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Inside Politics

Hutchinson Says "I Feel Like I Had Trump Looking Over My Shoulder"; Passantino: "I Believed Ms. Hutchinson Was Being Truthful"; Jan 6 Cmte Releases Testimony Transcripts Of Former White House Aide Cassidy Hutchinson; Winter Storm Hits 100M+ With Blizzards, Dangerous Arctic Chill; "Once In A Generation" Arctic Blast Threatens Holiday Travel; Zelenskyy Delivers Impassioned Plea For Help Before Congress; Zelenskyy Visits U.S. As Lawmakers Negotiate Ukraine Aid. Aired 12- 12:30p ET

Aired December 22, 2022 - 12:00   ET



PAMELA BROWN, CNN HOST, INSIDE POLITICS: Hello, and welcome to Inside Politics. On this busy, busy Thursday here in Washington. I am Pamela Brown in for John King. New transcripts provide intriguing insight into the January 6 investigation and that includes testimony from star witness, Cassidy Hutchinson. And there's more to come as we wait for the committee's unexpectedly delayed final report.

Our historic visit and impassioned plea to Congress and the American people. Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy vows to never surrender, but says his country needs more help to defeat the Russians. And a step forward on Capitol Hill, Senators now in the process of holding votes as lawmakers are raised to pass a massive $1.7 trillion spending bill ahead of tomorrow's deadline to prevent a partial government shutdown.

Up first, the lengths the Trump world went to, to try to influence the January 6 committee's star witness, this is according to the witness herself. The panel has just put out transcripts of former White House aide Cassidy Hutchinson's testimony. This as we're expecting the committee to release a full report of its findings today.

CNN's Kristen Holmes joins us now. What can you tell us?

KRISTEN HOLMES, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Pamela, this is as you said, Cassidy Hutchinson, in her own words, describing what she says was a pressure campaign from Trump world including her Trump paid attorney Stefan Passantino, to really downplay her testimony, even being encouraged that if she was loyal, that she would be taken care of.

Now, I do want to tell you specifically because she talks about when she had this breaking point with her attorney. She says that she was cooperating with the committee, and then he told her not to, and said this, contempt is a small risk, but running to the right is better for you.

Now, a couple of things to note here. These are two interviews from September after we saw that live interview and after she had moved on from Passantino. This again, is why she said she had that breaking point.

And as you'll remember, on Monday, the January 6 committee alleged that they had information that a White House, or excuse me, a Trump backed attorney had been pressuring their client in this way to say, essentially downplay their testimony, or maybe say that they don't recall. And CNN found out that that was former White House lawyer, ethics lawyer, Stefan Passantino.

Just to give you an insight into what else is here, this is what she said Stefan told her to say specifically. I want to make it clear to you, Stefan never told me to lie. He specifically told me, I don't want you to perjure yourself, but I don't recall isn't perjury. They don't know what you can and can't recall, that something that he said to her on multiple occasions.

Now, just to give you some insight into what her mind was that. This is what she said. She says that through this process, she was almost as though she felt like she had Trump himself looking over her shoulder because she knew in some fashion, it would get back to him if he said anything that he would find as disloyal. And that that prospect of that genuinely scared me. That's what she says. You know, I'd seen this world ruin people's lives or try to ruin people's careers. I'd seen how vicious they can be.

And I do want to read a statement here from her former lawyer Stefan Passantino. This was in response to that CNN story saying that he was the person that January 6 committee alleged had been asking their client to downplay their testimony. He has not responded yet to the actual transcripts.

Says, I believed Ms. Hutchinson was being truthful and cooperative with the committee throughout the several interview sessions in which I represented her. Pamela, this is not the only thing that is in here. She also talks about getting jobs dangled in front of her, setting up meetings at the time, she didn't have a job.

Again, being told by people in Trump's orbit that she - if she was loyal, she would be taken care of particularly being called by aides to Mark Meadows. Who she had worked for and saying that Mark is telling that a, to call her and say that she can say she doesn't recall, if she doesn't recall.


