Return to Transcripts main page


Virginia Schools Shut Down Over Racially Charged Threats; Mueller Report Release Imminent?; White House Declares ISIS Caliphate 100 Percent Defeated. Aired 3-3:30p ET

Aired March 22, 2019 - 15:00   ET



KYLIE ATWOOD, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY REPORTER: Well, that's the question, because there weren't actually any new sanctions announced today by the White House or by Treasury.

In fact, yesterday, there were some newly reimposed sanctions, but they fell under existing sanction authorities, meaning that it was just the U.S. maintaining what it has already been trying to do, put pressure on North Korea, really squeeze North Korea economically, right?

And so a senior administration official just yesterday telling reporters that this was not something that was upping the ante in terms of pressure and sanctions on North Korea, but it was maintaining the U.S. stance that North Korea will continue to be sanctioned if they are not going to denuclearize.

Now, of course, the thing to consider here, however, is that the administration has continually said that these sanctions are only as effective as how they are implemented, calling out China specifically for allowing leakage in these sanctions that are currently in place.

So, now, if the U.S. starts to roll back how much it is willing to enforce these sanctions, that's going to cause a lot of questions. Also, in Hanoi, Kim Jong-un was asking for sanctions to come off of North Korea at the table when he met with President Trump, and the administration wouldn't do that then.

So are they changing their posture? And, of course, how does that affect the continuing U.S. trade talks, which are going to be carried out next week, another round of those in Beijing? And how does that impact this decision, this tweet today? What's Treasury going to do? We still don't know yet.

BROOKE BALDWIN, CNN ANCHOR: Quickly, what has Sarah Sanders said about this?

ATWOOD: Well, Sarah Sanders said that the President Trump likes Kim Jong-un, reiterating that they have a good relationship, but didn't exactly say what this tweet meant, and what -- if it was referencing what we saw yesterday, these additional sanctions under existing authorities on two Chinese entities.

BALDWIN: OK, Kylie Atwood, thank you very much.

Joining me to discuss, Rear -- retired Rear Admiral John Kirby. He's also a former State Department spokesman.

So, admiral, nice to see you, sir.


BALDWIN: Let's just -- piggybacking off of this reporting on -- or not reporting -- this tweet on North Korea, this is coming just one day after the president made that major policy change on Israel via tweet.

I know a lot of his supporters appreciate his transparency over Twitter. But is this any way to conduct foreign policy?

KIRBY: It is if you want to convince the world that we don't have a cohesive foreign policy and that we're not interested in consulting allies, partners or even other federal agencies before we enact these kinds of policies.

BALDWIN: But other than that, no big deal.

KIRBY: Yes, right.

It's a dangerous way to do diplomacy, because it conveys to the world and, frankly, to his team that these aren't well-thought-out ideas, and that there's no plan going in to them in terms of implementation and execution across the board.

BALDWIN: This also comes after that last summit in Hanoi ended with Trump walking away -- by the way, give the man credit. He was being handed a terrible deal.

KIRBY: Right.

BALDWIN: But no major accomplishments there.

So, what message with the sanctions send to Kim?

KIRBY: Yes, it's going to be really, I think, interesting to see how this plays out over the next few hours, Brooke.

I mean, certainly, there's a couple of people that are going to -- Kim might receive this as, OK, maybe Trump's willing to do on sanctions and lighten up and maybe he's doing this to try to get me to do something at the table on my own -- on my own side.

The Chinese are going to look at this, and also going to wonder what's going on in the context of the trade talks that are going on right now. So it's unclear why he did this. Clearly, he did it on a whim and without much strategy behind it. But it sends a message to both Kim and to President Xi that, again, the United States is unpredictable, we're unreliable and we don't have a really cohesive set of principles guiding our way forward in either set of talks.

BALDWIN: All right, so this is the forum policy tweet today. The foreign policy tweet yesterday was about the Golan Heights.

And I just want to ask you specifically about this move by President Trump to recognize the Golan Heights as Israeli territory, because, in an interview with the Christian Broadcasting Network, his secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, said that it is possible God sent Donald Trump to save the Jewish people. Here he was.


QUESTION: Could it be that President Trump right now has been sort of raised for such a time as this, just like Queen Esther, to help save the Jewish people from an Iranian menace?

MIKE POMPEO, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: As a Christian, I certainly believe that's possible. To see the remarkable history of the faith in this place, and the work that our administration has done to make sure that this democracy in the Middle East, that this Jewish state remains, I'm confident that the lord is it at work here.


BALDWIN: Do these kind of declarations, Admiral, do they make it impossible for the U.S. to be an impartial negotiator in the Middle East?


KIRBY: We already are -- it's impossible already that we will be seen as impartial in this.

