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CNN NEWSROOM

Sen. Elizabeth Announces Presidential Run; Trump Re-election Team Reacts to Warren Prior to Announcement; Warren Vows Not to Take Money from PACs or Lobbyists; Cory Booker Campaigns in Iowa; Acting A.G. Testified Before House Judiciary Committee; Democrats to Investigate, Trump Finances, Russia Ties; Interview with Rep. Denny Heck (D-WA); Trump Ignores Congress' Deadline on Khashoggi Report; Saudi Prince Threatened to "Put a Bullet" in Khashoggi a Year Before He Was Murdered; Amazon's Jeff Bezos Says "National Enquirer" Publisher Tried to Extort Him; Bezos Hints at Saudi, AMI Connection in Bombshell Report; Jeff Bezos' Accusations Could Raise Libel Issues for "National Enquirer" Publisher AMI; U.S.-Backed Syrian Democratic Forces in Last Push to Eliminate ISIS in Syria. Aired 1-2p ET

Aired February 9, 2019 - 13:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


[13:00:04] FREDRICKA WHITFIELD, CNN ANCHOR: Hello, again, everyone. Thank you for joining me this Saturday. I'm Fredricka Whitfield.

We start with breaking news. The 2020 race for president is growing bigger by the day. U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren just officially threw her name into the mix last hour.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. ELIZABETH WARREN, (D), MASSACHUSETTS: I stand here today to declare that I am a candidate for president of the United States of America.

(CHEERING)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

WHITFIELD: And she joins a rather crowded field of Democrats hoping to replace President Trump.

Right now, Senator Cory Booker is making the rounds in Iowa. He's at a meet and greet in Marshalltown after a busy day and a half of campaigning in the crucial state.

These candidates are entering the fray. Take a look as the Democrat Party is dealing with one explosive new report in Virginia politics. The latest surrounding Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax after a second woman came forward, accusing him of sexual assault, something he denies. Many of the 2020 hopefuls are now calling on Fairfax, the lieutenant governor, to resign.

Let's start with CNN's M.J. Lee, live for us in Lawrence, Massachusetts, where Elizabeth Warren officially joined the presidential race and pledged her focus.

Describe what it was like during her announcement.

M.J. LEE, CNN NATIONAL POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: It is official, Fred. Elizabeth Warren is now a candidate for president of the United States. If you listen to her speech, you heard her say one word over and over again and that word was "fight." This is going to be so fundamental to her candidacy and her campaign, this idea that people need to come together to fight and take on a rigged system.

Now, as much as fighting, though, I have to know there was mention of unity and bringing the country together and healing. When she said there's simply no room for bigotry in the White House. Take a listen to what she said.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

WARREN: Whether it's white people against black people, straight people against gay people, middle-class families against new immigrant families, the story is the same. The rich and powerful use fear to divide us. We're done with that.

(CHEERING)

WARREN: Bigotry has no place in the Oval Office.

(CHEERING)

WARREN: This is who we are. We come from different backgrounds. Different religions. Different languages. Different experiences. We have different dreams. We are passionate about different issue. And we feel the urgency of this moment in different ways. But today, today, we come together, ready to raise our voices together until this fight is won.

(CHEERING)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

LEE: Fred, her speech offered a good blueprint of the policy positions that are most important to her. No surprises there because these are the issues she has talked about so consistently, even over the last month after she announced her exploratory campaign on New Year's Eve. A take from her list: Her anti-corruption bill taking on Wall Street. Her support for Medicare for All. Her support for the Green New Deal as well. Her proposal to tax the rich, which she just unveiled last month.

I was trying to count the number of times she said the word "Trump" in her long speech and it was only twice. When she was talking about the fact she believes this is the most corruption administration in living memory. However, even though she was reticent to say the word "Trump" in her speech, make no mistake about it, this is entirely about drawing a contrast between herself and the president of the United States. And this, of course, is going to be what we see in the next couple of months as more Democrats jump into the race, how different candidates can stand out and make the case for being the best candidate that takes on President Trump -- Fred? WHITFIELD: All right. M.J. Lee, thank you so much.

Meantime, President Trump's re-election campaign is already reacting to Senator Elizabeth Warren's decision to join the 2020 race. They did so preemptively before she took the stage.