These are all things that she was feeling a part of the pressure campaign. And again, this is her own words describing what she felt was this campaign during this time. And one other thing I do want to note here because there might be some question as to how she ended up with Passantino in the first place.

And she describes that at length in these interviews, saying that she had exhausted every other option that she was looking for someone and she couldn't actually afford a lawyer that was - that she believed should be representing her. And that is when she turned to Trump world for help.

BROWN: All right. Wow. That's a lot there. Kristen, thank you so much. Joining me now to discuss CNN's Lauren Fox, POLITICO's Alex Burns, Francesca Chambers of USA Today, and CNN legal analyst and former federal prosecutor Elliot Williams.

Wow, remarkable. This is under oath from the committee's star witness, Cassidy Hutchinson. It's her fifth interview with the committee. And she really lays out this picture, Alex, of a pressure campaign coming out of all ends of the Trump world that she felt indebted to them and was repeatedly told to be loyal that there could be jobs for her. And then of course, we know she left and switch lawyers. What stands out to you?

ALEX BURNS, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Look, I think that what stands out to me. First of all, we had heard some of these elements from the committee and a pretty vague fashion right, that witnesses felt intimidated or deterred from speaking in one way or another. What really sort of pops out to me just as a political reporter is that we've known for the longest time that this is how Trump's world operates, not necessarily with witnesses who are testifying under oath, but just pretty comprehensively.

If you're a Republican candidate running somewhere in the country, and you want his support, you need to bend the knee in some way. If you're a governor who's looking for a ventilators for your state, or disaster aid of some kind, you need to make a show of loyalty.

So, I think there's something that's not terribly shocking that this is how lawyers close to Donald Trump would be interacting with just people generally. But obviously, the risks and consequences of behaving like this are totally different right now.

And I think you do get coming out of this committee, a picture of former President Trump and the people around him as not necessarily having adapted to a world where there are suddenly real consequences for their actions, where they don't control the Justice Department or the mechanics of congressional investigation.

BROWN: Yes. I mean, some of this reads out of like a mafia novel or something like, oh, my gosh, when I was reading it. And we should note again, this is Cassidy Hutchinson, speaking under oath to the committee. Stefan Passantino has released a statement, he says, I believed Ms. Hutchinson was being truthful and cooperative with the committee throughout the several interview sessions in which I represented her.

So clearly, he has another side to this, but in the transcript, Elliot, it says, everything's going to be OK. We're taking care of you. This is what Hutchinson described. Passantino was saying, quote, just downplay your position. It's not fair that Mark Meadows, a former boss, the chief of staff to Trump, put you in this position. We just want to focus on protecting the president. We all know you're loyal. Let's just get you in and out. And this day will be easy, I promise.

ELLIOT WILLIAMS, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Oh, Lord, where to begin. This is like first year of law school, criminal law class playing out because of all the sorts of issues this raises. Number one, what you have is knowledge on the part of the former president that he lost the election. That is relevant to an obstruction charge. It's relevant to a conspiracy to defraud the United States charge.

And it's relevant to this false statement charge that they're talking about former president that he knew he lost, right? And what you're going to see from the committee, I think, is rolling out all these statements where people brought to the former president, the knowledge that he lost, right?

Two, obstruction of justice. Any of these people who are directing a witness to say something or not say something on the stand in the event that it frustrates. Or what the goal of frustrating the investigation is itself an act of obstruction of justice.

So, it's not just the former president here, it's Passantino and others around him who might have been trying to influence your testimony. So, it this is quite serious. And because a lot of these statements are what you'd call hearsay, it's one person saying, what another person says. They're piling them up because you need to be able to get just one of them. Yes, you got to corroborate, which you can't get them by themselves.

BROWN: Yes. And on that note, there has been - we have seen corroboration of Trump knowing he lost and trying to overturn the election. And he says in the transcripts that several times, Donald Trump when he was president told her, I know I lost, but we got to figure out a way out of this. And that is pretty damning, because state of mind intent is a big part of what DOJ is looking at.

