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Biden Attends His First NATO Summit as President; Attorney General Political Considerations Must Play "No Role" in Investigative Decisions; Israel's New Governments Gets to Work After Ousting Netanyahu. Aired 11-11:30a ET

Aired June 14, 2021 - 11:00   ET



KATE BOLDUAN, CNN ANCHOR: Hello, everyone. I'm Kate Bolduan.

Here's what we're watching this hour -- the United States is there. President Biden's statement to allies, his reassurance to America's friends and his promise to take on Russia and China. Live events happening this hour.

Weaponizing the Justice Department. New details about how far the Trump administration went to try and hunt down leaks, and why Trump's White House counsel even had his data seized.

And growing concern. The U.K. is delaying its reopening as a surge in cases of a more contagious COVID variant is worrying health officials there and now here at home.


BOLDUAN: Thanks for being here, everybody. Happening live at this hour, President Biden is meeting with NATO allies in Brussels. The president will soon be meeting with Turkey's president on the sidelines of this summit.

This is President Biden's first in-person gathering with NATO leaders where this morning he is calling the alliance critically important and a sacred obligation in stark contrast to his predecessor. This all comes ahead of Biden's highly anticipated meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday in Geneva.

Let's begin with CNN's Jeff Zeleny. He's live in Brussels for us now.

Jeff, the president has already had some tough words just today for Russia and China. What did he say?

JEFF ZELENY, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: Well, Kate, President Biden has been repeating that message everywhere he goes throughout his European tour here about the rising aggression from Russia and the rising threats from China. He's doing the same thing here at NATO headquarters.

He's in meetings right now behind me here at NATO headquarters. The meetings are running long, we're told, perhaps an hour long or so. That is generally a sign when world leaders get together, some 30 of them or so here, they are having a variety of discussions on a variety of things. But Russia and China, of course, key among them.

But the biggest message there that President Biden is trying to convoy is he believes in this transatlantic alliance. He's trying to reaffirm Americans' commitment to this military alliance, of course, that President Trump when he was in office once threatened to remove the U.S. from NATO.

But earlier today as President Biden arrived here, he said this --


JOSEPH R. BIDEN, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: There is a growing recognition over the last couple years that we have new challenges, and we have Russia that is not acting in a way that is consistent with what we had hoped, and as well as China.

I want to make it clear, NATO is critically important for U.S. interests in and of itself. If there weren't one, we'd have to invent one.


ZELENY: So President Biden clearly trying to steer the conversation. And for the first time when NATO releases a strategic statement really of their meeting and plans, it will mention the rising threat and concern of China. So, that is essential.

But, Kate, everything is leading up to the meeting on Wednesday in Geneva with Vladimir Putin. I am told that President Biden is really having a conversation with every leader he meets here and, indeed, over the weekend talking about Putin. Sort of getting some input here.

So, he's trying to build a consensus as he moves into a Geneva on Wednesday. Behind the scenes, when he's not meeting with world leaders, he's preparing for that summit -- Kate.

BOLDUAN: Absolutely. Jeff, thanks for the reporting. Really appreciate it.

For more, joining me is CNN political analyst David Sanger. He's, of course, national security correspondent for "The New York Times."

David, first on the meeting that's going to be happening, we think this hour, President Biden meeting with the Turkish President Erdogan. When it comes to a meeting with President Erdogan, it was put this way -- actually in "The New York Times" today, and I thought it was well put. I want to read it, how do you not lose Turkey while you try to curb Erdogan?

How important is the answer to that question right now?

DAVID SANGER, CNN POLITICAL AND NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: It's pretty important because President Erdogan is certainly the problem child of NATO at this point. He has bought Russian air defense systems, hasn't fully deployed them yet, and expected the United States would continue to supply him with F-35 fighter jets even though the Russian air system is made to defeat the F-35s.

He has repressed dissent. He's closed media in Turkey. He's basically in the Biden world of democracies versus autocracies, he's hard over on the autocracy side.


But, Kate, there is no provision in the NATO charter for throwing a country out. The U.S. couldn't afford to if it wanted to because he's providing the air access we will need over Afghanistan if things go bad after the U.S. withdraws.

