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Barr Considered Resigning; Trump Pardons and Commutes Sentences; Dad Reunites with Family after Quarantine; Bloomberg on Debate Stage. Aired 8:30-9a ET

Aired February 19, 2020 - 08:30   ET




JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: So, developing overnight, a source tells CNN that Attorney General William Barr has said he has considered resigning over President Trump's --

ALISYN CAMEROTA, CNN ANCHOR: Is that the double has you just dropped there?

BERMAN: Because he claims that he considered resigning. Do we know whether it's true? Do we know whether he's trying to protect his reputation? Do we know whether he's trying to send a message to the president? Any of those things I suppose is possible. That's on top of the president yesterday going on a pardon/clemency fest for people who could be considered the mo. Rushmore of corruption, as I've been saying. I'll say it one more time, the Mt. Swampmore of corruption.

CAMEROTA: You can't say that too often.


CAMEROTA: I feel that that hasn't gotten enough -- enough play yet.

BERMAN: Something that good can't get enough play.

CAMEROTA: Yes, that's right.

BERMAN: Joining us now, CNN chief legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin.

Jeffrey, I guess let's just start with the news overnight.


BERMAN: These reports that Barr has claimed he has considered resigning. How seriously should we take that?

TOOBIN: I don't know because, as you pointed out, this could be a message that he's sending. It could be a message that he's sending to the president. It could be a message he's sending to the public.

And what makes it particularly interesting is that the issue that he's complained about, which is the president injecting himself into individual criminal case decisions, the president has said, including yesterday, I'm still doing it.

CAMEROTA: So message not received?

TOOBIN: Well, message not heeded.


TOOBIN: It may have been heard, but it was not -- it has not been heeded by the president. And so that raises the question, if he was considering resigning about it, will he still be considering resigning about it, or is this whole a phony baloney story that he's not considering resigning at all, he just wants the message out there.

CAMEROTA: It's also just very confusing to know where -- where Attorney General Bill Barr stands on his power versus the president's power because he has said different things years ago when he was in the Department of Justice than he's saying now. It's just confusing.

TOOBIN: And the irony is, the -- Bill Barr has been very much associated with the idea of a strong presidency. Well, I don't think he was ready for this strong a presidency. And, you know, the idea of the president interfering in individual prosecutorial decisions is so far outside what we've seen in the Justice Department in the post- Watergate era that, you know, yesterday the president said that the attorney general isn't the top law enforcement officer in the country, I'm the top law enforcement officer in the country.

CAMEROTA: And that's technically true.

TOOBIN: It is technically true because he is the boss of the attorney general. But no president has chosen to exercise powers like this in the modern era, and so, you know, we'll see what that means.

BERMAN: Once again, it's the difference between can and should, which brings us to the pardons.

TOOBIN: Correct.

BERMAN: And the clemency granted by the president yesterday. He pardoned all those people, gave clemency to all those people. I'm an avid reader of "The New Yorker." That's your side gig.


BERMAN: You moonlight and write occasionally for "The NEW Yorker."

TOOBIN: Yes. Correct.

BERMAN: And, Jeffrey, you wrote a really interesting piece where you explain what's at stake and why it's important what the president did.

TOOBIN: Right, because, you know, as you point out, there is no doubt, under the Constitution, the president has the power to do this. This is not legally a -- an open question. And there is a history of controversial pardons, whether it's President Clinton pardoning Marc Rich, who was a fugitive financier, or George Herbert Walker Bush pardoning the Iran Contra people on his way out of office.

But what makes these pardons so troubling is that, in the middle of his term, here he is assigning friends. Basically friends and friends of friends to get pardons and clemency, which is how authoritarians behave, which is playing favorites with your personal friends at a time when you are playing with the opposite of favorites with prosecutorial decisions. You know, I want these people prosecuted, I want these people freed. That's how authoritarian countries work.

Countries where there is the rule of law, there are systems in place for who gets prosecuted, who gets clemency. This is a very individually focused way to run a presidency.