Let's check in with CNN's White House reporter, Sarah Westwood.

Sarah, what caught the Trump/Pence campaign's attention on this?

SARAH WESTWOOD, CNN WHITE HOUSE REPORTER: That's right, Fred. President Trump's re-election campaign attacking Senator Warren before she started delivering that speech. They lashed out at her policy platform and, of course, they recycled the text on the controversy surrounding her claims to Native American heritage.

[13:05:00] Brad Parscale, Trump's campaign manager, said, in part, "The American people will reject her dishonest campaign and Socialist ideas like the Green New Deal. They'll raise taxes, kill jobs and crush America's middle class. Only under President Trump's leadership will America continue to grow safer and more prosperous."

This is the first statement from the campaign against a prospective Democratic opponent. President Trump has not been engaging much on his potential challengers. Not been talking about various candidates who have started to wade into the presidential wrap, not Senator Booker, not Kamala Harris. But of course, they are not also mentioning him. This has really been going on without President Trump being a topic of conversation. But Trump has had a particular focus on Senator Warren. He's frequently used derisive nicknames like Pocahontas. He loves to talk about her. So we may continue to see this kind of rhetoric from Trump in the campaign now that she's officially in the race.

WHITFIELD: All right, Sarah Westwood, thank you so much.

Another Democratic presidential hopeful is out on the campaign trail. That would be Cory Booker. He's out in Iowa. We'll talk about him in a moment.

Right now, I'm joined by Ron Brownstein, senior editor for "The Atlantic." And "The Atlantic's" White House correspondent, Elaina Plott.

Good to see both of you.

Warren did not hold back against the Trump administration. Listen to a portion of what she said.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

WARREN: We need to change the rules to clean up Washington and end the corruption.

(CHEERING)

WARREN: We all know the Trump administration is the most corrupt in living memory.

(CHEERING)

WARREN: But even after Trump is gone, it won't do just to do a better job of running a broken system. We need to take power in Washington away from the wealthy and well connected and put back in the hands of the people where it belongs.

(CHEERING)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

WHITFIELD: Ron, she went on to say Trump is not a -- he's not the cause of what's broken. He's just the latest symptom. Quoting her now, "kicking dirt on everyone else." Will that message resonate?

RON BROWNSTEIN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Elizabeth Warren is the personification of the widespread view in the Democratic Party that Trump uses racism in the service of plutocracy, as the saying goes. He tries to divide Americans along racial and cultural lines to advance an agenda that benefits the affluent. That is, in fact, a widespread belief not only in the Democratic Party but among many political observers.

I mean, you could see her strengths and her challenge in this announcement today. Her strength is that she knows why she is running. She wants to run essentially a class-based campaign on restoring the middle class. Running into the rich having too much power. She has an agenda that relates to that rationale. On a debate stage, she is going to look impressive.

But she has two, I think, big challenges, Fred, just to put out right at the beginning. One, historically, white liberal Democratic candidates who can't get a reasonable share of African-American voters to vote for them don't win. That is just the absolute history, from Gary Hart to Bernie Sanders. That's the first problem. The second problem is that if Sanders runs, which all signs are he will, as our colleague at "The Atlantic" reported the other day, again, going to be moving closer to her, her lane could be very crowded. You could see assets on why she could be a strong candidate on display today. You can also see what the challenges will be.

WHITFIELD: You could see, she does embody the fighter mentality. She was up there professing about she had very strong messages being a fighter, holding the powerful accountable, and then saying, I'm quoting her now, "Race matters and we need to say so."

But Ron thinks that is going to be to her detriment. That may not resonate. How do you see it, Elaina?

ELAINA PLOTT, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: I think Ron is right. It's not just something Elizabeth Warren has to worry about vis-a-vis African- Americans, but as we saw in Texas, Fred, with O'Rourke coming quite close to besting Ted Cruz in that Senate race in November, there are a sizable number of white suburban Republicans who are disenchanted with this president and may be very well looking for some reason to vote against him come with November. Elizabeth Warren is not that person. That's why you see so many political observers, including my colleagues at "The Atlantic," waiting with bated breath to see if someone like Biden does get in the race, to see if somebody like Sherrod Brown, who does speak to working class Americans quite effectively, to see if these people do get in the race. Once that happens and you have that progressive ring filled up and you have the more moderate ones start to get clustered, that I when I think this White House has to worry, in effect, that members in the, you know, on the fringes of the base will actually consider defecting come November.

