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Trump Departs for Summit; Wild Week for Washington; Warren on Fundraisers; Sanders Town Hall; Former Officials Sign Letter; Push for 9/11 First Responders Funding; Trump Organization Askes for Stop to Investigation. Aired 1-1:30p ET

Aired February 25, 2019 - 13:00   ET



[13:00:32] BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN ANCHOR: I'm Brianna Keilar, live from CNN's Washington headquarters.

Right now, President Donald Trump is on his way to Vietnam for round two with North Korea's Leader Kim Jong-un. And soon Kim Jong-un is expected to arrive after a multi-day train ride to Hanoi. The two leaders will sit down for their second one-on-one summit and the United States is hoping to make progress toward the goal of denuclearization, despite no verifiable actions since the last meeting.

This second meeting is coming during a very hectic week here in Washington with three days of testimony scheduled from the president's former personal attorney, Michael Cohen, and with his national emergency declaration in jeopardy.

CNN's senior White House correspondent Pamela Brown is at the White House.

What are the expectations here going into this second summit?

PAMELA BROWN, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, you're seeing President Trump tamp down the expectations heading into this second

summit with North Korea Leader Kim Jong-un. President Trump is en route right now to Vietnam. And he said just last night at a dinner that he doesn't want to rush anything. He says he doesn't want to rush anyone and that, look, he's going to be happy if there's no testing. He said I just don't want any testing. I will be happy.

It is true, Brianna, that since the last summit with Kim Jong-un, there hasn't been testing. But top administration officials have made it clear that North Korea is still a nuclear threat. Just recently Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told our Jake Tapper that, yes, North Korea is still a threat.

And so that is really the question here, what is going to be accomplished in this second summit? Administration officials say that President Trump wants to build on his relationship with Kim Jong-un following the last summit in Singapore and take steps toward North Korea getting rid of its nuclear program.

Now, President Trump, once again today, reiterating he wants complete denuclearization, but the administration has yet to define exactly what that means. The president also said he has no plans of lifting sanctions.

Now, he plans on meeting with Kim Jong-un on Wednesday, of course. We'll all be following that closely. But there's also another big event Wednesday, as you know, Brianna. Michael Cohen will be testifying here in Washington, the president's former attorney and fixer. So that certainly will be an interesting day. And this trip in Vietnam also against the backdrop of the Russia investigation wrapping up.


KEILAR: What a week.

Pamela Brown from the White House, thank you.

And it is shaping up, as you heard Pamela saying there, to be a blockbuster week in Washington while the president is overseas. The House vote to block President Trump's national emergency and his former fixer and lawyer Michael Cohen on the hot seat on Capitol Hill.

We have CNN's political director David Chalian with me.

We have crazy weeks sometimes, David Chalian, but this is a special kind of wild week.

DAVID CHALIAN, CNN POLITICAL DIRECTOR: It is a wild week, and here's why, because we're going to have this split screen scenario. And we have a president who consumes the television coverage of what he's doing or what's going on in Washington in a very acute fashion we know. And so my big question heading into this week, you listed all of those things. These are things that would normally animate the president's Twitter feed, get him riled up, get him wanting to counter-program. Does he use the summit in North Korea as a real attempt to counter-program all of these things that are less comfortable for him back home? He thinks the North Korea moment is a potentially -- a victorious moment for him to look grand on the world stage again, trying to be a peacemaker. It worked for him in Singapore. He got a lot of praise for that initial meeting. But do we see the flip side of that coin, Brianna, which is when he's on the world stage over there, does this stuff back at home get under his skin so much that it impacts his perform over there.

KEILAR: Yes, can he -- can he focus. That will be a big question.

And Elizabeth Warren is making headlines because she has a promise -- there may be some loopholes in this promise, but it's still -- it's still one that's getting her a lot of attention.

CHALIAN: Well, listen, the key for any of these candidates that are jumping into the 2020 race for the Democratic nomination is differentiate herself in some way because it's going to be a very crowded field.

So Elizabeth Warren announces that she is not going to do any big, high-dollar fundraisers. You know that notion of a candidate going to the ballroom and glad-handing all those rich folks to pay for the campaign, no, all grassroots fundraising for the primary season. They note that if he makes it out to the general, she may rely on more traditional methods of fundraising. But she's clearly trying to differentiate herself because we know that Cory Booker and Kamala Harris and Kirsten Gillibrand and others have already been holding some of these big dollar fundraisers. She's swearing off that now. Truth be told, Elizabeth Warren's fundraising practice in general has been at the grassroots level as well.

