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Rivals Sharpen Attacks On Bloomberg Ahead Of His First Debate; Blagojevich Fresh Off Commutation, Says, I'm A Trump-ocrat; Source Says, Barr Considers Resigning Over Trump DOJ Interference. Aired 1- 1:30p ET

Aired February 19, 2020 - 13:00   ET




BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN RIGHT NOW: I'm Brianna Keilar live from CNN's Washington headquarters.

Underway right now, they say he is a, quote, egomaniac billionaire who is trying to buy the election. And tonight, rivals get their first chance to go after Michael Bloomberg on the debate stage.

Plus, he's 78 years old, recently had a heart attack and wants to be president for the next four, maybe eight years. But Bernie Sanders says you can't see his medical records.

Plus, your move, Bill Barr, the president testing him again today after sources say the attorney general considered resigning over the president's inference in the Justice Department.

And the president's pardon spree, as seen on T.V., hear who helped inspire President Trump to flex his muscle for a crew of fraudsters.

First up, the Bloomberg factor, for the very first time, the billionaire accused of buying his way into the race will be on the Democratic debate stage creating new dynamic that we and the other candidates have yet to see. How will they react especially considering Bloomberg isn't even running in Nevada or South Carolina, the next two states that have contests?

We have CNN Senior Washington Correspondent, Jeff Zeleny, live for us. He is in Las Vegas, and this is where tonight's debate is going to be taking place, Jeff. With Bloomberg now having a seat at the table, what are we expecting tonight?

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: Brianna, there's no question that we've seen so many Democratic presidential debates. This will be ninth overall. But the story is different now. The political world is different, since Mike Bloomberg joined this campaign three months or so ago, this will be the first time he has actually face-to- face with his rivals. The first time he is coming from behind the millions of dollars in television advertising to show and defend his record and why he's running for president.

So this is going to be an entirely different dynamic. I mean, if Mike Bloomberg was not in the race, we would be talking about Bernie Sanders and Bernie Sanders alone. He is the clear frontrunner in this race at this point.

Brianna, let's take a look at the CNN poll of polls, which is the average of national polls that are out at this moment. Bernie Sanders has a commanding lead in this. He some 28 percent in this poll of polls, followed by Joe Biden at 16 percent, Michael Bloomberg, 15, Elizabeth Warren 13, Pete Buttigieg, 10 and Amy Klobuchar 7. So that sets the table for where this debate is going forward in the national polls. But there is no question at all that Bernie Sanders has telegraphed that he plans to directly confront Michael Bloomberg on his record and other matters, several other candidates as well.

But the question here is will Bernie Sanders get a free pass here on his own policies if so much attention is focused on Mike Bloomberg. So those are the dynamics here shaping up on this, which is going to be a fascinating debate. And will some of these other candidates in the bottom tier essentially get squeezed out in the conversation?

We should point out, he is not even running here. Mike Bloomberg is not running in the Nevada caucuses or the South Carolina primary next week. He's not on the ballot until next Super Tuesday. But what happens tonight is going to determine how much strength he has going into that race. Brianna?

KEILAR: Yes. Is this going to shape the race? Is it going to cement it? We will see tonight watching with you. Jeff Zeleny, thank you so much.

And if Bloomberg does get a reprieve from attacks tonight, he will likely have Senator Bernie Sanders to thank, that's because he is the frontrunner there, as Jeff was explaining. And the fellow 78-year-old no longer plans to release his medical records despite promising to do so.

Here is what Sanders said before suffering a heart attack on the campaign trail last fall.


SEN. BERNIE SANDERS (I-VT), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I think it's the right thing to do. The American people have a right to know whether the person they're going to voting for for president is healthy. And we will certainly release our medical records before the primary, certainly before the first votes are cast.


KEILAR: Now, since then, Sanders has released letters, not records, letters from three physicians attesting to his good health, but he hasn't turned over those actual medical documents.

And last night, at CNN's town hall, he argued that he didn't need to. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SANDERS: Well, I think we have released a detailed report and I'm comfortable with what we have done. And, by the way, you think I'm not in good health, come on out with me on the campaign trail and I'll let you introduce me to the three or four rallies a day that we do. How is that?

ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: But just to be clear, you don't plan to release any more records?

SANDERS: I don't. I don't think we will, no.


KEILAR: Let's talk to Dr. John Sotos. He is a cardiologist. He's also a colonel in the California International Guard, where he is a flight surgeon, and he disagrees with Sanders.


