Return to Transcripts main page

CNN NEWSROOM

Singer R. Kelly Is Fighting Sexual Abuse Case; Redacted Sentencing Memo For Paul Manafort From Special Counsel Robert Mueller's Office Released; Billionaire Owner Of The New England Patriots Caught Up In A Sting, Accused Of Soliciting Sex From Prostitutes' President Is Closely Watching Democratic Candidates' Interviews, Rallies And Town Halls; Boeing 767 Cargo Plane Crashed Near Houston; Police And Border Guards From Venezuela Today Face To Face With Protesters Furious At The Worsening Situation. Aired 4-5p ET

Aired February 23, 2019 - 16:00   ET

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


[16:00:03] RYAN NOBLES, CNN ANCHOR: You are live in the CNN NEWSROOM. And I'm Ryan Nobles in today for Ana Cabrera.

And we begin with major developments in the sexual abuse case against R. Kelly. A judge setting the singer's bail at $1 million with conditions at today's hearing which included sordid new details of Kelly's alleged encounters with young girls. He was also ordered to turn in his passport, that no contact with his alleged victims or anyone under the age of 18.

The 52-year-old faces ten counts of aggravated criminal sexual abuse, stemming from four accusers. At least three of them under the age of 17. The alleged encounters happened between 1998 to 2010.

CNN's Sara Sidner is at the courthouse in Chicago.

Sara, a prosecutor read graphic details of the charges against R. Kelly during today's bond hearing. What can you tell us?

SARA SIDNER, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Ryan, I mean, that is the nature of this case, that these details are sexually graphic. They are hard to listen to, frankly, and hard to listen to, to the folks that were in court today. We saw people's faces grimacing. We saw one of the family members of one of the alleged victims in court. She was sobbing when she came out of court.

We also know that there was -- one of the alleged victims in court today. I spoke with her briefly. She was -- she had a hard time talking. She was just hoping that justice, in her words, would be done.

I do want to give you just a few details, because they are graphic, and we should warn people that these details are sexually explicit. The state's attorney, she went through each victim. There are ten counts of sexually aggravated abuse that have been brought against R. Kelly. Four victims that they have named, each of them are now adults, but three of them were children at the time, under the age of 17, but older than 13. She talked about one of the victims who was 24 years old at the time.

She is the one victim that was not underage, according to the state's attorney. And she says that this particular victim was a hairdresser that R. Kelly had gone in to get his hair braided. And at one point, he unzipped his pant, exposed his genitalia, and tried to make her perform oral sex on him. And so there was that. She said that she pushed him away. So that is one of the allegations.

There are three others, some of the women saying that he slapped them, spit on them. We know that there is a videotape that has been handed over to prosecutors by attorney Michael Avenatti who was here in court with some of his clients. He says he now represents six clients, including one of the alleged victims that is named in the indictment.

There were a lot of graphic details that I won't share with you, because they just are not appropriate for an audience who would not be ready to listen to that. But people in court had to go through and listen to this.

R. Kelly has maintained his innocence through his attorney. His attorney being very clear that his client is innocent until proven guilty. And he did mention that in 2008, he did go to trial on 14 different counts, 14 counts of child pornography and he was acquitted in that trial.

In that trial, as well, there was a videotape that prosecutors said showed an underage girl and R. Kelly having sex, but the jury could not positively identify either on that tape and ended up in an acquittal - Ryan.

NOBLES: All right. Sara Sidner, thank you very much, reporting from Chicago.

Turning now to our other breaking news. We now have our hands on the redacted sentencing memo for Paul Manafort from special counsel Robert Mueller's office. And even though parts of the memo were still -- were not made public, it is still stunning.

Prosecutors outline what they say is the former Trump campaign manager's quote "wide-ranging deceit." They call his criminal actions bold. And they want to make sure that he never walks again as a free man.

Joining me now, CNN's senior justice correspondent Evan Perez, and CNN contributor, Garrett Graff.

First, Evan, walk us through what we have learned from this memo.

EVAN PEREZ, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Ryan, as you said, this is a pretty hardened set of facts here, according to the special counsel. They say that Manafort essentially, he had a hardened adherence to committing crimes and a lack of remorse. Keep in mind that the two crimes to which he pleaded guilty here in the District of Columbia have a ten-year maximum. What they are asking for is for the judge here to essentially stack that on top of whatever Manafort gets in his other case, which is a case across the river in Alexandria, Virginia, where a judge is waiting to sentence him there. And there the special counsel has asked for as much as 24 1/2 years in prison.

