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Public Rebuke of Trump Sparks Debate over A.G. Barr's Motives; Trump Had an Idea of Barr's Comments Before Interview; Trump Contradicts Past Denials & Admits Sending Giuliani to Ukraine; Trump's New York Tweet Raises Quid Pro Quo Questions; Trump May Stop Aides from Listening to Calls with Foreign Leaders; Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-IL) Discusses Trump Considering Blocking Aides from Calls with Foreign Leaders, Trump Admitting He Sent Giuliani to Ukraine, Trump's Quid Pro Quo on Trusted Traveler program in N.Y. Aired 11-11:30a ET

Aired February 14, 2020 - 11:00   ET



JIM SCIUTTO, CNN ANCHOR: Thanks for joining me today. I'm Jim Sciutto.

"AT THIS HOUR" will start right after -- right now, actually. Thanks for joining us.

BIANNA GOLODRYGA, CNN ANCHOR: Hi, everyone. I'm Bianna Golodryga, in for Kate Bolduan. Thanks so much for joining me on this Friday.

We're following an extraordinary week that has raised questions about the independence of the Justice Department. Well, now Attorney General Bill Barr appears to be doing damage control. But Barr's criticism of President Trump has some people questioning his motivation for speaking out.

In an interview with ABC News, Barr says that the president's tweets about Justice Department cases are making it, quote, "impossible" for him to do his job.


WILLIAM BARR, U.S. ATTORNEY GENERAL: To have public statements and tweets made about the department, about our people in the department, our men and women here, about cases pending in the department, and about judges before whom we have cases, make it impossible for me to do my job.

I cannot do my job here at the department with a constant background commentary that undercuts me.


GOLODRYGA: In a sign that this may have been a coordinated effort between Barr and the White House, CNN is now learning that President Trump had an idea of what Barr would say before the interview took place. Barr's comments came just days after Barr stepped in and recommended a

more lenient sentence for the president's longtime ally, Roger Stone. That move prompted four prosecutors who handled the Stone trial to walk off the case.

CNN crime and justice correspondent, Shimon Prokupecz, joins us with more.

Shimon, how is this interview being perceived within the DOJ?

SHIMON PROKUPECZ, CNN CRIME & JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: I think there's still some skepticism within the Department of Justice, behind this interview, certainly skepticism with the environment inside the Department of Justice, people wondering if anything really is going to change.

I do think they feel that the department has become very political. It was politicized because of the president and the attorney general most recently obviously the Roger Stone issue, other things that have come about.

And so there's a lot of concern that there isn't this independence that we normally would see in a normal administration between the Department of Justice and the White House. And so there's a lot of concern. People for quite some time have been unhappy there. And so we'll see. We'll see if this does anything.

It is very clear why the attorney general spoke out last night as he did. This was him talking mostly to his troops, the people inside the Department of Justice, trying to show that he is standing up to the president.

But the president, this morning, it didn't take very long for him to respond and to show who is boss and to sort of assert himself and assert what he has the right to do, in a tweet, exactly what the attorney general has been talking about.

The president takes to Twitter this morning and says that it doesn't -- just because -- "Whatever the attorney general says, it doesn't mean that he does not have the right as president, the legal right to do so. I do, but I have so far chosen not to."

And that means that he has the right to, if he wanted to tell the attorney general about his opinion of whether or not he wants to meddle in some kind of criminal investigation, he can.

So clearly here, we see the president continuing his behavior, exactly what the attorney general was complaining about. The president here continuing with his tweet.

And I'm sure this is not going to be the last time we hear from the president on this issue.

GOLODRYGA: Yes, you have the attorney general trying to reassure those within the Department of its independence, and once again you have the president seemingly one upping him and continuing to tweet something that he said specifically was damaging in that interview yesterday.

Shimon, thank you so much.

Well, in the wake of his acquittal by the Senate, President Trump is making a big admission, while also taking aim at the FBI and long-time target, James Comey.

He's now publicly admitting that he sent his personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, to Ukraine to find damaging information about his political opponents.

Now, those comments coming during an interview on Thursday.


GERALDO RIVERA, TALK SHOW HOST, "GERALDO": Was it strange to send Rudy Giuliani to Ukraine, your personal lawyer, are you sorry you did that?

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Not at all. Rudy was a great crime fighter. You know that maybe than anybody else.

RIVERA: Yes, yes.

TRUMP: Here's my choice. I deal with the Comeys of the world, or I deal with Rudy.


GOLODRYGA: That's a binary option there.

Remember now, the president repeatedly denied doing this exact thing during the impeachment inquiry, which is only a few weeks and months ago.

CNN White House correspondent, John Harwood, is joining us now.

