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Anderson Cooper 360 Degrees

James Biden, Brother Of President, Leaves Closed-Door Testimony After 8 Plus Hours Of Questioning On Capitol Hill; Sources: Pres. Biden Considering New Executive Action To Restrict Asylum At The Border; Russian-American Arrested In Russia For Allegedly Donating To Ukraine Aid; Navalny's Mother Files Lawsuit Over Inaction To Release Navalny's Body; Russian Pilot Who Defected To Ukraine Shot Dead In Spain; RFK Jr. PAC Launches Billboards In Michigan Responding To DNC Linking RFK Jr. To Republicans; Parents Of Gabby Petito, Brian Laundrie Reach Settlement After Mediation In Emotional Distress Lawsuit; Suspect In Audrii Cunningham Death Charged With Capital Murder. Aired 8-9p ET

Aired February 21, 2024 - 20:00   ET




BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN HOST: Tonight, new documents obtained by CNN show President Biden's dog, Commander, has bitten Secret Service personnel at least 24 times. And that's in addition to at least 11 previously reported biting incidents. They weren't just all little nicks, either. This is a Secret Service agent's shirt after Commander bit him in the chest. A bite to a different agent required six stitches. The first dog has since been removed from the White House.

Thanks for joining us. AC 360 starts now.

ANDERSON COOPER, CNN HOST: Tonight on 360, what House Republicans are saying now that they've learned their star witness in the Biden impeachment inquiry, who's already been charged with making up allegations, says he got the dirt he was peddling from Russian intelligence. We're keeping them honest.

Also tonight, what we're learning about the Russian-American dual national now being held in Russia and how a 50 dollar charitable donation may have factored in charges that could send her to prison there for 20 years.

And breaking news in the lawsuit brought by the parents of Gabby Petito against the parents of Brian Laundrie, the fiance who admitted he killed her.

Good evening. Thanks for joining us. We begin tonight with breaking news.

Just a short time ago, the President's brother, James Biden, finished up more than eight hours of testimony before the House Oversight Committee investigating what some Republicans on the committee have alleged is criminal misconduct by the Biden family. And though that meant Committee Chairman James Comer was tied up for much of that time, the chairman has spent the remainder of the day dodging reporters' questions about the news, which broke last night, about their star witness in their case. His name is Alexander Smirnov.

He was charged last week with lying to the FBI when he claimed to acknowledge of corruption by President Biden and his son, Hunter, involving Ukraine. Then last night, court documents revealed that he said he got the bogus smear material from Russian intelligence. Now, we should say at the outset that he is only an alleged liar, not a proven liar. And his claims about ties to Russian intelligence are just that, claims.

What is clear, though, is that nothing about all of this bolsters this guy's credibility. Yet House Republicans have made what he told the FBI, documented in what's called an FD 1023 form, the centerpiece of their impeachment inquiry. And in the day or so since the Russian aspect of the story came to light, we've taken the time to uncover yet more examples of just how much credence lawmakers have put in a man and an allegation so much in doubt now tonight.


REP. PAT FALLON (R-TX): This is direct evidence of naked corruption and bribery.

REP. ELISE STEFANIK (R-NY): This is the biggest political corruption scandal, not only in my lifetime, but I would say the past 100 years.

Ultimately, accountability for what I believe will uncover the biggest political corruption scandal in our nation's history.

REP. ANDREW CLYDE (R-GA): This is the most corrupt president. You just have to read the FBI's FD 1023 form of the interview with this - with the president of Burisma to see that Joe Biden and his son, Hunter Biden, were bribing, were requiring from really extorting Burisma to the tune of $10 million, $5 million for each one of them. I mean, come on.

REP. TIM BURCHETT (R-TN): There's just too much evidence in it and it's all documented.


COOPER: All documented, if by documented, he means on a form used for recording raw and often unverified reporting from confidential sources. That is what an FD 1023 is. And though Republicans also say it was corroborated by then U.S. attorney, Scott Brady, Brady himself told them that he only corroborated some of it. And most significantly, in that same House interview, he said he did not determine whether the underlying Biden bribery claims were true. He also acknowledged that his team never reviewed some key evidence that undercut the bribery allegations.

Yet House Republicans, most notably Oversight Chair James Comer and Judiciary Chair Jim Jordan, they continue to tout this 1023 in Alexander Smirnov's allegations, such as they were even after he was arrested on the 14th. Here's Jim Jordan just two days later.


REP. JIM JORDAN (R-OH): The most corroborating evidence we have is that 1023 form from this highly credible, confidential human source.


COOPER: Highly credible.

