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DOJ Stuns With Extraordinary Reversal On Stone Sentencing; Voters In New Hampshire Cast Ballots In Key Democratic Race; Trump Keeps Crashing Primary And Caucus States Ahead Of Votes. Aired 1-1:30p ET

Aired February 11, 2020 - 13:00   ET




BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN HOST: I am Brianna Keilar live from CNN's Washington headquarters.

We will take you live to New Hampshire where voters are casting their ballot in a key Democratic race.

But, first, in a shocking reversal and highly unusual move, the Justice Department is backtracking its sentencing request for Roger Stone, the president's former informal adviser and longtime friend and confidant. This is according to a senior DOJ official.

Initially, prosecutors who, by the way, are employed by the Justice Department asked a federal judge to give Stone for seven to nine years in prison for charges that include lying under oath, obstruction of a congressional investigation, threatening a witness with bodily harm and repeatedly disregarding the orders of the judge overseeing the case.

Now, a senior DOJ official says the recommendation is extreme and excessive. And this is coming on the heels of a tweet from President Trump condemning the sentencing recommendation. This is horrible, it says, and very unfair situation. The real crimes are on the other side as nothing happens to them. Cannot allow this miscarriage of justice.

We have CNN Senior Justice Correspondent, Evan Perez here with us along with CNN Political Correspondent Sara Murray and CNN Legal Analyst and former federal prosecutor Elliot Williams.

And a senior Department of Justice official, Evan, says that the department was shocked by the sentencing recommendation. Tell us about this.

EVAN PEREZ, CNN SENIOR JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: That's just incredible, right? This never happens. The fact that the Justice Department is essentially disavowing and sharply criticizing a recommendation, a decision that was made by the Justice Department, it just never happens. And so what we have to unpack here is what's going on behind the scenes. Clearly, Bill Barr, the attorney general, did not realize that this recommendation for seven to nine years, which was made by the U.S. Attorney's Office here in Washington, that that was the recommendation being made and clearly the president's tweets are an issue here. It makes it very unusual. Now, the Justice Department officials are telling us the president's tweet had nothing to do with this, but it's really hard for us to sort of divorce the two things, right?

I'll just read you a little bit of what the senior Justice Department official is our David Shortell. He says that this is not what was briefed to the department, saying that --

KEILAR: Meaning what was briefed?

PEREZ: The seven to nine years. This is not what had been briefed in the department. The department believes the recommendation is extreme and excessive and is grossly disproportionate to Stone's offenses. The department will clarify its position later today with the courts. And, of course, the judge overseeing this case, she doesn't have to accept the decision or the recommendation from the Justice Department.

Seven to nine years is probably pretty high, so that is also unusual. But what never happens is for the prosecutors to make a recommendation to the court and then for the Justice Department and the bosses essentially at main justice to come in and undercut the U.S. attorneys who are handling this and basically criticize them and say that this is excessive. That's something that I've never seen.

KEILAR: Never seen that.

Sara, what are you hearing?

SARA MURRAY, CNN POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, I mean, the same thing, it's extremely unusual and I think it's going to be really hard for people to believe the view from the Justice Department that, oh, we made this decision last night and it has nothing to do with anything the White House might want or the president's tweets.

We've also heard from one of Roger Stone's attorneys, they asked that he receive no jail time and probation in their memo. And they say they've read with interest the developments on this case and essentially they look forward to appearing before the judge.

But part of the reason I think this is so unusual is, as Evan pointed out, it's up to the judge to decide how much time Roger Stone spends behind bars, if any. So by doing this, by having the D.C. U.S. Attorney's Office putting sentencing guidelines and then have the main justice saying, no, no, we think that those are excessive, you've created this whole atmosphere where it looks like President Trump's attorney general, Bill Barr, is going out of his way to help President Trump's longtime political adviser, Roger Stone, even that's not what happened.

PEREZ: The U.S. Attorney who is in charge of this, Tim Shea, he just started at the U.S. Attorney's Office. He's a very close aide or formerly was a closed aide to Bill Barr. So the idea that Bill Barr is essentially slapping down somebody who was very close to him is also just stunning.

