Return to Transcripts main page

Anderson Cooper 360 Degrees

Alec Baldwin On Fatal Film Set Shooting: "The Trigger Wasn't Pulled. I Didn't Pull The Trigger"; Biden Outlines New Steps To Combat COVID Through Winter Months As More Omicron Cases Identified In U.S.; Witness In Maxwell Case: "Many, Many, Many Females" Went Through Epstein's Home, Including Then-Underage Accusers. Aired 9-10p ET

Aired December 02, 2021 - 21:00   ET




ANDERSON COOPER, CNN HOST: Good evening, again.

Topping this hour, he says he did not pull the trigger, yet the gun still fired, Alec Baldwin breaking his silence, about the shooting, on the New Mexico set, of his movie, "Rust" that killed the film's cinematographer, Halyna Hutchins, and wounded the director, Joel Souza.

Baldwin says he was blocking out a scene, determining exactly how to hold an antique Colt .45 revolver, when the prop gun, which somehow had a live round in it, went off.

As you know, this is now the subject of a criminal investigation. We're going to discuss it with our legal experts, shortly, as well as movie armorer.

First, though, Alec Baldwin, for the first time in public, talking detail, about the incident, with ABC News' George Stephanopoulos.


ALEC BALDWIN, ACTOR, WRITER, FILM PRODUCER: So then, I said to her "Now in this scene, I'm going to cock the gun." And I said, "Do you want to see that?" And she said, "Yes."

So, I take the gun, and I start to cock the gun. I'm not going to pull the trigger. I said, "Do you see the shot?" "Well just cheat it down and tilt it down a little bit like that."

And I cock the gun, I go "Can you see that? Can you see that? Can you see that?" And she says - and I let go of the hammer of the gun, and the gun goes off. I let go of the hammer of the gun, the gun goes off.


BALDWIN: That was the moment the gun went off, yes, that was the moment the gun went off. STEPHANOPOULOS: It wasn't in the script, for the trigger to be pulled.

BALDWIN: Well, the trigger wasn't pulled. I didn't pull the trigger.

STEPHANOPOULOS: So, you never pulled the trigger?

BALDWIN: No, no, no, no, no, I would never point a gun at anyone, and pull a trigger at them. Never, never. That was the training that I had. You don't point a gun at somebody, and pull the trigger.

STEPHANOPOULOS: This Colt .45, you just pulled?

BALDWIN: The hammer, as far back as I could, without cocking the actual gun.

STEPHANOPOULOS: And you're holding on to the hammer?

BALDWIN: I'm holding on. I'm just showing, "Well how about that? Does that work? Do you see that? Do you see that?" Then she goes, "Yes, that's good." I let go of the hammer. Bang, the gun goes off.

Well, everyone is horrified. They're shocked. It's loud. They don't have their earplugs in. No one was - the gun was supposed to be empty. I was told, I was handed an empty gun, or if there were cosmetic rounds, nothing with a charge at all, a flash round, nothing.

She goes down. I thought to myself, "Did she faint?"

The notion that there was a live round in that gun did not dawn on me till probably 45 minutes to an hour later.

STEPHANOPOULOS: 45 minutes to an hour?

BALDWIN: Well, she's laying there, and I go, "Did she get it by wadding? Was there a blank?"

Sometime those blank rounds have a wadding inside that packs, it's like a cloth that packs the gunpowder in. Sometimes, wadding comes out. It can hit people. And it could feel like a little bit of a poke.

But no one could understand. Did she have a heart attack? Because remember, the idea that someone put a live bullet, in the gun, was not even in reality.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Did you go up to her? Did you--

BALDWIN: I went up to her. And then we were immediately told to get out of the building. We were forced to get out of the building. The medics came in. I mean, I stood over her for 60 seconds. And she just laid there, kind of in shock.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Was she conscious?

BALDWIN: My recollection is yes.

(END VIDEO CLIP) COOPER: Well, criminal defense attorney, Sara Azari joins us, so does criminal defense attorney, and CNN Legal Analyst, Joey Jackson, also veteran Hollywood armorer, Scott Rasmussen.

Scott, let me just ask you, Alec Baldwin saying, which is new information that he was - he had the hammer of the gun, pulled back, as far as to go, without it being fully cocked, and then just let it go? Isn't that how a gun is fired? I mean, you don't need to pull the trigger, if the hammer hits the round. Is that correct?

SCOTT RASMUSSEN, ARMORER: Well, on the type of weapon, it's a single- action. In order to get it to fire, you pull the hammer to the rear, and then you would pull the trigger.

On his gun, the way he described it, just there, in that little segment, it sounds like possibly, the trigger was in the rear position, as he was pulling the hammer to the rear. And if that were in fact true, as soon as he let go the hammer, it would fire the weapon, because the hammer would fall forward.

