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Police Want to See Jussie Smollett's Financial Records; Senator Graham Said Syria Exit Dumbest F***ing Idea I've Ever Heard; Pompeo Says ISIS Bride Will Not be Admitted into the United States; Biden Silent on 2020 But Addresses Race in America. Aired 3:30-4p ET

Aired February 20, 2019 - 15:30   ET



BROOKE BALDWIN, CNN HOST: Still no word on when or if "Empire" TV star Jussie Smollett will talk to Chicago police. But CNN has learned investigators want to look into his financial records. There are new questions about whether Smollett orchestrated his own alleged attack. Police sources tell CNN that these two brothers who have been questioned and then released in this whole case, say Smollett paid them to do it. And Smollett insists that is not true.

No investigators are taking a second look at this anonymous letter that the actor says he received at Empire Studios. And it was this image of the letter that was shared with CNN by a person close to Smollett and it includes homophobic and racist imagery. Ryan Young, CNN national correspondent there for us in Chicago with all these twists and turns. So, Ryan, first of all, why do police want his financial records? And how would that help advance investigation.

RYAN YOUNG, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Great first question. First of all, we're here at the courthouse because we're sitting here just in case and that's how the story has sort of moved at this point. You're not sure what the next steps going to be. So you have to guess ahead and that's what we're trying to do at this point.

But to go back to the financial record part first of all, they want to see the financial records to see whether or not maybe a payment was paid to the brothers. They want to go back through that and see how long this this has been going on. They still want the full cell phone records as well. Because you remember, he gave a redacted list of the phone records. And we have sort of some information from source close to the Smollett camp saying there's no timetable for when the actor is going to come in and talk to detectives. And you throw all this out there, remember the two men from last week who were released we think at that point there was a timetable that was set by detectives for Smollett to come in. So they were released Friday. Did they give him a week before he turns himself in? Before they start presenting to a grand jury of moving ahead with charges.

These are all the questions that are swirling around and everybody has a theory, Brooke, but no one really has all the answers right now. And I think that's what's so frustrating about this case because we've seen people get ahead of themselves. And that really is not the way you want to be at this point. Because there are still so many unanswered questions.

BALDWIN: Tell me why the Cook County top prosecutors has just recused herself?

YOUNG: If there's not enough twists and turns to the story, she put out a statement last night that says she may be familiar with some of the witnesses in this case. And because of that she's going to take a step back and her assistant is going to take this case on. So that's another thing to throw into this and that happened late last night. So, again, as we're standing outside the grand jury room and try to think about what's going to happen next, well we now have a new front person on this as well.

BALDWIN: Ryan Young on standby to standby. We're glad you're there because so many people want answers and facts. Thank you very much, Ryan, for us in Chicago.

Just ahead here, major ally of President Trump, Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, called one of the President's policy decisions, quote, the dumbest effing idea I've ever heard. The disagreement over what is left to do in Syria.

Also, more on the breaking news today. CNN reports the Justice Department is close to getting the Mueller report, two years in the making here, as early as next week.


BALDWIN: A bizarre exchange between acting defense secretary and lawmakers revealing the growing tension over the administration's Syria policy and even drawing an expletive from Senator Lindsey Graham. According to the "Washington Post," acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan while at last weekend's Munich Security Conference was pressed whether a full U.S. withdrawal from Syria was a done deal. And Senator Graham reportedly asks are you telling our allies that we are going to go to zero -- meaning zero troops, right -- by April 30. And Secretary Shanahan replies, yes, that's been our direction from the President. And Senator Graham responds, that is the dumbest effing idea I've ever heard. Josh Rogin has the scoop. He's the "Washington Post" columnist and CNN political analyst. Josh, the dumbest effing idea from Republican Senator Lindsey Graham. Tell me more.

JOSH ROGIN, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: What you have to understand is that we're all at this Munich Security Conference which is like the premier diplomatic schmoozing session for world leaders. OK, and you pack 500 people into the hotel, load them up with beer and schnitzel and see what happens. And Lindsey Graham is running around the conference trying to get European governments to commit to sending troops to Syria. And the whole scheme is, if the Europeans commit troops, then maybe Trump will leave some troops. That's Lindsey grams idea, to leave Syria with honor without having ISIS return or the Turks a contact the Kurds, et cetera.

And then here comes Patrick Shanahan, our acting secretary of defense, rolling in from Afghanistan and Iraq and he meets with Congressmen and Senators and they ask him, OK, are you on board with this? And he says, well, the President told me we're getting out, I think we're getting out. And Lindsey Graham goes off on him, OK.

