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White House Transcript Shows Trump Pushed Ukraine to Investigate Biden; Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) Discusses Trump/Zelensky Call & Bidens, Whistleblower Complaint, Giuliani Saying State Department Asked Him to Intervene; How Are Trump Calls Handled, Who Transcribes & What's Missing in Key Ellipses. Aired 1:30-2p ET

Aired September 25, 2019 - 13:30   ET




BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN HOST: A just released transcript of a phone call shows President Trump asking Ukrainian President Zelensky to investigate his political rival, former Vice President Joe Biden.

In this call, the president repeatedly stresses how much the U.S. does for Ukraine. Then he says, quote, "I would like you to do us a favor."

The president asks Zelensky to dig up dirt on Biden and his son, Hunter, who sat on the board of a Ukrainian energy company while his dad was vice president.

Quote, "There's a lot of talk about Biden's son, that Biden stopped the prosecution, and a lot of people want to find out about that. So whatever you can do with the attorney general would be great. Biden went around bragging that he stopped the prosecution, so if you can look into it, it sounds horrible to me."

It's important to note there has been no finding of wrongdoing by Biden or his son. Biden's efforts to get rid of Ukraine's then- prosecutor general whole Biden was vice president, acting on behalf of the Obama administration, was expected to bring more scrutiny of the company that Hunter Biden sat on the board of. Now, that prosecutor general failed to crack down on corruption in the Ukraine.


With us to discuss more, former press secretary under President Clinton, Joe Lockhart, and host, "S.E. CUPP UNFILTERED," here on CNN, S.E. Cupp.

S.E., the president is saying this is a nothing call. What do you think about that?

S.E. CUPP, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR & CNN HOST, "S.E. CUPP UNFILTERED": I think parsing is partisan. So to parse this transcript is conceding that there's anything to parse. This was quid pro quo in black and white. You don't even need the transcript, though.

Let's be really clear. On Monday, the president himself tied the aid package to Ukraine to the Biden investigation. He said, quote, "Why would you give money to a country that you think is corrupt?" He also said that very same day, "I didn't pressure him, but I could have."

He doesn't think there's anything wrong with what he did. We know that because he released the transcript. I think he's going to defend it.

But let's not pretend that the Republicans and those who are defending Trump have any leg to stand on parsing this transcript out. It is there in black and white.

KEILAR: I wonder, Joe, how voters are going to see this. Nancy Pelosi is making this calculation that voters are going to understand this.

There are some complicated things about all of this. I'm sure, in retrospect, Hunter Biden would not have sat on that energy board, even though there has been no finding of wrongdoing. This is complicated.

Do you think people are going to understand this as the speaker is hoping they will?

JOE LOCKHART, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: There's two levels to this. One involves Hunter Biden and Joe Biden. I'm glad you underline the important thing here. What Joe Biden was doing in 2014 was on behalf of the U.S. and the international community.

It was the IMF that was really pushing to get rid of this prosecutor. They were trying to clean up corruption. They were trying to say we're not going to continue investing in your country if it's corrupt. And the prosecutor was allowing corruption to flourish so they wanted him removed.

It's kind of "Through the Looking Glass" talking points from the president when he talks about you had a very fine prosecutor. Well, he had a prosecutor who allowed corruption to flourish and Biden just happened to be the point person.

But this is politics. They'll make their case and the former vice president is going to have to defend himself.

I think on the broader question, this is, I think, much easier for the public to connect to for this reason. This is looking forward. I think people are tired of talking about 2016, some people. There are obviously some Democrats who are not. This is about --


KEILAR: The people they want to sway are tired of it.

LOCKHART: Yes. This is about trying to influence the next election, trying to get foreign governments to interfere with this election, trying to do what Richard Nixon did by trying to help pick his opponent through political dirty tricks.

I think the public will understand this. I think that's why you've seen the groundswell of Democrats moving towards we have to impeach this guy.

KEILAR: S.E., what do you think?

CUPP: I think Joe's right. It's a complicated story. But what the president did, again, is in black and white and I don't think it's that complicated.

And I think if you're concerned about the integrity of our next election, then this has to be deeply worrisome.

The fact that he's defending it, essentially saying, why wouldn't I have made this request, I think would make a lot of people nervous that he'll continue to do it.

We can argue about whether impeachment is politically advantageous to Democrats and that remains to be seen. There are some real political implications that will play out over the next few months.

