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Chicago's Top Prosecutor Frustrated in Jussie Smollett Case; Details of Notre Dame Fire Response; Interview with Rep. Ro Khanna (D- CA). Aired 10:30-11a ET

Aired April 17, 2019 - 10:30   ET


JIM SCIUTTO, CNN ANCHOR, NEWSROOM: Chicago's top prosecutor, Kim Foxx, expressing serious frustrations with the Jussie Smollett case. In newly released messages she sent to her staff, the Cook County state's attorney described Smollett as "a washed-up celeb who lied to cops.

TEXT: Pedophile with four victims, 10 counts. Washed up celeb who lied to cops, 16. On a case eligible for deferred prosecution I think it's indicative of something we should be looking at generally. Just because we can charge something doesn't mean we should.


I'll get with Risa and Jim. With him taking over we --

SCIUTTO: Smollett was facing 16 felony charges for allegedly staging a hate crime against himself. While Foxx had recused herself from the case, her office eventually dropped all of those charges, suddenly, against Smollett. CNN correspondent Nick Watt joins me now.

And, Nick, Foxx is now commenting on those texts. I mean, the most disturbing, if that's the right word, of which -- was seeing to give direction to her deputy to back off those charges. What is she saying?

NICK WATT, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well listen, Jim, she is under enormous pressure from many different sides. I mean, the fraternal order of police, there in Chicago, has requested that she resign. They claim that she has undermined the public's faith in the justice system after those charged were dropped.

Now, she, as you mentioned, recused herself from this case after some communications with friends of the Smollett family. So she was recused. But what is very clear from these messages is that her office was not prepared for the level of public interest in this case.

But, listen, it was a shocking case. Jussie Smollett, this actor, claiming he had been attacked in a racist and homophobic attack and a noose had been thrown around his neck. Then we're told that, actually, he staged the whole thing himself. Then 16 felony charges against him. That was shocking. And then of course, everyone was shocked when those charges were abruptly dropped. Now, what Kim Foxx is saying on this issue of recusal. So she said --

in relation to that, she said, "After the incident became public, I reached out to Joe" -- that's one of her assistants who took on the case -- "I reached out to Joe to discuss reviewing office policies to assure consistencies in our charging and our use of appropriate charging authority.

"I was elected to bring criminal justice reform, and that includes intentionality, consistency and discretion. I will continue to uphold these guiding principles."

Now, Foxx has said, for a long time now, that she has nothing to hide and she did her job properly. But as I say, Jim, she is now under intense pressure.

SCIUTTO: Understandably so. Nick Watt, thanks very much.

[10:34:25] Inspectors right now, surveying the damage from the destructive fire at Notre Dame Cathedral. This as firefighters in Paris describe just how close they were to losing all of the iconic church. More coming up.


SCIUTTO: Just moments ago, Paris firefighters saying they were very quick to arrive at Notre Dame Cathedral after those fire alarms initially went off. They gave an update on the inferno this morning, calling it the most complicated fire they have encountered.

We're learning this morning that no construction workers were actually in the cathedral when the fire first broke out. Prosecutors say they have interviewed some 30 construction workers as well as security staff there, as they search for the cause of the fire.

Meanwhile, we are learning France plans to open an international competition to redesign that spire, the famous spire that came down in the flames. CNN international anchor and correspondent Michael Holmes is in Paris.

Michael, so they're not looking at foul play here, really. But what have they learned so far in the investigation, about the cause and the initial response?

MICHAEL HOLMES, CNN INTERNATIONAL ANCHOR AND CORRESPONDENT: Yes. The initial reaction to this was that it was an accident, no evidence of anything other than that. As you pointed out, workers had left an hour before the fire first broke out, the last of the workers. They'd been up there working on scaffolding. So they're still trying to work out what it was up there near the roof that actually caught on fire and started this blaze.

[10:40:13] Throughout the morning here, we've seen firefighters still up there dousing some hot spots, putting water on some of the areas that are still, perhaps, smoldering. Also seen, you know, there's a crane back there that's been lifting up large sheaths of what appear to be wooden planks. And what they're doing there is trying to cover up the hole in the roof.

Of course, the roof is gone and they're trying to protect the inside of the cathedral from further damage from the elements, and also the stained glass windows that survived the fire. They don't want them moving with wind inside and outside of the cathedral.

The fire brigade news conference was fascinating. As you said, the fire chief saying, the most complicated blaze he's ever encountered. They fought it from above.

