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Van Plows Into Pedestrians in Toronto; White House: "No Intention" of Firing Special Counsel Mueller. Aired 4-4:30p ET

Aired April 23, 2018 - 16:00   ET



ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jim Sciutto, in for Jake Tapper.

And we begin with the breaking news.

A law enforcement official has just told CNN that the incident in Toronto is now believed to have been deliberate. The driver now in custody after plowing a van into pedestrians along a busy city street.

Moments ago, CNN obtained this video of police pinning a man down on a police squad car. Police have not confirmed if this is indeed the driver. It did occur moments after that van drove through those pedestrians.

We don't know exactly how many people injured now. There are reports of at least seven people taken into hospital, just one hospital there. And witnesses who have spoken to CNN partner CTV described seeing people on the ground, victims in body bags.

They also described horror at the height of the day.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: In the middle of the intersection and the van just went right into them and plowed right into them.

And then apparently he drove down further and he went on to the sidewalk by the next building and he hit more people there and just kept going.


SCIUTTO: We're told that he may have driven along the sidewalk for half-a-mile, perhaps a mile. This is believed to be the van involved, a white Ryder rental van.

The scene stretched, as we said, for quite a stretch there on a busy time in a very busy part of Toronto.

I'm going to play another video now. What you are going to see here appears to show a standoff very near the scene of this with an individual pointing an object at police. This happened just moments after the van plowed into those pedestrians.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Get down! Get down! Get down! Get down!


SCIUTTO: Now, to be clear, police have not yet confirmed that that is the suspect. But you will note there he is standing next to that van we showed you earlier, which is believed to be the van that had plowed into those pedestrians.

CNN's Shimon Prokupecz, he joins me now here.

Shimon, I understand you have talked to law enforcement who have been briefed on the incident there. What are they telling you?

SHIMON PROKUPECZ, CNN CRIME AND JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: So, essentially, as in most of these situations, U.S. officials get briefed on this.

And we're told by all accounts right now this appears to be a deliberate act. There was no medical issue with the driver of the van. They believe, at least Toronto officials, this was a deliberate act.

The question of terrorism obviously on everyone's mind. I was told that they were waiting to speak to the driver of the van, the suspect before making any determination to really figure out what the motive is here. So U.S. officials don't have that yet.

Obviously, several injured here, seriously injured. So we will probably learn more about that soon when police there hold a press conference, but certainly here police are monitoring it.

The feds are monitoring the situation here, as well as local police departments, which they normally do in these situations.

SCIUTTO: As we know, U.S. law enforcement has a very close intelligence-sharing relationship with their Canadian counterparts there.

First things that come to mind as I look at this, reminds me of Halloween last year in New York, right, a rented vehicle driven along a busy pedestrian path. Again, it is too early to say what the motive is or to know the person involved, et cetera, but those two hallmarks are a pattern at least we have seen before.

PROKUPECZ: That certainly does fit one of those patterns where a person gets in a van and then intentionally runs down people and injuring and killing people.

Certainly, that that is probably playing into some of what law enforcement is thinking about this, certainly law enforcement here. Remember, in Toronto, police are doing the best to try and keep U.S. officials posted on what the situation is here. But they are in the middle of their own investigation. And, granted,

they do have a suspect that is alive and so hopefully they will able to learn a lot about the motivation here.

SCIUTTO: I want to go now to the scene there in Toronto. A reporter for Global News Toronto, Kamil Karamali, he was on the scene as much of this unfolded.

Kamil, tell us what you are seeing there now.

KAMIL KARAMALI, GLOBAL NEWS TORONTO: Yes, still very much active scene here.

A lot of this major artery in Toronto is closed up, taped off. A lot of onlookers wondering what is going on and once they hear it, they are shaken up because it is a close-knit neighborhood here along this stretch of Yonge Street.

That is north of the downtown area, a lot of residential buildings and a lot of people wondering how they are going to get home tonight. We see a lot of police officers with big assault rifles guarding along the street because it is still very much active.

As you can imagine, this many deceased and this many people hit, it is not going to close down any time soon. Tough to remove any of the bodies. And I myself as well as a lot of reporters here have been -- were on scene early enough to see the bodies themselves. So we know there are multiple casualties here.