COOPER: So, I just want to play that part of this, again, just for our viewers, because this is really an important point.


BALDWIN: So then, I said to her "Now in this scene, I'm going to cock the gun." And I said, "Do you want to see that?" And she said, "Yes."

So, I take the gun, and I start to cock the gun. I'm not going to pull the trigger. I said, "Do you see the shot?" "Well just cheat it down and tilt it down a little bit like that."


And I cock the gun, I go "Can you see that? Can you see that? Can you see that?" And she says - and I let go of the hammer of the gun, and the gun goes off.


COOPER: So again, Scott, you're saying that the trigger would have already - if the trigger was already pulled back, and he was - had the hammer in his hand, it was pulling it back, and then just let it go, that would fire the gun?

RASMUSSEN: Yes, the trigger keeps the hammer from falling. As you pull the hammer to the rear, the trigger engages on it. And then, when you pull the trigger, it disengages, allowing the hammer to fall forward, and igniting the cartridge.

So, if the hammer was already to the rear, and as he's pulling the hammer back, as he describes, and lets go of that hammer, that's the only way that gun could fire, is if the trigger is already to the rear.

COOPER: And if he had decided not to just let go of the hammer, but to have slowly put the hammer back, the gun would not have fired. Is that right?

RASMUSSEN: Correct, yes. If you gently allow the hammer to fall forward, it will not set off the cartridge.

COOPER: So Sara, as a criminal defense attorney, I'm wondering what you make what Alec Baldwin was saying there, and turning - he did not pull the trigger. I guess the question then, is it - is he liable, because he released the hammer, as opposed to slowly bringing the hammer back, to its original position?

SARA AZARI, CRIMINAL DEFENSE ATTORNEY: Well look, Anderson, I'm not a gun girl. But based on what Scott's saying, it really doesn't matter that he didn't pull the trigger, because of the position of the trigger.

And so, at the end of the day, it's about his mishandling of this gun, right, and his liability with respect to that. So, we're looking at criminal liability, and civil liability.

He is absolutely certain that he is not facing any criminal liability. And I would say, never be so sure. He's still - there's still statute limitations in New Mexico. They can file charges at any time. Although historically, these types of shootings on Hollywood sets have been accidents, there's always a first time.

But ultimately, if he in fact, did not cause the firing, of this gun, or did not mishandle this gun, in a grossly negligent way, that rises to the level of criminal negligence, under New Mexico law, then his liability is limited to civil.

But if he's deemed to have - you know, we heard him, Anderson, talk about assumptions. "I believed it was a cold gun. I didn't need to check it. Good for George Clooney, who did it, but I didn't need to do that. I just have to rely on what the armorer tells me."

So, if he's proceeding on assumptions, and it turns out that he has a duty, to have checked that gun, and mishandled the gun, then he is still criminally exposed. So, I think there's a little bit of - there was a little bit of trying to clear himself, from all liability. He couldn't even use the word "Negligent" here.


AZARI: Let alone gross negligence.

COOPER: Joey, I want to go to you for legal advice.

But I also I just want to go back to Scott, quickly.

Scott, just in, in your expert opinion, I mean, is it - was it irresponsible, the way the gun that Mr. Baldwin was handling, the gun in that instance, of not putting the trigger - not - excuse me, not putting the hammer slowly back, and just releasing the hammer. Is that--

RASMUSSEN: In my opinion-- COOPER: --is that mishandling or is that?

RASMUSSEN: In my opinion, he mishandled the weapon, yes.

COOPER: What should he have done?

RASMUSSEN: He should have checked the weapon, to make sure that it was absolutely a cold weapon. That's the first mistake of his.

And then, him pulling the weapon, the hammer back, and asking Halyna, about how far back, and did she want to see that? That's not what you do on set.

You're told what is required of you in the scene. You rehearse it. You go through it with camera. And then, you shoot it. And what he's describing, to me, is not good safety.

COOPER: Joey, what do you make of this, legally?

JOEY JACKSON, CNN LEGAL ANALYST, CRIMINAL DEFENSE ATTORNEY: Yes. There's a reason that attorneys say to their clients, not to speak.

And I get that there's a public relations imperative here, because he wants to get out ahead of this. And I'm sure he feels miserable.

But you set yourself up for disaster, when you do something like this, why? There's two real tracks here. And Sara indicated what they are.

There's the criminal track, in which case you could be charged criminally, for what you did, or did not do, for your mishandling of the firearm. There's also the civil aspect, in which you are, you know, could be civilly liable. That relates to money.

And you're talking about how you handled the firearm? And so, this gets out, and you're going to be cross-examined.