John, the news continues here. The president is essentially admitting that he trusts his personal lawyer more than the institutions of the government. What are you hearing from the White House?


JOHN HARWOOD, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: He absolutely trusts his personal attorney more than institutions of government because, if the one thing Donald Trump's life and career has taught us, is that he does not like people -- whether it is in the government, in the legal system, in the media, he doesn't like people who constrain his actions or hold him to account.

Rudy Giuliani is somebody who was trying to, at the president's behest, gather information to discredit the Mueller investigation and the work that the Intel Community had done. That's of a piece with his criticism of the career prosecutors who convicted Roger Stone and the undercutting of their sentencing memorandum.

The president is nothing if not consistent. And he's nothing if not straightforward and not subtle about expressing his wishes.

And he's done the same thing now with following Bill Barr on the investigation of the investigators. John Durham, the U.S. attorney, who has been appointed by Bill Barr to check out exactly how the Intel Community processed information during 2016 and since about Donald Trump and his actions.

And for all the criticism that Bill Barr seemed to offer yesterday, the president approves 100 percent of what Bill Barr is doing on that front.

GOLODRYGA: Yes. And, of course, you have continued reports that the president is angry that there hasn't been an investigation launched against Comey and others. Really, really questionable circumstances right now.

John Harwood, thank you.

Joining me now to discuss all of this, Bill Kristol, director of Defending Democracy Together, and Shan Wu, CNN legal analyst and former counsel to Attorney General Janet Reno.

Welcome to both of you.

Shan, I'll begin with you.

You hear the reporting that President Trump had a general idea what Bill Barr would say in this interview with ABC News yesterday. And the president's spokesperson quick to come out to say, hey, the president has no issue with what Barr said, notwithstanding that he always has issues anytime anyone speaks out.

What is your take on what is going on here?

SHAN WU, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: The president's statement, he always wants to point out he has the right to do it, and simply might does not make right. Theoretically, he has the power to do that. But he shouldn't. And no one else has done that.

When I was at the Justice Department, we made an enormous effort have those boundaries between the White House and even the political appointees very clear from decisions made by the career prosecutors.

And his suggestion that that's just up to his discretion is simply wrong.

And frankly, Bill Barr, up until this point, has not exactly convinced anyone that he is the guardrail for this president. So his recent comments and interview I find a little bit suspicious.

GOLODRYGA: So if you -- and maybe you're still talking to friends and former colleagues within the DOJ. If the objective for Bill Barr was to come out yesterday and calm concerns that may be going on within the DOJ, given there are so many resignations and concerns internally, did he achieve that? WU: I don't think he did. I think that message was his communication

to the president in the way the president communicates best, through TV. There's a lot of discomfort, particularly at the U.S. attorney's office where Jessie Liu, who I considered a friend, had served. I think they're very uncomfortable with this.

It is late in the day for the attorney general to be reassuring his troops at the Justice Department. Very late in the day, like 4:00 a.m. I mean, his actions speak far louder than this one statement.

GOLODRYGA: If there wasn't all this other news coming at us, I think the Jessie Liu story in itself is a huge headline we should be talking about some more. I'm glad you pointed this out.

Bill, let be turn to you, because his isn't the attorney general acknowledging his actions are questionable. It is him saying he wishes the president would let him do it quietly. Is that also your take?

BILL KRISTOL, POLITICAL ANALYST & DIRECTOR, DEFENDING DEMOCRACY TOGETHER: Yes, pretty much. Look, the president responded this morning. He has the absolute right to direct to direct a criminal investigation. I don't think that's true. It may be that he can't be legally punished for trying to do that, as I would have been when I worked in the White House.

We had incredibly clear and strict guidelines about even passing on information to the Justice Department that someone might have given in good faith about something that would have possibly involved a criminal investigation, let alone, calling over there and saying, please investigate my political opponents.

The president obviously isn't subject in quite the same way to the rule of law as normal White House staff or normal staff elsewhere in the federal government, but he is subject to oversight and to impeachment possibly for that.

And so what does Bill Barr think? The president left it that he has an absolute right, that he claims he hasn't done it. Though he's done it publicly. He's urged investigations of all kinds of people. Maybe he hasn't privately told Barr, go after this person, he's just said it publicly and tweeted it and said it at rallies.

Even so, what does Bill Barr think about that?


KRISTOL: Would Bill Barr say no if the president said do this? The president said he has a right to do it. Does Bill Barr agree the president has the right to do it?

GOLODRYGA: That's something that Michael Cohen, when he testified, he saying the president doesn't come out and say, do it, but it is often times implied. Maybe that's what's transpiring via the tweets.


