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Former White House Chief of Staff John Kelly Defends Actions of Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman regarding President Trump's Call with Ukrainian President; Attorney General Bill Barr Recommends Reduced Sentencing for Roger Stone; Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-HI) is Interviewed About Republicans Seeing No Reason to Investigate Trump & Barr Intervention. Aired 8-8:30a ET
Aired February 13, 2020 - 08:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
DONALD TRUMP, (R) PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I want to thank the Justice Department. They saw the horribleness of a nine-year sentence for doing nothing.
SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM, (R-SC) SENATE FOREIGN RELATIONS COMMITTEE: If I thought he'd done something that changed the outcome inappropriately, I'd be the first to say.
SCHUMER: What is more stinking than the most powerful person in the country changing the rules to benefit a crony guilty of breaking the law.
SEN. BERNIE SANDERS, (D-VT) PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: We are taking on Trump, the Republican establishment, Carville, and the Democratic establishment.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He was standing up screaming into the microphone about the revolution. Give people an alternative.
SEN. ELIZABETH WARREN, (D-MA) PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: We need someone who is going to be able to unite this party.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is NEW DAY with Alisyn Camerota and John Berman.
JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning, and welcome to your NEW DAY. It is Thursday, February 13th. It is 8:00 in the east. And the question this morning, who will stand up to President Trump during what one senator called his retribution tour. We have an answer. His former chief of staff, John Kelly, in a way is standing up, at least he did overnight. The retired Marine Corps general defended Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman who was fired after testifying in the impeachment investigation. General Kelly overnight said of Vindman, quote, "He did exactly what we teach them to do from cradle to grave. We teach them, don't follow an illegal order. And if you're ever given one, you'll raise it to whoever gives it to you that this is an illegal order, and then you'll tell your boss." Much more on what Kelly had to say about his former boss, the president, in just a moment.
ALISYN CAMEROTA, CNN ANCHOR: And many Democrats and observers are wondering if this is just the beginning of President Trump's retribution tour. The president has freely admitted he learned none of the lessons his Republican allies were hoping for when they acquitted him. Former Trump aide Steve Bannon is warning Americans that, quote, we'd better get used to it, end quote. CNN has also learned that more career federal prosecutors may resign in the wake of this. Four of them abruptly quit the Roger Stone case after Trump attorney general Bill Barr requested a reduction in Stone's prison sentence for lying to Congress and witness tampering.
BERMAN: Much more now on General Kelly speaking out. Joining us by phone is Peter Nicholas, White House reporter for "The Atlantic." He was there for John Kelly's event last night, which was in New Jersey. Peter, if you can, explain what this event was, why you were there, and the circumstances.
PETER NICHOLAS, WHITE HOUSE REPORTER "THE ATLANTIC": Well, it was a regular speaking appearance. John Kelly has been delivering some speeches without much fanfare or publicity necessarily. And he gave one at an event that was sponsored by Drew University in Morristown, New Jersey. I attended just as an interested observer, really. I just sat in the audience, and was struck by how pointed and direct he was in some of the concerns he raised.
He talked about Vindman and issued a defense of Vindman, saying Vindman really followed his military training in reporting his concerns to his superiors, going through proper channels, and then responding to a lawful subpoena. But he also said some interesting things, too, about North Korea, the press, and in many ways, he sounded like the anti-Trump. With respect to North Korea, he said Kim Jong-un, the North Korean leader, is not going to give up nuclear weapons, and North Korea has really played us. He talked about the press as being not the enemy of the people. And so it was an interesting appearance where you could see that now a year out of the chief of staff job, John Kelly is opening up a bit more about some of his differences with this administration.
BERMAN: And there was no question this was a public event. It was on the record, so General Kelly is OK with this going public, and maybe even it is that he wants to get this message out there to what I think is the biggest headline, his defense of Colonel Vindman, implying that he believes it was Vindman's duty to speak out. And then the words he chose to use what the president did on the phone call with Zelensky, he called it an illegal order. That word choice jumps out, doesn't it, Peter?
NICHOLAS: Well, what he said is he believes actually that Vindman, in his mind, Vindman thought it to be an illegal order, that this is something Vindman perceived as an illegal order. And that's the way Vindman chose to act. So it's something that he was, as we said in the story, he was describing how Vindman might have received that as an illegal order. But he also said that Vindman was concerned about a change in policy,
too, Ukrainian policy. Kelly made clear that he thought that that's what this was, that our policy had been to support Ukraine in their fight against Russia, and that this amounted to a shift in policy.
BERMAN: Let me read what he said -- I'm going to read what he said about North Korea also, because you said, in addition to getting into what I think is probably the most sensitive issue for the president, which is the peace meeting, he also did talk policy. Take North Korea for instance.