KEILAR: And I wonder because, look, something had to change here, right? That's what's clear. This is highly unusual. Something changed, something interfered and is the -- someone interfered. Is the judge going to want to know what that was?

ELLIOT WILLIAMS, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: I mean, it doesn't, because sometimes the department can change its position in a case. Now, she can rely on the prior calculation, right, if she has it worked out for her in 22 pages right here.


So as Sara had said, the judge -- it's really the judge's decision and the guidelines themselves are advisory.

I'm going to say something very controversial here, which is that I disagree with Evan Perez. I know, right, because I've never done that. But here is the thing, I'm not going to say seven to nine years is too -- I think you said seems high. Because when you work through the sentencing guidelines, as they do, it starts with once someone has been convicted of an offense of obstruction of justice and tampers with a witness and threatens violence in an ongoing case, the sentencing guidelines bump you up to seven to nine years.

Now, they start much lower than that, but it's sort of a formula. It's like a math problem they keep adding stuff on. Now, some of that is discretionary and they clearly did throw the books at him a little bit. But this wasn't pulled out of a hat. There's a clear formula for working it out.

MURRAY: And I think there's one other thing we should add about the judge in this case, is Judge Amy Berman Jackson, she does not (INAUDIBLE), she is going to want an explanation of what is going on here based on the way we've seen her conduct herself in this courtroom. She is the one that Roger Stone published a photo with crosshairs over her.

She's the one who put a gag order on him. But she is seen all of the sealed filings in this case that we have not seen, she has seen all of the redacted versions of the Mueller report that have to do with Roger Stone. So she has a much fuller idea of what prosecutors know about Roger Stone even if it didn't come out in what we saw publicly.

And that can all factor into the decision that she is making. So I would be very surprised if we get to court and Amy Berman Jackson does not want an explanation for what is going on.

KEILAR: Because she has been so tough. I want to talk about the tweet, right? So we saw President Trump. He's tweeted about this. And even like you guys said, DOJ and it's sort of hard to believe them, says that the tweets have had nothing to do with this change of opinion. But these are public statements. These were not -- this wasn't vanilla. It was very clear where the president was. I mean, he thinks that this is basically a miscarriage of justice, even this recommendation of this sentencing. What kind of weight would a statement like that, an official statement from the president, from the White House, what would that have on this decision?

WILLIAMS: I mean, I think it could go to the judge's decision and her state of mind as to was there something fishy that went into the Justice Department's decision to change their mind. Now, obviously Donald Trump is not a party to the proceedings. He's not -- it's not weighted as evidence.

KEILAR: He doesn't seem to act like that.

WILLIAMS: And I don't think he knows that either. But, again, the judge can consider anything as long as she can legally defend it. And what she has right now is a legal basis for sentencing this individual to seven to nine years.

PEREZ: I think one quick thing we probably should broach, and that's the idea that the president has full pardon power, and the idea that Roger Stone may be the beneficiary of that at some point in the future is something we all have to keep in mind. And, look, I'm not sure what the president is going to do. The president can do whatever he wants. He can tweet a pardon if he want wants to. But that's something that we should keep in the back of our minds as to what is at play here in some part of this.

KEILAR: You mean because the idea that the sentencing could be considered differently if there's an expectation he could be pardon or --

PEREZ: No. I mean, look, I think the judge is not going to take that into account but she definitely would not take it into account. But we've all been sort of anticipating that now that --

KEILAR: Maybe a moot point is what you're saying.

PEREZ: Exactly.

WILLIAMS: To go one step further which is that tweet was laying a predicate for a pardon. The president has made clear that he thinks that this sentence is a miscarriage of justice and outside of the bounds of law. He wants to pardon him.

PEREZ: And now that he has nothing to worry about, right? The impeachment is over, the Republicans have shown that really he can do no wrong. Pretty much all of this is on the table now.

