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CNN Live Event/Special

George Conway On Trump's Senate Impeachment Trial. Aired 10- 10:30a ET

Aired January 22, 2020 - 10:00   ET



JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: I'm Jake Tapper live in Washington with CNN's special coverage of the impeachment Trial of President Donald J. Trump. Today, House managers get to the floor for the first of three days. They will have eight hours a day starting this afternoon to make their case for the removal of President Trump on charges of abuse of power and obstruction Of Congress, the two articles of impeachment approved by the House of Representatives.

Before those opening arguments begin, both sides are allowed to offer up motions before the court of 100 senators, but no motions are expected as of now. This, of course, comes after a marathon first session that lasted until nearly 2:00 A.M. earlier today, in which the 53 Republican members of the Senate repeatedly voted against Democratic amendments to the rules, amendments that would have allowed specific witness testimony or the production of specific documents.

Now, 10 of those 11 Democratic amendments were defeated on a party line vote. 53 Republicans against, 47 Democrats in favor, with one exception, a technical amendment about the time each side would be afforded to respond to a motion when Senator Susan Collins of Maine broke from her party and voted with the Democrats.

The defeat of the Democratic wish list came at the direction of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell who changed his own rules at the last minute in order to keep more moderate members of his caucus happy and in line.

Joining me now to discuss all of this is conservative attorney George Conway. He is also an adviser to the Lincoln Project, which is an anti-Trump Super PAC. George, thanks so much for being here, I appreciate it.


TAPPER: So give us your first impressions of the first day. How do you think the House impeachment managers did? How do you think the president's defense attorneys did?

CONWAY: well, I think the managers simply outclassed Trump's lawyers. I mean, there wasn't any question. The managers were prepared, they were thoughtful, they were factual, they were logical, they were dignified. And Trump's lawyers, on the other hand, were dissembling and distorting and even lying. But that was one of two distressing aspects I found about yesterday's proceedings. That was the behavior and the approach taken by Trump's counsel.

And the second is the party line votes on witnesses. The party line votes on witnesses. This is a trial. This is a trial where they should want to hear the evidence. If the evidence -- if everyone is so sure, if they're so sure that the evidence will exonerate President Trump, then, yes, let's hear from John Bolton. We should hear from Pompeo, we should hear from Mulvaney.

TAPPER: So if you're a Republican senator -- you're a Republican. And if you were Republican senator -- I guess you're an independent now. If you were a senator, you would have voted to subpoena all the documents from the White House, the Pentagon --

CONWAY: Absolutely. There's no justification not to. I mean, when you get to a trial, you're entitled to issue trial subpoenas. And even before that, you're even in a criminal case, you're entitled to issue pre-trial discovery, both sides, even if evidence has been heard before a grand jury. In fact the United States against Nixon, the famous case that dealt with executive privilege in 1974, involved pre- trial discovery in a criminal case where the defendants had already been indicted. So the analogy would be here is that once you file the indictment or the impeachment charges here, you should get discovery for trial.

TAPPER: Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader, says he doesn't think there should be any witnesses and he's telling his caucus that he doesn't think that should happen at all.

CONWAY: The Constitution says, Article I says that the Senate has the power to try, sole power and thus the obligation, to try all impeachments. It's their obligation to hear the evidence. And if there's evidence that's not in the record already, they should be going out and allowing the subpoena to be issued in the name of the chief justice of the United States for that evidence. That's what a trial is. That's what this is supposed to be for.

And their job is to hear the Evidence, to hear all of it. not some of it or none of it, which seems to be the way they're going.

TAPPER: And what do you make of the fact that the Republicans have opted to take this stand of no new evidence, no new witnesses, at least at this point?

CONWAY: What are they afraid of? What are they afraid of? They're going to hear evidence they don't like? They must be afraid of something. And that's the thing that I find most disturbing about it, is they don't want to hear the evidence because they know the truth. They know he's guilty. They don't want to hear the evidence because they don't want the American people to see it too.

