Return to Transcripts main page


House Oversight Committee to Investigate Proposed White House Plan to Build Nuclear Power Plants in Saudi Arabia; Texas Landowners File Lawsuit Against Trump's Emergency Declaration; Trump: Obama Told Me He Was Close to Starting War with North Korea; Trump Ramps Up Pressure on Venezuela's Maduro; Police Say 2 Brothers No Long Suspects in "Empire" Actor Case. Aired 11:30-12p ET

Aired February 19, 2019 - 11:30   ET


[11:30:00] KATE BOLDUAN, CNN ANCHOR: But this new report details that the White House continued to pursue the deal even after he was fired and even after red flags were raised.

CNN's Kara Scannell is looking into all of this for us. She is joining me now.

Kara, what are you learning here?

KARA SCANNELL, CNN REPORTER: That's right, Kate. The House Oversight Committee released a 24-page interim staff report that details these plans that were pushed by Michael Flynn, the then national security advisor, to advance a plan to build nuclear power plants in Saudi Arabia. The plan was devised and promoted by a company that was formed by former generals, including a subsidiary that Michael Flynn had once advised for. That's important because, once the plan was being pushed by Michael Flynn within the White House, members of the national security staff, according to the Democratic report, had raised multiple red flags about this, raising questions about conflicts of interest and whether the Atomic Energy Act, which requires congressional approval of any exportation of nuclear technologies, was being violated. The NSC staff had raised these concerns to ethic and legal advisers within the White House and the National Security Council and others who worked there. In the words of one of these senior officials they spoke to, they said this was not a business plan but a scheme for these generals to make some money. There were concerns beyond just the staffers here about this plan and it being pursued within the White House.

Despite these objections, the plan was pushed by Flynn and other top officials. Then, even after Michael Flynn was fired for lying to the vice president, the plan continued and these advancements continued within the White House.

The report is limited to the first three months of the administration so it ends at the beginning of April. No plan of this nature has gone into effect yet. This is why Cummings is saying he wants to investigate this. He wants to see whether the U.S. was advancing the best interest of U.S. national security by pursuing this plan to export nuclear technologies or was it doing this plan in order to line the pockets of those that were close to the White House -- Kate?

BOLDUAN: Kara, thank you so much for bringing that to us. I really appreciate it. We'll follow up on that.

Now to the brewing legal battle over the president's declaration of a national emergency. Yesterday, California's attorney general told us here that lawsuits were coming. And today, they have. Sixteen states are now suing President Trump, arguing the president's emergency declaration violates the Constitution by going around Congress to get money for a border wall that Congress expressly did not give him.

I spoke with the attorney general of New Mexico, as well, one of the states suing as the lawsuit was being filed. Listen.


HECTOR BALDERAS, (D), NEW MEXICO ATTORNEY GENERAL: New Mexico is being harmed because the president cannot act like a king. We don't want the president violating separation of powers simply by sweeping away vital New Mexico dollars going to military strategy just so he can build an immigration project like this wall.


BOLDUAN: It's not just states that are moving to sue the president. Private landowners along the border are, as well.

CNN's Gary Tuchman went to the border to find out.


NAYDA ALVAREZ, LIVES ALONG THE RIO GRANDE: I've never seen anyone here cross.


ALVAREZ: Not at all.

TUCHMAN: Zero people?


TUCHMAN (voice-over): Nayda Alvarez has lived on this land along the Rio Grande in Texas since she was in second grade. But even though she never saw anyone crossing on to her land, it didn't stop government officials from approaching her a few months ago.

ALVAREZ: They said they wanted to build the wall.

TUCHMAN (on camera): On your property?

ALVAREZ: On my property.

TUCHMAN (voice-over): Alvarez has now received three letters from U.S. Customs and Border Protection asking permission to survey her property, which she has said no to. But it's all leading to the government offering her a price for her eight acres, and if she turns it down, declaring eminent domain and taking it away from her for a so-called fair market value.

ALVAREZ: The Army Corps of Engineers people came over and said, based on the map, the wall is going to be right here.

TUCHMAN (on camera): So, this is about one, two, three, four, five, six, six yards, maybe about 20 feet from your house --


TUCHMAN: -- and they want to build a maintenance road in front of the wall.

ALVAREZ: Yes, that they didn't mention the maintenance road.

TUCHMAN: But that's what you heard about?

ALVAREZ: I heard about the maintenance road.

TUCHMAN: So your home would not be able to survive a border wall?


TUCHMAN (voice-over): Alvarez is one of the plaintiffs in a private lawsuit against the president that's been filed by the Public Citizen Consumer Group. She says she's despondent. On top of possibly living the house she's lived in since a child, her mother who lives on a property in a separate home is receiving hospice cares for advanced cancer.

ALVAREZ: I feel infuriated. I'm mad. I feel frustrated because all of this is out of my hands.

TUCHMAN (on camera): Nayda Alvarez plans on continuing to speak out.

In addition to volunteering to be a plaintiff for the lawsuit, she's shouting from the rooftops. She painted this message, hoping President Trump on a recent visit would fly over. He didn't, but the message remains.

