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The Lead with Jake Tapper
Hunter Biden Investigation: U.S. Attorney David Weiss Appointed As Special Counsel; Judge Issues Protective Order Barring Trump From Publicly Disclosing Sensitive Information In 2020 Election Case; At Least 55 People Killed In Devastating Maui Wildfires; GOP Candidates Eye Support From Iowa Governor At State Fair. Aired 4-5p ET
Aired August 11, 2023 - 16:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
ALEX MARQUARDT, CNN HOST: For generations, it has been a meeting place there in Lahaina, a place of rest and sanctuary, stretches a full city block and is now more than 60 feet tall.
BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN HOST: This is video that was actually shot, this one that we're showing you here by Hawaii Senator Brian Schatz. And while the tree is still standing you can see the damage to it. It's not clear at this point if it's going to survive fully.
MARQUARDT: And no doubt, it may not be the worst loss of this fire that has claimed now dozens of lives but the fact it is still standing and still may live is much needed sign of hope for the town, for that island, and for the state.
KEILAR: And for more information on how you can help victims of the Hawaii wildfires, just go to CNN.com/impact or text Hawaii to 707070 to donate.
THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER starts right now.
JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: A brand new special counsel now focused on Hunter Biden.
THE LEAD starts right now.
The attorney general's surprise announcement. The prosecutor who was overseeing the Hunter Biden case is now being elevated to a special counsel. What will this mean for the president's son? What will this mean for the president?
And, Donald Trump might be told to zip it. The judge in the 2020 election fraud case signaling that she is going to be willing to restrict sensitive evidence as she tells Trump's attorneys the former president's right to free speech is not absolute.
And Hawaii's catastrophe sadly getting worse. Historic towns gone, homes burned to the ground, 55 lives confirmed loss confirmed lost, and that number is sadly expected to climb. (MUSIC)
TAPPER: Welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.
And we start today with our law and justice lead and a new special counsel investigating Hunter Biden. The new title gives U.S. Attorney General David Weiss, a Trump holdover who had been already been investigating Mr. Biden's son, more powers than he had as a federal prosecutor. Now, you might recall just a few weeks ago, it looked as though this investigation was coming to an end. Hunter Biden went to court after his lawyers had supposedly struck a deal with Weiss' prosecutorial team. But that deal fell apart in court among much skepticism voiced by the judge.
The two sides were told try to keep negotiating, but now, the Justice Department says it looks as though this case is headed to trial. Prosecutors allege Hunter Biden failed to pay more than a million dollars in taxes on time. He also faced a federal gun charge for lying on his background check form that he was not using drugs at the time.
But Republicans in Congress have also alleged Hunter Biden was involved in much more serious crimes including money laundering. Whistle blowers have claimed that the case was not treated as it should have been. Speaker Kevin McCarthy today asked of the now special counsel, Mr. Weiss, quote, if Weiss negotiated a sweetheart deal that couldn't get approved, how could he be trusted as special counsel?
Let's get straight to CNN senior legal affairs correspondent Paula Reid.
Paula, this investigation has been going on for five years. So, why now for a special counsel?
PAULA REID, CNN SENIOR LEGAL AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: It's unclear. The Justice Department will only say that on Tuesday, Weiss asked to be changed to this designated special counsel. He is as you noted the U.S. attorney who was appointed by former President Trump, and he's been overseeing the investigation into Hunter Biden for like you said approximately five years.
But there's no official explanation for why he wanted to change to a special counsel now. But we have seen in court filings that it appears that the talks between the U.S. attorney's office and Hunter Biden's legal team to resolve the issues that the judge identified in that plea deal, that those have fallen apart and it is likely to go to trial. That appears to be the impetus, but it's really unclear.
Now, one of the big differences now he's special counsel is that Weiss is going to have to compile a full report detailing what he investigated and his findings and that the attorney general who has now to make it public. Now, I've also given the White House was not given a heads up about this and neither were Hunter Biden's attorneys.
TAPPER: How much more likely does it make it the president's son is definitely going to go on trial? REID: It appears a lot more likely, Jake. I mean, for a minute there,
it appeared this was going to be resolved with that plea deal. Even after the judge pushed back, asked for additional briefings, expressed skepticism, I think both sides expressed ultimately it would be approved. If there were any modifications we got signals indeed the Hunter Biden team was willing to take this to trial.
