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Father of Sandy Hook Victim Dies By Apparent Suicide; Will Public See Mueller Report?; Michael Avenatti Charged. Aired 3-3:30p ET

Aired March 25, 2019 - 15:00   ET



BROOKE BALDWIN, CNN ANCHOR: You also talk about the clues, that Mueller sprinkled all these bread crumbs in his previous court filings, and yet now no resolution?


And this is why I think you're going to see Democrats continue to really push for the release of the full report. You know, we don't even know how long or comprehensive the report really is.

But, you know, we have seen Mueller seemingly draw our attention to these very specific and unnecessarily specifically worded phrases in many of his court documents, including remember that famous bread crumb he left us where he said, after Donald trump made his "Russia, if you're listening comment" on the campaign trail, that actually the Russian GRU military intelligence hackers returned to their office that night to target Hillary Clinton's server for the first time.

And that, when -- myself and many others were drawn to that comment when it came out in the GRU indictment by Mueller, thinking that Mueller was sort of casting some sort of future clue there. And, again, we're sort of left with this dangling thread, not really understanding what the significance was of why Bob Mueller bothered to call this out.

BALDWIN: Thus your millions of questions. I could keep going. You asked so many other great ones.

Garrett Graff, you are excellent. Thank you so much for just some of those -- highlighting some of those.

And we're going to come back to this the Mueller report and the Barr report here in just a moment, but, first, let's continue on.

Top of the hour. You're watching CNN. I'm Brooke Baldwin.

We continue with this breaking news regarding attorney Michael Avenatti, who has represented adult film star Stormy Daniels in that whole hush money scandal involving the president. He has now been charged. He, Michael Avenatti, has been charged with extortion, bank fraud and wire fraud. So, prosecutors in both New York and California announcing these

charges moments ago. Keep in mind, these are two totally separate cases, all this coming down on him today. New York prosecutors first announced Avenatti had been arrested this morning on charges related to this alleged $20 million scheme to extort Nike.

And then moments later, federal prosecutors in California announced the bank and wire fraud charges.


NICK HANNA, U.S. ATTORNEY, CENTRAL DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA: The federal criminal complaint charges Mr. Avenatti with wire fraud and bank fraud and contains a series of allegations that paint an ugly picture of lawless conduct and greed.

On his Twitter account, Mr. Avenatti describes himself as -- quote -- "attorney, advocate, fighter for good" -- unquote. But the allegations in this case describe something different, a corrupt lawyer who instead fights for his own selfish interests by misappropriating close to a million dollars that rightfully belonged to one of his clients.


BALDWIN: All right, so standing by for legal analysis, I have got Renato Mariotti, CNN legal analyst.

But, Nick Watt, let me start with you there in Los Angeles.

So, you heard from the U.S. attorney there. Talk to me about the charges he faces in California specifically.

NICK WATT, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Brooke, we have learned a lot more about those charges within the past hour. We were told by that U.S. attorney that the maximum statutory sentence for all the charges Avenatti is facing in this case, that would be 50 -- 5-0 -- years in jail.

Now, of course, that attorney and the IRS investigators were asked about the timing of this arrest. Now, the arrest warrant was issued on Friday, the same day that the Mueller report dropped. They were asked, is there a connection? The answer, an adamant no.

They say that this investigation into Michael Avenatti began way back in 2015, and it was a tax payroll investigation, which, in 2017, became criminal. Now, the allegations against him are that he lied to try and get more than $4 million in loans from a bank for his various commercial entities, that he also lied to an IRS agent, and that he in fact didn't file any personal tax returns at all for three years, while at the same time lying to this bank about how much he had paid in tax.

Now, the other string to this bow is the fact that, allegedly, Michael Avenatti won a settlement back in 2017 for a client he was representing in an intellectual property case. He won a settlement of $1.6 million. He then apparently showed that client a falsified settlement document which said the money would be paid in March 2018.

In fact, the prosecutors alleged Avenatti got $1.6 million in January of 2018, and he used that money, which rightfully belonged to his client, he used a lot of that money for that for his personal and business expenses.


Now, the IRS investigator called that -- he said it's difficult to imagine a greater betrayal of trust. So, those are the charges that Michael Avenatti is facing here in California.

But, as you say, Brooke, two different investigations that were apparently unrelated, but they do concede that they did coordinate between the two investigations in order to arrest Michael Avenatti in New York today -- Brooke.

BALDWIN: Nick Watt, thank you for the story in California.

Let's go the story and the next case in New York. We just listened to the U.S. attorney, Geoff Berman, a moment ago from the Southern District of New York detailing what charges now, what they dug up on Avenatti, what he's charged with.

And so this is all tied, Renato, to this extortion plot against Nike. Take a listen.