[13:10:07] WHITFIELD: While she made some pledges, you know, if elected president, she also made this pledge while on the campaign trail. Listen

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

WARREN: We also need to end the unwritten rule of politics that says that anyone who wants to run for office has to start by sucking up to a bunch of rich donors on Wall Street --

(CHEERING)

WARREN: -- and powerful insiders in Washington. So I'm opting out of that rule. I'm not taking a dime of PAC money in this campaign.

(CHEERING)

WARREN: I'm not taking a single check from a federal lobbyist.

(CHEERING)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

WHITFIELD: So, Ron, you know, it's become very expensive to run. How will she make the money in order to stay in the race?

BROWNSTEIN: It is amazing. The biggest change in presidential politics really over the last 15 years if the development of the small-donor base that allows you to raise unprecedented -- look how much Beto has -- we talked about Beto O'Rourke raised in Texas from small donors. I think she will be able to raise money from a nationwide network of small donors. By the way, I'm not saying she can't get African-American voters to support her. I'm saying she must do it. It's been something that's tripped up white liberal candidates in the past. They haven't been able to. It's why you saw so much emphasis in her speech on racial inequities across a wide range of subjects, from home ownership to wealth building to criminal justice. That is the challenge for candidates like Elizabeth Warren. It's been the bridge too far for them in the past. It's something she has to figure out a way to get over, to cross that bridge if she's going to really stay in this race, you know, for the long haul.

WHITFIELD: And back to the money, I guess it's not unrealistic, you know, in modern times. Barack Obama, like it was $10 pledges online and, you know, really appealing to young voters. But, Elaina, you know, Elizabeth Warren, how will she -- I mean, she

has the name recognition. She's been on the national stage for a very long time. But how will she be able to be viable by not taking PAC money, not taking lobbyist money?

PLOTT: I really don't think the concern should be too much about how she'll be viable, how she'll have the funds she'll need to run an effective national campaign. It's more about whether this line that I'm not going to draw a single track from a lobbyist or take any donation from a super PACs, does that resonate in 2019? This is, of course, something -- Barack Obama railed against the insider influence of Washington. Donald Trump did quite effectively as well. I think for a Democratic candidate to use this message most effectively, in trying to rally support from the middle class, has to look at specific policies from the Trump administration, such as tax reform ,and really note in specific ways in which it was not helpful to the middle class and was just beneficial to corporations and the most affluent in this country. I think just putting out there that you're not going to take checks from lobbyists is not the kind of message that actually proactively gets people to turn out.

WHITFIELD: All right.

(CROSSTALK)

WHITFIELD: Go ahead, Ron, real quick.

(CROSSTALK)

BROWNSTEIN: You can see, Fred, from the speech today, she is likely to stand out in the debates. I mean, she is probably the furthest ahead in the, quote, "ideas primary" on the Democratic side. She has a lot of specifics on a lot of subjects. I think that will help in her fund-raising. Part of the map she's got is Iowa and New Hampshire -- Bernie Sanders won -- only one of them will be viable after both, and that's right on a collision course early on in this calendar.

WHITFIELD: All right, we'll leave it there.

Ron Brownstein, Elaina Plott, thanks so much to both of you.

PLOTT: Thank you.

WHITFIELD: I appreciate it.

As I mentioned earlier, Senator Cory Booker, he's also out on the campaign trail. He's making his case to voters in Iowa today.

Here's CNN's Rebecca Buck.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REBECCA BUCK, CNN POLITICAL REPORTER: We're here in a bar in Marshalltown, Iowa, where Cory Booker is set to speak to a very crowded room of Democrats here, making his first impression on his first visit to Iowa as a presidential candidate. He had a full slate of events yesterday, traveling the state, from

Mason City, Iowa, in the morning, to Iowa City in the evening. He finished up past midnight. He's keeping a busy schedule. It harkens back to his days running for city council in Newark and also for mayor, when he tried to knock on every door, meet as many people as possible. Booker saying no candidate is going to outwork him in the state of Iowa.