BOLDUAN: Let's jump ahead to what this is all building toward, right. Biden's meeting with Vladimir Putin. In a new interview with NBC News, Putin laughed when he was asked if he was a killer by the correspondent who he was speaking with, Keir Simmons, and also when asked, though, about the ransomware attacks, the U.S. intelligence has said originated out of Russia, that we've see more and more of.

I want to play what Putin said.


KEIR SIMMONS, NBC NEWS CORRESPONDENT: Mr. President, are you waging a cyber war against America?

VLADIMIR PUTIN, RUSSIAN PRESIDENT (through translator): Where is the evidence? Where is proof? It's becoming farcical.

We know it well. We have been accused of all kinds of things, election interference, cyberattacks, and so on and so forth, and not once, not one time did they bother to produce any kind of evidence or proof. Just unfounded accusations.


BOLDUAN: David, if this is how Putin is responding to Biden when they're face to face, can Biden get anywhere in terms of making, quote/unquote, progress with Russia?

SANGER: It's going to be hard. If you think about the past 70 years of meetings, first with Soviet leaders and then with Russian leaders, Kate, they've always been about nuclear weapons or had those in the background. The thing about nuclear weapons is we've always known where they're located. We could count them. And you could see when they were launched.

The problem with cyber weapons is you can't see them being developed, you can't verify whether they've been dismantled. And it's very difficult to prove at least in a public understandable way where they were launched from.

Now we don't have any doubt that the SVR, the most sophisticated of the Russian intelligence agencies, was behind the SolarWinds with attack which was last -- discovered last December against American federal agencies, against corporations. The ransomware groups are harder to pin down, but we know many of them are based inside Russia. But that doesn't mean the Russian government was running them, and it makes denials like this all the easier.

And so, how do you get to an agreement to go limit, say, the targets and so forth if Putin won't even admit that they're harboring the hackers?

BOLDUAN: I mean because as one U.S. official had put it in terms of how Biden is talking about this meeting, ahead of it as he's at the NATO summit, the one official described it as what he's looking for is a stable and constructive relationship with Russia, but also saying that we'll respond in the face of Russia's harmful activities.

And I'm trying to figure out what really is possible here. What's stable and constructive? Because it's not like -- the U.S. is never not having to respond to harmful actions by Russia these days.

SANGER: That's right. So stable and constructive is different than we're going to reset relations. We're going to have some form of glass notes. Remember that phrase from early in the -- after the fall of the Berlin wall. That we're going to develop a friendship.

What he's saying is, you know, all we want to develop are some guardrails to keep us from escalating into a worse conflict. So that's part of the problem. But the second problem is that while we have done many things to the Russians, mostly financial sanctions after they annexed Crimea in response to these cyberattacks, in response to the manipulation efforts in the 2016 election, the pace, the sophistication of the attacks has only increased.

And whenever you talk about really raising the pain on the Russians, which would mostly mean going after their oil and gas revenue, the concern is how do you get off that escalation ladder? What do you do when they come back harder, particularly since we live in the glassiest house, right? We live in an internet world where it's easy to get into a company, a gas pipeline, a beef manufacturer. Someplace that is not particularly hard.

BOLDUAN: The glassiest of houses. I'm going to use that.

David, thank you very much. Always good to see you. Appreciate it.

Coming up for us, CNN and other top news organizations demanding answers after reporters are targeted in a secret effort by the Trump Justice Department. So many questions of what actually they were looking for, what they wanted, who knew about it.


A big meeting today, and the attorney general just spoke out for first time on this.

And there's a new man in charge in Israel. Benjamin Netanyahu is not leaving quietly. Coming up, his parting shot and the uncertain path forward now for the country.


BOLDUAN: We have breaking news just in. Attorney General Merrick Garland has just spoken out for the first time after it was revealed the Justice Department under former President Trump secretly seized phone and email records of reporters at major media organizations, massive amounts of data. Garland's statement comes just hours before he is set to meet with the leaders of CNN, "The New York Times," and "The Washington Post." it goes much further than that.


CNN's Paula Reid is joining me now with more on this.

Paula, tell us what the attorney general said.

