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Trump Conspiracy Theory; Reporter Reacts to Epstein Death; Evangelical Minister Warns Trump. Aired 8:30-9a ET

Aired August 12, 2019 - 08:30   ET



[08:31:20] ERICA HILL, CNN ANCHOR: Breaking news, a tragic update to that deadly fire that killed five children at a day care in Erie, Pennsylvania. The fire chief in Erie says three of those killed were the children of a firefighter from the same fire department that was there to battle the blaze. Authorities say the cause of the fire is under investigation but it may have been electrical. Investigators say the day care had just one smoke detector in the attic and noted that if there had been more, the tragedy could have been prevented.

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: All right, this morning, the president of the United States is pedaling in conspiracy theories over the death of Jeffrey Epstein. Why does this matter? Why should you care about this?

John Avlon explains.


JOHN AVLON, CNN ANCHOR: All right, guys, the conspiracy theorist-in- chief is at it again. I'm speaking, of course, about the president's decision to retweet a baseless conspiracy theory about the suicide of Jeffrey Epstein. We're not going to show you the tweet because it's pure nonsense, but suffice it to say the president's suggesting that the Clintons could be behind it.

This is apparently the new normal. We must all confront again the fact that the president of the United States is fomenting hate, division and disinformation. (INAUDIBLE) strategy here as much as impulse, but he's promoted conspiracy theories before, most notably the racist birther conspiracy theory about Barack Obama. During the 2016 campaign he basically suggested the father of his primary rival, Ted Cruz, was somehow involved in JFK's assassination.

But it's worth noting that the president's latest comes less than two weeks after a report by an FBI office in Phoenix, Arizona, warning against conspiracy theory driven domestic extremists. When the president spreads these theories, it's not just asking question, as Kellyanne Conway suggested, he's amplifying their message from the bully pulpit of the White House, and that leads some folks to believe him.

What's doubly shameful is that he has access to the world's greatest intelligence service but apparently chooses to ignore them. Now, former acting solicitor general of the United States, Neal

Katyal, said this, tweet was literally unfathomable. It would be outrageous even for a member of a local city council. It would. But, in some ways, that's the point. We're getting used to holding the president of the United States to a lower standard than a random city councilmember. You wouldn't tolerate this kind of behavior or lies from anyone in your life.

Now, some folks might take comforted from the idea that the president's worst impulses are often contained. As one senior national security official told Jake Tapper, quote, everyone at this point ignores what the president says and just does their job. The American people should take some measure of confidence in that. But that's only comforting if you're OK with senior officials treating the commander in chief like a malevolent child.

Here's the thing. Forty or so percent of Americans who support President Trump do believe him or they chose to dismiss what he says by engaging in what aboutism, deflecting to socialism or the squad or somehow still Bill and Hillary Clinton. Others seek refuge in the mantra, don't pay attention to what he says, look at what he does, and they quickly point to the economy.

But the president's supporters cannot simply do Trump a la carte. If you support the president, you're endorsing what he says as well as what he does. You're saying all this is consistent with your vision of how presidents should behave. And if that's your argument, try to imagine any other president publicly accusing a predecessor of murdering someone. I'll wait.

The FBI report I mentioned earlier says this, the advent of the Internet and social media has enabled promoters of conspiracy theories to produce and share greater volumes of material via online platforms that larger audiences of consumers can quickly and easily access. By that standard, the president of the United States has become one of the most powerful forces for promoting misinformation in the world today.

And that's your "Reality Check."

BERMAN: A very important one, John, too. As you note, you can't treat him like a child. He is a president and needs to be held to that standard.

[08:35:05] AVLON: That's right.

BERMAN: All right, thanks, John, I appreciate it.

HILL: A lot of questions this morning about what happens now for the victims of Jeffrey Epstein, who were hoping for justice. Reaction from the investigative reporter whose work helped to crack open the case into Epstein's twisted world. She joins us next.


BERMAN: Does the death of Jeffrey Epstein mean that questions about his crimes, questions about potential accomplices could go unanswered? The renewed interest in Epstein's case began last year with reporting in the "Miami Herald" about a deal with prosecutors. The question is, what is next in the investigation? Joining me now is "Miami Herald" investigative reporter Julie Brown, who broke the Epstein reporting that prompted all these indictments.

Julie, thank you so much for being with us this morning.