Sir, thanks for coming on.


KEILAR: So he says -- you say that these letters don't serve the public well. Clearly, Bernie Sanders says they do. You say they leave out incredibly important information. What kind of information do you think these leave out?

SOTOS: Well, before I start, let me say that I'm serving as a military member but I'm here in a private capacity, and the opinions I have are wholly my own and not those of any military enterprise.

So in the Air Force, we have some standards for military members who want to get back on duty after a heart attack. And those standards lay out the information that should be released as part of that effort to get back on duty.

So, for a heart attack, that includes things like the full extent of the coronary anatomy. There are three arteries in the heart. And we need to know -- the Air Force needs to know, for example, how much atherosclerosis, how much disease is in each of those three arteries. From Senator Sanders' letters, we know only about one of the arteries, and there, only partial information.

The Air Force would also require a full description of the electrocardiogram, which we don't have, and full reports on a treadmill test, although we have summary results on the treadmill test.

KEILAR: Okay. So there is a lot of missing information. What one of Sanders physicians wrote was this, quote, your heart muscle strength has improved. You have never had symptoms of congestive heart failure. The heart chamber sizes, wall thickness, estimated pressure and heart valves are normal. Several 24-hour recordings of your heart electrical activity indicated no significant rhythm abnormality, heart rhythm abnormality.

Another letter says Sanders underwent cardiopulmonary exercise tolerance test. That's the description you're talking about, and that his performance, quote, rated above average compared to a reference population of the same age.

Okay. What stands out to you? And I will say what stands out to me is that reference population of the same age because he is older. What stands out to you?

SOTOS: If I may say one subtlety about that reference population, the reference population, that sentence refers to is a population of people entering cardiac rehabilitation after a heart attack or a bypass or a similar cardiac event. So it's not even against a normal population.

But in answering to your question, what stands out to me about those sentences is that it's not a complete description. Though the factors that are mentioned are all positive and indicate a good prognosis. But without a complete description, there's still the opportunity for other information that is just as important to alter the prognosis.

KEILAR: It was interesting to hear you say, look, if you have a heart issue in the military or specifically in the Air Force, these are the things you have to give information on to get back in. That's potentially a very stressful job, being in the Air Force, but the presidency can be incredibly stressful. Can you just give us some insight into how the stress that would come along with the presidency is something that could impact heart health?

SOTOS: When I think about a stress test for the presidency, I think about the Cuban missile crisis, which lasted 13 days in 1962. President Kennedy was 43 years old. And this was a very taxing two weeks for him. And his brother, who was the attorney general and 36 years old, was also worn out by the two weeks of this crisis. So I think of something like that, where there's no sleep, there's constant worry, that's probably as much physical and mental stresses a president could reasonably be forecast to undergo.

KEILAR: Dr. John Sotos, thank you, thank you so much for your perspective. This was very enlightening.

SOTOS: Thank you.

KEILAR: And Rod Blagojevich is a free man, back home in Chicago right now after the President Trump stepped in and commuted his sentence. The former Illinois serving eight years of his 14-year sentence after being found guilty in a corruption scandal. He tried to essentially sell President Obama's vacant seat, among other things, and Blagojevich, holding a news conference a short time ago, to express his thanks to the president for his early release.


ROD BLAGOJEVICH, PRISON SENTENCE COMMUTED BY PRESIDENT TRUMP: The obvious I want to state, and I know I speak for Patty and Amy and Annie and obviously for me. We want to express our most profound and everlasting gratitude to President Trump.

How do you properly thank someone who has given you back the freedom that was stolen from you?


He didn't have to do this. He's a Republican president. I was Democratic governor. And doing this does nothing to help his politics.

I've got 10,000 reasons to be thankful to President Trump. I'm obviously thankful to be home and have my freedom back to just be able to hold my wife's hand. But most of all, I'm thankful to you, Mr. President, for giving my daughters their father back.

One of the great ironies in history is that, so far, up until now in the history of our country, no one has done more or is currently working to do more to fix this broken and racist criminal justice system than President Trump and Jared Kushner.


KEILAR: Joining me now from Chicago is Natasha Korecki, National Correspondent for Politico, and she's also the author of, Only in Chicago, How the Rod Blagojevich engulfed Illinois and Enthralled the Nation. Thanks so much for coming on, Natasha, having written the book on this.

