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Trump Pushed Plan to Release Migrants Into Sanctuary Cities; Washington on Edge as Release of Mueller Report Looms; Ex-Obama White House Counsel Indicted in Connection with Mueller Probe; WikiLeaks Founder Assange Faces Extradition to the U.S. Aired 9-9:30a ET

Aired April 12, 2019 - 09:00   ET


[09:00:22] JIM SCIUTTO, CNN ANCHOR: A very good Friday morning to you, I'm Jim Sciutto in London.

POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: And I'm Poppy Harlow in New York.

New signs this morning that the president is trying to turn the situation on the border into a crisis for Democrats. CNN has learned overnight that the president personally pushed to release undocumented migrants on to the streets of so-called sanctuary cities, but former Homeland Security secretary Kirstjen Nielsen resisted that plan.

SCIUTTO: Of course she is now gone. One of the cities targeted was San Francisco. Mind you, in House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's own district. And that was probably intentional. A source familiar with the discussions says that the president wanted to hit back at Democrats who opposed his plans for a border wall.

CNN White House correspondent Boris Sanchez is live from the White House.

How is the White House responding to these stories? Are they denying them or owning them?

BORIS SANCHEZ, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Hey there, Jim. Yes, well, the White House directed our questions to the Department of Homeland Security, but they did respond to the story in the "Washington Post." A spokesperson for the White House essentially saying that this was just a suggestion that was brought up during conversations between White House policy advisers and the president.

However, it's clear that the president wanted to use sanctuary cities and their openness to immigrants to attack Democrats. One of them being, as you mentioned, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. The House speaker firing back through a spokesperson writing this, quote, "The extent of this administration's cynicism and cruelty cannot be overstated. Using human beings including little children as pawns in their warped game to perpetuate fear and demonize immigrants is despicable."

Now this idea came up at least twice, first according to the "Washington Post" and "New York Times" in November in an e-mail from a policy adviser to attorneys at the Department of Homeland Security. This was just around the midterm elections. The idea seemed to go nowhere then and it came up again in February before it was ultimately dropped.

It is clear that the president sees immigration as a priority. He was apparently behind this idea, so was policy adviser Stephen Miller -- Jim.

SCIUTTO: With this, with discussion of sending even more troops to the border, it's clear the president sees this, Boris, as a political priority going into 2020. That this from his view is going to be a central issue going up for reelection.

SANCHEZ: Yes, that's absolutely right, Jim. Look, he focused on it from the first day that he came down the escalator in 2015 and announced that he was going to run for president. We saw his escalate the discourse and the rhetoric about immigration just before the midterm elections. Remember, that's when he started calling these migrants and asylum seekers invaders. And now as the Democratic side of the field heats up we're seeing the president revisit this issue with renewed vigor again.

Clearly this is something we are going to continue to hear more about as we get closer to November 2020 -- Jim.

SCIUTTO: Boris Sanchez at the White House, thanks very much. Poppy?

HARLOW: Pretty stunning.

All right. Let's talk more about this with Elliot Williams, a former deputy assistant attorney general under the Obama administration. He was also former assistant director for Legislative Affairs at ICE.

Good to have you. Where do I start? Where do I start? So let's start here.


HARLOW: Right? It's sort of like you can't make this stuff up.


HARLOW: There are a number of reasons that this would, if it actually happened, be legally problematic. What's at the top of your list?

WILLIAMS: Yes. OK. So here's the thing. People are moved all the time, people who come unlawfully into the country, detainees, but a lot of -- that's for space reasons or personnel reasons or where actually safety of the individuals would cause them to be moved to another jurisdiction. To move them into the -- I guess the cities of political enemies is just petty and cruel, and just -- and there's no legal basis for it whatsoever. And it just smacks of yet another example of this administration seeking to weaponize immigration.

HARLOW: What about --

WILLIAMS: Yes. HARLOW: What about the fact, though, that according to the

"Washington Post" reporting, quote, "ICE's legal department rejected the idea as inappropriate and rebuffed the administration." I guess I just wonder, you know, as someone who worked in this space not that long ago, does that give you confidence that the system actually worked here?

