Return to Transcripts main page


Questions Raised About James Brown's Death; Top U.S. Commander Not Consulted on Trump's Syria Pullout; President Trump Set to Deliver State of the Union Address. Aired 3-3:30p ET

Aired February 5, 2019 - 15:00   ET



ZACH WOLF, CNN POLITICS DIGITAL DIRECTOR: It's been about 65 percent of the president's Cabinet has turned over at least one time. And that is more than George W. Bush, the last Republican president, had in eight years, 65 percent.

And it's almost where the last two Democratic presidents -- they were at just over 70 percent for their eight years, so a lot of turnover and a lot of new faces for him tonight.

BROOKE BALDWIN, CNN ANCHOR: Yes, a lot more women in that audience as well.

Zach Wolf, thank you very much.

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

BALDWIN: All right, so, we roll on. You're watching CNN. I'm Brooke Baldwin live here in our nation's capital.

And we have got breaking news now.

CNN has learned that in recent weeks federal prosecutors in New York have been trying to interview executives in the Trump Organization. This is according to people familiar with this whole thing.

It is another sign of the growing legal troubles that the president could face outside of the special counsel's investigation over the Russia probe.

So let's go straight to CNN politics and business correspondent Cristina Alesci with these breaking details.

And so what do you know?

CRISTINA ALESCI, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, we know that federal prosecutors in New York are now seeking interviews with top Trump Organization executives.

Look, Brooke, this intensifies the fears that the bigger threat to the president and his business may come from New York prosecutors and not Mueller's team. What we do know is that the New York prosecutors have been looking into two specific areas. One is the campaign finance, possible campaign finance violation in connection to reimbursements that the Trump Organization made to Michael Cohen for those hush money payments.

The other one is financial abuses tied to donations to the inaugural committee. Those are the two specific areas. But we don't know if there's another area or if there are multiple other areas. And we don't know if prosecutors are asking for interviews with these executives for those two inquiries or possibly something else.

We also don't know the extent of these interviews and how serious they are. We don't believe that there were subpoenas issued. So this could be an informal interview. And this could be just a matter of prosecutors what we call checking the box or making sure they didn't miss anything, and not necessarily looking for something new.

But one thing is clear. These executives are senior people who have been with the organization for a long time. They know a lot of personal information about the president and his operations. And this could go on for quite some time, perhaps even beyond the Mueller investigation.

BALDWIN: Cristina, thank you so much for the setup and the reporting.

So let's analyze all of what she just laid out.

CNN legal analyst Carrie Cordero, a former counsel to the assistant attorney general for national security, is here, and former national security prosecutor Joseph Moreno.

So, all right, she just laid out a lot, but what I'm hearing is some very senior people within the Trump Organization who obviously would know a lot about this president, would know a lot about his finances are being questioned by some top prosecutors in the state of New York. What could they be looking for?

CARRIE CORDERO, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Well, one point is that, in addition to the people who now we're learning are being interviewed, there have already been two major figures in the Trump Organization who are already cooperating. And that's the accountant, Allen Weisselberg, and that's Michael Cohen, who is involved?

BALDWIN: Yes. Yes. One has immunity and one is going to prison.


CORDERO: Exactly. And so both of them have already been providing information. And it could be that some information that they have been providing for some period of time is leading to leads.


CORDERO: And now what we're seeing is standard investigative procedure. We're seeing subpoenas being issued with respect to the inaugural committee, and now with this new reporting, we're seeing more witnesses interviewed. BALDWIN: Yes.

CORDERO: And, Joe, I'm sure you agree this is standard investigative technique when we're talking about subpoenas and witness interviews.


But the danger here to the Trump Organization and to the president himself is what we don't know. We have been talking about the Mueller probe for almost two years. We have a general idea of where he's going, based on the cases he brought, his mandate.


MORENO: Well, we have a general -- we think we do. I mean, anything is possible.


MORENO: But we know there are some safeguards as to he has to report certain things. We don't know what's going on in New York.

And a lot of us thought when Michael Cohen's office was raided last year, that's the threat, because they could go anywhere. And the Southern District of New York, they are known to be fiercely independent, fiercely aggressive. They will go where the evidence leads them.


So it's SDNY. You mentioned the inaugural committee, looking into potential crimes, including like wire fraud, straw donors, conspiracy. That's SDNY. The lead prosecutor on that case was also the lead -- one of the lead prosecutors of Michael Cohen, and it's also SDNY doing -- now question these folks within Trump Org.

So with regards to the inaugural committee and donations, why is conspiracy perhaps the most damning crime?

CORDERO: Well, conspiracy is the overall -- on the special counsel's case, that's their theory of the case.

