Return to Transcripts main page

CNN Newsroom

Trump's Impeachment Trial to Begin Today; House Managers Call White House Counsel Cipollone a "Fact Witness" and Demand He Discloses All "First-Hand Knowledge"; Senators Expected to Clash Over Impeachment Trial Rules in First Senate Impeachment Trial; Impeachment Trial Kicks Off with Fierce battle Over Rules. Aired 9-9:30a ET

Aired January 21, 2020 - 09:00   ET



JIM SCIUTTO, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning to you. This is a day for Americans to watch and to witness. I'm Jim Sciutto.


Hours from now, the third impeachment trial of a U.S. president will begin. And this morning, fierce backlash from Democrats over Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell's push to fast track this whole process. It is a move to quickly acquit the president and make it harder to consider evidence. And in some ways, it is just very different than what McConnell himself promised just days ago which was a Clinton-like model. This is not that.

SCIUTTO: Well, this fact is not in question. Americans will witness the trial of a sitting president where senators will consider whether to remove him from office. But before that, the groundwork laid for a major battle when this trial kicks off. Democratic leader Chuck Schumer calls the rules a cover-up.


SEN. CHUCK SCHUMER (D-NY): The rules that McConnell proposed, proposed a trial that is rushed with as little evidence as possible and done in the dark of night. If President Trump were so confident and McConnell were so confident of his arguments, why do they have to do them at 2:00 in the morning? Why can't they do them in the light of day? The rules he proposed are really a national disgrace.


SCIUTTO: Also, of course, attempting to block witness testimony.

Joining us now CNN's Lauren Fox. She is live on Capitol Hill.

So, Lauren, lay out what our viewers are going to see today and tomorrow. Tomorrow, battle over the rules and the arguments begin tomorrow.

LAUREN FOX, CNN POLITICS CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: That's exactly right, Jim. So today at 1:00, you're going to see the Chief Justice John Roberts gavel in the Senate, and they will begin that debate on the rules. Basically McConnell's proposal that he unveiled last night. And like you noted, Democrats are very frustrated with what is in it.

There are few issues that they're concerned about. The fact that there's no guarantee on witnesses is one of them. The second thing that they're very frustrated about is the fact that while each side will have 24 hours to make their case, they're going to have to do it in two-day chunks, which means 12-hour segments.

If you remember, senators are all going to be on the floor. They can't talk. They don't have electronics. That's going to be a big problem for many Democrats who argue basically what the majority leader is trying to do is shove this into the dead of night.

Now you can expect that Chuck Schumer is going to force a couple of votes, a couple of changes to this resolution dealing with witnesses. So that we expect could go late into the evening tonight. We don't know how many amendments Chuck Schumer is actually going to put up, but we will have a better idea around 11:00 today when Schumer talks to the press.

HARLOW: Lauren, talk to us about what these rules that are proposed by the majority leader and by all indications, he's got the votes for them. What do they look like?

FOX: Well, essentially, as McConnell has said, they are similar to the Clinton model in some ways. There's 24 hours of debate. The biggest difference, of course, is the fact that each side has to shove this into two days of presentations. That's a big problem for the Democrats, Poppy. And that is something that you're going to hear them railing against over the next couple of days and even potentially weeks depending on how long this goes.

The other concern coming from many aides and the Democratic side that I've been talking to is the fact that there's no guarantee that they ever get to a vote on witnesses. They're going to actually have a vote on whether or not senators are ready to move on to this question of witnesses, but there isn't an up or down vote on people like John Bolton or Mick Mulvaney.

There's a big question about whether or not senators are going to be able to raise motions to actually force votes on individual witnesses. And of course, that's something the Democrats want to do because they're trying to make it tougher for people like Susan Collins who are up for re-election in 2020.


SCIUTTO: Now you're getting a sense of how concerned the White House would be about Ambassador John Bolton testifying because they're working on a backup plan here to block or find ways to restrict his testimony, at least in public. Tell us what CNN's reporting is.

FOX: Well, essentially what we know is that there's going to be a prolonged court fight if Democrats actually have the votes. And again, they need four Republicans to cross over and actually vote for this witness. If they have the votes to actually get John Bolton up to Capitol Hill, you can expect that the Trump administration is going to fight that on the issue of executive privilege.