But to acknowledge this was a tipping point and a reasonable time at which to circle the wagons and do this, I think it's the right thing.

KEILAR: I want to ask you about something, Joe. I'm hoping you can shed some light on this. One of the issues that we're seeing with this transcript is voice recognition software was used. So there's this sense of it being a rough transcript. Although voice recognition software can be somewhat exact.

You were the press secretary in a White House. What should we read about this, especially, there are in keys of this transcript some ellipses that you wondering, what are those, what did he say?

LOCKHART: The process is there's multiple people in the Situation Room who work for the NSC and the Situation Room who listen, who take very detailed notes, then they compare them and try to do a rough transcript. We should actually stop calling it a transcript. It is a summary of the conversation.

I don't expect that any of them would have known the implication of what the president might have been doing there. I think they just were listening. And --


KEILAR: Would you think this is close to verbatim or would you think -- when you say summary, I think paraphrased?

LOCKHART: Yes, I think they --

KEILAR: Is that fair --

(CROSSTALK) LOCKHART: I think they try to get down the major points as closely as they could without a recording to go and do as stenographers did. I'm not saying there's anyone in the Situation Room that tried to leave things out.


LOCKHART: I'm just saying you can't capture the entire conversation with this summary.

That's why the whistleblower complaint is so important, because, apparently, according to news reports, this is only one part of an overall pattern. So we'll need to see.

But even this -- as S.E. was saying, the president has admitted to this. He went one step further. He said he'd do it again. So what choice do we have other than to think that he'll abuse any power of the presidency to make sure he gets reelected. We haven't seen that since Richard Nixon.

KEILAR: Joe, S.E., thank you so much to both of you.

You can watch S.E. and her show this Saturday at 6:00 p.m. Eastern. Be sure to tune in.

Stand by because, moments from now, the big event. We're going to see President Trump face to face with the man at the center of this phone call, the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelensky.

Plus, Rudy Giuliani says the State Department asked him to intervene. But is that right? We'll discuss.



KEILAR: Washington is reeling right now following the release of a declassified White House memo that details the July conversation between President Trump and Ukraine's president.

In this phone call, Trump reminds the Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky that the U.S. is very, very good to Ukraine. Trump then asks for a favor. "I would like you to do us a favor," he says, that the Ukrainian president get his government to investigate Joe Biden."

We're joined by Senator Chris Van Hollen. He's a Democrat from Maryland and he sits on the Senate Appropriation Committee.

Thanks for joining us.

SEN. CHRIS VAN HOLLEN (D-MD): Good to be with you, Brianna.

KEILAR: What's your reaction to the transcript?

VAN HOLLEN: Well, I have it right here in my hand. This reveals a total abuse of power by the president of the United States. This is not Candidate Trump. This is President Trump.

This is using the power and the prestige of the office of the presidency to persuade a foreign leader to intervene in our elections and investigate a political opponent. That is a total violation of trust. It's an abuse of power.

The letter is actually worse than I thought for this reason. The president then says to the Ukrainian prime minister, I want you to meet with my personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, and we're going to engage the United States attorney general in this effort.

So the president is just expanding the scope of the use of his office and the U.S. government to try to get a foreign leader to intervene in an election. This should outrage every American regardless of political party.

KEILAR: The DOJ says that the president did not contact Barr about this issue and that Barr has not been in contact with Ukraine about this issue or other issues. What do you think of that? Do you believe that? And how does that change, if at all, what you're reading in this transcript to you?

VAN HOLLEN: I'm just reading what the president said to the prime minister of Ukraine, who said, I'm going to have my attorney general be in touch with you on this and I want you to meet with my personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, who has nothing to do with furthering the interests of the United States government or the people of the United States but only is pursuing the president's political agenda.

And he's essentially saying I'm going to get you together with Rudy Giuliani and this political agenda and the attorney general of the United States. That's what he is telling the prime minister of the Ukraine. That's bad enough.

There's also, throughout this, as you indicated when you read this, clear sort of quid pro quo implications. We've wondered for a long time why the Trump administration hadn't delivered the assistance to the Ukraine that we passed on a bipartisan basis. It's very clear that the president was using this as leverage.

Every time, in this letter, the prime minister of Ukraine wants to talk about defense cooperation or help with his economy, President Trump takes it back to investigating his political opponents and intervening in this election. That is just an abuse of power and trust.