SCIUTTO: Kamil, did you count how many bodies you saw?

KARAMALI: I myself saw two.

But it was a chaotic mess. I was trying to meet up with my cameraman. And just because of all the chaos and the places that were taped up, we tried to meet up and once we did we did a body count ourselves.

So, between us, we saw at least four. But once again those numbers are not confirmed. Police gave us an initial update right off the bat when this first happened, but they have been quite quiet, I think trying to do a body count and injury count themselves.

But they will be giving us an update in the upcoming minutes or hours. Still, things are not clear. But as of right now, still a lot of fear, a lot of chaos and a big mess just in terms of a lot of questions that are still unanswered along this very, very busy, what is usually a busy stretch of Toronto.

SCIUTTO: As we have been speaking to you, Kamil, we've been seeing some aerial footage there that shows what appears to be bodies under orange sheets, perhaps body bags there.

And other witnesses told us they saw something similar. I just want to ask you, based on what you saw when you arrived at the

scene, this vehicle was up on the sidewalk for a stretch. Based on what you saw, did it look to you like a deliberate act?

KARAMALI: It is tough to tell because there are so many questions.

But I will lay out the facts for you that there are three major stretches at least where the van jumped the curb. All right? So there were three pockets where at least there were -- the van went and up on the curb where there were pedestrians and there was a stretch of pedestrians that were hit.

It seems like it would take a lot of control to be able to climb the curb and then climb back down and then drive along Yonge Street south and then climb back on the curb and then do it again.

So the answer to that, only police can tell after a detailed investigation, possibly after speaking to the suspect. But the van itself, I'm sure you can see the pictures, they are dents along the front. The van is heavily dented, likely because of the pedestrians that were struck.

And just -- I saw a very clear shot of one of the pedestrians under the blanket that police were pushing people back, and it looked like a very, very traumatic impact between the vehicle and the pedestrian. So we will just have to find out once the word comes down from police and from this investigation as to what really happened.

SCIUTTO: Kamil Karamali witnessed much of what we're seeing there in Toronto. Thanks very much. Please stick around. We are going to be getting updates.

Joined now by our panel.

I have Art Roderick here with me in Washington.

Got some new information we just heard there, Art, where this witness saying that the driver appeared to go up on to the sidewalk multiple times. Right? Early on, had they just mounted the sidewalk or the curb once, you might say possibility of an accident, but multiple times over quite a long stretch, what does that tell you?

ART RODERICK, CNN LAW ENFORCEMENT ANALYST: It tells me more than likely this was clearly on purpose.

I mean, he meant to do this. We have heard earlier reports from the fire department in Toronto that that stretch is at least a half-mile to a full mile in length, that he drove down not only the road, but on the sidewalk.

When you listen to the witness statements, there was also an earlier witness statement from an individual that was behind him in a vehicle possibly thought he had a heart attack and was trying to speed up to assist him. And at that point, he saw him go up on the sidewalk.

When you look at the arrest scene that we see there, obviously, there is no medical condition there. I have had sources tell me that he didn't have a weapon, that it was very possibly a cell phone and it looked to me like he was attempting a murder by cop, suicide by cop scenario.

SCIUTTO: It is remarkable when you look at the video. Again, we haven't confirmed. The police at least have not confirmed that that is the suspect.

But pointing something at a cop in a situation like that, you might think you have a death wish.

Phil Mudd, long time in counterterrorism, you look at some of the pieces here, first of all, mounting a curb filled with pedestrians multiple times, also driving a rental van, which is an M.O. we have seen before, we saw in New York in Halloween last year, something that certainly was a terror attack.

As you piece together this early information -- and again we should always emphasize this is early information -- what does it tell you?

PHILIP MUDD, CNN COUNTERTERRORISM ANALYST: There are two things it tells me. I wouldn't be looking at the van and I would be looking at motive.

But there are two clue we have, not only one obviously access to the individual who conducted this and to whatever he is saying, but my first concern, Jim, is imminent threat, whether we can prove within the next minutes or hours that he was acting independently and that nobody else was participating.


