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AT THIS HOUR

Former U.S. Attorney Jessie Liu Resigns; John Kelly Criticizes Trump, Defends Vindman; Kelly Criticizes Trump on North Korea; Pelosi Spoke on Stone Case Reversal; Hope Hicks Plans Return to White House; GOP Defends, Downplays Trump's Intervention in Roger Stone Case; Former Amb. Yovanovitch Has Warning for State Department; A.G. Barr to Testify Before House Judiciary Next Month. Aired 11-11:30a ET

Aired February 13, 2020 - 11:00   ET

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


[11:00:00]

KATE WILLIAMS, CNN ROYAL HISTORIAN: And the final episode is about the future of the royal family and the path ahead, I think.

(CROSSTALK)

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN ANCHOR: For sure.

POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: Kate, thank you so much. We're all looking forward to it very much.

Be sure to watch "THE WINDSORS, INSIDE THE ROYAL DYNASTY," this Sunday, 10:00 eastern, only right here on CNN.

Thanks to all of you for being with us

I'm Poppy Harlow.

SCIUTTO: And I'm Jim Sciutto.

"AT THIS HOUR" with Kate Bolduan starts right now.

BIANNA GOLODRYGA, CNN ANCHOR: Hello, everyone. I'm Bianna Golodryga, in for Kate Bolduan. Thank you so much for joining me.

We have breaking news this morning. Jessie Liu has just resigned. This development coming just days after President Trump withdrew her nomination to the Treasury Department. Now, remember, she is the former U.S. attorney who led the office that oversaw Roger Stone's prosecution.

CNN's senior justice correspondent, Evan Perez, joins us now with the latest.

Evan, we hear she submitted this resignation last night.

EVAN PEREZ, CNN SENIOR JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Bianna. She submitted it to the Treasury Department. This is -- today was the day she was supposed to be before the Senate for her hearing for a new job at the Treasury Department. And she obviously was not going to get that job.

The president withdrew officially withdrew her nomination yesterday. And so she submitted her resignation.

But, look, all of this is on the heels of what the Justice Department did just a couple of days ago, which called into question whether or not the president was politically interfere and ordering certain actions to be done by the Justice Department, with regard to his friend, Roger Stone.

The fact that the president was acting in this way and the Justice Department appeared to be following his orders in reducing, going more lenient in a sentence recommendation against Roger Stone, is what prompted four prosecutors there to announce they were resigning from the case. One of them is leaving the Justice Department entirely.

And we also heard, Bianna, from our own sources that there are other prosecutors at the U.S. attorney's office in Washington -- this is the office that Jessie Liu was leading until recently -- that they are looking to make an exit.

Again, one of the questions that people have is, what does this mean for some of the politically, you know, implicated investigations, some of the politically sensitive investigations that the Justice Department is doing.

Some are being handled here in Washington. There's one involving Michael Flynn. He pleaded guilty. He's awaiting sentencing. And there have been some issues regarding that.

There's also an investigation in New York against Rudy Giuliani, the president's personal lawyer.

Everybody is sort of on edge trying to figure out exactly what does this mean for them, whether it means that the president and the attorney general, Bill Barr, are going to politically interfere in the work that they're doing, because obviously that makes their work impossible -- Bianna?

GOLODRYGA: Evan, this comes in an hour after the president tweeted, "Drain the swamp, we want bad people out of government." So clearly a sign of more shoes to drop here. A perilous time in Washington, indeed.

Evan, thank you.

PEREZ: Thank you.

GOLODRYGA: President Trump is facing some very harsh criticism this morning from his former chief of staff. John Kelly is defending former National Security Council aide and impeachment witness, Colonel Alexander Vindman, who was fired by President Trump. According to "The Atlantic," Kellye had this to say about Vindman at

an event last night: "He did exactly what we teach them to do, from the cradle to the grave. He went and told his boss what he just heard."

CNN White House correspondent, John Harwood, joins us now,

And, John, General Kelly was very candid at this event, also talking about North Korea as well.

JOHN HARWOOD, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: He was, Bianna. The statements that John Kelly made, they're not surprising, many of the observations were perfectly obvious to those of us outside the administration before.

What is surprising is that someone, who once was the most -- the ultimate insider in the White House, is saying them.

So he said, for example, as you noted a moment ago, that Alexander Vindman did the right thing by speaking up about the aid for investigations, quid pro quo that the president was imposing. The president, of course, has criticized him and fired him from the White House for doing that.

He said that President Trump did the wrong thing for intervening in military justice and the military outcome of the court-martial of Eddie Gallagher, the Navy SEAL that had been charged and acquitted with murder, but later reduced in rank, and the president restored his rank.