GEOFFREY BERMAN, U.S. ATTORNEY, SOUTHERN DISTRICT OF NEW YORK: Through the alleged course of contact, Avenatti used legal terms like claims and settlements and retainers, but these were mere devices to provide cover for Avenatti's extortionate demands for a massive payday for himself.

By engaging in the conduct alleged in the complaint, Avenatti was not acting as an attorney. A suit and tie doesn't mask the fact that, at its core, this was an old-fashioned shakedown.


BALDWIN: So, Renato, here's my first question. Out of Mr. Berman's mouth saying that this was, first line out of his mouth, this is not aggressive advocacy, perhaps anticipating what Michael Avenatti's defense may be.

How effective, though, might that actually be and how much of a slam dunk is this case?

RENATO MARIOTTI, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Well, the Southern District of New York case is not a slam dunk.

In fact, there's a difficult legal line between aggressively negotiating to get a settlement and extortion. Now, Mr. Avenatti appears to have crossed that line, if the allegations that were made by the Southern District of New York are accurate. And really to me the turning point there is that he seems to be seeking money for himself for this investigation that he was going to be doing, as opposed to just seeking anything for his client that would be focusing on what his client would want.

But it is often the case that, in a negotiation, there's going to be -- about claims, there's going to be very aggressive tactics that are used and courts are very reluctant to characterize that as extortion.

I will use, for example, Jeff Bezos went online, the founder of Amazon, and talked about how he had these negotiations with the parent company of "National Enquirer," and I said publicly I didn't think that that was criminal.

But here, Mr. Avenatti has crossed the line. But there's definitely a defense there. The other case that we just heard about in California, not so much.

BALDWIN: Well, hang on. Let me go -- so the New York case, when I was listening to Geoff Berman detailing it, at the point where clearly, according to the complaint, one of the Nike lawyers was wearing the wire and gets all this, you know, we will call it colorful language from Mr. Avenatti, Michael Avenatti at one point just says, OK, just pay me $22.5 million and I will just ride off into the sunset.

If you're Michael Avenatti, how do you defend yourself?

MARIOTTI: What you would have to say is that, somehow, there's a claim against Nike and you were trying -- this was going to end up, you know, resolving that in some way.

The problem for Mr. Avenatti is that that doesn't appear to be strongly related to a claim. In other words, what typically you have is a settlement negotiation where you're representing a client that has a claim and then you're trying to get money for that client.

Now, you could be aggressive and say you're client's going to go public, is about to go public or file a complaint tomorrow unless you pay X-amount of dollars. But here it seems like very much in the conversations that Mr. Avenatti is focused on enriching himself.

But Mr. Avenatti at least in court in front of a jury would be able to argue that it was an aggressive negotiation. He's a lawyer. He has, I think, an argument to make there. And that I think is very -- it stands in stark contrast to the other case that you just spoke about earlier.

BALDWIN: OK, in California.

Renato, stand by for me, because I want to go from one massive legal case to another.

So the other huge story today, this four-page letter from the attorney general signals the end of the Mueller investigation and likely the start of an entirely new political battle. The White House is seizing on the news that Mueller didn't find any evidence of collusion or conspiracy between the Trump campaign and Russia.

They are even taking it a step further, claiming that the president was also cleared of any potential obstruction.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Lasted a long time. We're glad it's over. It's 100 percent the way it should have been.

RUDY GIULIANI, ATTORNEY FOR PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: In cataloging the president's actions, many of which took place in public view, the report identifies no action that, in our judgment, that's Rosenstein and Barr, constitute obstructive contract. That's a complete exoneration by the attorney general and Rod Rosenstein.


SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: They made a decision there was no obstruction. So that makes it a complete and total exoneration.


BALDWIN: Now, we should point this out, that Bob Mueller did not write that in his report.

This was Bill Barr, the attorney general, and Rod Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general, who decided that there was not enough evidence to prosecute Trump when it came to obstruction of justice.

But Mueller is a bit less definitive. So, let me just read for you this excerpt from the attorney general's letter.

The special counsel states that -- quote -- "While this report doesn't conclude that the president committed a crime, it doesn't exonerate him" -- end quote.

And one more thing in the Barr letter, it is his summary of the Mueller report. So, most lawmakers, the general public and even some in the White House haven't even seen the full thing.

But if Jerry Nadler, who is the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, gets his way, they will.


REP. JERROLD NADLER (D), NEW YORK: President Trump is wrong. This report does not amount to a so-called total exoneration.

The attorney general's comments make it clear that Congress must step in to get the truth and provide full transparency to the American people.


BALDWIN: CNN's Pamela Brown is in Washington for us. She covers the White House.

And, Pamela, the president said again today he wouldn't mind if the public sees the Mueller report, saying that Mueller acted honorably, which is certainly a far cry from words of witch-hunt and no collusion, which we had heard for months and months.

What's next in this whole process?