You're going to do a deposition civilly, and you're going to be asked questions, on the oath, with respect to what you did, and what you did not do. And you've already made statements, as it relates to you, handling that firearm.

"Sir, it's fair to say that you didn't mention that you checked the firearm, is that right? And you have an independent obligation to do that, don't you?


You spoke about how you handled the gun, and how you cocked the trigger back. And you know, if you released it that, would put pressure, right, on the gun such that it would go off. But that's what you did. And you were pointing it at another."

And so, at the end of the day, I think every word he says here is going to be parsed. And it's not going to be very - it's not - look, you have a sheriff that's investigating this case, not only as to him, but everybody else. What was ammunition doing in that gun? What was it doing on the set? Who checked the weapon? When did they check it? Did they check it adequately? Apparently not. What were live rounds doing there? What was your own independent obligation, as a person, who was a producer, and an actor, on the show?

And you're going giving this long-winded interview? I just think you shouldn't be doing it. I think it does come down to the mishandling of a firearm. There's no question that there's mishandling here. The issue is whether it's mishandling of the criminal variety or the civil variety, which is limited to money.

COOPER: Scott, Alec Baldwin was very firm that it was not his responsibility, to make sure the gun was safe. You talked to this just a second ago. He said that's the job of the armorer, or the prop person, not the actor. What do you say to that?

RASMUSSEN: He's partially correct and partially incorrect.

The armorer's responsibility is to ensure that that weapon is set to be on set the way it's supposed to be, whether it's shooting blanks or not shooting. The actor is responsible for ensuring that that weapon is checked, before he gets it.

In other words, the armorer's responsibility, is to bring the weapon, to the actor, demonstrate to the actor that the gun is empty. Then they're going to put cartridges in it, dummy rounds, shake the cartridges, they rattle, they have a BB in them, and have the actor acknowledge that yes, that's a dummy.

Then you load the gun with those dummy rounds. Then, the armorer points the gun, at the ground, cocks the hammer, pulls the trigger, for all six cartridges, to demonstrate that it's a safe weapon.

And then, at that point, the actor can check it himself, which I encourage an actor to do. Or he can acknowledge, and say "Yes, I witnessed that. You did this. And it's a safe weapon." And that apparently was not done.

COOPER: Sara, I want to play another clip, from the interview, where Alec Baldwin addressed the idea that the movie's budget possibly contributed, the lower budget, contributed to the tragedy. Let's watch.


BALDWIN: When people say "Cutting costs," I don't say this with any judgment or any cynicism, Spielberg wants to save money. Tom Cruise wants to save money.

Everybody, who makes movies, has a responsibility, not to be reckless and careless, with the money that you're given. Those are men, who make movies that cost $205 million. And I'm making movies that cost $5 million, or thereabouts.

STEPHANOPOULOS: The question now is, were costs being cut, at the expense of safety and security?

BALDWIN: In my opinion, no, because I did not - no, I did not observe any safety or security issues, at all, in the time I was there.


COOPER: Sara, what's important to point out, Alec Baldwin was a producer on this film. So, I guess he has a - that's a whole other layer of potential liability.

AZARI: Right, Anderson. As a producer, obviously he has superior authority. He has superior duties, right, and responsibilities that he's obviously failed here.

Now, he carefully says, in this interview, "You know, I'm a creative producer. I didn't have any stake, in the financial aspect, of this production, or the hiring decisions."

So, when you really take this interview, in its totality, he's really carefully just stripping away, at any possible fact that's bad for him. He's not liable as an actor. He's not liable as a producer.

COOPER: Sara Azari, appreciate it. Joey Jackson, Scott Rasmussen, as well, really appreciate your expertise. Thank you.

Coming up next, the President's new anti-COVID measures, with a heavy emphasis on boosters, but also the reluctance, still with people, to roll up their sleeves, and a new measure of just how politically driven that decision might be.

Also, former White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows after reportedly writing, in his book that the former president tested positive for COVID, three days before his first presidential debate, last year, Meadows is now saying well, something kind of different.

We'll tell you, ahead.



COOPER: No shortage of COVID news tonight.

President Biden today unveiling new COVID-fighting measures, amping up calls, for everyone who's eligible, for booster, to get one. Pfizer asking for expanded authorization, so that younger people can get boosted. And, as expected, seven more cases of the new Omicron variant of the virus. Latest, five here in New York State.

Joining us now is Dr. Ashish Jha, Dean of the Brown University School of Public Health.

Dr. Jha, you hear about these five Omicron infections, in New York, plus now in Minnesota, Colorado, the one announced, yesterday, in California, how important is it for people to stay calm, as more cases are certainly likely to be announced, in the coming days and weeks? I mean, it seems like this has been here, for some time, as more cases are identified.