But separately, they could also try to force everything to happen behind closed doors in a classified setting. That would make it so that there would be questions about whether or not the public would ever see what John Bolton was testifying about. As we noted, John Bolton has said that if he was subpoenaed by the Senate, he would come testify. So a lot of questions and contingencies have to be made in case he actually agrees and the Democrats can get vote -- Jim and Poppy.

HARLOW: All right, so, Lauren, stay with us. Don't go anywhere. Let's bring into the conversation our legal analyst Carrie Cordero and Georgetown law professor John Mikhail in the conversation.

John, let me begin with you because we know that Schumer today is going to offer up amendments, including seeking a vote on witnesses before the opening remarks begin.


He just on "NEW DAY" called this an "Alice in Wonderland" like proceeding. A phrase he likes to use to describe these things. Any reason to expect that McConnell's rules resolution will change at all after what is proposed by Democrats?

JOHN MIKHAIL, PROFESSOR OF LAW, GEORGETOWN LAW: You know, it's hard to say, but I hope that what happens is that at some point, the Senate can get beyond the procedural wrangling over the actual process by which the trial will take place and get to the merits of the dispute.

There's a key factual dispute between the president and the House managers, and I think it's important not to lose sight of that. The president essentially claims that when he withheld the aid to Ukraine, he did so for a proper, lawful and appropriate purpose. The purpose was to promote U.S. national interests.

And by contrast, the House managers have alleged that he acted with a corrupt purpose. That is a factual dispute, and what a trial in the Senate really ought to be about in my view is getting to the bottom of that question, rather than simply debating these procedural questions which are being raised at the outset.

SCIUTTO: Well, the fact is they are debating the procedural questions. And to get to the facts, you would think you would speak to witnesses with direct knowledge. John Bolton being one of them.

And, Carrie Cordero, I want to ask you about this -- starting with "Washington Post" reporting that if there are votes, and this is still a question, enough Republican votes to call witnesses at a later point in the trial, the White House exploring two possibilities for still blocking Bolton's testimony. One, claiming executive privilege of his knowledge of conversations with the president, but, two, also trying to classify his account, move it into a classified setting which is odd considering several other witnesses involved testified in a public setting, Bill Taylor, Fiona Hill, et cetera.

But from a legal standpoint, tell us about those two options. One, using executive privilege, two, making this classified.

CARRIE CORDERO, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: So on the classification point, I think that would be an abuse of the classification system. Closed hearings normally in the context of intelligent matters or national security matters are supposed to be when there is actual classified information that only certain members who are cleared to hear that information can hear and so in the context of a presidential impeachment trial, it will look like nothing else but the White House and the allies in the Senate trying to keep the public and the rest of the Senate from hearing what John Bolton would have to say.


CORDERO: And it's just a reminder that John Bolton also could have testified in front of the House. On executive privilege, again, the White House has exerted extraordinarily broad privileges against the witnesses. And that's why the big problem with Mitch McConnell's proposed rules are the fact that he is not automatically taking all of the evidence from the House proceedings and not automatically allowing a vote on witnesses.


HARLOW: John, just about Alan Dershowitz who is, you know, on the president's legal team this time around. His argument, you don't need -- that you do need an underlying crime is what he says now, right, to impeach. He said very differently in '98 and he says there's no daylight there. There is.

What about the argument when the Constitution was laid out, the criminal code was not as complete as it is now. Many things that are now technically crimes didn't -- were not classified as such back then. So doesn't that undercut the argument that times have changed? What do you think, John?

MIKHAIL: You know, I think it does. There are a lot of reasons to doubt the claim and the argument that Alan Dershowitz and the president's other attorneys are making. As you point out, when the Constitution was adopted, there were no federal statutes. So there were no statutory crimes that the president or any other government official could violate. There were common law crimes. Bribery, for example, was a common law crime.

HARLOW: Right.