General Kelly said "He will never give his nuclear weapons up," he's talking about Kim Jong-un. "Again, President Trump tried -- that's one way to put it. But it didn't work. I'm an optimist most of the time, but I'm also a realist, and I never did think Kim would do anything other than play us for a while, and he did that fairly effectively." I don't think the president will like the fact that General Kelly is saying that he got played, the president got played by Kim Jong-un.
NICHOLAS: Well, I think that's right. I think the president feels personal diplomacy can make inroads with Kim Jong-un and that he could persuade Kim Jong-un to relinquish his nuclear program. And I think what Kelly is saying is that Kim Jong-un is, his self-regard, his relevance really comes down to having nuclear weapons. He's never going to do it. And, in fact, that by waiting, by playing out this card of personal diplomacy, maybe gave Kim Jong-un some more time to continue with the program.
BERMAN: So the fact of this event, Peter, again, speaking out about policy, the Trump administration policy, and also the president himself and impeachment, what does this tell you about where General Kelly is at this moment, and what more we might hear from him less than a year to go until the 2020 election?
NICHOLAS: It looks like he's going to continue to give public speeches. He's going to continue to speak out. I don't get a sense that he's necessarily looking to thrust himself in front of the cameras and become a player in the campaign. That's really not my sense of how he wants to handle this. But he does have strong views about public service, about his -- what happened in the Trump administration during his tenure, and he's pretty forthright about that. So I do think that partisans, people will latch on to what they want to about this. But I do think that Kelly had a front row seat. He was there at Trump's side for over a year, and he understands Trump and how Trump governs better than anyone. So I think it's important to listen to him and important to -- I don't think he's looking necessarily to make an enemy of President Trump, but it seems like he has real concerns, too, that he wants to express.
BERMAN: No doubt. And there were protesters there last night, and there will be people who note that the consistency of John Kelly's positions might be in question given that he worked in the White House and didn't make these concerns public. But be that as it may, it is interesting to hear from him now. We did hear him say a few weeks ago he believed John Bolton in terms of the impeachment investigation. Also Peter Nicholas, a reporter in the right place at the right time because I think you knew there was going to be news there. Thanks for joining us this morning.
NICHOLAS: John Kelly is definitely someone to watch. Thank you so much for having me.
CAMEROTA: Thank you for being here.
Joining us now, we have CNN political analyst David Gregory and CNN political commentator Jen Psaki. She's the former White House communications director under President Obama. And Jen, in terms of communications of what John Kelly is trying to do, as you just heard, he's not just talking about Lieutenant Colonel Vindman, though it's very interesting what he's saying. He also is talking about how President Trump, he believes, is being played by North Korea. He talks about what he saw with Vladimir Putin and that relationship. He talked about immigration and he said that immigrants are, quote, overwhelmingly good people. That's such a different message, obviously, from what we heard when he was in the White House.
And I assume that President Trump's supporters are too dug in at this point to really listen or hear him. But do you think that that message will have any impact on Republicans in Congress coming from General Kelly?
JENNIFER PSAKI, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: I wish it would. I think that's probably unlikely at this point. But what I heard from general Kelly, of course his defense of Vindman, as you said, was important to hear from somebody who has served in the military for as long as he has, and I hope we hear that from others. But beyond that, he portrayed Donald Trump, intentionally or not, as somebody who is pretty naive, who perhaps isn't up to the task, who relied on his own relationships or development of relationships to try to do diplomacy, and that's not how it works, which anybody who has worked in national security, whether for a Republican or Democrat, would certainly echo. But that's the piece I think that may not sit very well with Donald Trump moving forward because, of course, he wants to portray himself as the only one who can make the big deals globally.
BERMAN: David, what's the responsibility of a General Kelly, of a General Mattis, of a John Bolton, of the Republicans in the Senate who will whisper behind closed doors -- we always hear, oh, they'll admit behind closed doors that the president's actions or his behavior unacceptable, but what's their public responsibility as you see it?
DAVID GREGORY, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, I think it's going to be a question of their personal integrity. And I think it's interesting that General Kelly's offering these comments. He's not hiding it, but he's not necessarily going out of his way to be on the record. John Bolton evidently will share some things in his book.
And as for Republicans, they're simply too scared politically to go against the president. I think this question of personal integrity is important because the president is operating with a fog machine. He takes his grievances against his perceived enemies, and sometimes he's got legitimate complaints about people. But then what he does is use the fog machine to create this fog, to create a new narrative that's at odds with the facts.
And so what General Kelly is doing here is saying, hey, wait a minute. Let's not demonize Colonel Vindman for doing what we train folks in the not do, not to follow what he deemed to be an illegal order. So it's an important moment of standing up for someone and trying to push back against that. It seems very little in the context of what's going on right now, but it's something.