DR. ASHISH JHA, DEAN, BROWN UNIVERSITY SCHOOL OF PUBLIC HEALTH: Yes, Anderson, first of all, thanks for having me back.

Absolutely, is no question, in my mind, we have community transmission of this variant now, in the U.S. The fact that it's in different parts of the country, California, Minnesota, Colorado, New York, suggests that there's probably places, in between those places, where they're spread.

The key questions about Omicron still remain, right? How well our vaccines hold up? Are these - are they're going to end up, cause more severe disease? Will it spread quickly, under a context, where there's a lot of Delta variant around?

Still don't have the answers to those questions. That's why I think people should continue to pay attention to those questions. But we are going to see more cases ahead.

COOPER: The President outlined this plan today, to fight COVID, this winter, including asking private insurers, to reimburse the cost, of at-home tests, allowing rural clinics, to offer free at-home tests, for those who don't have insurance.

I mean, given the testing has been something, the country has struggled with, frankly, since the start of the pandemic, is this a game-changer, in any way? Is this just in a sense, something that's just an obvious step to take?


JHA: I think it's a step-forward. I mean, look, the tests are still way too expensive in Europe. You can get them for about a buck apiece in the U.S. It's $8, $10, $12 a test. For a lot of people, if you want the whole families to be taking it, on a regular basis, that's prohibitive.

So, I like the idea of trying to reduce the cost to patients, to consumers. But we've got to make a lot more of these tests, a lot more widely available, and we got to bring the prices down, so everybody can get them, and you don't have to go through your insurance ideally.

So, I think it's a step-forward, but not a game-changer.

COOPER: How difficult would that be, I mean, to get more of them out there, to have them to be cheaper?

JHA: Yes, I think the Administration is trying. I think the problem here, to be perfectly honest, is the Administration did not put a lot of time and energy, into testing, and making sure we had enough tests, during the spring and summer. They put all of their energy on vaccines.

And don't get me wrong, I love the vaccines, huge part of the strategy. But I think they took their eye off the ball. Now, they're trying to play catch-up on testing. They are making progress. They've got to do more.

COOPER: Dr. Ashish Jha, appreciate your time, as always. Thank you.

JHA: Thank you.

COOPER: More now, on the obstacles, to getting enough people vaccinated, let alone boosted, to bring this all to an end, one day. As you might imagine, they involve politics and misinformation, the effects of which are showing up in new polling.

And for that, we turn to CNN's Senior Data Reporter, Harry Enten, with more.

So, what are you looking at?

HARRY ENTEN, CNN SENIOR DATA REPORTER: I mean, look, if you look right now, where we are, as a country, look among adults.

What do you see? You see north of 80 percent of folks have gotten at least one dose. But then you look at the fully vaccinated, and that drops down, to just a little bit north of 70 percent. Now, look at those who have actually gotten the booster. It's less than 20 percent.

Now, obviously, the race to get people boosted up has only just begun. But even if you look at the polling, there's new polling out from the Kaiser Family Foundation, what does it show? It shows that only about 53 percent of adults say they have either gotten or likely get the booster.

And that's only a little bit change from last month, with 50 percent, or two months ago, in October, 50 percent. So, at this particular point, yes, we've gone in there, in terms of first doses. But when it comes to boosters, we're a long ways off.

COOPER: It also breaks down politically by state, Red State, Blue State.

ENTEN: It absolutely does. And you know, what? If you look right now, and you look at among those, who are fully vaccinated, you see that over 50 percent of Republicans are. But you see, with Democrats, a significantly high, and you have about a 30-point gap.

Now look at the boosters. And what do you see? You see an even wider, this huge partisan gap, north of 40 percentage points. And if you look among Republicans, only a little bit north of 33 percent, I believe it's 37 percent, in that poll, or 36 percent in that poll that say that they are in fact going to get the booster.

And you know what? And if you look at the death rates, right now, you see that they are much higher, in Red states, than they are in Blue states. And I think these numbers give you an idea of why that is.

COOPER: Andy Slavitt, the former White House Senior Advisor, he said today that the Administration underestimated the Delta variant, and clearly that they're trying to not make the same mistake, with Omicron. How do Americans view how the Administration is handling this?

ENTEN: Yes, President Biden won last year, for one reason, and one reason only. And that was because voters did not like the way that President Trump handled the Coronavirus.

And if you look back in February, what you saw was overwhelmingly overwhelming support for the way that Joe Biden was handling the Coronavirus pandemic.


ENTEN: But today, more people disapprove than approve of the job that he's doing. And more than that, if you look at the folks, who actually approve of the job, they're Democrats. They're the vaccinated.