WILLIAMS: It does because, you know, frankly, look, I loved ICE and a lot -- you know, look, a lot of them are immigration enforcement folks. It's in their blood.


WILLIAMS: And so when they're telling you something is not going to work, you've gone pretty far. And that's not a knock on ICE, it's just -- but when ICE is telling you something -- pardon me. When ICE in the Trump administration is telling you that you've gone too far, you've gone pretty far. And it's sort of -- you know, when you've got Stephen Miller, you know, in some of your reporting had indicated this, is sort of driving some of this, when you --

HARLOW: Well --


[09:05:01] HARLOW: Our reporting is just that he was not like the chief advocate of it, but our reporting was also not that he was like pushing away from it.

WILLIAMS: OK. Fine. But when the White House senior immigration adviser's sole criterion on his resume is being hostile to immigrants these are the kind of policies you're going to get. It's just -- I just think it's a -- you know, it's a hostility to government experience and legal experience and testing the bounds of the law that you find in this administration a lot.

HARLOW: So a little bit more that struck me from "The Post" piece, that the now acting ICE deputy director.


HARLOW: Said this to a West Wing staffer who reached out, you know, this fall and winter looking for guidance, quote, "Not sure how paying to transport aliens to another location to release them when they can be released on the spot is a justified expenditure, not to mention the liability should there be an accident along the way."

I mean, is that -- that liability an unmentioned and really unconsidered legal risk here and just sort of humanitarian concern for people?

WILLIAMS: Yes. Yes, so let's take out some of the partisan political stuff. When you put large -- you know, amounts of people on trucks or on buses and so on and move them from McAllen, Texas, to San Francisco you are risking legal liability. You know, whether it's planes or trucks or whatever. So every time -- you know, as you know, immigration is a fraught legal minefield as it is even under the best of circumstances.

And when you're talking about moving people, again -- so setting aside the pettiness of it all and the cruelty in many respects, there's also just safety issues that I think they would have invited. It's sort of an unforced error as they'd say in tennis.

HARLOW: But you also write and you wrote a really interesting opinion piece for CNN a few days ago and essentially wrote, bottom line, Elliot, that you believe that the president will not be satisfied with any DHS secretary. Why?

WILLIAMS: Well, it's hard to see -- because given how much energy the president has put into making immigration just about public safety and not about, you know, the fact that all -- regardless of your view on immigration, people come here to work overwhelmingly. They don't come here to commit terrorist acts. Right? Just look at the numbers.

Given how much energy has gone into that and given so much of -- energy being spent on building a wall and the chants and so on, it's hard to see how short of closing the border any immigration secretary is going to satisfy the president.

HARLOW: All right.

WILLIAMS: And, you know, my former colleague who is running it now I just don't see him satisfying the president.

HARLOW: Elliot, thank you. Don't go anywhere. We're going to use your legal mind and expertise in the next block on some other news.

Joining me now is my friend, David Axelrod, also our CNN senior political commentator, former senior adviser to president and host of "THE AXE FILES."

Quite a resume there, my friend. Thanks for joining us.


HARLOW: So -- yes. There you go. All right. I'll take that one. So, I mean, just overall what is your read on this? Does it surprise you?

AXELROD: No, I think the president has signaled that this is his reelection strategy or at least a big piece of his reelection strategy. You know, call this campaign escalator two. He got elected president on the basis of this issue and we saw -- as Boris mentioned in his setup piece, we saw it in the midterm elections, he tried to torque the thing up to great heights hoping that that would rile his base and get them to the polls.

He thinks this is a key to his reelection and he -- I expect that he is going to be on this issue from start to finish and try and put Democrats on the defensive.

HARLOW: Is he successfully doing that? I mean, how significant is it to you, David, that the president did not get his (INAUDIBLE) here, right, ICE, et cetera, pushed back enough that it didn't happen, but at the same time is he succeeding in putting Democrats on notice here and putting them in a difficult position when you have, for example, Jeh Johnson who ran DHS under Obama calling it a crisis more than once.

