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Deadly Alabama Tornadoes; Venezuela's Opposition Leader Returns; Congress Ramping Up Trump Investigations. Aired 3-3:30p ET

Aired March 4, 2019 - 15:00   ET

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


[15:00:16]

ERICA HILL, CNN ANCHOR: Top of the hour here on CNN. Thanks for joining us. I'm Erica Hill, in today for Brooke Baldwin.

The congressional committee that is in charge of impeachment proceedings just announced a sweeping investigation of President Trump's administration, campaign, transition, and private businesses.

Eighty-one people and entities are receiving requests for information, among them, the president's two oldest sons, his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and Allen Weisselberg, the chief financial officer for the Trump Organization.

House Judiciary Committee chairman Jerry Nadler says their investigation will be wide-ranging, including whether the president obstructed justice.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REP. JERROLD NADLER (D), NEW YORK: Impeachment is a long way down the road. We don't -- we don't have the facts yet. But we are going to initiate proper investigations.

It's our job to protect the rule of law. That's our core function. And to do that, we are going to initiate investigations into abuses of power, into corruption of just -- into corruption and into obstruction of justice.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

HILL: CNN senior congressional correspondent Manu Raju is on Capitol Hill.

So, Manu, what more do we know about what specifically the committee is seeking?

MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, they're asking for information from 81 individuals tied to the president and entities over the next two weeks.

They want answers to a range of questions, everything ranging from foreign contacts between the Trump campaign and other individuals, as well as financing with the Trump Organization that may have been done with connection to Russia, as well as looking into those hush money payments that occurred back in 2016 and 2017 to silence stories involving alleged affairs involving then candidate Trump, all part of a broader investigation into what they, Democrats believe is abuse of power, is what they believe is corruption and what they believe is obstruction of justice.

They're asking for a whole host of information, including whether or not the president or anybody in the White House dangled pardons over people who were going to flip in turn against the president, including his longtime personal attorney Michael Cohen.

The question is, how much do all these people respond to the line of inquiries, the questions that are being raised by these Democratic chairmen? They are suggesting that, if they don't get responses, you can expect subpoenas, you can expect public hearings or even closed- door transcribed interviews with some of these individuals.

But, nevertheless, this is going to dominate this committee and this investigation for the next several weeks, months and over probably the next two years.

So while impeachment may take some time to take place, this investigation is going to start moving rather rapidly very soon, Erica.

HILL: And this is not the only front on which Democrats are moving rather rapidly.

I know there's some new reporting this afternoon as well about a letter specifically involving translators, and Democrats want answers there.

RAJU: Yes. That's right. This is involving those Trump-Putin talks that have occurred several times over the past two years.

There have been concerns raised mostly by Democrats about the fact that there's been little records and evidence and really information about what Trump and Putin discussed in these closed-door meetings.

Now, according to this letter that was sent from Adam Schiff, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, as well as Eliot Engel, who chairs the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and Elijah Cummings, the House Oversight Committee chairman, they are asking for a number of documents by later this month to explain exactly what happened in that meeting.

They're asking both the White House acting chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, and the secretary of state, Mike Pompeo. In addition, they want -- they want transcribed interviews with staff who are aware of what happened, including translators, American translators, who were at this meeting.

Whether they -- the White House complies with any this, again, another open question, but this is opening up a new front going forward. And the big question Democrats have, did the president destroy any of the notes from those meetings, Erica? HILL: We will be watching for those answers. Manu Raju, appreciate it. Thank you.

President Trump has made it clear he is no fan of most media outlets. A new report out today, though, reveals the president may have tried to interfere with the media merger between Time Warner, the parent company of this network, and AT&T before that deal was done.

"The New Yorker" describing an incident in the West Wing where the president called then Chief of Staff John Kelly and then economic adviser Gary Cohn into the Oval Office and said he wanted the deal blocked and he wanted the Department of Justice to file a lawsuit.

Well, the Justice Department was ultimately unsuccessful in blocking the merger.

CNN chief White House correspondent Jim Acosta joins us now.

So, Jim, is the president's public dislike of CNN really at the heart of this?

JIM ACOSTA, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: It sounds like it, Erica.

And we're going to have to find out what exactly the White House wants to say about this. We have been asking all day. We haven't gotten any kind of response from the White House in response to what is being reported in "The New Yorker."

[15:05:08]

And we can just put the quote up on screen. Apparently, this is what the president said to his top economic adviser, Gary Cohn, at the time about this proposed AT&T merger with Time Warner.