He also said the president was played by Kim Jong-Un in North Korea, because, Kelly said, it is perfectly obvious that the North Koreans have no intention of giving up their nuclear weapons. The president continued to claim publicly that's what he was going to make happen. Of course, he's not made it happen.

And the White House is not pleased by what John Kelly said, which is not surprising.

GOLODRYGA: Right, I was going to ask you what kind of response are we getting from the White House. What really stood out to me is that General Kelly said Vindman is, quote, "blameless," and also the fact that the president was played by Kim Jong-Un. Have we heard any indication they're going to release a statement?

[11:04:59]

HARWOOD: Stephanie Grisham, the White House press secretary, went on FOX, which is the equivalent of a White House statement these days, and said that John Kelly's remarks were disappointing, some were disingenuous because she heard him say different things about the media, for example, in these remarks. He also said the media is not the enemy of the people. She made that statement.

But, again, John Kelly is liberated at this point and finally feels motivated to talk about what he saw. GOLODRYGA: Several times there were a round of applause he received

from some of the statements.

If that wasn't enough, we're also hearing the president's former communication adviser, Hope Hicks, is planning on returning to the White House from California. What role will she be taking now?

HARWOOD: Stephanie Grisham did put out a statement on that, praising Hope Hicks. We understand from the senior officials that Hope Hicks is not going to be in the communications chain of command.

She is somebody who really is tantamount to family, having been with the Trump Organization before the campaign and the White House.

She is going to come and assist Jared Kushner, who is sort of a minister without a particular portfolio but has a lot of things under his command. She is going to help him.

She is somebody who the president feels comfortable with, who he was sorry that she left, and now she's coming back to lend a hand as he tries to win another term.

GOLODRYGA: Really does feel like post impeachment. You've got a president who wants to purge those who he views as enemies and bring in those who he views he can trust.

John Harwood, we appreciate it. Thank you so much.

And just moments ago, Speaker Pelosi spoke about the DOJ reversal over the Stone case. Let's take a listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REP. NANCY PELOSI (D-CA): Thinks he's above the law, he has no respect for the rule. But where are the Republicans to speak out on this blatant violation of the rule of law?

A.G. Barr has deeply damaged the rule of law by withdrawing the DOJ sentencing recommendation, the act of interference, and Trump's retribution against the attorney in the Stone case.

Imagine the four of the prosecutors separated themselves from the case when the president did that. Just days after firing Lieutenant Colonel Vindman for speaking truth to power.

This all must be investigated. The American people must have confidence in our nation's system of impartial justice.

And with the withdrawal of the four prosecutors, the case, what an act of courage on their part and must be commended. The Justice Department has this -- should be so above the political fray that people have the confidence in the rule of law in our country.

The attorney general has stooped to such levels. He's lied to Congress for which he'll be in contempt. He has engaged in these activities. What a sad disappointment to our country. (END VIDEO CLIP)

GOLODRYGA: You heard the speaker there ask, where are the Republicans. We're going to get answers to that question with our panel coming up.

Meantime, President Trump has taken extraordinary actions since being acquitted by the Senate just eight days ago. Hard to believe that was eight days ago.

Here is just some of the controversial actions that he's done in just the past 48 hours.

First, he's used Twitter to attack the judge and prosecutors in the Roger Stone case. And then this morning, he went after the foreman of the jury.

He withdrew the nomination, as we broke at the top of the show, Jessie Liu to the Justice Department. And as we told you just a moment ago, she has now resigned.

He congratulated Bill Barr for, quote, "taking charge" in the Stone case.

And when asked what he learned from being impeached, he said, quote, "Democrats are, crooked and vicious."

What are Republicans saying about the president's actions? Take a listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R-SC): He has real concerns about overzealous prosecution more than anything else. If I thought he had done something that had changed the outcome inappropriately, I'd be the first to say.

SEN. JOHN CORNYN (R-TX): The president has First Amendment rights, too.

MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Do you believe the president did not -- his view of this did not influence the Justice Department in any way?

CORNYN: I don't any reason not to believe that.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

GOLODRYGA: And at this moment, we are just now getting reaction from the president in a tweet to the comments from General Kelly.

Here's what he said: "When I terminated John Kelly, which I couldn't do fast enough, he knew full well that he was way over his head. Being chief of staff just wasn't for him. He came in with a bang, went out with a whimper. And just like so many exes, he misses the action and can't keep his mouth shut, which he actually has a military and legal obligation to do." "His incredible wife, Karen, who I have a lot of respect for, once

pulled me aside and said strongly, 'John respects you greatly. When we are no longer here, we will only speak well of you.' Wrong!"

