Return to Transcripts main page


Mar-a-Lago Trespasser in Court; Felicity Huffman Pleads Guilty; Trump Fires Secret Service Director and Homeland Security Chief. Aired 3-3:30p ET

Aired April 8, 2019 - 15:00   ET



NIMA ELBAGIR, CNN CORRESPONDENT: And that fear that we felt, that we witnessed, it's just really a glimpse, which makes it all the more extraordinary that the numbers protesting every day are growing.

ERICA HILL, CNN ANCHOR: That people -- and that they are still going out, still going into the streets, as we mentioned, eight people killed recently.

You even talk about in the piece, which is phenomenal, they -- and kudos to you and your team for everything you risked to bring that reporting out -- but the real possibility that the next time you're back to visit your family, right, are you more concerned, the more reporting you do, the more you put your face out there when you return to Sudan?

ELBAGIR: I will never not go home. I will always go home.

And I have -- I carry with me the awareness that I work for CNN. I'm protected in ways that those journalists and those people out in the streets and the people who worked with us who are still there, who took those risks alongside us, are not protected.

And so I think a responsibility comes with that.

HILL: OK. It's a remarkable piece of reporting. Thank you. And so nice to see you in person, Nima. Thank you.

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

HILL: Top of the hour. I'm Erica Hill, in today for Brooke Baldwin.

And there's breaking news in Washington, where the Trump administration once appears to be cleaning house. Multiple officials telling CNN the Secret Service director is now being removed from his position. Randolph "Tex" Alles reports directly to the secretary of homeland security, Kirstjen Nielsen, who, of course, was forced to resign less than 24 hours ago.

Nielsen had become the face of an immigration policy that ripped undocumented families apart and sparked both legal and moral backlash for the Trump White House. The president's immigration agenda will now be handled by the man in

charge of Customs and Border Protection.


KIRSTJEN NIELSEN, U.S. SECRETARY OF HOMELAND SECURITY: I share the president's goal of securing the border. I will continue to support all efforts to address the humanitarian and security crisis on the border. And other than that, I'm on my way to keep doing what I can for the next few days.


HILL: You just heard Nielsen saying she still supports President Trump's goal of securing the border.

Where she and the president differed, though, was on how to secure the border. Sources telling CNN increasing clashes with the president played a role in her forced resignation. And at least one official says Nielsen viewed President Trump's border demands as impossible and believed he was becoming unhinged.

In addition, Nielsen did not support Trump's recent push to reinstate the family separation policy, which Nielsen famously claimed at the time didn't exist.

CNN White House correspondent Pamela Brown joins me.

Pamela, So, Stephen Miller, the top White House aide, as we know, is really seeing his influence grow. He's been empowered on immigration by the president, and now, as I understand it, wants even more officials to leave. What are you hearing?

PAMELA BROWN, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That's right. And this could be just the beginning of a purge at the Department of Homeland Security if Stephen Miller gets his way.

You're right. Just recently, the president bestowed more authority to him over the immigration policy. In a recent Oval Office meeting with other aides, he said that Stephen Miller would take more of a leadership role.

Now, make no mistake, Stephen Miller has always had some influence over the president's immigration policy. He's seen as an immigration hard-liner. But now he's taking the reins officially as leading -- leading the charge for the White House.

And so we're seeing the effects of this already play out with the ICE director's nomination withdrawn last Friday, now the -- Kirstjen Nielsen leaving the Department of Homeland Security. We have learned that he wants to see other top officials at DHS go, including the general counsel.

I'm also told, Erica, that the White House is now looking at other DHS nominations that are in the pipeline and possibly looking to withdraw those nominations as well. The thinking is that Nielsen had a hand in those nominations, and they basically want to start with a clean slate with whoever the new DHS secretary is to weigh in, have input on who should be at DHS.

But there is real concern in the White House about finding someone who is confirmable who will take the role after Nielsen to become the DHS secretary.

HILL: That is a real concern for a number of positions.