So at this point the fact he's gotten the special counsel designation, he can now bring cases in any jurisdiction, it does appear the most likely outcome here is it goes to trial.
TAPPER: Paula, stick with us because I also want to bring in CNN's Arlette Saenz, who's at the White House for us.
Arlette, what has been the Biden administration's reaction to this news?
ARLETTE SAENZ, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Jake, the White House has maintained this stay quiet strategy, referring all questions to the Department of Justice and Hunter Biden's personal representatives.
And I'm told by White House officials here that White House officials and President Biden received no heads up that Merrick Garland was about to make this appointment of a special counsel in the probes investigating the president's son. But this really just marks the latest chapter in the ongoing legal and personal saga surrounding Hunter Biden, which has really come front and center in President Biden's re-election bid.
Just two weeks ago, the Bidens had felt and hoped they were about to turn the page as Hunter Biden was expected to plead guilty to those tax charges. But as you mention that tax -- that plea deal fell apart, and the appointment of the special counsel indicates the investigation will continue. But this also comes as it marks a new phase for President Biden, as Republicans have repeatedly sustained their criticism and questions about his son's business dealings and accusations of the Biden family being corrupt.
The House Speaker Kevin McCarthy and Republicans have threatened the possibility of an impeachment inquiry, something that the White House has pushed back on as describing it as a stunt. But this also is a very personal matter for President Biden. When he has spoken about his son, Hunter, it's to express his love and support saying that he believes his son has done nothing wrong.
It was supposed to be a pretty quiet day for President Biden here at the White House. He had no public events on his schedule. He had one phone call to Hawaii's governor to talk about the wildfires there. But in an a little less than a hour we are expecting president Biden to depart the White House for Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, where he has a home.
It's the first time he's in front of reporters so we'll see whether he decides to comment in any way regarding the appointment of the special counsel as to this now investigation entering a new phase.
TAPPER: Arlette Saenz at the White House today, thanks so much.
CNN's Paula Reid is back with me, along with CNN chief legal analyst Laura Coates.
Laura, are you surprised that there's now a special counsel five years into this investigation after a plea deal had almost been agreed upon?
LAURA COATES, CNN CHIEF LEGAL ANALYST: I mean, that plea deal was within the reach of, of course, Hunter Biden. I'm sure he's lamenting right now whatever fiasco actually occurred in that courtroom to not have all the I's dotted, all the T's crossed to have this all go through.
Remember we heard already from David Weiss about what the process was like. He had said I have the authority to do so, all the talking points are contrary to my experience was. But now, this raised a lot of questions, and whatever happened on Tuesday, as Paula alluding, now does make me feel surprised about why now? What is happening here?
Remember, he's still the U.S. attorney in Delaware, but now the special counsel allows him to go beyond his jurisdiction. You can look at other areas as well. It's the reason why you have Jack Smith and go beyond that. You can have things in Florida and have things in Washington, D.C. It does now go beyond that.
But at its core, I wonder what the decision really came down to. The special counsel statute says you can have this if you first look at the crowd. Does a matter actually warrant an investigation? Is it warranted? He had concluded it did if you were Garland.
Was there a conflict of interest at play here? The talking point you see on the right and left suggest talking points around this very notion, that there is a conflict of being able to have the president appoint the attorney general who would oversee an investigation --
TAPPER: Into his own son, yeah.
COATES: -- as you said, his son.
But finally, it's the idea of what are you going to do about it now, and is there a way you can structure an investigation that is in the interest of the public to have the information? Garland says all three criteria are met, and so, whatever took place between the clear agreement, and now is anyone's guess.
TAPPER: So, Paula, help me out here. David Weiss, the U.S. attorney, now special counsel had previously said in writing that he had all the power he needed. He didn't need anymore authority. If he wanted today do charges in D.C., he could reach out to the U.S. attorney in D.C. If he wanted to do charges in L.A., he could reach out.
But now he has special counsel powers that give him that authority in writing in between we should note there were whistleblowers saying behind the scenes, David Weiss was complaining I don't have the authority to charge in this city or that state. And the Justice Department saying, no, no, no these whistleblowers are wrong. It looks as though maybe the whistleblowers are right.
REID: It's messy, right? It appears as if here they're trying to insulate at the Justice Department, particularly the attorney general from what appears to be a case headed to a likely trial of the president's son. And I think they're hoping that this special counsel designation will also insulate them from potential congressional testimony. There were calls for Weiss to go on the hill, but now they can say, well, the Special Counsel Durham, Special Counsel Mueller, they testified after they submitted their report.