This is a first-in-the nation caucus state. This is where the primary process begins. Booker's team is thinking, with a strong showing in Iowa, they can get a burst of momentum heading into the later states, New Hampshire, South Carolina and beyond. So this trip, they're laying the groundwork for that.

Booker's message, that he has a unique set of experience among the other Senators running. He's the only one who was a former mayor. The only Senator in the entire Senate, he says, who lives in an inner city and can relate to those types of problems. He's also bringing a message here in Iowa of unity and love. Not going after the president. Not even going after Republicans, writ large. He says he's not in this race to beat Republicans. He's in this race to unite the country. Of course, it's too early to know whether that optimistic positive message is what Democrats will be hungry for in this election cycle but he's starting to make his case this weekend here in Iowa.

Back to you.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

[13:15:40] WHITFIELD: All right, Rebecca Buck, thank you so much.

Meantime, former Starbucks CEO and potential 2020 candidate, Howard Schultz, will join CNN live from Houston to talk about his possible independent run in the 2020 election. He joins our Poppy Harlow Tuesday night, 10:00 eastern, right here on CNN.

Still ahead, Democrats flexing their muscle. An oversight power opening new investigations into President Trump. I'll talk to Congressman Denny Heck of the House Intelligence Committee about what they hope to learn next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[13:20:20] WHITFIELD: The Democrats with oversight hearings on everything from President Trump's policies to his personal finances. On Friday, Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker testified in a contentious hearing before the House Judiciary Committee. Whitaker says he has not spoken to Trump about the Mueller probe but he did not defend the special counsel investigation, refusing to say it was not a witch hunt.

Soon various House committees will be holding hearings on Trump's finances and Russia, among other things. Democratic lawmakers want to know if the president's financial interests are driving his actions. With me now is Congressman Denny Heck, a Democratic representative

from the state of Washington and a member of the House Intel Committee.

Good to see you, Congressman.

REP. DENNY HECK, (D), WASHINGTON: Thank you.

WHITFIELD: What did you feel you learned from Matthew Whitaker's testimony before the Judiciary Committee that might help you when he is before the Intel Committee?

HECK: I don't know we learned much of considerable utility from him. I think he was painfully aware, as the top law enforcement officer in the nation, that, thus far, there's been 139 criminal charges, 37 indictments or plea deals, and four prison sentences meted out to people associated with President Trump. Including Mr. Cohen who is going to prison here in about a month for lying to Congress. And Mr. Stone who very well may go to prison for lying to Congress. I think he was painfully aware of that. But only time will tell.

WHITFIELD: A part of your committee investigation will focus on the president's finances. And Trump says that's harassment and it crosses, you know, a red line. What are you specifically concerned about? How do you expect to get access to those financial documents?

HECK: First, I don't think the president really has much moral authority to make that assertion until and unless he's willing to at least sit down for an in-person deposition. I mean, he won't even do that, let alone, sit in front of a hostile committee for 11 hours. And, Fred you know to what I specifically refer. But obviously, I think it's not just Democratic lawmakers who want to know whether the president has financial entanglements which compromise him in his administration of the American government. It's the American people who want to know, is he compromised, is there a conflict of interest, is there something being put ahead of America's national security and America's best interests.

WHITFIELD: You're making reference to Clinton and the Benghazi hearing. So who specifically would you want, you know, to hear from? Who do you want to testify who can actually bring answers?

HECK: One of the things that Chairman Schiff, the new chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, has indicated he would like to see are some of the records from Deutsche Bank and the president's involvement there. I want to remind you, there was a point in time when American banks basically would not touch the president and he had to go to Deutsche Bank in order to receive financing. We also know that Deutsche Bank has been under some withering criticism, an allegation that they laundered money for the Russians. Among a lot of things we would like to know is, who's guaranteed all the loans he supposedly had from Deutsche Bank. And what does that represent in the way of a potential conflict of interest.

WHITFIELD: Post that hearing with Whitaker, saying the president blasted this hearing, you know, tweeting this, saying, "The Democrats in Congress yesterday were vicious and totally showed their cards for everyone to see. When the Republicans had the majority, they never acted with such hatred and scorn. The Dems are trying to win an election in 2020 that they know they cannot legitimately win."