LAUREN FOX, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Exactly. And I think that Mark Meadows told Cassidy Hutchinson a couple of times according to these transcripts, that he also believed that the president knew he had lost and that is significant here for what DOJ is looking at. We know that DOJ has started getting some of the information from this committee. It's going to be obviously up to them what they want to do here. The referrals do not require them to take any action.


But I think that the large thing that stuck out to me was people forget that these are government employees. These are not wealthy individuals. Cassidy Hutchinson is (crosstalk) she was the junior staffer, right? And she's dealing with the fact she's going to have to go before this committee and she was telling her mom that she felt like, what am I going to do, I can't afford a fancy lawyer that I think I probably need to get me through this.

So, she had to turn to Trump world for a period of time in her own words. And I think that that is such a compelling part of this transcript and something that people back home, I think need to remember about people who work in good contrast.

BROWN: Yes, exactly. I think that's important. Her age is important. The pressure she was under, I mean, she said many times in the transcript. She was relaying to the committee how scared she was. She was worried that if she turned on the president that Trump world would turn on her. And you can imagine what a 26-year-old would be feeling. I'm curious what your take is on what she also said that Passantino allegedly told her, contempt is a small risk, but running to the right is better for you?

FRANCESCA CHAMBERS, WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT, USA TODAY: Well, as you were saying, I think the point of the committee at this point is to keep this at the forefront of people's minds, because from a political standpoint, with a former president planning to run for president. And again, a lot of this is going to play out politically, play out on the presidential campaign trail.

When you go back to the testimony, though, I want to talk about Hope Hicks for a moment. She was someone who was so close to the president. The president saw her as like a daughter. And she was also on the record saying that she told people that he had essentially laws that tried to get him to speak out on January 6, and that is so critical.

She is someone who when she left the first time, I mean, he did a whole colonnade, walk with her, which is something that's usually reserved for foreign leaders, for instance. So, her testimony is very important also.

BROWN: Really quick and wrapping it up with you, Elliot. What is the just legally looking at the contempt claim that she made that she felt pressured from Trump allies on this, not to talk in June, we should note and instead risk contempt. And there's a difference right, the lawyer saying, hey, don't offer too much unless they ask you and.

WILLIAMS: Again, it steps up to the line and probably might be obstruction of justice. You're telling somebody to run afoul of a committee that is investigating. You're telling them not to answer questions truthfully, and you don't have to strain really hard to say that you are trying to frustrate or impede the investigation. That could be obstruction of justice. It's a federal crime.

BROWN: And it's something DOJ in the end is investigating, so we will see. All right. Thank you all so much. Well, a major winter storm won the National Weather Service calls a, once-in-a-generation event, will impact nearly every state.

More than one hundred million people are under winter weather and wind chill alerts. The storm already causing blizzard conditions across the Midwest and the plains crippling holiday travel on some of the busiest days of the year. This morning, President Biden urging Americans to take caution.


JOE BIDEN, 46TH U.S. PRESIDENT: This is dangerous and threatening. This is really a very serious weather alert here. And it goes from Oklahoma, all the way to Wyoming, and Wyoming to Maine. And it's a real consequence. So, I encourage everyone, everyone, please heed the local warning. Please take this storm extremely seriously.


BROWN: CNN's Lucy Kafanov is live in Denver, where temperatures are plunging at an incredible pace. Just looking at how you're bundled up there, Lucy, it's clearly very cold.

LUCY KAFANOV, CNN CORRESPONDENT: It's very cold and we're clearly not heating. Neither President Biden's warning nor local authorities' warnings to not be outside in these freezing temperatures because we have to be on TV talking to you. It's roughly 11 before minus zero. The wind chill, Pam, feels like minus 25. I have like three layers of pants on, a bunch of sweaters. This is supposed to be a busy downtown area.

Obviously, we're not seeing a lot of people on the street, although there is a little bit more movement. They're plowing the roads. The conditions on the roads are pretty dangerous. I'm going to humiliate myself on television once again and attempt to see if this cup of boiling water turns to snow. We'll just see real quick of that happens. It did not, so I just humiliated myself for no reason. It's all good.