We have already put our thumb on the scale so heavily on the side of Israel with respect to Middle East peace, that we have no credibility really as anything but a partial participant in this.

That said, what really bothers me about what the secretary said was the implication for our larger foreign policy around the world. When you couch what we're doing in the world of diplomacy, around the world, in Judeo-Christian values alone, you make it very hard for us to speak credibly about religious freedom and civic freedoms to groups of people around the world who do not subscribe to that faith.

It's one thing to be a person of faith in the Cabinet. That's perfectly fine. But when you slap that faith onto the actual policies that you're trying to implement, I think you make it very hard for the United States to be seen as credible around the world.

BALDWIN: We talk about impartiality or not. President Trump what was asked -- he was asked if the decision to tweet that had anything to do with Netanyahu's reelection campaign coming up, you know, in, what, two weeks, so this is what he told FOX Business.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I wouldn't even know about that. I wouldn't even know about that. I have no idea. I hear he's doing OK. I don't know if he's doing great right now, but I hear he's doing OK.

But I would imagine the other side, whoever's against him, is also in favor of what I just did. Every president has said, do that. I'm the one that gets it done.


BALDWIN: So Trump is hosting Prime Minister Netanyahu at the White House next week. There are these posters on buildings in Israel supporting Netanyahu's reelection.

So it seems like there are two bad answers for why he wouldn't know. One, he's lying, or, two, he's totally unaware.

KIRBY: It strains credulity, Brooke, that he doesn't have an idea of how his friend Bibi is doing in the run-up to the election.

And, clearly, whether he says it or not, I mean, this is clearly putting, again, the thumb on the scale, not just in favor now of the government of Israel, but the current serving prime minister. And that's a dangerous place for the United States to be, which is why we always tried not to do that, particularly in the weeks leading up to a local election.

You want to do nothing, say nothing and try to make sure that you're not impacting that process, that democratic process at all. But it goes beyond just helping his friend, Bibi, Brooke. This is about definitely coming down on the side of the right wing in Israel, in favor of not just the Golan Heights annexation, but eventual sovereignty over the West Bank settlements.

The message that Trump and his team is sending to the people of Israel is, we are solidly behind the right wing in that party, not just Netanyahu. And we're going to look the other way if you go ahead and try to exert sovereignty over the West Bank, which would, of course, completely blow up any scrap of a chance that you're going to get to a two-state solution here and do the right thing by the Palestinians.

BALDWIN: Yes, it's that bigger picture message.

KIRBY: It is.

BALDWIN: I hear you. I hear you.

Admiral Kirby, appreciate you. Thank you.

KIRBY: You bet. Thank you.

BALDWIN: Also new today, the White House declaring that the ISIS caliphate in Syria has been 100 percent defeated, but as that statement was made aboard Air Force One, CNN was seeing heavy fire with ISIS fighters.

CNN senior international correspondent Ben Wedeman has been in Eastern Syria for the past seven weeks.

So, you tell me, does that match what you're seeing, Ben?

BEN WEDEMAN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: No, I'm afraid not. I really wish we could agree with the president that the caliphate has been 100 percent defeated.

But for the last four hours, we have heard steady airstrikes, more than a dozen, in addition to a lot of small-arms fire coming from what is albeit a very small bit of land.

At the bottom of the hill behind me, you can't see it because it's so dark, but we have been watching this fighting ongoing for hours now. And even the Syrian Democratic Forces, they say that the president's statement does not contradict what they -- what they have said, but they went on to add that they're still out there -- there are still those who have not given up.

What we heard earlier in the day from a spokesman from the Syrian Democratic Forces is that there are hundreds of holdouts, jihadis and their families and their children, who are still hiding in tunnels and caves on the mountainside behind me. And the women and children are being used as human shields.

Here, you can just hear a blast behind me right now.

And that those jihadis who are left inside, they say, are going to fight to the death. So, the battle is ongoing. Certainly, what we have seen over the last few weeks is that the amount of territory controlled by ISIS has shrunk dramatically, down to really just a tiny speck on the map.

But there is still fighting ongoing. The fight is not over. It's almost over, but not yet -- Brooke.

BALDWIN: Ben, let me ask you, because we are hearing those blasts.

Did I just see a flare behind you? What exactly is going on?


WEDEMAN: Probably what you saw behind me was a -- there were flares earlier in the day.

But what you were saying earlier, just a moment ago, they're tracers. It's heavy machine gun fire that's coming not only from the Syrian Democratic Forces, but we have seen return fire as well.

So there continues to be resistance by the ISIS jihadis, as we expected, to the last breath, that some of them would fight. That's despite the fact that over the last four or five weeks, we have seen thousands of jihadis surrender. We have spoken with many of them. We spoken with many of their wives as well.