The folks that this administration actually has to reach, the Republicans, and the unvaccinated? You look at the numbers. What you see is only about 15 percent or less of both of those groups actually approve of the President's job of handling the virus.

COOPER: What about support for vaccine mandates?

ENTEN: Support for vaccine mandates, it's about a 50-50 split. Slightly more folks are for it than against it.

But if you look at the polling trend line, you see it going in the wrong direction, in terms of vaccine mandates. Fewer people today support vaccine mandates than they did, in either October or in September.

COOPER: Well, Harry Enten, appreciate it. Thank you, as always.

ENTEN: Thank you, sir.


Up next, new CNN reporting reveals how former White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows pushed federal agencies to pursue false election claims.




COOPER: Former White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows' new cooperation with the January 6 House Select Committee could give investigators a valuable window into how the former president and his allies tried to enlist government officials, to pursue baseless election conspiracy theories.

Senior Legal Affairs Correspondent, Paula Reid, joins us now, with new reporting.

So, what can you tell us about what Meadows was up to?

PAULA REID, CNN SENIOR LEGAL AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: Well, Anderson, this new reporting reveals how Meadows reached out to some of the country's top national security officials, in an effort, to connect them with Trump allies, who were pushing unfounded claims, of foreign election interference and voter fraud.

Now, Sources tell CNN that Meadows did this, because he wanted so very much, to please the former president, who was hyper-focused, on injecting these baseless theories, into official government channels.

Now, Meadows' attempts to pressure officials, at the Justice Department, those have been well-documented.

But we've learned that Meadows also reached out to officials, at the FBI, Pentagon, National Security Council, and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, about various election fraud claims.

Anderson, at one point, he said he presented them with what he said was potential evidence of a massive conspiracy, by China, to hack the U.S. election, by using thermostats, to change the voting results.

COOPER: Wow! So, how could this impact the House Select Committee's investigation--

REID: Well this is--

COOPER: --that's going on?

REID: This is certainly going to be of interest, to the committee.

Next week, Meadows is expected, to appear for a deposition, with lawmakers. But what will be of significant interest to the committee is the fact that he continued to push these theories, even after officials had established that the election was valid.

So, I think that's going to be of significant interest, to the committee, the way he was trying to undermine confidence, in the election results, passing along election fraud information, from outside advisers, like Mike Flynn and Sidney Powell, and saying he was doing it all, at Trump's behest.

And Anderson, Meadows' attorney did not respond to CNN's request for comment, on this story.

We have a lot more details that we've uncovered, our colleagues Zach Cohen, Sara Murray, and myself. You can read the full story on

COOPER: It's fascinating.

Paula, stick around. I want to get some perspective, also from CNN Legal Analyst, Norm Eisen, who was Special Counsel, to the Democrats, in the former president's first impeachment trial.


So Ambassador Eisen, do you think Meadows' role as this election conspiracy conduit puts him in any kind of legal jeopardy?


We have laws in the United States against election fraud. And that is the apparent activity that is at least alleged here, and the January 6 committee is apparently - get driving forward to get to the bottom of it.

You can't - you can't act, as a go-between, on the one hand outside groups that are pushing patently fraudulent claims, and government officials, who have the responsibility, to make decisions, about these matters.

So, I think it's some of the worst possible conduct that we've seen, since White House Chief of Staff, for Richard Nixon, H.R. Haldeman. We all know what happened to him.

COOPER: And Ambassador, Democratic congressman, Adam Schiff, who's obviously one of the nine members, of the January 6 Select Committee said that if Meadows discussed the events of January 6, in his book, he waives any claims of privilege. Is that right? I mean, is that true?

EISEN: That is true. We talk about these legal theories, executive privilege, attorney-client privilege.

Privilege simply means the legal right not to talk about something. But Anderson, once you've talked about it publicly, for profit, to get a book advance, and to sell copies of that volume, you've waived those legal protections.

And so, Meadows is in a very perilous spot here, and a critically important witness, as this 1/6 committee is doing such a good job, of driving forward, every day, pushing towards the truth, to make sure that these kinds of activities, these apparent election fraud, conspiracies can't happen again.

COOPER: Paula, we know Meadows has agreed to an initial deposition by the committee, after a long time of kind of back-and-forth. What are the expectations of, I mean, how forthcoming he may or may not be?

REID: The committee is cautiously optimistic.

Look, he's arguably the most significant witness, for the committee, both because he was in such close proximity, to the president, but also, based on our reporting and other reports, his efforts to try to undermine confidence, in the election outcome.

As a foremost congressman, he does not appear to want to be held in contempt or charged with contempt. That's not only cost, to your reputation, but it's also very expensive, to defend yourself, in a criminal proceeding. And Sources have told me, he just doesn't have the same war chest that someone like Steve Bannon has.

