Return to Transcripts main page

At This Hour

Death Toll From Blizzard Climbs To 37 In Erie County, New York; Good Samaritans Band Together To Help Residents In Need; New Uncertainty After Supreme Court Keeps Border Policy For Now. Aired 11:30a-12p ET

Aired December 29, 2022 - 11:30   ET



ELIE HONIG, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: He went from somebody who essentially had no assets to somebody who was reporting it apparently had substantial assets very, very quickly. And the basis for that, that he's offered up this company seems to have very little backing it. So, the first question I would have would be, how did he get this money? The second question would be, was he engaged in fraud? Did he make false statements to the FEC, to the House itself in his disclosure forms?

Because if you intentionally make a false statement about your assets or anything else that matters, that too, could be a Federal False statement is a crime. So, I think they're going to start with that. And also, there's a possibility that he tried to evade federal a fight campaign finance laws by funneling his own money, sort of to his own company. So, those are three areas that I think the feds are going to be interested in.

AMARA WALKER, CNN ANCHOR: And how would the federal investigation then differ from the state?

HONIG: Well, so they're probably looking at the same subject matter. We actually now have apparently three different entities, we have the feds, the State AG, and the county district attorney all looking at this. And whenever you're in this situation, you want to do what's called deconflict, which essentially just means communicate, share information to the best of your capability, decide who's got the best laws that may fit whatever happened the best, and sort of make sure you stay out of each other's way.

WALKER: And just to be clear, lying about your background, your biography, that is not a crime, so there's a fine line. So, what then crosses that line?

HONIG: Yes. So, it is not a crime to lie to the public as a candidate for office. Unfortunately, that's just the way it is. Given the First Amendment, given the way we run our system, it would cross the line.

First of all, of course, if he obtained his money by fraud, if he lied to banks, if he lied to investors, that would be a crime. And if you make a false statement to the authorities, if you make a false statement to the FEC, to the House, that would cross a line of criminality.

WALKER: You know, it's just incredible, you know, reading into his "life story," right? I mean, he just admitted to basically making up everything. I mean, where he went to school, even what -- we know we heard from (INAUDIBLE) where exactly did he go to high school?

He didn't go to the colleges that he claimed that he went to. He didn't work where he said he worked. His heritage and his religion are not what he portrayed it to be, you know, begs the question, and, of course, suspicions, you know, what else could he be lying about? And I know you said that fraud comes in batches. What did you mean by that?

HONIG: Yes. Fraud tends to be a habit. I mean, I dealt with many fraud cases, and it's rare that you see somebody who just tries it once, who just tries one big lie, or who just tries to rip people off once. Usually, it's the kind of thing that builds on itself. And we're seeing that here, even just in the context of his lies. Every day, sometimes multiple times of the day, we're learning about more and bigger and more outrageous lies.

And so, just looking at this from a commonsense perspective as a prosecutor or just a regular old person, nothing would shock me here. And if it turned out he was engaged in some type of criminal fraud, I would not be at all surprised.

WALKER: And if charges are brought against Santos, and if he's convicted of a crime, Santos could still retain his seat in Congress?

HONIG: Shockingly, yes. Our laws actually make it quite difficult to remove a member of Congress. A person can be charged with a crime, a person can be convicted of a crime, but that does not automatically remove the person from Congress.

I also should note. There is no impeachment for members of Congress the way there could be impeachment for a president or a judge. The only way that this person can be removed from Congress before the end of his term is if Congress votes to expel him, which takes a two- thirds vote of the House. Of course, you'd need some serious bipartisan support to get there.

WALKER: That's incredible. I mean, if you were convicted of a crime -- if anyone was convicted of a crime, I'm sure they would be let go from their jobs, a very different bar for Congress.

HONIG: For sure.

WALKER: Elie Honig, great to see you. Thank you.

Coming up. Mounting criticism and finger-pointing in western New York as people are still trying to dig out. We're live in Buffalo next.



WALKER: At this hour, the death toll from Western New York's historic Blizzard is still rising. It stands now at 37 in Erie County. And this morning, a blame game is brewing between two top officials in charge of the storm's response.

Athena Jones joining me now live from Buffalo. Athena, tell us more about this back-and-forth between the Erie County executive and the Buffalo mayor.

ATHENA JONES, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Hi, Amara. Well, this has emerged over the last couple of days. Mark Poloncarz, who is the Erie County Executive complaining publicly that Mayor Byron Brown, the mayor of Buffalo hasn't really been engaging with the County Executive and other municipalities on these coordination calls. And Byron Brown pushing back. Take a listen to first, the County Executive Mark Poloncarz, and then the mayor, Mayor Brown.


MARK POLONCARZ, EXECUTIVE, ERIE COUNTY, NEW YORK: The mayor's not going to be happy to hear about it but storm after storm after storm after storm, the city, unfortunately, is the last one to be opened and that shouldn't be the case. It's embarrassing to tell you the truth.

BYRON BROWN, MAYOR OF BUFFALO, NEW YORK: He's wrong. People have operated since Friday, working around the clock on little sleep. And I'm not going to focus on negativity.


