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At Least 23 Dead After Tornadoes Rip Through Alabama, House Dems to Expand Obstruction Probe, Guaido Vows to Risk Arrest to Join Opposition Protests. Aired 10-10:30 ET

Aired March 4, 2019 - 10:00   ET

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


JIM SCIUTTO, CNN NEWSROOM: Just look at those pictures there this morning, this after the deadliest outbreak of tornadoes to hit that state in years. 23 people are known dead so far, all of them in Lee County, just east of Montgomery, Alabama. Dozens more are hurt, some critically. It's not clear exactly how many are unaccounted for. But, first, responders and heat-seeking drones are racing to find survivors. Lee County death toll is higher by itself, or twice as high, in fact, as the number of people killed in tornadoes across the country in all 2018.

Here is CNN's Victor Blackwell.

VICTOR BLACKWELL, CNN WEEKEND NEW DAY: Well, Jim, as is typical with natural disasters, the mobile homes get the worst of the damage, and this one is no exception. Look at this, the items, the furniture, the clothing of this home dumped out of the roof. It's on its side. We'll show you another angle in a moment. The window panes here, insulation in the trees showing the strength of the tornadoes, at least one here came through on Sunday.

But where is the roof of this home? Across the street. This tin roof wrapped around the trees here. The strength of the winds, National Weather Service says, they have seen enough to indicate to them that the winds here were about EF-3, at least meaning 136 miles per hour. There's another wall here with windows from this home. Insulation all over. items from potentially other homes. We don't know because there is a considerable amount of damage to homes here. We do know that there are trees down. A lot of this, the trees lifted from the roots here. But what we know is that there aren't many trees in the road because crews have worked through most of Sunday and until dark last night to clear the road so that the power crews, the search and rescue teams, the rest of responders can get in.

Here is that mobile home from another angle, tossed over on to its side, slammed against the trees. Look, you can see the linoleum floor from the kitchen, some of the padding and carpet from the living room. And once the sun came up, we noticed back here a pickup truck that had been hit by a couple of trees as well. What we don't know about this home is if there was anyone inside. Of course, we hope no one was there. But the search of this area will continue.

And as we said, the National Weather Service is here as well. They will be surveying today, looking at the damage here to determine if this was an EF-4, an EF-5. Those surveys will happen starting this morning and continuing through the day.

Jim, back to you.

SCIUTTO: A lot of people still unaccounted for there. Victor Blackwell, thanks very much.

I'm joined now on the phone by a Scott Peake. He's a storm chaser who followed the severe weather all along Highway 51 at Lee County. Scott, thanks very much for taking the time this morning. And I wonder if you can describe to us what you saw in the midst of this about the one or more, I understand, tornadoes that you saw.

SCOTT PEAKE, STORM CHASER: Right, absolutely. I saw the one that hit Beauregard, Alabama. And it was quite large, a very large tornado visible from my location. I was on Highway 51 looking north as I approached and saw it across the road.

SCIUTTO: And we were told by witnesses that one was a half mile wide and it stayed on the ground for miles, which can be unusual, because sometimes these tornadoes kind of jump around, but this cut quite a wide swath through these communities.

PEAKE: Yes, absolutely. Yes. This was a very unusual and rare tornado to begin with. Violent tornadoes are rare to begin with, and this was no exception. But but it did. It was quite large when it came through and very unusual especially for this time of year, this early in the season. I know we're approaching tornado season but we are not even in the beginning of it or the actual beginning of it and it has already caused a lot of deaths.

SCIUTTO: We have been hearing from authorities about warning times less than five minutes. I mean, how fast - do we know how fast these formed? And as you were there, did you hear the tornado sirens? Did folks there have any sense that this was coming?

PEAKE: I didn't hear the tornado sirens because I was driving in the vehicle. But I did actually hear them in Montgomery, Alabama in the beginning when the storm formed just southwest of town. The weather service did a fantastic job of warning the storm. It was tornado warned for over 20 minutes before it even got close to Beauregard.

A lot of people I talked to said that their cell phones did go off as an alert for their phones, so that's how they got the warnings and took shelter.

[10:05:05]

SCIUTTO: Yes. And then I guess the question is how many folks heeded those warnings. Still concerns about people still missing. Scott Peake, thanks very much. You stay safe, as well.

Meteorologist Chad Myers, he joins us now. And, Chad, it's great to have you there with this bird's eye view. What more are we learning about these storms? And the question for folks on the ground today is is there still danger there?