Now, as a former Chief Of Staff, though, he does have more potential privilege protections than any other witnesses. But we've seen so far, the committee nor the Biden White House appear to be willing to raise those, or assert those, or defend those. But it's an ongoing negotiation.

I have a lot of questions about these emails that he's been sharing so far. What does he have, that the Archives doesn't have? Anything that's material to January 6, should be in the possession of the Archives.

So big question about whether they're actually going to get significant cooperation from Mark Meadows. Again, I'm a little bit skeptical.

COOPER: Ambassador Eisen, do you think Meadows is kind of trying to walk the line, between cooperating, and being held in contempt, trying to stay in the former president's good graces?

EISEN: No doubt, Anderson. He is tiptoeing on the tightrope.

But he lives in the real world. He sees the erosion in the courts, where the former president's executive privilege claims are being thrown out, because he's not president anymore. He doesn't have the power to enforce those.

In the absence of that, Meadows has no ability to come in and refuse to talk. I'm sure he's going to make it as difficult as possible. But it does seem that he's turning over documents. And he could be a very critical witness.

Because of course, the big question, the reason that the former president, and so many others, are fighting so hard, is there is information that it would appear they don't want to come out. Some of it may be in these Meadows' documents.

So, we'll have to see the committee, as they tell us more and more about what they've found.

COOPER: Yes. Norm Eisen, Paula Reid, appreciate it. Thank you.

Some breaking news now, from the intersection of COVID and politics.

The Senate, moments ago, following the House, and approving emergency funding, to keep the government running, but only after an effort, by Republican lawmakers, to block it, unless they had a chance, to defund, what the White House, and plenty of public health experts say, is a key weapon, on the fight against COVID.

The requirement that employees at large companies get vaccinated or tested regularly for the virus. They had a vote on that, failed, and the funding measure passed by a vote of 69 to 28.

[21:35:00] Up next, how former Vice President Pence could make a run for the White House, in 2024, even if his old boss gets in the race. What some key Republicans, who worked for both men now say, ahead.


COOPER: Tonight, perhaps the biggest question in Republican politics isn't about the midterms. And it's not even whether the former president will run again. It's about whether his own former vice president would take him on.

Mike Pence is silent for the moment. But he is dropping some breadcrumbs. Pence is spending time in New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Iowa, which are obviously key states, for early primaries and caucuses.

Pence's actions, upholding democracy, on January 6, made him a villain, to some, in the modern Republican Party, but maybe not to everyone.

Top insiders in the last administration share their thoughts in a new article in "The Atlantic." They talked to Peter Nicholas, who covers the White House, for the magazine, and he joins us now.

Peter, it's a fascinating article that you have. What are the chances you think that Mike Pence's presidential ambitions are greater than his fealty to the former president?


PETER NICHOLAS, THE ATLANTIC: Well, I think that he's been wanting to run for president, for a long time. I mean, his mentor, in Dan Quayle, the former vice president, and they've discussed the possibility, back in 2012. Pence was considering the best path to the presidency then.

So, ambition dies hard, and it's not easily quashed. So, I think 2024 might well be Mike Pence's last and best chance. He will be 65-years- old. And there are younger, fresher faces, coming along, in the Republican Party. You look at Glenn Youngkin and his victory in Virginia.

So, if Pence wants to do this, and wants to fulfill this ambition, he may have to run against his former boss, Donald Trump.

COOPER: Even if his former boss, though, isn't running, I mean, given what he did, on January 6, and going against the former president, can he win in primaries?

And I know, you spoke to Mike Pence's former Chief of Staff, about the idea of the former vice president being called to serve. He kind of refers to it as a biblical call.

NICHOLAS: Yes, he talks about being - if he feels that he's called to serve, he would run independent of what anyone else does. And "By anyone else," we mean, of course, Donald Trump. Now, there are people in the Republican Party, who've worked with both Trump and Pence, who say it's kind of ludicrous. So, we quoted Mick Mulvaney, Trump's former Chief of Staff, who said, "Look, what is - Mike Pence is a nice guy. But what is Mike Pence offering that 15 other Republicans, in the field, they're not offering?"

Well Mike Pence can say, he was vice president. But we saw, in 2016, that Republican voters don't necessarily care about experience. They elected Donald Trump. So, it's really not a credential that seems to matter anymore in the modern Republican Party.

COOPER: Well, yes. And I mean, again, just to get through the primary process, and set yourself apart, I mean, Mike Pence is not exactly a stirring orator, or an entertaining figure, like the former president is to his base.

