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Rep. David Cicilline (D) Rhode Island is Interviewed About Trump's Charlottesville Response; Biden Expresses Regret to Anita Hill in Phone Call; Deputy AG Rod Rosenstein Defends Handling of Russia Probe; Now: Sentencing Underway for Russian Agent Maria Butina. Aired 10-10:30a ET

Aired April 26, 2019 - 10:00   ET



REP. DAVID CICILLINE (D-RI), JUDICIARY COMMITTEE: -- down the cost of prescription drugs to opposing our office to raise family incomes with equal pay for equal work. So, I think the president thinks he benefits from constantly trying to divide the country and distract from some of the policies that his administration has put forward. We need to hold him to account both on the policy side and on the misconduct, and we're going to do both things.

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN ANCHOR: You think it's going to be easy to -

CICILLINE: But having the president praise a general who fought against his own country is appalling and horrifying to hear those words come out of his mouth.

SCIUTTO: Congressman David Cicilline, thanks very much, as always.

CICILLINE: Thank you.

SCIUTTO: Top of the hour. I'm Jim Sciutto in New York. Poppy is off today. President Trump is off to the heartland, Indianapolis, Indiana, site of an NRA convention where the president will speak about 90 minutes from now. That's a picture of him departing a few moments ago on his walk to Marine One. He spoke to reporters about the Mueller report, a strong economy, and some potentially strong competition for him in 2020. Here's what he said about the former vice president and brand-new presidential contender, Joe Biden.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I think we beat him easily. I am a young, vibrant man. I look at Joe, I don't know about him. I don't know. I would never say anyone is too old, but I know they're all making me look very young, both in terms of age and I think in terms of energy.


SCIUTTO: CNN White House correspondent Kaitlan Collins joins me now. You know, the president clearly has chosen his means of attack against Biden. He called him sleepy Joe yesterday in his tweet, and now he's talking about his energy level, his age. A few years older than him, but let's be frank, not much older than him. That's his line of attack.

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Yes. Joe Biden is actually only four years older than the president, but you see there, the president is saying he would never call someone too old to run for president. But, Jim, he was essentially implying that that's what he thinks about Joe Biden.

And that comes as CNN is reporting behind the scenes, the president is questioning his allies and advisers whether or not they think Joe Biden can beat him because he knows that the former vice president is someone who has a lot of name recognition like the president does and he also would be going after similar voters that the president went after in the last election, those rust belt voters, the Midwest voters.

So, the president certainly behind the scenes is raising questions about Joe Biden. But Jim, something else, when Joe Biden made his announcement yesterday that he was entering the race, he brought up one of the moments that has essentially come to define Trump's presidency, and that was the remarks he made about that violent protest in Charlottesville that left one woman dead. And the president brought it up last night in an interview and then again today when he was asked about those remarks, he seemed to defend what he had said before.


TRUMP: If you look at what I said, you will see that that question was answered perfectly. And I was talking about people that went because they felt very strongly about the monument to Robert E. Lee, a great general. Whether you like it or not, he was one of the great generals. I have spoken to many generals here right at the White House, and many people thought of the generals, they think that he was maybe their favorite general. People were there protesting the taking down of the monument of Robert E. Lee. Everybody knows that.


COLLINS: So he's saying there, everyone knows that, when the president made that remark about both sides, and of course, there were those self-proclaimed white nationalists on one side of that. But Jim, we're seeing the president is sensitive to that criticism from Joe Biden.

SCIUTTO: Indeed. Listen, he fought against his own country. He fought to keep slavery, easy thing to say. President can't say it.

Let's bring in CNN political director David Chalian as well. Kaitlan, please stay with us.

The president doubled down on a lot of statements, including him saying, denying that he told Don McGahn to fire Robert Mueller but then repeating, saying he had the right to fire him anyway but didn't do it. Explain what he's trying to do here. DAVID CHALIAN, CNN POLITICAL DIRECTOR: Well, first and foremost, Jim, I think what's important to note here, the president is disputing a key finding in the Mueller report. Now, that is not something we heard his Attorney General Barr do even when he was putting his own spin on it. This is the president now in dispute with a finding in the Mueller report, which obviously, as Barr goes up to testify next week on the Hill, when Mueller eventually testifies, this will continue to be explored. But what he's clearly trying to do here is he's saying he could have fired Mueller at any time, and he didn't. He cooperated. He had his whole team cooperate. He's trying to portray himself as the most transparent person in history and that he never ordered his White House Counsel McGahn to fire Robert Mueller.

Well, first of all, I just want to spell this out. It was Rod Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general, you know, Jim, who was in charge of overseeing that investigation. The president could not have fired Mueller directly, the way that the statute is written.