BROWN: I'm going to focus on positivity and working together. That's what the residents demands of us.


JONES: So, there is almost certainly be some kind of after-action report. There are a lot of people who are upset with how the city has handled this, and the county. So, that is something that we expect to follow.

We're also waiting for a 12:00 p.m. press conference. This is where we should get the next update on what remains to be done in terms of clearing the snow and all of that in the city of Buffalo and surrounding areas as well as the death toll. We were talking yesterday about the National Guard going house to house in neighborhoods that are lost power to check on people there.


We haven't heard what they discovered. We did know -- we do know that the Buffalo Police was able to complete all 1100 checks on those who had called 911 and weren't able to be helped during the storm. They have uncovered more bodies. And so, we do expect to see that death number rise at this press conference in the next 20 minutes or so, Amara.

WALKER: That's incredibly tragic. Athena Jones, thank you. Well, amid the recovery, we are hearing stories of kindness and bravery showcasing the best of humanity in Buffalo. Community members are rallying to help their neighbors. TJ Lignos spent hours trapped in his car during the storm, and then strangers actually knocked on his window and helped him get home. When he woke up after sleeping and recovering from all that for 15 hours, he knew he wanted to get back. And that is where Caitlin Ripley and the Facebook group that she started called Buffalo Blizzard Response came in.

And TJ Lignos and Caitlin Ripley are both Joining me now. Great to see you both. First off, TJ, tell us more about your harrowing story of being trapped inside your vehicle, how help came, and why that spurred you to find a way to help others.

TJ LIGNOS, GOOD SAMARITAN: Hi. Yes, thanks for having us. I just -- it was kind of surreal to kind of go through and I just -- I just -- a few times, I got scared and I just realized what people were going through outside of me. And when that guy came and he -- it was a long ordeal to get me home but he -- I got to his house, came back to my truck, and then he came back to my -- we got my truck out, he came back and gave me a ride on a four-wheeler to where he could get me and I walked home.

And like I -- like you said, I just slept for a while, and I woke up and I was just -- I just disconnected my trailer that I was stuck with. And I just kind of got ready to go. I picked up a friend, and me and her went, and we just kind of headed to the city until Caitlin thankfully came in. And she said, I -- look, I see you that you're trying to help. And I have places for you to go if you're just driving around aimlessly.

WALKER: So, Caitlin, tell me more about how the two of you connected and more about this Facebook group where the idea came from, and what the response has been like.

CAITLIN RIPLEY, CREATOR OF THE BUFFALO BLIZZARD RESPONSE FACEBOOK GROUP: Absolutely. And thank you for having me. So, yes, I started the Facebook page. I simply put a post out there, I'm in South Buffalo, anybody in need of a place to stay or trap in the storm, my door is open, it kind of spiraled from there. I had another one of the admins in the group just message me -- she's an admin now and say, you know, we should -- we should start a Facebook group, and that's what we did. The response has been overwhelming.

There are so many people in need. So many people are willing to give back and try to help. I did see TJ posts on there that he was in the area, he was willing to help, so then I kind of just started dispatching people that wanted to help to people that were in need of help. And that's kind of how this all happened. And so, we've been able to help tons of people. And we're doing a food donation today giving back to the community. And so, we're just very active and trying to do what we can to help the community.

WALKER: And, TJ, tell us more about the help you've been giving and the stories you've been hearing from the people. LIGNOS: Yes. So, I -- like I said, I just picked up a friend. We realized how close we lived and we went out just kind of drive and we went to the city and we saw some comments on the post because I posted I was going out if anybody needs anything. So, the first place we went was the Millennium hotel right across from the truck stop I was getting gas because I just had to keep going back there and getting gas, it was the only place open. So, I -- we -- me and her got, who knows how much we -- all they had left were snacks and water, so I just got as much as I could without taking too much from other people. And we brought it there first.

And we looked -- realized they were kind of bad there and we're like, all right, we got to go. And so, it just started from there. And then I ended up -- I got a call from Caitlin. I got a lady out of her house and brought her to the hospital -- assist her to the hospital.

WALKER: Oh, wow.

LIGNOS: And then I just -- until she was giving me places to go, I was picking up people walking, and that there's just people freezing out there.


LIGNOS: I'm checking cars and stuff like that just making sure nobody's inside.

WALKER: Oh, wow. That's incredible. Amazing work that you're doing as well. Caitlin.


WALKER: So, you're talking about this food drive that you guys are getting ready for right now? I mean, tell us more about the needs of the people, what people need most, besides, you know, people who are stranded on the side of the road as TJ has been picking up?

RIPLEY: Yes, absolutely. I mean, and so the needs are changing by the minute. You know, day one, it was people trapped in their vehicle, so that was kind of the focus. Then it was people trapped in their houses without power or without food, so then that was the focus. And so, now it's shifting to just getting people that are still in their house or not able to shovel out yet, the food and necessities that they need. And we do have linked up with Bacchus restaurant the other day downtown.