NICHOLAS: Well, I think that's an important point. I mean, you wonder, like, what - it's very hard to detect the "Pence for President" movement out there, like where are the Pence diehards, who are going to trudge through the snow, in Iowa and New Hampshire, in January and February, to try to win primaries and caucuses for Mike Pence? You just don't see it.

It's very - it's possible there might be some more moderate Republicans, who appreciate that he upheld Joe Biden's victory, in the last election. But those same people may well feel that he enabled Trump, over four years. He catered to Trump's whims. He did Trump's bidding. And they might still be resentful about that.

COOPER: Right.

NICHOLAS: So, again, it's very hard to see a lane for Pence.

COOPER: Yes. And I mean, the people, who would trudge through the snow, to go to a Mike Pence rally might be going, to scream at him, because of what he did on January 6.

I mean, they seem to be the ones, who are the diehards, who would be really motivated more, against Mike Pence, than anybody really - I mean, you can't imagine somebody carrying a banner with the name "Pence" on it, running through the streets.

NICHOLAS: Yes. I spoke to some people close to Pence about this. And they insist that some in the MAGA movement remain loyal to Pence. They like Pence. Pence gets a - there are a lot of people, candidates, Republican candidates, who want to campaign with Pence. Pence is popular at fundraisers.

But there's a big difference between that, and trying to build a coalition, an electoral coalition. And it's just hard to see what it is. I mean, Pence might attract some Christian conservatives, perhaps, possibly some moderate Republicans, maybe if Trump doesn't run a small fraction of the MAGA movement.

But remember, there were people in January 6, who were supporting Trump, and who were walking through the halls of Congress, wanting to hang Mike Pence.


NICHOLAS: Well, you don't - that's - you're not going to get votes out of that group.

COOPER: Yes. Peter Nicholas, it's a fascinating article. Appreciate it. Thank you.

NICHOLAS: Thank you, Anderson.

COOPER: Ahead, the sex trafficking trial of Jeffrey Epstein's longtime companion, a witness testifies about what he saw, an alleged code of silence.

The foremost reporter, of this entire scandal, is here, next.



COOPER: The sex trafficking trial of Jeffrey Epstein's longtime confidante continues tomorrow. Ghislaine Maxwell could spend the rest of her life behind bars, if she's convicted. The alleged victims include girls then only 14-years-old.

A former House Manager testified today that quote, "Many, many, many females" went through Epstein's Palm Beach, Florida home, including some of the late billionaire's underage accusers.

He also claimed women would sit by the pool, often topless, around Epstein and Maxwell. And he said an employee manual demanded that when it came to Epstein, Maxwell, and their guests, quote, "You see nothing, hear nothing, say nothing, except to answer a question."

Maxwell denies any wrongdoing.

Investigative reporter, Julie K. Brown, at the "Miami Herald," uncovered the Epstein scandal, years ago. Was at the courthouse today. She's the Author of "Perversion of Justice: The Jeffrey Epstein Story,"

Julie, thanks for being with us. I'm wondering what you make of what's come out of the trial, so far, particularly the testimony of the atmosphere, at Epstein's home.

JULIE K. BROWN, AUTHOR, "PERVERSION OF JUSTICE: THE JEFFREY EPSTEIN STORY," INVESTIGATIVE REPORTER, MIAMI HERALD: Well, I think it was a good move, calling Juan Alessi, this Houseman, today because it follows on, after they had one of the victims testified yesterday, "Jane."

And Alessi, to some degree, corroborated some of what the victim said, yesterday, in that she was at Epstein's house, with Maxwell, when she was only 14-years-old. And Alessi recalls seeing her. So, I think part of that was to corroborate what she had testified to the day before. COOPER: And the House Manager specifically recalled, not just her. He specifically recalled two girls coming to the house that he believed were underage. One of them was "Jane," as you just mentioned, who had testified.

The defense tried to undermine "Jane's" testimony from 20-plus years ago.

Did the House Manager's testimony, I mean, did it change much, other than placing her there?

BROWN: It didn't. And really, what it did was, I think, give the jury a feel for how dysfunctional, or how strange, this whole situation was.


I mean, imagine you're a houseman, and one of your jobs is to call women, and have them come three times - a different one, every few hours, to give Epstein, massages. And then, you go out to the pool, and there's a bunch of women out there, without any clothes on.

So, I think that they're drawing a picture of what kind of operation, so to speak, or what kind of a culture, existed at that Palm Beach mansion.

COOPER: Prosecutors also brought in an expert, on traumatic stress, to testify about grooming. How effective do you think that witness was?

BROWN: It's hard to say. She was limited in what she could testify to. As you could imagine, Maxwell's attorneys had raised a number of objections, about this expert. And she could - she never evaluated any of the victims.