I also just want to get a little bit more information. You know, as recently as last week, the president said he was happy with the Secret Service. Now we're learning that the director of the Secret Service also out. So, do we know what changed?

BROWN: That's one of the things we were wondering today.

This -- I am told by a source familiar that a couple weeks ago, Mick Mulvaney, the acting chief of staff, basically sent him the message that he needed to find another job, that basically there was going to be a transition, a change in leadership eventually, and that this -- that he was going to be out as the Secret Service director.

Now, this was before the incident at Mar-a-Lago, the espionage incident that we've been reporting on. So, I'm told by a source familiar with it that this wasn't connected. But it's yet another sign of this administration wanting to clean house at DHS.


HILL: All right, Pamela Brown with the latest for us there, appreciate it. Thank you.

We will have much more on that coming up.

But, first, there is more breaking news into CNN. We're learning four Americans have been killed in Afghanistan.

CNN's Ryan Browne joins us now from the Pentagon.

Ryan, what more do we know?

RYAN BROWNE, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Well, Erica, we understand that a U.S. military convoy was targeted in a suicide attack outside Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan, and that that attack left three U.S. service members killed.

And in addition to one American contractor was also killed, we also understand that three additional U.S. troops were wounded in the incident and that they are receiving medical attention.

The Taliban did claim credit for this attack, issuing a statement via their social media that they were responsible for it, but, again, just despite these ongoing negotiations involving the U.S., the Taliban and the Afghan government, very much a violent situation in Afghanistan and U.S. troops very much at risk. This would represent the fifth, sixth, and seventh U.S. service member

deaths in Afghanistan in 2019, so -- 2019 -- so very much still a very violent situation there -- Erica.

HILL: That, it is. Ryan Browne with the latest for us -- Ryan, thank you.

Also want to bring you now this breaking news. We're learning new information about the massive college admissions cheating scandal where prosecutors say famous actresses, parents, dozens bribed or cheated their way into college for their children.

Brynn Gingras joins now with the latest.

So, we just saw a bunch of them make their initial appearances last week in court. What's new today?

BRYNN GINGRAS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, so we were hearing as many as 10 people are going to plead guilty last week. Now we're hearing 13 people have actually -- or plan to plead guilty, including Felicity Huffman.

So, that is...


HILL: That's a major development.

GINGRAS: Major development. Of course, he's one of the actresses. Lori Loughlin, we haven't heard any news about her.

But Felicity Huffman and 13 -- or 12 other parents, including also a coach, are all going to plea guilty. We're talking about conspiracy to commit wire fraud and honest services fraud, which is one federal charge.

Remember, also last week, we were reporting that the government was going to ask for anywhere from six months to nearly two years for people who are connected to this scheme. So, it's unclear if they could face jail time, what sort of penalties they could face.

It's just right now we're learning that they're going to plead guilty. And I have a news release already from my colleague Mark Morales got from Felicity Huffman's people.

And I want to read it, because it's pretty lengthy here.

She says: "I'm pleading guilty to the charge brought against me by the United States attorney's office. I'm in full acceptance of my guilt, and with deep regret and shame over what I have done. I accept full responsibility for my actions and will accept the consequences that stem from those actions.

"I am ashamed of the pain I have caused my daughter, my family, my friends, my colleagues and the educational community. I want to apologize to them. And, especially, I want to apologize to the students who work hard every day to get into college and to their parents who make tremendous sacrifices to support their children and do so honestly.

"My daughter" -- remember, that is who was -- alleged who she helped get better scores for -- "she knew nothing" -- "absolutely nothing," rather, "about my actions. And in my misguided and profoundly wrong way, I have betrayed her. This transgression toward her and the public, I will carry for the rest of my life. My desire to help my daughter is no excuse to break the law or engage in dishonesty."

So, quite a statement right there.

HILL: Quite a statement.

And you have been on this from the very beginning.


