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Oath Keepers Leader Sentenced to 18 Years, Longest Yet for January 6 Riot; Russian Warship Apparently Hit by Unmanned Surface Vessel; House to Recess Today With No Debt Limit Deal; Deputy Treasury Secretary: Everyone "Should Be Worried" About Default; Rep. Anthony D'Esposito (R-NY) Discusses About Debt Limit Deal Between Republicans and Democrats. Aired 3-3:30p ET

Aired May 25, 2023 - 15:00   ET



BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN HOST: It's the harshest sentence handed down for involvement in the January 6 attack on the Capitol. The leader of the Oath Keepers just told that he'll serve 18 years in prison and the judge didn't mince his words.

BORIS SANCHEZ, CNN HOST: There is one week to go until the nation potentially defaults on its debt and still no deal. Lawmakers are huddling in the Capitol trying to hammer out a last-minute agreement. Actually, no, that's not what's happening. Most of them are actually headed home for a long holiday weekend and not before adding some last-minute demands that could complicate the entire process. We're going to break down what they are.

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN HOST: And this story, more than a decade after being paralyzed, he can now stand, walk, even climb stairs. We're going to tell you about the implant that has now reconnected his brain to his spine. Could this technology become accessible to anyone? We are following these major developing stories and many more all coming in right here to CNN NEWS CENTRAL.

KEILAR: We begin this hour with the longest sentence yet for a January 6th defendant, the leader and founder of the Oath Keepers, Stewart Rhodes, has just been given 18 years in prison for his role in the attack on the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021. The judge found that his actions amounted to domestic terrorism.

CNN Senior Crime and Justice Reporter, Katelyn Polantz is with us now on this story.

Katelyn, you're there outside the courthouse, what happened inside today?

KATELYN POLANTZ, CNN CRIME AND JUSTICE REPORTER: Well, it was quite a hearing for Stewart Rhodes and his sentencing. The Justice Department was very successful in making many of their arguments, including that one that you just mentioned, that the judge agreed with them that it was a crime of domestic terrorism and that Stewart was engaged in when he was engaging to seditiously conspire with others, leading the Oath Keepers on January 6th.

Even though he didn't go in the building and was not personally violent. The judge noted that he believed Rhodes did want violence to happen that day and did believe that was the way to affect democracy. And the judge, Judge Amit Mehta, also spoke directly to Rhodes during the sentencing just before he told him he would be spending 18 years in total in federal prison.

Judge Mehta said, "You are not a political prisoner, Mr. Rhodes. That is not why you are here. It is not because of your beliefs. It is not because Joe Biden is the president right now."

Rhodes also spoke on his own behalf and clearly was still of the belief that the election was illegal in 2020 and that the right-wing extremism was the answer for him and he would continue that belief system on even while he was in prison serving his time.

Now, the - what is happening in court today, it is not done yet today, Brianna. We have another Oath Keeper seditious conspiracy defendant, Kelly Meggs. He is facing his sentencing right now and we are waiting for him to speak on his own behalf to the judge.

It looks like he also is going to be found that the crimes he engaged in are part of domestic terrorism crimes as well, although the judge says that he's not going to be as harsh related to that for Kelly Meggs as he was with Stewart Rhodes. But we still don't have a number on exactly how long Kelly Meggs essentially the deputy to Stewart Rhodes will have for his sentence, how long he will be spending in prison, Brianna.

KEILAR: All right. Katelyn, we will be waiting on that with you. Thank you so much, Katelyn Polantz. Boris?

SANCHEZ: Let's dig deeper now with CNN National Security Analyst, Juliette Kayyem.

So Juliette, thanks for being with us.

Eighteen years, but prosecutors wanted more. What do you make of this sentence?

JULIETTE KAYYEM, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: Well, given his age, he's going to be in jail until - well into his senior citizen.