So as you said, they are asking for Paul Manafort never to walk free again, essentially, because as they say, he has been lying, he has been lying to everybody from members of Congress to members of the special counsel, the grand jury, as well as people connected to the administration. They say that he has had this pattern of deceit over many, many years. And so that's why they say, essentially, throw the book at Paul Manafort.

[16:05:12] All right, Garrett, let's go to you now. Given the language in this memo, from your perspective, what does this signal about Manafort's fate?

GARRETT GRAFF, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Well, it has Evan said, I mean, it seems very clear that Manafort is facing a very long sentence. I mean, one of the sentences that really stands out is the government says that it is unable to locate a comparable case in modern judicial history with so much criminality and so many aggravating factors. That these crimes continued during the time that Manafort was the chairman of the Trump campaign and then continued after the indictment. I mean, remember, Paul Manafort has been indicted for witness tampering as part of all of this, you know, for activities after he was originally indicted.

And I think this speaks to a larger question that is worth taking this step back and thinking about the state of the Mueller investigation, which is, you know, we have been sort of all geared up over the last week, waiting for this big, final report to drop, but what you can lose sight of is just how much activity Bob Mueller has already uncovered. That even if Bob Mueller doesn't file a single additional indictment, his investigation will have proven to be one of the most informative and interesting and large-scale counterintelligence investigations in American history. And that the Trump campaign will have already been the most corrupt and criminal presidential campaign in American history. And I think that that's a really important fact to settle on and think about as we await whatever the final stage of the Mueller investigation turns out to be.

NOBLES: Evan, Garrett raises a good point about how there's been a lot that Robert Mueller has accomplished, but in the eyes of President Trump and his supporters, it probably doesn't matter at all if he has not able to link something directly to the President himself.

PEREZ: Right. And that's what's missing from this 800 pages or so of this court filing that has been filed today or has been revealed today by the special counsel. I think, look, one of the things that we were looking for is, if there is this sort of overarching narrative that Andrew Wiseman, the lead prosecutor in this case, has sort of explaining -- as he has hinted before, by the way, he has hinted that there is this evidence that indicates that there is this evidence between the Russians, Konstantin Kilimnik, who is a business partner of Paul Manafort, and who allegedly according to the special counsel, is a Russian spy, and then Paul Manafort and the Trump campaign, that there's this overarching conspiracy, then they did not put it in this court filing. Now it may still be something that they will put in the final Mueller

memo that goes to the attorney general, but that is not what is in here today. And I think for -- if you are the President's legal team, if you are people close to the President, supporters of the President, I think that's a great relief, because, again, you can go out to the rooftops and scream, "still no collusion," right?

And as Garrett said, though, I think that does sort of overshadow the fact that there is, there has been a lot done here by the Mueller investigation. There is just the number of people who have been charged, the number of people who have pleaded guilty. There's still a few people who have yet to be sentenced. So this has been a very, very thorough investigation. But, again, if you are close to the President and you are trying to essentially make the point that there was no collusion, I think that that's still the case here. You can still make that argument, simply because the special counsel has not made that in these court filings.

NOBLES: And so, Garrett, quickly, to you. I mean, I guess that's the difference between a legal argument and legal success versus a political argument and political success, right? Certainly, Robert Mueller's accomplished a lot, but this really does come down to politics, especially when it comes to President Trump.

GRAFF: Yes. And one of the things that, you know, I think Evan was sort of heading towards here is the sheer amount of unrelated criminality that was going on in the midst of the Trump campaign.

I mean, remember, this is Paul Manafort acting during this time as the campaign chairman, continuing this vast money-laundering bank scheme, tax fraud scheme, at the same time as you have Michael Flynn, the campaign's national security adviser, working his own unrelated criminal schemes regarding the government of Turkey as an unregistered foreign agent for the government of Turkey, at the same time that Michael Cohen, the President's personal lawyer and his personal fixer is engaged not just in his own personal bank fraud and tax fraud schemes, but then also involved in this campaign finance scheme, involving the hush money payments to Stormy Daniels and others that does name President Trump as an unindicted co-conspirator, as individual number one.