TAPPER: So I want to talk more about this, but I do want to get your response to some of the arguments we heard yesterday.

Here's Pat Cipollone, he's the White House Counsel, talking about the Democrats' process. Take a listen.



PAT CIPOLLONE, WHITE HOUSE COUNSEL: But what happened was the proceedings took place in a basement of the House of Representatives. The president was forbidden from attending. The president was not allowed to have a lawyer present. In every other impeachment proceeding the president has been given a minimal due process, nothing here. Not even Mr. Schiff's Republican colleagues were allowed into the SCIF.


TAPPER: The SCIF is a secured location where they deposed witnesses. Cipollone is saying that even Mr. Schiff's Republicans colleagues were allowed into the SCIF.

CONWAY: I mean, that whole sequence was just mendacious in any number of ways and it ended with a absolutely, positive falsehood. And it's not possible for me to think that he didn't know what the truth was.

Three committees, three full committees of the House of Representatives were entitled to attend those depositions in the SCIF, and that includes every Republican member. I mean, there were probably 40 of them, at least.

TAPPER: And they were given equal time as the Democrats.

CONWAY: And they could question the witnesses if they so chose. And they're not -- look, the Republicans in the House were not hesitant to carry the president's water. So if they had any questions to ask, they should have asked them.

And it's just amazing to me that Cipollone could make this outright false statement that says that Republicans weren't allowed to attending. It's just false. It's a lie. And if you made that assertion in the court and the court caught you on it, it would be the end of you.

TAPPER: What do you mean?

CONWAY: The court would reprimand you. The court might even refer you to the disciplinary committees. It's outrageous.

TAPPER: But because this is a Senate trial --

CONWAY: You know, I'm not going to speak to what the disciplinary committees could do in this circumstance, but it was -- it violates your obligation of fair advocacy as a lawyer.

TAPPER: So just to be clear, Congressman Schiff said, when he responded to that, that he wouldn't suggest that Cipollone made those false claims deliberately, he said he's mistaken. You're not willing to give Cipollone the benefit of the doubt. CONWAY: No, and I understand why he did that. That's always the best way in a courtroom or when you're an advocate, when somebody has done something that's totally outrageous, you say I'm not going -- I'm going to let you make that judgment, let the facts speak for themselves and that was a very skillful way that Schiff handled it. But it was an outright lie. It was a flat out lie. And the rest of the sequence was utterly mendacious as well.

TAPPER: How so? He said the president was forbidden from attending the proceedings in the basement, he was not allowed to have a lawyer present.

CONWAY: Well, it's mendacious in two respects. One is he was -- at the end of the day, he was entitled to make a presentation before the House Judiciary Committee. His lawyers were invited to do that and Cipollone wrote some nasty letter on December 6th, I think it was, saying go pound sand. That's one way.

And secondly, this whole notion of procedural unfairness is just bogus. The House can do whatever it wants in terms of how it decides to impeach a president or any other federal public officer. It's akin to, and I'm sure that you've heard this said many times, it's akin to a grand jury. Nobody gets to come in and present their case before a grand jury. You get that opportunity at the trial.

TAPPER: In the Senate.

CONWAY: And that's where we are today. And now they're saying we don't want the other side to present evidence. I mean, this is just a sham. This is just outrageous that the Republicans think they can play this game. And the Republicans in the Senate are under oath. They take a special oath to render impartial justice.

TAPPER: Let me ask you a question, because you are a conservative attorney. You have been prominent in Republican legal circles for a long, long time. How do you feel when you see the Republican Party going against these basic rules that you consider to be important?

CONWAY: I'm deeply saddened. It's very upsetting. And this is a moment I think of reckoning. Not just for the country and for the rule of law and for the Constitution, it's a very specific day of reckoning for the Republican senators who took this oath and the Republican Party generally. Are they going to stand for lies instead of truth? Are they going to stand for gaslighting instead of reality? Are they going to just do the bidding of this one man and put jis interests over those of the country? That's what this is about.