CNN's Manu Raju caught up with Chairman Jordan today, asked him what he thinks now that his star witness is both an alleged liar and possibly a Russian asset. Manu joins us now.

So his - how did that go with Comer?

MANU RAJU, CNN CHIEF CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, with Comer, he sidestepped questions all day long, Anderson. I tried to ask James Comer about all of these allegations and try to yell questions to him during the interview with James Biden. He would not answer questions. That is unusual for the chairman of the House Oversight Committee, who typically does talk to reporters about all the issues under the sun, especially this investigation.


But Chairman Jim Jordan, who's also running this investigation, I did catch up with him this morning and tried to ask him, as well as other Republicans, about the other thing they said, running with this unverified allegation that was memorialized in that FD 1023 form. And they tried to make the case that there are other pieces of information that were central to their investigation and that it was not reliant on these unverified allegations by this indicted FBI informant.

And when I asked Jim Jordan specifically about his claim that this was the most corroborating piece of information that this FBI informant gave, he indicated that there are other pieces of information that were critical as well. Listen.


RAJU: You said the 1023 is the most corroborating piece of information you have.

JORDAN: It corroborates, but it doesn't change those fundamental facts, so now ...

RAJU: But it's not true.

JORDAN: ... well, so okay, so it's - the FBI told us that this source was some 14 years - this source was a paid source by the FBI. When we were trying to get the 1023, they told us, oh, this could jeopardize National Security.

RAJU: But your promotion of a bribery scheme was false.

JORDAN: Not at all. We're looking at the four facts I just gave you. Those facts are true. Absolutely true.

REP. MATT GAETZ (R-FL): If the whole thing is bogus and false, like, it begs the question why it wasn't given to us earlier. I would probably reject the premise that, like, the 1023 was exclusively relied upon.

REP. ANDY BIGGS (R-AZ): Well, he's been indicted for that. It hasn't been demonstrated yet.


RAJU: And that last comment came from Congressman Andy Biggs saying that the FBI informant, Alexander Smirnov, has not been indicted, so that is something to consider that these are just allegations here, Anderson. But the question is, can they convince enough House Republicans to move forward with articles of impeachment at the moment? They have simply not done that yet. And this latest indictment only will undercut their efforts to impeach the President in the weeks ahead. Anderson.

COOPER: And as we mentioned, President Biden's brother testified behind closed doors in Capitol Hill today as part of the Oversight Committee's impeachment investigation. What did he say?

RAJU: Well, he made very clear he was unequivocal, according to his attorney, who just released a statement that Joe Biden had absolutely no involvement indirectly or directly with his brother's business dealings at all. And it's contended that there were some questions that Republicans had about loans that were given to Joe Biden. They were paid off by his brother, James Biden.

James Biden testified behind closed doors today that those were simply loans that were given because he was underwater at the time, needed that kind of financial support from his brother. But he said there was no involvement with his business dealings. And the attorney of James Biden said that this is essentially a witch hunt and that they got nothing out of James Biden to connect this with Joe Biden.

I did catch up with some Republicans afterwards who told me that they had credibility questions about James Biden's testimony. They did not give specifics, though, Anderson. And when I asked them, are there any links to President Biden from James Biden that he revealed in this closed door testimony, they did not answer that question. Anderson?

COOPER: All right. Manu Raju, I appreciate it.

I want to bring in CNN Jessica Schneider and two people who have experience with confidential informants, 1023 reports and Russian disinformation, former FBI deputy director Andrew McCabe and John Miller, former FBI assistant director.

So Jessica, I understand CNN has some new reporting about this ex-FBI informant.

JESSICA SCHNEIDER, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Yes, that's right. So, Anderson, multiple sources they're telling our Evan Perez and Hannah Rabinowitz that it was as far back as 2020 where the FBI had reason to believe that some of these allegations were false. Now, before that, Alexander Smirnov really had been prized by the FBI. He worked with this particular handler for more than a decade. They talked daily.

And most important, Anderson, Smirnov had very important relationships that could be of use to the FBI. He had relationships with corrupt foreign business officials, corrupt government officials, and crucially, in the eyes of the FBI, connections with foreign intelligence services. So part of his value was that he did offer this potential window into those intelligence services. But even with those credentials, the FBI was suspicious four years ago.

Despite that, though, Anderson, there's no indication that he was actually ever polygraphed, which is typically a standard way the FBI does assess sources. So tonight, the questions do remain that if the FBI had concerns as far back as 2020, if they were unable in that time to corroborate Smirnov's false claims that Joe and Hunter Biden were paid $5 million each in bribes, if they took action to benefit Ukrainian energy company Burisma, if they knew that four years ago, then why did it take until this past summer for the FBI to begin unraveling those alleged lies and eventually charge Smirnov last week. That's going to be a big question for members of Congress in particular.