Shan --


KRISTOL: It's such a - it's such a breach made at this point. It is such a breach of really pretty fundamental norms of the U.S. government that criminal prosecutions are not to be ordered for political reasons by the White House.

That is really not something we want to even theoretically say. Oh, sure, the president could do it. Maybe he just hasn't done it yet. And maybe Bill Barr is uncomfortable when the president talks too much about it. That is not an adequate response to the situation we're in.

GOLODRYGA: No. That's important. And norms are in place for a reason. And they're constantly broken.

Shan, on that note, we have just concluded a months-long impeachment trial all about the president conducting a quid pro quo during a private phone conversation.

Just yesterday, he publicly announced a quid pro quo -- I would read it as such -- related to the state of New York and his administration's decision to stop the state's use of a Trusted Traveler Program that speeds up border crossings into New York.

Here is exactly what he tweeted. I want to read it to you. He said, "I'm seeing Governor Cuomo today at the White House. He must understand that national security far exceeds politics. New York must stop all of its unnecessary lawsuits and harassment, start cleaning itself up, and lowering taxes."

This is exactly what impeachment managers warned would happen if he was acquitted. Legally, would this be another example, in your opinion, of abuse of power?

WU: No question, it would be an abuse of power. That's written all over it.

In terms of what exact criminal hook you might find, you have to analyze that a little bit deeper than that.

But as far as abuse of power goes, it is classic. He's basically telling the state that he's going to punish them unless they do what he says, dropping certain -- what he calls presidential harassment- type of lawsuits. So abuse of power is written all over that, I think.

GOLODRYGA: And I think, once again, just stunning that this comes a week after he was acquitted before what began as a quid pro quo phone conversation.

Bill, you wrote an interesting piece I want to talk about now as we conclude this conversation. We heard from General Kelly yesterday speaking in defense of Lieutenant Colonel Vindman and really ridiculing the president.

You say that the public rebuke is exactly what is needed from more administration officials. What impact would that have at this stage in the game?

KRISTOL: Two points. On the previous point, to close that, if Governor Cuomo, in my opinion, the governor of New York ordered the attorney general to drop a properly constituted criminal investigation because he had some policy issue he wanted to resolve with the president, that would be an abuse of power. So the president is calling on the governor to abuse his power --


GOLODRYGA: Right. And the attorney general, by the way, has tweeted and she said, "This is not up to the governor of New York. This is me."

KRISTOL: Quite appropriately.

So he -- this is where you do see the effects of Trump. There's a knock-on effect where his abuse of power leads to others being encouraged to do so or asked to do so by him.

Look, I think there are many people that serve in this administration, maybe some of them did so for good, honorable motives, thought they could prevent bad things from happening, and some of them did, they need to speak out now.

John Kelly was the tip of that iceberg. But there are so many others. And they owe it to the American public.

We're going to an extremely important election. We need to know what they saw in there. They don't have to reveal privileged conversations or private conversations in the Oval Office but we need to get a sense of their judgment.

Whether it is Jim Mattis or former people at the Justice Department, the former number three, people who have resigned or left, Rosenstein, they're all kind of keeping quiet as if somehow that's a more appropriate way to behave. And in normal times, yes, you shouldn't leave the administration and do a tell-all. But these are not normal times.

I think we need to know, does Rod Rosenstein, former number two at Justice, have confidence that the president of the United States will see the rule of law is enforced? Does Jim Mattis have confidence that the president will not intervene inappropriately in military justice and also make rash and foolish military decisions?

That's important for the American public to know. And there's no legal or political or other reason why these people shouldn't give us their judgment.

GOLODRYGA: Well, we'll see if they heed your advice.

Bill Kristol and Shan Wu, thank you very much. Have a great weekend. Happy Valentine's Day to you both.

WU: Happy Valentine's Day. KRISTOL: You, too.

GOLODRYGA: Coming up, President Trump claims his call with the Ukrainian president was, quote, "perfect," so why is he saying he may block aides from listening to future calls with foreign leaders.


Plus, the fight for Nevada is heating up as the candidates fight to lock up key endorsements ahead of next week's caucuses. Why is one influential labor union saying they aren't going to back anyone?


GOLODRYGA: President Trump is considering a major change to White House protocol, saying that he may block officials from listening to his calls with foreign leaders.

He considered the idea during an interview yesterday, less than one year after the whistleblower complaint about such a call sparked his impeachment.

Take a listen.


TRUMP: That call was perfect. And I say it again, it was perfect. It was totally appropriate. And it wasn't one call. It was two calls. They were both perfect, appropriate calls.


RIVERA: Why are so many people allowed to listen to your calls anyway?

TRUMP: Well, that's what they have done for years. When you call a foreign leader, people listen. I may end the practice entirely. I may end it entirely.


