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South Carolina Democratic Race; Michael Avenatti Convicted; Attorney General Bill Barr Helping Another Trump Ally?. Aired 3-3:30p ET

Aired February 14, 2020 - 15:00   ET



BROOKE BALDWIN, CNN HOST: Hour two. I'm Brooke Baldwin. You're watching CNN.

A tumultuous week at the Justice Department ends with even more fireworks. Follow with me here.

So, first, after a nearly two-year investigation, Andrew McCabe, the former FBI deputy director accused of misleading internal DOJ investigators, today, he learned that he will not face criminal charges.

McCabe, who was fired from the FBI in 2018, now a CNN contributor, reacted to the news this way:


ANDREW MCCABE, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: As glad as I am that the Justice Department and the D.C. U.S. attorney's office finally decided to do the right thing today, it is an absolute disgrace that they took two years and put my family through this experience for two years, before they finally drew the obvious conclusion and one they could have drawn a long, long time ago.


BALDWIN: And then, just days after President Trump was accused of meddling in the federal case against his longtime friend and adviser Roger Stone, another former member of the president's inner circle may also be getting an assist from Attorney General Bill Barr.

We're talking about Michael Flynn here, the former national security adviser who pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI. Officials tell CNN that Barr has ordered a reexamination of several high-profile cases, including Flynn's.

So, let's get right to the White House and to CNN's John Harwood.

And, John, how is the White House reacting to all these developments?

JOHN HARWOOD, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Brooke, the president's speaking right now at a border policy event. I have not heard, at least as I came out to the camera, him address the McCabe developments or the Flynn developments so far.

We will see what happens the rest of the day on Twitter and in terms of his own remarks. But I do think the second of those two events that you recounted is much more significant than the first.

With respect to Andy McCabe, that was a case that was made difficult. Even though the inspector general had pointed to places where he argued that Andy McCabe had lied, the president himself had injected himself publicly in that case in all the ways that Bill Barr was complaining about the other day.

So, that was going to be a difficult, problematic prosecution under any circumstances. But in the case of Flynn, that reflects the real sense of momentum that the president and his allies feel and have been acting on ever since he was acquitted by the Senate.

Remember, a few weeks ago, Michael Flynn sought to remove his guilty plea, withdraw his guilty plea. That was denied. Then we get to the sentencing phase of the case, and you have got Bill Barr ordering a review, which is of a piece with what Bill Barr and the Justice Department did with Roger Stone.

Of course, the president complicated that by speaking out and causing a backlash, which required Barr to give that extraordinary interview to our colleague Pierre Thomas of ABC yesterday, but this is a case where the president and his -- the people associated with him are really going hard at what they consider the deep state, the intelligence agencies, all sorts of reviews going on.

And the question is going to be, how far does that go? Is this a matter of Bill Barr going through the motions and then ultimately stepping back, or is he actually going to try to open and move the ball, reverse some of the actions that have been taken in these cases?


HARWOOD: We won't know the answer to that for a while.

BALDWIN: No, I think that's the key question. I thought you hit the nail on the head using the word momentum. We will come back to all that analysis in just a second.

John, thank you at the White House.

Let's go to our senior justice correspondent now, Evan Perez. And also Susan Glasser, she's with us, a staff writer for "The New Yorker" and a CNN global affairs analyst.

And, Evan, just first to you.

The last couple of days at DOJ have been a whirlwind, let's put it that way. And we will get to Michael Flynn in just a second.

But first the decision not to charge Andy McCabe, why announce it now, and was this at all expected?

EVAN PEREZ, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: The McCabe case was difficult, I think, as John has hinted. There's a lot of problems with it.

It was always going to be a very difficult case. But, Brooke, I think one of the things that you have to remember is just a couple of months ago they had indicated to the McCabe team that they thought charges would be coming.

So the question is, what has happened in intervening period that has caused them to reverse course? And we still don't have an explanation for that. We know that this is a case that came out of an inspector investigation.

But, look, I think today -- today is Valentine's Day, as you know, Brooke, and so this is a bit of a Valentine's Day surprise, I think, for the president's supporters.

The idea that Mike Flynn who has been campaigning with the idea that he was maliciously prosecuted, that his case is now going to get this review, is, I think, being welcomed by some of his supporters.


But, at the same time, one of the things that's happening in the court docket, in the court documents, you see that the department has to make sure that they can defend this case, because Mike Flynn is fighting it, And so that could also be the explanation for what is happening here.

BALDWIN: Let's jump to the Mike Flynn news and dig a little deeper.

We know that the attorney general, Bill Barr, has ordered prosecutors to re-examine several high-profile cases, including Flynn's. Susan Glasser, your assessment?