The information that Art was receiving, speculative at this point, though, but the information about a cell phone in his hand, my first question would be whether the law enforcement and intelligence could access that cell phone and whether that offers an initial indication about what he was calling or texting anybody in the minutes or hours before the event.

I'm not going to piece together what happened in the last hours. I want to know immediately whether there's anybody else that's going to do the same thing and then go back and piece together what happened here.

SCIUTTO: That is a great point, Phil Mudd.

And I should remind our viewers, as continue to cover this incident if Toronto, we are told by Toronto police that they will be briefing us with a press conference some time this hour. The moment that comes up, we will take you right there.

Juliette Kayyem, long history with Department of Homeland Security, I mentioned to Shimon how there is an intelligence-sharing relationship between U.S. and Canadian authorities, but also getting to this point that Phil raised about imminent threat, I imagine that U.S. police department in major cities are taking a look at their own security with regard to attacks like this right now.

JULIETTE KAYYEM, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: That is business right, just because as Phil was saying, you are constantly worried about whether copycats or there's follow-on.

So there will be just sort of the normal -- normal, to the extent you can say this is normal, but just the normal interaction of intelligence and law enforcement sharing to see what we know now, what Toronto knows now and whether there should be any sort of -- what you might call sort of an uptick in security guidelines right now for U.S. cities.

And then just going back to Toronto, obviously they're concerned first with that this doesn't happen again, there's not some follow-up, second, of course, the victims.

But because the suspect is still alive, that is going to be just an opening for intelligence, in particular the rental of the van, which is rather obvious, but just to find out whether he has any colleagues or anyone helping him.

I will say I know we're anticipating the Toronto police, but one thing that we know now is that the police really do have to get out in front of information, because we're getting these eyewitness accounts and these firsthand accounts. And so the better use of social media or other instruments to get the information out there actually calms a city down.

So the gap that we have had in information right now, I hope it will be alleviated relatively quickly by Toronto. It has been over 90 minutes now. We should hear from them by now.

SCIUTTO: Right. And, as I said, we are expecting a press conference shortly from police there.


SCIUTTO: We're going to continue to follow this story.

We also have major news out of the White House, as the pressure is building on the president and his so-called fixer.

We will be right back.


[16:16:32] JIM SCIUTTO, CNN HOST: Welcome back.

To politics lead now, and the White House refusing to rule out a pardon for President Trump's personal attorney Michael Cohen. It comes after a presidential tweet storm that has been raging since Friday. The president defending Cohen and slamming "The New York Times" for its report that the president's own lawyers have resigned to the very strong possibility that Cohen may flip.

President Trump also venting about the Russia investigation which he calls a witch hunt continuing to spark speculation that the president is prepared to fire special counsel Robert Mueller. Though the White House said he has no intention of doing so.

CNN's Pamela Brown has more from the White House.


PAMELA BROWN, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): As President Trump welcomes French President Macron to Washington, his staff is left defending Trump's weekend tweet storm.

SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: I'm not going to go beyond the president's tweet.

BROWN: Trump continuing his Twitter tirade that began at his Florida resort. More than 20 tweets defending Michael Cohen, hitting James Comey and fuming over the Russia investigation.

Sara Sanders insisting firing special counsel Robert Mueller isn't on the table.

SANDERS: We have no intention of firing the special counsel. We've been beyond cooperative with them, we're continuing to cooperate with them, and we continue to repeat that we think that the idea that the Trump campaign was involved in any collusion with Russia is a total witch hunt. Our position on that has been very clear since the beginning of this process.

BROWN: Trump also defending his personal attorney Michael Cohen, tweeting, they're going out of their way to destroy Michael Cohen and his relationship with me in the hope that he will flip. They use nonexistent sources and a drunk, drugged up loser who hates Michael. A fine person with a wonderful family. I don't see Michael doing that.

The White House not naming the drunk and drugged up loser mentioned by the president, but today affirming Trump's belief Cohen will not turn on him.

SANDERS: The president is clear he hasn't done anything wrong. I think we've stated that about a thousand times. Beyond that, I don't have anything to add beyond the president's tweet.

BROWN: But a source familiar with discussion inside Trump's legal team tells CNN the president's lawyers are preparing for all possibilities. The Cohen raid has led to speculation that Trump could pardon his long-time confidant and the White House is still not closing the door on that possibility.

