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Trump's Unchecked Power On Display Since Acquittal; Unpredictable Race: Democrats Look To Nevada, South Carolina, Super Tuesday. Aired 1-1:30p ET

Aired February 12, 2020 - 13:00   ET



JOHN KING, CNN HOST: Brianna Keilar starts Right Now. Have a great afternoon.

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

It has been one week since the Senate acquitted the president, as many Republicans said Trump had learned his lesson. Well the president does appear to have learned a lesson but it's that he can do whatever he wants and the Republican Party will stand behind him, some out of genuine loyalty and some out of fear. Because just look at what he's done since the acquittal, he has attacked and vowed revenge against senators who voted to convict him, he's fired witnesses who were subpoenaed to testify under oath before Congress, he has spread unfounded conspiracy theories about the children of his perceived enemies, he's attacked a federal judge, his allies in Congress announced investigations into his political rival.

And in addition, his attorney general opened the door for dirt on political rivals from Rudy Giuliani, whose searched for dirt in Ukraine started this whole thing. He criticized the potential sentence and the conviction by a jury and his long term friend and then his Department of Justice reversed that decision, sparking the four career prosecutors in charge to either quit the case or to resign. And then he publicly affirmed that his attorney general put his thumb on the scale by congratulating him. The question now, who keeps the U.S. president, clearly unbound here, in check.

And in a matter of 24 hours, the already battered integrity and impartiality of the Justice Department has taken a huge hit and prompted career justice officials to resign after its stunning reversal in the sentencing recommendation in the Roger Stone case. In tweets, the president praised Attorney General Bill Barr for taking charge of the case. He criticized the judge presiding over the case. And in the middle, the president reportedly withdrew the nomination of former U.S. Attorney Jessie Liu after criticism about how her office handled cases related to the Mueller probe.

We have CNN White House Correspondent, Kaitlan Collins, who's joining us now. And, Kaitlan, yesterday, the president denied getting involved in the Roger Stone case, but today, he's praising Bill Barr for doing so. What can you tell us? KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Yes. He's not only praising him but he's congratulating him for getting involved, intervening to essentially reduce the sentencing recommendation for Roger Stone. And, of course, that comes after the Justice Department has said there was no coordination with the White House over the top DOF officials getting involved after the four federal prosecutors who were working on the case recommended that sentence of seven to nine years.

And the White House is also insisting that President Trump didn't have direct conversations with the attorney general, Bill Barr, over this, that they are saying, he has the right to do so if he wanted to. But, of course, Brianna, that just leads you back to the president's tweets, making pretty clear how he felt about that seven to nine-year recommendation for Roger Stone on Monday night, that recommendation that came shortly before those tweets from the president. And then, of course, it was followed shortly after by them going in and overruling them and reducing this sentence.

Now, presidents typically avoid getting involved in something like this, especially when it's such a politically sensitive case as this one, and, of course, the deals with the president's three decade-long political adviser, Roger Stone, someone the president has been incredibly close with. And now, Roger Stone is said to be sentenced next week. And the president you saw yesterday on Twitter attacking the very judge who is expected to sentence Stone and dangling pardons for him, potentially, by, quote, doing things, and there are still questions about whether or not the president is ultimately going to follow through with offering him a pardon.

KEILAR: Kaitlan, thank you so much for that report.

The gravity of this situation can't really be understated. Four career prosecutors quit the Roger Stone case after their recommendations were summarily sidelined.

We have CNN Political Correspondent, Sara Murray here is with us. And, Sara, what more can you tell us about these men?

SARA MURRAY, CNN POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Brianna, I think you're right. There is no understating what an extreme move this is for four prosecutors who were pursuing this case, who were set to appear in the court next week for Roger Stone's sentencing, all quitting the case.

The first one who did so was Aaron Zelinsky. He was a prominent member of the Mueller team. He was on one of the key prosecutors on the Stone case. He questioned witnesses at the trial. He was the first one to tell the judge he was quitting the case but also that he was quitting his role with the D.C. U.S. Attorney's Office.

Now, he remains in a position with the Baltimore U.S. Attorney's Office and he did not quit the Justice Department entirely. But one person who did was Jonathan Kravis. He's an attorney in the Public Integrity Section at DOJ. He was working to prosecute this case. He withdrew from the case. He also resigned from the D.C. U.S. Attorney's Office.

Another guy here is Adam Jed. He was a member of the Mueller team. He was involved in the Roger Stone case, in the Rick Gates case, in the Paul Manafort case. He's no longer involved in the Roger Stone case. He notified the judge they wanted to withdraw but he also did not resign from DOJ.

And the last one on this case is Mike Marando. He also asked the judge to withdraw from the case.