And there's a lot of emphasis today at the Justice Department on this report and how that will offer some transparency here and that maybe fair in some respects, but that is not going to satisfy Republicans who have a lot of questions about the investigation if that report and special counsel designation are now going to be used to prevent him from going to the Hill.
TAPPER: Yeah, it's not just Republicans who have questions. I have questions. I'm sure you guys have questions.
REID: I have so many questions. And I'm not getting all my answers.
TAPPER: But here's another one for you. Okay, so I'm David Weiss, once again, play this game with me, I'm special counsel. Just a few weeks ago, I was ready to say, eh, a diversion, a slap on the wrist, a misdemeanor. Really it was not a big punishment.
And now I want special counsel authority to investigate something that just a few weeks ago I was basically saying this is the most I can prove in a court of law? That doesn't make sense to me either. By the way, I'm fully willing to believe there's a lot more to investigate and a lot more to charge him with, but that wasn't his position a few weeks ago.
COATES: And remember go back to that courtroom where the judge had that same question where she talk about have you contemplated this is actually going to be the 360, everything is solved now and assume Hunter Biden's team had either negotiated that, were well aware if this could actually be a fully resolved issue? And that was part of her consideration of, well, hold on a second, you and this witness show you resolved that issue, you don't know if there's other actual investigations? It's a problem, ding, ding, ding.
But it also lends credence now to not only the point made by whistleblowers -- which, by the way part of their claim was that those who were investigating akin to a police officer who arrest someone and then says to the prosecutor, here's what I arrest the person on, how dare you diverge on that. Well, the prosecutor has the power to decide what to bring.
And so, just because you wanted something different doesn't mean it was a justifiable prosecution. But now, it raises questions about, what else was a part of it? And why would David Weiss have in writing. I think it was twice in writing have already said, no, I actually did have the power. It seems what he meant was, I have the power in Delaware and now I want the power in other places, maybe D.C., maybe California, as well part of it.
So it raises a lot of questions. But, again, it goes back to the point where, you know, it was in his hand, the burden hand. Now you've got two jurisdictions in the bush because the plea agreement fell through.
TAPPER: So, and lastly, there were a couple reasons why the judge was pushing at this plea agreement. One of them was she didn't think that the gun charge thing was legitimate and she didn't want to have to supervise all that. But then one of the other things was, they weren't on the same page, the question about whether or not Hunter Biden could be charged in the future, right?
Hunter Biden's team thought, no, no, this is the end of it.
REID: That was key to them.
REID: And they made it clear, look, if you pull back and say this was not the end of it, we're going to trial. And not only are they willing to go to trial, they're confident they're going to win.
TAPPER: But what I'm saying is if I'm Hunter Biden, now I'm playing Hunter Biden, I'm like --
COATES: You've been David Weiss, you've been Hunter Biden. You're Jake Tapper. There you go.
TAPPER: I have to put on lots of hats. So, if I'm Hunter Biden, I'm thinking, wait a second, this is going to get much, much worse for me as opposed to a plea deal where they had the opportunity if they wanted to bring future charges, now I have even -- now it's even worse.
REID: None of it was good for Hunter Biden.
TAPPER: Sure, but isn't this worse?
REID: It depends on what the eventual outcome is.
REID: This is a long game. If he goes to trial, if his benefactor and attorney pays for that and he is ultimately acquitted, that is stressful, that is an awful thing, as we both know, to go through, but maybe that is better in the long run.
It's unclear. The whole thing is a disaster for everyone.
TAPPER: All right. Paula and Laura, thanks so much.
Did the attorney general need to appoint a special counsel? I'm going to talk to someone who used to do his job.
Plus, why today's announcement rattled Republicans who have been leaning towards an impeachment inquiry into President Biden.
Plus, this just in. A judge's order in the 2020 election interference case involving Donald Trump after a hearing earlier today.
And the tragic scenes from Hawaii, heartbreaking, really. One man told CNN he escaped flames but others around him were jumping into the water, into the ocean and they likely died. You'll hear his story ahead.
TAPPER: Continuing with our law and justice lead, you might think congressional Republicans would be thrilled that Attorney General Merrick Garland has named a special counsel in the Hunter Biden probe. Actually, we're mostly hearing complaints from Republicans because they don't like the choice of David Weiss. David Weiss was a Trump appointed U.S. attorney for Delaware as the special counsel now.
