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No Workers at Notre Dame when Fire Started; Asylum Seekers Could be Held Indefinitely; North Korea Holds Drills; Defamation Lawsuit Brought Against Dershowitz. Aired 9:30-10a ET

Aired April 17, 2019 - 09:30   ET



[09:31:30] JIM SCIUTTO, CNN ANCHOR: Right now firefighters are speaking at a press conference in Paris, just days after that fire ripped through Notre Dame Cathedral. As we wait to hear any updates, we're learning this morning that no construction workers were actually in the cathedral when that fire broke out. Prosecutors say they have interviewed 30 construction workers, as well as security staff there, as they search for the cause of the fire.

Meanwhile, we're learning that France plans to open an international competition to redesign the Notre Dame spire.

CNN international anchor and correspondent Michael Holmes, he is in Paris.

Michael, are we learning anything new about what started this fire? We understand there were no construction workers in there. Does that mean the focus is now on an accident?

MICHAEL HOLMES, CNN INTERNATIONAL ANCHOR AND CORRESPONDENT: Yes, well, they said from the start they believe that the cause was an accident, Jim. The last construction workers were up there were guys who had been working on the scaffolding on the outside.

Now, the company that employs them said they left an hour before the fire broke out. So they -- they're denying any culpability. But that's where investigators think it started, up there in the roof.

In the last few hours, you've had engineering and architects and all sorts of experts going through the cathedral looking for the weak spots, looking for what needs to be reinforced and braced and the like. And you mentioned that news conference by firefighters. I mean we've actually, just in the last few minutes, been getting lines from that news conference and the fire chief saying it was the most complex blaze he had ever encountered in his career, and talking about the veracity of the flames in the roof.

And we've talked a lot about these 800-year-old timbers that held up the roof. They called it the forest, in fact, up there at the top of the cathedral. And it burned like one. Those timbers just took off. And the fire chief talking about how dangerous it was, the firemen were worried about bits of masonry falling on them. They fought it from above. They also fought it from below because the supports lower down also wood. They were worried that if that wood caught fire, the whole structure would collapse, the entire cathedral could collapse.

And, you know, the bit of good news out of this, as you can see behind me, it is still standing. A symphony of stone is how Victor Hugo, the author of "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" put it, and that stone still stands.

So the investigation continues. Dozens of people have been interviewed by the prosecutor's office. Still no cause. Wouldn't expect one this soon anyway. It's less than 48 hours since it started.

But quite dramatic stuff from the fire chief saying the most complicated blaze he's ever seen in his life.


SCIUTTO: So the French president, he is -- he is quite hopefully saying that France plans to have the cathedral up and running again, completely rebuilt, in five years.

Is there a sense of how realistic, how possible that is? I mean an enormous amount of resources being sent that way, hundreds of millions of dollars in donations, but how realistic to meet that goal?

HOLMES: Yes, a lot of experts are saying unrealistic. A lot of experts have said 10 to 15 years is probably more the aim. Paris is hosting the Olympics in 2024 and Mr. Macron probably would love to have Notre Dame open to the public by then. He's saying five years. A lot of people are saying it's going to take years just to work out how to proceed with the renovation, with rebuilding Notre Dame, and how to as well. There are those who say it should be rebuilt in the style it was, meaning put back those wooden beams, make it the way it was. Others saying, well, that's just silly after we've seen what happened with a fire, that it should be more, you know, fire resistant material. There were no sprinkler systems, but that was for a reason. They didn't want anything electrical up there at that level because of the fire risk. So finding out exactly how this started, key to that, Jim.

[09:35:25] SCIUTTO: No question.

Well, this, too, they'll get over it. Got to be confident they'll get over it and will rebuild.

Michael Holmes, thanks very much.

Some asylum seekers entering the U.S. now face being stuck in jail with no end in sight. What the Attorney General William Barr is telling immigration judges not to do now.

We'll be right back.


[09:40:04] SCIUTTO: The Trump administration has a new plan in its ongoing effort to try to deter asylum seekers at the southern U.S. border. That plan to keep them in jail indefinitely. Attorney General William Barr is now ordering immigration judges to stop allowing some migrants to be released on bond, only giving the Department of Homeland Security the power to release any asylum seekers from jail. To be clear, this affects those who have established a credible fear and are subject to deportation.

Let's discuss with John Sandweg, he's former acting director for ICE. He's also the former acting general counsel for Homeland Security. Got a bit of relevant experience here.

John, thanks very much for taking the time.


SCIUTTO: So, this is quite a change here. You know, my assumption would have been that in court you have a right to be released on bond and it's the judge's decision. What's the legal basis for the attorney general to say, no, no, not your call, it's our call?