AXELROD: Yes. Well, I mean, you know, I think that he didn't get his ICE leadership to follow through, he didn't get his DHS leadership to follow through, and he's replacing the leadership of those organizations. It's pretty clear that Stephen Miller is calling -- generally calling the shots on this issue now and wants a much more aggressive strategy that, you know, may, in fact, torque up the problems at the border in order for the president to use them for political purposes.

And, you know, the thing is that the more outrageous the acts they commit, the more they invite Democrats to denounce them, giving the president a chance to say that Democrats are for open borders.

HARLOW: Right.

AXELROD: I think that's the dynamic they're looking for.

HARLOW: Yes. Interesting.

AXELROD: I think that's the dynamic they're looking for.

HARLOW: All right. You have a fascinating interview coming up that you've just taped for your show with Beto O'Rourke, obviously from a border state. This is a big issue.


HARLOW: Going to be a big issue for him.

[09:10:01] Let's take a moment and just listen to some of this.


AXELROD: The president says the country is full. That was his message to immigrants.


AXELROD: He went to the border. And because you have traveled around quite a bit and you have traveled through all kinds of communities in this country, you know that there is a certain resonance to that with some Americans and some voters.

O'ROURKE: You know what, I haven't found that actually. I was just in Storm Lake in Iowa talking to Mexican immigrants who came to work at the Tyson's plant that no one born in Storm Lake is working at right now. And they are investing in the success of that community and the people this that community get it.

Revitalizing rural America in part depends on ensuring that immigrants can find a home in rural America. Our success as farmers, as an economy, as a country, as a democracy is necessitated upon new people coming in to reinvigorate this country.

AXELROD: He says he's going to make immigration a centerpiece of his campaign, and your answer is bring it on.

O'ROURKE: Absolutely. There's this community of El Paso, Ciudad Juarez, that is the positive example of why immigration matters, why it makes us safer, why it makes our economy stronger, why it creates more jobs. So I'm looking forward to sharing that message and talking about safety and economic growth and jobs in a positive way that includes all of us.


HARLOW: So, David, one thing that I, you know, noticed when Beto O'Rourke made his announcement is that he was short on specifics, on policy specifics, at the beginning on that first day. Have you found that that has changed on something like immigration?

AXELROD: Well, certainly on immigration he has -- I think he has a well-thought through approach to immigration. That's an issue on which he's very fluent because he is not just from a border state, as he points out, he's from a border city and he's grown up --


AXELROD: -- in that environment and has gone back and forth across that border and sees it as a key to the strength of his community. The question for him is going to be whether he can prevail in that debate nationally. You know, it was interesting when I said you're saying bring it on. He said, yes. More than any other candidate who is running, perhaps other than Julian Castro who's joined him he has made this a centerpiece of his campaign. And I expect that he will from this point on.

HARLOW: You ask him a lot of fascinating questions. I'm excited to see it. Before you go can we just talk about the mayor of South Bend? Can we just talk about Pete Buttigieg and the numbers, David, from the new polling.


HARLOW: Iowa, New Hampshire, a huge surge, he is up in like the top three or four, his likability, favorability rating is sky high. Does he have what it takes to go all the way?

AXELROD: Well, I think that's what campaigns are all about, Poppy. You know, campaigns are interesting, you can clear the lower bar spectacularly but then the bar gets raised. And you know, the test for him is how he does when the bar gets raised and those tests are not just how fluent you are, and he is incredibly bright and incredibly fluent, but can you put an organization together that is up to the task of a national campaign? How do you look on a debate stage with other people?

For him I think that's the greatest test because he is a young man, he looks young. Will he on that stage with the other candidates be as commanding as he's been?

HARLOW: Yes. You know --

AXELROD: For example, in the CNN town hall.