CAMEROTA: Jen, let's move on to what's happening in the Department of Justice with Attorney General Bill Barr. So we've heard from so many people involved in the judicial system that are really worried by what this looks like and what they're seeing. This is Attorney General Bill Barr stepping in to, it appears, protect and give leniency to President Trump's pal, Roger Stone, over the advice of his own prosecutors. And what that means going forward for all of us, and you can hear Republicans in Congress trying to make sense of this, trying to explain what their position is going to be on this. But, obviously, we all have the record of things they had said in the past when they thought that there was some sort of too close a relationship between the president and the Department of Justice.
PSAKI: That's exactly right, Alisyn. And I remember from being in the White House for eight years, when you had high level Department of Justice officials come into the building, I would put myself against the wall and try not to interact with them because there's such a history of separation, of what DOJ is working on, the cases they're working on, and the political wing of the White House.
Presidents have had imperfections, but this is a pattern. I will say as we learn more about this from reporting by CNN and others, it's not just that Barr stepped in here in the sentencing guidelines. He was setting up this sort of web in advance. Jessie Liu was nominated for a position at Treasury not just so that because Steve Mnuchin wanted to have her on board but to get her out of the way at a time when Barr knew that the prosecutors in that office would be setting sentencing guidelines.
And in addition, we've seen also Tucker Carlson weigh in. So there's an entire web that's been built up behind the scenes that we've seen thanks to reporting. That's extremely concerning because it's against any precedent of the past. And that's why we're seeing, I think, a lot of alarm within prosecutor's offices and within the Department of Justice.
BERMAN: And there's indications and reporting that the Jessie Liu nomination was pulled this week because they didn't want her to have to testify at a confirmation hearing under oath about what she saw or what she believed.
David Gregory, you are, shall we say, well-sourced in the Washington legal community and also in the institutions down there. So I do want to know what you're hearing about the level of concern over what is being seen this week, not just in the Justice Department, but overall, the level of concern and why exactly.
GREGORY: Well, I think the concern is so heightened because what you're seeing is another example, not just of the corruption of the Justice Department, but also an attack on the judiciary. This is a co- equal branch of government. The chief justice of the United States, John Roberts, has already rebuked the president once for attacking judges as political judges because of who appointed them. And the president has done it again by attacking Judge Jackson in this case.
So that's what I think is a big level of concern. And I think that, again, we should go back to the Republican standard on this, where you have Republicans in the case of John Cornyn who wanted a special prosecutor because of that meeting between Loretta Lynch, then attorney general, and former president Clinton while Hillary Clinton was being investigated. That was totally inappropriate, and the perception of corruption was there, and they were rightly criticized for that.
But now, Cornyn says, well, what is there to be critical of what the president has done? So the new standard is obviously hypocrisy. And it is to say, well, if in the end the judge still has the final say, that's all that really matters. What came before that shouldn't matter as long as the judge still has the final say. That's the new standard coming from Senate Republicans.
CAMEROTA: We hope the judge still has the final say. We'll see what Judge Amy Berman Jackson has to say about this.
BERMAN: No relation. No relation.
So what will Congress do to rein in the president? We will speak to a Democratic senator, next.
JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: What will Congress do to rein in the president? We will speak to a Democratic senator, next.
BERMAN: This morning, some Senate Republicans insist the Justice Department's intervention to revise the sentencing recommendation for longtime Trump friend and adviser Roger Stone, that it has nothing to do with President Trump or his tweets defending Stone. Here's how those senators are spinning it.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R-SC): I've got real concerns about overzealous prosecution more than anything else. If I thought he'd 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 really believe that the president did not -- his view of this did not influence the Justice Department in any way?
SEN. JOHN KENNEDY (R-LA): I don't have any reason not to believe that.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BERMAN: Joining us now is Democratic Senator Mazie Hirono. She is on the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Senator, thanks so much for being with us this morning.
SEN. MAZIE HIRONO (D-HI): Good morning.
BERMAN: What's your message to your Republican colleagues in the Senate who do not seem to be concerned with the president's statements regarding Roger Stone?
HIRONO: These are Republican senators, except for one, Mitt Romney, who did not hold this president accountable, knowing full well that they are unleashing this president to do whatever he wants because he already believed he could do whatever he wanted to do under Article 2.
Now, he's -- he feels that the Senate Republicans, the ones who did not vote to convict him, have given him the green light to do whatever he wants, and he's already doing that with a vengeance.
And as far as I'm concerned, he has already compromised the top levels of the Department of Justice. And I think we should be more than concerned. We should be very afraid that the president will use the Justice Department and his handmaiden, Bill Barr, to go after his political -- what the president considers his political enemies. So that's what's happening.