FRED CAVAZOS, LIVES ALONG THE RIO GRANDE: This is our house. We were raised here.

TUCHMAN (voice-over): Fred Cavazos and his family also own land on the Rio Grande.

CAVAZOS: Are you hungry?

[11:35:03] TUCHMAN: To make a living, they sell cattle and rent out parts of their 70 acres, mostly for people with RVs and mobile homes. Cavazos who has been in a wheelchair since suffering an illness two decades ago, says his family earns just enough to make ends meet.

(on camera): What they've said to you is that the wall, the barrier, whatever you want to call it, will be built right here on top of this levy.


TUCHMAN: And the Rio Grande is about a third of a mile, a quarter mile down the road here.


TUCHMAN: So, this is all your land back here.


TUCHMAN: This is where you rent all your properties. And all these people who rent your properties would be behind the wall, a no-man's land.

CAVAZOS: Yes, a no-man's land, right.

TUCHMAN (voice-over): Cavazos says their livelihood will be ruined if the barrier goes up because who want a vacation behind a border wall?

He says his grandmother used to tell him, never to sell the property, that it will always provide for them.

CAVAZOS: My dad fought for this property. During the World War II, he was a tank commander under General Patton, who he spent four years during the whole war, went through hell for him. And I wonder right now what he would say what they're trying to do.

TUCHMAN: Cavazos says he will do all he can to try to keep his land.

The same with Nayda Alvarez.

ALVAREZ: I'm going to fight it all the way, even if I have to tie myself up to that big mesquite tree in the front, but I'm not giving up my land without a fight.

TUCHMAN: Gary Tuchman, CNN Rio Grande City, Texas.


BOLDUAN: Gary, thank you so much. Appreciate you bringing that to us.

Coming up for us, President Trump says the U.S. was headed toward World War III with North Korea under President Obama. And he says President Obama told him that. Is it true? The former deputy secretary of state under President Obama is here next.


[11:41:24] BOLDUAN: President Trump putting pressure on Venezuela's embattled leader, Nicolas Maduro, and delivering a warning to his supporters in the military and anyone preventing the U.S. aid, humanitarian aid from entering the country. Listen to this.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: If you choose this path, you will find no safe harbor, no easy exit and no way out. You will lose everything.



BOLDUAN: President Trump is still calling for a peaceful transition of power to the opposition leader, Juan Guaido. Trump still is saying all options, including military options, are on the table. So what is going to happen there now? It does appear something has to give. What will it be?

Joining me now is CNN global affairs analyst and former deputy secretary of state under President Obama, Tony Blinken.

Thanks for being here, Tony.

We hear the president and others saying that this humanitarian aid -- and it is a humanitarian crisis that they are facing in Venezuela -- that the aid is going to get in one way or the other. How do you see this shaking out? If the U.S. forces its way in, forces the aid in, what is Maduro likely to do?

TONY BLINKEN, CNN GLOBAL AFFAIRS ANALYST: Kate, I think this is one of the rare instances where I am in agreement with John Bolton, the national security adviser, who made it clear we are not going to force the aid. It is great that the international community, the United States and others, have come together to put the aid together to address the terrible situation for Venezuelans. One hopes that Venezuelan authorities, civilian and military, will let the aid in and not resort to violence. We shouldn't be in the position of forcing this in. We shouldn't be in the position of making this the United States versus Venezuela. That just resurrects the ghosts of interventions past. The administration has done a good job bringing other countries along, making it clear that the international community is against what Maduro is doing, delegitimizing his regime, building up the national assembly. If we turn this into a confrontation and use aid as an excuse to get into a confrontation between the U.S. and Venezuela, we will lose the high ground that we have and we will play into Maduro's hands. So that's why this is such a fraught moment.

BOLDUAN: It's a tenuous time.

I have to ask you, this has been bugging me. There's a reoccurring theme to this president's foreign policy that I want to ask you about when it comes to North Korea. The warnings that President Trump says he received from President Obama before taking office. Let me show you what I mean.


TRUMP: I believe he would have gone to war with North Korea. I think he was ready to go to war. In fact, he told me he was so close to starting a big war with North Korea.

If I had not been elected president of the United States, we would right now, in my opinion, be in a major war with North Korea.

You would, right now, be in a nice, big, fat war in Asia with North Korea if I wasn't elected president.

That was going to be a war. That could have been a World War III, to be honest with you.


BOLDUAN: Trump says he is getting this because of conversations with Obama. Were you ready to go to war with North Korea when you were there?

BLINKEN: No. That is pretty much what we ruled out many years before because of the capacity for North Korea to retaliate in a devastating way against civilians in South Korea, including many Americans. This is Trump in wonderland. That did not happen. We have gone from a first president of the United States who couldn't tell a lie to one who can't seem to tell the truth, including by conversations with President Obama. President Obama made clear to President Trump -- I wasn't there for the conversation -- that North Korea was going to be one of the most challenging issues on the agenda for him. But not to go to war. And, Kate, the closest we probably got to war with North Korea was President Trump engaging in this rhetoric and then giving an order to bring every American civilian off of the Korean peninsula. Thankfully his national security advisor, McMaster, and James Mattis, the secretary of defense, convinced him not to. But had he done that, that would have been understood by the North Koreans as the beginnings of some kind of attack on North Korea. That would have started a war, nothing that President Obama ever did or contemplated.