[13:05:07] KEILAR: And it highlight -- it will definitely highlight that.

So there's a big 2020 race event that's going to be on CNN tonight. Tell us about this.

CHALIAN: So Bernie Sanders in this race now for less than a week is going to be doing a town hall with Wolf Blitzer tonight on CNN at 8:00. And this is our opportunity, I think, to start getting some answers to the big questions that hang around the Sanders candidacy 2.0. What's different this time?

Now, Bernie Sanders says what's different is I'm going to win. But how? What adjustment is he making from his 2016 campaign? We know there's a national grassroots army for them -- for him. He raised $6 million in his first 24 hours as a candidate last week. But what is he doing differently this time as a candidate to get a better outcome than he had last time around? I think that's what most people are going to be watching to see tonight.

KEILAR: It's going to be so interesting to hear what he says.


KEILAR: All right, he's only been in a week? It feels like a month, maybe two months.

All right, David Chalian, thank you.

CHALIAN: Thank you.

KEILAR: And make sure that you tune in tonight to that CNN special town hall with Senator Bernie Sanders host by our Wolf Blitzer, 8:00 p.m. Eastern tonight right here on CNN.

In a letter released within the last hour, 58 former senior national security officials all agree, under no plausible assessment of the evidence is there a national emergency today that entitles the president to tap into funds appropriated for other purposes to build a wall at the southern border. But just this morning, without citing a source, President Trump repeated his reasoning for the wall.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Ninety percent of the drugs don't come through the port of entry. Ninety percent of the drugs and the big stuff goes out to the desert, makes a left and goes where you don't have any wall.


KEILAR: Well, Daniel Benjamin served as ambassador at large for counterterrorism at the U.S. State Department during the Obama administration.

And you were one of these 58 people who signed this letter.

What is the objective of the letter?

DANIEL BENJAMIN, SIGNED LETTER TO PRESIDENT TRUMP: The letter is to underscore that in the opinion -- in the view of many very senior policy people, who have experience with these issues, there is no basis for declaring an emergency. The facts simply don't agree with the president.

We don't have a rise in the number of illegal crossings. On the contrary, they're less than a tenth of what they were ten years ago, according to the Department of Homeland Security's own numbers. Most of the drugs, contrary to what the president says, do come in through ports of entry or through the mail or commercial mail services. There's no terrorism crisis of any kind. The president has talked about 4,000 people being apprehended, but, in fact, there has never been a single terrorist fatality in the United States at the hands of someone who came in illegally. And, in fact, only six people in the last year came to the southern border who showed up on a watch list. There's no trafficking crisis, either. Most people who are here through human trafficking are on valid visas.

So, you know, this really belies the president's claims and I think undermines his desire to circumvent the traditional means of congressional appropriations.

KEILAR: You -- this letter is pretty stunning in the footnotes, I will say. It is so -- it's very clear exactly where you get the information, some of it coming from the administration itself. But in the objective, is this -- if there is a legal case, is this to send a message to the court? Is this to send a message to the American people who are looking at this emergency? Who are you trying to win over here?

BENJAMIN: Right. All of the above. So this is a court filing, and it will be submitted -- I think there are close to half a dozen court cases already, and it will be submitted in all of those. And in addition, it's part of the public effort to, you know, dispel this kind of fantasy that the president has created about there being a crisis on our southern border. There is no crisis. Things have been getting better over the last ten years, not getting worse. And that, in our mind, is the opposite of what you call an emergency.

KEILAR: So I want to switch gears. The president, as you know, is on his way to Vietnam. And given the limited outcome of the last summit with Kim Jong-un, it seems unlikely that there would be major progress when it comes to denuclearization and achieving that. What do you think is a realistic goal for this meeting?

BENJAMIN: Well, I'm not really sure that what we're looking at is a realistic outcome because I think it's quite clear that the North Koreans are not going to give up their nuclear weapons and there won't be any case to be made that denuclearization is being achieved.

[13:10:02] What I think the legitimate fears are, are that the president, while under fire about the emergency and certainly wanting to shout over the testimony in Congress of Michael Cohen, there is a danger that the president will give away the store and will perhaps declare the Korean War over, perhaps agree to withdraw some troops. I think this is a very real concern because you have a president who prizes his reputation as a master of the deal, and I think at this point we're worried about a deal at any cost.