HARLOW: David, do you know who else was a young man and the question -- and he was bright and the question was, could he put it all together? Right? The man that you worked for at the White House, right? I mean --

AXELROD: Right. Yes, exactly. And you know what, it was -- and at the beginning of the campaign there were questions about whether he was ready to be president.


AXELROD: He proved during the course of that campaign that he was and so Pete Buttigieg needs this campaign to allay the concerns about a young mayor from a Midwestern small -- you know, small town becoming president of the United States. Just as Obama four years out of the Illinois State Senate needed the campaign.


AXELROD: To show that he was up to the job. So it's going to be very interesting to watch.

HARLOW: Certainly is. David Axelrod, thank you so much.

And everyone, be sure to watch that "AXE FILES" episode, David goes deep with 2020 candidate Beto O'Rourke, and asks him what did he mean by that famous line, "I was born to be in this." You'll hear that answer. It is all tomorrow night 7:00 p.m. Eastern, only right here on CNN.

All right. Still to come for us Attorney General Bill Barr says the redacted version of that Mueller report will be released within a week but just how much will we all actually get to read? That's a key question this morning.

And WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange in custody and fighting extradition to the United States. Jim will speak one-on-one with his attorney. That's ahead live from London.

Plus, a nearly three decades long murder mystery comes to an end. The only clue for the longest time was a 3-year-old boy's words, "Daddy hurt Mommy." I'll take you live to that story.



JIM SCIUTTO, CO-HOST, NEWSROOM: Welcome back. Just days now until the Mueller report is finally released, but how much of it will we, the public, and also Congress actually see? HARLOW: That's the key question, right. Let's go to our colleague

Kara Scannell. So Kara, break the news, when is this thing going to drop?

KARA SCANNELL, CNN REPORTER: Any minute now, Poppy -- no, I'm just kidding. I mean, I think what we heard from Bill Barr this week is that he was really sending the message that this is going to be mid- April. And he was saying on Tuesday's testimony that it would be within the week.

So here we are on Friday, so I think the odds are probably good, we'll see something early next week. Of course, that is subject to change. You know, Barr has said that, you know, the question of redactions, he said he is not going to go to a judge and ask for permission to reveal grand jury material.

So there's still going to be a decent amount of this, we expect that will be redacted. You know, he's been working with Mueller's team as he testified behind the scenes for now almost three weeks, exactly three weeks ago today, Barr received the Mueller report from Mueller.

[09:20:00] So over the three weeks, they've been going through this, we're going to see whenever this report is released, some color-coded redactions, you know, giving us a hint of how much of this is being redacted because of ongoing investigations, how much because of grand jury material and the other categories.

So, you know, this is something that we all now gearing up, it seems like Barr was really sticking to this and saying this week that it was going to be within the week. So I think we're thinking Monday or Tuesday, but we do have a development today where, you know, this spun out of the Mueller investigation, even though that's wrapping up is that Greg Craig; the former White House -- White House Counsel in the Obama administration will be in court today.

He is facing charges of lying to DOJ and misleading them about his work he was doing for the Ministry of Justice in the Ukraine. I know that case spun out of the Mueller investigation, it went up to prosecutors in New York, they sent it back to DC and an indictment, a two-count indictment against Greg Craig was announced yesterday.

Now, Craig has come out swinging, saying he never lied to the Department of Justice, and he called the prosecution unprecedented and unjustified. He said he's confident that both the judge and the jury will agree with me. He will be in court later this afternoon. Poppy?

HARLOW: That's a big deal and it shows just sort of the tentacles that have come from all of this. Kara, thank you very much. Elliot Williams is back with us, of course, former Deputy Assistant Attorney General for the Obama administration and a former federal prosecutor.

Elie Honig also a former assistant U.S. Attorney for the Southern District, both here. I'd love for you both to weigh in on some interesting reporting out of "Politico", that just goes to this question of the indictment against Greg Craig and also the Assange arrest, quote, "threads from the Mueller probe could continue to yield new evidence and even more charges for months if not years to come."

Elie, to you first, I guess it just shows how broad this all is and how many more questions we'll have when we get that report.