SANDWEG: Well, in immigration, it's different. And, so, first of all, the immigration courts are actually under the Department of Justice. They're not actually independent courts, as you would see in the normal federal court system.

But in the immigration context, the Supreme Court has been pretty clear that there are broad categories of immigrants who can be detained simply by virtue of the fact that they've been arrested buy ICE essentially. So, typically, however, for a long time, asylum seekers who were arrested between the ports of entry, who were actually caught coming into the United States, which is the majority of them, have been eligible for bond after they demonstrate what's called a credible fear, after they show the DHS officer that there's a significant possibility that they're going to be persecuted in their home country.

This changes that and now puts them entirely at the mercy of ICE, meaning it's completely under the discretion of ICE as to whether these individuals are going to be released or not.

SCIUTTO: Now, it might strike some that the president is trying to change the law without legislation here because he's expressed an enormous amount of frustration with the law that allows -- I mean what they characterize as catch and release. It's difficult to pass legislation on immigration. It's a heck of a lot easier to say, attorney general, hey, change this.

Is this legal? Is it kosher? Is it within not just laws but norms for this change to be made (INAUDIBLE)?

SANDWEG: Yes. It overturns a long standing board of immigration appeals which is the quasi-independent agency that kind of interprets the immigration laws through the immigration court process. So it overturns a long standing opinion of the board of immigration appeals. I don't think this is going to hinge on a constitutional question.

This Supreme Court in this term alone has already affirmed some mandatory detention provisions in the immigration space, different than you would ever see in the criminal context, and the due process rights are much more limited in this space in terms of detention. It's going to hinge on some very complex statutory definitions. So it will be interesting to see what the courts do on this, but in the interim this is going to be the law. And I'll tell you that in the short -- near term, folks who are coming across the border now are subject really only to the mercy of ICE in terms of whether they're going to be released as they continue to fight their case.

SCIUTTO: Hey, listen, and historically -- particularly now, we know that ICE has a reputation of being particularly aggressive on this.

Let me ask you this because the argument from Trump and his allies, and not just them, but you'll hear this from some folks in the immigration space, is that the courts are so overwhelmed, right, they don't have the judges, they can't get through this process. I mean is -- is there a credible argument on the other side as to why you would do this?

SANDWEG: Well, look, in the -- in the immediate term right now, the reality is that people are being released, not because of the immigration courts. I think the president does try to blame the immigration courts. But simply that ICE Is overwhelmed. ICE don't have the money or the detention capacity to detain the volume of people we're seeing at the border. I mean there are 97,000 people last month. ICE is funded for about 42,000 beds nationwide. They can kind of plus that up in the near term, but they can't even find 97,000 beds to detain these people, much less detain these people long enough for an immigration judge to make a decision.

SCIUTTO: But, wait, doesn't this make this worse then because now they're going to be detained longer, right?

SANDWEG: It certainly could. But, again, these -- ICE always maintains a discretion as the attorney general made clear to release individuals and ICE will continue to release individuals. It's a misnomer to believe that the so-called catch and release that the president complains about is being done by immigration judges, it's being done by ICE itself, but not because they don't want to detain these individuals, they just don't have the beds.

SCIUTTO: So many of them might still be released, but is the intention here then, do you think, to deter, to sort of send the message out, you're not going to get bail. If you come here, you might end up sticking a long time in detention.

SANDWEG: Yes, I think that's right. I think it's so deter. And I think it also sends a political message about what this administration wants to achieve on immigration.

You know, in the near term, it's not going to make a big impact simply because they're overwhelmed, but long term what we're going to have -- and this is why I think some of the immigration advocacy groups are really frustrated by this decision, is that individuals who come to this country, fearful of persecution, who have made a credible claim that they're going to be persecuted in their home country, could now be detained for months and months as they fight that case out in court.


SANDWEG: And I think that's -- that's the troubling part about this and the long term impact. In the near term, as long as the number of people showing up are showing up, catch and release will continue in the sense that there's no -- there's no bed space.

SCIUTTO: There's no beds.

John Sandweg, thanks very much. Helps us understand this. We're going to stay on top of this story.

Looking ahead, is North Korea moving radioactive material now? What experts say that these images show, it's concerning. That's next.

[09:44:53] And see what happens when victims and offenders of violent crimes meet face-to-face on CNN's new original series "The Redemption Project with Van Jones." This series premiers next Sunday night, April 28th, 9:00 Eastern Time, right here on CNN.


SCIUTTO: This morning, new signs of possible nuclear activity in North Korea. Experts say that these satellite images of railcars at a nuclear site now suggest that the regime may be moving radioactive material. All this as Kim Jong-un directs new air force drills, reportedly to inspect his country's combat readiness.

Barbara Starr is at the Pentagon with more.

