Return to Transcripts main page


Official: Suspect Gave Warning Before Hotel, Church Attacks In Sri Lanka; U.S. Ambassador To Sri Lanka Denies U.S. Gave Warning Of Attack; Trump Orders All Administration Officials To Boycott Correspondents' Dinner; Impeachment Divides Democrat Presidential Candidates; Grand Rapids To Make It Illegal To Call 911 On People Living While Black. Aired 2:30-3p ET

Aired April 23, 2019 - 14:30   ET


[14:30:00] BROOKE BALDWIN, CNN ANCHOR: An Indian official tells CNN its intelligence services warned Sri Lanka of a pending terror attack in the weeks leading up to those bombings. ISIS is now claiming responsibility for the attacks. That Indian official says it was interrogating a separate ISIS suspect who gave them the name of the man in Sri Lanka. That man is suspected of being one of the suicide bombers from Sunday.

And this all comes as a top Sri Lanka official told CNN that the U.S. also gave the government information about the upcoming attacks. But today, in speaking with Christiane Amanpour, the U.S. ambassador to Sri Lanka denied those claims.


UNIDENTIFIED SRI LANKA AMBASSADOR: The prime minister, he was kept in the dark. The acting -- or rather the state minister for defense was not aware. And the president was on a private visit overseas. And I would have expected that prime minister to have been well-briefed but that hadn't happened either.


BALDWIN: Robert Blake is a former U.S. ambassador to Sri Lanka.

Mr. Ambassador, thank you so much for joining me.


BALDWIN: And we'll get to your reaction to the tragedy in Colombo and beyond in a second. The current ambassador's assertion contradicted Sri Lanka government claims. Is it at all possible that the U.S. would have known about these potential attacks and not passed on the intelligence to Sri Lanka? What do you make of that contradiction?

BLAKE: Well, I have no -- I don't want to second-guess the ambassador. Having been an ambassador in several countries, when we receive actionable intelligence, we go back to Washington and try to get approval to release what we call terror language, some summary of that report that did not compromise sources and methods, that would enable the host government to act on whatever the threat was. So I'm aware of no circumstances ever in my 31-year career where we didn't share actionable intelligence.

BALDWIN: Sri Lanka state defense minister said this was an apparent retaliation after the mosque shootings in New Zealand and we've learned that ISIS, they're saying, is taking credit for the attack. What is your reaction to that?

BLAKE: Well, the attacks in New Zealand were not that long ago. And an attack of this scope and magnitude in Sri Lanka would take months to prepare so I'm a little bit skeptical about that. On the other hand, I was shocked when the attacks took place because, traditionally, relations between the Muslim and Christian communities have been quite good in Sri Lanka so it was puzzling that they were targeting Christian churches like this.

So we were all struggling to find what the motivation might be. So it is possible that this radical group, perhaps with outside help, perhaps ISIS was involved and acting in retaliation for this or some other grievance.

BALDWIN: And just with your knowledge of Sri Lanka and how people with various beliefs, religious beliefs have co-mingled in the last several years, post-civil war, post a horrific era of bombings and the like, how concerned are you this might disrupt that way of life and not to mention there are still suspects on the run?

BLAKE: Well, as you know, Brooke, the civil war between the Tamil Tigers and the government ended in 2009. And I must say, the process of reconciliation has been slow to date. There's still a very incomplete effort underway.

They've set up an office of missing persons but they really haven't made progress on things like setting up a truth and reconciliation commission, setting up a process for reparations for people killed, and most importantly setting up a process of accountability for the thousands of people who were killed at the end of the war, many of them innocent civilians. So the ethnic Tamils still have a lot of grievances that remain and a lot of questions that remain unanswered.

And now these latest attacks really open a whole new front for the reconciliation process. So not just between Tamils and Sinhalese but between Christians and Muslims. So it does underline the need for a thoughtful and credible reconciliation process. And to date, the U.S. government -- sorry -- the Sri Lanka government has been very divided and so it is going to be a very tall task for them. But I hope they embrace it.

BALDWIN: Appreciate that final point, especially.

Ambassador Robert Blake, thank you, sir, very much.

BLAKE: Thank you.

BALDWIN: Thank you.

Here is a question for you today. Should prisoners be allowed to vote? The question suddenly at the center of debate among 2020 candidates. We'll hear both sides.

[14:35:08] And plus, a new order from President Trump on why he's telling his staff to boycott the White House Correspondents' Dinner that celebrates the First Amendment.


BALDWIN: Since becoming president of the United States, Donald Trump has avoided tradition and skipped the annual White House Correspondents' Association Dinner each spring but members of the staff would attend, at least until now. CNN has learned that the president has ordered all Trump administration officials to boycott this year's event, which is this Saturday.

Brian Stelter is our CNN chief media correspondent, host of "RELIABLE SOURCES."

And say what you will about the press, this is an event that honored the First Amendment.