Nobody's actually on Capitol Hill because it's a Friday in August, but a social media post from House Speaker Kevin McCarthy says, quote, this action by Biden's justice department cannot be used to obstruct congressional investigations or whitewash the Biden family corruption. If Weiss negotiated the sweetheart deal that couldn't get approved, how can he be trusted as a special counsel? Unquote.
A statement from the chairman of the House Oversight Committee, James Comer, reads, quote, this move by Attorney General Garland is part of the Justice Department's efforts to attempt a Biden family cover-up, unquote.
And that echoes what Chairman Comer told me yesterday here on THE LEAD.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
REP. JAMES COMER (R-KY): And so, we're concerned that the president is compromised because of the millions of dollars that his family's received. And remember, Jake, the president hasn't been truthful with the American people.
This is why we're investigating, and it's difficult, Jake. It's very difficult. The Biden attorneys are obstructing, they're intimidating witnesses. The DOJ will not cooperate with us. The FBI will not cooperate with us. The IRS will not cooperate with us.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
TAPPER: With us now, former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. He served in the George W. Bush administration.
First of all, General Gonzales, thanks for joining us. What's your reaction to today's news that U.S. Attorney Weiss is now special counsel Weiss?
ALBERTO GONZALES, FORMER ATTORNEY GENERAL: I mean, it's surprising given the fact he's been investigating this case in his status as the U.S. attorney out of Delaware. Everyone's wondering, well, why now, why this change? Honestly, I don't know.
From my perspective, and again there's so much that goes in these kind of decisions, information that as attorney general you may have and others don't have. So, I'm just speculating here. Don't intend this to be second-guessing.
But, you know, looking at the circumstances here, it seemed like there was -- there was a conflict by virtue of the fact that Hunter Biden is the son of the president and the person the president appointed attorney general. And why wasn't a special counsel appointed as soon as President Biden took office?
And it may be the feeling, the calculation was there'd be enough insulation, enough confidence in someone who had been appointed by Donald Trump, had been confirmed by a Republican controlled Senate, that that would be sufficient to maintain confidence in the integrity of the investigation of the son of the president. And maybe this -- you know, maybe -- maybe as simple as Attorney General Garland particularly if, in fact, Weiss came to him and asked he was appointed special counsel.
GONZALES: Maybe circumstances have changed so much, this has become so politicized and polarizing that he felt this was the appropriate thing to do. Again, from my perspective, I always wondered why there wasn't an obvious conflict, and again I think it's perhaps no special counsel was appointed because the fact that Weiss was appointed by former President Trump and confirmed by a Republican controlled senate.
GONZALES: We are where we are, but again I'm just speculating. I'm not intending in any way to have my comments reflect any criticism or second guessing of the attorney general. He has more information than we do, quite frankly.
TAPPER: He sure does.
GONZALES: Hopefully soon, we'll find -- we'll find out the answer.
TAPPER: But I guess what I'm really wondering about so U.S. Attorney Weiss goes to Merrick Garland on Tuesday and says he wants special counsel powers even though in previous months, he had asserted in writing he had all the power he needed to do the job.
And then a few weeks ago he had a plea deal he was ready to engage in with Hunter Biden, basically a slap on the wrist, a misdemeanor charge and a diversion program. Now he's asking for special counsel power, which would suggest knowledge of greater crimes, theoretically, because I don't know why would you want special --
GONZALES: Perhaps (ph).
TAPPER: No, not necessarily. Why would you want special counsel power for misdemeanor and a diversion program?
GONZALES: Again, Jake, you know, we don't know.
GONZALES: What I do know, I'm hearing some of the commentary this ensures this is going to go to trial. I'm not so sure that's the case here because the risk is potentially much greater personally for Hunter Biden, but it also is bad for his father.
And I don't know what the relationship is by all accounts. Certainly from the president's side, they're close. He loves his son. But does the son really want to put the president through a trial in the middle of a campaign?
So it's possible. I'm not going to say it's very likely, but it is possible there will be some kind of settlement still and that this will not go to trial. But, you know, again, there's so many unanswered questions I just don't know. Even based upon my experience as attorney general, I just don't know.
TAPPER: House Republicans are signaling they want to move forward with an impeachment inquiry into President Biden. Will the existence of a special counsel interfere with that?