KEILAR: I want to turn to Rudy Giuliani because he had this interview last night on FOX News. He unleashed on a new report that centers around him and his alleged shadow Ukraine agenda. He says the State Department asked him to intervene and look into this. That doesn't actually appear to be the case.

What does all this mean for Rudy Giuliani?

VAN HOLLEN: You know, I've seen Rudy Giuliani now within the scope of a week ranting on numerous networks and cable networks. including your own, sounding totally, totally lost and making stuff up as he goes and increasingly desperate. And clearly, what he's saying is not stacking up with the facts. And I don't know what he's talking about with respect to the State Department.


Look, if the State Department's involved in this kind of thing, that would suggest that Secretary Pompeo is also involved in this. I don't see any sort of frontline, you know, foreign service officers or State Department folks saying, hey, Rudy Giuliani, come on over here. We want to send you to the Ukraine to investigate this on behalf of the president. That just doesn't add up.

So Rudy Giuliani is clearly at the center of this. And we need to remember. Rudy Giuliani is President Trump's personal lawyer. He is the agent of President Trump.

So if the president tries to throw Rudy Giuliani -- Rudy under the bus going forward, as he sometimes does with others, he's not going to be able to separate himself from the actions Rudy Giuliani has taken on the president's behalf, on Donald Trump's behalf as his personal lawyer.

KEILAR: All right. Senator Van Hollen, thank you for joining us.

VAN HOLLEN: Thank you.

KEILAR: Just a short time from now, the president is holding a news conference. And the big moment is this. He and Ukraine's president are set to meet. Stand by.


KEILAR: The White House transcript of the call between President Trump and Ukrainian President Zelensky brings us some answers about what was discussed but it brings a lot of questions as well. How exactly do these calls work? Who transcribes them? What are missing in the key ellipses in the transcript?

And joining me now to shed some light on this process is a former Situation Room officer who managed calls like this under President Obama. Larry Pfeiffer is with us.

Larry, thank you so much for lending your expertise.

We have a lot of questions. Because you've looked at the transcript. I mention there are ellipses in key spots. We know voice recognition software is used and we also recollection used by people in the Situation Room who are putting the transcript together.

What can you tell us about what we should read into or not read into these ellipses?

LARRY PFEIFFER, FORMER DIRECTOR, WHITE HOUSE SITUATION ROOM: I personally would not read too much into the ellipses. I'm guessing those are just reflections of a pause in the conversation. Perhaps in the initial notations made in a Situation Room transcript, there may have been some inaudible words and they indicated with some notation there were inaudible words and somebody on the NSC staff translated that to ellipses.

I'd be very surprised if they dropped large sections of text from the phone call given how many people are witnesses to these calls.

KEILAR: How many people are witnesses?

PFEIFFER: Normally, you would have at least three or four people in the Situation Room itself. The Situation Room director would be in the Oval Office.

In this case, the call was from the residence. So there could be the national security adviser. Perhaps senior director of Europe. Other NSC staff could be phoned in to the call listening.

It's a small group but it's a group. It's a significant number.

KEILAR: Could those people or have you ever heard of anything like that where they could be subpoenaed? Have you ever seen anything like that?

PFEIFFER: No. But we're living in unusual times.


PFEIFFER: I would imagine -- I would imagine there would be some serious executive privilege issues at play if they were to happen.

KEILAR: OK. I want to ask you this. The -- this is a rough transcript. We just had Joe Lockhart on. He said he wishes they didn't use "transcript" because that makes you think it's verbatim. He thinks it should be described as a "summary."

Is it a summary? How would you describe exactly what this is?


PFEIFFER: I would describe it as it says at the top, "memorandum of the phone conversation." This is an individual on the NSC staff who has taken a transcript provided to them by the Situation Room that is probably the closest thing to a verbatim transcript that would exist and they have massaged the text more often than not to take away "ums," "ahs" and starts and stops in the conversation to make the prose more elegant.

But, yes, there's a human condition here at play both on the part of the Situation Room transcribers as well as the NSC staff person making the final memorandum.

But, yes, I think, at the very bottom, there is actually a footnote that says --


PFEIFFER: -- this is not a verbatim transcript.

KEILAR: Yes, indeed.


KEILAR: Thanks so much for helping make sense of this, Larry. We really appreciate it.

PFEIFFER: You're welcome. Thanks.

KEILAR: Soon, the president is expected to address the call summary alongside Ukraine's president and we are going to bring this to you live.



ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.