COOPER: Andrew, does it make sense to you that this guy wasn't polygraphed in all the years he was working with the FBI? Not just - I mean, before - not just from 2020 on when they started to have suspicions, but even before that.

ANDREW MCCABE, CNN SENIOR LAW ENFORCEMENT ANALYST: It actually does, Anderson. It's not something that the FBI does to every source.


It's not a normal part of the periodic reevaluation of a source. It is done in some special cases when you have reason to believe that a source might be fabricating and you just cannot corroborate. You can't get past that that concern. You can sometimes use a polygraph as one of many tools to get to the bottom of it, but it's not something that's done in every case.

I think another thing that's being lost here is the fact that this source clearly had - there was a shift in the sort of material that he was providing over some time, right? We're told that early on in his long relationship with the FBI provided, I guess, substantial assistance in criminal matters and had some credits to his record. And it's in 2020 that he starts reporting on these contacts with Russian intelligence officers and high level Russian government folks.

If the bureau did not believe - wasn't a hundred percent sure of his reporting, particularly on the Burisma matter in 2020, they wouldn't necessarily mount an entire investigation to get to the bottom of that reporting if they weren't taking any action on it to begin with. So the peeling back the onion on that reporting really only becomes essential when Congress starts to demand a copy of the 1023, which the FBI resisted by saying the 1023 is raw reporting. It's been unverified. We don't know if this is true. But at that point, it's really the pressure by Congress that breathes life into this reporting and then you have to get to the bottom of it.

COOPER: John, can you sort of break down how the FBI works with confidential informants and what, if anything, stands out to you about this - this one?

JOHN MILLER, CNN CHIEF LAW ENFORCEMENT AND INTELLIGENCE ANALYST: Well, sure. The FBI recruits a confidential informant. That informant gets an agent, that's his handler. And that agent may meet with them every day if they're in the middle of a case. But more often when it's a long term informant, they'll meet with them once a month. That's when they'll get paid. They'll be debriefed for whatever new information they have. But as Andrew was saying, there's also a source validation process.

Once or twice a year, they have to go through the - here's what happens if we catch you lying. This is your deal. This is how it works. But they can also be tested. Polygraph is one way in this particular case, because the informant's story, not only the story he told, but the idea that they would pay a five million dollar bribe in 2017 when Joe Biden was on his way out and would have no power, that they didn't mention that in the meetings until 2020. I mean, they're looking at this reporting and they're saying there's something wrong with it. You don't really need to polygraph it.

And while you would be investigating the background of it, this really came down to when Congress demanded that 1023 form, setting the precedent that you're going to start turning over informant information to people in the middle of a political squabble and the message that sends to every high level informant.

COOPER: The FBI was resistant to turn this thing over.

MILLER: I mean, they were on the precipice of the director, Chris Wray, being held in contempt of Congress. And it put the director and the bureau in a terribly awkward position. And at the end of the day, they handed it over, but Congress played this as read this form. These are the facts. A 1023 is - it's what we do, Anderson. We go out, we take a notebook, we ask people what happened. But you have to check it out. It's raw data. And in this case, not only didn't it make sense, it didn't check out.

COOPER: Yes. According to Jim Jordan, though, it was the biggest thing they have.

MILLER: The smoking gun.


MILLER: But I mean, the real core of this story, and we shouldn't miss this, is the turn it made from smoking gun of a five million dollar bribe by an unsupported allegation to an informant who may have lied to this newest chapter, which is the important part. Was he flipped by the Russian intelligence services and sent with this information at the behest of Vladimir Putin to cast more dirt on Joe Biden, even with a story that didn't make sense or is that just part of a story he made up for some other reason.

But the timing of it certainly suggests that's when Russia was very busy trying to influence U.S. politics.

COOPER: And Jessica, what more are you learning about the timeline of the information that came from this guy?

SCHNEIDER: Yes. So before the indictment was even released last week, it wasn't even publicly known that it was, in fact, Alexander Smirnov behind these allegations. And as John Miller and Andrew McCabe have talked about, members of Congress had been pressing the FBI to hand over this information from Smirnov last summer. And that did put the FBI in a bit of a bind here because the bureau did tell Congress that the previous information that Smirnov had relayed, it was credible, but that the information concerning the allegations against the Bidens was really this raw and uncorroborated intelligence.


So, again, because of that, those questions remain why the FBI let it go for years.

COOPER: And Andrew, prosecutors also said that Smirnov has been - in their words "actively peddling new lies" that could impact U.S. elections after meeting with Russian spies late last year. I mean, that's stunning that that this is still kind of active.