And to watch my Republican colleagues continue to twist themselves into a pretzel as they lend more cover to this president and, frankly, for themselves, is really showing the American people how bankrupt the Republican Party is.
BERMAN: Let me ask you this. The president was just impeached and acquitted. It's the biggest weapon that exists in the Constitution to rein in a president. He was impeached but then he was acquitted.
So, what you're going to -- what more can you do about it now?
HIRONO: I call it an acquittal based on a rigged trial. So I think the American people know that a trial without witnesses and documents is not a real trial. So there's that.
And then we keep being asked. We, Democrats, keep being asked, what are you going to do about it? I think Republicans should be asked every day from now until election, especially the Senate Republicans, they unleashed this president. What are you going to do to put some reins on this president?
As far as what am I going to do? The Democrats will continue to, and I will continue to focus on what this president is doing, his vindictiveness, his going after all his so-called political enemies. His continuing attacks on immigrants. His attacks on health care.
Now, he's got this huge budget that is cutting Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. The Republicans have said it's now up to the American people. My job, as far as I am concerned, is to let the American people know exactly what this president is doing because he's screwing them over.
BERMAN: You called for the Attorney General William Barr --
BERMAN: -- to resign a long time ago. He didn't.
HIRONO: In May.
BERMAN: In May.
BERMAN: And I don think he's going to.
HIRONO: I don't think so.
BERMAN: However, it is within the power of Congress, the House of Representatives to impeach a member of the cabinet. Would you like to see an impeachment investigation or impeachment proceedings against William Barr?
HIRONO: I think that if the House can focus on what's going on with this administration, how lawless it is, they will be doing a service.
But, let's face it. They can go through an impeachment. I think it was important for the House to go through the impeachment and to impeach the president because it all starts from the top. As far as I'm concerned, the rot starts from the top.
So the American people are going to get to decide in only about nine months who they want. And if they want a president who will continue to behave in a way that is lawless, then that's what we have.
But I'm going to do everything I can, and I know my colleagues, the Democratic colleagues will do everything we can to let the American people know what the facts are so that they can make a good decisions as to who they want running this country.
BERMAN: In the case of Roger Stone, Jeffrey Toobin, our legal analyst, who was very critical --
HIRONO: Yes. BERMAN: -- of the president's comments on it and the move from the Justice Department did note that he believed that the sentencing guidelines put forward by the prosecutors were very high.
President Trump has claimed that he did not order the Justice Department to change those guidelines.
Do either of those issues matter to you or how much do they matter?
HIRONO: Of course, it matters because the president doesn't have to order anything. He just makes decisions and announces his decisions by tweet. Everybody knows that is how the president gets his points across and what he wants done across.
For anybody to sort of say, oh, well, he didn't really say those words. It's totally diluted. And so, the fact that the president said what he said regarding Roger Stone already lends, really, it's a huge cloud on whatever the Justice Department is doing, particularly Bill Barr who auditioned for this job and he put his thumb on the Mueller report in a very disingenuous and basically, he lied. So this is why I called for Bill Barr to resign back then.
So, you know, this is going to continue. It's only going to get worse. We have a lawless president, and we have people in Congress, particularly the Republican senators, who will continue to cover for him because covering for him is covering for themselves.
I'm waiting for them to wake up from this horrible dream and start doing their jobs the way they're supposed to.
BERMAN: Senator Mazie Hirono, we appreciate you being with us this morning.
ALISYN CAMEROTA, CNN ANCHOR: John, coronavirus fears have 11 members of one family quarantined aboard a cruise ship day after day.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
WILL RIPLEY, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: What do you tell your children about why you guys are sitting there for this long?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We say there's like this invisible monster called the coronavirus and we can't go outside.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
CAMEROTA: Oh, my gosh. Can you imagine being these kids on that cruise ship? We take you aboard, next.
(COMMERCIAL BREAK) BERMAN: Breaking overnight, there are 44 new cases of coronavirus on the quarantined cruise ship in Japan. That makes a total of 219 confirmed cases on that ship alone.
CNN's Will Ripley has been all over this story. He spoke with a father quarantined on board with 10 family members, including seven young children.
Will join us now.
I have to say, being on board a cruise ship with seven young children, hard enough. Even if not quarantined for fears of this virus, Will.
I mean, imagine. And they're all under the age of 8, John, to be on this ship, trying to keep kids occupied. This is one of the angles we've been curious about. We're trying to find somebody to explain, how do you keep the kids happy? How do you keep them not from going stir crazy?
And you are about to see, because they took some home video to show us exactly what this quarantine, now in its second week, is like.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: One, two, three. Go!
RIPLEY (voice-over): This is what a cruise is supposed to be like. Parents with young children on the Diamond Princess, this only happens for about an hour, every few days.