CHAD MYERS, CNN METEOROLOGIST: Well, the danger now is running a generator in a house that you still have left and carbon monoxide poisoning or stepping on anything. There are nails, shards, there are things around that weren't there and people are trying to work as fast as they can to rescue or to revive or do whatever they are doing out there. And these shards of things are everywhere. I have been to enough of these things to know that now the recovery, more people can get injured, not killed, but injured than were injured in the tornado itself.

65 miles long, you talked about that, about a half a mile wide. Do the math. That's almost 30 square miles worth of damage. And this thing very could easily be 150 miles per hour storm. And 156 makes it a category five hurricane equivalent in the eye wall. That's how strong we are talking about, something that hit down across the gulf coast earlier this year or last year.

Here we go at Montgomery. I want to show you the purple squares. This is yesterday. This is what I was watching here. Purple squares, all of these polygons, tornadoes on the ground. Here comes the one very close there, that's in the Lee near Columbus, Georgia.

But there were more than ten tornado warnings at the same time for storms that were all rotating all by themselves. We call them super cells. When a line of storms lines up, and we call it a squall line, you don't get big tornadoes. You get little tornadoes or wind damage.

But when you get storms all by themselves out there, that's when you get this EF-3 potential. And it was in the air yesterday. The humidity was there. The cold air is in place. Obviously, it has been snowing in Boston all night long. It's snowed in New York City. That's the cold air, the warm air. We talked about that clash. You need the clash to get this type of weather and it was in place. I know the storm reporter there, the chasers said it is still too early really for storms here, though it's still too early for storms in Oklahoma, in Texas, in Kansas. But this Dixie Alley thing, this is a brand new tornado alley, and this is exactly the time of year that we need be very, very cautious with it.

And also, Jim, many times, these storms will continue into the overnight and dark hours when people go to sleep. And they don't expect them. They don't hear the sirens. They're asleep. They don't hear their phones going off. At least last night, the storms did die off around 8:00 or 9:00 o'clock. And the last storm was near Cairo, Georgia. But that town got hit.

There's a lot of towns we haven't talked about. I know we focused on Lee County. But there were 36 tornadoes on the ground yesterday. So there's a lot more to talk about and we will get o that in the days to come, Jim.

SCIUTTO: No question. We've got people on the ground there following that and with concerns about who is still missing. Chad Myers, thanks very much. In Washington this morning, Donald Trump Jr., John Kelly and Chief Financial Officer for the Trump Organization, three people, the House Judiciary Committee plans to formally request documents from as democrats step up their investigations into President Trump and his inner circle. Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler says he will formally request documents from more than 60 individuals in total.

Joining me now with more is CNN Congressional Correspondent Phil Mattingly here. And, Phil, what's driving this as some of these were revelations from Michael Cohen's testimony last week, alleging a whole host, really, of criminal behaviors by this President. But Nadler is casting quite a wide net.

PHIL MATTINLGY, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes. This is something that's not only going to show the scope of what House Judiciary Committee and the House Judiciary Chairman are looking into but also the process that they're looking into. Basically, what Jerry Nadler, the Chairman of the committee said yesterday, is there will be a request from more than 60 individuals to produce documents related to the Judiciary Committee's investigation into obstruction, abuse of power and potential corruption within the Trump administration.

Now, included in the group of individuals, at least that we know so far, will be receiving those requests are Donald Trump Jr., are Allen Weisselberg, the CFO who was mentioned multiple times in that hearing with Michael Cohen, as well as former White House officials John Kelly, former Chief Of Staff, and Don McGahn of the White House Counsel's Office.

And when I say, the process, is it's important to note. What this is is a document request. These are not subpoenas, these are not scheduled hearings, and obviously, it's a very wide scope casting a very wide net. And what that underscores here, I'm told, in talking to democrats, is a very methodical approach, as they work through this investigation. They are going to take this step by step. There is no rush to impeachment. There is no rush to kind of an end game here. What they want to do is essentially what I'm told, Jim, is make the case. Make the case that the President, according to Jerry Nadler, has obstructed justice. This is the first step in that. The first step, it's worth saying at this point, is one of many, Jim.

SCIUTTO: And, of course, we'll see what the Mueller report says on that front. Tell us more about what you're hearing, reactions of Senator Rand Paul now, the fourth republican to announce he will oppose President Trump's emergency declaration.

[10:10:04]

That's setting up for the House, who's already done it, and the Senate opposing the President here.

MATTINGLY: Yes, that's right. The magic number was four in terms of making it a majority to pass that resolution of disapproval in the Senate. It will only take 51 votes to move forward. 47 democrats have already said they will vote for that. RAND PAUL is now the fourth. That makes 51, which means the House and the Senate will both be able to pass those resolutions.