PAULA REID, CNN SENIOR LEGAL AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: Kate, in his statement, the attorney general says that there are important questions that need to be explored about how the Trump Justice Department went about obtaining these records.

Now just to underscore how extraordinary it is, it's highly unusual to obtain lawmakers' records like this outside of an investigation into corruption. In the course of the Justice Department does frequently investigate leaks. But the biggest question we have right now is what exactly happened. Why were these records seized? Who oversaw this? Who knew what when?

Former attorneys general and the deputy attorney general, they've denied being involved in many of these record requests. Going forward, according to the statement, the deputy attorney general, Lisa Monaco, she is going to be reviewing the Justice Department's procedure for obtaining records from lawmakers like this in the future. Now suggesting that the current procedures, whatever they may be, are inadequate and also suggesting perhaps they were not followed in this particular case. But still so many questions.

We're also reporting out another secret request for records from then- White House counsel Don McGahn. Again, extraordinary to secretly obtain the records of then-president Trump's top lawyer. And Apple was barred from actually disclosing this until just this last May.

And to this point in our reporting, it's not clear if McGahn was the target of an investigation or if his records were swept up in a larger request related to something different. What we're seeing is this pattern of unusual requests in what appear to in some cases be leak investigations. But the common thread we see in all three of these instances is that these were people that then-president Trump were frustrated with. Democratic lawmakers, White House counsel who resisted the former president's calls to fire then-special counsel.

It's also very difficult to believe that when it comes to Don McGahn that then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions and then-Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein wouldn't have known about a request for the White House counsel's records. But in talking with sources, there are some concerns that perhaps his

information was swept up. That they didn't actually know who it was, whose information they had, and that wasn't actually disclosed until Apple revealed it to their customer.

Now, I talked to a lot of former justice officials and said that's scary, that's going to be scary to a lot of Americans, the fact that the White House counsel doesn't have much protection when it comes to his records being swept up.

Now, of course, we're also investigating reporting on the requests for records from several journalists, including our colleague, Barbara Starr, here at CNN.

Later today, several -- several top officials from various news organizations will be meeting with the attorney general to discuss efforts to obtain reporters' records.

BOLDUAN: Paula, thank you so much for that.

There is a lot to dig through here. Joining me for more on this is CNN legal analyst Paul Callan.

Paul, your reaction to the statement from the attorney general, Merrick Garland, ahead of this meeting today.

PAUL CALLAN, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Well, you know, this entire situation is quite shocking from a legal standpoint. To think that the counsel to the president of the United States, Trump's counsel, could be investigated, subpoenaed by the justice -- his own Justice Department is just an indication of how dangerous the situation is.

I mean, if he's investigating his own counsel, what about American citizens? What about the Congress? What about journalists around the country?

This is far more dangerous than even when we saw during the Nixon administration where he, of course, had his enemies list and was impeached. But he was never really charged with an abuse of the subpoena power to this extent.

BOLDUAN: Speaker Pelosi has said that it is beyond belief, in her view, that Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Attorney General Bill Barr under Trump, of course, did not know about these subpoenas and this effort. Do you agree?

CALLAN: Yeah. It is -- it is quite shocking that that would be the case. But just in terms of the way the American power system, the American government is structured, you have to remember that the president is the chief law enforcement officer in the country. And the Justice Department works for him. And his discretion is very, very wide. He's only checked by the courts.

But the courts have to know that it's going on. And sometimes subpoenas are issued without judges even knowing about it. Because remember, prosecutors have the right to issue subpoenas without judicial consent in many situations.

So when you have a president who's abusing his power, the system the way it's set up now, it's very difficult to control that except through impeachment or not re-electing him.

BOLDUAN: And the secret courts are a category all of their own, as well. I mean, and seemingly every day we are learning of new subpoenas that this is getting broader and wider.


And it's -- what's still not clear, and Paula was speaking to this, is who really was being targeted. Why they were being targeted.

They were being targeted for a subpoena, but are they the target of an investigation? We know in Barbara Starr's circumstances, we know that she was not a target of an investigation.

Why isn't the Justice Department explaining -- why can't the Justice Department explain the circumstances around this more?