We know that the attorney general, Brooke, is currently scrubbing Mueller's confidential report, working with Robert Mueller. That process has been under way since over the weekend to see what else can be released.

And just sort of reading through this memo, the attorney general may clear he is mindful of grand jury information, classified information and making sure that is not released publicly.

But when it comes from obstruction of justice, which is the part of the memo from the attorney general that is really complicated, because you had Mueller saying he didn't commit a crime, but he has not been exonerated, and Barr basically saying, we don't believe he met that threshold of -- there was not enough evidence to prove he obstructed justice.

That's an area where they very well could be releasing more information, because, to our understanding, that doesn't have to do with grand jury testimony. A lot of this is what the president has already said publicly. If you read the memo, it's -- a lot of it's already out there.

To our knowledge, Mueller's investigators did interview people on obstruction of justice, but they did not go in front of the grand jury to testify. So it's not protected under the grand jury secrecy rules.

And so we could be learning more about what Mueller found in his argument, the evidence on both sides of the case, as it has to do with obstruction.

But the Democrats have made clear, Brooke, they're not going to accept anything short of the full Mueller report and the underlying documents. So this very well could end up in a subpoena fight, with Democrats issuing a subpoena for the full report.

And I just spoke to a White House official today who said, if the Democrats do that, the White House is ready. It has been preparing for this for quite some time for this possibility. And it's also worth noting, Brooke, that Bill Barr likely knew that one day Mueller's report could be made public through a court order.

And so that is why -- I was talking to one person who is close to Barr, close to the process, who said that is likely why Barr included that line for Mueller's team not exonerating Trump on obstruction, because he knows that he can't hide anything, because one day this could all be made public.

BALDWIN: Which is precisely what many people in the country hope for and, as we started out, even the president says it's OK to do that.

Pamela Brown, thank you very much.

Obviously, lot to discuss, including why Mueller would not make this decision on obstruction.

Plus, we will talk about how the Democrats are moving forward with their own investigations now and whether, as we were just discussing, this report will be released at all.



BALDWIN: We're back. You're watching CNN. I'm Brooke Baldwin.

The White House taking a victory lap today after special counsel Robert Mueller's conclusion that the president and his associates did not collude with Russia to interfere in that 2016 presidential election.

The president, who has spent the past two years, mind you, calling the investigation a witch-hunt and labeling Mueller as conflicted, is now changing this tune.


QUESTION: Did Robert Mueller act honorably?

TRUMP: Yes, he did. Yes, he did.


BALDWIN: Gloria Borger is our chief political analyst here at CNN. Michael Smerconish is a CNN political commentator and host of CNN's "SMERCONISH." And Renato Mariotti is back with us, our CNN legal analyst.

So, Renato, let me just kick things off to you with -- we also learned today -- this is Laura Jarrett -- kudos to her -- over at the Justice Department that Barr knew three weeks ago that Mueller wouldn't reach a conclusion on obstruction.

So it wasn't like he just found out over the weekend. This was three weeks. What does that signal to you?

MARIOTTI: It's really interesting,because what it does mean is that he had more than just a couple days to reach that conclusion that he did.

In other words, one of the media takeaways that I had from looking at his letter is that Bob Mueller spent two years marshaling evidence and pondering it and didn't reach a conclusion on obstruction. And Attorney General Barr kind of reached a decision in two days. So what it tells me is, he had three weeks. He mentioned in the letter that he spoke to other officials, and he said that he reviewed the report.

One thing that I would be interested in knowing over the -- those three weeks is, did he review the evidence? Did he just talk to some of the agents who in on interviews? Did he really dig into the underlying information before reaching that conclusion?


Because, frankly, he's somebody who's had a history on that issue. He maybe appeared as -- he would certainly be somebody who would have an appearance of bias, not exactly the ideal person to be making that determination.

So how we went about that process, I think, is very important.

BALDWIN: All right, Renato Mariotti, thank you so much.

Gloria and Michael, let me just dig deeper with the two of you here.

And so I keep hearing -- this is the best way it was explained to me, this football analogy, right, and the fact that Barr, Gloria -- did Barr intercept what's already been perceived as this Mueller punt when it comes to obstruction, right, that Barr intercepted the Mueller punt to Congress?

GLORIA BORGER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: No, I think he intercepted it and he ran with it himself.


BORGER: Because we saw -- we saw in his letter that he said, well, clearly, a decision was not made about exoneration or whether the president committed a crime. So, therefore, he said that, Rod Rosenstein and I have concluded that there's not sufficient evidence to establish that the president committed an obstruction of justice crime.

So he took it. He clearly consulted with Rosenstein and perhaps others about it. The question that I have is -- and that's why I think you need to get into the report -- is why Mueller could not come to a conclusion. Was there disagreement?

BALDWIN: That's the million-dollar question. That's the million- dollar question.