And it was just distressing to see a complete unwillingness of the Republican senators to vote for hearing evidence, vote for receiving evidence.


It should have been -- there should have been no question about it.

And it's not like that there was -- the House managers put on some spectacular statistics about how the average impeachment trial has 33 witnesses. That's a trial. Now, the Clinton case was a bit of an outlier because of the incredibly complete record that was gathered before the grand jury.

TAPPER: By Ken Starr.

CONWAY: By Ken Starr. You know, it was a very, very narrow set of facts that were at issue and also both sides agreed they didn't want too much of live testimony because of the salacious nature of it. That was a completely different circumstance. But even there, they had witnesses. They took depositions.

So here where it's a much, much more serious charge, I mean, the Clinton thing is bad for a president and terrible for a president --

TAPPER: You supported the impeachment of President Clinton?

CONWAY: I probably did things that caused the impeachment of President Clinton. And he -- you know, he lied under oath, but it was in a civil case that had nothing to do with the powers of his office. It had to do with what happened in a hotel room three years before he became president -- no, two years before he became president.

And it didn't involve abuse of presidential power. It didn't involve withholding hundreds of millions of dollars in federal funds to an ally at war just because you want to get -- he wanted to get a foreign country to announce a bogus investigation against his leading political rival. I mean it should be -- it should be a no-brainer here.

TAPPER: Let's talk about the charges against President Trump, because Jay Sekulow, another one of the president's attorneys, last night and you're forgiven if you went to sleep before this happened because the trial lasted until almost 2:00 A.M. in the morning. But Sekulow tried to compare President Trump withholding the $391 million in security aid to Ukraine with something that President Obama did.

CONWAY: I actually watched that. That was at 7:00. I saw that.

TAPPER: Okay. Let me run this sound from Jay Sekulow, President Trump's attorney.


JAY SEKULOW, OUTSIDE LEGAL COUNSEL FOR PRESIDENT TRUMP: It's interesting to note that the Obama administration withheld $585 million of promised aid to Egypt in 2013. But the administration's public message was that the money was not officially on hold.

It sounds like this may be a practice of a number of administrations.


TAPPER: And to be clear, I don't know what he's talking about with the administration's public message, but you can go back to 2013. You see New York Times stories informed by the administration where they are saying that they were using that money as leverage because there had been a coup in Egypt and President -- General Sisi rather, General Sisi --

CONWAY: And they did it with Congress knowing about it and they followed the procedures.

TAPPER: Right.

CONWAY: And that's the whole point. You can't -- this is mendacious. This is deceptive and distortive. Because what's at issue here is not whether the president can if he follows the right procedures, which the GAO said he did not follow here, it's not the question is not whether the president can sometimes impound or withhold funds, the question is why he did it.

If he did it for a legitimate reason like all of a sudden Ukraine switched sides and became a Russian satellite, well, then, yes, absolutely. If they're not going to fight the Russians, why would you be giving them aid. That would be a perfectly legitimate reason to say I'm going to withhold this money and you'd have to send a message to the relevant committees in Congress. I don't know what the exact procedures are but there are procedures for that and just say we shouldn't spend this money anymore.

But that's not what happened here. He just cut it off without any reason, 91 minutes after he made this outrageous demand of President Zelensky. And that's the difference. And this is just -- I mean, the depth to which the Trump's lawyers will go to make these deceptive arguments, I mean, they're treating the American public, they're treating the Senate like they're morons. It's just outrageous.

TAPPER: One of the other things that seems clear from the presentation in terms of how different it is from the Clinton defense is that even Clinton's -- President Clinton's attorney, Charles Ruff, condemned what President Clinton did, called it morally wrong. And this is after months and months of Bill Clinton lying and deceiving. I'm not trying to defending President Clinton.