As to why Rand Paul said he was going to do this, this was an op-ed in FoxNews.com where he said, quote, I would lose my political soul if I decided to treat President Trump different than President Obama. Every republican I know decried President Obama's use of executive power to legislate. We were right then. But the only way to be an honest officer holder is to stand up for the same principles now no matter who is in power.

And, Jim, it's worth noting the expectation among senior republican aides that I've been talking to in the last couple of weeks is that enough republicans would join democrats to pass this. The question has always been, how many. As I'm told right now, there are about a half dozen others who are considering this. But there were two magic numbers here. The magic number of four to pass the resolution and then the magic number of of 20. 20 republicans crossing over would make it veto proof. Everybody I'm talking to right now has made clear they believe they will fall short of that.

What this almost guarantees is that the President will have take the pen out and do his first veto of his time in office. But it is likely he will be able to override or he will not face an override because the House and the Senate both won't have the votes, Jim.

SCIUTTO: And his own political judgment maybe that that's good for him to veto, even a republican vote controlled chamber. Phil Mattingly, thanks very much.

Up next, we're going to speak to a democrat pushing for more information on the President's, listen to this, tax returns. Plus, protesters filling the streets in Venezuela, as we speak, as the self- declared interim president, you see him there, Juan Guaido, telling supporters that he is on his way to join them even though he says he fully expects to be arrested by the sitting president, Nicolas Maduro. We're going to be live on the ground there.

And the President now blaming House democrats for the failure to strike a deal with the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, we'll discuss.

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[10:16:35] SCIUTTO: This morning, democratic house investigations into the President and his allies continue. The House Ways and Means Committee is making its legal case that it has the authority specifically to obtain President Trump's tax returns. Let's discuss with democratic Congressman, Dan Kildee of Michigan. He sits on the House Ways and Means Committee. Congressman, always good to have you on. Thanks for taking the time.

REP. DAN KILDEE (D), M.I.: Thank you. Thank you, Jim.

SCIUTTO: So let's start with this. I mean, this has been in play for, what, three years now, the question of President Trump's tax returns. Your committee now pursuing them aggressively here. But we know, and I imagine you expect the President would challenge anything in court. How far away are Americans from actually seeing the President's tax returns?

KILDEE: Well, it's not clear how far away Americans are. It's not far away before we request them. We have been taking some steps, acting somewhat deliberately, which I know has frustrated some people. But this is unchartered territory. The President broke with half a century of tradition by not releasing his tax returns.

So we held a hearing to determine and establish our legal authority to get the returns. We have now been building the case as to why it is important to get them. So I don't think we are far away from requesting them.

What happens at that point in time is yet to be determined. The President will obviously fight it. I think, ultimately, we will get them. The law is clear. It dates back to the Teapot Dome scandal in the early 1920s that Congress has the right to get these returns. He'll fight it. Once we do have the opportunity to have those returns analyzed, I think our next step will be determined at that point in time. It's important that we get this information.

SCIUTTO: It was interesting, Michael Cohen's testimony, one thing that didn't get a lot of attention, which was him discussing the President's concerns about an audit if he were to release his returns. When, of course, the President's excuse to this point has been that since they are under audit, he will not release them and he will released them at some putative date down the road when that audit is over. Is that a subject of investigation as to whether there is any audit as the President has repeatedly claimed?

KILDEE: Well, it is interesting that the President's absolute clear statement that he's under audit raises questions in people's minds because the President just doesn't tell the truth. So we don't know. I'm sure we'll find out. Perhaps we will find out, I should say, as a result of the request. But either way, whether if he is under audit or not, the legal authority of the Ways and Means Committee to gain access to these returns is fairly well established. We shouldn't have had to go through this in the first place, but it's important.

The American people have a right to know what the President's entanglements are, what his interests are, whether it's a tax bill or what Mr. Cohen raised, his ability and willingness to inflate his value when he is trying to get a loan and waste [ph] it otherwise.

SCIUTTO: Well, particularly when he is supporting legislation that might benefit him personally. On a broader issue, some of your democratic colleagues over the weekend, including Adam Schiff, they were very forward-leaning on what they say is evidence they have seen of this continuing question as to whether the Trump campaign and the President colluded with Russia or conspired, the legal term, with Russia during the campaign. Schiff cited specifically the Trump Tower meeting. But this is something we have known for some time. I just wonder if you are concerned, even your democratic colleagues are going too far in their public statements as to what hard evidence there is today that the President himself or members of his campaign colluded or conspired with Russia.