She spoke just generally about trauma, and about grooming, how predators groom children. I think it was educational, probably for them, if they weren't aware of what grooming is. Not everybody does. But that's what essentially prosecutors are saying, Epstein and Maxwell did with "Jane."

COOPER: They took time that, I mean, that it was a whole process, of getting her to the position, where she would do what they wanted.

We talked about "Jane," the first of four alleged victims scheduled to testify. You've talked about the testimony of the last victim, as being perhaps very important. Why?

BROWN: Well, unlike "Jane," "Jane" was young, and she of course was, allegedly anyway, recruited by Epstein and Maxwell, and then groomed.

But she wasn't part of the pyramid scheme that Epstein was operating, on his Palm Beach mansion. She wasn't a recruiter. She wasn't one of those people, who were integral, to making this whole scheme work.

The victim, the last victim that was added to the case, roughly about six months to a year ago, she was part of that system, that allegedly that Maxwell set up, in that she started by recruiting one girl, and then they asked that girl, to recruit two more girls, and it went on and on. So, it'll be interesting to see what this other victim says about how this whole operation worked.

COOPER: I mean, you broke this story open. I'm wondering with all the work that you did, the extraordinary work in reporting, you did, what's it like for you now, to see this all play out in court?

BROWN: I'm a little worried about the case. I'm hoping that it's going to get stronger, as it goes on. I think that the prosecutors are very good.

But Maxwell has some very aggressive attorneys, who are really grilling, at least from what we've seen so far, who are really grilling the victim, at least.

And they already had the pilot on. And he didn't help their case, the prosecution's case, at all. He never saw any sex. He never saw anything bad. He didn't know of any underage girls that were ever on the plane. I mean, he didn't help their case.

COOPER: And they lead with him, right?

BROWN: Well, he lived on the property, at one point.

COOPER: No, no, I mean, they led with the - he was the first witness that they called. Wasn't he?

BROWN: I'm sorry. Yes, he was the first.


BROWN: Yes, it was kind of surprising that they called him.


BROWN: I guess they wanted to establish the plane trip, and the fact that there was travel involved.


BROWN: Because it is a sex trafficking case.

COOPER: Yes. Julie K. Brown, again, I really appreciate it. Thank you.

BROWN: Thanks.

COOPER: Coming up next, the growing concerns, over tennis star, Peng Shuai, what Chinese officials are saying now.



COOPER: An update now, on Chinese tennis star, Peng Shuai, who, as you know, disappeared from public view, for more than two weeks, following her sexual assault allegations, against a former top Chinese Communist Party official.

Wednesday, the Women's Tennis Association took action, on her behalf. Brian Todd has details.


BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Concerns about the safety of Chinese tennis star, Peng Shuai, are ramping up tonight, despite a second call she had, with the International Olympic Committee.

The IOC said, after its call, with her, on Wednesday, that Peng, quote, "Reconfirmed that she was safe and well." But the IOC didn't provide any audio or visual images of the call.

And the Women's Tennis Association Chairman told CNN, today, he believes the IOC is allowing itself, to get played, by the Chinese government.

STEVE SIMON, CHAIRMAN, WOMEN'S TENNIS ASSOCIATION: We just feel very strongly that this is certainly being orchestrated.

TODD (voice-over): The WTA has taken the strongest stance yet, in standing up to China, over its treatment of Peng, the organization suspending all of its tournaments, in China, potentially costing it hundreds of millions of dollars.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: The IOC is now being given, a master class, frankly, by the WTA, on how to basically punch a bully, in the nose.

TODD (voice-over): The world's number one ranked men's player is backing the WTA's move.

NOVAK DJOKOVIC, SERBIAN TENNIS PLAYER: I think it's a very bold, very courageous stance, from WTA.

TODD (voice-over): In a since-deleted social media post, in early November, Peng publicly accused a top Chinese Communist Party official, former Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli, of coercing her, into sex, at his home, three years ago.

She was censored by the Chinese regime, disappeared from public view, for more than two weeks.

After an international outcry, Chinese state-controlled media released so-called Proof of Life photos and videos of Peng. But analysts are concerned about her actual condition.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: If you don't think that she is under an enormous amount of psychological pressure, from the CCP, from the authorities, given that she has posted very embarrassing charges, against a senior Chinese official, you're crazy.

I think it is safe to say that she is under very tightly-controlled circumstances that she does not have the ability to communicate freely, with the outside world. TODD (voice-over): Experts say one potential nightmare scenario, for Beijing, has to do with the Winter Olympics, it's hosting, in a couple of months.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I think this is absolutely going to increase the pressure to at least not have diplomatic presence, at the Winter Olympics. And Beijing is unhappy about that.


COOPER: That was Brian Todd reporting.

The news continues. Time to hand it over to Don and "DON LEMON TONIGHT."