HILL: But one of the things that a number of legal analysts said in the beginning was, when you looked at this 200-plus-page complaint that laid out basically some of the evidence...


HILL: ... that they had, including for Felicity Huffman, there were transcripts from phone calls, there were e-mails.

It was a lot of alleged...


HILL: ... accounts of what happened. And it was very clear...


HILL: ... what the people involved were saying.


They had a lot of evidence. Rick Singer, we know, was the mastermind behind this. And the government was working with him. He pleaded guilty pretty early on, and they were working together for a long time. So they had a lot of evidence, even what we didn't see in the complaint, according to our sources.

So some of these parents were already facing more charges. There was a sort of threat that more charges could come down if they didn't get this guilty plea off of this complaint. So I think some of those parents were pushed up, rock and a hard place, trying to figure...

HILL: Right.

GINGRAS: ... out what they should do, what's best for their outcome for them and their families.

And it's clear, 13 parents here pleading guilty, including one of the -- one of the coaches, because we haven't seen coaches. We have seen parents...

HILL: Right.

GINGRAS: ... except for Rudy Meredith, who, of course, cooperated with authorities.

But one coach who took a bribe, $60,000, University of Texas...


GINGRAS: ... he's the former head coach of men's tennis. Michael Center is his name.

HILL: Michael Center.


HILL: Yes.

GINGRAS: University of Texas in Austin.

He took a bribe for $60,000.

HILL: Right.

GINGRAS: And then also money to the school.

HILL: Because he had initially entered a not guilty plea.


GINGRAS: Exactly.

HILL: All right.

GINGRAS: So it's very interesting developments.


HILL: Fascinating.

I do want to go to legal take on this too. Brynn, thank you.

White-collar criminal defense attorney Sara Azari is with us right now, criminal defense attorney and senior legal analyst Joey Jackson going to join us as well.

Sara, as we hear this, Brynn lays out too, so importantly, what we saw last week and what we were hearing from prosecutors in our own reporting here at CNN, that they were making it very clear they wanted to ask and planned to ask jail time for everyone.


They said they had a mountain of evidence that people had not seen yet, that more charges could be coming. SARA AZARI, CRIMINAL DEFENSE ATTORNEY: Right.

HILL: Is your sense that that, in fact, is what those -- I don't want to say threats, but perhaps that information, is that what you think pushed some of these people to move toward a guilty plea?

AZARI: Well, Erica, I don't -- I definitely don't think it's puffery on behalf of the prosecutors.

Remember that a lot of these parents took the money that they paid Singer and used it as a tax deduction, which is unlawful. It's tax fraud. So a lot of them are also exposed to additional potential charges of tax fraud and potentially other types of charges.

So I think what's happened with this first set of defendants who are accepting responsibility and pleading guilty is that they're trying to do some damage control, because there are, in fact, other charges that could come.

Remember, this was a very, very airtight case in terms of the evidence. Like you said, there was transcripts of phone calls. There were -- it's money. It's a paper case. So it's very hard to beat. They had canceled checks. They had payments.

And what's astonishing about this case -- and as I always said from the very beginning, the investigation was amazing, in that they went to the big fish first. Usually, investigators start from the bottom and work their way up to the mastermind.

In this case, they went straight to Singer, and they had all the evidence they needed. So, again, it's a very airtight case. I think they do have the evidence potentially for tax fraud, maybe other charges. And it's -- it behooves these defendants to plead guilty early and potentially avoid jail time, because they are eligible for probation.

HILL: Pleading early, Joey, to Sarah's point, those people who are not pleading early, and now that we're seeing this first crop come out...


HILL: ... chances they may regret not being in that first group.

JACKSON: Sure. Erica, good to be with you.

It's certainly possible. Now, here's what works. The bottom line is that there's an incentive for pleading early. It's called acceptance of responsibility. And under federal sentencing guidelines, in the event that you accept responsibility, it reduces ultimately what your exposure is.

