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At This Hour

Faceoff over Materials Seized from Mar-a-Lago; Biden Primetime Address; IAEA Team Arrives at Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Plant; CDC Advisers Expected to Recommend Updated COVID-19 Boosters. Aired 11-11:30a ET

Aired September 01, 2022 - 11:00   ET




ERICA HILL, CNN ANCHOR (voice-over): Hello, everyone. AT THIS HOUR, a high stakes battle between former president Trump and the Justice Department.

Nuclear inspectors at Ukraine's imperiled power plant as shelling continues.

And Serena's streak. Why the tennis legend is playing with nothing to lose.

How far will she go?

This is what we're watching AT THIS HOUR.


HILL: I'm Erica Hill in for Kate Bolduan. We're two hours away from a critical hearing in the investigation of former president Donald Trump. A federal judge will hear arguments about his request for a special master to review the classified documents seized at his home.

The Trump legal team acknowledging the classified material was found at Mar-a-Lago but lawyers argue it wasn't a big deal and it shouldn't have triggered an FBI search. Let's go to Evan Perez with more this morning.

EVAN PEREZ, CNN SR. JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Good morning, Erica. The Trump team largely ignores a lot of the allegations that the Justice Department made in its bombshell filing a couple nights ago.

They are basically saying it should not have been a surprise that there were classified documents found at Mar-a-Lago. They were considered personal and presidential records.

I will read you part of what they say in the court filing.

"The notion that presidential records would contain sensitive information should never have been cause for alarm."

They're saying that the Justice Department cannot be trusted to just look through the documents and sort out what may be presidential privilege, executive privilege or attorney-client privilege.

They still want a special master to look at these documents and set aside the things that may be considered privileged.

So we expect that this judge is going to take a look at this filing and really maybe ask some questions about what the Trump team is not addressing, which is why, when they received a subpoena marked with classification markings, why that did not happen.

Why, when the FBI searched the Mar-a-Lago facility, were they were able to find additional classified documents?

HILL: As we wait for those answers, still some other questions, as well. Stay with me. I'm going to bring Renato Mariotti, a former federal prosecutor and CNN law enforcement analyst and former Secret Service agent, Jonathan Wackrow.

Picking up on what the judge is likely to hear today, we know in the DOJ's filing that one of the arguments against a special master was that this would delay the investigation. There's been a lot of work done in this investigation.

So how much would this delay things, if the judge, in fact, said, yes, I will appoint a special master?

RENATO MARIOTTI, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: The evidence has been reviewed and is in the hands of the prosecution team. So I think realistically, the stronger argument in the government's behalf are the ways in which this is going to create a burden and potentially result in the disclosure of declassified information.

HILL: In the past 24 hours, Donald Trump and his legal team have been really lashing out. When doing that, they have also confirmed some of which allege in these DOJ filings, including on Truth Social.

Trump writes, "There seems to be confusion as to the picture where documents were thrown on the floor."

"They released photography for the world to see. They broke into my home. Wrong. They took them out of cartons and spread them on the carpet, making them look like a big find for them. They dropped them, not me."

Evan, it's clear in the filing, the DOJ said we took these out of cartons. Law enforcement analysts say this is very clearly the way things are done. This is standard operating procedure, you see the rulers to show scale.

He is also confirming what DOJ has asserted here, not just that they were taken out of cartons but also what they found and in the same breath, he's contradicting his own narrative.

PEREZ: Yes. It does contradict the narrative. We know there's been multiple narratives that have been put out the last few weeks, including his claim he declassified all of this stuff. [11:05:00]

PEREZ: But obviously, nothing in his court filing last night says anything about that. And he's confirming what the Justice Department said it found, again, contradicts a lot of what we've heard from the Trump team. There's been no consistency.

That's one of the things that the judge might have to examine today.

There's no answer to the question of why, when you received a subpoena back in May, why is it that there were classified documents found when the FBI searched Mar-a-Lago three weeks ago?

HILL: One of the key questions.

Jonathan, here's what Trump attorney Alina Habba said last night, weighing in.


ALINA HABBA, TRUMP ATTORNEY: I've been down there. I'm down there frequently. I have never seen that. I have never, ever seen that. That is not the way his office looks.

Anybody that knows president Trump's office, he has guests frequently there. It is a -- it's just a joke. They literally must have gone in and taken out documents they want with police that this is top secret documents that were on -- it's ridiculous.


HILL: Part of that is she's playing right into the conspiracy theory that we knew was going to happen out of that picture. So let's not let the facts get in the way of that good story there.

What else she said that was interesting to me, Jonathan, she notes he has guests frequently there in the office. Yes, sure. He's got these documents. They're not strewn about like that but the documents are there and there's people in there frequently.