With respect to the inaugural committee, that potentially invokes campaign finance laws. There could be a conspiracy to violate campaign finance laws.


BALDWIN: Connect the dots for us.


CORDERO: A conspiracy charge can -- usually goes along with some other charge.

The special counsel's overall theory of their case is conspiracy to defraud the United States to affect the 2016 election. And then there's a whole bunch of other -- computer crime and other crimes that go along with that.

The inaugural committee, where that ties to is -- one big question is, did foreign money come into that inaugural committee? We know that actually one specific instance of when it did, there was an individual charge who pled back in August, Sam Patten, who they laid out actually did facilitate foreign Ukrainian oligarch money coming into the inaugural committee.

That's one instance. And it was never revealed who the actual American was who served as the straw man. So it's not surprising to me that there was a subpoena to the inaugural committee looking for more information about whether or not there was more foreign money that came into it.

And the other thing -- just one other point -- there's no time limit to these investigations.


CORDERO: Everyone is always, on the political side, when is it going to end, when is the special counsel's investigation going to end


CORDERO: There's no requirement anywhere that these investigations have a time stamp on them. So they will run their full course.

BALDWIN: Sure. Sure, which means that while Mueller may say, I'm done, the SDNY, with all the tentacles, could go on for quite a while.

My last question for you, sir, just on -- so people understand, so the reporting details, how the SDNY is looking for paperwork related to -- quote -- "the possibility of donations made by foreign nationals," which Carrie was mentioning.

So -- but it's only a crime if it was done with the knowledge that the foreign contributions were illegal. So they had to know, right?

MORENO: Right.

BALDWIN: That's what would make it the crime.


OK, so what's the point of contributing to inauguration campaigns?

BALDWIN: Currying favor.

MORENO: It's to see and be seen, right? You want -- you're making a donation in large amounts preferably to the candidate to go to events, to go to the inauguration, to go to the parade, to go to the balls. That's why.

So the idea that you would get large amounts of money, over $100 million, and be able to say with a straight face, well, I don't really know where it came from, that's going to be a very hard argument to make.

BALDWIN: OK, Joe and Carrie, thank you very much.

MORENO: Thanks, Brooke.

BALDWIN: Now to this, to the State of the Union. And after a very public squabble over when and where and how the president would deliver this, he will now give it exactly where he was expected to, in Speaker Pelosi's House tonight.

The president is expected to make a plea for unity and bipartisanship while staring a divided Congress right in the eye. The White House started its campaign for common ground ahead of his remarks, really zeroing in on one issue that affects so many Americans, fixing the nation's crumbling bridges and roads.


SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: Certainly, I think you can expect that the president will talk about infrastructure. You will hear the president talk about the opioid crisis in this country.

I'm going to leave some things left for the president to talk about. But there are a number of policies that Democrats and Republicans know need to be addressed. I think infrastructure is one of the easiest ones for us to look at.


BALDWIN: And while Trump's words will be certainly in focus, so too will the reaction of those in the room with him.

For starters, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi will once again be center stage, sitting right behind the president. And in the audience looking back, lawmakers who stand in stark contrast to this White House and its policies and a diverse group of Democratic candidates ready to run against him.

As per tradition, members of Congress will be bringing guests, among them this evening, a transgender Navy lieutenant commander, a student who survived the Parkland school shooting, and a mother and daughter who were separated at the border last spring.

So with me now, Julie Hirschfeld Davis, a congressional correspondent for "The New York Times," and Eliza Collins, a politics reporter for "USA Today."

So, ladies, good to be in your town.

Let me just begin with, there was some reporting that Jared Kushner and President Trump had met with some contractors at the White House to discuss building a wall. Do we think, to you first, Eliza, that the declaration of a national emergency is pretty much an assumption at this point?

ELIZA COLLINS, "USA TODAY": Yes, although we're not sure if it's going to happen tonight. We don't think that will happen.

I think they will see this out, Congress. There's been a committee that is supposed to come to a compromise on this, but the president has already undercut that committee. The president has basically said there's no use in trying.

Emergency declaration is really -- it's a controversial thing with the president's own party. Talk to lots of Republicans -- I'm sure you do, too -- on the Hill that do not like an emergency declaration.

BALDWIN: Let me jump in on that point. This is what she's talking about.


SEN. SUSAN COLLINS (R), MAINE: As a member of the Senate, I am concerned when any president, regardless of party, circumvents the appropriations process.

SEN. RON JOHNSON (R), WISCONSIN: This would just be another erosion of congressional authority in this particular area.

SEN. RICHARD SHELBY (R), ALABAMA: What we'd like to do is do it in the appropriation process. We have shown we could do it, if people will leave us alone.