SUSAN GLASSER, CNN GLOBAL AFFAIRS ANALYST: Well, look, first of all, this is very much, it seems, part of the wholesale assault on the Mueller investigation that the president has wanted for a long time.

Let's remember that Flynn actually pleaded guilty, you know, in the Mueller investigation. So he's now subsequently had a rupture and complained about it.

But if you look at President Trump's rhetoric around not only the Flynn case, but, you know, anything associated with the Mueller investigation essentially has been toxic to the president. He's been at war with it since the beginning of the investigation itself.

And I think, in many ways, taking a step back, it seems that the president in some ways has already won, because he has essentially sought to undermine confidence in his own Justice Department, his own FBI, and the legal system as part of this political campaign against being damaged.

And, you know, you saw the attorney general make this interview yesterday. The effort to restore credibility, though, it's going to be very, very difficult, because Trump has cast into question the independence of American prosecutions at this point.

BALDWIN: Let me get to that Bill Barr interview, because if people haven't seen this -- and, Evan, this is going to be for you.

Bill Barr is the central figure, right, in all these huge DOJ headlines that we have been reporting on this week. But last night he addressed President Trump directly on the issue of how the president's been inserting himself in these cases via Twitter, and suggestions that he is doing the president's bidding. Here was Bill Barr.


PIERRE THOMAS, ABC NEWS: So you're saying you have a problem with the tweets?


Well, I have a problem with some of the tweets. I'm not going to be bullied or influenced by anybody, and I said at the time, whether it's Congress, a newspaper, editorial boards, or the president.

I'm going to do what I think is right. And the -- I think the -- I cannot do my job here at the department with a constant background commentary that undercuts me.


BALDWIN: So, here is what everyone's wondering, and especially after this Flynn news has broken today. Like, is that evidence that there is now this line in the sand between Bill Barr and President Trump, or is this more of like a wink-wink, Mr. President, I got you?

PEREZ: I think it's a bit more complicated. I think you're hitting at the complication that's going on behind the scenes, Brooke.

I think one of the things that's happening for Bill Barr is that he absolutely needed to say something to show a little bit of daylight between him and the president, because, frankly, the Justice Department, I think, inside, there's a lot of discomfort with the events that happened this week with the Roger Stone case, and just everything about, you know, his rhetoric, the attorney general's own rhetoric in the way he talks about things.

It matches the president in so many ways. That's one part of this. The other part of this is, in that interview, he also communicates very strongly that he still stands by his decision which was disastrous this week. The way they rolled it out was very bad.

He undercut prosecutors who were simply doing their jobs. They were abiding by Justice Department policy, which is to be tough on crime. And so he was doing a couple of different things. He was, again, giving a message to the troops, but also telegraphing to the president that, look, I'm still doing the things that you want me to do. I just wish you would stop talking about it. BALDWIN: And, Susan, I know you wrote about Barr's remarks and the impeachment and Trump's behavior going forward.

Let me just quote you from "The New Yorker": "A month ago, Congress had at least the theoretical power to do something about his overreaching. Today, thanks to the Senate's very clear vote, it does not. In the history of the Trump presidency, there will be a before impeachment and an after. It is too late for lessons learned, and it's most definitely too late for Bill Barr to complain about the president's tweets. The constraints are gone. The leverage is lost."

Are we, Susan, then at this tipping point? Is there anyone who can and actually will serve as a check to the president?

GLASSER: Well, that's what's striking. You know, you can read -- again, there's ambiguity in the attorney general's interview. He's essentially saying, I'm on the team with you, Mr. President.

But this is essentially a tactical dispute. I can't be as effective as you want me to be in your agenda casting into doubt and into question the Mueller investigation and anyone who is essentially critical of Trump.


And is it two guys on the team having a dispute about tactics? Is it Barr and Mitch McConnell in the Senate trying to restore a sense of leverage or constraints, knowing that the president has been on a tear ever since this acquittal?

You know, my own view is that, you know, we know President Trump's personality pretty well. This is man who, the day before Barr's interview -- actually, yesterday morning -- forgive me -- in a tweet, he called it the -- quote -- "Justice Department." I'm putting scare quotes around that.


GLASSER: This is the guy who -- the Justice Department reports to him. This is a key part of the executive branch.

So his view is very clear, which is there's no such thing as independent justice in America. And I think Barr has been right there with him from the beginning. So it's really hard to see this as anything other than perhaps are a way to restore some credibility inside the department.

But I think this notion of independent justice in Trump's administration has been pretty much tainted. I don't think there's going to be credibility going forward, unfortunately. That's bad. Whatever you think about Donald Trump, that's something that we haven't seen before.