ELIE HONIG, FORMER FEDERAL PROSECUTOR: Yes, I think you're absolutely right. Any time you have an investigation, you always will develop other leads, right? It's never just sort of linear. You start here and you end here. You always will find other pieces of evidence and what good prosecutors do, incredibly what Robert Mueller's team has done is you follow them.

Now, Robert Mueller's team understood they had a limited mandate and a limited time frame, and so they've been referring cases out to the District of Columbia, to my former office, the Southern District of New York. And we've already began to see the very early sort of fruits of that in the Michael Cohen indictment --

HARLOW: Right --

HONIG: In the reporting about the deep dive that the Southern District is doing into the campaign finance violations. We know they're looking at the Trump Org., the inaugural funds. So, I'd expect to see a whole new generation --

HARLOW: Wow --

HONIG: Of cases coming out of what Robert Mueller started --

HARLOW: A whole generation?

HONIG: Absolutely, wow, Jim.

SCIUTTO: Interesting if you thought it was over, Poppy, it --

HARLOW: Yes --

SCIUTTO: Ain't over. Elliot, if I can to you, because an enormous amount of attention focused still on that word "spying" used by the sitting Attorney General in his congressional testimony earlier this week. I want to play James Comey's reaction to this. He of course was the FBI director at the time when this alleged spying took place. Listen to his reaction.


JAMES COMEY, FORMER FBI DIRECTOR: I really don't know what he's talking about when he talks about spying on the campaign. It's concerning because the FBI and the Department of Justice conduct court-ordered electronic surveillance.

I have never thought of that as spying and the reason I'm interested to know what he means by that is if the Attorney General has come to the belief that, that should be called spying -- wow.

(END VIDEO CLIP) SCIUTTO: Let me ask you a question, though, Elliot, because it may

very well have been legal, but is it not legitimate for the Attorney General to say he has concerns and he wants to look into it to make sure that it was done on the up and up, and that it was properly -- I mean, he used the term predicated, but that there was justification for it. Is that a legitimate question?

ELLIOT WILLIAMS, FORMER DEPUTY ASSISTANT ATTORNEY GENERAL: Absolutely, however, the use of the word "spying" is dangerous and it's fraught and people draw conclusions from it. And smart lawyers know you don't use terms like that just because the term "spying" evokes not lawfully authorized court approved surveillance, but you know, cloak and dagger stuff that's unlawful or illegal.

And frankly, the fact that we know -- we know that Barr stepped in it based on the fact that the president of the United States weighed in with his conspiracy theories yesterday, talking about, well, I know they were spying and it was -- and Obama spied on me and so on, reviving that debunked theory.

It's "spying", quote, unquote, to the extent that surveillance of drug traffickers is spying.

HARLOW: Right --

WILLIAMS: That surveillance of, you know -- or get wire taps on white-collar criminals is spying. You just -- smart lawyers know you don't use terms like that, and regardless of where we are on politics and so on, William Barr knows what he's doing, he is a smart lawyer with a long history in the Justice Department and has got to know that you don't use terms like that.

[09:25:00] And Comey who is a -- you know, he's a tricky messenger on a lot of this Russia stuff, but he's absolutely right.

HARLOW: Elliot Williams, so good to have you on both fronts, thank you, Elie, always good to have you as well. Jim?

SCIUTTO: Well, Julian Assange's legal team is preparing to fight his extradition to the United States. Why his lawyer says the case against Assange could set a dangerous precedent.


SCIUTTO: As WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange prepares to fight extradition from the U.K. to the U.S., he could be getting some help. Australia's Prime Minister says that the country will give Assange the same support it would give any Australian citizen.

London police arrested Assange, this was the moment yesterday, Thursday morning, at the Ecuadorian Embassy, just a short time later, the U.S. Justice Department charged him for allegedly conspiring with Chelsea Manning to hack Department of Defense computers back in 2010.

Correspondent Isa Soares, she has been following this story from London since this news broke. She is outside the Ecuadorian Embassy, no longer Julian Assange's home.