MIKHAIL: But the broader point and the more important point I think is that it is well established that high crimes and misdemeanors in the constitutional sense, the requirement of high crimes and misdemeanors do not need to involve crimes in the ordinary sense. High crimes and misdemeanors is a technical term in the Constitution. It refers to political offenses. And it's neither necessary nor sufficient for an act to be criminal or criminally indictable in the ordinary sense in order for it to be the basis for an impeachment. SCIUTTO: Well, we have a lot of folks involved today who flipped their

opinion on that from '98 to the present.

But, Lauren, before we go, just quickly, some legal scholars and some Democrats are making the argument that as McConnell introduces these rules, in effect, he's changing Senate rules, shortening the scale of the trial, et cetera, and, therefore, would need 67 votes, not 51 votes. Is that going anywhere, that argument?

FOX: Well, I think Republicans would argue the opposites, Jim, that because this is the majority leader's chamber and Republicans have control of it, they are able to change the rules as they like.


Now Democrats have the option, and you can expect that Chuck Schumer is going to raise his concerns through the amendment process later on today. And if any of those amendments got 51 votes, that means four Republicans crossing over, then those changes would be added to the resolution. But Democrats, obviously, feel like they need 67 votes. Republicans feel like it's 51.

SCIUTTO: Lauren Fox on the hill. Carrie Cordero. John Mikhail, thanks very much to all of you.

Four thousand miles from D.C., the president on the world stage. Multiple people tell CNN he was initially hesitant about leaving Washington for an economic forum in Davos, Switzerland.

We're going to be there live.

Also an explosive interview with Hillary Clinton. She unleashes on Senator Bernie Sanders and says, quote, "On the Hill, nobody likes him."

HARLOW: Also, Chief Justice John Roberts facing a major test beginning today. Pressure mounting from both sides over witnesses and the trial timetable. What will he do or not do, ahead.



JIM SCIUTTO, CO-ANCHOR, NEWSROOM: The president's defense team has laid out their arguments. Soon, we're going to see those arguments, their strategy in action.

POPPY HARLOW, CO-ANCHOR, NEWSROOM: Let's talk about the key players and walk through them. Former federal and state prosecutor Elie Honig is with us now. Let's start with Pat Cipollone. What is his biggest asset for the president in all of this?

ELIE HONIG, FORMER FEDERAL & STATE PROSECUTOR: Sure, Poppy. So, one thing is important for viewers to understand, even though this trial is happening in the U.S. Senate, we are not going to hear the U.S. senators who are very familiar to us making these arguments. HARLOW: Yes --

HONIG: The arguments are going to come through the lawyers. So, as you said, Pat Cipollone is the lead lawyer for Donald Trump here. He has been White House counsel for the last year or so, meaning he's represented the White House, the presidency, as an institution. Donald Trump has installed him as lead counsel here.

Donald Trump has described him as the strong silent type. And indeed, he keeps a lower profile than some of the other people on the team. Now, he has gotten more aggressive lately in -- he has written letters to the house, attacking the Trump impeachment fairly strongly. He's called it baseless --


HONIG: And invalid, and he wrote a very strong letter, putting forth this absolute immunity argument.

SCIUTTO: Oh, he's in defense lawyer mode now, right?

HONIG: Exactly, they're all in defense lawyer mode now, so he's gotten more aggressive, and I think we will see a lot of aggression from this team. Now, the co-lead counsel is Jay Sekulow, a more familiar face. He's been out there in the media. Now, Sekulow was a private attorney who worked for Donald Trump. He doesn't hold any sort of government position.

He will be co-leading the team along with Pat Cipollone. And Sekulow may be familiar to some of our viewers because he represented Donald Trump through much of the Mueller investigation, and he helped Trump navigate some tricky legal mine fields, including the potential subpoena. Sekulow worked hard on that, Trump was never subpoenaed, he never had to testify --

HARLOW: Yes, it's true --

HONIG: In the grand jury.

HARLOW: That's true.

HONIG: Now, we are into the --

HARLOW: Ken Starr.