(END VIDEO CLIP)

GOLODRYGA: With that, there's so much to talk about. Joining me, former U.S. attorney and contributing columnist for the "Washington Post," Harry Litman, CNN political commentator and former spokesman for the National Republican Committee, Doug Heye. We're also joined by CNN senior political analyst, Mark Preston.

[11:10:15]

Where do we begin?

Mark, I'm going to start with you.

We shouldn't be surprised to see that the president responded so quickly to the comments from General Kelly. What is your take on what he just tweeted?

MARK PRESTON, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, look, it is just continues to be a long line of intimidation that we have seen from the president.

And really not following the basic structure that our government was founded upon. The separation of powers, the dignity that is supposed to come with the office, the moral obligation we have not only for our own citizens but around the world. He's thrown it all out the window.

You see Nancy Pelosi up there, who Democrats wanted to do something, she finally did something, she did have the president impeached. Went over to the Senate and didn't go anywhere.

You know, we heard for months now people saying, look, let's wait until November, let's see what the American people have it say. I kind of have to believe that now. I don't think anything else is going to matter at this point.

GOLODRYGA: Nine months from now seems like an eternity given that last week seems like a decade ago.

Harry, I want to turn to you because, yesterday, on this network, you said that what was taking place at the DOJ was a four-alarm fire. Now we have news of the resignation of Jessie Liu. One can only assume it is directly tied to her role in the Roger Stone case.

What do you make of the developments there?

HARRY LITMAN, FORMER U.S. ATTORNEY & CONTRIBUTING COLUMNIST, "WASHINGTON POST": The disaster continues to unfurl. And Jessie Liu, look, she was the head of that office before Attorney General Barr installed his own kind of person.

And she is a "by the book." She is by no means a softie. By no means an anti-Trumper. But she takes her oath seriously. She had no choice, the way she was so poorly treated. It is almost as if she were directly ousted.

And on top of everything else -- this is all banana-republic conduct. But on top of everything else, with the Vindmans and the Lius of the world, the government is losing some really good people. I mean, you have a general problem that the best are being ousted and don't have a role to play.

That's in addition to the great demoralization that it leaves behind in her office. She was badly treated and really painted into a corner and had no choice.

GOLODRYGA: Yes, we're getting word that there are more resignations potentially --

LITMAN: Yes.

GOLODRYGA: -- from prosecutors in the DOJ following what transpired.

Doug, at the top of the segment, I repeated what the speaker said and her question of, where are the Republicans. I'm old enough to remember when the world almost blew up after President Obama commented on Hillary Clinton's character when she was under investigation. He was giving an interview, obviously, when her husband, President Clinton, met alone for a few minutes on a tarmac with Loretta Lynch. Now Republicans seem to not be bothered at all.

How do you characterize this as anything other than shameless hypocrisy?

DOUG HEYE, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR; Well, look, this is politics 101. If you're a Republican member of Congress and speak out against the president, you know you may get a tweet like the one you just read towards the former chief of staff. That means you're going to probably lose your primary or it hurts you in the general.

While I've been disappointed that Republicans haven't spoken out more, also know that, if they do, they're signing a resignation letter. And politicians act in their own interest. It shouldn't be surprising that they do so. That's what we're seeing right now.

As Manu or other folks are walking in the halls trying to talk to Congress -- talk to members of Congress, Senators, they don't want to talk, period.

GOLODRYGA: Upholding constitutional values and oaths as opposed to fearing a tweet doesn't seem like it is going to be a hard decision, yet it continues to be.

We'll have to leave it there. Very busy morning.

Mark Preston, Harry Litman, Doug Heye, thank you so much.

HEYE: Thank you.

[11:14:10]

GOLODRYGA: And coming up, key impeachment witness and ousted ambassador to Ukraine, Marie Yovanovitch, is refusing to stay silent. And she has a warning for the State Department.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

GOLODRYGA: For the first time, we're hearing from former Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch in her own voice and she's not holding back. Yovanovitch became a central figure in the impeachment drama and recipient of the president's ire.

Last night, she was honored for her long diplomatic career. And, during her speech, offered a stark warning about the degradation of the State Department and the consequences to U.S. diplomacy.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MARIE YOVANOVITCH, FORMER U.S. AMBASSADOR TO UKRAINE: Right now, the State Department is in trouble. Senior leaders lack policy vision, moral clarity and leadership skills.

The policy process has been re replaced by decisions emanating from the top with little discussion. They can go unfilled and officers are increasingly wondering whether it is safe to express concerns about policy even behind closed doors.

It is not news the State Department is hollowed out from within at a competitive and complex time on the world stage. This is no time to undercut our diplomats.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

GOLODRYGA: Joining me now, one of the moderators from the event last night, former U.S. ambassador to Russia, Bill Burns.