[10:05:03] He would have asked Rod Rosenstein to do so and Rod Rosenstein would have had to comply and chosen to do that. That's first of all.

Second of all, McGahn spent 30 hours with Mueller's team and detailed this in all the phone calls that he had where he had a clear direction from the president to call over to Justice and get rid of Bob Mueller. Maybe he didn't use the word fire, and that's what Donald Trump is hanging on, but his intention was clear to McGahn.

SCIUTTO: And by the way, if Don McGahn is not telling the truth, he goes to jail. If the other witnesses who corroborated his account don't tell the truth, he goes to jail. The president faces no penalty for tweeting or stating the opposite on the White House lawn.

Kaitlan Collins, I wonder, all the attention the president is focusing on this, against apparently the advice of his advisers who are saying listen, talk about the economy, is that -- are you being told is that because the president finds that the most damaging finding in the Mueller report for him?

COLLINS: It's because he sees this report as an attack on his presidency. And he's particularly unnerved by what Don McGahn said, because it essentially painted the most damning portrait of the president with McGahn telling people that the president wanted him to do crazy things in the White House. The president did not like that portrayal that came, and a lot of it was based on what Don McGahn, one of the people who worked closest with the president, told those investigators.

What's interesting though is you're seeing the president and his allies except to the broad conclusions of this report about obstruction and conclusion, but trying to poke holes in other aspects like what Don McGahn told Robert Mueller even though what McGahn said is not just based on him but also according to the Mueller report. Multiple testimony from several people, and also evidence that they presented to the special counsel, including documents and emails, and everything like that. So there is so much about this that they're trying -- the president's allies are urging him, Jim, to move on. They say he's gotten what he wanted from this. Move on from the report, stop talking about it, but the president has been unable to do that.

SCIUTTO: Based on past experience, chances of him listening to that advice, probably pretty low. Kaitlan Collins, David Chalian, thanks very much. David, stick around with if you can. I got a couple more questions for you.

President Trump also taking shots at Joe Biden just minutes before the former vice president gives his first television interview since declaring his presidential run. Arlette Saenz has been covering the former vice president, joins me now.

So, it's a big interview, a big moment in the rollout of his campaign.

ARLETTE SAENZ, CNN POLITICAL REPORTER: That's right, Jim. In just a short while, in about an hour, Joe Biden will make his first appearance on ABC's "The View" just one day after launching that presidential campaign. Where he very clearly, right out of the gate, tried to make this a campaign of a rebuke of President Trump, drawing on that moment in Charlottesville and saying the president's response to it shows that there is a battle for the soul of the nation.

Now, yesterday, I had the chance to ask Joe Biden about the fact that he's the front-runner. And he told me that it's not just about being able to win, but it's about being able to who will best be able to lead the country. And one thing that Joe Biden is going to point to is his experience factor. His 36 years in the Senate and two terms as vice president.

But with that long career is also a very long record that's going to come into sharp focus in the coming months. And one area of that career has already come into the spotlight during the first 24 hours of his campaign. And that was his handling of the 1991 testimony of Anita Hill. He was the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee at the time when Anita Hill testified and accused the Supreme Court nominee at the time, Clarence Thomas, of sexual harassment.

And yesterday, we learned that Biden and Anita Hill, after all these years, they did recently speak, and a spokesperson released a statement saying that Biden expressed his regret for what she endured during those hearings. But then we also heard from Anita Hill, giving an interview to "The New York Times," where she basically said that that type of apology was not enough. That simply saying, "I'm sorry for what happened to you." was not enough. Anita Hill saying, that she is not ready to support Joe Biden until he acknowledges his role in those hearings. These are questions that Joe Biden is going to continue to face in these early days of the campaign. We'll see if he gets any questions about it on "The View" or potentially on his way in there, Jim.

SCIUTTO: All right. Arlette, stay with me. Of course, you're outside ABC because the interview for the vice president is going to be on "The View." David Chalian back with us again. David, Trump saying there, I think we beat him easily, speaking about Joe Biden. CNN's reporting is actually that the president seems to be nervous because he's asking a lot of questions about him. Why is that?

CHALIAN: Yes, I mean, the president and his team see Joe Biden and this entire Democratic field as the candidate most likely to go and grab some of the voters that actually helped deliver the Oval Office to Donald Trump. Some of those middle-class rust belt older white voters in places like, you know, Wisconsin and Michigan and Pennsylvania, that Joe Biden has a unique ability when looking at the entire field of 20 Democratic candidates to go in there and try to win some of the voters back.