HONIG: Even more controversial for us --

SCIUTTO: Familiar name some 20 years ago --

HONIG: Yes, Ken Starr best known as being the independent counsel in what started as White Water and then morphed over many years to become the impeachment of Bill Clinton. Now, look, he's a controversial figure, and he took positions in the White Water-Clinton case that I think are going to be contradictory to some of the positions that he took now on witnesses. Ken Starr famously --

HARLOW: And evidence --

HONIG: Evidence witnesses. He turned over heaven and earth. He talked to not just the witnesses, but their hairdressers, their dentists, their boyfriends.


HONIG: And now, he's going to be arguing for few --

HARLOW: Yes --

HONIG: Or no witnesses. And on impeachment himself, look, he led the charge to remove Bill Clinton from office for lying under oath about sex. I think it's a fair argument to say that what Donald Trump has done here is a more serious threat to the presidency.

SCIUTTO: I mean, as you see a Starr flip like that, you're a lawyer, I mean, now, is there a legal basis for the flip or is it -- is it politics?

HONIG: You are allowed to. I mean, there's plenty of people who started their careers as prosecutors, then became defensive --

SCIUTTO: What's your --


But do you have an argument?

HONIG: Well, it's going to hurt him here, right? I mean, he's going to become a walking, talking exhibit for the house impeachment managers. They can say, he right there -- he wanted as many witnesses --


HONIG: As we could count, and now he wants none. So, that's I think the risk in choosing Ken Starr. Speaking of high-profile and controversial, Alan Dershowitz, well known Harvard Law School professor. He's been involved in high-profile cases, he's defended from O.J. Simpson to more recently Jeffrey Epstein.

There have been high-profile accusations about Alan Dershowitz which he has denied. Now, he is going to make the constitutional argument. We could see him lead off basically arguing that if it doesn't allege a crime, it's not impeachable. I think the vast majority of legal scholars out there -- I don't consider myself as a scholar, but as a lawyer --


HONIG: I think that is simply wrong.

SCIUTTO: Well, one of those legal scholars was him 20 years ago. I mean, Poppy --

HONIG: Yes --

SCIUTTO: Referenced that in the last second, indeed we have the sound. He said, the opposite --

HARLOW: Yes --

SCIUTTO: In the Clinton impeachment.

HONIG: Yes, and he's trying to thread the needle there, but it doesn't fly to me. He's taken opposing views.

HARLOW: Talk to us about Pam Bondi.

HONIG: Yes --

HARLOW: Because as I understand it, this is someone who has the most political experience in addition to being a lawyer.

HONIG: She does. So, Pam Bondi served as the state attorney general for Florida, she was elected. She's been rumored out there to be in contention for various administration --

HARLOW: Yes --

HONIG: Jobs. She controversially -- she had a PAC that received a $25,000 contribution from the Trump foundation which then became the Trump Foundation subject to a lawsuit by the New York Attorney General's office. The Trump Foundation has now been shuttered and that contribution was controversial as part of that case.

Pam Bondi has been known for being out there in the media. She's made very aggressive attacks on impeachment. So look for her to be another one of the more aggressive members of this team. And then, finally, we heard last night that Donald Trump will be adding this group of eight Republican members of the House of Representatives who will be his impeachment team.

And our reporting right now is that, they aren't necessarily going to be in the well of the Senate --

SCIUTTO: Right --

HONIG: Making arguments, but they'll be out there in the public arguing against this impeachment.

SCIUTTO: Spokespeople for the defense in effect --

HONIG: Exactly.

HARLOW: Quickly, Dershowitz said he doesn't know if he's going to be paid or not, but if he is, it will all go to charity. Can I just ask you, who is paying all of these guys?

HONIG: That is a great question. Well, look, one thing, Pat Cipollone is being paid by taxpayers. He's the White House counsel --


HONIG: All the others, I don't know, it's a good question.

HARLOW: OK, thanks, Elie.


SCIUTTO: Elie Honig, thanks very much. Those are the lawyers. Up next, we're going to be breaking -- speaking with a trial juror, Senator Chris Van Hollen, that's coming right up.


HARLOW: In hours, Senate Democrats kick off the Trump impeachment trial with an all-out fight to try to change just the rules of the game here. Will they get any witnesses and any evidence that they have asked for?

SCIUTTO: With us now, Senator Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, Senator, we appreciate you taking the time this morning. You got a busy week.

