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James Comey Says He's "Confused" by Mueller Decision on Obstruction; Venezuela Faces Second Nationwide Blackout in Less Than Two Weeks; Dissident Group Raided North Korean Embassy in Madrid; Puerto Rico Governor Lashes Out at Trump Over Hurricane Recovery; Aired 9:30-10a ET

Aired March 27, 2019 - 09:30   ET


[09:30:53] JIM SCIUTTO, CNN ANCHOR: This morning the man at the center of several obstruction conversations says that Mueller's report confused him. NBC News reporting that the former FBI director James Comey, who you remember the president fired over his handling of the Russia investigation, says, quote, "He can't quite understand why Mueller decided to neither charge nor," and this is clear, or key rather, "to exonerate the president over obstruction."

The Department of Justice now confirming that it will take Attorney General William Barr weeks, not months, to release a fuller version of the Mueller report.

Joining me now is the former federal prosecutor, Laura Coates.

Laura, great to have you on. Let's clear up some things because, of course the president is announcing exoneration on both collusion and obstruction. Let's talk about obstruction because that's the clearest one, there was no exoneration. In fact in the language Mueller said does not exonerate the president.

What does that mean in legal terms and why couldn't Mueller make his own determination or recommendation?

LAURA COATES, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Well, first of all the question as to why he couldn't do so is really the one that has the biggest loose end here. Remember, part of his mandate is actually to reach conclusions and then to hand over a report that explains the conclusions he reached depending on whether he wanted to decline prosecution or he wanted to recommend prosecution, and pursue it.

So it really is difficult -- to actual mandate that he did not, in fact, actually reach a conclusion. He gave it over to someone else to do so. Part of the job of special counsel and a prosecutor is to exercise discretion, to weigh the evidence in favor or against, and come to a conclusion. His choice not to do so is having everyone scratch their heads. We need to have the full context as to why.

The idea of, of course, handing it over and why the president would say he's fully exonerated also should scratch one's head because if I'm the president of the United States, I would not be satisfied if there was clear determinations made with respect to collusion but then everyone left it up in the air for obstruction.

Remember, Nixon had to grapple with obstruction of justice. President Clinton the same thing. It's not a charge was taken lightly at the head of the executive branch. And so by not exonerating and not having it go forward, he's in the same position that James Comey, frankly, left Hillary Clinton in when he said extremely reckless, extremely careless, but not criminal.

SCIUTTO: Yes. Do you think that the special counsel failed by not making that determination?

COATES: You know, it's hard to say why he failed. On the surface, he appears to have failed to reach a conclusion, which was his exact job to do so. However, I had questions. Did he -- was he instructed not pursue it? Was he stonewalled to the point where it was impossible for him to establish whether or not the president had the corrupt intent to have obstruction of justice be a viable claim?

He didn't have an in-person interview. What was the behind-the-scenes discussion that led to him having only written answers? Why that's so important, Jim, is because the only way to really establish someone has corrupt intent is either a direct statement.


COATES: A confession of sorts or circumstantial evidence. And so if he was stonewalled or told not to pursue a subpoena in some way against the president of the United States or opted someone else to do so it's hard to judge his failure.


COATES: On the surface, he's failed to reach a conclusion.

SCIUTTO: Let me ask you then, on the other question. So on collusion, his statement at least as quoted by Bill Barr is clearer, it says, did not establish that the president or his advisors -- I'm paraphrasing -- but did not establish is a direct quote.

From a legal perspective, is that meaningful? Because I've spoken to lawyers on this broadcast who've said that well, from a legal standpoint that means did not reach a prosecutable threshold but does not mean that he didn't find some evidence of that conspiracy or cooperation?

COATES: That's exactly right. The standard by which you judge the amount of evidence is not in the absolute of either there was nothing or there was so much we had to prosecute. A prosecutor has to look at the spectrum and say to themselves, well, where does it fall on our ability to prove a case beyond a reasonable doubt? If the evidence does not meet over that hump, then they obviously will not pursue it because you do not want to have either pie in your face or have insufficient evidence to go forward with the case.

[09:35:03] So it sounds like it's a matter of there was not the evidence needed to get over that hurdle. It does not, however, translate to me today that there has been no scintilla of evidence about it. That's where of course people like Adam Schiff have come in to say issues like it's being in plain sight. I have to have the full context to make the full conclusion, but as a prosecutor, not prosecuting doesn't mean you're innocent. It means they didn't have the evidence to prove it.

SCIUTTO: Yes. Laura Coates, thanks very much.

COATES: Thank you.

SCIUTTO: Always great to have you on.

Right now, 91 percent of Venezuela is in the dark. This is the second blackout in two weeks. Food, water, fuel, already running low there. And this is making the situation much, much worse, as you can imagine. CNN is on the ground there.