CALLAN: Well, certainly, the Justice Department could explain it if they want to. There's nothing prohibiting that.

But the Justice Department likes to hold on to its ability to conduct secret investigations. Sometimes you're investigating intelligence matters, sometimes you're investigating mob figures. And for instance, if you're looking at their bank records or other kinds of records, you certainly don't want them to know that you're doing that as you're putting the case together.

But of course in the situation that we have here where journalists like Barbara Starr and other people who kind of work for the public interest we always hope, unlike mob figures, they're being treated pretty much the same way.

And, you know, the CNN example is a great example. Counsel to CNN, David Vigilante, was issued a subpoena, and he was gagged, the subpoena said he couldn't even tell Barbara Starr or others at the network that the subpoena had been issued. And this went on for a long period of time.

By the way, the penalty for violating that gag order could be years in prison. It could be a felony violation. So this is an area where you can have tremendous abuse of power, and I would hope the Justice Department will be more open about what went on in this case and whether we need more controls in these kinds of investigations.

BOLDUAN: Yeah. What the controls would be, what policy change could be happening. It might be necessary in the Justice Department after this comes to light.

Paul, thank you very much.

CALLAN: Thank you, Kate. BOLDUAN: Still ahead for us, a potential nuclear disaster brewing in

China. What the U.S. government is watching now as some warn of an imminent radiological threat. We'll be right back.



BOLDUAN: We have breaking news just coming in out of Illinois. Just look at these pictures coming in moments ago. A huge fire, look at the plumes of black smoke there. This is a huge fire at a chemical plant in the town of Rockton, which is near the Wisconsin border. It's forcing we could say understandably people nearby from their homes, big evacuation under way in places.

The fire broke out this morning, but here's no word what caused it. There's no reports yet of any injuries. You can see just how active it is.

We're going to keep a close eye on this and bring you updates as we get them, but this out of Rockton, Illinois. You can see fire clearly huge presence on the scene as they try to figure out what to do about this fire, at this chemical plant.

So, let's turn now to this. It is a new day in Israel, and a new path forward for the country. This morning, Israel's new government is getting to work after ousting the country's longest serving prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. But there are real questions about how the new prime minister, Naftali Bennett, is going to move forward with his fragile coalition.

Netanyahu for his part this morning is vowing to topple what he is calling a fraudulent government. It should sound familiar.

CNN's Oren Liebermann is live in Jerusalem with the very latest.

Oren, Bennett is making clear that he wants to unite the nation. How is he going to do that?

OREN LIEBERMANN, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, he has the most diverse coalition in the history, Kate. Eight different parties from the right wing, the left wing, and first Arab party to participate in an Israeli government. He has to unite this coalition. He has to find common ground, for example, for a budget to work on the cost of housing, state and religion.

All of these central issues that have been effectively pushed to the side, this is what his coalition is built to deal with. This is how he will try to make a difference in what he calls a politics of unity, of working together in agreement, instead of discord and division.

Meanwhile, Benjamin Netanyahu in his last speech as prime minister and his first speech as head of the opposition, said he would take down what he called a weak and dangerous government. He has been criticized in the past for sacrificing the U.S./Israel relationship, especially the relationship of U.S. and the Democrats, for his own political gain. That is criticism he's facing one again after he accused the Biden administration of going into this nuclear deal with Iran again and said he would work to stop it and nobody else could do it but him.


BENJAMIN NETANYAHU, FORMER ISRAELI PRIME MINISTER (through translator): The American administration asked me not to make public our disagreements on the nuclear deal. But with all due respect to our great friend and my personal friend for 40 years, President Joe Biden, I will not behave that way.


LIEBERMANN: As for how different the relationship already looks between the U.S. and Israel, we're seeing it just hours after Naftali Bennett's swearing-in, a congratulatory message from President Biden, congratulatory messages, as well, from the secretary of state and defense secretary. Then the first phone call between Biden and Bennett, that coming a short time after the swearing-in.

In contrast, it took Biden nearly a month to call Benjamin Netanyahu after he was sworn in.

So, Kate, you're already seeing the differences between the U.S. and Israel as well as others.