[10:10:13] Some of those voters, you recall, voted for the Obama/Biden ticket in 2012. So, they see that as a real clear and present political danger to them, which is why I think you see the president commenting on Joe Biden and trying to develop some sort of framing, negative framing around him more so than he's done with any other candidate in the field.

SCIUTTO: This is one case what the president means is the opposite of what he's saying when he says he can beat him easily.

Arlette, looking at these first 27 - I guess 28 hours now of the Biden campaign, what are the team members saying to you about the rollout? Are they concerned about some of the hiccups?

SAENZ: Well, I don't think that they wanted to be addressing the issue of Anita Hill on the first day. That's something that's really dogged him over the past few months. But they were happy with that initial rollout, that video, the way that it was received. That message about Charlottesville has really been central to Biden over the past few months. When I have been traveling with him around the country, he always points back to that moment in Charlottesville and the president's response to it.

Now, one thing we're going to be watching in these coming hours is how much money did Joe Biden raise in that first 24-hour period. Biden has never been a prolific fund-raiser. He doesn't have that small donor grassroots level fund-raising list that people like Bernie Sanders and Kamala Harris might have. We'll see if we get any answers about that.

But then, also, we have seen these criticisms already coming his way from his fellow Democratic rivals. Last night, Joe Biden was at a fund-raiser in Philadelphia that was hosted by a Comcast executive. Bernie Sanders' campaign criticized that, saying that he's at a fund- raiser with a corporate lobbyist. We'll see if Biden is ready to engage yet with his fellow Democrats. So much of the focus in this rollout has been pitting this against -- between himself and President Trump so far.

SCIUTTO: So, David Chalian, I have to imagine, if all of his Democratic rivals are taking aim at Joe Biden, they have to see him as the man to beat as well. CHALIAN: Well, there's no doubt. I mean, he enters the race as the big dog and the front-runner. But it's interesting to note, it's not all of them right now. It's the very ones identified with the progressive wing. Elizabeth Warren going after Joe Biden yesterday about a decades-old battle that they have over bankruptcy bill and credit card companies, calling him out by name. As Arlette was just saying about the Bernie Sanders fund-raising appeal, the Warren/Sanders folks want to obviously in the first 24 hours immediately start drawing a contrast with what they see with the more establishment corporatist, centrist Joe Biden to really try and carve out differentiation from your right, Jim, seeing you know, differentiation from the guy who is clearly in the driver seat at the moment.

SCIUTTO: Leading all those national polls. David Chalian -- sorry, Arlette, you had a thought there?

SAENZ: No, just one of those things, there's been so many policy debates that have already played out in this Democratic primary that Joe Biden just hasn't weighed in on yet, the Green New Deal, Medicare- for-all. We'll see in the coming weeks how much policy he might put out himself on the campaign.

SCIUTTO: David and Arlette, thanks very much.

CHALIAN: Thanks, Jim.

SCIUTTO: Still to come, this hour, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein unloading on his critics as he defends his handling of the Russia probe, including standing by his appointment of the Special Counsel Robert Mueller. We're going to tell you what more he's saying including some criticism of the Obama administration, ahead.

Plus, students and staff at two universities in Los Angeles are under quarantine today because of a measles outbreak, the latest on the record outbreak and growing concern about the disease around the country.

And two fires breakout at a Pennsylvania church in the very same week. Church leaders and investigators looking for answers.


[10:18:26] SCIUTTO: This morning, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein is defending his actions and firing back at his critics over his handling of the Mueller investigation.


ROD ROSENSTEIN, DEPUTY ATTORNEY GENERAL: I did pledge to do it right and to take it to the appropriate conclusion.

It's not our job to render conclusive factual findings. We just decide whether it's appropriate to file criminal charges.

(END VIDEO CLIP) SCIUTTO: Joining me now to discuss, Susan Hennessey, former NSA attorney and CNN national security and legal analyst. So, a lot to unpack from Rod Rosenstein there because he made a lot of defenses -- took a couple shots as well. First on his answer there that it's not his job, meaning the Justice Department's job, to render conclusive factual findings. We just decide whether it's appropriate to file criminal charges. That is true, but we also know, do we not, that Robert Mueller's decision not to indict the president on obstruction of justice was because of a policy not to indict the president based on what he cited in that report, do we not?

SUSAN HENNESSEY, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY AND LEGAL ANALYST: That's certainly true that that was Robert Mueller's motivation. The other thing that's a little at tension with Rosenstein's comments was of course his decision to join Bill Barr in that original summary letter and not just letting the Mueller report speak for itself on obstruction of justice. Laying out the facts but declining to render a traditional prosecutorial judgment. But actually taking that additional step of saying we don't believe that this is obstruction of justice. I think anyone who has actually read the report now understands that decision and the decision to sort of insert themselves into that process was ultimately a politically and public relations motivated one. It's also hard to square that with sort of Rosenstein's account of how he viewed his role.