BALDWIN: But does the president -- I mean, it's one thing for Democrats and say, well, we don't like it, but for his members of his own party?

JULIE HIRSCHFELD DAVIS, "THE NEW YORK TIMES": I mean, I think it's very clear that this is one place where Republicans -- a rare place where Republicans are willing to draw the line and say no.

I mean, the one thing that Congress undoubtedly has the power to do is appropriate money. And they do not want the president to come in, with the except -- with a few notable exceptions like Lindsey Graham, Senator Graham, who said that Republicans should just march in lockstep behind him if he does this.

But for the vast majority of Republicans, as you just played those clips, this is anathema to them. And not only that, but the president -- there's a mechanism there for Congress to intervene and for the House, the Democratic-led House, to try to pass a resolution to stop him from doing that.

Not only could that have a substantive effect of actually blocking the action, which everyone assumes the courts would try to do anyway, but also that would put Republicans on the spot in the Senate to have to say yea or nay, do they support it or not? And that sets a precedent where they don't want to go anywhere near.

So I think Eliza is right. I don't expect that he's going to declare this in the wall of the House tonight. But this is still a live issue and one that the White House is also very torn about, because they know of all of challenges as well.

BALDWIN: Wall aside, how about just thinking of -- I was reading this piece in the AP. I want to give her credit. Laurie Kellman wrote this piece about how Trump is going to be surrounded by women, right?

So not only will be Pelosi be right over his shoulder on the dais and he will be staring out a sea of members of Congress. More and more are women, but also in many of them in suffragette white.

In the gallery overhead, two former female immigrant employees of Trump's New Jersey golf club, outspoken on his hiring practices, and then you have Stacey Abrams, who is giving the response.

What do you think of that?

E. COLLINS: Well, it's certainly a new -- it's a new year. It's a new Congress.

This is a record number of women in Congress. We have the first woman to ever be elected speaker elected a second time. I mean, it's notable. And the president is -- he has to know that. Also, a lot of women will be wearing white. They did that the first year that President Trump was president.

And Lois Frankel said at that point it was sort of a protest of Trump. Last year, they wore black as part of the MeToo movement. And this year they're supposed to be wearing white again. But this time they're saying it's more optimistic. They took back the House. Women are in control. Basically, voters, you entrusted us, let's keep it going message.

It's just a -- it's a new Congress.

BALDWIN: It is. It is.

And with Stacey Abrams, who lost in Georgia, would have been the first black female governor in the country, so she's giving this response. But then Bernie Sanders, Senator Bernie Sanders -- you smile -- but, I mean, he's giving like the response to the response.

And I'm just wondering, why?


HIRSCHFELD DAVIS: Well, I mean, this is kind of a repeat of what we saw a few weeks ago, when the president gave his Oval Office address.

BALDWIN: He likes to respond.

HIRSCHFELD DAVIS: And then Chuck and Nancy, Pelosi and Schumer, gave their -- the official Democratic response. BALDWIN: Then Bernie Sanders.

HIRSCHFELD DAVIS: And Bernie Sanders gave the Bernie Sanders response.

And I think there's no question, both in his presidential campaign when he ran and as a senator, he likes to set himself apart from the rest of the Democratic Party. And certainly as the Democratic primary already gets going for 2020, he wants to be a voice out there with a slightly different tweak on the message.

He's not the establishment Democratic Party. He's not going to be the official responder, but he wants to get his word in. I do think it's significant that they have chosen Stacey Abrams, woman of color, gubernatorial candidate, someone who is I think going to speak to a lot of the divides that exists now, and do so in a way that it might be difficult for sitting members of Congress who are literally in a live power struggle with the president to do.

She's kind of removed from all that. But I think Democrats are hoping she puts it in perspective a little bit. And there's no question as well that the president, even though he's going to be in this room, which is quite distinct from his friendly realm, I think relishes that imagery as well.

He likes the idea that he's going into the belly of the beast, that he's going to say his piece.


BALDWIN: Such a great point.

HIRSCHFELD DAVIS: And that this is a moment he really did not want to surrender. That's part of why this power struggle over where he was going to give this speech was so alive and...


BALDWIN: Bring it.



BALDWIN: I'm here, Madam Speaker.

Julie and Eliza, ladies, thank you very much for that.

And, of course, don't miss CNN's special coverage of the State of the Union starting at 8:00 tonight here on CNN.

Coming up next, one-man decisions. Today, the head of the U.S. Central Command says he was not consulted about the decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria before President Trump made the announcement. How alarming is that? Also, did the Godfather of Soul really die of natural causes? Questions now being raised after a CNN investigation two years in the making into the death of James Brown. Will there now be an investigation into his death?

You're watching special coverage here live from Washington, D.C. I'm Brooke Baldwin.