SANDERS: It's hard to close a door on something that hasn't taken place. I don't like to discuss or comment on hypothetical situations that may or may not ever happen.

BROWN: The pardon speculation in the wake of Trump's pardon of Scooter Libby, former aide to Vice President Dick Cheney.

And another Trump tweet over the weekend that he's considering a full pardon posthumously for heavyweight boxing champion Jack Johnson.


BROWN: And as the president seemingly ramped up his Twitter use this past week, and we're also learning, Jim, that the president is increasingly relying on using his personal cell phone to communicate with outside advisers, according to advises inside and outside of the White House speaking to myself, as well as my colleague Sarah Westwood. We have learned from one White House official I spoke with that he's using it more frequently and more recently.

And this is also seen as a way for the president to get around his own chief of staff, John Kelly. When Kelly first came on board, the president used the White House switchboard more frequently, although he still did have his personal cell phone and at that time, John Kelly would then print out a list of who the president was speaking to.

Now, we're told, according to sources, the president is basically trying to get around that using his own cell phone so that there is no watchful eye essentially on who he is speaking to -- Jim.

[16:20:10] SCIUTTO: Pamela, speaking of watchful eyes, do we have any knowledge of his cell phone being encrypted or expect the conversations could be heard by other watchful eyes, other foreign intelligence services.

BROWN: Well, that is the big concern, of course, when any government official uses a device like that, like a personal cell phone. That concern is that, yes, foreign governments are going to be listening in and particularly when you are the president of the United States. We reached out to the White House communication agency which would be in charge of this kind of thing, enabling -- putting security measures on the cell phone, so it's unclear if that is the case here.

We know with President Obama that was the case. The President Obama did use a BlackBerry from time to time, and it was equipped with certain security measures. But certainly, the fact that the president is using a personal cell phone does raise concerns about security vulnerabilities, Jim.

SCIUTTO: Very key question. Pamela Brown at the White House, thanks very much.

Joining me now are CNN chief legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin. Back was as well, former CIA and FBI official, Phil Mudd.

So, Phil, you listened to those messages coming from the White House, the president was tweeting over the weekend, lots of critiques of the special counsel, even saying he was appointed possibly on an illegal basis, the White House said today he has no intention of firing Robert Mueller.

Phil, who do you believe?

PHIL MUDD, FORMER CIA AND FBI OFFICIAL: Look, I don't think he has an intention now of firing. I suspect, although if you want to read the intentions of the United States after 15 months, you better ask somebody else, Jim.

But the reason I say this is looking at this logically, as a law of unintended consequences. The president got burned by the firing of James Comey and the problem got a lot worse after Comey disappeared from the scene and Mueller came on. The avenues the president has now, removing Robert Mueller, that Congress is going to step up or either reappoint him or appoint somebody else. The team under Mueller, I know some of those guys, they are brilliant. They're not going anywhere. If you try to go the other route, that is removing Rod Rosenstein or removing the attorney general, whoever the president tries to put in to replace them has to get confirmed by the Senate, I can't believe the Senate would ever confirm anybody who said anything other than they would allow the investigation to continue.

So, if the president doesn't want this goose to be cooked, he should have turned the oven off a while ago. I think his avenues are going to be difficult to pursue at this point if he wants to shut this down.

SCIUTTO: Well, let's look at president's tweet over the weekend regarding the special counsel. He said the following, quote, James Comey illegally leaked classified documents to the press in order to generate a special counsel, misspelled, therefore the special counsel was established based on an illegal act, question mark, really does everybody know what that means?

Jeffrey, what is the president implying there?

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN CHIEF LEGAL ANALYST: Well, what he is saying is that when James Comey took those memos that recounted his conversations with the president and gave them to Professor Dan Richman at Columbia University, that was an illegal leak, especially since he considered -- he knew that Richman was going to give that to the press --

SCIUTTO: But are notes about a conversation with the president taken by then a private citizen, are those classified?