Thank you for joining us, Ambassador.

BILL BURNS, FORMER U.S. AMBASSADOR TO RUSSIA: Thank you for having me.

GOLODRYGA: You were on stage last night as Ambassador Yovanovitch was introduced to lengthy applause, a standing ovation. She even came across seeming overwhelmed by it. I know you know her personally. Can you describe what that moment was like?

[11:20:08]

BURNS: Well, I mean, it was a remarkable recognition, I think, of the dignity with which Yovanovitch and my other former colleagues have conducted themselves in these really undignified times. I was really proud to be able to join and play a smart part in this.

Because what Maria has demonstrated is an example of the quiet courage and conviction of public service at its very best. Most Americans don't have much occasion to pay attention to diplomacy or to diplomats. And what she demonstrated is something that I think all Americans can be proud of.

GOLODRYGA: Yes, that's true.

And she is not mincing words here. She's continuing to speak out, saying the State Department, as you just heard, was being hollowed out from within and there's no moral clarity there. Those are stunning words. How dire is the current situation at the State Department?

BURNS: I think it is quite serious. I think the State Department is as an institution being hollowed out with the sidelining of career expertise and the vindictiveness with which public servants are treated, like Marie Yovanovitch, who are doing their duty and upholding their oath.

The danger is not an abstraction. It is that policy making becomes an exercise in narcissism, not a process that is shaped by the rule of law informed by facts and experience.

The danger really is, on an increasingly competitive international landscape, that we're less able to compete because an erratic and narrowly transactional narcissistic approach to the world causes our allies to lose faith, our adversaries to take advantage, and the institutions we did so much to shape start to wobble. So there's a real danger here.

GOLODRYGA: And it's -- And it is just unrecognizable, hearing you describe the United States that way and the State Department that way.

And I've been saying throughout this crisis that there's no American that has arguably suffered more from the fallout of the Ukraine scandal than Ambassador Yovanovitch. She was subjected to smear campaigns, possible stalking, and the attacks from the president himself. Other fact witnesses have been attacked and lost their jobs, Lieutenant Colonel Vindman and others.

You have a piece out focusing on the message that this abusive treatment and retaliation sends to public servants around the world. What is the danger there?

BURNS: The real danger -- you look at the example of Colonel Vindman, hard to believe it was less than a week ago he was perp walked out of his office with the National Security Council staff. It is a particularly graceless and vindictive act, a dishonorable way of treating an honorable man, a military officer, who bled for his country.

The danger, in a lot of ways, is what a legendary diplomat, George Kennan, the architect of the Cold War policy of containment, wrote in 1946. Kennan wrote that the greatest danger in coping with our adversaries is that we allow ourselves to become just like them.

And that's the trap we're falling into. We're feeding the autocrats' conceit, the conceit of people like Vladimir Putin, who always argued that democratic systems are no better and no different than authoritarian systems, just more hypocritical.

So there's a real danger in what we're drifting toward right now.

GOLODRYGA: Yes, really losing credibility on a global stage.

It is important that we're hearing from these diplomats, right? Bill Taylor has been speaking out. We heard from Ambassador Yovanovitch. In terms of addressing and dealing with this situation, and changing it, what can be done?

BURNS: I think it is going to take a lot longer to fix than it has taken to break. I think there's an important role for the Congress to play in holding people to account and in highlighting, you know, the very real dangers of this kind of drift when you hollow out institutions, not only the State Department, but the Justice Department as well.

And so, you know, we ought not to forget the examples that these honorable public servants are setting for all of us. And we ought to learn from that and act on it.

GOLODRYGA: Ambassador Burns, thank you so much for joining us. And it was so great and important to hear from Ambassador Yovanovitch as well. Thank you.

BURNS: My pleasure. Thank you.

[11:24:19]

GOLODRYGA: And still ahead, Speaker Pelosi just said that Trump's intervention of the Roger Stone case is a blatant violation of the rule of law. So what do House Democrats do now? I'll speak with Congressman Adam Smith about that, coming up next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

GOLODRYGA: And if you're just joining us, we're following breaking news in Washington this hour. The latest fallout from the Roger Stone case, Jessie Liu has just resigned. President Trump had nominated Liu for a top Treasury Department job but yanked that nomination earlier this week.

President Trump reportedly withdrew Liu's nomination over her handling of the Roger Stone and Andrew McCabe cases.

This comes as Attorney General Bill Barr is set to testify before the House Judiciary Committee next month. This could give Democrats the opportunity to press the attorney general on the sentencing of Roger Stone and other controversies that have emerged in the aftermath of President Trump's impeachment trial.

[11:30:05]

Democrats are outraged over President Trump's praise for Barr in the intervention of the sentencing phase.