It says in "The New Yorker: "Trump called Gary Cohn into the Oval Office, along with John kelly, the chief of staff, who had just become the chief of staff, and said in exaggeration to Kelly: "I have been telling Cohn to get this lawsuit filed, and I have mentioned it 50 times and nothing's happened. I want to make sure it's filed. I want that deal blocked."

Obviously, we don't have to remind everybody of the president's animus towards CNN. That's been on display for the last several years now. But the fact that it might rise to the level of the president intervening in a in a potential merger between two giant corporations, it really illustrates the extent to which the president may have wanted to go to cause a lot of discomfort over at AT&T, Time Warner, inside the hallways of CNN.

Now, obviously, you just heard Manu Raju talking a few moments ago about some of these congressional investigations that are getting launched into all corners of Trump world. This is potentially an area that Congress may want to look at.

And the House Intelligence Committee chairman, Adam Schiff, noted as much in a tweet that he posted earlier today. He tweeted: "I have long feared Trump will use the instruments of state power to carry out his vendetta against the press he has attacked as the enemy of the people. Congress must find out whether Trump did just that by seeking to interfere in a merger or raising postal rates on Amazon."

That reference to Amazon.com, the shipping a giant of products all over the world, we have seen the president on numerous occasions, Erica, vent his frustrations about Amazon and basically saying he would go after "The Washington Post," which, as we know, is owned by the founder of Amazon, Jeff Bezos.

And so this really goes to some of the fears a lot of people in the media have had for years there, Erica, that the president would try to seek, I guess, his own form of vendetta against news organizations by using the instruments of power.

And this "New Yorker" article really reveals a side of that that perhaps the White House may not want to comment on. And we're waiting to hear from the White House on this. They just haven't commented on just yet, Erica.

HILL: And we know you will keep trying, though, Jim.

ACOSTA: That's right.

HILL: Appreciate it, as always.

ACOSTA: You bet.

HILL: Thank you.

ACOSTA: Sure.

HILL: Well, joining us now, John Avlon, CNN senior political analyst, and Harry Litman, former deputy assistant attorney general.

It's good to have both of you with us.

We have a lot to cover. So it's almost going to be a lightning round, gentlemen, I just want to warn you in advance.

I do want to start, though, with -- I want to start with this letter, because it's one of the most recent things that came out today, this letter asking specifically to speak with the translators, knowing that they had reached out to the White House, haven't heard back, now going to Secretary of State Pompeo.

John, John Avlon, when you read this, when you look at it, what really is going to come out of this? Is it more about putting this out there publicly, so people know what's going on?

JOHN AVLON, CNN POLITICAL CONTRIBUTOR: No, I mean, this is about trying to get answers for one of the many open questions that exist.

The allegation, the reporting that the president confiscated the translator's notes from a one-on-one meeting with Vladimir Putin, whose country obviously is not only a bad actor in the world stage, but by most accounts interfered on the U.S. election Donald Trump's behalf, that's a big deal. That's an open question.

And now, with checks and balances put in place by Democrats controlling the House, they have got the ability to get some answers, potentially. So this is far more than symbolic politics.

HILL: There has been concerned raised, Harry, in the past about whether or not, if the question was raised about ultimately subpoenaing -- putting out a subpoena for translator, the precedent that that could set and that could, in fact, be dangerous.

Lay that out for us. Why?

HARRY LITMAN, FORMER U.S. ATTORNEY: Besides dangerous, I think it's likely to be futile. So I agree it was a big deal, but there's going to be a lot of things here that are going to result in either dry holes or subpoena battles that aren't going to go forward.

The notion that it could be dangerous is, you want a president to be able to talk one-on-one with another leader, if that's what he really desires. Here, though, I think Congress has a legitimate concern and oversight to play. Come on. Why have you done this four or five times? This is so irregular.

HILL: Let's look at this list now, 81 names and organizations. They want answers, saying, listen -- and it was interesting we heard from Jerry Nadler. Impeachment is a long way down the road, he said, but we are looking at corruption, he said, obstruction of justice.

I mean, when you lay all that out, Harry, where does it tell you they're going, especially when you look at the list?

LITMAN: There's nowhere they're not going. It's all the greatest hits and then a few, people whose names we haven't heard in a long time, like Hope Hicks and Corey Lewandowski, the president's inner circle, including his children, names that are still obscure to us.

[15:10:00]

And as Nadler indicated, this is going to be going on right into the election season. So it's very broad. But one thing to keep in mind, many of these won't happen. They will be tied up in subpoena battles. And Congress' record there is checkered. They may never see them.