MCCABE: It really is. And I think it helps to kind of remind ourselves what the context is in which the government has made those assertions. This is not in an affidavit supporting a complaint or an - as part of an indictment. This was part of a motion to try to make sure that he was denied bail, which, of course, was unsuccessful.

And what the government is saying in that motion is this is a person who cannot be trusted. You cannot believe what he is saying. So they are presenting the statements that he gave them in his post-arrest interview, where for the first time he raised this issue of having received this story about the Bidens from Russian intelligence officers. They're not warranting that information. They're simply saying now he's saying this. You can't believe anything he says. He therefore should not be given bail.

COOPER: Andrew McCabe, John Miller, thanks so much.

Coming up next, what we are learning about new action President Biden is considering to tighten restrictions on migrants at the southern border.

Also tonight, a live report from Moscow details of the arrest of a dual American citizen, what she is now accused of and how difficult it may be to actually get her out.


[20:20:13] COOPER: More breaking news tonight, a sound of just how bad things are at the border and how much the issue may impact the presidential race. Sources telling CNN that President Biden is considering major new executive action that would make it harder for migrants to seek asylum if they crossed illegally.

CNN's Priscilla Alvarez is at the White House for us.

So what does the new executive action entail?

PRISCILLA ALVAREZ, CNN WHITE HOUSE REPORTER: Well, Anderson, sources tell me that the White House is looking at an authority that already exists in immigration law, and it gives the President power to decide in this context who is eligible for asylum. So the outcome here would essentially be limiting access to asylum for those migrants who cross the border unlawfully.

Now, an administration official tells me that they are evaluating multiple options here and that no final decision has been made. The White House telling me in a statement: "No executive action, no matter how aggressive, can deliver the significant policy reforms and additional resources Congress can provide and that Republicans rejected. We continue to call on Speaker Johnson and House Republicans to pass the bipartisan deal to secure the border."

Now, what the White House is referring to there, of course, is that Senate compromise that would have included some of the most or the toughest measures on border security in recent memory. And it was during those negotiations that President Biden himself said that he was open to shutting down the border if given the authority.

This appears to be an extension of that, though the details remain unclear. And I will note, Anderson, that in twenty eighteen, former President Donald Trump tried to do the same thing using the same authority, but he was challenged in the courts. Now, I'm told lawyers are reviewing this new executive action to see if they move forward with it, anticipating that it could very well also face challenges in court.

COOPER: So why is the White House decided to just float this idea? Why do they want this idea out there?

ALVAREZ: Well, of course, this comes as that Senate border deal was tanked by Republicans. White House officials had been working on that with Senate negotiators for months, and it included these extraordinary powers to the Homeland Security Secretary to shut down the border if certain triggers were met. So now they're going back to the drawing board to see what, if anything, can be done in the executive. Of course, all of that will fall short of what it would mean if it was done legislatively.

But also, Anderson, this comes during an election year. This has been a political liability for President Biden for years since he took office, and they know that it's going to continue to be going into November with former President Donald Trump making this a key campaign theme going into the year. And so they're trying to set themselves up for success here and flip the script on Republicans.

COOPER: All right. Priscilla, stay with us.

I want to bring in CNN's Political Commentator and former special adviser to President Obama, Van Jones.

So Van, the executive action, if it's actually implemented, it might certainly anger progressive Democrats. What other options does Biden have at a time when 79 percent of Americans, according to recent CNN polls, say the situation at the border is a crisis and a bipartisan deal can't get a floor vote in Congress?

VAN JONES, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: He doesn't have a lot of options. And look, here's reality, everybody has a number that is too big before they say something's got to be done. Some Republicans, if one person came across or undocumented, they'd say shut the whole border down, build a wall and never let the door be back open. Some people might be 10, some people might be a hundred thousand, a million, 5 million, 50 million.

At some point, the number is too big even for Democrats. And now we're at a place where because Congress won't act, Republicans won't let Congress act, the number is too big of people coming across the border, even for Democrats and so the President is going to take some action. Reality is the courts might strike it down. Also, to your point, he's floating these trial balloons to kind of see what the reaction is.

But if Republicans are going to politicize the issue and then refuse to act on it, Biden has to do something.

COOPER: It's interesting, Priscilla, because the Republicans who have refused to act on it have said, well, there are executive actions the President could take. Obviously, this is one of them. How does it compare to what the Trump White House tried to do before it was blocked by a federal court? I mean, is it exactly the same?