Now, everyone, of course, is not similarly situated, meaning that, yes, they're all charged with the same offense in terms of what they did. Some people paid more. Some people paid less. Some people had coaches do it for them. Some people made up fake pictures and everything else.

And so, ultimately, in the event that the feds have the goods, it certainly is to your advantage to go in, to accept responsibility, and to get this done. And then, of course, there's an imperative, a public relations imperative too.

I think people see this as a very privileged type of crime. People see those who have worked very hard to get their kids into school, who have done the right things, who have written the essays, who have not superimposed pictures of athletes, they see this as really problematic.

And you remember, Erica, what were the prosecutors saying? We want jail. And so to come in to get it done now, I think, is in their best interest, to be clear.

HILL: All right, Joey, Brynn, Sara, appreciate it. Thank you all.

Also breaking this afternoon, new details about the woman who illegally entered President Trump's Mar-a-Lago resort -- how she got past security and more on what she was carrying with her.

Plus, much more on the breaking news you saw first right here on CNN, sources telling CNN the director of the Secret Service the next to be pushed out of the Trump administration, that news, of course, coming less than 24 hours after Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen was forced to step down.



HILL: More now on our breaking news.

President Trump kicking off a new week with yet another staff shakeup, ousting Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen and we're learning one of her direct reports, Randolph "Tex" Alles, the head of the Secret Service.

Both of them being shown the door, as the White House takes a tougher stance on immigration.

Jamie Gangel is CNN special correspondent, Caitlin Dickerson, national immigration reporter for "The New York Times."

Jamie, I want to start off with what we're learning about the Secret Service, because Jake Tapper reporting today that the Secret Service director, Alles, is out. It turns out, though, Jake has learned, he was actually told that he was out a couple of weeks ago. It's only now just coming to light.


And we're also hearing that senior officials at the Secret Service were surprised about it. They learned about it when Jake reported it on CNN. Keep checking your phone, because this feels as if we're going to have

rolling people being moved along from Homeland Security. Someone told me about Kirstjen Nielsen that she'd been on borrowed time for a long time. But many of these people that were hearing about, these were people who were picked by General John Kelly, who was head of Homeland Security before he became chief of staff.

And it's clear the president is cleaning house.

HILL: He's cleaning house. But what's fascinating to, though, is, as we look at all of this with the president, I mean, the number of people in acting positions right now is large.

GANGEL: Right.

HILL: The president weighed in on that, actually.

And I do want to play a little bit of what he had to say. Take a listen.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I sort of like acting. Gives me more flexibility. Do you understand that? I like acting.


HILL: It may give him a little bit more flexibility. What it doesn't do is fill very important jobs at a number of agencies where there are essentially skeleton staff.

And that is difficult to get -- when you're dealing with that situation, it's difficult to get the job done.

GANGEL: Right.

And we're seeing some of them up there. But just -- just to run through, defense, acting, interior, acting, ambassador to the U.N., acting, chief of staff, we know, famously, acting, homeland security, OMB.

Next week, Linda McMahon will leave the Small Business Administration.


HILL: Small Business Administration.

GANGEL: We're having that, FEMA.

This speaks to two things. What's the word we use all the time with Donald Trump? Chaos. I mean, it's -- he does keep people on tenterhooks when they're acting.

But the flip side is, I have been told a lot of people who are -- right, he says he gets the best people. Well, a lot of the best people don't want to work for him. They have seen what it's like. They have seen how people are treated.

They don't want to go in. I spoke to one senior Republican who really wanted to be in this Cabinet and lobbied and said to me last week, zero chance he would take a position with this administration.

HILL: Wow.

That -- which that tells you a lot, doesn't it?

GANGEL: Of course.

HILL: So, as we look at all of this, Caitlin, and people are wondering, so what's going to happen next, we're seeing from Stephen Miller the focus is absolutely immigration and the border.

DHS is much larger than that, as we know, but that is the focus. And, reportedly, some of the concern was that Kirstjen Nielsen was not willing to go afoul of the law. What are you hearing in terms of what this changes for who's coming in?