GOLODRYGA: Joining me now to discuss, Democratic member of the House Intelligence Committee, Raja Krishnamoorthi.

Congressman, thanks so much for joining us.

REP. RAJA KRISHNAMOORTHI (D-IL): Thank you so much, Bianna.

GOLODRYGA: At this point, we come to realize that whatever the president may be telegraphing really should be taken seriously. So in that light, what do you make of this possible change of protocol?


KRISHNAMOORTHI: It is very disturbing. It would continue a pattern of potentially disturbing behavior. Recently, after the president had a one-on-one meeting in person with

Vladimir Putin, he had the notes of that particular meeting confiscated and potentially destroyed.

Now, what he's suggesting that would happen with regard to a call with a foreign leader is that the notes would not be even taken in the first instance.

And this is problematic because, from a counterintelligence standpoint, if a foreign government knows what is said on those calls, and we don't know what is said or the American public doesn't know what is said on those calls, what is said could be used against the president and be used as leverage. That's called kompromat.

GOLODRYGA: We learned about what kompromat means over the past few years.

What strikes me -- I'm glad you make this point. What strikes me about these calls is that they're monitored to protect the president as well as U.S. national interests.


GOLODRYGA: They're highly coordinated. They include typically dozens of officials.

As a member of the Intel Committee, what does it tell you when the president seemingly wants to conduct foreign policy in secret?

KRISHNAMOORTHI: Well, I think that it begs the question "why." What does he want to say on those calls that he doesn't want other people to listen in on? That's the first point.

And then, secondly, it basically opens up the possibility that separate back-channels are created, such as with Rudy Giuliani and others, where we have a shadow foreign policy, which operates not in the best interests of the United States, but in the best interests of potentially Rudy Giuliani's clients, including Donald Trump, in his political or personal capacity, as well as others who we don't even know.


You have the president just yesterday finally admitting he did send Rudy Giuliani to Ukraine after saying that wasn't the case.

But it also seems to be an effort at avoiding another whistleblower coming forward or another Lieutenant Colonel Vindman from sounding the alarm when they hear something that doesn't follow protocol.

KRISHNAMOORTHI: That's exactly right. I think he's apparently trying to shield his conversations from the possibility that others might come forward and expose wrongdoing associated with those conversations. I think that it is a good thing for more people to be listening in. And also, not only does it help to potentially expose wrongdoing or to deter the president from engaging in wrongdoing, but it is really essential for coordinating our national security, as well as diplomatic policy, and even defense policy.

It is really important that other parts of the government know what the president has said or maybe even agreed to in these calls, and then to follow up accordingly. Now if they're in the dark, it just makes them less effective.

GOLODRYGA: And very complicated as well.

Let me get you to weigh in on what we just discussed with a previous panel, and that's the president's latest apparent quid pro quo, this time, via tweet, directed at the governor of New York. This is something that impeachment managers warned would happen.

Let me play for you what Hakeem Jeffries said two weeks ago.


REP. HAKEEM JEFFRIES (D-NY): Grants allocated to cities or towns or municipalities across the country, but the president could say, you're not going to get that money, Mr. Mayor, Mrs. County Executive, Mrs. Town Supervisor, unless you endorse me for re-election.

The president could say that to any governor of our 50 states. That's unacceptable. That cannot be allowed to happen in our democratic republic.


GOLODRYGA: Well, the president appears to have done just that. I'm not even sure the impeachment managers would have expected this to play out as quickly and so quickly post acquittal.

Do you think that this falls into the category of an article of impeachment, as Shan Wu alluded to, as well as obstruction of justice of Congress? And if so, what should be done about it? Because it likely could continue to happen again.

KRISHNAMOORTHI: I'm not sure about that. But what I am sure about is that we have to be much more vigilant in our oversight rule.

I'll give you an example. I think that, you know, the Homeland Security secretary, when he comes before Congress or she comes before Congress or their deputies, they are always asking for either more resources, authorization for new programs, or modifications to existing ones.

And at this point, I think we have to be much more vigilant with regard to answering or accepting their requests in light of what you just talked about, with regard to Governor Cuomo. We have to start condition our granting of these additional resources or the modifications based on good behavior.


And unfortunately, the White House is not showing that. And now I think we're going to have to be much more aggressive in our oversight.

GOLODRYGA: And I'll just correct myself. Obviously, I was referring to abuse of power and not obstruction of Congress, but it is interesting to get your perspective on that as well.

Congressman Krishnamoorthi, thank you so much. Have a great weekend.


GOLODRYGA: Coming up, the debate over health care is front and center in the Democratic race. Now a powerful union in Nevada says it won't back any candidate for president. What does that mean?