ALVAREZ: And that is certainly some of the pushback that the White House can anticipate if they move forward with this. But in 2018, former President Donald Trump issued a presidential proclamation in which he tried to invoke the same authority known as 212(f) to shut down asylum entirely on the U.S.-Mexico border. When it made its way through the courts, what the court said was essentially these conflicts with asylum law. You can't do this because people are entitled to seek asylum at the U.S.-Mexico border.

We don't know the details of exactly how this new executive action, if the White House does it, would look like. But the key here in the White House pushback is that if there had been legislation that would have put this into a bill, into law, then there wouldn't be any way for it to be legally challenged in court. =

So former President Donald Trump tried to do it. He was stopped in court because of the law. The White House worked with Senate negotiators to change the law and Republicans walked that back. If it had been part of the law, then there wouldn't have been any sort of legal argument.


So that is the back and forth that's happening between the White House and House Republicans who refuse to take anything up if it comes to anything short of what they themselves want to see done on the border.

COOPER: I mean, Van, the - one of the infuriating things about this is that many of the people who will be claiming asylum are just on the face of it, not really eligible. I mean, they're - it's understandable why they're leaving their countries. They want a better life for their children. They want a better income. They're fleeing a lack of security in their neighborhoods. But it's not political or religious persecution, which is - or the - all the things - asylum is a very particular thing that you are claiming.

JONES: Yes. And that is the challenge that I think America's been facing. It's like somebody figured out some clever way to jump the turnstile at the subway and kind of get away with it. If one person does it to people, then pretty soon the whole subway is just full of people who are just basically exploiting a loophole. That's what's happened with our asylum laws.

We put those asylum laws in place proudly after World War II, when people were trying to flee Hitler's butchery and couldn't get out of the country and couldn't get here. And so we put those in place for a good reason. But now there are people who are just using it and abusing it. It's got to be fixed.

Biden was willing to cut a deal. The Republicans would rather leave the border open for a political purpose than keep the country safe. Biden's trying to do something and I hope he figures it out.

COOPER: Yes. Van Jones, Priscilla Alvarez, thanks.

Next, Wall Street Journal reporter, Evan Gershkovich has been in custody in Russia now for nearly 11 months. Now authorities there have arrested another American. What we know about her and the allegations against her in a live report from Moscow next.



COOPER: $51.80. That is the amount that a Russian-American woman, a dual national, is accused of giving to a Ukrainian charity in the United States, and that alleged donation appears to have been the basis for her arrest in Russia on allegations of treason. CNN's Matthew Chance has more tonight on the arrest and the latest on the death of Alexei Navalny. He joins us now live from Moscow.

So first of all, who is this woman and what do we know about why she's being held?

MATTHEW CHANCE, CNN CHIEF GLOBAL AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: Yeah. Well, this is a woman from the United States, from Los Angeles. She is a U.S.-Russian citizen. Her name is Ksenia Karelina. She's 33 years old. She came to Russia -- back to Russia because she's only been a U.S. citizen since 2021. She came back to Russia earlier this year, in early January to see her family in the city of Yekaterinburg, and she was arrested then and has subsequently been charged basically with treason, which is an incredibly serious charge here, crime here and carry a sentence of up to 20 years.

Now, the FSB, which is the old KGB, which is sort of holding her at the moment, saying that since February 2022, she has proactively collected money in the interests of Ukrainian organizations, which was subsequently used to buy arms and medicine and other equipment for the Ukrainian army. In addition, while in the United States, she repeatedly took part in public rallies in support of the Kyiv regime. Those are the words of the Russian FSB. There's that figure of $51 and some change that she apparently donated to a U.S. charity that helped Ukrainians during this conflict.

I mean, Anderson, part of the problem is that she is this joint U.S.- Russian citizens. So when she comes into Russia on a Russian passport, it means that her U.S. passport doesn't count as far as the Russian authorities are concerned. And so, it's much harder, if not impossible, for U.S. diplomats to get consular access to her. And that's why we don't know exactly what her status, what her condition is, and how she's doing right now.

COOPER: Alexei Navalny's mom has filed a lawsuit over the "inaction of the investigative committee to release Alexei's body." What more do we know about that?

CHANCE: Well, I mean, this is a court hearing that's being held behind closed doors. But it comes out of a frustration on the part of the Navalny family, in particular, Lyudmila Navalnaya, his mom, who has traveled nearly 2,000 miles to the far north of Russia to try and get her hands on his body, recover it, so she can have a funeral. Even made that emotional appeal a couple of days ago to President Putin himself to intervene and demanded that the body be returned to her, so she could have that funeral and bury him in a humane way in her words.

But, those appeals have so far fallen on deaf ears. We still don't really know where Navalny's body is and the authorities are saying it could be a couple of weeks now -- from now until they are ready to even look at the possibility of giving the body over for burial.