MURRAY: All makes it even more bizarre the DOJ would say, actually, we disagree with our prosecutors and we're going to ask for a lesser sentence, even knowing the president's state of mind, which he's sharing on Twitter might suggests that he's going to pardon him anyway.

KEILAR: Guys, thank you so much for the conversation.

And today, the race for the White House goes through New Hampshire, where voters are taking part in the first-of-the-nation primary. The Democratic candidates are blanketing New Hampshire. They're trying to squeeze every last vote out of the Granite State. And their expectations for today run the gamut.


REPORTER: Mr. Mayor, are you going to win here today?

FMR. MAYOR PETE BUTTIGIEG (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: We think so. It feels fantastic. The volunteers are fired up. The energy on the ground is wonderful.

SEN. AMY KLOBUCHAR (D-MN), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: If the early votes, the midnight polls are any indication, we're going to have a pretty good night tonight.

SEN. ELIZABETH WARREN (D-MA), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: It's just exciting to be out here and it's great to see how many people show up to show their support and how many people show up to vote. So I'm really excited about this.

JOE BIDEN (D), FORMER U.S. VICE PRESIDENT, PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: There are a lot of good friends here in New Hampshire, but this race isn't over until you got a significant portion of the electorate hasn't voted yet. And I'm going to head to South Carolina tonight and I'm going to go to Nevada. And as I said in the beginning, we've got to look at them all. And I'm feeling good about that.


But we have a lot of great friends here who has helped us a lot. We're still mildly hopeful here in New Hampshire. Then we'll see what happens.


KEILAR: Mildly hopeful. Ryan Nobles, I hope you're more than mildly hopeful. You're watching the action from Manchester, New Hampshire. Jessica Dean more than mildly hopeful in Nashua, I think.

But to you first, Ryan. The Sanders and Buttigieg campaigns are trying to build on the finishes they saw in Iowa. How is it shaping up there?

RYAN NOBLES, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, it seems by every indication, Brianna, for sure, it's going to come down to a two-person race tonight between Bernie Sanders and Pete Buttigieg. At least that's what the polls are telling us.

And between the two of them, the Sanders campaign certainly feels that they have the edge, and they should have the edge here, right? He won handily here four years in 2016. He is from a nearby state. He's poured a lot of resources and time into the vote here in New Hampshire. And there are signs that he's starting to win over Democratic primary voters at large, at least nationally.

So this is an opportunity for Bernie Sanders to leave New Hampshire with a win and then perhaps frontrunner status. So they know that there's a lot here on the line. And, Brianna, as you know, the expectations game is really what these early states are all about. And perhaps Bernie Sanders, his Iowa results were a little under expectations. Today, they need to at least meet or exceed expectations. They believe that they have the infrastructure in place to make this happen.

Of course, in Iowa, they were hoping for big massive turnout. That didn't happen. This time around, they've tempered their turnout expectations a little bit. They believe that he has solid support across the board, so a huge turnout isn't necessary. But they're certainly hoping that more people come out than less because they do believe there are more Democratic primary voters available for Bernie Sanders than any other Democratic candidate here in New Hampshire. We won't know until the results come in tonight. But, Brianna, they are feeling very confident that Sanders will notch a win here today, his first win of the primary caucus season.

KEILAR: All right. We'll see if he does a repeat there.

I want to get on to Jessica Dean here. You are with the Biden campaign. It's very clear listening to the former vice president, he's managing expectations. Obviously, he should be doing that at this point. Tell us about this, because Biden is actually leaving for South Carolina tonight. When is he going to head there?

JESSICA DEAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Right. So, Brianna, we've seen him out and about today saying he's mildly hopeful, he's been talking to people. But the headline here is he is leaving New Hampshire, will not be here for the returns to come in at what they had planned was an election party or primary party here at the Radisson in Nashua and will instead go down to South Carolina and appear at an event there, where they're going to kick off their South Carolina effort. And it really shows you how very, very important South Carolina is to the Biden campaign.