BORGER: Was there agreement among the attorneys? Was it because he didn't interview the president?

You know, was there -- was it because he knew that, in fact, if he had charged obstruction, he wasn't going to be able to uphold it in court? So we don't -- we really -- we don't know the answer to that. So we're scratching our heads and I hope we get the answer soon. BALDWIN: Michael, what do you think?

MICHAEL SMERCONISH, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: So I will stick with your football analogy.


SMERCONISH: And I would say that the ball was caught by Barr, but he lateraled to Rod Rosenstein.


SMERCONISH: And this is one of the lingering questions that I have. The key, key milestone moments along the way in any potential obstruction case would certainly include the firing of Jim Comey.

Don't forget the fact that the paper trail was provided by Rod Rosenstein, handed over to Jeff Sessions, who was then the attorney general, who then provided the cover letter to the president of the United States that was the paper justification for the firing of Comey.

I have said for months, that when this probe would end, I don't know how Rod Rosenstein -- I thought he'd perhaps be still in the acting capacity for Sessions. But how could he be a determiner of fact in this case, or legal conclusion, the obstruction issue, when he was a fact witness, he was a participant in that process?

So I would like to know more as to what exactly was Rod Rosenstein's role, in concert with Bill Barr, in making that determination? I thought for sure he would have to recuse himself from passing judgment on that issue.

BALDWIN: What about something else you said, Michael? We hang on both of your every word when it comes to smart analysis. And you had made this point earlier, that part of Barr's letter says the following.

And I'm quoting: "The" -- with the T capitalized in brackets -- "The investigation did not establish that members of the Trump campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities."

And I highlight the bracket, as you did, because you were making this point that this was an excerpt. This is not a full sentence. And so what is what is your inference there? Why does that matter?

SMERCONISH: Well, I have to say -- OK, I have to say Elie Honig and I together were conspiring as to the meaning of this, and noting that we'd like to see what words preceded it, because it seems like -- it seems like it's an although.


SMERCONISH: My money is on, although blank, blank, blank, blank, blank, the investigation did not establish that members of the Trump campaign conspired or coordinated.

So it's just one example of how we're all trying to parse, we're all trying to Zapruder what went on here with what limited information we have. And we're just not going to be able to put it all together unless we get more right.

BORGER: Right. And the Democrats, of course, are charging that what you see in this document is precisely the cherry-picking of the quotes, and that you can -- we all know that you can cherry-pick quotes.


BORGER: So they want to -- they want to see the whole thing.

And I presume and Barr has said that he's now working with Mueller to figure out what exactly they can reveal, without revealing sources and methods or grand jury testimony or classified information, et cetera, et cetera.

But I think Mueller probably did this knowing full well that, at some point, at some point, this was going to become public.

BALDWIN: Can we talk about when at some point be -- may be? I mean, may it be tomorrow? May it be once Trump's out of office?


I mean, what are -- Michael, what's the over/under on that?

SMERCONISH: I have no idea.

But I want to pick up on something that Gloria just said.


SMERCONISH: If I could know one thing right now, I would like to know what Robert Mueller is thinking.

I would like to know what Robert Mueller thinks of Bill Barr having taken the ball, as you have explained, and rendered a decision where he, Mueller, for whatever reason, wouldn't do so.

Is he cool with that? I'd love to know the answer.

BORGER: But I bet he knew in advance what Barr was likely to do, because don't forget Barr's June 2018 memo, in which he said that the obstruction case was ridiculous.

And so Mueller had to know where Barr stands on obstruction against the president, because he made it -- he made it very clear. And Mueller was acting as a special counsel here, just as a federal prosecutor, effectively.

So what he did, unlike Ken Starr, who was an independent counsel, and had to come to a conclusion, what he did was he just -- he just gave it to Barr. And maybe that's because internally they couldn't come to any decision. We just -- we don't know.


SMERCONISH: Or, if I could say one final thing, is it...


SMERCONISH: Is it that the way in which it was written by Mueller was with the expectation that the Congress would ultimately have to render a decision and not Bill Barr?


BORGER: Well, maybe.

I mean, we don't know. We just -- we don't know. I think Mueller wasn't born yesterday, though. He's been around Washington a long time and he knows that these things tend to be made public.


BORGER: So, it may be pre-scrubbed, and we may see it sooner than we think.

BALDWIN: Gloria and Michael, we will leave it. Guys, thank you so much on all things Mueller. What must he be thinking? No idea.

Breaking news now, multiple rockets sirens going off near the Gaza border, as we learn Israel has hit the office of the leader of Hamas. We will take you there.

Plus, this is just so devastating here, three people who lost loved ones in school shootings in Parkland, Florida, and Newtown, Connecticut, have now taken their own lives in the span of one week.

A father who lost his daughter in the Parkland shooting just held a community meeting about these deaths. Let's talk to him about all of this next.