They continue to hold fast to the ideology of ISIS. But ISIS, as a territorial entity, as a so-called caliphate, is in its final days, if not final hours.

And, as I have been saying, they're not finished yet -- Brooke.

BALDWIN: We hear you.

Ben Wedeman, thank you so much, so many weeks there in Eastern Syria. We appreciate you and your coverage and shining a light on this part of the world.

Coming up next: President Trump weighs in on the Mueller report, as we get new clues that its release may be imminent, and gives a confusing closing argument.

Plus, schools in Charlottesville, Virginia, closed for a second day now after the district received racially charged threats online. Moments ago, police announced an arrest.

And, later, I will talk to the ex-wife of Rob Porter. He was a former top White House aide and current Trump campaign official who was accused by her and another woman of domestic abuse -- what she thinks about his latest effort to wade back into the public eye.



BALDWIN: Now to a rare sighting of the man the White House, Washington, the world is waiting on, special counsel Robert Mueller, seen here arriving to the office on Thursday.

And our team is noting he did not leave for lunch, which is his usual M.O. Is the change in routine a sign of something bigger, like the completion of his report on the Russia investigation?

Our Kaitlan Collins noted these indications of a investigation winding down. She notes special counsel prosecutors bringing family into the office visit, staff carrying out boxes, and a serious drop in staffing, with attorneys going from 16 to 10.

Read that as you may.

In the meantime, President Trump continues to do what he can to discredit whatever findings the Mueller report will give, saying this today to FOX Business about the man who authorized Robert Mueller to actually do his job some 675 days ago, yes, keeping count, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein.


TRUMP: A deputy that didn't get any votes appoints a man that didn't get any votes. He's going to write a report on me. I had one of the greatest election victories in history.

Now I have a man that, because we have an attorney general who nobody can even believe that he didn't tell me, but he recused himself. So I have a man who was a deputy, who I don't know, who I didn't know at all, and he appoints a man who had just left my office. I didn't give him the job at the FBI. I have a deputy appoints a man to write a report on me to make a

determination on my presidency? People will not stand for it.


BALDWIN: With me now, CNN legal analyst Elie Honig, who was an assistant U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, and Elliot Williams, former deputy assistant attorney general and former assistant director at ICE.

So, Elie and Elliot, back with me today. Good to see you guys.

Elie, just starting with you.

When you hear the president kept referencing that deputy, that deputy is someone he appointed.

ELIE HONIG, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Yes, it's just another, I think, fairly transparent attempt to discredit DOJ, to discredit anyone who might dare speak a word against him.

I mean, let's get to facts here. First of all, no prosecutor receives votes in the federal system. Every federal prosecutor is appointed, U.S. attorney's, A.G. and everyone in between.

Rod Rosenstein is a lifelong Republican, appointed by a Republican who was appointed by Donald Trump. In fact, Rosenstein was a direct appointment of Donald Trump. So this is all just more muddying of the political picture.

BALDWIN: And, by the way, all the spin. Of course, we have been hearing this president, witch-hunt, no collusion, everything he said about all things Mueller.

Is it possible this report comes out and it vindicates him, right, it's not at all what so many people are thinking it could be, and, therefore, how does the White House like un-spin that spin?


I mean, in terms -- when you think of vindication, what does that actually mean? I think a lot of people in America won't be satisfied if this isn't a full exoneration of the president that says the president did nothing, no collusion, nothing to see here, or, if it isn't, the president of the United States needs to be in handcuffs today.

It'll be neither of those things. And, ideally, it'll be the truth. And it'll be facts. And we can have faith that Robert Mueller, as a seasoned career professional and so on, will put together a solid report.

This is one of the rare instances in public life where the views of the president of the United States just don't matter. Like, laws and regulations set up the special counsel, they set up the chain of command that's overseeing it. Now, the president can spout on all he wants about deputies and so on, but it's irrelevant. It just doesn't matter.

BALDWIN: All right. Once we find out, whenever that is, in a second, in a week, in a day, I don't know, when this Mueller report is complete, what are -- then gets handed over to the A.G., Bill Barr? What are the consequential decisions that he has to face?

HONIG: Yes, so that's going to be a huge moment.

Even if we don't see the report immediately, even if all we learn is the report has been transmitted from Mueller to Barr. Now it's all eyes on Barr. He has several enormous decisions to make.


First, is he going to give an advanced copy to the White House and give them a chance to object on executive privilege? White House lawyers have said they expect to have that opportunity.

BALDWIN: Of his report, as in Bill Barr's?

HONIG: Barr will send Mueller's report over, say, do you object to anything here?

BALDWIN: Mueller's entire report, right.

HONIG: Then, if they do object -- and I think they will -- is Barr going to agree with them? Or is he going to fight that?