And this episode, this Blagojevich case, it's really just part of the history corruption in Chicago policy, though it is interesting to note that Blagojevich is the only Illinois governor who was actually ever impeached, not to go to prison thought. What did you think when you first heard this news that President Trump had stepped in to free him?

NATASHA KORECKI, NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT, POLITICO: Well, the first reaction for a lot of us who have been following this was the same. Of course, this was the way the story was going to end, or at least developed. I don't know if the Blagojevich story will ever end.

But almost from the moment that Donald Trump was elected president, a lot of us speculated that this could happen. Trump had some affection for Blagojevich. Of course, he had him on his show, Celebrity Apprentice, even after Blagojevich had been indicted. And he showed some affection for him at the time.

And we had a few false starts. We thought Blagojevich -- that Trump was going to do this earlier, but he ended up pulling back. But here we are. And we should note that Blagojevich did serve eight years of his sentence. It was a 14 year sentence, but, realistically, under federal guidelines, he probably would have gotten out in 11.5 years, so he did serve a substantial portion of that.

KEILAR: Yes. And he was also freed from a substantial portion of that, when you think about maybe being 3.5 more years, that's a considerable amount of time. But, certainly, he is grateful to not have to spend in jail. You've covered him so much. You wrote this book about the case. So I want to ask you this. He's calling himself now a Trump-ocrat. What do you think of that?

KORECKI: I think Rod Blagojevich has long had this skill of redefining himself of spinning things. And he's just taking this moment and really just letting it wash over him. Here he is leaving prison in a very different political climate. Now, he has the most powerful ally in the country, the president of the United States.

When he left Illinois and went to prison, he was completely alienated here. He was a pariah of Illinois politics. No one liked him. He wasn't even going to his job everyday as governor as those tapes revealed, he was in the basement of his home, working out. We would hear him at home. His staff had to track him down when he was getting haircuts to sign bills or veto bills. It was really crazy toward the end.

So then he comes out now in this very different position, I think, is remarkable and I think we're going to be seeing a lot of him in the weeks and months to come.

KEILAR: Really? In what capacity?

KORECKI: He's -- I mean, look at the -- if you just panned over the media at his home, I mean, that's just the beginning. He's going to keep spinning this. We're going to see lots of interviews. And now that he is becoming this big Trump defender, I think he's going to be -- he's really going to have a microphone and a megaphone to, you know, to get his message out, which, true to form, he's spinning as if this was a pardon, it was not a pardon, his sentence was shortened.

KEILAR: Yes, that's right. And, Natasha, who knows, maybe there's a second book on Rod Blagojevich or you're going to have to amend the first. We will keep our eyes open for that. Natasha Korecki, thank you so much.

KORERCKI: Thank you.

KEILAR: If the attorney general thought about resigning over the president's behavior, why is he only considering it now?

Plus, why T.V. personalities played a role in the president's pardon spree.

And Michael Bloomberg keeps using former President Obama in his ads but their relationship isn't all that warm and fuzzy. That's ahead.



KEILAR: CNN has learned that Attorney General Bill Barr has told people he's considered resigning over the president's inference with Justice Department matters. Yet in the one year Barr has held A.G. position, this is the first time he has spoken up about the obstacles created by the president. And the question here is, is this possible threat of resignation by Barr legitimate? Just last week, Barr expressed his frustrations about the president's tweets.


WILLIAM BARR, ATTORNEY GENERAL: To have public statements and tweets made about the department, about people in the department, our men and women here, about cases pending in the department and about judges before whom we have cases make it impossible for me to do my job.


KEILAR: Now, that statement did nothing to stop the president from tweeting about cases. Trump told reporters yesterday that he does make it harder for Barr to do his job but he couldn't resist a chance to remind everyone who is in charge.



DONALD TRUMP, U.S. PRESIDENT: But just so you understand, I chose not to be involved. I'm allowed to be totally involved. I'm actually, I guess, the chief law enforcement officer of the country, but I've chosen not to be involved.


KEILAR: I'm joined now by CNN Legal Analyst Elliot Williams. He is a former federal prosecutor as well as former deputy assistant attorney general.

And you have some strong feelings about what you heard the president say there. Technically, is he correct?

ELLIOT WILLIAMS, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Okay. Yes, the president is the chief law enforcement officer if you live in Saudi Arabia. Okay. I mean, literally, yes, the president runs the executive branch, which the justice department is in, but he appoints the attorney general to be the chief law enforcement officer. And you don't want to create a scenario where the president of the United States is settling scores through law enforcement.