But, critically, they also fought it from below to try to save some of the support, wooden support beams lower down, under the gable area. Because if they'd caught fire, he said the whole structure would have gone and we wouldn't see at least what remains now of Notre Dame. Which, of course, they're hoping to rebuild.

We also heard of a human chain being formed to try to get the artifacts out of there, the crown of thorns that Christians believe Jesus wore, and other valuable artifacts, artwork and the like. And, in fact, the fire brigade chaplain spoke about that. Let's have a listen.


FATHER JEAN-MARC FOURNIER, FIREFIGHTER CHAPLAIN (through translator): I handled all the artworks which were taken out. There were two giant models, if you know very well, at the end of the apse, and we managed to cover them, protect them from the water. And we managed to remove works of art which were in the first chapel.


HOLMES: Extraordinary stuff. And what they saved. I mean, a lot of damage done to Notre Dame. But, you know, there is good news too. It is still standing. The stonework is still there.

Emmanuel Macron, the French president, says that they will rebuild. They had a cabinet meeting today, set up a high-powered committee, a mini ministry, if you like, whose entire purpose will be to oversee the reconstruction of Notre Dame.


SCIUTTO: And the high hopes of doing it in time for those 2024 Olympics.

Let me ask you this. Because if I have the timeline right, the first alarm went off and it took some 20 minutes, 22 minutes for staff there to discover the source of the fire, at which point they then alerted firefighters. You know, I don't want to assign blame to anybody. But I wonder if investigators are looking at that delay there, as being crucial to this.

HOLMES: Yes. Apparently when the first alarm went off, they couldn't work out where it related to. They saw no sign of fire. They looked around, they couldn't see anything. And then a second alarm went off, a further investigation. They did see where the fire had begun. And the fire brigade, by then, was on its way.

They, by all accounts, got here pretty quickly. But what they were presented with was a massive challenge for any fire brigade around the world to have to deal with, because of the sheer height of where the flames were. And they had to get, you know, the water cannon up high enough to start trying to douse the flames, and it just took off, as we saw -- we all saw, live.

You know, listen, 48 hours ago, this fire hadn't started. When it did start, it took off. The wooden beams up there, 800-year-old wooden beams. They called that area of the -- of the cathedral, "the forest." And it certainly burnt like one. So they were up against it.

And they're pretty proud of what they managed to save, in fact --


HOLMES: -- Jim.

SCIUTTO: I mean, look at the stained glass windows inside, they're intact. I mean, that's remarkable. Those are fragile --


SCIUTTO: -- things. Michael Holmes, thanks very much. We know you're going to stay on top of it.

[10:44:03] President Trump has now vetoed an attempt by Congress, a bipartisan attempt, to end U.S. involvement in the Saudi-led war in Yemen. What will lawmakers do next? Do they have anything? We're going to ask the congressman who helped push that Yemen resolution.


SCIUTTO: President Trump, issuing the second veto of his presidency in just a matter of weeks, stopping a bipartisan resolution passed by Congress -- both houses -- that would have forced the end of U.S. involvement in the Saudi-led war in Yemen.

While vetoing the resolution, President Trump called it, quote, "A dangerous attempt to weaken my constitutional authorities." Let's discuss now with Democratic Congressman Ro Khanna. He is one of the original sponsors of the Yemen resolution.

Congressman, appreciate you taking the time this morning.

REP. RO KHANNA (R-CA): Thanks, Jim, for having me on.

SCIUTTO: So here's an effort. You did get support, both in the Senate and the House, from some Republicans, but not enough to override the veto. There's been talk for a number of weeks about somehow hemming in the U.S. broader relationship with Saudi Arabia, particularly after the murder of Jamal Khashoggi. That's still on ice, as far as we can tell.

Has Congress failed to rein in this relationship? What else can you do?

KHANNA: Well, we need to take more action. But, first, this was a missed opportunity. This is the first time in the history of the country that a war powers resolution has passed both the Senate and the House. Our country is weary of endless wars. Many of the president's closest allies like Mark Meadows and Matt Gaetz supported this resolution, and Rand Paul supported it. It's really a shame that he's vetoed it.

[10:50:02] And at stake are almost 14 million lives in Yemen. The U.N. has said -- Special Envoy Griffiths has said -- 14 million people face famine. The most urgent issue is for the Saudis to lift the blockade to allow food and medicine in so that we can avert this famine.

There are a few things Congress can do. First, we can consider specific sanctions on MBS. And second, we can consider restricting arms sales.