I guess he's not thinking about all the investigations, you know, probing that did take place when President Obama was in office, from Affordable Care Act to Benghazi, et cetera. What is your response to what the president had to say?

HECK: The president has neither grasp of recent history, nor grasp of the Constitution. He obviously is forgetting the Benghazi hearing. He was the loudest high-profile proponent of the ridiculous Birther accusation against Obama. He doesn't understand the Constitution either. Its first article sets forth the responsibilities of the congressional branch and its obligation to undertake oversight and accountability with the executive branch. That's our constitutional responsibility. On the first day of office, each of us raises our right hand and swears he will uphold that and give full faith and allegiance to that, and that's what we intend to do.

WHITFIELD: Is it just the feeling that in the first two years, he didn't have that with Republican-controlled Senate and the House and now things are different, and so it's going to be much more of what we saw yesterday, over the next two years perhaps?

[13:25:08] HECK: Well, look, how many times can we say that the man's given to hyperbole, right? My colleague on the Intel Committee, Congressman Swalwell, indicated we were going to perform an MRI on his business dealings with an eye toward, are there conflict-of-interest relationships here. And as we do that, I'm pretty sure he's going to claim that wasn't an MRI, that was a colonoscopy. That's the kind of hyperbole he will engage in. Fred, he has exactly, count them, four plays -- attack, deny, play the victim, and change the subject. Literally, just about every utterance that comes out of his mouth falls into one of those categories and often bears absolutely no relationship to the truth whatsoever.

WHITFIELD: Congressman Denny Heck, thank you so much for being with us this Saturday.

HECK: You're welcome.

WHITFIELD: All right, still ahead, White House officials shrug their shoulders at Congress' deadline to address the murder of "Washington Post" Journalist Jamal Khashoggi, allegedly by the Saudi government. This, as a new report suggests the crown prince threatened to put a bullet in Khashoggi a year before his death. The new details next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[13:30:48] FREDRICKA WHITFIELD, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome back. President Trump refusing to meet a legal deadline to tell Congress if the White House thinks Saudi Arabia's crown prince was responsible for the murder of "Washington Post" Journalist Jamal Khashoggi. A senior official in the administration tells CNN, quoting now, "The president maintains his discretion to decline to act on congressional committee requests when appropriate," end quote. Congress demanded answers from Trump following reports the CIA concluded the crown prince had ordered Khashoggi's killing.

Aaron David Miller joining me from New York. He was a senior adviser in the State Department and has written several books on the Middle East.

Good to see you, Aaron.

So is there a precedent for the president of the United States to defy Congress when it asks for a report like this?

AARON DAVID MILLER, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: No. I think the president -- I mean, may not be familiar with the Constitution, but there's separation of powers. The president, unlike the Supreme Court or Congress, is the Energizer Bunny of American foreign policy. Unlike the Supreme Court or the Congress, the president never goes in or out of session. There's an enormous amount of discretion on the part of the president. In the face of what is almost incontrovertible evidence, and now NSA and CIA reports suggest, a year before Khashoggi's murder, the crown prince was threatening to do him mortal harm. It strikes me what you have now is a fundamental challenge between a willful president determined to protect the crown prince and his relationship with Saudi Arabia against the Congress, determined I think to continue to investigate and to not impose sanctions.

WHITFIELD: Can't Congress just bypass the executive branch and go straight to Justice and say, give up the goods, the same kind of report the White House has, or give us the conclusion?

MILLER: Yes. I mean global Magnitsky, which was triggered in October, 120 days, the president had three months, four, actually, to at least make an accounting as to whether or not senior levels of the Saudi Arabia government, perhaps the crown prince himself, is responsible, in any way, shape or form, for Jamal Khashoggi's murder. What the president has done essentially is ignore the deadline. Congress this week, the past week, passed a resolution drawing, again, on global Magnitsky Act, which now gives the president 30 days to make that determination. I just think, in the end, I think Congress is acting the way it must in this regard. The president has enormous influence and power to simply continue to ignore. Unless you get a veto-proof majority in both Houses, I suspect the administration will continue to protect the crown prince and relations with Riyadh.