In addition to being an investigative reporter, you were on a really moving editorial yesterday in "The Miami Herald" that reads, Epstein was in control of every aspect of his case. He exercised it over young girls, prosecutors, wealthy peers and finally his exit from this life.

Just your overall reaction to the news this weekend that after all this time Jeffrey Epstein is dead.

[08:40:11] JULIE K. BROWN, INVESTIGATIVE REPORTER, "THE MIAMI HERALD": I think everybody's stunned. You know he has -- he -- probably his case right now was the number one case. In fact, when they announced his indictment last month, Jeffrey Berman, the U.S. attorney here in New York, said this was their number one case that they were working on. So it's pretty stunning that he would be able to commit suicide considering what a priority this case has been here with the Justice Department.

BERMAN: What does it mean for the investigation and all the questions that you've raised about the scope of the suspected sex trafficking ring and if there were others involved?

BROWN: Well, I -- you know, although they lost Jeffrey Epstein, the biggest part of the case, the threads of this sex trafficking case are far wider than Epstein. He had a lot of help doing this. He did not do this himself. A lot of people made money off of this operation. And I'm sure a lot of the work that they've already pieced together is still going to go forward because their -- because of all the other people involved that they probably were looking at. So there will be other charges, I'm sure, there will be other indictments.

BERMAN: Ironically, the investigation into those others, I suppose, could be stepped up after the death of Epstein because the prosecutors will need someone to go after, yes?

BROWN: Yes. But I suspect that they were pretty close in getting something together on some of these accomplices because, remember, one of the charges against him was conspiracy.

BERMAN: Right.

BROWN: And over the weekend, when this happened, Mr. Berman had made a point of focusing on that and pointing out that they already were gathering evidence against possible co-conspirators.

BERMAN: So there was a document dump on Friday, which told many more stories than we'd heard before, named many more names than we've heard before connected to Jeffrey Epstein. You think there are thousands more documents still to be released. What will be in those? BROWN: Well, I think it's just -- this is like one giant puzzle. And

we have a lot of pieces. And they're coming out -- spilling out a little bit at a time. And I think that as all these documents that have been sealed, not only in this case, by the way, there's other cases involving Mr. Epstein that have been sealed, that was another one of the ways that he manipulated the justice system, his lawyers were able to seal a lot of the information. And that's why "The Miami herald" went after this particular case as a way to try to start unsealing some of the things that have been secret all these years.

BERMAN: Were there any surprises in the documents that came out on Friday? What do you think the biggest headlines were in there?

BROWN: Well, I think that it confirmed finally what we all suspected, that there were some high-profile people here who, you know, allegedly, of course, were involved in some way. How they were involved, I think that that's something to be determined. But one of the victims alleges that she was essentially directed to have sex with some very powerful people. And so some of those names came out in this document dump that happened on Friday.

BERMAN: And, of course, many of those names have also directly denied it.

You've had a chance, I'm sure, all through the last year, one of the most moving things you've done is to give voice to the victims of Jeffrey Epstein. I don't know if you had a chance to check back in with some of them over the weekend. How do they feel now that he's gone?

BROWN: Well, they were the -- they were the first people I called when it happened. I feel like we kind of had this journey together with this story. And it was -- it's very emotional, I think, for them because -- and it's emotional for me, too, to watch what they've gone through, you know, because the -- when this happened way back in 2007, you know, they were treated like essentially they feel anyway, they were treated like prostitutes. And their credibility was questioned. And they were targeted by private investigators who went after them, went after their families, dug into every dark corner of their lives. And so for them, you know, this was their chance to finally be vindicated. And I -- you know, many of them feel like they've been robbed of that.

BERMAN: What questions do you have about Epstein's death, how it could be that he perhaps took his own life when just a few weeks ago he was on suicide watch in this same prison?

BROWN: Well, just going by his previous incarceration, which we know was not exactly an incarceration at all. He had such a cushy, you know, jail time in Florida as -- because he was able to manipulate people in the Palm Beach Sheriff's Office to give him special privileges. I would be looking at whether he was trying -- whether he was trying to do that here in New York and possibly that might have had something to do with him having, you know, a window of time where he was able to do -- to commit suicide. [08:45:29] BERMAN: Julie Brown, once again, thank you for the

reporting. You've done this over the last, I know what has been years for you, and we look forward to more coming from you as this story very much continues, even after the death of Jeffrey Epstein.