[15:40:00] And then not only Lindsey Graham, all of the other Congressmen and Senators and this meeting just becomes everybody screaming at Patrick Shanahan. Like, hey, we can't do this, you got to help us convince the President. You've got to help us sell this thing. And Patrick Shanahan stands there, quote/unquote, like a dear in the headlights. OK. And so the meeting descends into chaos. And then, you know, all the Congressmen and Senators are thinking to themselves, OK, well I guess this guy Patrick Shanahan, do we want him to be secretary of defense if he is not on board with these things? They're looking for someone like a Mattis -- who resigned over this issue -- to stand up to the President or at least fight back when he does reckless thing. And Patrick Shanahan did not give them any confidence he was that guy.

BALDWIN: That's extraordinary color, Josh Rogin, that you got from this schnitzel filled conference.

ROGIN: It was delicious.

Good to know. What do our allies say to the U.S. about this?

ROGIN: Yes, well, I mean, they have a shared interest. Right? They're getting attacked by ISIS too, right. Even more than us, frankly. And Graham's argument is like, hey, listen, you know, we're pulling up but maybe you can help me to convince Trump not to pull out all the way if you do burden-sharing. And there like open to that idea. But they want to know if Trump is really on board or not. And Trump really hasn't made a decision yet. So they're like, if you go, we go. But if you stay, then we stay.

And for Graham and people like Graham all over Congress, they're like, OK, well that's reasonable, you know, but the problem is that inside the administration it's just chaos. And Patrick Shanahan is like an acting deputy, right. He's auditioning for the job. He doesn't have the power. Yet all the military guys, they really want to stay but they're not supposed to say that. Because they're supposed to salute and just do what the President says.

And so, everyone internally and externally is trying to figure out what we do next. It's no good to end war against ISIS if we start two more wars right after that. We look at Iraq and we see what happened there. And we ask ourselves, are we going to do that again, are we going to make that same mistake again? But there's no top-down leadership. That's why Lindsey Graham is taking it upon himself to try to unjam this situation and it's not really working. But he's trying as hard as he can.

BALDWIN: So in the unjamming in the chaos, is there any indication that President Trump or the White House might change their minds, get cold feet on withdrawing troops from Syria?

ROGIN: Yes, I mean it's fascinating actually. Because inside the system there's all sorts of interesting stuff going on. Right? And people who want to stay or save this part it or that part of it, there's a base called Al-Tanf that some people want to save. You know, you can imagine where John Bolton is on this, you can imagine where Mike Pompeo is on this. So they're can't in this Catch-22. They can't contradict the President. But they could persuade him and that's what they're trying to do. And Lindsey Graham is the face of that operation but it extends well beyond him. And in Congress there's bipartisan broad consensus, not everybody but most people in both parties who care about this stuff, think that if we just get out with no plan whatsoever for what to do next, that's reckless and that's going to come back to haunt us.

BALDWIN: Such a massive, massive story. Josh Rogin, I'm glad you're in the middle of it.

ROGIN: Thank you for having me.

BALDWIN: Thank you very much, thank you.

We are just now getting word about when former Trump fixer Michael Cohen will report to prison and the timing may impossible possible testimony.

Also, they abandoned their birth country to marry an ISIS fighter and now that the caliphate is crumbling, they are begging to come home. We'll talk about this impassioned debate, leave them in terrorist hands or bring them home to America to face justice.


BALDWIN: An ISIS bride from Alabama will not be allowed to return to America, ever. Secretary of State Pompeo saying Hoda Muthana is not a U.S. citizen and will not be admitted into the United States. Hoda went to Syria four years ago and married three ISIS fighters. But after witnessing the devastation of war, including the death of two of those husbands, she is begging to come home with her toddler son.

Meantime, in the U.K., aim a similar situation for Shamima Begum. Begum was 15 when she traveled to Syria. The now 19-year-old gave birth on Sunday and was found in a refugee camp in Northern Syria by the U.K. newspaper the "Times" and said she wanted to return to England.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Did you know what the Islamic state were doing when you left for Syria? Because they had beheaded people, there were executions.

SHAMIMA BEGUM, MARRIED ISIS FIGHTER AT AGE 15: Yes, I knew about those things and I was OK with it. That's because I, you know, I started becoming religious just before I left. You know, there from what I heard, that Islamic killing is all allowed.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Your family have made an appeal for you to come home. They are pleading with the British government to allow you to come home. Do you have a message for your family? BEGUM: No. Just keep trying to get me back. I really don't want to

stay here.


BALDWIN: Gayle Tzemach Lemmon, Adjunct Senior Fellow, Council on Foreign Relations, author of "Ashley's War". She has also visited Syria five times since the summer of 2017. So, Gail, good to have you back. Welcome.


BALDWIN: So listening, you know, these words from Secretary Pompeo saying that this Alabama woman, ISIS bride is not a U.S. citizen, will not be admitted back to the United States.