So part of what is just so fascinating about this is even before you get to the collusion question, almost everyone involved is involved in their own sets of crimes.

[16:10:31] NOBLES: That's true. And we are going to see a lot of Michael Cohen next week when he is on Capitol Hill where all of that will be unpacked.

Evan Perez, Garrett Graff, thank you guys so much. We appreciate it.

Still to come, tanks, tear gas, and riot police. The political crisis in Venezuela reaches a tipping point. We are live on the border.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:14:54] NOBLES: We have more breaking news right now in South America.

(VIDEO CLIP PLAYING)

[16:15:04] NOBLES: Police and border guards from Venezuela today face to face with protesters furious at the worsening situation there. The political upheaval, the lack of food and medicine, and the holdup of aid supply stacked up on the borders, ready to help people inside Venezuela. At one point today, border troops fired tear gas to try to disperse the protesters who threw rocks and bottles.

Inside Venezuela, similar scenes as angry protesters clashed with riot police. All of this happening as Venezuela's embattled president cut ties with Colombia, throwing out its diplomats.

The candidates for President in the United States are certainly taking notice of this crisis. California senator Kamala Harris spoke to reporters today in Iowa.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. KAMALA HARRIS (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I don't believe, at this point, that military force is required, but there's no question that what has happened in Venezuela presents issues of human rights abuses and abuses of government. And there have been incredible violence. People are being jailed for political purposes. And so we need to take it very seriously.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

NOBLES: And this today from senator Bernie Sanders. Quote "the people of Venezuela are enduring a serious humanitarian crisis. The Maduro government must put the needs of its people first, allow humanitarian aid into the country and refrain from violence against protesters."

CNN's Nick Paton Walsh, he is on the Venezuela-Columbia border right now. CNN's Isa Soares is in Caracas.

Nick, let's start with you. We saw you and your crew in the middle of complete chaos earlier today. Describe the situation for us now.

NICK PATON WALSH, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: It's significantly calmer, but bizarrely, we still hear the regular firing of tear gas. You can hear it now down there on the other side of the bridge. That's because the protesters trying to get across it seems found more luck going under the bridge, across the river, trying to get to the Venezuelan territorial side proper. And there are still sort of the intermittent clashes on the bridge down here. Although strangely, a Venezuelan singer who fled the country called Nacho just caused pandemonium here when he got on for car and told everybody that they should rest and come and get this another day.

So we may be seeing things slowing here to some degree, but the chaos still persists. But that is being replicated in two other points along the border here during the day to the extent where John Bolton, the U.S. national security adviser. And very much the loudest beater of the drum against Nicolas Maduro within the White House has tweeted that it's quite clear today that the Maduro government, I'm paraphrasing here, treats its civilians, shoots them with live rounds, prevents humanitarian aid from being across the border with tear gas and those who back Nicolas Maduro should be careful about who they choose to support. Going on in a further tweet to suggest that maybe more sanctions and isolation in Venezuela as a result of what we have seen behind us here.

Make no mistake, though, this was a moment in which the opposition chose, Juan Guaido, the self-declared president and interim leader of them coming into Venezuela, rarely breaking a travel ban into an aid concert tomorrow, part of the aid attempt deliveries today. And they were absolutely clear, they wanted that humanitarian aid to cross regardless of what Venezuela's security forces would do. And they wanted clear instructions to keep that from occurring.

We have seen these clashes today. They started when an aid convoy walked forward all in blue, met the line of riot police, a scuffle broke out, tear gas was fired, and then rocks thrown back and forth over the hours over the past. But now the net impulse has been for Maduro to break relations (INAUDIBLE) with Colombia. We have to see what steps the U.S. practically takes in the days and hours ahead. Back to you.

NOBLES: All right Nick, thank you for that.

Let's now go into Venezuela and Caracas. That's where Isa is standing by.

Far from the violence at the Colombian border, but you are at the heart of this crisis where the Venezuelan president is refusing to open the borders. And today even made a military threat against the United States. Can you tell us what's happening there now?