TOOBIN: They may or may not be. And in fact when the administration or Congress released those -- some versions of those memos, some of the portions were blacked out. I think James Comey actually is in a pretty vulnerability position here. Just because something is not marked classified doesn't mean that after the fact it couldn't be retroactively designated classified. I think James Comey may really have a problem there.

The president is wrong however that the leak was what caused the appointment of the special counsel. What caused the appointment of the special counsel was the president firing James Comey. That was the key -- that was the key event which had nothing to do with the president's -- with Comey's leaks.

So, you know, the president is pushing on a vulnerability of Comey, but he's giving a misleading picture of how these events unfolded.

SCIUTTO: OK, but just on the issue for classification, just for clarity, could the president classify retroactively those documents and the question would be did he do so in his own interest?

TOOBIN: Well, the answer is the administration -- the classification authorities could classify these documents retroactively. Remember, I mean, here we have a sort of karma issue. Hillary Clinton, who is James Comey bete noire, got in trouble because after the fact certain e-mails that she sent that were not marked as classified were designated as classified.

It could be that James Comey is getting into the same kind of trouble. I don't know. There is an inspector general investigation of this among other things just underway.

But it is not out of the question that documents and statements that were not originally marked classified could later be designated as classified.

SCIUTTO: So, Phil Mudd, the president is talking about pardons again this weekend about the deceased boxer Jack Johnson.

[16:25:06] It read, quote, yes, I am considering a full pardon.

It was just ten days ago you remember that Scooter Libby was officially pardoned by the president. White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders not refusing the possibility of a pardon for Michael Cohen as well.

Phil, is there a way the tweet on Johnson, following the decision 10 days ago on Scooter Libby is a just a coincidence or do you see that as a message to some of the president's associates who are now in legal trouble?

MUDD: I think the more important is the message that he offered when he spoke with Michael Cohen, whatever that was, by a week and a half ago. I would love to know what was in that conversation. Even a fairly benign sentence like don't worry, this will all end up OK, after the pardoning of Scooter Libby and after the White House has been saying about pardons recently, how would you interpret that if you are Michael Cohen.

I think the story is bigger, though, Jim. If we see a move in the direction of a pardoning of Michael Cohen, what do you think if you are in the special counsel's office and you're heading maybe toward further indictments of people in the White House, whether it's the president's son or the son-in-law, I think if you are the special counsel, you're saying, we better document everything, because eventually if anybody else gets pardoned, those documents will go to Congress and Congress is going to have to determine what to do if the Justice Department can't prosecute anybody because the president pardons them.

SCIUTTO: Jeffrey Toobin, Sara Sanders was asked this morning on why the president was tweeting all of a sudden about Jack Johnson and here is how she answered.


REPORTER: Is he sending Michael Cohen a message by talking about Jack Johnson and Scooter Libby pardoning -- is he sending a message?

SANDERS: That's something that's been on the table for quite sometime.

CNN: It has nothing to do with Michael Cohen?

SANDERS: That call took place -- I'm trying to remember. It was probably close to a month ago. So, this is something -- on going.

CNN: Why tweet about it this weekend then?

SANDERS: Because we're getting close to a second conversation on that front.


SCIUTTO: So, Jeffrey Toobin, you're a lawyer. Do you see anything interesting or does anything raise questions about the timing of that tweet, the decision on Scooter Libby as the attention on Michael Cohen has gotten more intense?

TOOBIN: You know, this is always the biggest challenge in law enforcement, which is determining intent. What was the president's intent? Is it just a coincidence that he pardoned Scooter Libby outside of the normal pardon process in the Department of Justice, that he pardoned Joe Arpaio outside of the normal process, that he suddenly is talking about Jack Johnson with a posthumous pardon? Is that a message to Michael Cohen, to Paul Manafort, hang in there, don't worry, you know, the cavalry that is a pardon is on the way?

It all depends on how suspicious a turn of mind one has, and , you know, there is plenty of reason to be suspicious.

SCIUTTO: Perhaps just a side benefit.

Phil Mudd and Jeffrey Toobin, thanks very much. Please stick around.

We have breaking news into the deadly waffle house shooting. The suspected gunman now in custody. You see him there. The latest from police will be next.

Plus, any moment now, Toronto police are expected to give an update on the van attack that CNN was told was a deliberate act.