COOPER: Matthew Chance, appreciate it. Shortly before, a word came of this latest arrest, we also learned that a Russian helicopter pilot who defected to Ukraine had been murdered, shot dead multiple times in a Spanish seaside village. Tonight, we know much more and as CNN's Melissa Bell reports, his killing came as no surprise to Russian state media.


SERGEI ZENIN, RUSSIA 1 TV CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): [Foreign Language].

MELISSA BELL, CNN SENIOR CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): An eerie warning just months before police cordoned off this crime scene. A Russian state media journalist claiming last October that Russian Special Forces were seeking to retaliate against helicopter pilot, Maxim Kuzminov, who defected to Ukraine last year.

Kuzminov now discovered fatally shot in Spain, Ukrainian defense intelligence sources confirmed to CNN. His body found in a parking garage, according to Spanish authorities. Asked whether Russia had any knowledge of the death, Kremlin Spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Moscow had no information on the matter at all, despite Russia's foreign intelligence chief speaking indirectly saying that Kuzminov became a moral corpse the moment he had planned his "terrible crime."

The crime in question, a daring operation last September that saw him fly his helicopter across the Russian border and into Ukraine, a decision Kuzminov explained to journalists just after arriving in Kyiv.


MAXIM KUZMINOV, RUSSIAN HELICOPTER PILOT WHO DEFECTED TO UKRAINE (through translator): If I had one question, why would my beloved homeland need such a war? I went to church; I lit candles with one wish that it would end as soon as possible. I realized that this is evil, horror, and crime. Any war is a crime.

BELL (voice-over): Maxim Kuzminov said the trip took six months to plan. Then, once out of Russia, he used his voice to encourage more of his countrymen to do the same.

KUZMINOV (through translator): Of course, if you commit what I've committed, you will not regret at all. You will be provided for with everything for the rest of your life. You will be offered jobs everywhere, everywhere you would want, and whatever you would want to do. You will discover a world of colors for yourself.

BELL (voice-over): That world of colors, however, cast in the Kremlin's shadow.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: [Foreign Language].

BELL (voice-over): The warnings on state television reminding dissidents that Moscow's grip extends far beyond Russia's borders.


BELL (on camera): Anderson, there have been so many Russian citizens that have died in mysterious circumstances these last few years. Maxim Kuzminov is nowhere near the first. There have been a businessman, the directors of Russian energy giants like Gazprom and LUKOIL. There have been politicians, journalists as well, who've died in circumstances ranging from their falling down a flight of stairs to being defenestrated, poisoned as well, and this inside Russia. But also, of course outside, from India to Spain and France in the past.

One of the questions is why Maxim Kuzminov was not better protected. Now, we spoke and interviewed a high-profile dissident here in France last year, who was only given police protection, 24-hour police protection because French authorities had foiled an attempt on his life. It's simply too costly, the resources too great for European Intelligence Services to monitor Russian citizens 24/7. I think it's important to note as well, Anderson, that the Kremlin has denied any knowledge of what might have happened to Maxim Kuzminov, denying any knowledge and involvement in this killing, Anderson.

COOPER: Melissa Bell, thanks very much. Still ahead, RFK Jr. targeting some of the Democratic Party's most loyal voters and supporters of President Biden do not appear to be taking the Kennedy factor lightly, details on that next.



COOPER: The super PAC behind Robert F. Kennedy Jr.'s long-shot bid for the presidency launched new billboards across Michigan today in an effort to try to distance his campaign from Tim Mellon, who is a Republican megadonor who has given money to both the Kennedy super PAC and that of Donald Trump. The ad shows their faces as well as that of President Biden and says, let the best man win, Tim. Now, there are response to billboards like this one from the DNC labeling RFK Jr. has "Powered by MAGA and Trump."

New FEC filings show Mellon gave $5 million a piece (ph) last month to the super PACs, backing both Kennedy and Trump. But as Democrats are focusing more on RFK Jr., he has his eyes set on one of their most reliable voting blocks. CNN's Eva McKend has more.


EVA MCKEND, CNN NATIONAL POLITICS CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Robert F. Kennedy Jr.'s independent run for the White House is drawing new attention from national Democrats.

ROBERT F. KENNEDY JR., (I) PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I think both Republicans and Democrats, the infrastructure and the leadership are, of course, going to be worried.

MCKEND (voice-over): From a Queens Food Pantry to a co-working space in Brooklyn, Kennedy is on the campaign trail, making a pitch to one of the most loyal constituencies of the Democratic Party, black voters.