He remains an Assistant U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia. And, Brianna, one thing that's really notable about Mike Marando is he gave this really powerful, impassioned closing argument at Roger Stone's trial, saying the truth still matters.

KEILAR: All right. Sara Murray, thank you so much.

Let's discuss now the political implications for the executive and judicial branches of the government and whether there is divide between the two at this point in time, any at all.

So for that, I'm joined by CNN Chief Political Analyst, Gloria Borger, we also have former U.S. Attorney Harry Litman. Thank you both for joining me.

And, Harry, this move that shows DOJ is backing a convicted criminal, right, whose crimes were on the president's behalf, really done for the benefit of the president in part, do you see this as an abuse of power? Is this, to you, something that makes you say, this is or might be corrupt?

HARRY LITMAN, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: And I wouldn't quite put it this is or might be. This is -- it's cataclysmic, Brianna. You have prosecutors from every stripe and every era in articles all over Twitter saying this is a four alarm fire and worse.

It's not simply, though it's a big part, that they completely bulldozed the career prosecutors after they have made a recommendation, which is never, I mean, never done, no one has ever heard of it, but so plainly as part of this president's reign of terror post-impeachment to punish enemies and reward friends. And Stone comes first and foremost. It is stunning, and the former Department of Justice alums are reeling today and seeing the department's reputation as on life support.

KEILAR: And what do you think, Gloria?

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: Yes, I agree. I mean, I'm not an attorney and I'm not a former member of the Department of Justice, but what I see is a president who believes the Department of Justice is the law firm of Donald J. Trump. And that is the way the attorney general behaves.

And, remember, during the campaign and early on in the president's tenure, he kept saying, where is my Roy Cohn? I need a lawyer like Roy Cohn, who was his infamous friend and attorney in New York, who would do anything for him and, of course, had few scruples.

The question has been answered, I think. And his Roy Cohn seems to be the current attorney general, Bill Barr.

KEILAR: I wonder what you think about the Republican --

LITMAN: You know what, can I add to that?

KEILAR: Sorry, go on, Harry.


LITMAN: It's not just -- he has more than his Roy Cohn. He's got his John Mitchell now, someone who is there to do his political bidding without even being asked, who knows what intuitively has taken it on. This is even beyond Roy Cohn.

KEILAR: Okay. So that's one of the questions that I was wanting to get your perspective on. Because you have a spokesperson for the department who is saying, look, Trump's tweets came after this decision to downgrade this sentencing, right? I guess my question is, is that even worse knowing that it wasn't even pressure from the president, it's almost like an internalization of what perhaps the president's desires may be if you believe that politics or the president's wishes played a part in this, which they really seemed to do?

LITMAN: I mean, it's a great point. Even if it's true in some ways, just as you say, what that means is the leadership took it upon itself to what? There's no two ways around it, to absolutely further his political initiative to basically help his friends and harm his enemies. We are talking antithetical to what the Department of Justice is supposed to be.

KEILAR: Let's look, Gloria, to what Republican senators are saying about this.


MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: In light of the president's actions, do you think there's any lessons that he learned from being impeached?

SEN. SUSAN COLLINS (R-ME): I don't know which actions you're referring to. I have made very clear that I don't think anyone should be retaliated against.

SEN. JOHN KENNEDY (R-LA): I don't think it had anything to do with this. I haven't seen any proof that it has.

SEN. RICK SCOTT (R-FL): Well, first off, I don't know. I don't know exactly what happened. But I do believe everybody -- there ought to be equal treatment under the law. So I'm not sure. I will get more information on it. (END VIDEO CLIP)

KEILAR: So, tepid response, at best, there, right? Not even quite like a very poor lukewarm. I wonder just how apoplectic they would be if this was prosecutors in a case involving an Obama confidant who resigned en masse under these circumstances.

BORGER: Well, on a scale of one to ten, it would be 25, of course. We know the answer to that question.


And every day, we're watching these Republicans twist themselves into pretzels, because they really have no answers for these questions Manu is asking them every single day.

KEILAR: You mean, because they appear to be running away (INAUDIBLE) if he asks them?

BORGER: They are running away. And the only answer we have is, look, they are all in, they are all in and there is no way out for them. They need the president. The president is popular in the Republican Party, he's going to help them get re-elected, and they're all in no matter what. And the president is watching. If any one of them were to say, well, that's bad, that's wrong, we need to hold hearings on it, we need to investigate it, what do you think the president would be doing?

KEILAR: Harry, I wonder if you think in the end, all this is moot and that Trump is just going to end up pardoning Stone anyway.

LITMAN: Yes, it's an interesting point. I mean, at the least, if the sentence is reduced, it will make a pardon easier. On the other hand, whether it's reduced will all be with Judge Jackson, who Trump did a broadside against today accusing of being corrupt. She is smart and she is tough. My best guess is she returns to the guidelines sentence and then that leaves it to him to do his own constitutional bidding under the pardon under clause.