GONZALES: I fear probably -- probably not because they -- they understand they will not get information as long as the investigation is ongoing. And so that -- their congressional investigation is going to be stymied, and so, I think they're going to elevate it, try to do something to appease their base.
And so they'll begin an impeachment inquiry, which honestly I mean impeachment into criminal wrongdoing against a president of the United States for actions of the son. But, again, that's a world we live in today.
TAPPER: So you -- based on what you just said, it sounds like you don't -- you haven't seen evidence that President Biden did anything criminal.
GONZALES: I haven't seen evidence, and I haven't heard of any evidence coming out of the congressional hearing to date. To the contrary, it appears there is no such evidence. But, again, this is the world that we live in.
One other thing that I will say, again, in terms of -- this is not a criticism of President Biden, but statements in fact his son did nothing wrong, you know, I don't know how he can say that when his son was willing to plea to criminal wrongdoing. And so that message is probably going to have to be calibrated to some extent. But, you know, it remains to be seen what's going to happen going forward, Jake.
TAPPER: Former U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, good to see you, sir. Have a great weekend.
GONZALES: Thanks, Jake.
TAPPER: Coming up next, what a judge said today about future inflammatory statements by Donald Trump and what those comments could mean for the federal case against him and efforts to overturn the 2020 election.
TAPPER: And we're back with our law and justice lead. This time let's switch parties from the Democrats to the Republicans. A federal judge has just issued a protective order barring Donald Trump from publicly disclosing sensitive information, including witness interviews that's turned over to his legal team as part of the 2020 election interference case.
Judge Tanya Chutkan held her first hearing for the case earlier today.
CNN's justice correspondent Jessica Schneider is with me.
Jessica, what did Judge Chutkan have to say?
JESSICA SCHNEIDER, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Well, she was forceful, Jake, as we've seen, and as you mentioned just minutes ago, she did issue that official protective order. It mandates that Trump and his team can't disclose any sensitive information from the case.
Notably here, she didn't give prosecutors that broad protective order that they wanted, but she did also issue several warnings to Trump and his team. She noted that even though Trump is running a political campaign, he still has to in her words yield to the administration of justice, and she said if that means his political speech has to be somewhat limited, then that's how it's going to be.
So she warned she will, in fact, be carefully scrutinizing statements from both Trump and his legal team. And she didn't necessarily address some of Trump's most recent posts on his Truth Social page, when he did criticize her, the judge, and he called the special counsel Jack Smith deranged, but she did put it this way-- she said, even arguably ambiguous statements by the parties or their counsel, if they can be reasonably interpreted to intimidate witnesses or to prejudice potential jurors, that can threaten the process.
So the government here, Jake, said they're prepared to start providing Trump's team with all of that discovery today. The expectation is they'll have it all handed over by August 28th. And they talked about how wide ranging this material is. It includes hundreds of reportings of witness interviews. Trump will not be able to discuss any of those. It also includes 11.6 million pages of discovery and hard drives, Jake. TAPPER: You say Trump won't be able to discuss it. Just watch him.
TAPPER: Judge Chutkan wants the trial to start on January 2nd, she says, 2024. That date might slip, of course. But we should note the Iowa caucuses, the first in the nation contest in the presidential race that's January 15th. January 2nd, that's fast and aggressive. Why the urgency?
SCHNEIDER: Yeah, she's already showing this intent to move quickly. She had that hearing today even though Trump's team only wanted it next week. And part of the reason she says she's moving very quickly here is like you said, she seemed concerned Trump may actually say things he's not supposed to.
And she put it this way, she said, you know, the more comments a party makes, the more urgency there will be to proceed to trial quickly in a jury pool. So, Jake, she does want this case dragging on. Notably, the special counsel has proposed early January. Trump's team has until next week to propose their trial start date. It's likely they'll wait until after the November election in 2024 to want to begin trial, but we'll see the judge really wants to move quickly here, Jake.
TAPPER: All right. Jessica Schneider, thanks so much.
Here to discuss, CNN political commentator Jonah Goldberg, co-founder and editor-in-chief of "The Dispatch" and a fellow at the conservative American Enterprise Institute.
Jonah, thanks so much for joining us.
So, this is interesting the judge, Judge Chutkan saying that if he makes inflammatory statements that could taint the jury pool, and that might cause her to proceed to trial more quickly. I mean knowing Trump I hope she's ready to start Monday based on what he might say. But in all seriousness, Iowa caucuses, January 15th, she's pushing for January 2nd. Is that fair? Is it feasible do you think?