But at this point, President Clinton was at least publicly contrite and his defenders were saying --

CONWAY: What he did was wrong but it wasn't impeachable.

TAPPER: And take a listen to what President Trump's defenders are saying, because they are basically saying what President Trump says publicly, which is it was a perfect call, check the transcript. Here is one of his attorneys last night.



MICHAEL PURPURA, WHITE HOUSE DEPUTY COUNSEL: You've seen the transcripts, which the president released transparently, unprecedentedly. There was no quid pro quo for anything.


CONWAY: Just utterly and completely shameless in light of all of the evidence. And the notion that you can assert that the call, as the president has been doing, as perfect is crazy. And even the one -- one lawyer, the one law professor who defended the House Republicans' position before the House Judiciary Committee said this morning in an op-ed in The Washington Post, there's no way you can say that call was perfect, and it wasn't.

And what you saw that lawyer just do is just ignoring the evidence, ignoring the call that David Holmes heard in the Kiev restaurant where --

TAPPER: Between Bill Clinton and Gordon Sondland.

CONWAY: Between Donald Trump and Gordon Sondland.

TAPPER: I'm sorry, Donald Trump and Gordon Sondland, yes, sorry.

CONWAY: And where you could hear, and you can. I can personally attest you can hear Trump when he's on the phone with somebody sitting next to you.

TAPPER: He's got a big, booming voice.

CONWAY: Yes. And he says, are they going to do the investigations? That's all he cared about. And Holmes asked Sondland, well, does the president care about Ukraine? And, basically, he doesn't give a, expletive deleted, about Ukraine, Sondland said. He only cares about the big things, the things that affect him personally. And that's what this is about. That's what makes this offense, what he did, impeachable, is he wasn't concerned about the interests of the nation. The interests of the nation were clearly in favor of letting that aid go unrestricted. He did it because it was a pressure point to get these guys in Ukraine to do his bidding to help him get re-elected.

TAPPER: You just alluded to the fact that you've heard President Trump on the phone, so let me just acknowledge to our viewers that, obviously, you are Kellyanne Conway's husband, she is a counselor to President Trump. And you've already said --

CONWAY: I don't think you have to be the spouse of a senior administration official to know that he's loud on the phone. I'm sure many, many people and CNN probably know that too.

TAPPER: Yes, of course. I can personally attest that's true. But I will also just say you've already made it clear that that is not a subject that you want to talk about so I'm not going to waste --

CONWAY: Not particularly. I think my views about President Trump and his administration can stand on their own.

TAPPER: Right. I just want to make clear to our viewers, so that's why I'm not asking about it.

Last night, we saw Chief Justice Roberts admonish both sides, not just the Republicans, for their heightened rhetoric. Let's play a little bit from before that.


CIPOLLONE: It's about time we bring this power trip in for a landing. President Trump is a man of his word. He made promises to the American people and he delivered over and over and over again.

It's a farce and it should end. Mr. Nadler, you owe an apology to the president of the United States and his family.


TAPPER: Now, I guess my question is, I know that President Trump will like that clip. But will it work on any senators, Mitt Romney, Susan Collins, Lamar Alexander, Cory Gardner, whomever, Martha McSally, who might be vacillating on this? Will it offend anybody?

CONWAY: Well, I mean, if you did that in a courtroom, you would verge on being held in contempt. The judge would ask the jury to leave the room and the judge would ream you out. I would hope that Republican senators who like all senators generally value decorum in the world's greatest deliberative body would find that offensive, because it was offensive.

And it was offensive not just because there was a personal attack on counsel for the other side, the managers, but because this assertion that the president is truthful is beyond belief. Here's a man with 16,200 lies documented in this town's major newspaper. He continually -- he's incapable, virtually incapable of telling the truth about anything, even when it's helpful to him. He's a pathological liar. We have a lawyer standing up before the Senate saying he's truthful and he's a man of his word. I mean, that's just absurd.