KEILAR: And a spokesperson for the South Korean president says that there is a possibility that there could be an ending to the Korean War. So you believe that that may just be in a -- you think that's possible?

BENJAMIN: I do think it's possible, and I think it would be a mistake. It would be giving the North Koreans something for nothing again, much like a meeting with the president himself. And it would also enhance the North Korean's leverage in future negotiations because they will say, understandably, if there's no war, why do you have almost 29,000 U.S. troops in South Korea and why do you have nuclear weapons in South Korea? And that, I think, would be very damaging to our position. It would also undermine our alliances in the region, which are looking to us to maintain, you know, a stiff spine and confront a country that is a known proliferator and a danger to regional security.

KEILAR: All right, Daniel Benjamin, thank you so much. We do appreciate your perspective in this. Thank you, sir.

BENJAMIN: Thank you.

KEILAR: So just in, the Trump Organization sending a letter to House Democrats asking them to stop their investigations of the company. Hear why.

Plus, charges looming for Patriots owner Robert Kraft, accused of soliciting sex. The more important part of the story here are the women at the center of this trafficking ring.

And benefits for 9/11 first responders now at risk as the fund protecting them is running out of money. Jon Stewart and a first responder will join me live, next.


[13:16:41] KEILAR: Comedian Jon Stewart is, of course, best known for his years hosting "The Daily Show," and more recently as a film director. But today he is playing lobbyist on Capitol Hill and he is up there to push for passage of a bill that's being introduced by Senator Kirsten Gillibrand that will permanently authorize the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund.

Last week the State Department said it is running out of money and will cut benefits in half for most recipients and anyone with a new claim is facing a 70 percent reduction in payouts. This is money that goes toward first responders, their families and survivors who got sick from all of the toxins at Ground Zero. It is a fight that Stewart has been backing for years, and he is joining us now, along with John Feal, who is a 9/11 first responder.

And, John Feal, to you first. Tell us what this fund does. Tell us what it's done for you, what it does for other 9/11 responders and their families and just how bad health concerns are for this group.

JOHN FEAL, FOUNDER, FEAL GOOD FOUNDATION: Well, one, thank you for having me.

Two, this -- this struggle and the pain is real. Back in October, when this announcement was made, the post-traumatic rose (ph) in the 9/11 community. Now that the deadline has passed and the policy has taken effect, post-traumatic's at an all-time high in the 9/11 community.

There are men and women, uniform and non-uniform, responders and survivors that are panicking. And for many this is a lifeline. The conversations are real. Should I put gas in the car or should I pay my car insurance? Should I put food on the table or should I pay the utilities?

Congress now has something tangible to work with, and they either have the choice -- a conscious choice to get on board and help co-sponsor this bill and get it passed or they can make that conscious choice and be that guy that's not going to help, and then we're going to expose them for political malpractice and we're going to make their lives miserable.

KEILAR: And I read that you had been to almost 200 funerals, is that right?

FEAL: I've been to 181 funerals and a lot of them were my friends who walked the halls of Congress over the last 15 years with me. You know, today is my 269th trip to D.C. And I got tenure. I got more time on The Hill than many members of Congress. And our tolerance is -- our resolve has been tested and we have a zero tolerance policy. And we're optimistic that we're going to get this bill passed for tens of thousands of people that are relying on us.

KEILAR: Jon Stewart, you both have been walking the halls of Congress, making this pitch to members. What is the pitch when you're telling them what this fund does and how it needs to help people like John Feal to your left?

JON STEWART, COMEDIAN/ACTIVIST: I mean you don't even really have to make a pitch, because the moral argument is already there. It's sort of incomprehensible that this would be something that would cause John Feal -- John has half a foot and one kidney and friends with cancer that he has to bring down here to patrol the hall. The idea that you would come down here almost 270 times to convince people of what almost seems to be a moral absolute as our duty to these first responders and these survivors, they came down to the site as fast as they could, and they stayed there for months tenaciously searching first as a rescue operation and then as a recovery operation, and they helped stabilize not just New York City but the entire country during that time.