CAMEROTA: And, furthermore, the country, yesterday, just got swampier. I mean if that's one of your campaign slogans and campaign promises, that you're going to drain the swamp, then you open the prison doors of, you know, or commute the sentences, whatever, same thing, of these 11 folks, all of whom were -- you know, this was corruption. They personified corruption. They were lining their own pockets. I mean even some of President Trump's most vocal cheerleaders on different networks said, oh, this is swampy.

TOOBIN: Right. And, I mean, oftentimes with pardons -- you know, President Obama had a very elaborate system in place to offer clemency to low-level drug dealers.


None of whom he knew personally, but he had a whole system where sentences would be reviewed.

Here you have people -- I mean what -- Rob Blagojevich, you know, like a total sleaze of a governor who, you know, took money in office, you know, Bernie Kerik, who disgraced New York City, you know, in multiple ways, but who is a very close associate, or has been, of Rudy Giuliani. You know, Blagojevich was on "The Apprentice." His mother -- his wife was pleading for him on Fox all the time.

CAMEROTA: And that's what the president says, explained his thought process in terms of commuting Blagojevich's sentence. Here's the quote, I watched his wife on television.

TOOBIN: Do you think there are other people in federal prison whose spouses are sad that they're in prison? I think there probably are.

BERMAN: Like every single one.

TOOBIN: Like every single one of them. But they don't have access to Fox. And so they don't get clemency. I mean it is an example of how, you know, sort of when you -- when you individualize justice in this way, it leads to results that are really just appalling.

CAMEROTA: Jeffrey Toobin, great to talk to you.

TOOBIN: Good to talk to you.

CAMEROTA: Thank you for being here.

Now to this, the Chinese government is revoking the press credentials of three "Wall Street Journal" reporters. The unusual move comes after "The Journal" published an opinion piece earlier this month about the coronavirus outbreak entitled "China is the Real Sick Man of Asia."

Meanwhile, the U.S. announced it will begin treating five major Chinese media companies as extensions of Beijing's government. They will now be required to comply with the same rules governing foreign embassies and consulates.

BERMAN: Federal authorities have arrested a Mexican man in south Florida that they say was operating as a Russian spy. Hector Alejandro Cabrera Fuentes allegedly sought to spy on a confidential U.S. government informant. Fuentes is charged with conspiracy to act within the United States as an agent of a foreign power. He is being held without bond. Prosecutors say he is a potential flight risk.

CAMEROTA: Well, the coronavirus outbreak has kept families apart for weeks because of these quarantines. Now they're finally getting the chance to see each other again. And we are there to show you one happy reunion.



CAMEROTA: After two weeks under quarantine in Japan, some passengers on board that cruise ship, who have tested negative for coronavirus, have finally begun to disembark today. But we've learned of 79 new cases on board that ship this morning.

Meanwhile, a Wisconsin man has been reunited with his wife and daughters after they were evacuated from the epicenter of the outbreak and placed in isolation in California. And CNN was there for their emotional reunion.

CNN's Lucy Kafanov is live at Travis Air Base with more.

So tell us how this went.


It's been a tough few weeks for families split apart by the coronavirus outbreak. First, trapped in Wuhan, then evacuated but placed under quarantine. Well, yesterday, 180 people were finally released, able to go home. We caught up with one Wisconsin dad as he got to hug his wife and two daughters for the first time.


SAMUEL ROTH, WIFE AND DAUGHTERS QUARANTINED AFTER RETURN FROM WUHAN: That it. KAFANOV (voice over): For Sam Roth, it's a day that couldn't come soon enough. Arriving in California with his 11-month-old daughter's car seat, waiting to be reunited with his family after a month apart.

S. ROTH: Just anxious at the moment. Looking forward to seeing them.

KAFANOV: His wife, Daisy, and daughters Abigail and Adelyn, were released from Travis Air Force Base after spending two weeks in quarantine. Shuttled by bus to San Francisco Airport.

S. ROTH: Bus stop 21. You know where that is?

KAFANOV: Sam's wait getting a little longer. Unclear where the family got dropped off.