They have asked for voluntary compliance in the next two weeks. Some of them will say no. Court battles will start. And they will go on for a long time.

HILL: John, 2020 is looming, and we can't ignore that fact.

AVLON: Sure.

HILL: And that then it sort of makes this a delicate dance in some respects for Democrats. AVLON: Look, it does. But I think the idea that this is going to

play out intentionally through 2020 is a mistaken one. This is -- clearly, this is about accountability. This is about getting those subpoenas now the Democrats have subpoena power.

Could it bleed into the cycle? Guess what? The cycle has already begun, folks. But I think Democrats are being very careful about not holding out the goal of impeachment. Why? They're very mindful of the fact that there was blowback to Republicans when they overreached and tried to impeach Bill Clinton, succeeded in impeaching Bill Clinton, in 1998-1999.

So they're going to follow the facts, try to get more information out there, and then let the chips fall where they may. But Nadler already made news on Sunday by saying he believes there's a strong case for obstruction.

HILL: Right.

AVLON: Even ahead of all this additional information and this data.

HILL: The other thing that we're watching today, and this -- I mean, this "New Yorker" reports, some 30 pages, lays out a lot.

But what it lays out and what Jim just laid out for us there in his reporting about this meeting that the president reportedly had in the Oval Office with Gary Cohn and with John Kelly, saying, I want this lawsuit filed. I don't want this deal to happen.

There's a lot in there, John.

AVLON: There is a lot in there. For the president to be saying, as he's quoted in this article, "I want that deal blocked," that is explicit retribution, it appears to be, from the president against a news organization he doesn't like, trying to interfere and put his thumb on the scale using the Department of Justice to block a merger within the private sector.

It's far outside American presidential norms and anything the Republican Party's defended in the past. We will see if there's more fact-finding against that. But that's a serious, serious accusation.

HILL: When you look at that, Harry, where do you think that ultimately goes?

LITMAN: First of all, I couldn't agree more.

Look, we fought a revolution over this. The Trump team is fond of saying, as they just did with security clearances, well, he has the authority to do it. He does not. Nothing shows more clearly. This is an absolute violation of the First Amendment.

Nothing could be more elementary than that the president can't exploit the powers of government to punish his enemies, based on what they say, and to like his friends. Where's it going? It will -- it will be part of the overall package. It won't be a crime, but it is eyebrow-raising in the extreme. It's flatly unconstitutional.

HILL: Harry Litman, John Avlon, appreciate it, gentlemen. Thank you both.

Up next, disturbing new details about just how close the relationship is between the White House and FOX News, including a reported system that the president has to rate the loyalty of FOX hosts.

Plus, massive crowds in Venezuela, as opposition leader Juan Guaido returns to the country, risking his own arrest. We are live for you in Caracas, as the power struggle there comes to a head.

Plus, catastrophic tornadoes in Alabama responsible for at least 23 deaths. And we're just learning one of them, one of the tornadoes, 24-miles-long, packing 170 mile-per-hour winds. Just ahead, you will hear from a woman who barely survived with her family after the roof of their home was torn off.

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[15:17:56]

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Our whole nation mourns for the more than 20 lives lost and for the heartbroken families they leave behind. I got reports on it this morning. And it was absolute devastation.

It was -- it was just terrible. You look at the areas affected, and probably nobody made it out of that path. That path was brutal.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

HILL: President Trump today expressing his condolences for the people of East Alabama after more than a dozen tornadoes ripped through the area on Sunday, killing at least 23 people.

We have learned the most destructive tornado that hit Lee County has now been upgraded to an EF-4 with winds clocked at 170 miles per hour.

The youngest of the victims identified at this point, the 6-year-old boy A.J. Hernandez. His aunt posting a heartbreaking message in which she wrote in part: "He was a little angel from God, and God wanted him back. He was a precious little man that was loved by everyone. I will miss your little smile and your sweet voice and face. He was always eager to give hugs and loved his family."

She goes on to say: "Please continue to pray for us and keep us safe as we travel to Alabama to be with them. They're headed to the children's hospital with his brother. They also lost their home in the tornado with all of their belongings. It will be a rough road, but we will still keep our faith and trust in God. Fly high, A.J. You have your wings."

There are dozens of stories now coming out from people who narrowly escaped the tornadoes with their lives, among them, 72-year-old Earnestine Reese, who was found sitting in the middle of a vast debris field of what once her home. The roof was torn off of her home.

The conversation she had with her grandson just after that storm was captured on video. Take a look.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

EARNESTINE REESE, TORNADO SURVIVOR: I thank the lord.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Oh, my God.