They rented out their space to an organization Buffalo Resilience who links, you know, restaurants with people in need of food. We pumped out over 800 meals the other day, to -- hot meals to people that were in need. We had self-Buffaloes or I'm sorry, Hamburg Snowmobile group come out and they, you know, lended their services and we're delivering hot meals to people in need on snowmobiles. And so, we are just all trying to do what we can. And obviously, that page helps us, you know, decide where we need to focus our energy and attention based on the needs of the people that are posting.

WALKER: You know, it's been such a tragic and traumatizing holiday season for people across the country, and TJ Lignos and Caitlin Ripley, what you've been doing, lifting up your community has really been inspiring. Thank you for taking the time and for all that you're doing as well.

LIGNOS: Thank you.

RIPLEY: Yes, thank you so much.

WALKER: All the best.

RIPLEY: Thank you. Take care.

WALKER: All right. Coming up. Border band-aid or public health policy. Is Title 42 really still about the pandemic? We'll discuss next.



WALKER: Despite a Supreme Court order this week that leaves Title 42 in place, for now, cities along the southern border are bracing for an even bigger surge of migrants in the months ahead. And while those cities struggle, our next guest says politicians on both sides of the aisle are using the Trump-era policy to flaunt an aggressive stance on the border without providing any coherent immigration policy.

Joining me now is Zolan Kanno-Youngs. He is a White House correspondent for The New York Times. His new piece is. This is not about the pandemic anymore: Public Health Law is embraced as a border band-aid.

Zolan, appreciate you joining me this morning. So, you've write, Democrats and Republicans have largely conceded Title 42 is not about public health concerns anymore. Instead, they're using it as a negotiating chip. How so?

ZOLAN KANNO-YOUNGS, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, they're certainly not acting like it's about public health or mentioning it in the context of public health. Real quick, just to give some context here. I've been writing about this policy since the Trump administration implemented it back in March of 2020. And even then, there were doubts -- many had doubts that it was strictly -- the motivation was strictly about curtailing the pandemic.

Stephen Miller, the architect of the Trump administration's anti- immigration policies, had tried to implement Title 42, which is a public health law, previously as well to try and restrict migration at the border for different outbreaks of various thicknesses, and was tucked down by various cabinet secretaries. So, there was already sort of a history of them reaching for this policy, then being the Trump administration reaching for this policy to try and achieve some of the goals that they had to seal the border to asylum seekers. But at that point, you had Democrats, including those on the Hill that really did criticize the use of this public health authority to achieve immigration goals. But a lot of time has passed now.

You're now seeing that some Democrats that face tight midterm elections, actually were criticizing the Biden administration's belated attempt to lift Title 42. That includes Raphael Warnock who was saying it was necessary for border security, not mentioning public health. That includes as well in Nevada. You had Democrats there as well defending this policy, not really mentioning it in the context of public health. Even recently, you saw when there was a framework that was being worked on between Senator Kyrsten Sinema as well as Senator Tillis, a bipartisan framework. They were working on almost a trade- off to extend Title 42 in order to establish a pathway to citizenship to legalization for DACA dreamers.

Again, regardless of what side you fall on, on that deal, or Title 42, it really wasn't mentioned in the context of public health. So, what you're seeing is Democrats and Republicans sort of dropping the guise of this being in the context of the pandemic at this point, and really using it either as a negotiation chip for immigration deals in Congress or to try and show voters or flaunt a certain aggressive stance in the void of any actual coherent policy at the border.

WALKER: So, what is the Biden administration to do then, regarding this spike in crisis, especially knowing that officially we will have a divided Congress come next week? And does the White House lack a coherent strategy here?

KANNO-YOUNGS: Well, yes, we still really don't know what their plan is once they're actually going to lift this. I did some reporting on this just in the past couple of weeks and talk to an official that said that some of the plans still had yet to be finalized at this point for once this is lifted. Look, you have to understand as well, that Title 42 and immigration have been a source of division within the White House, that for especially in year one, choosing the pace of which to unwind it and what to replace it with. Really sparked divisions and confusion in the White House. So, we'll have to see what they plan going forward in the months ahead.

WALKER: Yes, what is the alternative? Zolan Kanno-Youngs, appreciate the conversation. Thank you.

KANNO-YOUNGS: Thank you.

WALKER: Well, Democratic Congressman Jamie Raskin says he has been diagnosed with a serious but curable form of cancer. The 60-year-old expects to undergo six sessions of chemotherapy while continuing his work in Congress. Raskin was just elected by his colleagues to serve as the top Democrat on the House Oversight Committee.


Still ahead. Ukraine rocked by yet another barrage of Russian missiles. We're live on the ground in Kyiv next. But first, a quick programming note. Dionne Warwick is a music icon with 56 worldwide hits, six Grammy Awards, and one extraordinary legacy. She brings her exclusive story to CNN in the new film, Don't Make Me Over, premiering New Year's Day at 9:00 p.m. Here's a preview. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Dionne Warwick, one of the great female singers of all time.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Dionne was the first African American woman to win a Grammy in the pop category.

DIONNE WARWICK, SINGER: The music I was saying is nothing like anything any of them were singing. The legacy of my family? Music. Pure and simple. Music.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Dionne Warwick Don't Make Me Over, premieres New Year's Day at 9:00 on CNN.