[15:50:00] Let me just get this in. Her family rep has responded saying that, the Trump administration continues its attempts to wrongfully strip citizens of their citizenship. Hoda Muthana has a valid U.S. passport and is a citizen. She was born in Hackensack, New Jersey, in October of 1994 months after her father stopped being a diplomat.

So, Gayle, what happens to her? Who takes her?

LEMMON: Oh, my gosh. This is the question. This is an overnight crisis that has been years in the making, Brooke, right. Because I saw in the summer of 2017 some of these wives, some of these brides, some of the kids and wondered what in the world was going to happen to them? Because no one wants them. The U.K., a number of European countries, now the United States is stripping the family members of ISIS of their citizenship. And there's no country that is going to want to take them in. And at the same time, Brooke, to your earlier conversation with Josh, you know, there is not a sense that the Syrian forces who the U.S. has been backing has any capacity to hold these folks indefinitely. Particularly as folks see what comes next for the region.

BALDWIN: So I'm not hearing an answer. That is like the $1 million question is what happens to them? And somebody said to me, what if they -- if she were to be brought back to the United States to be questioned. Should she not be some sort of intel asset or is that just too much of a national security risk?

LEMMON: So, this really has polarized, Brooke, this whole question about what to do with these people. On the one hand are folks who say look, this is the best counter terrorism source of information and also of public education you have. Right? Young people who saw the brutality of the Islamic state firsthand, who can really talk about it. And who can show that the opposite of ISIS propaganda, which is, you know, you are not a citizen of the United States or U.K., right? Or other countries.

So this is a way to actually defeat the Islamic state by saying these are our citizens and we will try them in U.S. courts. And on the other hand, is the instinct that a lot of people have, which is, listen, you go fight for people who beheaded and enslaved people, who fought the United States openly, then you lose your citizenship rights.

And the one thing I want the say on this, is that Syria is the conflict that has really shown that the tooth lessness of international institutions. Right. And no one could stop this conflict. It still going on. The U.N., no one has been able to really stop this. And now I think we see just how powerless international institutions are to figure out the next step in this discussion.

BALDWIN: Back on this woman, I mean, what about the children? She has children. Where do they go?

LEMMON: Brooke, this is the thing I think about all of the time. I saw these little ones even as recently as December in IDP -- camps for the displaced. And you think, these little ones had nothing to do with their parents' choices. And France has talked about taking them back. I'm sure the United States if it were in that situation would at least consider that. Because these are children who if you want to keep this war ended, you have to stop the circle of extremism. And you have to show these kids that there is another way than the one their parents chose. And you do, your heart just breaks seeing these little ones and wonder what in the world is going to happen to them when the world does not want them.

BALDWIN: I'm so glad we're talking about them. I'm so glad we did the story today. Gayle Tzemach Lemmon, thank you very much for talking about it with me.

Stay with us. More on breaking news and the Special Counsel Investigation, the Attorney General now, Bill Barr is preparing to announce the end is near and the report may come as early as next week.


BALDWIN: The feds warning that they may have to step in as the measles outbreak hits dozens of people in several states. The Commissioner of the FDA warning states to change more lacks vaccine laws and require more school kids to get vaccinated.

He says, quote, some states are engaging in such wide exemptions that they're creating the opportunity for outbreaks on a scale that is going to have national implications. If certain states continue down the path that they are on, I think they're going to force the hand of the federal health agencies.

47 states allow parents to opt out of childhood vaccines for religious reasons.

Former Vice President Joe Biden still may be deciding on his plans for 2020. But he sure sounds like he is testing messages during a lecture in Pittsburgh last night. Joe Biden was silent on his decision, but very vocal about race in America and the state of hate in this country.


JOE BIDEN, FORMER VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I remember walking in in the end of May and Jessie Helms from North Carolina, who was a very, very tough guy and a bit of a racist. No, for real, I mean, he made no bones about it. It was like when I first got there were a bunch of races. You know, and James O. Eastland, from Mississippi, Strom Thurman and so on. There were nine guys who were in the caucus that were, you know, I ran against in the civil rights movement.

And these folks coming out of dark fields carrying torches, chanting the same anti-Semitic bile that was chanted in the streets of Nuremberg, Berlin and Munich in the 30s.

Confronted by wholesome Americans who thought this not who we are. We are not racists. We are not anti-Semites. We are not homophobic. And then the highest leaders, particularly coming from the alt-right, saying there was a moral equivalence, good people in both groups. My god. Not a joke. So it's time to restore America's soul, remind ourselves who we are.


BALDWIN: Those comments came just hours after Senator Bernie Sanders made -- raised a focal point and speaking on there you go ahead up from Monday night. Thanks for being with me. "THE LEAD" with Jake Tapper starts now.

Brace yourselves.