BALDWIN: I'm about report on what you're -- you give me the news. I know -- about his response to Andy McCabe. Go ahead, Evan.


PEREZ: Well, no, I hadn't seen that, actually. I haven't been able to--


BALDWIN: Let me, if I may, because I think we do need to get to this.

PEREZ: Yes. Yes.

BALDWIN: So we have just learned -- this is from Jim Acosta over at the White House.

A White House official says President Trump was angered by the decision by federal prosecutors not to pursue charges against Andy McCabe.

Go ahead, Evan.

PEREZ: That's right.

And, look, I think you -- that was predictable, but also, Brooke, you noticed this morning in his tweet this morning reacting to the Barr interview, he makes his point again, saying, look, I hear you Bill Barr, but if I want to interfere with the Justice Department, I can do it. I'm just choosing not to.

BALDWIN: And so does he respond on Twitter to Andy McCabe? We're getting this from Jim Acosta. I think this all just continues to unravel and could get quite dangerous.

PEREZ: Yes, we will see.


Susan and Evan, I appreciate both of you very, very much on this.

PEREZ: Thank you.

BALDWIN: The other breaking story today, Michael Avenatti, remember him, the attorney who first made headlines for representing Stormy Daniels in that lawsuit against President Trump. He has now been convicted on all charges connecting to the attempted extortion of Nike. We have more on that.

Also, former Vice President Joe Biden is hanging his hat on South Carolina as the race for 2020 ramps up, but there are signs his support among black voters may be slipping. We will take you live to South Carolina to try to figure out why.


[15:17:09] BALDWIN: Now to the breaking news in the Michael Avenatti trial.

The lawyer who became President Trump's nemesis while representing Stormy Daniels has now been convicted by a jury in federal court in New York. Prosecutors say Avenatti tried to extort Nike by threatening to publicly accused the company of illegally paying amateur basketball players unless it paid him millions of dollars.

And so now the jury just found him guilty of attempted extortion and wire fraud. And his attorney says he will appeal. Nike just released a statement.

Let me read part of this for you: "The verdict speaks volumes. We thank the jurors for their time and service, which is the bedrock of the American judicial system."

CNN legal analyst Areva Martin is with me.

And, so, guilty on all counts. Are you surprised?

AREVA MARTIN, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Not surprised, Brooke, but this is a shocking turn of events for someone that was riding so high.

If you can recall, in 2018 or so, Michael Avenatti was a mainstay on cable news, where he was representing Stormy Daniels and taking on Donald Trump. Even at one point, he considered running for president and started making visits to Iowa and meeting with potential voters.

So to see him in a federal court being convicted on all three counts -- and we should note, this is not the end of his legal troubles. In some ways, it's just the beginning, because there are two other federal cases waiting for him, one in New York and an additional trial that he will face in the spring in Los Angeles.

BALDWIN: Right, which, according to Elie Honig, who called in when this news broke last hour with regard to the charges in California, his guess was that, legally speaking, that's an even steeper hill to climb for Michael Avenatti.

Do you agree?

MARTIN: Oh, absolutely. The charge in California stems from his interaction with clients and the allegations were that he actually stole money from his clients that were a part of settlements that he had obtained on behalf of clients.

And when you think about those kinds of cases, there are bank records. There are documents. So the case for the prosecutors become a lot easier. The Nike case involved conversations, tape recorded conversation that Avenatti had with a representative from Nike.

So, when he gets to California, they're going to be looking at pretty clear written documentation that I think is going to make it very difficult for him to prevail.

BALDWIN: Areva, thank you for weighing in. Let's get you back now to the race for 2020.

MARTIN: Thanks, Brooke.

BALDWIN: You got it.

The eight remaining Democrats are setting their sights on the more diverse contests in Nevada and South Carolina. Joe Biden, Senator Amy Klobuchar, Pete Buttigieg are out West today, while Senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders are reaching out to voters in the Carolinas.

And South Carolina specifically poses a specific test for the candidates courting African-American voters.

So, with me, now CNN political commentator Bakari Sellers. He's a former South Carolina state representative. And CNN political analyst Astead Herndon is national political reporter for "The New York Times."


So, Bakari, how you doing? You good? It's been a minute. It's been a minute.

BAKARI SELLERS, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: I'm doing well. I'm happy to be here with you.


SELLERS: Yes. It's been too long, too long.

BALDWIN: You know, I know you were backing Kamala Harris, Senator Kamala Harris. And now you are one of these coveted undecided, maybe undecided -- I'm about to find out -- South Carolina voters.

Where are you leaning?

SELLERS: Where am I leaning? Are we trying to break news here?

BALDWIN: Let's go.