But yes, officials here are telling people to stay inside if they can. The wind chill in some parts of Colorado negative 60, that could lead to immediate frostbite within minutes if you're exposed outside in those conditions. So, people are really, really being urged to stay inside, Pamela?

BROWN: Don't worry, it will turn to snow. Just give it a little more time, Lucy. Don't give up on that. It's a great problem, it's cold out there. And I'm impressed you were able to string sentences together. I know how hard it is to talk when it's that cold. So, thank you so much for that. And ahead, a show of unity on Capitol Hill. Ukrainian President Zelenskyy handing Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Vice President Kamala Harris a Ukrainian flag as he makes a plea for more help for his country.



BROWN: A live and kicking, that's how Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy described his country as he delivered a landmark speech before Congress. Zelenskyy's message was clear. Ukraine is thankful for America support, but it needs more money and weapons. This plea comes just as lawmakers are set to negotiate and more funding for Ukraine and a massive spending bill.


PRES. VOLODYMYR ZELENSKYY, UKRAINE: Thank you for both financial packages you have already provided us with and the ones you may be willing to decide on. Your money is not charity, is an investment in the global security and democracy that we handle in the most responsible way.

(END VIDEO CLIP) [12:20:00]

BROWN: CNN's Manu Raju joins us from Capitol Hill. So, Manu, how's Zelenskyy speech being received by lawmakers?

MANU RAJU, CNN CHIEF CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, they're strong bipartisan support on Capitol Hill for Ukraine to continue to provide Ukraine aid that is one big reason why $45 billion in aid has been rolled into the larger bill to keep the government open. We expect that to be approved by the Senate today, possibly even the House later tonight.

But Senator Mitch McConnell, from one big proponent of this funding, the Republican leader telling our colleagues last night, it's nice to have something here at the end of the year that we all actually can agree on. But there is not all agreement within the Republican Party.

In fact, there is a faction that does not believe more aid is needed for Ukraine that push back against further aid. And we're not swayed by Zelenskyy speech. I caught up with some of them today, and some of them indicated they didn't even attend last night.


SEN. ROGER MARSHALL, (R) KANSAS: I think it'd be disrespectful for me to go see him. I think it'd be disrespectful to the people that are working so hard to keep our nation safe, when we're not putting making them the priority right now.

RAJU: So, you didn't go last night?

SEN. MARSHALL: I did not go.

SEN. JOSH HAWLEY, (R) MISSOURI: I didn't go to the speech because I didn't want to be part of the photo op, asking for more money from the United States government.


RAJU: Kevin McCarthy, the Republican leader came out of that speech last night, saying it was a very good speech, but also indicated he did not want to give a blank cheque to Ukraine. Now, it's unclear exactly what that means. But with McCarthy potentially being speaker next year, Pamela, and Republicans taking the House, it will be a new dynamic, especially if money runs dry. And Congress needs to act again sometime next year. House Republicans will have to decide what to do, and they're divided on the subject.

BROWN: All right. Thanks so much, Manu Raju. CNN national security analyst and former Deputy Director of National Intelligence, Beth Sanner, joins our panel. You say that Zelenskyy's speech reminded Americans of who they are, of who America is, how so?

BETH SANNER, FORMER DEPUTY DIRECTOR OF NATIONAL INTELLIGENCE & CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: You know, I think sometimes there's a great power of people who look outside in and they can see us in ways that, you know, maybe we can't see ourselves. And I think that he really talked about who Americans are and where we came from. We came from a similar struggle against tyranny. And he talked with, you know, I think great passion about that.

And, you know, we can only look at ourselves and say, look, you know, Ukraine would absolutely have fallen if it had not been for us. And if it had not been for our allies in the past, United States would have never made it through the American revolution.

BROWN: Yes. No doubt the U.S. has provided a lot more assistance comparatively to any other country in the world, including Europe. But what do you say, for example, Senator Josh Hawley, who Manu just played a soundbite from saying, look, I didn't want to go. I didn't want to be part of a photo op. That part of the Republican Party who say, we're already giving, and if this passes through the omnibus bill, nearly $100 billion to Ukraine, you know, our priorities should be elsewhere. What do you say to them?