REESE: You tell God, thank you, king, king. You hear me, boy?

You hear me? Tell God thank you.

(LAUGHTER)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

HILL: "Tell God thank you."

[15:20:00]

Lashawn Wilson is Earnestine Reese's daughter, and joins us now on the phone from Beauregard, Alabama.

Lashawn, I know you lost your home as well. It is remarkable, when we see these pictures, the devastation that they show, and that to see your mom there in that video thanking God and even managing a little laugh. I mean, in that moment, I know there's not only relief.

How are you all doing at this point?

LASHAWN WILSON, LOST HOME IN TORNADO: We're holding on.

Our community is devastated. And we have lost many friends and close family in the area and neighbors. But even in that moment, my mom was just able to get out. She was helped by others in the community that had lost family members that came over to help and had screamed if we were here.

And I yelled back to them and I said, yes, we're over here. And by that time, my husband was returning to help as well. And they got her up and was able to get her into the rolling walker chair. And that's where you see her just now getting out of the wreckage, and where everything had piled on top of us.

It's just -- it was devastating. It was devastating.

HILL: You say everything piled on top of you.

So, if you can, just walk us through those moments, because you were in your home as all this happened, as I understand the room is torn off and then you're left under this debris.

WILSON: Yes.

When we first got the alert, my husband was at our home next door, which -- my mom and our neighbors. And he came from the mobile home and walked up to my mother's house. And I called him. And he entered into the house.

And I immediately told my son to go to the bathroom. And my son went into the bathroom and my husband went with him. And my mother's limited mobility, so I had to help transition her to a rolling walker type of chair.

And I pushed her into the bathroom. And not even seconds from -- I looked at the TV, and the TV said -- news stations said 70-mile-per- hour winds. And I was thinking to myself as I go in, OK, we're going to make it through this.

So, I picked up her portable oxygen tank and tried to grab the cat. And that's when you started to hear the roaring wind. And I knew it was close. Then we lost power. I immediately shut off our oxygen machine and ran back to the bathroom.

And as soon as I shut the bathroom door and hooked up her oxygen, that's when everything just was just taken away. I mean, everything -- it made us all fall down. There was pressure, things just piling on top of us in the bathroom.

My mother was closest to the vanity. It's a long, stretch vanity, and there was a glass mirror in the bathroom. And it fell. Everything was taken away. But the vanity stayed.

And when we were taken down and pushing, things piled on top of us, we were just -- my son kept screaming. He said: "I don't want to die. I don't want to die." And I told him. I said: "Pray your way through, son. You got to pray your way through."

And I didn't hear my mom saying anything. And I said: "Mom, are you OK?"

She said -- she said she -- my son -- she said: "Call on Jesus. Just pray, son." She said: "I'm praying right now."

And I said -- I held my son closest to me and I looked. Up and you can just see debris flying all around, just all around us. I mean, it was just complete devastation. Finally, when everything passed over, you know, we were trapped at that moment.

(CROSSTALK)

WILSON: My husband was able to wiggle out, and my son eventually, but my mother and I sustained some damage.

And I knew my leg was injured, but it's going to be OK. But my mom, she's currently in the hospital. But, right at that moment, we just didn't know what was going on around us. We knew we were there. My husband was able to get out, but we were trying to get to my mom.

And we just -- to get her and myself. My husband had to work with tools and shovels and things to move the water heater, which was pushing down on the vanity, which is where my mom was.

HILL: Oh, my goodness.

WILSON: But there was nothing.

(CROSSTALK)

WILSON: And then as my son and my husband leave to go get help, we get another tornado warning, another one that my phone alerted me that there's another warning for our area.

And my mother and I were at -- I just tried to get her to move. And she couldn't. And the next storm wave came through. And I told her. I said, mom -- she kept trying to get up, but she would pass out because it was just too much for her.

(CROSSTALK)

[15:25:03]

HILL: It is such a tough story. It's such a tough story and such a tough picture you paint.

And yet that you have the wherewithal through all of it to look after your mother, to be noticing what's around, and, as you point out, the community immediately going into action and looking out for one another.

Lashawn, we have to leave it there, but we do appreciate you taking the time to join us. We are really relieved to hear that you and your family are OK, that your mom, even though she's in the hospital, is going to be OK. And please keep us posted.

Lashawn Wilson joining us there live from Alabama, thank you.

Up next: The self-proclaimed president of Venezuela is greeted by tens of thousands of supporters as he returns to his country, putting his own personal freedom at risk. We are live in Caracas, with details on what the next move may be from embattled President Nicolas Maduro.

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