[11:45:36] BOLDUAN: I'm trying to figure out if Trump somehow could have misheard or misunderstood the conversation he had in private with President Obama when this was the one time that they met and discussed this. If this is completely fabricated, if it's completely Donald Trump trying to -- if it is a lie, does it do damage or is this just another exaggeration coming from the president?

BLINKEN: Look, I think what is going on, Kate, is that -- the president's M.O. is to invent a crisis and then, quote, unquote, "solve it," solve the crisis of his own making and take credit for it. He has apparently invented a crisis that we were on brink of war under President Obama with North Korea and he's the one that stopped it, when it is the opposite. I commend the president for engaging in diplomacy after the --


BOLDUAN: That's something that's so confusing. Both things can be accurate. You were not about to go to war with North Korea and it is a good thing to try to engage and figure out the problem of North Korea. BLINKEN: That's right. I think the president, in that sense, has

moved from what was the wrong thing to the right thing. The way he is doing it, I have no questions about. The "Art of the Deal" is becoming the art of the steal. That's because Kim Jong-Un has benefited much more than we have. But at least he is pursuing diplomacy. Unfortunately, this fits into the overall M.O. of creating a crisis and pretending to solve it.

BOLDUAN: Tony, thanks for coming in. We can maybe clear one thing up today.


BLINKEN: Thanks, Kate.

BOLDUAN: Appreciate it.

Coming up for us, a major investigation into safety at one of the nation's largest airlines, Southwest, and your checked bags. Were passengers in danger? That's next.


[11:51:33] BOLDUAN: The FAA is launching an investigation into Southwest Airlines over baggage, more specifically, how much checked bags weigh. So much so that, in some cases, the total weight of bags were off by a thousand pounds in some planes. This is now raising real safety concerns.

CNN's Rene Marsh has been looking into this. She's joining me now.

Rene, what's this all about?

RENE MARSH, CNN AVIATION & GOVERNMENT REGULATION CORRESPONDENT: Kate, for pilots, we should point out that the weight and balance of the plane, the weight and balance of the cargo, the luggage and passengers on board, this is all critical information before takeoff, and it's critical this information is accurate. It determines exactly how much fuel is needed for takeoff and landing. Too much weight on an aircraft can cause a variety of problems, including making it harder for pilots to maneuver the plane, putting more stress on the landing gear.

As you stated, the FAA has been investigating Southwest Airlines for about a year and found that airline employees made mistakes that caused pilots to compute the wrong weight and balance as these planes were taking off.

Now, the airline tells CNN that it has put in place controls and procedures to address these sort of weight and balance issues. While the FAA does tell us that none of the inaccuracies caused any accidents, the agency says that it will not close its investigation until it's satisfied that Southwest Airlines' corrective actions are consistent with what the FAA says needs to be done. Because at the end of the day, they need to accurately know how much does the plane weigh, and this plane, at no point, can be out of balance because, obviously, that can cause, obviously, safety issues -- Kate?

BOLDUAN: Absolutely. That's exactly why it matters so much how much our bags weigh, and if it doesn't, they should figure it out.

Thank you so much, Rene. Really appreciate it.

MARSH: Yes. Sure.

BOLDUAN: Coming up, breaking their silence. Two men arrested in an alleged attack against actor, Jussie Smollett, are now speaking out. What they are saying and why police say they are no longer suspects.


[11:58:25] BOLDUAN: No longer suspects and no longer silent. For the first time, we are hearing from the brothers arrested then cleared in the alleged attack on actor, Jussie Smollett. Law enforcement sources now tell CNN police they believe Smollett paid the men to stage the whole thing. He denies it.

CNN's Ryan Young is live in Chicago with the very latest.

Ryan, you just got off the phone with Chicago police. What are they telling you?

RYAN YOUNG, CNN CORRESPONDENT: I just got an update from the police department. They're telling us there's no timetable for when the actor is going to come in and talk with them. The attorneys for the actor, as well, the representatives for the attorney, have put out a statement about no timetable. So it's interesting to see if he'll ever come in.

But we talk about these two brothers. This is something to highlight here. We know they are working with the police department. They basically gave them evidence and have turned over their cell phones. So detectives will be able to go through their messages and see exactly what the communication was for a few days. We have to remember, 12 detectives are working this case nonstop. They met the brothers at the airport when they were coming back from Nigeria. They were arrested. We were told on Friday they were released. We now know they're giving detailed elements to detectives. So it will be interesting to see how this breaks down over the next 24 to 48 hours. What's the next move for detectives if they can't get the actor to come back in to have a conversation about what really may have happened -- Kate?

BOLDUAN: That 24 to 48 hours seems like a crucial time period we're talking about here, Ryan.

I appreciate it. Ryan, thank you very much.

And thank you all so much for joining me on another busy day AT THIS HOUR.

"INSIDE POLITICS" with John King starts right now.