ISA SOARES, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Absolutely, Ryan. We saw Juan Guaido supporters take to the streets earlier today, making their way to army barracks, heeding the call of Juan Guaido. But a few hours later, we also heard from Nicolas Maduro who spoke to a loud crowd, and he -- before he even started speaking, in fact, he danced. And he danced on stage while rubber bullets, while gas was being thrown, obviously, tear gas was being thrown where Nick Paton Walsh is and where so many other Venezuelans are to try to bring that aid in, to try to contrast the image. And then he threw many, many attacks, not just at Juan Guaido, calling him a clown, saying he is a puppet of imperialism, of the U.S. government. He then had this to say about whether, if he's threatened, this is what he's going to do. Take a listen, Ryan.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

NICOLA MADURO, VENEZUELAN PRESIDENT (through translator): This is an order, an order for the military. If any day you wake up with the news that something has happened to Nicolas Maduro, go to the streets to make a revolution.

(END VIDEO CLIP) [16:20:14] SOARES: He also, as he was saying that and throwing attacks at Juan Guaido, as well as the U.S. government, he -- the crowd was chanting, Ryan, lock him up, referring to Juan Guaido. The question, though, becomes, is Juan Guaido going to make his way back to Caracas? And if he does, what will happen to him?

In terms of rhetoric thrown at the United States, it's pretty much what you have heard throughout hashtag, they have been using hands-off Venezuela, Yankees go home, and obviously, what we have heard from Maduro, that he sympathizes with Colombia.

I have been in contact with the government of Ivan Duque of Colombia. And they have told me they don't recognize the legitimacy of Nicolas Maduro, and therefore, they have no ties to break. Now the question remains, what other pressure is the international community, including the U.S. will have, to try to asphyxiate the government of Nicolas Maduro -- Ryan.

NOBLES: All right, Isa Soares in Venezuela right now. Nick Paton Walsh in Columbia, on the border with Venezuela, both covering this growing crisis in those two countries. Thank you, both. Please stay safe and your crews, as well. We appreciate your excellent reporting.

Coming up, the billionaire owner of the New England Patriots caught up in a sting, accused of soliciting sex from prostitutes. And investigators say they have proof of it on video.

Plus, President Trump's fixation on the Democratic primary. New reporting on how he plans to cause chaos and sew division among his rivals.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:26:08] NOBLES: The billionaire owner of the Super Bowl champion New England Patriots is facing charges of soliciting prostitution and is expected to be officially charged by prosecutors as soon as Monday. Police say video footage shows Robert Kraft receiving quote "paid acts at the Orchids of Asia Day Spa in Central Florida." He was nabbed in a massive human trafficking sting. His spokesperson says quote "we categorically deny that Mr. Kraft engaged in any illegal activity."

Just three weeks ago, Kraft and the Patriots were celebrating their super bowl victory and sixth NFL championship title.

Let's get right now to CNN's Polo Sandoval. He is in Jupiter, Florida.

Polo, you spoke to police there. What happens next in this investigation?

POLO SANDOVAL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Ryan, not only hearing from investigators, but also stating outside what is likely perhaps one of the most photographed day salons in the entire country, not just news cameras. But people have been stopping by the spa that you see behind me and believe it or not actually taking photographs and selfies outside of this location, made for a fairly interesting and even in humorous scene at times.

However, the charges are certainly nothing to laugh about here. Investigators saying that this was part of a massive human and sex trafficking sting that went over for several, several months here.

What we should mention is that authorities say this spa was visited at least two times by Robert Kraft as he sought what police were describing as his paid acts. Investigators say that they have him on camera inside one of the rooms of this facility. Of course, these are allegations that Kraft through a spokesperson continues to deny here.

When you hear from some of the people here in Jupiter, some of the people I have had an opportunity to speak to, Ryan, they tell me they are certainly not surprised that this location was busted. Not just one of several in and around the area, but they are certainly shocked to hear that Robert Kraft is finding himself among the list of about 190 so-called Johns.

You take a drive about 40 miles north of here, Patriots country, hearing from people in Boston, I can tell you, Ryan, as you are about to hear, there's certainly a mix of shock and disbelief, but also a bit of indifference coming from folks in Boston. Take a listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Very surprised, a guy that's worth billions of dollars goes to a strip mall to purchase prostitution. Seems a little odd to me.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I don't think it's great, but at the same time, he's not married, so -- and it's none of my business.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He's such a class guy, has done such a great job for New England, Patriots, all of New England, so I'm sad. I'm sad. I hope it works out that maybe the -- maybe they were wrong and it was a mistake, but I support the man. And I support what he has done for New England.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SANDOVAL: And now the question remains of when or even if Robert Kraft will end up in custody to face that misdemeanor charge that we have heard about, those two counts of solicitation. At this point, Ryan, we are told that investigators will take up this case again on Monday and then we will potentially find out come Monday whether or not that will actually happen, Ryan. So certainly going to be a case to watch in the next 48 hours.