BRIAN STELTER, CNN CHIEF MEDIA CORRESPONDENT: Yes. It is an awards dinner and fundraiser. In the past presidents have shown up even if they were angry at the press at any given time and it is useful for White House aide to smooze (ph) with reporters and for us to get to our sources but it is a value and another example of a tradition at least being put on pause during the Trump age.

Here's what the Correspondents' Association said. They said they don't mind either way. And this event is about celebrating journalists and the First Amendment and so the show will go on. There's the statement about this weekend's dinner and dinners in the future.

It is yet another example of what we see, the administration attack against the media takes many forms. One form is the president having a rally this Saturday instead of attending the dinner. And I think it matters mostly because what it means about the tensions continuing to escalate.

It makes you wonder, there's talk in the Mueller report about the president making orders, making orders and then being ignored. Yesterday, he told Kaitlan Collins nobody disobeyed my orders. And what happens today, an order not to attend the dinner this weekend. Makes you wonder if that is a coincidence or not.

[14:40:56] BALDWIN: Makes you wonder.


BALDWIN: Brian Stelter --

STELTER: Thanks.

BALDWIN: -- thank you very much.

It is one of the biggest cases the Supreme Court will hear this year. Should the next census include a question about your citizenship? Hear what happens during arguments today in Washington.

Also Democrats are struggling with how to respond to the Mueller report, to impeachment, investigate, move on. We'll talk to a presidential historian about how to avoid repeating mistakes of the past.


[14:45:45] BALDWIN: As Democrats weigh their options in the wake of the Mueller report, Speaker Nancy Pelosi has a clear message for her colleagues in Congress. Speaker Pelosi urging them to focus on, quote, "duty and democracy," while advising the Democrats should not make a decision on impeachment either way based in politics.

Sources tell CNN the comments came during a conference call yesterday with the democratic caucus, which is publicly struggling with this very issue. And it turns out the division on Capitol Hill also extends into the 2020 campaign trail.


SEN. KAMALA HARRIS (D), CALIFORNIA: I believe Congress should take the steps toward impeachment.

SEN. ELIZABETH WARREN (D), MASSACHUSETTS: Accountability has to come from the Congress. And the tool that we are given for that accountability is the impeachment process.

SEN. AMY KLOBUCHAR (D), MINNESOTA: The impeachment proceedings are up to the House. They are going to have to make that decision.

PETE BUTTIGIEG (D), SOUTH BEND MAYOR & PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I think he's made it clear that he deserves impeachment.

I'm going to leave it to the House and Senate to figure that out.

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS (I), VERMONT: I think that there has got to be a thorough investigation and I think the House Democrats will do it.


BALDWIN: Tim Naftali is a CNN presidential historian and the former director of the Nixon Presidential Library.

Tim Naftali, good to have you on.

And this is something I'm curious about. And Steven Tomlinson (ph), one of our writers in Digital, put it so well in talking about history and looking at two previous -- previous impeachments and how various parties reacted. It is sort of a quagmire for Democrats, how to handle. Do they push? Do they not? Tell us what history has taught us?

TIM NAFTALI, CNN PRESIDENTIAL HISTORIAN: Well, one of the beauties of history is it doesn't repeat but it rhymes. And in 1973, the country wanted Congress to examine the question of impeachment regarding Nixon. The country hadn't made up its mind he should be impeached. Most Americans didn't think he should be impeached. But the Democrats were not making a partisan move by starting impeachment proceedings in '73.

In 1998, the country was very divided about Bill Clinton's conduct. And in the midterm elections of that year, the Republicans did badly. They didn't lose control over the House and the Senate but they lost the margins narrower. So the political argument to Republicans was don't push for impeachment but they did anyway.

One of the lessons of a successful impeachment -- and a successful impeachment doesn't mean removing a president. It means that the process unites rather than divides the country. It is that you really need a common sense in the country that this is the appropriate way of ridding the country of a bad president. It is not clear that we're there yet. And I think the reason the Democrats are debating among themselves is Mueller left this huge problem in their hands.


NAFTALI: On the one hand, he did not say that there was a high crime or misdemeanor. On the other hand, he paints a portrait of a deceptive president who is clearly undermining his oath of office. What do you do with that?

And he left it to the Congress to make up its mind. Democrats look at it and say, well, Republicans will say there's no high crime or misdemeanor so, therefore, we might impeach him in the House but it is a party-line vote and in the Senate there's no way --



NAFTALI: So the Democrats see this as a pure loser. So historically, the lesson that history would say is that the American people aren't ready for impeachment and the Democrats would make a mistake to start one.

BALDWIN: And sitting and letting that soak in for a second.

And the other piece, from our town halls last night, Amy Klobuchar -- I'm curious on all these Senators being asked to weigh in on impeachment and then they could vote on this. So this is Amy Klobuchar from last night's CNN town hall.


KLOBOCHURI: The impeachment proceedings are up to the House. They are going to have to make that decision. I'm in the Senate and I believe that we are the jury.