TAPPER: It wasn't only Cipollone who offended Chief Justice Roberts. Here's a little clip of Congressman Jerry Nadler who Cipollone was referring to.


REP. JERRY NADLER (D-NY): Unfortunately, so far, I've seen every Republican senator has shown that they want to be part of the cover- up.

Either you want the truth or you -- and you must permit the witnesses or you want a shameful cover-up.


History will judge.


TAPPER: A, do you agree with what he's saying and, B, was it a mistake to say it?

CONWAY: I agree with what he's saying, the substance of it. I mean, Republican senators need to look themselves in the mirror and look themselves in the mirror and think what it's going to be like five years from now, ten years, what their legacies are going to be.

And the fact that this evidence is going to keep coming out, truth has a way of coming out. We've seen it with the FOIA requests that have produced these documents that are quite interesting.

TAPPER: Yes, new documents came out last night.

CONWAY: And last night, we were going to get books from people. When Trump is gone, people are going to start telling their stories and there may be further investigations of this. The truth will come out sooner or later. There are documents that haven't been seen. There are witnesses that haven't testified. Their stories will sooner or later come out.

Now, about the tactical aspect of what he said there, well, you don't attack the court. And here, the Senate is sitting as a court of impeachment. And by saying -- attacking the Republican senators specifically and saying they're involved in a cover-up is not the way to make that argument, I think. I understand I have to give the man -- cut him some slack, it was probably 1:00 in the morning or something, but the way to make the argument is that at the end, history will also have a verdict. And one thing this body needs to consider is what that verdict will be. And that would have been the proper and eloquent and probably smarter way to do that.

TAPPER: You're being so outspoken on these issues having to do with the president has aroused the ire of the president, as well as his son and his campaign manager and others. I don't know if he has said anything in the last 22 minutes, but is there anything that you want to preemptively say. They attack you as disloyal to your wife, they attack you as having wanted a job in the administration and then you didn't get one, although I don't think that's accurate.

CONWAY: That's false.

TAPPER: Yes. You were being interviewed to be solicitor general and then decided you didn't want to do it?

CONWAY: No. I mean, what happened was I was being -- I had been told I could be the assistant attorney general for the civil division and I started going through that process. I did an FBI check. And as I was filling out the financial forms, I'm watching what's going on and becoming increasingly disturbed at what I'm seeing, and in particular when he fired Comey and then a few days later, Rod Rosenstein appointed Bob Mueller to be Special Counsel, I realized, you know, I'm going to go and join this mess of an administration and be in a department that he's going to be attacking for the next two years? And at that point I concluded it just made no sense.

TAPPER: He hasn't really been attacking you lately under Attorney General Barr.

CONWAY: No. And there were just so many disturbing aspects about that whole -- the continual attack on the Russia investigation and the attacks on Sessions, I think, are what drove me to really start speaking out. In particular, the thing that I remember most was when he attacked Attorney General Sessions for permitting the indictment of those two corrupt Republican congressmen.

TAPPER: Collins and Hunter.

CONWAY: Right. And very explicitly on -- because he said it was wrong for Sessions to do that in substance because that could affect the balance of power in the House. In other words, putting his own personal political interests above faithfully executing the laws. He has a duty as the president of the United States to faithfully execute the laws and to allow his appointees to faithfully execute the laws. And he showed a willingness right there to put that aside for his own political interests.

And it's the same -- that same kind of self-focus and lack of ability to put the nation's interests first over his own, which we saw with the continual attacks on Mueller, who was conducting an investigation for the benefit of the country to find out what the Russians did, and then again here with this Ukraine fiasco.

TAPPER: Last night, we also heard the president's attorneys talk about how the president had been exonerated by the Mueller report.

CONWAY: More lies. Yes, I mean, it's just incredible.

TAPPER: What's your view of the Mueller report?

CONWAY: The Mueller report? Well, obviously, it did not exonerate him. There's a sentence that said if we could have exonerated him, in substance, we would have done so, but they didn't.