NOBLES: No doubt about that. Polo Sandoval live in Jupiter, Florida. Polo, thank you.

Let's talk more about this now. Let's bring in "USA Today" sports columnist Christine Brennan, she's also a CNN sports analyst.

Christine, I mean, you saw this video, just three weeks ago, Robert Kraft celebrating the Patriots' historic Super Bowl victory. He was the toast of Boston. He has been the toast of Boston for quite some time. Now facing charges of soliciting sex with prostitutes.

I mean, from your view, what's the potential impact of this scandal for the Patriots' team and from those die-hard Boston Pats fans that we just heard from?

CHRISTINE BRENNAN, CNN SPORTS ANALYST: Well, in this case, Ryan, Robert Kraft's reputation, of course, has been sterling, especially to those Patriots fans. But he is one of the most visible owners not just in the NFL, but also in sports. And for him to now be involved in something like this, allegations at this point only, but especially the part about human trafficking, if that turns out to be true and if he, in fact, was involved in this, again, we will find out all the answers to that, then, I think it's an irreparable hit to his reputation. A man so high-profile, seeking the limelight.

There are owner who is kind of want to be in the shadows, not Robert Kraft. He is out there front and center, which means that when you are at that lofty perch, the only place you can go if there's a situation like this, is you plummet. And he has -- he could fall very, very hard. And I think his reputation will be harmed forever, assuming that we find out that he was involved in some way in this.

[16:30:41] NOBLES: And we have seen not exactly this particular instance, but we have seen examples in the past of very high-profile, very wealthy sports owners who have found themselves in the middle of controversy. You think of the owner of the Los Angeles Clippers who was forced out by the league. Of course, the former owner of the California Panthers also had issues that forced him out of the league.

You know, how much can Roger Goodell in the NFL do in terms of putting pressure on Robert Kraft in this situation? Obviously, they are probably going to allow some time to figure out exactly what the legal case is against him. But could there be a scenario where they force Robert Kraft to sell the New England Patriots?

BRENNAN: Well, they could force him to step aside. He may also decide -- Robert Kraft's a smart man, 77 years old, he has been around a while, obviously. Whatever this is, is clearly not smart, if in fact he did it. But he could decide to step aside and have a family member run the team at least for a while.

You are right. It's extraordinary to actually force an owner to sell his team. It happened in the NBA, Donald Sterling, Jerry Richardson in the NFL just last year. Often, what we will see is a suspension and a fine for an owner. Jimmy Orr say with the Cols five years ago, six games suspension. I'm sure a lot of people say, suspension from what, the shrimp in the owner's suite. But nonetheless, six-game suspension, half-million dollar fine, which is a slap on the wrist to a billionaire, but it is also the ignominy that that brings. And - but there is no doubt, the NFL is watching this very closely, cares very much and Roger Goodell can act. They do have the personal conduct policy not just for the players, but for the owners as well.

NOBLES: And you kind of alluded to this, the fact there may be more to this story than just Robert Kraft soliciting prostitution a couple of times at a random strip mall in Florida. If this is part of a wider operation, a human trafficking operation where women were brought there against their will, is that a much different situation than just a misdemeanor charge for Robert Kraft? And could that be where he finds himself in real trouble?

BRENNAN: Ryan, I think it is. If the human trafficking element to this story, which is incredibly troubling for alleged victims. And obviously, we are focusing on Robert Kraft and the sports side of this story, but let's not forget those people. If that is true, then this takes it to a whole another level. Because the national football league has been so concerned about domestic violence, and of course, the fact that you have a domestic violence -- someone who was caught on tape just two months ago, now is already back in the NFL.

NOBLES: Right.

BRENNAN: These are issues that are very important to them, to the owners, and of course, to the fan base and especially to women in 2019, men as well, hopefully. That would be a devastating blow. If human trafficking is involved and Roger - and Robert Kraft knew about that, Ryan, that would probably be a devastating blow and maybe the end of Robert Kraft in the national football league.