And we've said this all along, the campaign has said this all along. They believe that that is their firewall, that African-American support where he garners outside support from black voters in South Carolina is what's going to propel him then on to Super Tuesday and be able to build this broad coalition of voters to win him the nomination.

But, Brianna, as you talked about, that disappointing finish in Iowa, fourth place, we don't know obviously what's going to happen tonight. But it's not looking like a super strong showing for Joe Biden here, if you look at the most recent polling. And they certainly looked around and decided that the time was better spent moving on, going down to South Carolina, revving up that base and then he's going to go on to Nevada and be there leading up to the Nevada caucuses. Brianna?

KEILAR: Jessica, thank you from Nashua for us.

And Andrew Smith is joining us, he's Director of the Survey Center at the University of New Hampshire. Andrew, thank you so much for coming on. ANDREW SMITH, DIRECTOR, UNIVERSITY OF NEW HAMPSHIRE'S SURVEY CENTER: Thanks for having me.

KEILAR: So you heard Joe Biden today. He says he's not giving up on New Hampshire, but, of course, he is going to head to South Carolina this evening. He really wants to be looking forward because he's concerned about how he's going to be doing in New Hampshire today. Why do you think that he's struggled to resonate with New Hampshire voters?

SMITH: Well, if you look at the Biden campaign as early as this summer, it was very clear that he wasn't resonating. And I think it's largely because the message that Biden has is not resonating with most Democrats, not only in New Hampshire but around the country.

The progressive wing of the Democratic Party is really where the ideas have been for quite some time now. I think Bernie Sanders tapped into that in 2016 and he's tapping into it again. Joe Biden represents, really, the 1980s and 1990s versions of the Democratic Party.

KEILAR: We saw this this week, the last few days even, and a lot of these candidates went negative. I mean, it was some of the harshest rhetoric that we've seen coming from them. Do you think it's been effective in New Hampshire?

SMITH: Maybe a little bit. Negative campaigning is typically done to try to reduce turnout, to keep the supporters of other candidates at home. But I think that the bigger problem that this face is this is why the party doesn't like primaries or these long drawn-out processes. Because the more you go negative, the nastier it gets. And, frankly, it gives more ammunition then for Donald Trump to use in the campaign this fall.


So it's -- overall, it's bad for the Democratic Party in general.

KEILAR: Two-thirds of all undeclared voters, voters who aren't tied to a party at this point, said that they'd vote in the Democratic primary. How much of an impact and also just give us a sense of what kind of impact that could have?

SMITH: That's about what you would expect. This is what we saw on the Republican side back in 2012 and Democrats in 2004. I think it's important to remember that the independents are not a single block. There're three groups there. There's the independents that are really Republicans and they'll either vote in the Republican primary or stay home. A few of them might mess around in the Democratic side.

But I think the importance there is that it probably gives Bernie Sanders a better chance to get more support because those people who are independent, a lot of them are just young voters or people who have recently moved to the state, and that means those are the kinds of people we're seeing in our polling are Sanders supporters, so it will help him.

KEILAR: All right. Andrew, thank you so much, Andrew Smith, joining us from Manchester.

And be sure to tune in to CNN's special live coverage of the New Hampshire primary. That will start today at 4:00 P.M. Eastern.

President Trump, he is crashing these voting states. And in New Hampshire, he seems to mix up his American history.

Plus the Parkland father who yelled out during the State of the Union will join me live. We'll talk about why he did it. We'll talk about how he feels about not being invited to the White House this week with other families.



KEILAR: President Trump is vowing to shake up the Democratic race. He actually held a rally in New Hampshire just hours before the first primary votes were cast there. And he made a plea to his supporters to actually vote in today's Democratic primary.


DONALD TRUMP, U.S. PRESIDENT: Go send a message that Republicans -- and you can vote for the weakest candidate if you want. Don't worry about it. I don't really think we actually have a candidate against us. The Republicans are energized, that we're united.


KEILAR: And joining me now is Julie Hirschfeld Davis, Congressional Editor for the New York Times and CNN Political Analyst.

We see surrogates, bracket candidates all the time. We've seen that especially in the general election. How unusual is it for a president to do that?