I mean, is Stephen Miller/the president looking for someone who's OK with maybe turning away from what the legal constraints are?

CAITLIN DICKERSON, "THE NEW YORK TIMES": That could be true, but I think, regardless of what they're looking for, that person is going to come up against the same, not just legal, but also logistical constraints to something like shutting down the border completely.

So, as you pointed out, we have these acting people coming in. Some are coming up through the ranks. Some may be coming from the outside. I mean, my thinking is that Commissioner McAleenan, who President Trump has said he intends to replace, right under Secretary Nielsen, he headed CBP, the Border Patrol agency, including -- includes CBP, and was overseeing Border Patrol agents on the ground who carried out some of his most controversial policies, things like family separation.

I think what we have heard from Stephen Miller and the White House is that they'd like more of the same and that Kirstjen Nielsen had really put the brakes on new aggressive ideas, because she was familiar with the laws and familiar with the policies. McAleenan will be in the same position.

If they pull somebody who's completely from the outside, that person may approve aggressive policies, but it won't change anything because they're going to end up back in court.

HILL: The same legal hurdles or there.

I do want to continue on with family separation, because you brought that up. So we have learned too that that was one of the issues, that President Trump wanted to bring it back. No one can really understand why, since it didn't even do what we were told it would do, which was deter families from coming to the border.

Families themselves have said, this didn't keep me from coming. DICKERSON: Right.

HILL: That said, when we look at this, the separated children, we're told it could take two years, Caitlin, to reunite them.

Why is the government seemingly dragging their feet? Because Lee Gelernt of the ACLU told Kate Bolduan earlier today there's no reason that it needs to take two years.

DICKERSON: I think it is true that there are logistical challenges to reuniting parents and children because, as we have reported, even now, when there's a better system for tracking parents and children, cases are falling through the cracks.

We're finding out about separations that are happening where they weren't marked in government databases. And so, by hand, somebody is having to go through and reunite people.

I think additional delays are brought on by sort of bureaucratic policies that were put into place, because, remember, this system wasn't built to deal with separated families. It was built -- it was built to deal with children who came here on their own, whose sponsors need to be vetted.

But now we're talking about separated families where the sponsors are the parents. And so I think, when -- one thing you might consider is that, if we're saying that these separated families are still going to be subject to the same constraints, that could be because the delays are intentional, that the delays help with that deterrent goal, because, if a parent knows that they're not going to get their child back for two years, they may be less likely to come here.

GANGEL: And to Caitlin's point, apart from the fact that this policy was found to be abominable and heartbreaking and terrible and we shouldn't be doing it, there is no system in place to deal...

HILL: Right.

GANGEL: ... with these children and these families. We're simply not equipped to have them come up.

The other thing that we have been hearing, though, is that some of the coyotes who bring families up have been saying to families, you better come now, because he's building the wall. And so that has caused a problem, in and of itself, because Trump's policy, we're going to build the wall, so now you have the rush.

And you -- and you have so many more people coming up.

HILL: It is such a tough issue. And there's so much involved here and still a lot more to cover, which we will continue to do.

Jamie Gangel, Caitlin, great to have you both with us. Thank you.

More on our breaking news this hour, actress Felicity Huffman pleading guilty, apologizing in that massive college admissions scandal. Also, new details about the woman who illegally entered President Trump's Mar-a-Lago resort. Hear more about the gadgets she was carrying at the time.



HILL: Breaking news about the security breach at President Trump's Mar-a-Lago resort.

The woman arrested and accused of lying her way inside was just in court for a detention hearing. Now, this is the first time we have seen any image of her. You see the court drawing right there. Prosecutors claim she can't be trusted, that she's a flight risk.

At the time of her arrest, she was allegedly carrying four cell phones, two Chinese passports, and a thumb drive containing malware.

Shimon Prokupecz is CNN's crime and justice reporter.