WHITFIELD: So the president has made the argument that the U.S. arm deals with the Saudis are too important to jeopardize, but blaming them for Khashoggi's death, you know, is there ever a kind of geopolitical argument to be made out for what the president seems to be saying?

MILLER: Look, Saudi Arabia's an important country for the United States, there's no question about it. Over the last 18 months, Mohammad bin Salman, MbS, has willfully determined to undermine both American interests, for Yemen, the boycott of Qatar, the impression at home, and the American values, the targeted to kill, successfully, Jamal Khashoggi. When you balance -- (CROSSTALK)

WHITFIELD: In another country.

MILLER: In a third country, yes, and a resident of northern Virginia, I might add.

WHITFIELD: Right.

MILLER: As you know, a fellow contributor to the "Washington Post."

WHITFIELD: Yes.

MILLER: Got to find balance. This relationship, Fred, quite frankly, is out of control. They're driving the train, not Washington.

WHITFIELD: And then the "New York Times," you know, reported that a year before Khashoggi was killed, the crown prince was furious with him and told an aide he would use a bullet on him. At what point does - or will we ever see the Trump White House kind of conceding, you know, to these reports, this kind of, you know, evidence that it's based on and perhaps even order sanctions over this?

MILLER: It's hard to see that. In one word, never. Now, the NSA and CIA are going through the intercepts and the intel collected over the past year or two to see whether or not there's context here, whether or not, like the bullet comment. There are others that suggest the crown prince was interested in targeting. We may never get the so- called smoking gun, but what we've got, commonsense-wise, U.S. national interest-wise, stand up for U.S. values-wise, is enough. It's enough to do something significant in order to hold Saudi Arabia and the crown prince accountable for this ghastly horrific murder.

[13:35:35] WHITFIELD: Aaron David Miller, thank you so much. Always good to see you.

MILLER: Thank you, Fred.

WHITFIELD: Still ahead, an extortion scandal pits Amazon owner, Jeff Bezos, against the owner of the "National Enquirer" after Bezos claims the tabloid threatened to release private nude photos of him. Does he have a case? And how does Saudi Arabia -- back to that -- factor into all of this?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[13:40:09] WHITFIELD: A threat to expose embarrassing photos of the world's richest man might instead end up exposing grossly unethical and legally questionable tactics of the company that allegedly leveled the threat, the "National Enquirer" publisher, AMI. Amazon founder and "Washington Post" owner, Jeff Bezos, in a stunning blog, accusing AMI of extortion and blackmail. To back up the claim, Bezos shares e- mails that he says AMI executives sent him, threatening to release intimate photos of him and his girlfriend unless he publicly states the "Enquirer's" coverage is not politically motivated.

We get more now from CNN's Alex Marquardt.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ALEX MARQUARDT, CNN SENIOR NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): The "National Enquirer's" parent company hitting back at stinging allegations and revelations by Amazon founder, Jeff Bezos, saying in a statement, it "believes fervently that it acted lawfully." That it was "in good faith negotiations to resolve all matters," with Bezos. American Media Inc., or AMI, also promising to launch an internal investigation into Bezos' long list of claims against them, including what he called extortion and blackmail when AMI threatened to leak risque photos of him.

Sources telling CNN federal prosecutors are also looking into his accusations.

In his blog post, Bezos alleges that AMI had a cozy relationship not just with the Trump White House but with Saudi Arabia. Also alleging, in published reports last year, AMI put out a 97-page glossy magazine heralding the kingdom's new crown prince and his vision ahead of his trip to the U.S. The Saudi embassy in Washington claimed they had no involvement or knowledge of the AMI publication with Prince Mohammad bin Salman on the cover, a man the CIA concluded ordered the violence murder of Jamal Khashoggi, of the "Washington Post," which Bezos owns. The Saudis have called the findings false.

But the Associated Press reported that, according to sources, embassy officials got an electronic copy of the pro-kingdom magazine about three weeks before it came out. A top Saudi official says he has no idea of any relationship with AMI, adding, "It's like a soap opera." And told CNN, as far as he knows, the Saudis did not press AMI to publish negative stories about Bezos.