Finally, the moment they had all been waiting for.

S. ROTH: Give mommy a hug. Found you.

KAFANOV: Reunited as a family of four at last.

KAFANOV (on camera): So now you're back. How does it feel?


S. ROTH: Just glad to see you.

D. ROTH: Yes.

S. ROTH: Just glad to be back together with the family.

D. ROTH: Just very excited.

KAFANOV (voice over): Their ordeal began on January 23rd, two days after Daisy and the girls arrived in the Chinese city of Wuhan to spend time with her family.

D. ROTH: I woke up and I received a message from my phone. It was like the whole city got to lock down. And I was like, what?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It's pajama time.

KAFANOV: They spent days cooped up in Daisy's parents' home under lockdown in a city afraid to leave the apartment.

Five-year-old Abigail keeping her baby sister entertained, putting on a brave face despite the fear.


KAFANOV (on camera): What was scary about it?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: That I had to stay in.

KAFANOV (voice over): The State Department began evacuating Americans out of Wuhan. But because Daisy isn't a U.S. citizen, the family wasn't sure she'd be able to leave.

D. ROTH: Yes, I think only like when we passed the customs that I know, OK, we're good.

KAFANOV: Grateful to be back on American soil, happy that the quarantine is now behind them, but mindful of loved ones left behind in Wuhan.

S. ROTH: It doesn't really feel like it's over. And as long as Wuhan is still under lockdown and her family is there, this is a milestone getting our family back together. But it's definitely not the end of the road for the people that we love.


KAFANOV: A bittersweet moment there.

Now, he's an important point to emphasize. The CDC says the released evacuees pose no health risks to their communities. This morning, the Roths are setting out on a family road trip along the California coast.

Alisyn, John, back to you.

CAMEROTA: Great to see them back together. That is -- what a -- what a moment. I mean we spoke to him, and he was just in that zone of uncertainty waiting to find out when he'd be reunited with his kids and his wife.


BERMAN: So time now for "The Good Stuff."

Today, a mild mannered young man from Tennessee transforms into a superhero thanks to the Make-a-Wish Foundation. You've heard of the Incredible Hulk. Meet the incredible Benjamin. He's battling cystic fibrosis. But on Monday, he was smashing stuff just like his favorite Avenger.


CODY BULLOCK, BENJAMIN'S FATHER: Anything superherowise, he loves. Incredible Hulk being his favorite.

For Benjamin, him being a shy person anyways, to get to come do this, though, I know he's -- he's more than thankful.


BERMAN: Benjamin smash. He also received a super surprise. Tickets to Disney World so he could hang out with his fellow Avengers.

CAMEROTA: Make-a-Wish Foundation is so great.

BERMAN: It's fantastic. It's -- breaking down that wall. I'd like to do that. CAMEROTA: I know.

BERMAN: I'd like to be able to kick down a wall.

CAMEROTA: Why don't we have that day.

BERMAN: I know. Exactly.

CAMEROTA: I'll make that happen.

BERMAN: Thank you.

CAMEROTA: All right, how will Mike Bloomberg's presence on the debate stage changed the dynamic? "The Bottom Line" with David Gregory, next.



BERMAN: Major tests tonight in the Democratic primary race. It is the first time former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg will step onto the debate stage.

Let's get "The Bottom Line" with CNN political analyst David Gregory.

David, this will be different, way different. Not only is Michael Bloomberg on the stage for the first time, but Bernie Sanders will be on that stage as the clear national frontrunner.

DAVID GREGORY, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Right, and there -- I mean there's so many storylines you can hardly keep up because you also have those who are in the desperate lane, like Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren, who have to make some kind of showing here to keep showing a political pulse.

You would think that everybody would gang up on Bernie Sanders because he's pulling away in this thing and there's just a collective sense of panic that he's not going to be elected if he is the Democratic nominee. But there's all this focus on Bloomberg for good reason, because he's finally on a debate stage. And if you're Bernie Sanders, it shows you who he cares about right now. He cares about Bloomberg. It's a perfect contrast for him. And he's going to go at him hard, where I think everybody else is going to try to divide their time, trying to take down Sanders and Bloomberg at the same time.