NOBLES: Yes. Still a lot we have to learn about this particular situation.

Christine Brennan, as always, your insight is very valuable. Thank you so much for being here.

Coming up, the President's new favorite reality show, the 2020 campaign, he is tuning into all the rallies and town halls. He is looking to play an active role in the Democratic primary. Remember, he is a Republican. We will show you how.

And Democratic Presidential candidate Amy Klobuchar battling headlines about how she treats her staff. The new reporting about what happened when an aide accidentally forgot to bring her a fork.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:38:06] NOBLES: Cause chaos and sew division. Republican aides telling CNN that is President Trump's strategy for the Democratic primaries and caucuses. Those aides say that inside the White House, the President is closely watching Democratic candidates' interviews, rallies and town halls. And of course, there are plenty to choose from this weekend, as the 2020 hopefuls crisscross early voting states.

CNN's senior Washington correspondent Jeff Zeleny joins us now from Iowa, where a number of candidates are today.

Jeff, I'm so jealous you have already been to Iowa. I haven't been there yet this season. Sources tell us the President, very eager to take an active role in this primary. What is his strategy?

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: Well, Ryan, there's no question that President Trump is paying very careful attention to this Democratic primary campaign. Not only watching who is jumping in, but watching exactly how he could potential influence the race.

As you said, candidates are fanned out across Iowa, as well as South Carolina, and New Hampshire this weekend. I am at a town hall that's about to start for Julian Castro, of course, the former member of the Obama cabinet and a former San Antonio mayor.

But the President keeping a careful eye with one thing in mind. He wants to have a hand in his ultimate opponent.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ZELENY (voice-over): One presidential candidate is following the Democratic primary fight far closer than you might imagine. His name is Donald J. Trump.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Bernie Sanders is running, yes, that's right. Personally, I think he missed his time.

They will say, they know O'Rourke, that's his last name, right, O'Rourke?

I'm not impressed with their group.

ZELENY: The President is not only watching the Democratic race.

HARRIS: Let's do this.

ZELENY: Praising Kamala Harris' crowds and Amy Klobuchar's ability to connect with voters. He plans to play an active role in his opponents' primary. He is already working to brand Democrats as too extreme, seizing on Bernie Sanders' announcement this week to fire up his own supporters.

TRUMP: America will never be a socialist country.

[16:40:01] ZELENY: The President has directed his team to sew divisions among Democratic rivals, CNN has learned, and find opportunities to cause chaos from the left and right. In the words of one adviser, never mind, the first votes are one year away. Trump is increasingly fixated on the race, both in private conversations and in public.

TRUMP: I guess they are looking at 2020. They think, gee, if we could hurt Trump, we will have a better chance at winning an election.

ZELENY: One top Republican who talks to Trump frequently telling CNN, the President wants to get in the game.

At the White House, he is holding regular meetings with a small circle of advisers, led by his 2020 campaign manager, Brad Parscale. A power struggle has already emerged between the reelection campaign and those who helped him win the White House in 2016.

Corey Lewandowski and David Bossie, two central figures in the first campaign, were not invited to a meeting on Tuesday. With a wide-open Democratic contest where the ultimate nominee is a guessing game, the President and his advisors are trying to make the race anything but a referendum on him.

TRUMP: A radical left. It is a radical left.

ZELENY: Yet it's Democrats in the middle who worry Trump more.

Former vice president Joe Biden is at the top of that list.

TRUMP: He ran two or three times, he never got above one percent. And then Obama came along and took him off the trash heap, then he became a vice president, and now he's probably leading.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ZELENY: So as you can see there, the President paying very careful attention to this Democratic primary. Of course, Democrats are as well.

Ryan, as we travel across the state of Iowa, as well as other early voting states, one thing is clear, Democrats don't know which candidate they want. They are in a shopping season now, if you will, asking questions of these candidates, trying to get the sense of them, but they do know they want to find someone who can defeat the President. And the President, of course, is looking for someone easier to run against.

No answer to those questions yet, but we are less than a year away from those first votes happening here in Iowa as well as other states. So a very crowded season. Again, we will see if the end of the month, if Joe Biden is jumping in, if Beto O'Rourke is jumping in and others, Ryan. But already activity, a lot of it, on both sides - Ryan.