If he says, I disagree with your assertions of executive privilege, that leads us into the courts. Then Barr has the decision of, what is he going to provide to Congress? He must provide to Congress an explanation of any time when he overruled Mueller.

And that's going to be interesting, because if Mueller ever wanted to subpoena somebody, including the president, and was told no by the A.G., that has to be reported to Congress. If Mueller wanted to charge anyone, and Mueller -- and Barr or any of the predecessor A.G.s, Sessions or Whitaker, said no, that has to be reported to Congress.

That's all he has to report. Then he has a huge amount of discretion. He may choose to provide really anything else he wants.

BALDWIN: You have a prop. Thank you, John Berman.


BALDWIN: Shout out to John Berman for having this Ken Starr Whitewater report, right, because now Mueller is existing -- Elliot, this is for you -- under the new set of rules or laws, regulations.

So will it be as thorough? Is there any indication of what he's provided thus far that it will be, or no? WILLIAMS: It's highly unlikely that you would get this, just because the statute required it. I believe the original independent statute, independent counsel statute that Ken Starr was under, it required him to testify before Congress. He was giving press releases and so on.

So it was, in general, just a more public matter. I don't think you will see that. Now, I do think ,as we were chatting about before, the big action is going to be in Congress generally as this moves on with the oversight requests.


WILLIAMS: And so the moment we hear that something's turned over, I think Congress starts trying to preserve documents and get the testimony and getting people to testify, maybe even preparing subpoenas, to find out what would have been in a report like this if they were to put one together.

BALDWIN: They are the body charged with the power of holding the president accountable.

WILLIAMS: Right. And they are a co-equal branch of government.

And no matter how much the president tries to diminish their status, say -- they're equals in the eyes of our Constitution, and we need to remember that as we go into this process.

BALDWIN: Elie and Elliot, thank you guys very much.

HONIG: Thank you.

BALDWIN: Moments ago, police in Charlottesville, Virginia, announced an arrest for racially charged threats that have shut down schools for two days. We will tell you who's behind that.

And we are watching the Dow today, down more than 300 points in this last hour of trading. We will explain why analysts are worried a recession is on the horizon.

We will be right back.



BALDWIN: Police say they now know who is behind those racially charged threats that shut down city schools in Charlottesville, Virginia.

They have arrested a 17-year-old boy and charged him with a felony for allegedly making vile threats targeting black and Hispanic kids, 17.

The posts originally surfaced online Wednesday, forcing school closures both today and yesterday. And this all comes at a time, of course, when Charlottesville is still reeling from those racial wounds of the deadly white nationalist rally, when a counterprotester was killed a couple summers ago.

Today, police made it clear hate is not welcome in their town.


RASHALL BRACKNEY, CHARLOTTESVILLE, VIRGINIA, POLICE CHIEF: Hate is not welcomed in Charlottesville. Violence is not welcomed in Charlottesville. Intolerance is not welcomed in Charlottesville.

And in Charlottesville and around the globe, we stand firmly in stating there are not very fine people on both sides of this issue.


BALDWIN: With me now, Phillip Thompson. He serves on Virginia's NAACP Executive Committee.

And, Phillip, good to see you, sir. Welcome back.

Can we just -- I just want your reaction to hearing this police chief, Brackney, saying what she did about, there is -- the two sides comment, sending a message to the White House with that, it seems?

PHILLIP THOMPSON, NAACP EXECUTIVE COMMITTEE: Well, it's interesting that they say that hate is not welcome members in Virginia, but there's no hate crime bill in Virginia to prosecute someone for a hate-related offense or a hate-related crime.

And that's a concern. We have the governor and attorney general who have both been in trouble for their own racially charged incidents. And neither one has spoke up about coming up with an effective hate crime bill, something the state of Virginia doesn't have and they should have in place.

BALDWIN: How do you think what you're speaking of, this sort of bill, would have made a difference with the schools and threats in Charlottesville?

THOMPSON: Well, it's not so much directly probably with this incident, but it would add -- depending on how the bill would be structured, it would add a kicker on there.

So if the defense was for making threats, but if they were racially tinged threats, then the bill would add additional time for that. And we saw that in the case of the Crying Nazi, where he received punishment.

But had there been a hate crime bill for what he had done, he would have got additional punishment added on to that, to what he got.

BALDWIN: I want to read this quote. I was reading this story in "The Washington Post" this morning.

And this 18-year-old who's a senior at the school says: "We're still allowing this kind of racism in our school." She says: "It's making it seem like it's OK for whoever posted that to say that, to feel that way. It's because of racism and because we haven't dealt with this that this person decided to post this."

That we haven't dealt with this. I mean, you and I have talked several times over about what's been going on in Virginia with regard to the governor and the lieutenant governor and blackface and that kind of thing.

And I'm just wondering. I mean, it's not been dealt with, clearly.