If the House brings the impeachment proceedings before us, we will deal with them.

(END VIDEO CLIP) BALDWIN: So my question to you is, have we ever had a moment where you had sitting Senators running for president having to weigh in on a potential impeachment in which they would be involved?

NAFTALI: In 1999, John McCain was preparing to run for president and he had to weigh in. In fact, he had to vote. So it is not unprecedented.

[14:50:03] Let me try to give you a sense of what an individual Senator or member of Congress might think or might be thinking. Just because the House doesn't start impeachment proceedings doesn't mean that they can't weigh in.

They should not say what their vote would be. But they can talk about what the Mueller report suggests about the nature of the president's conduct. They should not be telling us how they would vote, because by telling us how they would vote, they are making the argument this is partisan.

The whole point of a real impeachment process is that is a constitutional grand jury and the members of Congress have to forget whether they are Republicans or Democrats and they have to remember they're Americans first.

BALDWIN: Are they going to do that?

NAFTALI: Look, I'm just saying -- I'm talking about the theory.


NAFTALI: The fact that we have such a divided country --


NAFTALI: -- that makes it unlikely that this constitutional conduct would be something we'd witness. I think it is much harder in this era because of the way President Trump has divided us for members of the Republican Party to act constitutionally.

I don't think they would be willing to make the choice that southern Democrats, whose constituents are pro-Nixon, and Republicans said, in 1974 said, even though my constituents will be mad at me, I have to vote for impeachment, because if we don't somehow penalize this president, we will be condoning this kind of behavior and who knows what future presidents will do. So they decided to vote constitutionally.

I'm afraid we don't elected representatives in the Republican Party today who would do that sort of thing.

BALDWIN: Well, we wait and see. And it is the question that hangs over Democrats. Do they push it? Do American constituents want that kind of push or do they just want to wait and seek the truth and let everyone decide come November 2020? That is the huge story that we're all going to be covering.

Tim, thank you very much, as always.

NAFTALI: Thank you.

BALDWIN: Especially with your knowledge of history.

Court documents showing the extremist militia that held hundreds of migrants at the U.S. border with Mexico also claimed to have trained to assassinate former President Obama and Hillary Clinton. So we have more on that.

Also, Senator Bernie Sanders said prisoners should be allowed to vote, including someone like the Boston Marathon bombers. Hear how his fellow candidates responded to that question, coming up.


[14:56:52] BALDWIN: One city is ready to make it illegal to call 911 on people for living while black. The phrase refers to black people who have the police called on them for being part of non-criminal routine activities, like the white woman who reportedly called 911 on a group of black people barbecuing in Oakland, California.

Or remember the incident showing two African-American men being arrested at a Philadelphia Starbucks because they didn't order anything while waiting for a friend. Now officials in Grand Rapids, Michigan, want to penalize 911 callers who engage in racial profiling.

CNN National Correspondent, Sara Sidner, is on this one for us today.

And so we know the public is weighing in tonight. But give me the back story here.

SARA SIDNER, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, this is interesting. And you just mentioned a couple of the things that we know of that have been publicized and there are others. Everyone used to talk about DWB, driving while black. That has expanded to doing things, as you said, like barbecuing, going to a Starbucks, and gardening.

For example, there was an incident in Michigan when a man was in a community park and doing a public garden and someone called the police on him. That case went into the courts and a judge said, this is ridiculous, we have to kick this case out. This man was just doing something lawful but had police called on him. So this has been an issue.

And now Grand Rapids, the city, is trying to deal with something they see as a problem. What they are doing -- and I want to give you a look at how they are looking at this ordinance and what the ordinance actually says. Basically, they are trying to deal with the issue in a two-fold manner. One, this is what is going to be added to an ordinance already on the books.

Saying that "bias crime reporting prohibition and making it a criminal misdemeanor to racially profile people of color for participating in their lives. That is no person shall make a police report that is based in whole or in part on an individual's membership in a protected class and not on a reasonable suspicion of criminal activity in consideration of all available facts and the totality of the circumstances."

This is sort of a two-fold issue. One, they want to make sure that black folks in the community are given their civil rights. That they are able to walk around, go to parks, go to Starbucks, go to school. There was a girl in Yale who fell asleep while in a common room and another white student called the police on her and she had to justify going to school at Yale.

She was paying her tuition like everyone else. But your life is impacted. You are treated like a criminal just for being of color because someone else is uncomfortable. They are trying to stop that. They have talked to police and community members and activists.

And really, though, it will be a bit hard because prosecutors do say, in order to -- it would be a fine of about $500. In order to prove this, Brooke, they have to know the mindset of the person calling. If the person said they were scared and thought they saw something, hard to prove. So therein lies the issue with the ordinance.

BALDWIN: We'll see what happens in Grand Rapids tonight.

Sara Sidner, thank you for the preview.

And just a programming note. Join W. Kamal Bell for the much- anticipated season 4 of "UNITED SHADES OF AMERICA."