And, Barbara, this is the latest in a series of provocative actions by North Korea since the failed summit in Hanoi. How is the Pentagon viewing these moves?

[09:50:05] BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, good morning, Jim.

I think what you said is so vital, possible, possible nuclear activity, because right now sources are telling us not yet. They don't see any real provocations by Kim Jong-un.

Look, these rail cars are specialized equipment at a reprocessing site where nuclear fuel can be turned into material for nuclear bombs. So it is serious when anything goes on at a site like this, but they don't see Kim engaging in provocative activity, actually going ahead and making new additional nuclear bombs as far as they know.

Why do they think he's holding back on taking the next step towards a provocation? Because even with the two failed summits, the U.S. believes Kim's motivations remain unchanged. He wants sanctions relief from President Trump and he knows the only way to get it is to not engage in a provocation. But, make no mistake, absolutely the U.S. intelligence community watching all of this around the clock to see if the calculation changes at some point.

And, as you said, he has been seen in recent days at one of his air bases. There is imagery of that, meeting with crews there, inspecting aircraft, overseeing what the state media in North Korea calls air drills. Again, what U.S. officials are telling us is that this is the start of the summer training cycle inside North Korea. So, expect to see things moving around. Expect to see fresh images. But will it mean a provocation? That is the crucial thing to watch for.


SCIUTTO: Well, it's interesting, those exercises, as the U.S. has postponed or pushed off a number of exercises in South Korea.

Barbara Starr, always good to have you there.

STARR: Thanks.

SCIUTTO: A new defamation lawsuit filed by a woman claiming that she was another underage victim of the alleged pedophile Jeffrey Epstein. She makes a shocking allegation against Epstein's attorney and former -- and famed, rather, legal scholar Alan Dershowitz. Details on that case coming up.


[09:56:18] SCIUTTO: This morning, a new defamation lawsuit accuses attorney and legal scholar Alan Dershowitz of making false and malicious statements against a woman who says that she was an underage victim of multimillionaire and alleged pedophile Jeffrey Epstein. Epstein was accused of molesting some 36 underage victims. In 2007, Dershowitz was one of Epstein's attorneys and helped to negotiate what some call a sweetheart plea deal with then U.S. attorney in Florida, Alexander Acosta, who is now the U.S. Labor secretary. The woman's lawsuit says that Dershowitz tried to destroy her reputation and also accuses him of participating in a sex trafficking operation. He has adamantly denied this.

Meanwhile, a new accuser has come out saying that Epstein sexually assaulted her and that he and a friend also molested her then 15-year- old sister, this in 1996. Epstein denies this claim.

Joining me now is investigative reporter for "The Miami Herald," Julie Brown.

You've been covering this story for some time.

First, let's go to this defamation lawsuit and what is involved here because Dershowitz accused not only of defaming her, but also participating in sexual assault. Tell us what we know.

JULIE BROWN, INVESTIGATIVE REPORTER, "MIAMI HERALD": Well, she's made this accusation for quite a number of years now. And, of course, Professor Dershowitz has adamantly denied it.

But over the years, and in the wake of a series that I wrote last year about the case, he has become more vocal, has held a number of press conferences. In essence almost baiting her to go to court. He's wanted her to say this publicly so that he could sue her. She sort of, you know, preempted this by suing him. And he welcomes this because he wants to go to court, he wants to prove that -- he wants to be exonerated. He said this never happened.

SCIUTTO: And understandably.

OK, so let's talk bigger picture here now because in another ruling by a judge, a judge has ruled that by not letting the victims know at the time that he was getting what appears to be a sweetheart deal, that that's a violation of the law. Does that open up that deal today to re-prosecution, in effect? Can he be brought back on these charges and perhaps face more time, more time in prison?

BROWN: Well, there's a lot of talk about that happening. It's never happened before. This would set a precedent because this just is new territory as far as the Crime Victims' Rights Act is concerned. Certainly the victims in this case want that to happen. It's hard to say whether the Justice Department will allow that to happen.

But here's the thing. Either way, whether they reopen this particular case, which was based in Palm Beach, Florida, there are cases -- and this new woman that came forward as part of this defamation suit indicated that she saw young school-aged girls in uniforms coming in and out of Mr. Epstein's mansion in New York. There are likely victims, if what she's saying is true, there are likely victims in New York. And he hasn't been given immunity for anything he did outside of Palm Beach. So it's possible even if they don't reopen the Palm Beach case, they could open a case in New York.

SCIUTTO: Understood. We're going to be watching this closely.

Julie Brown, you've been on this story a long time. Thanks very much.

[10:00:03] Top of the hour.

Let's get straight to the breaking news.

Right now, a manhunt underway in Colorado for an armed woman.