BALDWIN: The U.S. commander responsible for overseeing military operations in the Middle East says he was not consulted on President Trump's decision to get out of Syria, but says he is not under pressure to leave the country by a certain date.

Testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee, General Joseph Votel said that Trump's announcement came as a surprise.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: General, were you aware of the president's intention to order the withdrawal of our troops from Syria before that was publicly announced?

GEN. JOSEPH VOTEL, COMMANDER, U.S. CENTRAL COMMAND: I was not aware of the specific announcement. Certainly, we are aware that he has expressed a desire and intent in the past to depart -- depart Iraq.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: So you weren't -- you weren't consulted with before that decision was announced?

VOTEL: We were not. I was not consulted.


BALDWIN: Syria has been trapped in civil unrest for nearly a decade.

But in one eastern town, liberation from ISIS is not being met with joy or relief. Many homes and businesses there are now nothing but rubble.


CNN senior international correspondent Ben Wedeman takes us there and shows us the devastation.


BEN WEDEMAN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): This is not the happiest of homecomings.

The town of Hajin near the Euphrates River in Eastern Syria was the scene of intense coalition bombing, followed by house-to-house combat between ISIS and U.S.-backed predominantly Kurdish forces.

It's a repetition of the same scenario that has played out from Mosul to Raqqa and now here, ISIS' last stand. To save towns and cities from the extremists, they must be destroyed.

Zahara (ph) returned with her family two days ago and sells snacks to make some money. Only stones are left, she tells me, her little daughter far too young to comprehend what has happened.

(on camera): Some of the residents of this town, which was liberated from ISIS in December, have begun to return, but to return to what?

Most of the buildings are either severely damaged or utterly destroyed. So the best they can do at this point is just retrieve their belongings and then leave again.

(voice-over): Khais (ph) returned last week to find his house in ruins and no way to support a family here.

"Life was hard under ISIS," he says, "but it's still hard, harder still with this destruction."

There's no sign that any government or other authority has begun to clear the rubble and restore a semblance of normal life.

"We want to make Hajin like it was in the days of the regime," says Saad (ph). "There was a hospital and a roundabout and those buildings, all destroyed because of ISIS."

This war has been pursued with a single-minded focus on defeating the enemy, with scant attention to what happens the day after victory is declared.

Ben Wedeman, CNN, Hajin, Eastern Syria.


BALDWIN: Ben, thank you.

Coming up next, we will talk live to a woman who made headlines for confronting Senator Jeff Flake over the Brett Kavanaugh Supreme Court nomination. She will be a guest of Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio- Cortez at tonight's State of the Union -- what she wants her message to be.



BALDWIN: Want to get now to this exclusive CNN investigation that raises questions about the death of James Brown, the Godfather of Soul.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This morning at 1:45 a.m., Mr. James Brown passed away.

THOMAS LAKE, CNN SENIOR WRITER (voice-over): The Godfather of Soul died Christmas morning 2006, 41 years after his signature song hit the Billboard charts. Officially, the cause of death was a heart attack and fluid in the lungs.


LAKE: Officially, the only person with him when he died was his personal manager.

BOBBIT: And he sighed very, very quietly and very gently. Then he closed his eyes, and he was dead.

LAKE: Until recently, I had no real reason to doubt these details. But that was before I learned that, if it involves James Brown, you should always question the official story.

Two years ago, I got a phone call from a woman who sang in the circus. She had some surprising things to tell me.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I just kept it quiet. It was need to know. If someone didn't ask me, I didn't tell them. James Brown was murdered.

LAKE: I know, it sounds insane. And that's not the half of it. In the years that followed, as I listened to Jacque and met others who knew James Brown, the story kept getting stranger.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Why in the world has James Brown not been buried yet?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I don't need an autopsy. I'm his daughter. I have his blood.

LAKE: This story has never been told before in the mainstream press. You won't find it in any of Brown's biographies.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Nobody wanted to hear the truth. Nobody wanted to print the truth.

LAKE: I spent nearly two years checking out Jacque's story. I traveled through nine states, interviewed nearly 140 people, analyzed more than 1,300 pages of text messages from her iPhone, and sent a mysterious item from a black duffel bag for testing at a forensic lab.

In two years, I have found out a lot of things Jacque didn't know when she called me. Pull up a chair and let me tell you the story of the circus singer and the Godfather of Soul.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The king is dead. Long live the king.


BALDWIN: Oh, my goodness.

CNN's Thomas Lake is here. He wrote this extraordinary three-part investigative series. It just went live on

So, Thomas, thank you so much for coming to D.C. and talking me through this incredible, incredible investigation and this journey you have really been on for the last two years.