SEN. CHRIS VAN HOLLEN (D-MD): Jim and Poppy, good to be with you to start the day.

SCIUTTO: On that question, this has been the burning question in the days leading up to this. Will there be enough votes on the Republican side to support calling witnesses, in particular, Ambassador John Bolton? I mean, the question now is, will you even get that vote. Is it clear?


VAN HOLLEN: It is not at all clear. And weeks ago, Senator McConnell said that despite swearing an oath to be impartial, that he would not be impartial. That he was going to work in lockstep with President Trump and President Trump's lawyers. And that's exactly what we see in this resolution he's put forward, an attempt to rig the trial, deny justice.

First, this denies the opportunity to call witnesses early on, except in this resolution. We're going to have votes today, Jim and Poppy, that will give Republican senators an early chance to vote for witnesses. But the way McConnell has structured this resolution, the vote on the general question of whether or not to call witnesses comes at the very end.

And so, if that will be the moment of truth as to whether or not we get any witnesses. But if that fails, we cannot, for example, make a motion to call John Bolton who called what went down at the White House a drug deal. So this is clearly an attempt to rig the trial and really commit, you know, fraud on the public in the sense that we have a constitutional duty to try this case in a fair manner.

HARLOW: Senator, something just crossed. So, we've just received it, and you're probably learning about this for the first time as well as our viewers. But the house, house managers have just sent a letter in which they say that evidence received by the house during its impeachment inquiry indicates to them that Pat Cipollone; the president's attorney, right? White House counsel is a fact witness in all of this, and they are demanding that he discloses firsthand knowledge and information about the question at hand here in the middle of the impeachment.

I do not -- I mean, I haven't had time to read through the whole letter yet, we just got it. But it's not clear at this point whether or not they're trying to say he can't proceed as the president's attorney in this. I'm not sure. But what do you make of them calling him a fact witness and that he has to disclose all of his knowledge about the relevant issues here?

VAN HOLLEN: Well, that's exactly right. I mean, there have been questions from the beginning about whether or not the president's legal team is going to get caught up in ethical violations or conflicts of interest because I think more than one of them actually may have information, direct personal knowledge about facts in this case that relates to wrongdoing, relate to the overall scheme to abuse power.

So I think that is a perfectly legitimate issue that the house managers are raising in that -- in that document.

SCIUTTO: And Senator Van Hollen, I'm curious what Democrats are going to do if this plays out this way. That it appears that there are not enough Republican votes in that initial vote to call for witnesses. Some of them reserving their judgment until later after the cases have been made here, but not clear what happens then. What do Democrats do?

If the Republican majority succeeds in blocking both witnesses and new testimony here, what are you going to do?

VAN HOLLEN: Well, Jim, at the end of the day, the American people are watching closely to see if this is going to be a fair trial. CNN's own polling shows that just about 70 percent of the American public agrees that a fair trial requires witnesses and documents. So if Mitch McConnell and the Republicans just steam-roll this through, if they rig the process, it will clearly be a fraud on the constitution of the United States.

And we will have to make it very clear. There is no vindication in a fraudulent trial. The president may claim to be exonerated, but if they rig the process, if they don't allow the truth to come out, I think the public will see right through that.

HARLOW: But just on that point finally, Senator, Jim and I were talking about the fact this morning that when you look at the president's approval rating and how his approval rating in the new CNN poll, look at "The Washington Post" reporting, it just hasn't changed. It has not budged significantly through this entire process. Why do you think that is?

VAN HOLLEN: Well, what has changed is the percentage of Americans who support the impeachment and removal of the president. That has changed in the polling that you've done. And I think that's an indication that people are really watching this closely, and they get intuitively that when the president refuses to allow documents to be seen, when the president refuses to allow White House witnesses to be heard, that is, obviously, a part of a cover-up.

Because if the president had information that would exonerate him against these charges, he would be dashing to put those witnesses forward. He said back in December, on December 3rd, he said he wanted Mick Mulvaney to testify at the Senate trial. Well, we do, too, but he's changed his mind.

Obviously, he's scared of the truth coming out.