JULIE HIRSCHFELD DAVIS, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: It's obviously quite unusual. Usually they'll send a trusted spokesperson, someone who has local credibility, someone who may be voters in the state know to go and make their case on the eve of a primary of the other parties. But, clearly, the president wanted to be in the mix here.

He had sort of a message that he wanted to send and did want to, I think, put Democrats on notice that he's going to be here shaking things up, sort of getting his message out there just as they're trying to figure out who is going to emerge victorious from this very important contest today.

KEILAR: Is he worried? Is he worried about the race? Does that weigh into this or no?

DAVIS: I don't know that I would say he's worried, per se. I think the president never likes to not be the topic of conversation, he never likes to not be the center of attention. Obviously, he was getting attention he didn't really like for impeachment in the last several months.

But now that things have moved on to the Democratic race and it's this very intense battle inside the Democratic Party, I do think he thinks, A, that's a great place for him to take advantage of some dissent within the party, the division of his rivals, but, B, he wants some of the spotlight back on himself.

KEILAR: Let's talk about a tweet. It's actually since deleted, which is extraordinary. The president called billionaire and 2020 Democrat Michael Bloomberg a racist for his controversial stop and frisk policy when he was the mayor of New York City. First off, why did the president delete this? He never does that?

DAVIS: It's actually very rare to see this president delete anything, no matter how controversial, no matter how -- sometimes he has spelling errors, sometimes he has downright inaccuracies, false statements. He very rarely will take something down. So it's interesting that he did that.

I wonder if it was because he didn't want as much focus on Bloomberg right now, because he is seen, at least by some Republicans and certainly by some Democrats as somebody who can emerge from this chaos in the Democratic field right now and potentially take advantage of the fact that there is division within the party about who to pick.

So I think that he may have decided that maybe the focus on Bloomberg's record might not be so great for him right now. But it is also interesting given his own stated support for stop and frisk, he certainly has not been shy about talking about how he wants law enforcement to take a tougher approach. He talked about, you know, you slam people's heads into the police car when you're arresting them. He has --

KEILAR: And he said that as president.

DAVIS: He said that as president. He said that in Long Island, when he was doing an event with law enforcement officers. And he has been very upfront about his belief that these policies work and that they're necessary. He has never backed down from his assertion that the Central Park Five were guilty and they should have been -- he took out that ad saying there should be the death penalty for people like that.

So it's a little interesting that he would be criticizing Mayor Bloomberg's record on this. But, of course, we've seen that he will stop at nothing to really try to cut down the people he thinks might be his biggest rivals in the Democratic field, and that may end up being Bloomberg.

KEILAR: Yes, maybe it's very telling.

I want to ask you while I have you here, Julie, about this Roger Stone news, because prosecutors have come out with a sentence recommendation of seven to nine years in prison because he is going to be sentenced. And then the DOJ basically overruled that and said that that was too much. The president -- they say they had nothing to do with the president weighing in, but the president notably had publicly tweeted about this and essentially saying it was a miscarriage for prosecutors to suggest seven to nine years.


We should point out that all these prosecutors are ultimately employed by the Department of Justice here, right? But what do you think about this and what do you think about the president's tweets and how they factor into this?

DAVIS: Well, it's hard to know. I mean, this is actually the reason why it has always been a policy for presidents not to comment on specific cases, particularly where it may have personal involvement with them. Clearly, the president doesn't care about that at all. He continuously comments on cases like these particularly when it has a personal tie to him. And so now when you get a result like this, immediately, the public is going to question, I think, rightly so, whether this change in decision has to do with the president's influence.

I don't know that we have any evidence that it does, but certainly the fact that he comments on it so often raises a suspicion

KEILAR: All right. Julie, thank you so much, as always, love having you on.

And new details that the Trump administration is fully aware of, concerns of the Pentagon about the president's decision to withhold aid from Ukraine, we'll talk about what we're learning, next.

And the Parkland father escorted out of the State of the Union for yelling out joins me. Why he did it, next.