The biggest of which was the expose on Bezos' extramarital affair, which people around him believe was a political hit job, alleged payback for his newspaper's dogged reporting of President Trump and of the Saudi crown prince's role in the Khashoggi murder.

Trump and Pecker have a well-documented history. The tabloid paying a so-called catch-and-kill fee to Karen McDougal months before the 2016 election for her story about her alleged affair with Trump, which he denies. Pecker then flipped, cooperating with Robert Mueller's team in exchange for immunity to detail those payments made by Trump's lawyer. That turn didn't dampen the president's rejoicing about the "Enquirer's" splashy story about Bezos' infidelity, calling the Amazon CEO "Jeff Bozo" on Twitter, and saying this about the looming divorce from his wife of 25 years.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I wish him luck. It's going to be a beauty.

MARQUARDT (on camera): No doubt this is a complex web of allegations and personal history. But what Bezos, without proof, is saying here is clear, that AMI had reasons to protect and promote the Saudis. And his newspaper, the "Washington Post," and their relentless coverage of the Khashoggi murder angered AMI's friends, driving home the point that his expose of the affair and the attempted blackmail were politically motivated.

Alex Marquardt, CNN, Washington.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

WHITFIELD: All right, Jeff Bezos' accusations could raise some serious libel issues for AMI and its chief, David Pecker.

Joining us now, Avery Friedman, a civil rights attorney and law professor. And criminal defense attorney, Richard Herman.

Good to see you both.

AVERY FRIEDMAN, CIVIL RIGHTS ATTORNEY & LAW PROFESSOR: Hi, Fredricka.

RICHARD HERMAN, CRIMINAL DEFENSE ATTORNEY: Hey, Fred.

WHITFIELD: Avery, let me begin with you.

Stunning, sleazy, unethical, all of that, but are the alleged acts by AMI illegal?

FRIEDMAN: No. The issue --

(CROSSTALK)

FRIEDMAN: The issue here, I think, is whether or not Jeff Bezos can somehow counteract the disclosure of risque photographs and publications. There's no legal issue here. He's trying to argue that this is going to some kind of conspiracy among the Saudis and Trump and Pecker, the publisher of the "National Enquirer." The issue is, is what's being published truthful or untruthful? If it's untruthful, OK, there's an issue. But the issue --

(CROSSTALK)

WHITFIELD: You're talking about credibility?

FRIEDMAN: Yes, it's the credibility. And also, Fredricka, this is critical, it's First Amendment. The idea of engaging the Justice Department to look into this after there's a threat of exposing information about Bezos, there's nothing untruthful about it. He's just saying the leaks were dirty and the Justice Department should jump into this thing. I think it's a violation of the First Amendment.

[13:45:19] WHITFIELD: OK. Well, is it a misuse, you know, of this powerful tool, you know, Richard, the power of information? And is there anything that would then make these acts illegal?

HERMAN: Just had to catch my breath for a second. OK, with all due respect to Avery, when you have the typical type of extortion cases that are prosecuted, it's someone saying, if you don't give me $100,000, we're going to break your legs. There's physical violence and the threat of coercion to obtain thing. Here, what AMI is saying is, we're going to publish all these damaging materials to the public if you don't stop your investigation into how we obtained those materials. And --

WHITFIELD: Right, to threaten your now livelihood, right?

HERMAN: Yes, and if you don't give us this public statement that our investigation is not politically motivated. So there's a benefit. All the elements of extortion are there.

(CROSSTALK)

HERMAN: The question is, is it only physical violence that brings extortion prosecution or is this sufficient. Here, it's reputational damages. It's embarrassment. He's still a multimillionaire. He's getting divorced anyway. Is that sufficient? The southern district is looking into this, Fred. I think it turns on how AMI obtained the materials. If they obtained them in a criminal fashion --

(CROSSTALK)

WHITFIELD: How did you get to that? That may be where some criminality is taking place.

(CROSSTALK)

WHITFIELD: Avery, you say, no, no way?

FRIEDMAN: But think about this, if -- they're not saying, well, you know, the "National Enquirer" is shaking me down for money. The "National Enquirer" is shaking me down for -- or they're threatening violence. They're saying, we have a right to publish. It is truthful. But we would like to talk about what we can do to resolve it. We want to --

(CROSSTALK)

WHITFIELD: -- or is it one publication trying to influence the content of the ownership of another publication?