[09:40:06] SCIUTTO: This hour, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is on Capitol Hill for the first of two hearings today. Pompeo testifying before the House Appropriations Committee on the State Department's 2020 budget. In a few hours, he will face the House Foreign Affairs Committee as well.

Pompeo said earlier this month that he supports the administration's plan to slash the State Department's budget by a quarter, 23 percent. He says the proposed $13 billion in cuts won't hurt America's, quote, "swagger" abroad. That's what he promised when he took the job.

We're going to continue to monitor Pompeo's testimony and of course bring you the latest.

This morning overseas, a huge setback for recovery in Venezuela after the second nationwide power outage in less than two weeks. Internet monitoring group said that a new disruption to the electrical grid has left 91 percent of the country offline. The blackout has forced businesses and schools to close there. The government of the embattled president Nicolas Maduro blamed the outage on criminals.

Paula Newton has the latest from Caracas.

Paula, this is a city that's been through this before. There was so much suffering there. Tell us what it looks like on the ground.

PAULA NEWTON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes. It's the last news anyone wanted to wake up to today, the fact that they actually could not stabilize power to most parts of this country. It's terms of what's happening here, it's incredibly tense, Jim, because it does have that destabilizing effect on the society. While everyone may not be at work or at school, they are now scrambling, they're losing any food that was in the refrigerators again, food they can barely afford in the first place. The scramble, the struggle for the basics, any kind of food or water will now begin.

Now you mentioned President Nicolas Maduro there blaming criminals. He adds, in fact, that it was criminals and their gringo masters. What does that mean? Most likely the Trump administration, they are saying that this is some kind of sabotage on the part of the U.S. administration to take down this country. We've spoken to the president of the Association of Mechanical Engineers here. We just got off the phone with him, him saying look, these transformers that are here, a massive dam, the (INAUDIBLE), they've not been, you know, basically renovated, maintained for 40 years. They need new ones. They've continually had transformer fires there. And that explosion, that fire is leading us to the situation we have here, Jim.

And the point is, it is going to be incredibly, politically destabilizing if these blackouts continue here, and something that I'm sure President Trump will be hearing from even his national security advisers because they may have to step up their effort on U.S. foreign policy here, again as the situation here becomes more and more tense, I have to say, Jim, by the hour.

SCIUTTO: No question. It's good to have you there, be safe. It's an important story. We're going to stay on it.

Paula Newton, thanks very much.

This morning, a North Korean dissident group is claiming responsibility for last month's raid on Pyongyang's embassy in Madrid, Spain. The group also says it contacted the FBI here in the U.S. days later. But they are disputing claims that they carried out some kind of armed attack on the embassy.

CNN senior diplomatic correspondent Michelle Kosinski has the latest from the State Department.

Michelle, I mean, this is amazing. This is a group of course opposes the North Korean regime. But why go to the embassy in Spain here? What were they trying to accomplish?

MICHELLE KOSINSKI, CNN SENIOR DIPLOMATIC CORRESPONDENT: Well, presumably to take whatever information out of there that they could. So they are now claiming responsibility, the leader of this group called Cheollima Civil Defense, lives in the United States. So they're saying that they conducted this raid, although they're denying that it was violent or used any real weapons. They say that they were allowed into the embassy and they treated everyone with respect, although initial reports coming out of Madrid said that people were bound, they were beaten, that a lot of stuff was stole and then the perpetrators got away in luxury vehicles.

This is the North Korean embassy in Madrid and this raid happened days before the Trump-Kim summit in Hanoi. So this group is saying that they were able to get information out of that embassy and then share it with other governments. The FBI was contacted by this group. They're not commenting on this, as we would expect the FBI to not comment. The State Department yesterday denied that the U.S. government had anything to do with the raid, although the group, the CCD, says that the FBI asked them for this information and they then shared it with the FBI. It's unclear what exactly that information would be, but it would be

whatever official documents, maybe hard drives, we just don't know, was taken away and then shared. Could the information be valuable? It seems like no one except this group is sharing any information about what could have been taken or what could come out of this just yet -- Jim.

SCIUTTO: And effect on the nuclear negotiations, too.

Michelle Kosinski, thanks very much.

Puerto Rico's governor is firing back this morning, going after President Trump for his comments opposing disaster relief money for the island, something he hasn't done in the past, this governor of Puerto Rico.

[09:45:04] What he said, that's coming up.


SCIUTTO: A biting criticism of President Trump this morning from Puerto Rico's governor who has avoided such criticism in the past. Ricardo Rossello suggests that the president has dodged meeting him -- with him about Hurricane Maria recovery there. And he says the people of his island are treated like second class citizens by this president.

His harsh words come a day after the president took another swipe at Puerto Rico, this time complaining to Republican senators at a closed door lunch about the amount of disaster aid spent on the island.

[09:50:00] Seung Min Kim is a White House reporter for the "Washington Post." She joins me now to discuss.

I mean, really a remarkable outburst from this president again targeting Puerto Rico, claiming $91 billion in disaster relief, saying not a single dollar -- additional dollar should go to the island.