SCIUTTO: Right. And it's a fair point. Because presidents, as you noted -- Democrat and Republican -- have had very broad authority to wage war in any way they want, really. So this is a marker. Hasn't happened before.

But on the other side, it appears the administration's strategy with Saudi Arabia is, just kick the can down the road. Keep pushing it out, pushing it out and keep things going. You say a next step could be sanctions or ending arms sales. I mean, do you have Republican support for that kind of step?

KHANNA: We do. It remains to be seen how much support, but even Republicans like Lindsey Graham have said we can't just turn a blind eye to the humanitarian crisis in Yemen or the Khashoggi murder.

So I do think there is an appetite in Congress to re-examine the Saudi relationship. Everyone understands that the Saudis play a role in the Middle East, and we can't totally abandon it but we can certainly sanction them for what they did with Khashoggi, and demand that their involvement in Yemen in perpetuating the greatest humanitarian crisis in the world, end.

SCIUTTO: The Mueller report, or at least a redacted portions of the broader Mueller report, is going to be out tomorrow. Let me ask you this. What key question do you, as a sitting congressman, want to have answered by this report?

KHANNA: Well, Jim, I want to understand what Mueller's team found regarding the interference with the Russians in our elections. That's something that should concern all Americans. How in the world did the Russians manage to interfere with our presidential process?

And, second, I want to understand what the Mueller report found on the issue of obstruction of justice. We know that the Mueller report doesn't exonerate the president. The Mueller report refused to make a conclusion. We should see what evidence the Mueller team collected. SCIUTTO: Let me ask you this. Because as you know -- and I've spoken

to Democratic and Republican lawmakers who say the same thing. When they're out in the field, they are seldom asked about the Russia investigation today. That patience is wearing thin. By large margins, folks will talk more about health care. They'll talk about their job. They'll talk about trade.

Are you concerned that Democrats -- not only with their reaction to the Mueller report, but for instance, your committee, the Oversight Committee's request for financial documents related to Trump, tax returns, et cetera, that Democrats risk being a party of investigations when there's not really the political appetite for that, even among their supporters?

KHANNA: Well, Jim, we've done both. We are focused on having an infrastructure bill that will actually build this country. We're focused on a prescription drug bill to rein in big pharma. We've passed legislation on campaign finance reform, to get big money out of politics.

But while we have a positive agenda, we have a constitutional responsibility to exercise oversight. And that has to be part of the push for transparency. But I agree with your point, that most Americans care, "What are you doing about the economy? What are you doing about health care? What are you doing about jobs?" And most of our effort in Congress should be focused on solving those problems.

SCIUTTO: Final question. President Trump has defended his tweet of a video showing your Democratic colleague, Congresswoman Ilhan Omar, mixed with images of the 9/11 attacks, some (ph) are (ph) saying taking comments out of context as she described that attack.

Do you believe that the president, do you believe that his supporters, the administration and some of your Republican colleagues have been unfair with her? Or do you believe that she has spoken out of turn on these issues?

KHANNA: Well, there's no reason the president of the United States should be tweeting out that video. And you have to understand, the power differential. I mean, here, you're talking about a freshman member of Congress, a woman of color. And the -- and the president of the United States, the most powerful person in the world.

So he should understand that those types of actions put people in danger. And I'm glad that Speaker Pelosi has stepped up to have more security for Ilhan Omar.

SCIUTTO: Congressman Ro Khanna, appreciate having you on the show this morning.

KHANNA: Thank you, Jim.

SCIUTTO: Well, hundreds of thousands of students are out of school right now, at this moment, in Colorado. Hundreds of thousands. This as police and the FBI search for an 18-year-old woman infatuated with the Columbine shooting massacre -- anniversary coming up in a few days -- and armed with a shotgun and ammunition.

[10:55:00] Stay with CNN. We're following this story.


SCIUTTO: Just in, the Trump administration is making a major policy shift. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, announcing that lawsuits will now be allowed in U.S. courts against businesses that operate on properties confiscated by the Cuban government after the revolution there in 1959.

The State Department says the new shift is partially due to Cuba's support for Venezuela. Venezuela's president, Nicolas Maduro. This is an enforcement of a controversial provision in the decades-old trade embargo on Cuba, but the provision had been waived since the Clinton presidency. Certainly of interest to voters -- many voters in Florida as we get close to 2020.

[11:00:04] Thanks to you so much for joining us today. I'm Jim Sciutto. "AT THIS HOUR WITH KATE BOLDUAN".