When you go to part two of the Mueller report, you find a number of factual circumstances that are described where they then -- where the report then analyzes those factual circumstances in terms of the elements of obstruction and basically checks the box saying, yes, this element is here, this element is here, this element is here. Particularly the one where Trump has -- tries to get his White House Counsel, Don McGahn, to persuade Rod Rosenstein to fire Mueller on the basis of a pretext and McGahn basically refuses and gets ready to pack up his office. And then that was one element -- one event of obstruction.

And then a few months later, it's reported -- the press starts focusing on it. I think The New York Times had a report. And Trump then tells McGahn that he wants McGahn to do a memo to the file saying that that sequence of events never happened, which is -- if you create a false document on a matter under investigation, that's obstruction. So what he did there was obstruction about obstruction. And he was doing it because it embarrasses him that the Russians helped him.

We don't know exactly what the effect was, we will never know, but he -- the mere fact that it happened, that there was Russian Interference, should have been, to him, this is something, I'm president of the United States now, I need to stop this and we need to investigate this and we need to get to the bottom of it. That's not the way he thinks about it. He denies that it occurred, frequently, and he did everything he could to derail that investigation. That to me was impeachable right there. He should have been impeached for that.

TAPPER: So the House Democrats failed by not doing that?

CONWAY: Well, they have made up for it since.

TAPPER: What do you make of the fact that one day after Mueller testified before Congress --

CONWAY: Here's a man that knows no boundaries. He knows no boundaries.

TAPPER: That's when he did the July 25th phone call with Zelensky and clearly says that he wants Zelensky to conduct investigations into the Bidens and into this deranged conspiracy theory that it was actually Ukraine and not Russia that did election interference in 2016.

CONWAY: He's a man that knows no boundaries and he's going to get worse. And that's why he needs to be removed now. The fact that he went through all that and didn't learn anything, the fact that he's gone through all this and still maintains that the call was perfect means that he has no idea what propriety requires, what law requires, what the Constitution requires. He's thoroughly unfit for office.

And one of the things that you have to consider in the impeachment process is how serious is the offense? Is it something that's likely to occur again? And that marks a big difference between this situation and the Clinton situation. The Clinton situation was really kind of wrong as his conduct was, it was an oddball, curious series of facts, a civil case where the facts were deeply embarrassing to him. It wasn't likely to recur.

This, we don't -- who knows what he's done with other nations, in phone calls with other nations. Who knows what else we don't know. We only know this because one person wrote a letter.

TAPPER: The whistleblower.

CONWAY: And decided to step up.

And we don't know whether anybody else would have stepped up and told us about this. Even the very credible people like Yovanovitch and Taylor, who acquitted themselves with great honor in testifying before the house, we don't know whether we would have heard from them if it were not for the whistleblower. So we don't know what else there is. He's capable of anything.

TAPPER: Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer raised the question, and it's actually one candidly that I've been thinking about for a while, which is if the Senate does what we assume the Senate is going to do and acquit President Trump of these charges, what does that mean in terms of the future and politicians asking foreign countries to investigate their rivals?

And let me also just say predicated on the idea that all of President Trump's defenders say that he really just wanted a legitimate investigation into corruption. There are legitimate questions to ask about the Kushners in China, about Trump Tower properties all over the world. I'm not saying they have done anything wrong but there are questions to ask. A Democratic president, Buttigieg, Warren, Sanders, Biden, whoever, could say, okay, President Xi, you want to play? And like -- I mean, what does it mean --

CONWAY: My answer to that is what Gordon Sondland said to Holmes in a restaurant in Kiev, Trump only cares about things that affect him personally. And if this is allowed to pass, if a president is allowed to violate the law, as the GAO found, to withhold money for his own personal, political gain, then all bets are off with future presidents.


I hope that we never see one like this again, even though I agree with a lot of his policies. But where are the boundaries? The boundaries --