a point where he actually is steering this.

BLITZER: Bernie Sanders is speaking outside -- just up speaking. We'll find out what he had to say.

Did I interrupt you?

BISKUPIC: No, it's OK. I was just saying that this a very ceremonial role for him.

And I also think you'll see John Roberts take a page from his mentor, William Rehnquist, who presided in 1999 over the trial of William Clinton. And Chief Justice Rehnquist famously took a page from Gilbert and Sullivan and said, I did nothing in particular and I did it very well.

If this chief can recede to the background, I believe he will want to.

TAPPER: That's what I want to ask you, Joan. You wrote a book about John Roberts, called "The Life and Turbulent Times of Chief Justice John Roberts."

My guess, based on reading your book and watching him, is that he'll want to recede into the background even more than William Rehnquist, who was pretty quiet during the Clinton impeachment.

BISKUPIC: I think, first of all, Jake, he will show up sans stripes.

TAPPER: No stripes.

BISKUPIC: No stripes at all. He's going to wear the robe he wears during Supreme Court proceedings.

But think of how different our time is now compared to 1999. Those of us who covered the 1999 trial could have never imagined that 21 years ahead we would be saying, oh, that was easy.

Think of how much more polarized things are. Think of the clashes he's had with President Trump. Think of just how he wants -- every time John Roberts makes a public speech, he reminds everyone that the judiciary is different, the judiciary is not part of politics.

So what he will be doing is trying to take a low-key role.

And I have a feeling in some of the backroom negotiations as Mitch McConnell is working out things with Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, he will be saying, it's your show, which the Constitution reinforces. The Constitution says it is the sole power of the Senate to decide whether President Trump is acquitted or convicted.

BORGER: Joan, couldn't some of this stuff actually wind up before the Supreme Court if there are arguments over testimony, documents, the White House not giving the Democrats what they want? I mean, is there a potential for any kind of a conflict if he were to do any?

[14:00:06]