FRIEDMAN: Well, that's an intriguing question, but it does default on the question of First Amendment. As soon as you have people in power say we want to shut down the press, that has profound First Amendment implications, freedom of the press, and I think that's what this case is about.

WHITFIELD: All right, Richard?

HERMAN: Let me tell you what's at stake here, Fred. If the southern district prosecutes for extortion, they'll take the plea agreement that Pecker and AMI entered into, which gave them a free pass on the campaign violation crimes that Cohen is going to prison for four years --

FRIEDMAN: Right.

HERMAN: -- give them a pass on that, and any other crimes they admitted to, probably an extortion case against them, and who knows what else. This is very serious for AMI and Pecker. (CROSSTALK)

WHITFIELD: That AMI, you know, that AMI deal involving the southern district, having to do with the Michael Cohen, the payments to the two women, you know, Donald Trump and all of that stuff.

FRIEDMAN: That's right.

WHITFIELD: So it's amazing how so much of this is either intertwined or very complicated --

(CROSSTALK)

HERMAN: Right.

(CROSSTALK)

HERMAN: And Bezos is not -- look, Bezos is not out of his mind when he makes the connections that, number one, AMI has borrowed a lot of money from the Saudis. They published that dossier on the Saudis --

(CROSSTALK)

HERMAN: -- with the public relations thing.

(CROSSTALK)

HERMAN: They published that. Come on, that's a fact. Trump hates Bezos. Pecker and Trump were very close. You know, if it looks like a duck --

(CROSSTALK)

HERMAN: -- and flies like a duck --

(CROSSTALK)

HERMAN: -- and smells like a duck --

(CROSSTALK)

HERMAN: -- it could be a duck. It could be. The mere fact that the potential exists is just devastating. It's incredible.

(CROSSTALK)

WHITFIELD: All right, Richard, Avery, thank you so much.

(CROSSTALK)

WHITFIELD: We never have enough time.

(CROSSTALK)

HEMAN: The whole hour, Fred.

WHITFIELD: We need a whole hour. I love you for that. A whole hour.

Avery, Richard, all right, thank you so much.

FRIEDMAN: Take care.

WHITFIELD: All right, good to see you.

[13:49:06] We have so much more straight ahead in the NEWSROOM right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

WHITFIELD: Right now, the last push to eliminate ISIS in Syria. The U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces are trying to push ISIS away from its last sliver of controlled territory.

CNN's Ben Wedeman is in eastern Syria.

Ben, what can you tell us?

BEN WEDEMAN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Fredricka, we're about a kilometer and a half or a mile from the front lines, but the front lines have been pushed back at this last bastion of ISIS in eastern Syria. The push to retake this town on the ground began about three hours ago. What we've seen is airstrikes, outgoing artillery and mortars and heavy machine gunfire going in. Very little in the way of resistance. We've spoken to commanders here on the ground, who say that the forces of the Syrian Democratic Front, that's that Kurdish Arab force, backed by the United States, have been able to make significant progress into the town. And they are surprised at this point by the little resistance they've come in contact with. They did tell us though that they expect the resistance to be much stiffer when the sun comes up. But during the night, they've really been able to make good progress.

We did hear earlier in the day, that in fact, there's some infighting among the ISIS fighters because some of them have essentially decided they want to surrender. They realize that this fight is hopeless. But others, hard core, dedicated, battle-hardened fighters appear to be in the position they just want to fight to the very end.

(GUNFIRE)

[13:55:20] WEDEMAN: There you go. There's a big boom in the background.

Now, we understand that there are still civilians inside this town. This is a town known as Baguzan-Fokani (ph). Earlier today, we were on a hill overlooking the town and we saw people coming out, civilians. One of them, a 14-year-old boy with a very badly wounded right leg, caused by mortar fire.

But as I said, this battle is probably going to go on overnight and continue into the day and probably get much more intense than it is right now -- Fredricka?

WHITFIELD: We can see that activity building, very volatile and still very dangerous.

Ben Wedeman, be safe. Thank you so much.

And we'll be right back.

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