SELLERS: No, what I'm looking -- what I'm looking forward to is Joe Biden doing extremely well in South Carolina. I think he's going to outperform everyone and the expectations many people had. I think it's Joe Biden's race to lose.

And I think that it's all about margins, and that will help him kind of relive those '92 moments of Bill Clinton in New Hampshire, where you had the comeback kid. I'm not endorsing anyone, but I do believe, just from being raised here in South Carolina, this is Joe Biden's race.


SELLERS: I also think that, ironically enough, ironically enough, I think the story is not just going to be Joe Biden doing well, but I think that Tom Steyer is going to outperform Bernie Sanders. He's going to outperform Amy Klobuchar, Pete Buttigieg and Elizabeth Warren.

And I think that's devastating for sitting United States senators and those people who have run for president before to be outperformed or actually even have a close race between somebody people didn't even know a year ago.

BALDWIN: You took the words right out of my mouth.

I was about to -- We had this -- I had this woman on yesterday, Tameika Isaac Devine, South Carolina city councilwoman in Columbia. And she's also undecided. And she name-checked Tom Steyer. This is something she told me.


TAMEIKA ISAAC DEVINE, SOUTH CAROLINA CITY COUNCIL: Honestly, Tom Steyer has made a whole lot of leeway here in South Carolina, and particularly in my constituents. He's been in a lot of the neighborhoods and my constituents like him. I like his record.

Certainly, Vice President Biden has a long history with our state. So he is up there as well, and Elizabeth Warren. So it'll be really interesting to see as the next couple weeks who really speaks to the issues that are important to the folks that I represent.


BALDWIN: You surprised, Bakari, or not surprised by the folks she name-checked there?

SELLERS: I'm not surprised at all.

I mean, the biggest problem Tom Steyer has is black folk didn't know Tom Steyer before he started running for president. And so that trust, that familiarity just simply isn't there. But he actually has tried. He's worked it. He's been in the community.

I can't say the same for Pete and Amy and Elizabeth Warren. I mean, it's this -- especially when you come to someone like Amy Klobuchar, it's just -- it's disappointing and disheartening for individuals not to even try in these communities. It's going to be reflective not just of South Carolina, but when Super Tuesday comes around, there will be -- I mean, I know we're worried about Texas and California.

Those delegates are going to be split to Kalamazoo. But when you come down South, if Biden and Bloomberg are able to run away with delegates, that means they will have an advantage going out of Super Tuesday, and I'm not sure Pete and Amy and Elizabeth truly realize that.

BALDWIN: So, Astead, to you, then, on Joe Biden, who certainly has been trying, right, in South Carolina. He left New Hampshire in the middle of day on primary day to head to South Carolina. The news today is, he says he's going to finish first or second in South Carolina. And, of course, that's despite the disappointing finishes both in Iowa and New Hampshire.

And you see the numbers. This is this recent Quinnipiac poll showing his support among black voters actually dropped more than 20 points since January. And so, Astead, is the support for Joe Biden still there in South Carolina? What do you think is happening with that decline in the black support?

ASTEAD HERNDON, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, I think that we should be clear. Joe Biden remains the favorite in South Carolina. That's been true since this race started. That will be true until the primary happens.

But when he says first or second, let's not let him spin. Joe Biden needs to win South Carolina, and he needs to do so in a way that does prepare the kind of comeback kid narrative that we were talking about. He needs to amass delegates in there, because he knows, most importantly, that Mike Bloomberg looms on Super Tuesday.

And he's heavily invested in a lot of those communities that Biden needs to win -- to start racking up those delegates and to take back the momentum he lost in the first two states.

Now, we reported yesterday that there is some cracks that are showing up in that South Carolina firewall that the Biden campaign themselves know. They are trying to reassure that ground game. They're trying to make sure he's investing more time throughout the state, because they know that Tom Steyer has invested a lot of money in the state and has put up a lot of advertisements in the state.

And they know that someone like Bernie Sanders enjoys support, particularly among younger black voters, and that, if he wins the first three contests, he could be coming in with some momentum.

I think Bakari's point is true about Amy Klobuchar, Elizabeth Warren, and also Pete Buttigieg. These are candidates that are relying on moderate -- or I shouldn't say moderate for Elizabeth Warren. These are candidates that are relying on growing their non-white support, but we have not seen much evidence that that's true so far.

BALDWIN: OK, Astead and Bakari, gentlemen, thank you so very much

South Carolina coming up, Nevada first. Thank you very much.


Coming up next: the impact of the president's dismissive words on our children. This new "Washington Post" review found hundreds of instances where kids mimicked the president's insults to bully their classmates.

We will talk to the author of that piece from "The Post" next.