CAMEROTA: So, David, what are you looking for tonight? I mean what do the candidates, particularly, I guess, Bloomberg, because he's the newcomer, what does he have to accomplish tonight?

GREGORY: Well, I do think -- I tend to be in agreement with the general take, which is that he's -- he's got to survive essentially. You know, I don't necessarily expect him to be a terrific debater. He can get defensive. He'll be ganged up on. You know, the -- it's always difficult. If he can show some facility to be able to take the incoming and still communicate a message about electability, about how he really stands apart. You know, I think what's interesting about the progressive moment that

we're in, and this overall emphasis on electability is still around a clear choice. It's not just that Democrats think that Donald Trump is a bad person and is corrupt and authoritarian tendencies. There's still an ideological divide. The idea that he's still running as more of a conservative Republican, and that there's a progressive answer to that and a real progressive choice.

The through line here in this crazy bonkers political moment that we're in is that nobody is doing well who's really painting within the lines, right? You've got Bloomberg, who's spending his way to the nomination without even doing interviews or having his news organization investigate him or other Democrats. You've got Bernie Sanders as a Democratic socialist and, of course, you have Trump.

So I think that the ability for Bloomberg to hold his own and communicate a message primarily of electability is what's going to be important.

BERMAN: And you also, David, talk about the various purity tests facing the Democratic candidates.


BERMAN: And I -- one of them, for some progressives, are you progressive enough. But there are other tests also. We had Bernie Sanders' national press secretary on before and I was asking her, shouldn't Bernie Sanders release his medical records? The guy had a heart attack a couple of months ago. And she suggested that those questions are part of a smear campaign.

GREGORY: Yes. Well, which is an incredible response. And, you know, this is -- and it's disingenuousness, I agree, that that's what makes it incredible with some others who have made that comment this morning.

You know, the notion that, you know, Sanders and his team and all of his loyalists are going to go after Trump for his behavior, his evasions and they're going to stick to that shows you one primarily lesson, which is, he's learned a lot from what Trump has gotten away with and he'll employ it himself and so will his loyalists and that's what we're seeing there.

And there are purity tests. You know, and I think that's going to be leveled against Bloomberg. Is he somehow in the mold of Donald Trump? You know, as a billionaire kind of pretender who has, you know, pursued a racist policy in stop and frisk, who has nondisclosure agreements because of sexist comments and the like, they're going to try to use that against Bloomberg, to paint him with the same brush. And Donald Trump is president. So Democrats are still kind of mired in this idea of what they consider the purity test for their own candidates when you have this president who's broken every seal there is in normal political practice. You know, and I wonder how that's going to work out for Democrats in the end.

CAMEROTA: Well, I'm also just wondering why, if the billionaire, as a pejorative, is how most voters feel. I mean that -- he is an American success story. He's a self-made man.


CAMEROTA: And so is it -- are we holding that against him now?

GREGORY: No, I think it's a great point, Alisyn. And you -- you raised it yesterday as well. And it really jives with people that I talked to who, you know, on the one hand it -- there are certainly a lot of people who don't like the rich and billionaires and the income disparity in the country and will blame government, Republicans, for a tax structure that will benefit them.

There's a lot of other people who look at a Donald Trump, who look at a Mike Bloomberg and say, hey, I'd like that life.


They're doing great. Good for them. And they don't hold it against them. And I think that we underestimate how strong that feeling is and how people are not thinking about how much money they have. They're thinking about, you know, do -- does this person align in most areas with my own values or what I'd like to see government accomplish? And the very real desire now to be willing to accept someone who is outrageous in a lot of ways or who doesn't do things the way you'd expect to try to shake up government to get some kind of result other than what people have been used to for a long time.

BERMAN: David Gregory, we love you because you are so outrageous.

GREGORY: That's me.

BERMAN: Thank you so much for being with us this morning.

CAMEROTA: Thank you, David.

All right, CNN's coverage debate continues after this quick break.