[10:20:04] SCIUTTO: On his criticism of the Obama administration for not being more public about Russian interference in the election as it was happening, and it's my own reporting, I have spoken to folks who who were in the administration who said there was a debate inside about how public to go. Is Rosenstein's criticism there fair?

HENNESSEY: Certainly, there is fair criticism to be leveled against the Obama administration's handling of sort of the Russia situation in real time. That said, there's a single person who is responsible for the failure to warn the American people, it wasn't President Obama or anyone in his administration.

It was Mitch McConnell. There has been lots of credible reporting that the Obama administration went to McConnell, laid out the evidence, and said we want to present this to the American people. Mitch McConnell in response made clear that if they did that, he would frame it as a partisan issue. And that ultimately was the reason why the Obama administration felt they couldn't move forward.

SCIUTTO: Final question. The president's threatening now to declassify the FISA warrants that led to the investigation. This is the special court that determines the ability to surveil U.S. citizens. He's done this before. Declassified documents that he found politically advantageous, but there are risks here. What would the risks be?

HENNESSEY: Over the long term, the risk is not just anything that might be revealed by this particular declassification, but over the long term, the government is actually going to erode the government's argument in needing to preserve these documents. All the time the government has to go to court to fight FOIA requests, requests by defendants to make these documents public. And what they say is if we were to disclose them, it would be harmful to the national security of the United States. If what we see is the president selectively declassifying information when it's politically advantageous or helped fuel a particular conspiracy theory, that's going to undercut the message of the Department of Justice. And courts might be less likely to defer to them in the future.

SCIUTTO: Susan Hennessey, always good to talk to you.

Right now, federal judge is deciding the fate of the Russian agent Maria Butina. Today's sentencing comes after she pleaded guilty in December to one count of conspiracy.

CNN reporter Kara Scannell is live outside the courthouse this morning. What can we expect there and what do we learn from her about Russian efforts to interfere in the political process here?

KARA SCANNELL, CNN REPORTER: Yes. The sentencing hearing began just about 20 minutes ago. And the judge here will decide just how much time Maria Butina serves in prison. Now, prosecutors are saying that she was part of this conspiracy, this campaign to infiltrate conservative political circles while working with a Russian government official and then acting as a backchannel to get that information to the Kremlin.

Now, prosecutors initially came out with a lot of salacious details saying that she once offered sex to have access to a special interest group. And they have walked to that back now. They have said that she actually was not using her graduate school study as a cover. She was a genuine college student, but -- and they've also said that she was not actually a trained intelligence officer and was not a spy in the traditional sense of seeking classified information that she would then peddle back to the Kremlin.

But they're sticking very strongly with this notion that she's a national security risk working as what they called an access agent to spot and identify individuals who could be vulnerable for Russian interference and that information would still get back to the Kremlin as part of their overall effort to influence the U.S. political system.

Now Butina's lawyer and prosecutors are saying they want her to get 18 months in prison. Butina's lawyers are saying that she should serve no more than the time she's already been incarcerated, which is just over nine months.

We do expect to hear from Butina. She's expected to address the judge and make her best case. Now, her lawyer is saying that she was an idealized college student who just wanted and had a genuine interest in improving U.S. government relations. They're asking that she just be sent back home to Russia. Jim?

SCIUTTO: Well that's how Russian intelligence work. You have the company folks who work full time and you got the freelancers, part of the system.

Kara Scannell thanks very much. Two U.S. universities are right now under quarantine because of a measles outbreak. We're going to have an update on this, just coming up.


[10:28:58] SCIUTTO: Welcome back. Some news coming in to CNN, the semi driver accused of causing a fiery crash in Colorado will now be charged with vehicular homicide, this even as authorities say they are not sure how many people died in that collision. According to investigators, the driver semi slammed into cars sitting in traffic near Denver yesterday. Those are the pictures there, just horrific. There were some 28 vehicles involved in the crash. That included four semi-tractor trailers. Authorities cannot say how many victims died in the crash because they are still going through all that wreckage. Investigators say there was no sign of alcohol or drugs that played a part in that deadly crash.

Attorneys for New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft will ask a judge today to throw out video that allegedly shows him paying for sex acts at a Florida spa. Kraft has pleaded not guilty to two misdemeanor counts of soliciting prostitution. He was among hundreds of people charged this past February in a string - in a sting rather involving several massage parlors and spas across Florida. Kraft's attorneys argue that recording that video was a violation of their constitutional rights.

This morning, another story we have been following closely.