MCKEND (voice-over): It comes as President Joe Biden's allies at the Democratic National Committee have ramped up an aggressive campaign to undercut Kennedy's candidacy, signaling the threat he could pose to the President's re-election hopes. Just outside a Kennedy campaign Black History Month event, a DNC billboard aims to link Kennedy to MAGA Republicans.

KENNEDY JR.: There's a lot of black voters in this country who've been voting, who are taken for granted by the Democratic Party. MCKEND: What do you think that you can offer black voters that Joe Biden cannot?

KENNEDY JR.: I've spent 40 years working for economic development, for cleaning up the environment, for health care, for black Americans and Hispanic Americans. I have a long on-track record of making them a (ph) priority.

MCKEND (voice-over): Aaron Freeman, whose family has owned Brooklyn staple Sugar Hill Supper Club, has consistently supported Democrats.

AARON FREEMAN, SUGAR HILL RESTAURANT & SUPPER CLUB: I'm leaning towards supporting Mr. Kennedy because his family has always been into the rights for the underprivileged.

MCKEND (voice-over): The economy is a key motivator for Freeman. He says his family almost lost their business during the pandemic.

FREEMAN: The economy and the people in these neighborhoods, they need proof, they need substance, they need to be able to see it and feel it, not just here it.

MCKEND (voice-over): While early polling shows significant levels of interest in Kennedy as an alternative to a 2020 rematch, it is difficult to know exactly how much of a threat Kennedy poses to Biden. Still Democrats do not appear to be taking the Kennedy factor lightly. Earlier this month, the DNC filed a complaint with the FEC, accusing Kennedy's campaign and a super PAC supporting his presidential bid of a legal coordination.

ROBERT LENHARD, DNC LEGAL COUNSEL: Our complaint alleges that it is federal law that they've chosen to ignore.

MCKEND (voice-over): After a super PAC backing Kennedy's campaign spent $7 million on a Super Bowl ad that repurposed the spot from his uncle, John F. Kennedy's 1960 presidential campaign, the DNC accused the independent candidate of being a Trump stalking horse, pointing to donations to the group received from Republican megadonors like Tim Melon. The ad also drew criticism from members of Kennedy's family.

KENNEDY JR.: On member of my family whose feelings were hurt by that ad, and I apologized. I said I thought -- I was sorry that he felt that way, but I have no apologies about the ad. I think the ad was a good ad.

MCKEND (voice-over): Meanwhile, some black voters continue to weigh their options and are entertaining Kennedy as a real alternative.

HAWK NEWSOME, NEW YORK VOTER: Black America truly does not have a friend in politics. The Democrats say, yeah, we'll help you, but you hurry up and wait.


SUSIE GRAY, NEW YORK VOTER: I can't say who I'm be (ph) voting for. We just need to focus more on working at home, take care of home. That's my whole big thing. We are not taking care of the home, we are taking care of the world, and it shouldn't be.


MCKEND (on camera): Right now, as an independent candidate, Kennedy will only appear on the ballot in November in Utah. He still faces an uphill battle as he works to get on the ballot in every state. Meanwhile, when it comes to voter outreach, Democrats projecting confidence in their record, maintaining the rate of black business ownership is up, and arguing it's their policies that cut black child poverty in half and kept black homeowners in their homes during the pandemic. Anderson?

COOPER: Eva McKend, thank so much.

Coming up, the killing of Gabby Petito commanded national headlines, you probably remember. Her fiance claimed that he killed her before he killed himself. Petito's parents then sued the fiance's parents over emotional distress and other issues. Tonight, we have breaking news, word of a settlement next.


COOPER: There's breaking news in the case of 22-year-old Gabby Petito. As you may remember, she was reported missing after a 2021 trip with her fiance, Brian Laundrie. Authorities found her remains in Wyoming. She had been strangled to death. Brian Laundrie returned to his parent's home, then disappeared. His body was eventually found. He died by suicide, leaving behind writings in which he admitted responsibility for Petito's death.


COOPER: Petito's parents then sued Laundrie's parents, as well as the Laundrie attorney over emotional distress and for withholding information. There was a mandatory mediation today and tonight where families have reached a settlement. Randi Kaye joins us with the latest. So what do we know, Randi?

RANDI KAYE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Anderson, I was in touch earlier today was Steve Bertolino. He's the lawyer for the Laundrie family and he told me that they settled with Gabby Petito's parents. He also told me that the terms of that settlement will remain confidential. Now, of course, this case was settled as both sides were preparing to go to trial, which was coming up in May. And as part of that trial, they recently released these courtroom depositions, which were quite disturbing. They had disturbing details about what was done and more importantly, Anderson, what wasn't done to find Gabby Petito.


GABBY PATITO: Hello, hello and good morning. It is really nice and sunny today.