JONATHAN WACKROW, CNN LAW ENFORCEMENT ANALYST: There's a reason why the U.S. government takes so much care and places such strict controls over sensitive and classified documents.

The reason being is these are the crown jewels of our intelligence information. They contain sources and methodologies, collection methodologies, that are utilized.

And because of that, because of that very reason, this is why those documents and, more importantly, the information that's contained within them, must be reviewed in controlled environments, such as a SCIF, a sensitive compartmentalized information facility.

This is an area that restricts access outside of those allowed it. To be fair, Mar-a-Lago, when president Trump was in office, did have a SCIF. He did have access to a type of facility where he could review these documents anytime that he chose.

Once he left office, that facility shut down and that was no longer applicable to a former president. That's where we are today.

So to make a statement by an attorney that people come in and there's public access, that raises the potential that someone could have seen, out of nefarious intent, information contained in the documents, is really scary.

The intelligence community and FBI is acting off of that information, to try to assess what type of damage could have been caused by that.

HILL: Quickly, the fact that Trump's legal team did not respond to allegations of potential obstruction, does that surprise you?

MARIOTTI: Sure. Those are very serious allegations. And the Justice Department essentially implied that they were -- that Trump's legal team was misleading the court. And they said that one of the attorneys lied.

So to fail to respond to that, concedes that it very well could be true and there's no good response. And I think the judge will be focused on that today.

HILL: Jonathan, I'm getting in trouble because we're out of time. But you say the role of the Secret Service could be the wild card in the investigation.


WACKROW: It can be. Think about it. This is not just a facility or a regular office. This is the residence of a former President of the United States, protected by the Secret Service. Those are dedicated men and women, who -- they are charged with maintaining the access and sector for the residence of the former president.

So I want to know, what role did they play in the time period leading up to the execution of the search warrant?

They knew that the FBI and the DOJ have had ongoing meetings.


They maintain the access to Mar-a-Lago. Interesting to see coming up, the wild card factor, played by the U.S. government or by Trump's team?

Saying the office was protected by the Secret Service and the documents were secure. There's a lot of ways that the service could get caught in the middle of this.

HILL: There's a lot of issues here. Great to have all of your expertise. Thank you.

President Biden is set to deliver a primetime address in Philadelphia. The White House says the president will talk about what he calls the continuing battle for the soul of the nation. Jeremy Diamond is live at the White House for us.


HILL: He's used those words and that battle cry before.

What else are we expecting tonight?

JEREMY DIAMOND, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Yes, he used that term, "the battle for the soul of the nation" in his inauguration speech. And in his primetime address, Biden believes that the battle is still ongoing.

In recent weeks, he's been sharpening his attacks against Republicans and particularly against the MAGA Republicans, who are aligned with former president Trump. Tonight's speech could be much more sober and somber in tone than the political rally speech that we heard from the president last week in Maryland.

He's talked about MAGA Republicans being semi fascist, calling it extreme. And tonight, we're expecting to hear similar language from the president. The White House press secretary said the president will talk about the fact that MAGA Republicans present a, quote, "extremist threat toward democracy," saying they don't respect the rule of law.

And he'll argue it's the most energized part of the Republican Party. Finally, the president has been mulling this type of speech for some time. Part of was spurred by the revelations from the January 6 congressional committee but also now you have this backdrop of the FBI investigation into the former president.

And Republicans who are attacking, aligned with the president, attacking the FBI and in some cases here, even the rule of law.

HILL: Jeremy, thank you.

You can watch the coverage of the primetime address tonight, right here, 8:00 pm Eastern.

A lot of eyes on Alaska and Sarah Palin's bid for a political comeback. Not this time. Democrat Mary Peltola, defeating Palin. Peltola flips the seat and making history as the first Alaska native to serve in Congress.

Ahead here, inspectors visit the embattled nuclear plant in Ukraine as shelling continues in the area of the nuclear plant in Ukraine. How the team is hoping to avert a disaster, next.





HILL: Developing right now, a team of inspectors from the U.N. atomic energy agency has visited the Russian-held nuclear plant in Ukraine. This amid intense fighting that prompted one of the reactors to shut down. The safety of the largest nuclear plant in Europe the top priority for this IAEA team.

CNN's Melissa Bell is in Kyiv.

There's been so much focus, Melissa, on this plant, for the concerns and the fighting all around it.

MELISSA BELL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Fighting was only worse this morning. The shelling that began just before dawn all around the plant in that town, was some of the worst the town has seen since being occupied in March.

It was in that context, that this team of IAEA inspectors set off from Ukrainian-held land across the front line, with much delay on the active front line, to make it to the plant, in order to carry out their inspection.

Now one of the big questions was what kind of access they were going to get, how much they were going to be able to see. Now we just have been hearing from the head of the IAEA team that headed in there today.