[13:20:09] And they were told by the government, the EPA specifically made an announcement that the air down there was safe, knowing full well that it was not anywhere near safe. The only thing analogous to the kind of air that was down at the World Trade Center are burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan. Those towers disintegrated on 9/11. And the first responders breathed in and ate this atomized combination of glass and mercury and asbestos and any kind of toxin you can imagine and began to get sick almost immediately. And certain cancers have different latency periods and certain exposures in terms of lung disease have different latency periods.

But the idea that 18 years later they're still tugging on the hemline of the government to get this bill through and to get it funded properly and to make it permanent is truly beyond comprehension, even for a dysfunctional body. So I'm not quite sure there needn't be a pitch.

KEILAR: But -- and -- but there has to be, right, because the Justice Department says, you know, you've got this $7.4 billion that was allotted for the fund in 2015. It's nearly been depleted. There's thousands more claims still expected. And their approach, as we outlined, is to cut the benefit level for current recipients and for future --

STEWART: This is not -- the Justice Department -- no, the reason that it's being cut is because of how well the Justice Department has administrated the fund. Previously, it was much harder. The wait time when you apply and the credential period was much more arduous. They've really -- the special pay master over at Justice has done a great job administering the fund. So what's happened is, they're actually paying out what people need.

FEAL: So this is --

KEILAR: What they need.

FEAL: This is not Special Master Rupa Bhattacharyya's fault.

KEILAR: No. Sure. And to be clear -- and we --

FEAL: She's doing a great job. But here's -- here's the problem.

KEILAR: Yes. And that's -- and I hear --

FEAL: This is the problem. This is Congress' fault because they keep insulting us and they keep playing games and giving us five-year bills. Cancer and respiratory illnesses have no latency -- no -- they can't -- cancer has no arbitrary date. These respiratory illnesses have no arbitrary date. In 2015, when we got this bill renewed, we got 75 years on the health care. We now have 72. But they only gave us five years on the VCF. We want 72 years on the VCF to coincide with the health care.

And let's not kid ourselves, Brianna, none of us are going to be here in 72 years. The 9/11 community is a finite number. We're going to die off. There's other bills in Congress that are permanent, like the black lung bill and the nuclear bill that geographically help members -- coal miners in West Virginia and Kentucky. They have a permanent bill. The nuclear bill in South Carolina and Washington state, in Tennessee, they have a permanent bill. Our bill, the James Zadroga Health and Compensation Act, dwarfs them, we're national. Four hundred and thirty four out of 435 congressional districts were represented at Ground Zero during the cleanup and the recovery.

KEILAR: That's right.

FEAL: We dwarf them. If Congress continues to play games with us, we're going to make their life miserable. And, trust me, I'm good at that.

KEILAR: So -- John Feal, tell me -- because -- and I hear what you're saying, this is not the paymaster's fault. This -- you're blaming this on Congress. And I see that why you're there walking the halls.

But when you see DOJ, as they -- as it pays this out and it says, look, as money runs out, this is going to be cut by half. New folks applying cut by 70 percent. What does that do if that goes forward? What does that do to the care of people who need it?

FEAL: I tell people that are sick and affected by 9/11 to continue to file claims and continue to have faith in us and Jon Stewart and the men and women in uniform and non-uniform that I take to D.C. and for the New York delegation led by Senator Gillibrand that we are going to get legislation extended and renewed and we're going to get 72 years. And then we want to be left alone because I'm tired of coming here and looking at cranky old white men who try to rule the country and are doing a really, really bad job.

KEILAR: All right, John Feal, Jon Stewart, thank you so much to both of you for being on today. We really appreciate it.

FEAL: Thank you, Brianna.

STEWART: Thank you. Thanks for having us.

KEILAR: Coming up, Patriots owner Robert Kraft could be charged as early as today for soliciting sex. What the NFL is saying about this ongoing investigation.

Also, a federal judge ruling that a male-only draft is unconstitutional. Hear what this means.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) [13:29:29] KEILAR: Just in to CNN, the Trump Organization sent a letter, just moments ago, to the House Judiciary Committee asking them to stop their investigation into the organization due to a conflict of interest.

We have CNN's Kara Scannell and former federal prosecutor Laura Coates here with me.

Kara, what's the alleged conflict here?

KARA SCANNELL, CNN REPORTER: Well, so the Trump Organization is alleging that Barry Burke, the attorney who the House Judiciary Committee hired, he works at a firm called Kramer Levin. And they're saying that because Kramer Levin has done work for the Trump Organization in the past, it's a conflict of interest and Barry's work shouldn't be able to work with the committee.