KAYE (voice-over): In the summer of 2021, when Gabby Petito and her fiance, Brian Laundrie, were on a cross-country road trip in her van, Brian's father called his phone and said he sounded frantic. That's according to his father's court deposition, which was released last week, along with depositions from Laundrie's mother and Gabby Petito's parents. It's all part of an emotional distress lawsuit brought by Petito's parents against the Laundries and their attorney.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Gabby Petito, never go that side.

KAYE (voice-over): Christopher Laundrie, Brian's father, recalled a phone conversation with his son on August 29, the day his father says stuff hit the fan. He said his son was frantic and got very excited, repeatedly telling his father Gabby is gone. He said his son asked, can you help me and told him that he might need a lawyer. Roberta Laundrie, Brian's mother, said in her deposition, she spoke with her son that same day and his voice was very upset, adding, I didn't want to push him, so we just said goodbye.

When Brian asked for a lawyer, his father said I asked him why, he wouldn't tell me. After that, Christopher Laundrie said he contacted the family's lawyer. What exactly did the Laundries think their son meant by the word gone? Roberta Laundrie says several possibilities ran through her mind, including that the couple had a fight or perhaps her son had hit Petito and she was going to press charges. When asked if she thought maybe her son had murdered Petito, Roberta Laundrie responded it might have gone through my mind. I can't recall what I was thinking at the time.

Laundrie's father said he never thought his son killed Petito. I had no idea what to think, he said. The Laundries were also asked repeatedly why they didn't press their son about what had happened to Gabby, not over the phone and not even in person, after their son showed up back in Florida on September 1, 2021. In Petito's van, without her, they both explained that their lawyer had told them not to question their son about Petito. I was told not to ask, and so I just kept Brian close, kept him home and safe, and didn't talk to him about anything, and hoped for the best, Roberta Laundrie said.

The distressing phone calls with their son took place three weeks before Petito's remains were found in Wyoming's Bridger-Teton National Forest. The Teton County coroner determined she died from strangulation and ruled it a homicide. In all those weeks that passed since the phone call with their son, the Laundries said they never contacted the Petitos and ignored all the Petito's calls and text messages, at the advice of their lawyer, all of this despite knowing Petito's parents were desperate to find her.

JOSEPH PETITO, GABBY PETITO'S FATHER: I'm asking for help from the parents of Brian, and I'm asking for help of the family members and friends of the Laundrie family as well.

KAYE (voice-over): In her deposition, Brian's mother said, I was just concerned about my son at the time, and that she figured maybe her parents would pick her up or could come get her. More than a month after Brian Laundrie disappeared from his home, his body was found in a nearby swamp. Police say he died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. Alongside him, a notebook in which she admitted taking Gabby Petito's life, saying she'd fallen and was in extreme pain. He said he thought it was "merciful." (END VIDEO CLIP)

COOPER: You've been following this case for years, Randi. I mean, how big a surprise is this settlement?

KAYE (on camera): I think it is a pretty big surprise, Anderson. Certainly, the Petitos have seemed pretty resistant to settling with the Laundrie family. In fact, as part of those depositions, they included a deposition from Joseph Petito, Gabby Petito's father, and he said in his deposition, I want to make them hurt, meaning the Laundries, as much as they hurt us. He also said, "There's no amount of money that I would settle for, not a dime."

So clearly, that sounds like he was very resistant to settling with the Laundrie family. But certainly, as we look ahead to trial, Anderson, this was promising to be a very emotional trial, likely a very expensive trial for both sides. So clearly, they both seem to think that it was best in this case, Anderson.


COOPER: All right. Randi Kaye, thank you so much.

Coming up, as family and friends gather in Texas to remember the life of 11 year-old Audrii Cunningham, a suspect has been charged with capital murder in her death. We have details on that next.


COOPER: This was the scene a few moments ago in Polk County, Texas, just north of Houston. The mother of 11-year-old Audrii Cunningham, as well as friends and members of the community, gathered near the river where the little girl's body was found just yesterday. Her mom called her perfect and said she was "Truly blessed to have given birth to such an amazing little girl."

Today, authorities in Texas charge their prime suspect with capital murder. The alleged killer's name is Don Steven McDougal, that's him, a family friend who was already in jail on unrelated charges. Investigators say McDougal, who lived on the same property Audrii's family resides, had agreed to take a little girl to a school bus stop in the morning that she disappeared, but she never arrived. They say they have detailed evidence of his movements that day, including video and cell phone footage, as well as evidence that he lied about his whereabouts. Those are the rope that the killer used and say it was consistent with ropes seen in McDougal's vehicle. Our hearts go out to Audrii's family tonight.

That's it for us. The news continues.