KEILAR: You think she'll lean to that seven -- when you said you think she'll return -- you said you think she'll return to the guideline sentence, you think she'll sort of rely on that seven to nine years that was initially recommended?

LITMAN: Best guess, A, because she'll be suspicious of the process, but, B, that is literally by the book. There was nothing excessive about that sentence. That's exactly what was called for, especially since Stone went to trial and tried to make a mockery of the whole proceedings. You can't tell with a judge but it's my best guess, but, sure.

Then Trump, probably December, can do the same thing, nevertheless that they've taken a large swipe on his behalf for really political reasons. I can't see any other explanation.

KEILAR: You think that President Trump will pardon Roger Stone? BORGER: Eventually, eventually.

KEILAR: Then why wait?

BORGER: It seems to me he's kind of drawing a path to that. He might wait because of the election, I would think.

KEILAR: Sure. But you're saying after?

BORGER: Yes. I think it's pretty clear, Roger Stone and others, and others.

KEILAR: And others. Stay tuned. All right, Gloria, thank you so much. Harry Litman, I really appreciate it.

And on top of this, the president suggesting that the Purple Heart recipient who testified should be punished by the military.

Plus, as the Democratic race gets more unpredictable, see how many delegates are at stake in the next two contests.

And what the potential record turnout means in New Hampshire means for Democrats' chances against President Trump.



KEILAR: CNN has officially called it, Senator Bernie Sanders there in the lead and Pete Buttigieg is well behind him, continuing in those positions for the Democratic field following last night's primary in New Hampshire. But we are just two contests in, people, and there is still 49 to go, meaning that there is a lot of room for things to change. So while Sanders and Buttigieg are hoping to see more of the same, others like Joe Biden and Elizabeth Warren are praying for a dramatic shift and fortune, and they may get it as we move on to more diverse states. Remember, both Iowa and New Hampshire are more than 90 percent white.

Tom Foreman has a look at the road ahead and tell us what it looks like, Tom.

TOM FOREMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: It looks like it's long, Brianna, as you said. Take a look at the calendar. If you're a campaign out there, this is what you're looking at. You have two races out of the way here, relatively small. Everyone looks at them. This is just the start. Nevada coming up, South Carolina coming up, Joe Biden, of course, looking for a big surge in South Carolina where he'll bring in some of the vote and maybe he'll do better there.

But this, over here, is the month that really matters here. When you hit March and Super Tuesday comes roaring in here and then you have another Super Tuesday and then some more states that come cluttering in there, By the end of March, then you'll be talking about having about half the field of delegates settled. And that will make a huge, huge difference in terms of who is really in front. This is where the delegates are right now. Think about how many you need to win here. Look at all the delegates you need to win, and this is where we are. We're barely starting at all. Yes, Buttigieg is doing well, Sanders is doing well, Warren not as well as she would like, Klobuchar is sort of surging right now, and Joe Biden less well than he would like.

But if you just look at the next two contests, the reason they're interested in these two is because they're hoping that with these numbers to work out, maybe they can shift a little bit the perception of who is moving ahead. And that's really all this is about right now. It's not the total count. It's the sense of do you have momentum, might you be able to win as you push into March, a big month there, when Mike Bloomberg is really going to come to play and see if he has any traction, how he head up against that.

Now, that really is why you see people like Bennet and Yang and Patrick dropping out, because they don't really have that mojo going for them. It's fetch is not going to happen, Gretchen. That's what happened with those campaigns. And, ultimately, they have to say, we are stepping aside because those big numbers are sitting out there waiting to be collected.

KEILAR: You've got to have the mojo and you are the mojo expert, Tom Foreman. Thank you so much.

So joining us fresh off of the New Hampshire win is Senator Sanders Campaign co-Chair Nina Turner. And, first, congratulations, this was a big day.


KEILAR: Okay. So let's take look at the numbers. Of course, as you know, everyone is dissecting them because this is really Senator Sanders' second time that he's gone through this in New Hampshire.


And in 2016, he won by 22 percent. He had more than 150,000 total votes. This time around, he won by just over 1 percent in 73,000 total votes. I know obviously the field is much larger here. But even controlling for that, it appears that he may have lost a little support. What do you think about that?

TURNER: We won. You hit the nail on the head, took the words out of my mouth. There are more people running this time. And so he won. We won. We are two for two. We won the popular vote in the great State of Iowa and we won the popular vote in the great State of New Hampshire. And the senator won the largest share of people of color in both of those states.