[10:20:09]

KILDEE: Well, I think we should withhold judgment until we see all of the facts in their proper context. What we have seen are pieces of a puzzle, but we haven't seen the whole picture.

I think one of the reasons though that some are pushing back on this issue of collusion is that our republican colleagues and certainly the President, they repeat over and over again claims that are not true, that there is no evidence of collusion. We don't know what the evidence will show. They keep saying that Mr. Mueller has found nothing that would cause him to conclude collusion. We don't know the answer to that question.

Circumstantially, there is certainly plenty of evidence that the Trump campaign coordinated, communicated with parties that were directly engaged in with Russia. It may be a semantic argument whether there was collusion. But it's the republicans who are making these absolute claims that they cannot base in fact because the facts haven't been revealed.

SCIUTTO: Okay, another topic, and it's something we just learned today, and this according to The New Yorker, but that the President pressured his then economic advisor, Gary Cohn, to pressure - to order, in fact, the Justice Department to block - attempt to block a merger between AT&T and Time Warner, Time Warner, of course, which owns CNN. In your view, would this be a misuse of presidential power to attempt to block a merger for what appears to be a political motivation?

KILDEE: It would be. And this is one of those cases where the President does have clear authority to give directives. But he doesn't have authority to give directives to advance his own political means, to use the authority vested in the presidency to pursue his political - his narrow political agenda or to punish people that he doesn't happen to agree with. And I don't need to tell you, he takes quite an issue with the reporting that comes from CNN.

And so the President walks into some pretty dangerous territory. But this is consistent with the way he has operated. He seems willing to use whatever authority he has to try to advance his own personal interests.

SCIUTTO: George Conway, who is, of course, the husband of Kellyanne Conway, one of the President's senior most advisors, he Tweeted in reaction to this New Yorker story that this would be impeachable if this establishes true. Do you agree?

KILDEE: Well, it certainly fits the pattern of behavior that if confirmed by some of the other facts that we have seen does paint the picture of a president who is out of control. And I think it does make the case that this President is unfit for office, whether it rises to a level that would allow for impeachment, I will just withhold judgment on that until I see the facts.

SCIUTTO: Congressman Dan Kildee, thank you for joining us this morning. KILDEE: All right. Thank you.

SCIUTTO: Right now, as we speak, in Venezuela, protests and the country's self-declared interim president Juan Guaido sending a bold message by joining those demonstrators. We'll be live on the ground, coming up.

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[10:25:00]

[10:27:46] SCIUTTO: Right now, these are live pictures here. Crowds of protesters gathering in Caracas, Venezuela, waiting for the country's self-declared interim president, Juan Guaido, to return home there. And a message just posted to Twitter, Guaido says that he is on his way back to Venezuela telling supporters, quote, we are stronger than ever.

CNN's Patrick Oppmann is live in Caracas. And this sets up quite a standoff, returning to the country in defiance of the sitting president, Nicolas Maduro. What do you expect to happen?

PATRICK OPPMANN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, people are waiting here any moment for Juan Guaido to arrive. We still don't know officially yet if he is in the country. But I have talked to some of his representatives here and they say that he will be here as soon as possible and that will have a galvanizing effect if that does take place on this crowd. We've got here about an hour ago, Jim, and there were not many people.

And you start to see as far as you can see people on all the streets coming into this main central plaza in Caracas. They are closing down traffic. People are arriving. The opposition told us to expect tens of thousands of people to arrive. But certainly, thousands are already here and there is a lot of excitement and expectation because, once again, if Juan Guaido is able to enter the country and able to come here and speak in front of this crowd against the government, that would be an act of defiance that will resonate across this country.

SCIUTTO: Has the Maduro government made clear how it will react to that act of defiance, because it is quite a challenge to Maduro's leadership?

OPPMANN: They really are stuck between a rock and a hard place. Nicolas Maduro has said in interviews that Juan Guaido is violating the law, that he is not the president as he has declared himself to be of Venezuela. And that by leaving the country illegally, Maduro said that perhaps Guaido will have to face justice.

But, again, it all just comes down to political calculations. If they arrest Guaido, the crowd will be galvanized, that they - across this country, they have been called for two days. People will react very, very strongly. The united states will react very, very strongly. And you'd expect more sanctions. And the rural community, once again, coalesce behind Juan Guaido. If they don't arrest him, Jim, that makes Maduro look weak. There are obviously some in this government that wish that he'd arrested Guaido some weeks back.