NOBLES: No doubt, Jeff. If they are shopping, they have lots to choose from, at least here in the early going.

Jeff Zeleny, live from Iowa. Thanks, Jeff.

ZELENY: Indeed.

NOBLES: Let's talk more about this now with CNN's senior political analyst and senior editor for the "Atlantic" Ron Brownstein.

Ron, is cause chaos and sew division, I mean, is that strategy that you would advise the President to use?

RON BROWNSTEIN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, I don't know if he wants my advice. But you can understand why he wants to do that. I mean, you know, the goal of every president who has been under 50 percent in approval has been the mantra for all of them has been, my reelection is going to be a choice, not a referendum. They want to shift the focus more to the other side. And Ryan, I can tell you through history, very little movement in that direction.

Reelection campaigns for incumbent are overwhelmingly a referendum. First, second, and third. And he will -- I spent a lot of time focusing on the Democrats, but the key number to watch in terms of Donald Trump will be his approval rating both nationally and in the key states. Because absent some very remarkable kind of alternative, voters really do view this primarily as a referendum and it's hard for an incumbent President to run very far ahead of his approval rating. And we saw in Gallup this week where he is in some of those key states that he won in 2016 down in the low 40s. That's a big hill to climb just by trying to disqualify the other side.

NOBLES: Yes. A lot of analysts saying if the race were run today based on those numbers, it would be difficult for the President to win reelection.

Now, our sources are telling CNN that the Democratic candidates on the President's radar include, and we are going to put them up on the screen, Senator Elizabeth Warren. He is worried about her, despite his frequent name calling of her. He has got vice president Joe Biden. He has called him weak. Senator Sherrod Brown who is from Ohio, could do well in the Midwest. He is not even officially in the race yet. Senator Kamala Harris, he has been impressed by her crowd sizes. And then Amy Klobuchar, because he is impressed by how she connects with voters. Notably not on this list, Bernie Sanders, who just raised $6 million.

BROWNSTEIN: Yes.

NOBLES: Of these candidate, which one do you think is the biggest threat to Donald Trump?

BROWNSTEIN: well, first, it is actually very revealing list because, you know, you have people who basically believe that there are three kind of brackets developing in the Democratic field. A candidate who primarily will appeal to white upscale liberals. And that's really a competition above all between Warren and Bernie Sanders. A candidate who is more towards moderate, older, and blue collar voters, especially in the middle of the country, and Biden, Klobuchar and Brown, if he runs, are in that kind of lane. And then a candidate who will emerge as perhaps the biggest favorite of voters of color. And Kamala Harris given that African-American women are two-thirds of all black voters is probably considered the leader in that field.

So he's got the right -- you know, in some ways, he has the right alignment of the Democratic choices in 2020. And I do think that, look, I mean, which is the biggest threat? There are two theories about how Democrats win. One is trying to win back some of those blue collar voters who moved to the President in 2016, particularly in the Midwestern states and that's something that Brown or Klobuchar or Biden would be strongest at.

And the other theory is that they win by mobilizing the younger or non-white voters who are the most alienated from Trump and, you know, show disapprovals of 70 percent or higher often in polls. And there you see someone like Sanders or Booker or Beto O'Rourke if he runs. So there are two completely different theories. I'm not sure one is empirically stronger than the other but it does give you a sense of how this divides and where the President is looking at it.

[16:45:29] NOBLES: All right. So quickly, I want to talk about Amy Klobuchar and this new "New York Times" story out that talks about her relationship with her staff.

They spoke to former aide who recounted a story of a staff member who brought Klobuchar a salad to eat on a plane, but actually lost the fork on his way to delivering the salad, and this is what the article says.

What happened next was typical, Miss Klobuchar berated her aide instantly for the slip-up. What happened after, that was not. She pulled a comb, yes a comb that you put in our hair from her bag and began eating the salad with it, according to four people familiar with the episode. Then she handed the comb to her staff member with the directive, clean it.

Ron, there are a lot of politicians, prominent politicians who are tough on their staffs. Are these stories about Amy Klobuchar any different than what we have heard about Bill Clinton, other famous and very successful politicians who had a very difficult relationship with the people that worked under them?

BROWNSTEIN: I don't think so. I mean, I kept debating whether we were going to call this Forkgate or Combgate, you know, which end of the story.