So I know folks want to disregard the black and brown and Asian folks and other ethnic minorities that are living in the State of Iowa and also New Hampshire. Yes, it is true that those states are primarily white but there are sisters and brothers of color in those states and they selected their candidate overwhelmingly, and that's Senator Bernard Sanders. And the same can be said about Millennial and Generation Z as well.

KEILAR: Okay. I do want to ask you this. Yes, there were more candidates. That is obviously very clear. It's a much more crowded field than it was last time. But even if you were to take, say, Elizabeth Warren's votes, say, she wasn't in the race and tack them onto Bernie Sanders, he would still fall tens of thousands of votes short of what he had in 2016, even though turnout was actually higher this time. Are you not worried about that? Is there a lesson to be learned for that about how maybe he needs to hone his message as a candidate who is now more familiar to voters?

TURNER: Absolutely not. The lesson to be learned is that he won. And adding up the votes of Senator Sanders and Senator Warren and the moderate candidates in this race is not the way to look at the race. We won fair and square, just flat out. And the message that our campaign has, that Senator Sanders is running to change the material conditions of poor and barely middle class in this country is resonating.

Everything about this Democratic contest is swirling in the arena of Senator Bernie Sanders. The entire Democratic debate process is animated by Medicare-for-all, Green New Deal, reform illegal system that is unjust in every structured imagination, increasing wages in this country.

So, no, our message is resonating with the American people and that could be seen by we are two for two.

KEILAR: Okay. I'm not disputing that he won. I just want to make that clear. I was just looking at the breakdown of the numbers there, which I do think is important.

This is no shaping up. Just this sort of snapshot of where we are in this race, Pete Buttigieg won in Iowa, a very closer race there, obviously. He came in second in New Hampshire, pretty close behind Bernie Sanders. If this is right now, do you see this as kind of the faceoff? And if so, how do you counter the momentum of Pete Buttigieg when it's possible that could actually embolden some of the folks who support him?

TURNER: Well, the question becomes, Brianna, how does he and any of the other candidates that are running deal with the momentum that we have. We have a full-fledged movement behind us, multi-racial, multi- ethnic, multicultural. And you're going to see some of these candidates bump up against that when they get to the great State of Nevada, the great State of South Carolina and all of the Super Tuesday states.

Senator Sanders is polling nationally as the number one candidate that people want to see or believe can go the strongest head-to-head with President Donald J. Trump. And, Brianna, we are building kind of that coalition. Some of these candidates that you just named, Mr. Buttigieg, number one, is polling anywhere between 0 and 3 percent with black community and also our Hispanic sisters and brothers. And the last time I checked, black folks and brown folks are the majority in terms of the coalition that is yielded to build, to win throughout the United States of America. You cannot win this race without bringing black folks, without winning over the black community. And Senator Sanders is doing that. He has increased his share of the black community who believe in his message and what he is standing for, we're going to keep on doing that.

So we've got the movement, we have the momentum. I know you said Mr. Buttigieg won Iowa, but I want to push back on that.

KEILAR: I know you're contesting that.

TURNER: We got the popular vote in both Iowa and New Hampshire, so we are two for two, Brianna.

KEILAR: I want to ask you about South Carolina. You say that Bernie Sanders has made strides with the black vote. The campaign has only spent a little over $200,000 in South Carolina on ads. It was a tough place for him, certainly against Hillary Clinton. He's polling well behind Joe Biden when it comes to support among black voters. So, I mean, why did he only -- how is he viewing South Carolina?


Why did he only spend just a little bit of money there?

TURNER: Well, it depends what poll you look at. The Senator is eating into that. And this, the black community should not be held responsible for all of these candidates win. And unlike Vice President Joe Biden, Senator Bernie Sanders is not taking the black community for granted just because the proximity to the first black president. We are in that state.

The senator has attended over 60 events in that state. And you couple that with the fact that he has people like me, other of his national co-chairs, people like Dr. Cornell West, we got Killer Mike, Brother Phillip Agnew, you name it. We are all over the great State of South Carolina, the building, the requisite relationships that are needed and not calling the African-American community a firewall.

And we are about to invest more in ads. I get your point, Brianna. But there are things money cannot buy. And being there physically is what the senator has done time and time again in since last year. So we're feeling really good about South Carolina. I can guarantee you this, it will be like night and day to what happened in 2016.

KEILAR: Okay. All right, that's what I wanted to understand from you, and I certainly -- I appreciate your answer. Nina Turner, we really appreciate you coming on. Thanks for joining us from Manchester.

TURNER: Thank you always.

KEILAR: So after saying that President Trump learned his lesson after being acquitted, GOP Senator Susan Collins is now tap dancing around that very same question. What she is saying and not saying today. Plus, President Trump weighing in on the Democratic Primary and making it clear who he'd rather face in the general election.