So, yes, technically, he's in charge of the whole enterprise, but, come on, that's silly and he knew exactly what he was saying when he said that.

KEILAR: So when you see this reporting about Barr saying that he has considered resigning because the president is just making all of this too difficult, we should also say that this is happening as there is this of crisis of confidence in his leadership at the Department of Justice, right, among rank and file there, among federal judges as well. So how do you see that view that he was considering resigning?

WILLIAMS: I mean, too little too late to an extent. But, look, I signed the letter that I'm sure you've -- yes, I know you've reported it on the show that, I think, 2,500 federal prosecutors have signed. For me, it was far more about the president of the United States than it was about William Barr. William Barr is, I think, is the symptom, not the problem. The problem is a president that wants to weaponize law enforcement to his own personal aims.

And if you look at the kinds of cases he talks about, he's talking about the Andrew McCabe case, he's talking about concerns about Andrew McCabe, concerns about other cases in which he had a personal stake, where the John Durham investigation, and we can talk about that further. But cases where the president feels that he has been aggrieved are the ones that he wants to step in.

You don't hear him talking about rank and file extortion prosecutions or things like that. It's only things where he's involved.

KEILAR: All right. Elliot, stand by for me, if you will. I'm joined now by CNN Politics Reporter and Editor at Large, Chris Cillizza.

And, Chris, to Elliot's point, Barr had many chances to step in and stand up to the president. So take us through some of those.

CHRIS CILLIZZA, CNN POLITICS REPORTER AND EDITOR AT LARGE: Yes. So, Brianna, this is sort of a selective memory thing here Bill Barr. He's picking and choosing. Let's just run through some of the time that Donald Trump has kind of waded into ongoing either investigations or trials.

Let's start over here with Michael Cohen, former Donald Trump fixer, as you know. He said, Michael Cohen makes up stories. Again, Michael Cohen was involved in a criminal proceeding when that happened. Paul Manafort, former campaign chief charged in a number of things, Ukraine, Donald Trump's campaign chairman in 2016, he called Manafort a brave man and supported him. Remember, Manafort was one of the few people who did not flip on Donald Trump.

Michael Flynn, former national security adviser, a war hero, has served with distinction. Now, he sent that when there was -- he, Donald Trump, sent that when there were rumors that Flynn would cooperate with the Mueller investigation, which he eventually did.

This is Eddie Gallagher. As you know, he had been pardoned. We've talking a lot about pardons of late, Eddie Gallagher, former Navy SEAL. The process should move quickly as it relates to Eddie Gallagher. Again, you were talking about the president of the United States wading directly into a military proceeding.

I mean, we could put 100 of the Department of Justice and the FBI, bad players in the FBI and DOJ. Donald Trump has said, remember at that celebration press event that he had after he was acquitted, Brianna, he called them top scum at the FBI.

And then there's Marie Yovanovitch, obviously, former diplomat in Ukraine, that Donald Trump helped have removed. Everywhere Marie Yovanovitch went turned bad, no evidence of that again. And so this is -- Bill Barr appears to be sort of picking a spot here. I am not well-versed enough to question his motive. But I will say, when you look at the totality, Brianna, of the times that Bill Barr has chosen to take a pass on Donald Trump wading into these matters, it's more than a little interesting he chose now to say, enough is enough. Brianna?

KEILAR: No, the timing is certainly very interesting, Chris. And, Elliot, let's talk about what we've seen today, the president is tweeting even today on matters involving the Justice Department. What do you make of that as he's certainly not heeding what Barr has said about the president making his life difficult?

WILLIAMS: So, again, this gets back at the point I made earlier about why I signed that letter. And I actually believe it is impossible for any individual to serve this president in good faith in the role of attorney general. We saw it with Jeff Sessions.


He was pushed out over recusing from a major matter. We're seeing it with Bill Barr. And at a certain point, if Barr loves the department and the independence of people that work -- about 115,000 people that work there, as much as he says he does, the rule of law is being jeopardize by these tweets by the president of the United States.

And out of respect to the institution, he just needs to step down.

KEILAR: Elliot Williams, thank you so much.

WILLIAMS: Thank you.

KEILAR: And Michael Bloomberg touting his ties with former President Obama in his recent campaign ads, but is that relationship as warm as those ads are making it out to be? You might know the answer there.

Plus, as seen on T.V., are television appearances the best way to score a pardon from President Trump?