JONAH GOLDBERG, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, it seems it's obvious there's simply no good options here. Like good options are in the rearview mirror. Obviously the Trump team wants to wait until after the election in part because the hope is if Trump wins, he just blow -- he just erases the whole thing.
So that's a bad outcome. That's a moral hazard, and doing it while he's running for president is not good really for anybody. And so, you just sort of have to pick your battles where you can.
I think you raise the most salient point, which is and the therefore what question. Let's say Trump does say something crazy -- I know that's a real stretch, take a moment to think of the possibility. But not only says something crazy but something that crosses the line? What does Judge Chutkan do and how does he respond to that? You could see in a normal circumstance if he was the CEO of a normal company and misbehaving in these normal ways you could see him end up going to jail for contempt.
Putting a presidential candidate front-runner in jail for contempt? I mean, that's -- that's a whole new level of crazy.
TAPPER: Yeah, Eugene Debs territory.
TAPPER: Help us get in mind of people who defend this, people that I see you fighting with on Twitter all the time. You wrote in a recent article, you wrote, when arguing with Trump die-hards, one of my favorite tactics is to agree with them. What do you mean?
GOLDBERG: Well, because Trump -- we remember all that he plays four- dimensional chess and all that kind of stuff. He actually plays like a China town tic-tac-toe chicken, right? It's just in the moment.
So he'll say things in the moment to get him out of a specific accusation. So he'll say I declassified all these documents, right? Well, those documents were declassified for a reason. He's basically saying I declassified incredibly sensitive material so I could show it off to my friends at Mar-a-Lago.
GOLDBERG: That is not a great defense.
Similarly, when he says -- when his defenders say, oh, look he just believed he won the election and he was acting on that, and you can't prove his state of mind. You run through the attorney general, the deputy attorney general, 63 courts, private firms he hired to investigate claims of fraud all coming back and saying, yeah, there's just no "there" there, you're wrong, you didn't win, all the facts are against you.
And the defense is, yeah, but he was just delusionally deranged with his idea that somehow you can't prove otherwise. Okay, so maybe that's a good legal defense, but it's an incredible indictment of the guy as a leader, as a human being, as a president.
It shows he's unfit if he's that out of touch with reality.
TAPPER: What do you think of this move by Merrick Garland today, the attorney general to make U.S. attorney David Weiss the special counsel investigating? David Weiss, we've heard Republicans in the House and Senate saying they didn't like the plea deal they signed off on, the judge didn't like it, so why should they trust him to be special counsel?
GOLDBERG: I think it's a colorful (ph) complaint. I also think there are Republicans on the Hill who think the real reason for this is that it will stymie investigations on the Hill. People get to say including Weiss himself, look, it's an investigation, I can't come and jeopardize an ongoing investigation, and it just -- it slows down the gears of Representative Comer's -- Chairman comer's investigation.
I think the bigger issue here you were getting out as you were quizzing people trying to figure this out --
GOLDBERG: -- is we have no real reliable narrators anywhere here. Garland isn't telling us all the facts they have. Weiss isn't telling us all the facts they have. Joe Biden's made it clear that his preference is to back his son to the hilt even when the facts go the other way. The main accuser against Hunter Biden, who I do think whether it's criminal or not is obviously corrupt influence peddler, and his main accuser is in the same business partner who's in the same corrupt business who's under investigation for all sorts of other things.
There's no one here to really say this is straight shooter. This is what's going on. So it's very hard to parse.
TAPPER: You don't think Hunter Biden is such a straight shooter.
GOLDBERG: I do not think Hunter Biden, breaking news here.
Jonah Goldberg, thanks so much. Appreciate it.
We're going to go live to Hawaii next where the stories we're hearing are just heartbreaking. One man who saw neighbors trapped by flames says a motorcycle saved his life.
Stay with us.
TAPPER: And topping our national lead today, devastation on the Hawaiian island of Maui. The death toll from the fires has reached a confirmed 55 people. Officials are warning that number will likely soar even higher. Thousands of people have been displaced. Thousands more remain without power or methods of communications.
The Maui county mayor says the historic town of Lahaina is, quote, all gone. The town has no power, no internet. No one knows how many survivors or victims could still be in those scorched remains you're looking at.