First of all, that number is not right, is it? Is there any evidence $91 billion go to Puerto Rico?

SEUNG MIN KIM, WHITE HOUSE REPORTER, WASHINGTON POST: It is the number that he's told Senate Republicans, according to our sources. But we are not quite sure where he got that figure. I asked some congressional officials whether that is close to the estimate that they have gotten for the amount of Puerto Rico aid. It is difficult to kind of quantify how much -- exactly how much federal aid each states have gotten because of the way those numbers are calculated. But $91 billion does not seem to be the correct figure and we're not quite sure where the president got that.

It is similar to figures for the total amount of damage to the island. So perhaps that must have been -- that could have been what the president was referring to.

SCIUTTO: Yes. KIM: But the point that the president was trying to make to the

Republican senators inside the lunch yesterday was that look at states on the mainland that got hit by hurricanes as well. You know, Texas got much less than that. South Carolina got far less than that. Florida as well. So he's questioning why Puerto Rico with the numbers that he was using was getting that much money.


KIM: And it's just another example how the president has repeatedly tried to pull aid and reduce aid to the island which is still recovering from the aftermath of Hurricane Maria.

SCIUTTO: Yes. I mean, the number is wrong, it appears. And by the way, Puerto Rico lost by estimates at least in the day of and the months after some 3,000 people.

What is behind this year? I mean, does he perceive a political benefit from this? Because it fits a pattern, right. He talks about cutting aid to California, a blue state, after fires there. Puerto Rico, largely Democratic voters there, U.S. citizens I should remind folks who may forget that. Alabama and Texas in the wake of natural disasters there, the president talks about with Alabama A-plus aid.

I mean, is this about rewarding those who support him and punishing those who do not?

KIM: Well, there's certainly been a pattern at least rhetorically from the president about the way he treats disaster states that have been hit by various natural disasters. I mean, you referenced the wildfires in California and he actually blamed the California governor for some of the conditions that had, you know, caused the wildfires, similar with Puerto Rico.

And also -- but again, notice a very sympathetic tone that he takes towards, you know, places like Alabama where -- which got hit with horrible tornadoes just recently. But politically speaking, I mean, it's a really difficult situation for Puerto Rico. Clearly they do not have senators. They don't have that proper representation to have elected officials fight for the aid that they feel that the island is saying that they need.

The two Republican senators from Florida, Marco Rubio and Rick Scott, have kind of tried to take on that mantle of defending Puerto Rico and putting -- and trying to fight for sufficient aid to the island. But they are fighting against a president that has repeatedly sought to cut aid. I mean, recall as you also in the debate over the border wall discussions, the president has asked his advisors, could we use Puerto Rico aid perhaps to pay for the wall. So this has been an ongoing issue for some time.

I will point out there is another looming issue for the administration when it comes to Puerto Rico. The HUD inspector general told Congress yesterday that it is now investigating whether the administration tried to actively interfere with Puerto Rico aid. So that is something that we'll be watching very closely in the coming months.

SCIUTTO: And just finally in your reporting when the president was making these comments, do you know if any of those Republican senators challenged him? Or did they sit back and listen?

KIM: They kind of sat back and listened. And while many Republican senators are sympathetic and do want to provide aid to the island, a lot of the Republican senators also came out after the meeting and saying, look, he made -- the president made his case about aid to Puerto Rico. And he -- they kind of sympathized with his arguments to some respect but there is a standoff coming in the Senate later this week.

The Senate is advancing a disaster aid bill that Democrats say, particularly Democrats who control the House of Representatives, say does not nearly go far enough. So we'll see where Congress lands on that at the end of the week.

SCIUTTO: Yes. It's one thing to challenge in person, another thing to do it later far away.

Seung Min Kim, thanks very much.

His job is to keep people out of prison. So what is Attorney Michael Avenatti saying now that he faces life behind bars if convicted of trying to extort millions from Nike?


[09:58:59] SCIUTTO: New this morning, the lawyer Michael Avenatti sitting down for an interview for the first time since being arrested on multiple extortion and fraud charges. Avenatti still maintains his innocence.


MICHAEL AVENATTI, LAWYER: I am nervous, I'm concerned, I'm scared.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: But you also seem confident.

AVENATTI: I am confident because I believe the facts are on my side.


SCIUTTO: On Monday federal prosecutors charged Avenatti in two criminal cases, alleging that he attempted to extort more than $20 million from Nike and that he committed wire and bank fraud. He was arrested that very same day, released on $300,000 bond.

Good morning. I'm Jim Sciutto in New York. Poppy Harlow has the week off.

As the fate of health care for more than 20 million Americans insured through Obamacare and Medicaid expansion hangs in the balance, CNN has learned that not everyone in President Trump's orbit was on board with the president's push to strike down the entire Affordable Care Act. That decision caused a heated debate among members.