SANNER: I understand, you know, the needs of Americans, and I don't want to degrade that argument. But I think that you cannot be a student of history or look around the world without agreeing with Zelenskyy when he said that we are too interdependent to stand aside and feel safe. You know, if we do not defeat this early in Ukraine, who is going to be the next victim, and who is going to be the next bully? Then we are all going to pay for that.

BROWN: Lauren Fox, I'm going to bring you in. Do you think that Zelenskyy changed any minds from the skeptics?

FOX: Well, I think what he did is remind people that democracy is not a sure thing, right? He's standing there and the House of Representatives making this case to Republicans. And, you know, I thought McCarthy's comments were really interesting that Manu brought up, that he didn't want to give them a blank cheque, that's a little open ended. That doesn't mean he doesn't want to write them any check.

And I think we're going to have to wait and see next year in a Republican conference, how he can manage the small faction of people who say, we will not stand for giving Ukraine more money. The people who are absolutist on that, it's a small number - of Republicans, it's important to remember that.

But it doesn't mean that they don't have a lot of power, because McCarthy is going to be looking over his shoulder saying, can I continue to govern this conference? If I do this, or if I do that. And this is one of the items he may really have to face a reality of next year.

BROWN: Right. And right now, he's in a tough spot. He wants to get the speakership, trying to win over hardliners. And McCarthy made clear that, look, I don't just want to write a blank check. I want accountability for what we're sending over there. And that you've heard that from other Republicans, but the bottom line is, we're 10 months into this war, it shows no end in sight. How much do you think Zelenskyy was successful in kind of picking up more interest and momentum as the warheads into a new phase?


BURNS: Well, I think it certainly was a show of political force here, not just by President Zelenskyy, but by President Biden. I think it was a real shot across the bow of, you know, Republicans like Kevin McCarthy who don't appear to have any developed ideological argument against sending money to Ukraine but want to accommodate this faction that is sort of reflexively against sending more money to the war.

There's a real political price to be paid. If you pick this fight with the Biden administration and you're not really, really prepared to go round after round on why it's not responsible to send more money. You know, one thing that we have actually not seen this president do a whole lot of so far is these grand White House photo - that to showcase the power of the presidency, power the American military, it's the kind of thing.

I think, sort of folks our age, remember very well from the Bush years and the early Obama years of what it means to have a president who's seen as a strong commander in chief. And President Biden, partly because of COVID, partly because of just other international forces has just not had a whole lot of opportunities to play that card. It's a powerful one.

BROWN: And you can tell them in the photos, that there's sort of a kinship there between President Biden and President Zelenskyy. It hasn't always been a smooth relationship. Let's be honest, Zelenskyy's one in war aid and so forth from the U.S. But it was President Biden who invited Zelenskyy to come, and you can just see, they liked each other.

CHAMBERS: And the White House says that that more aid wasn't the focus of the conversation that they had. It was the focus of what Zelenskyy ask Congress for last night. But that's not the focus of what he and President Biden talked about yesterday. But when it does come to the blank check comments, I'm told that White House Republicans essentially want to see is, what are you going to do with the money?

It's so far behind that they're approving the money and then being told how the White House and how the Biden administration plans to spend the money. So, they want to know what they're going to get for that. Is it more long-range artillery? Is it more Patriot missile defense systems? That's what they'd like to know.

BURNS: And if I could just quickly, you know, look, I think if House Republicans or Senate Republicans or Democrats and either Chamber really wanted to push the White House to articulate much more clearly, what their view is and how this war is going to play out over the next six months, or 18 months, or five years, that would be a totally viable political approach to this situation. But just sort of saying blank check, and then letting the most extreme members of your conference go on TV and make wild claims to President Zelenskyy, that is not the way to win this argument.

BROWN: Yes. All right. Thank you all so much. Right now, senators reach an agreement on an omnibus bill, omnibus, and now the race is on to hold the necessary votes. We are live on Capitol Hill. Up next.