Some of his men are going to stay inside in the plant. What he's been telling reporters at a checkpoint back out, across toward Ukrainian- held territory, in that short amount of time they've been able to see a great deal.

In fact, they were able to see the key things they needed to see. What we needed to see, we saw. We wait to hear more details about that. As you say, it's Europe's largest nuclear reactor, the six-reactor-strong plant. Europe's largest plant, of which there had been only two functioning reactors.

As a result of that shelling today, we're down to just one. We wait to hear more of what he's done. The important thing is, some of his team is staying there and that's fantastic news for the days going forward, if only in terms of the peace it's likely to bring around the plant.

HILL: Melissa Bell, thank you.

Joining me Mark Kimmett and Leslie Dewan.

I'm wondering if we can pick up where Melissa left off. She is laying out for us, the team that was in there for three hours or so, based on reporting. Some of them stayed behind, as the head of that team said.

And he said at the checkpoint to reporters, we saw the key things.

What do you think they were looking at?

And those that stayed behind, what are they doing?

LESLIE DEWAN, NUCLEAR ENGINEER: I think they are looking at the structural integrity of the damage that has been caused by shelling over the past six months. They are perhaps looking at the status of the power lines connecting the plant to the grid.

And just this morning, for the second time in a week, the plant had to switch to using its backup diesel generators because it was disconnected from the grid.


DEWAN: And another key piece was the spent fuel onsite. Zaporizhzhia keeps the nuclear waste in outdoor spent fuel pools. The inspectors will be checking to make sure these facilities are operating as normal.

HILL: In many ways, it seems the Russian army, perhaps Vladimir Putin, is holding this plant hostage. Calls for a demilitarized zone around it. But as Melissa pointed out, the fact there's team members staying behind, that may help in terms of keeping the peace, for lack of a better term.

Do you think that's the main intent?

BRIG. GEN. MARK KIMMETT, U.S. ARMY (RET.): One would hope so. It's clear what the Russians are doing here. This is much like a human shield, surrounding itself by women and children. This is somewhat of a nuclear shield.

They are able -- the Russians were able to store equipment and personnel there, can perhaps do some command and control because they understand, if Ukraine, if they fire on that nuclear plant, it's a suicide pact. The effects would be dramatic not only in the immediate area but throughout the region.

HILL: This spring, on the program with Kate, you talked about how the containment there is built to withstand a direct plane strike. But shelling, obviously, is a much different issue.

What could happen in that event?

How devastating would that be?

DEWAN: If the reactor or the spent fuel storage were to take a direct hit from the shelling, it would lead to a localized radiation release at the site. Think Fukushima-esque, rather than Chernobyl-esque.

In the worst-case scenario, it could a leak of radioactive material into a nearby river or something akin to a dirty bomb. Releasing radioactive material and waste products in the immediate vicinity of the site.

But this wouldn't be a situation like Chernobyl. It wouldn't be a situation that would affect beyond a dozen miles outside of the plant. Of course, that's an enormous area.

HILL: We see, too, we see pictures, General, of Russian military vehicles in there in that plant, raising separate concerns.

What does it say to you? KIMMETT: I think there's some inherent danger, even if the Russians don't intentionally take a hit from the Ukrainians or candidly some gaslighting and do it themselves. You have a bunch of young soldiers, in many cases, probably in the case of the Russians, mostly untrained, certainly unable to understand what is going on there.

And often times, young soldiers, ill-disciplined soldiers are frankly knuckleheads. So they're intimidating the workers there, no doubt. And they can be fooling around with the knobs themselves just because they're 18, 19 years old.

So there's a great risk for miscalculation, mischief or mistakes being either conducted by the young soldiers or, in the case of intimidating those workers, creating problems in and of itself.

HILL: Which, of course, makes it more important that the team is able to get in there. Interesting that some of them stayed behind. We'll look to news for that coming from the teams there.

Really appreciate both of you joining us today. Thank you.

Coming up, new COVID booster shots could be available as soon as tomorrow. What the CDC vaccine advisers are considering today. That's next.





HILL: In a matter of hours, CDC advisers are expecting to recommend updated COVID-19 booster shots from Pfizer and Moderna. The updated shots target Omicron variants that are most prevalent in the United States.

Joining me now Dr. Paul Offit, a member of the FDA's vaccine advisory committee.

Dr. Offit, always good to see you. You are one of two FDA advisers voting against asking the vaccinemakers to make a specific vaccine to target the Omicron variants.


DR. PAUL OFFIT, U.S. FDA VACCINE ADVISER: My concern at the time, on June 28th, when the data was presented to us, was the companies did the studies the right way. Both Pfizer and Moderna did the studies the right way.