Look, I do not think this will be the dispositive factor in whether she emerges as a serious candidate or not. You don't want to start your campaign in this way, and it does seem as though some of this behavior was pretty extreme. But as you note, there have been other candidates, Bill Clinton certainly was known for his rages at staff.

I think the questions voters ask is, are you going to make my life better? Are you going to reflect my values? And certainly for Democrats, the third question is, are you a good bet to beat Donald Trump? And I think Amy Klobuchar, like everyone else, is going to be judged primarily on those attributes. Not that this is, you know, inconsequential, but very unlikely to be a decisive factor.

NOBLES: All right, Ron Brownstein, as always, terrific analysis. Thank you for being on, my friend. Have a great rest of your day.

BROWNSTEIN: Thanks for having me.

NOBLES: Be sure to tune in at 8:00 a.m. eastern tomorrow morning, that's when CNN's John King interviews Democratic presidential candidate Kamala Harris for a special edition of INSIDE POLITICS live from Iowa.

And breaking news, live pictures right now of an area where a Boeing 767 cargo plane crashed near Houston. We have new details ahead, live in the CNN NEWSROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:52:05] NOBLES: And we do have some breaking news into CNN right now. An FAA official tells CNN that a Boeing 767 cargo plane operating for Amazon prime air has crashed while on approach to Houston's Bush intercontinental airport. The plane was flying from Miami international with three crew members aboard. There's no word if there are any survivors. After losing contact with the plane, air traffic controllers asked other pilots if they could see it.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Shuttle 6090, see if you can make ground contact. We are looking for a lost aircraft, at your 11:00 in two miles. It's a heavy Boeing 767.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Air shuttle 6090, no ground contact from here.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: United 514, see if you can make ground contact. We are looking for a heavy Boeing 767 at 11:00 in about seven miles.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Roger.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

NOBLES: The NTSB this hour is sending a go team to the scene.

And joining us now is CNN transportation analyst Mary Schiavo. She served as the inspector general at the transportation department.

Now Mary, we are told this is a cargo plane, but it is a 767, which can be a passenger plane if adapted properly. What are the differences between the cargo model of a plane like this and a passenger airline?

MARY SCHIAVO, CNN TRANSPORTATION ANALYST: Well, actually, not a lot of differences. Obviously, all the seats are out and they have cargo pallets put in the plane. But 767 has been a workhorse, both in passenger service in years past. They are being phased out now and most airlines don't have them in passenger service. And in cargo service, they are really tough plane and they have been around for three decades. Good plane.

NOBLES: So there was no distress call. It appears that air traffic controllers just lost sight of the plane. How worrying would that be?

SCHIAVO: Well, it's pretty worrying, of course, because they really have a few clues. From flight radar, there was a clue that both the altitude, the air speed, and the altitude had an upset event about the same time. So something disrupted the air flow through the engines over the wings and their altitude was affected. Really, about the same time, that could be anything. Could be precipitation, a gust of wind, could be a problem with the engines. There's so many things that could cause that.

But we do know they had a problem in flight, some kind of a mechanical, and they didn't have time to get off a payday call. And looking at the flight radar, says they were fighting to save that plane and simply didn't have time to get a distress call out.

NOBLES: So what will be the first things that investigators will be looking for and looking at as they begin this look into exactly what happened here? SCHIAVO: Well, they are fanning out. One of the things they are

obviously going to do first and foremost is try to secure those black boxes because that will tell what happened. Black boxes have evolved over the decades and they are so good now and they record so many parameters of what's going on with the aircraft that that will tell them, give a precipitation report and some kind of an upset event. They will obviously be looking at all of the weather radar. And finally, they are going to be looking at that cargo manifest. Given it was a cargo plane, they want to know what's in the hold. Could something have caught fire? Could something have exploded? Could there be some problem with the cargo that this plane was hauling. So they are going to be looking on the maintenance records and the cargo loading records and to make sure everything aboard should have been aboard.

[16:55:33] NOBLES: All right, Mary Schiavo, we should point out, three crew members onboard that plane. We do not know if there were any survivors. This plane crashing just outside Houston, Texas.

Mary, as always, thank you for being here.

And we will be right back. Stay here.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[17:00:00] NOBLES: You are in the CNN NEWSROOM. I'm Ryan Nobles in today for Ana Cabrera and we are live in New York.