So, thank you.

BROWN: Thank you.

BERMAN: Erica.

HILL: He thinks his own overheated rhetoric may have led to a murder 20 years ago. Now a prominent reverend has a warning for President Trump. We speak with him, next.


[08:50:01] HILL: Increasingly, we hear the warnings about heated rhetoric crossing the line to inciting violence. This morning, unique insight and perspective.

Evangelical Minister Rob Schenck is a longtime outspoken opponent of abortion. The reverend now believes it was his own overheated rhetoric that led someone to shoot and kill an OB-GYN who he had called out by name two decades ago. In a new "Time" magazine op-ed, Reverend Schenck says he has great sorrow and regret, in his words, and he's now calling on President Trump to change his rhetoric.

And he joins us this morning.

Sir, we appreciate you taking the time to be with us.

You're very clear in this piece that you live, as I just said, with that great sorrow and regret, in your words and talk about how it took you so long to get to the point where you realized that your words could and did, in fact, in your view, incite others. Was it specifically the murder of Dr. Slepian (ph) that brought you to that point or was there more to it?

REV. ROB SCHENCK, EVANGELICAL MINISTER WARNS TRUMP ABOUT VIOLENT RHETORIC: It was the most jarring moment. And it started at the time of his death. It gave me pause to think about the movement I had been a part of, about the language that I had used. It is important to note that the pro-life movement, my experience had been completely non- violent. In fact, participants were required to sign a pledge adhering to a completely non-violent posture in word and deed. But, you know, when you're on the national stage and you're dealing with controversial subjects, especially those that really rile emotion, anger, frustration, contempt, you know, you can't ever know exactly who is listening to your words, whose ears those words are falling on and whether they have the same principles or the same inhibitors that you might have.

And what I discovered was, in fact, there were people on the fringes, people I didn't know, people I would never come to know, who received those words very differently. And when I would use those words of contempt, calling individuals who performed abortion as monsters or animals or other words that dehumanize them, those people received those words very differently and they took them as license to do with -- to do what they thought had to be done, and that included murder. And, for me, that, over time, I started to see and understand and process that and come to terms with it. And eventually, as a religious man, I had to repent of that and revisit my use of public language. It's a very, very powerful and potentially dangerous tool.

HILL: You -- you write -- you close in saying in this piece, Trump -- speaking of the president -- needs to learn the terrible lesson I did, that words matter, even to the point of life and death.

There has been much made of the president's rhetoric since, frankly, before he came into office, but certainly in the last week since El Paso, specifically because of this manifesto that has been attributed to the -- to the shooter there by police where he targets specifically the Latino community.

Do you believe that the president's words are to blame for some of the violence that we've seen?

SCHENCK: Sadly, I think they could very well have contributed, especially to the tragedy in El Paso, perhaps in other places as well, because, again, people hear what they want to hear. And, you know, the president may think that everyone thinks the way he does, that, you know, they could never take his words as permission to go out and hurt people that he calls criminals and murderers and invaders and bad people, but he can never control that.

What he can do is stop giving ammunition to others who may process it in the same way and see the celebrity of the president, the power of the presidency, the commander in chief of the armed forces as their sort of fantasy affirmation for what they want to do in the darkest parts of their hearts, their darkest impulses, their most concrete acts of hatred.

HILL: The moment where you really woke up to the power of your words, as you walked us through, involved the murder of Dr. Slepian, is there -- is there a moment that you see, because there are plenty to point to in the last couple of years, today is the second anniversary of Charlottesville and the death of Heather Heyer, is there something that you believe will have an impact on the president to make him understand that even if he didn't intend it that way, to your point, you believe that his words could be interpreted and could, in fact, lead to violence?

[08:55:18] SCHENCK: Well, you know, we evangelicals often have favorite parts of the Bible. And, for me, one of those favorites is the new testament book of James that warns that while the tongue is a very small part of the human body, its misuse can bring enormous and unforeseen consequences. And what I'm praying is that one of my evangelical colleagues, who is close to the president, will warn him and urge him to not just pick up the Bible and flash it in front of a crowd, but to open it and read it, especially what it has to say about his tongue.

HILL: Reverend Rob Schenck, we appreciate you taking the time to join us this morning and sharing part of your journey with us. Thank you.

One of President Trump's most vocal supporters no longer in his corner for 2020. CNN "NEWSROOM" is next.