Residents of the hard hit town are allowed back into their homes today to get a first look at the ashes left behind. CNN's chief climate correspondent Bill Weir is on the island of Maui with more now on the utter destruction.
EDDY GARCIA, FARMER, MAUI RESIDENT: The trees you guys see behind you right here, this was all from the tornado that came through. No, we've never even seen a tornado in Hawaii.
BILL WEIR, CNN CHIEF CLIMATE CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): In a place so familiar with weather extremes --
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Wow, it's crazy.
WEIR: -- Maui locals have never seen anything like the fire storm that obliterated Lahaina.
DANIEL GOLDBERG, BOAT CAPTAIN: Like smolder of smoke. I was like, the house did survive and there's a little brush fire, and within five minutes the whole thing was engulfed and went up in flames. There's nobody there to put anything out.
WEIR: We're just pulling into Lahaina now and just getting our first glimpse at this town after hearing these nightmare stories, and it is worse than you can imagine. It looks like a World War II set, like a bomb went off here, just utter scorched devastation ever where. Melted boats in the harbor.
What was once the capital of the kingdom of Hawaii and one of the most well-preserved towns in nation is ash, including Bill Wyland's famous art gallery. And he says he escaped the flames on his Harley Davidson, riding around evacuees trapped between fire and ocean.
BILL WYLAND, ART GALLERY OWNER: Had I took the car instead of the motorcycle, I would have been with everybody else jumping in the water. It was -- flames were shooting over the top coming -- I didn't even want to look behind me, because they were behind me.
WEIR: There is no way to go. You're pinned between the fire and the ocean.
WYLAND: I was pinned, that's what happened to all the people. All those cars that were sitting, waiting for someone to move in front of him, no one was moving anymore. You were dead in the water. They all jumped in the ocean, and a lot of them didn't make it from what I heard.
I'm sure if the winds were 80 miles an hour, the search --
KEVIN ELIASON, REALTOR, MAUI RESIDENT: It wasn't just that. There was diesel fuel floating in the water as well. The boats couldn't come and because of the reefs, at lot of people couldn't swim that far. And then a couple of people died of smoke inhalation as well. They were just inundated. I know a lady who stood in the water for eight hours.
WEIR: Farmer Eddy Garcia lost a small fortune and crop damage. Now he is bracing for much bigger losses.
GARCIA: When I was down there early, they were uncles and people I know, trying to get to the end of the street. You can tell but with a cause for parked. They say hundreds of people jumped in the water.
WEIR: You personally lost crops -- GARCIA: I lost nothing compared to what people lost. I lost farm
stuff and food and whatever tiny little things compared to what people lost. People lost their family. They lost their houses. Everything we've seen, all the landmarks, everything that we've seen for years. History, it's all gone.
WEIR (on camera): This is the closest port of the south of Lahaina, here in Maui. Yesterday, we saw everyone from the fishermen to charter captains who are usually shooting surfer videos going out and trying to bring relief.
Now, you're seeing road traffic. It just floated opening up, but there's so much confusion right now. We just had someone drive by yelling their frustration about the government response right now.
You know, Jake, I've covered a few of these from Florida Keys in Irma where we heard really horrific stories about body counts that might be pending. We saw it in Paradise, California, needed list fire and U.S. history. About 90 percent of those people turned out to be just fine.
Right now, so many people are worried that the death toll could go into the many hundreds because of the lack of communication. So much electricity is down. People just don't know and have no way to get proof of life for their families.
So the outpouring now is starting. Jeff Bezos, who is fond of Hawaii, and his wife donating $100 million to a Maui relief right now. But the days ahead, we're afraid, are just going to become more grim as people come to grips with how much has truly been lost here -- Jake.
TAPPER: All right. Bill Weir, on Maui for us, with the devastation, thank you so much, Bill.
And we know so many of you watching and listening right now want to help the victims of these Hawaii wildfires. You can get an idea of the best ways to do so, if you go to CNN.com/impact, CNN.com/impact, where we can provide a list of vetted resources. Another way to do it is you can text "Hawaii" to 707070 in order to donate, "Hawaii", 707070.
We'll be right back.
TAPPER: In our politics lead, the Iowa state fair in full swing, and Republican presidential candidates are there, of course, to court these first in the nation voters. But to really sway voters of Iowa, these candidates are looking for support from the first woman to ever lead that state. Trump has taken shots at her, thinking she is too supportive of Ron DeSantis.
But CNN's Jeff Zeleny sat down with Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds. And he asked her if she plans to make an endorsement.
JEFF ZELENY, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Governor Kim Reynolds reveling in the Iowa state fair, and the Republican presidential race. She's at the center of both, rolling out a welcome mat to a parade of candidates, five months before the Iowa caucuses rang the opening bell of a 2024 campaign.
This is kind of a metaphor for all the candidates in the race.
GOV. KIM REYNOLDS (R), IOWA: It is kind of, right, yeah, yeah, yeah. Get them to participate and do what I need to do, and have fun with them.
ZELENY: She's showering all Republican hopefuls with attention, sizing up the field along the way. But staying neutral, at least for now.
REYNOLDS: It's really important that they feel they have kind of a fair shot and they are welcome here in Iowa. And I want Iowans to have the chance to interact with them.
ZELENY: You're not ruling out potentially endorsing one at the end?
REYNOLDS: Let's see, I don't think you should never say never, never, you know? I just will wait and see what happens. But I've made it clear, you know, I'm probably looking at neutral, especially at the beginning of this. It's naturally going to start to narrow, and then we'll take a look at where it's at. So, it's early for that.
ZELENY: Reynolds wants Republicans to find the strongest candidate to win back the White House. She believes the race is far from settled.
REYNOLDS: It's so early, people are paying so much attention to the national polls. And I can't tell you, it's just not reflective of kind of what I'm hearing from Iowans as I'm traveling around.
ZELENY: You think there could be surprises over the next five or six months?
REYNOLDS: There's always surprises. It is part of the process. I can't think of one caucus work there hasn't been a surprise.
ZELENY: For months, she's been hosting the Republican hopefuls and basking and their accolades.
NIKKI HALEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: The past governor in the entire country, Kim Reynolds!
ZELENY: She invited the candidates to join her on stage at the fair, all said yes, except former president Donald Trump. He's been lashing out, taking credit for Reynolds election and attacking her for not supporting him. Reynolds, Iowa's first female governor, smiled and took exception to
REYNOLDS: It's actually Iowans who met the decision to elect me in a really tough year. 2018 was not a good year for Republicans. I squeaked by.
ZELENY: The 2018 midterms were in part a referendum on Trump. Last year, she won reelection by nearly 19 points and is remarkably popular among Republicans. Her once close relationship with Trump has grown more complicated.
Do you think Republicans are wrong to see it as the inevitable nominee?
REYNOLDS: Well, I just said, I think it's early. Our job is not to pick a winner, necessarily, but to start to narrow the field. And that's really what the caucus has done.
ZELENY (on camera): And, Jake, the governor's popularity among Republicans makes her a valuable asset for all of these candidates to gain attention. And, of course, if she would offer a recommendation at the end of Iowa caucus campaign, that could also be incredibly helpful. She did repeatedly decline to say she would not issue an endorsement. She left the door open.
But, Jake, one thing is clear. This race is much more fluid here in Iowa than polls suggest. That's what she believes, and our confidence with Iowa voters also suggests that as well. Tomorrow, here at the fair, the former President Donald Trump will be here as well as Florida Governor Ron DeSantis doing dueling appearances.
Jake, five months from next week are at the Iowa caucuses.
TAPPER: All right. Jeff Zeleny in Des Moines, Iowa. Thanks so much.
We are back at the top of the hour with our top story, a special counsel appointed in the Hunter Biden case. A Democrat thinking about challenging Joe Biden for president next year will be here live. And we'll ask him if today's announcement impacts his decision.
Stay with us.
TAPPER: Welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.
This hour, entire towns reduced to ash from the fires in Hawaii. This as CNN learns that Maui's warning sirens were not active when the Lahaina fire started.
Plus, a key hearing for the 2020 election fraud special counsel. The pushback on the prosecutors from the judge. Plus, the warning to Donald Trump that could impact the trial timeline.
And leading this hour, President Joe Biden's son, Hunter, is now the subject of a special counsel investigation. Attorney General Merrick Garland announced today, he's elevating David Weiss, the U.S. attorney from Delaware, appointed by Trump, to the position of special counsel.
Weiss was already investigating Hunter Biden for allegedly failing to pay more than a million dollars in taxes before the legal guidelines. Plus, a federal gun charges for lying about his drug use on a background check form.
Last month, Hunter's lawyers thought they had struck a deal with Weiss and prosecutors, but that fell apart in a court when the judge questioned it.