But what was more important than sort of the exact year, I think, is what Katelyn's reporting is what the judge said in terms of the threat he posed to the United States. And then, interestingly enough when the judge focused on the threat he continues to impose. The judge said, at his bench remarks, that he has never sentence a defendant before who he viewed as an ongoing threat to the United States.

And so this harsh sentence, may be not the harshest that the prosecutors were going after, is reflective of that concern that this is an ongoing insurrection, not one that was just January 6, 2021. SANCHEZ: Juliette, I found it notable that Rhodes invoked the Proud Boys when he was speaking in court saying ...


SANCHEZ: ... he was drawing a distinction saying that the Oath Keepers were they're trying to keep peace and they were trying to deter violence while the Proud Boys they were not. What does that tell you about the state of this movement as a whole?

KAYYEM: Yes. I mean, I don't know how tiny my violin could get at this stage, but the Oath Keepers and the Proud Boys met right before January 6. We know this from the January 6 Committee that they conspired to plan this attack or this - the rally at the Capitol.

But what's really interesting are two aspects of what Rhodes said. The first is Rhodes has - he has an education, Yale. He's always wanted to present himself as like the non-racist right winger. Like that's very important to him.

So he has described the Proud Boys as the racist ones and the Oath Keepers are somehow not, not right wing, sort of Nazi extremist. They're just right winger. So he's always wanted this separation, just given his own sense of himself. He doesn't like who the Proud Boys are. He thinks that they don't do enough vetting of their membership.

It's a distinction without a difference from the perspective of the insurrection. But the more important thing is in terms of the future. As the judge said, this is an ongoing threat. These organizations recruit, they get money, they organize around a notion that there's an overall movement with the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers now sort of really at each other.

They've been at each other before but so publicly when Rhodes is getting sentenced. It's a good division. It's a good moment. You want the opposition to be divided. They will go against each other, so it's a good day overall.

SANCHEZ: And the judge noted the unprecedented threat that Rhodes and the Oath Keepers still present ...


SANCHEZ: ... even as he's being sentenced.

Juliette, we appreciate your perspective.

We want to pivot now to CNN Legal Analyst, Jennifer Rodgers, who has watched this case pretty closely.

Jennifer, your reaction to the sentence of 18 years for Stewart Rhodes?

JENNIFER RODGERS, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: RODGERS: Well, Boris, it's a long sentence. It's a hefty sentence for sure. The judge accepted the government's guidelines calculations of 21 to 27 years and then went under it, which judges very often do. Most judges think that the sentencing guidelines are too harsh.

But what's notable to me is that, as has been said, the judge did impose six levels of an upward departure pursuant to the terrorism enhancement, which is important. I think all the other Oath Keepers will also get that kind of enhancement, although perhaps not six levels. The judge actually has some flexibility there.

But what the judge was trying to do is placed this sentence in context, not just with the rest of the Oath Keepers, who are being sentenced to now and in the days to come and the Proud Boys and so on, but also in the history of seditious conspiracy defendants. There aren't all that many seditious conspiracy convictions to look at, but many of them had lengthy sentences having to do with terrorist attacks where people actually were killed.

So the judge is looking at the context, not just of this case, not just of the January 6 cases as a whole, but even beyond that to January - to seditious conspiracy cases as a whole. So there's a lot for him to consider. And given all of that, I think 18 years actually was a very fair sentence.

SANCHEZ: And Jennifer, I found Rhodes demeanor throughout the proceedings interesting, because he did not express any remorse which the judge also noted. There is a belief that he may be hunting for a potential pardon if former President Donald Trump wins reelection in 2024. I'm wondering what you make of that.

RODGERS: I think you're right on. I mean, most defendants in sentencing do at least asked for leniency, expressed some remorse. Stewart Rhodes did not do that. He's clearly going all in on the notion of a possible pardon.

And I think that's not a bad call for him. To be honest, not many judges change or change their minds based on what a defendant says at sentencing. They've already found all these facts. They've sat through the trial.


So his last shot and best shot here, excluding the appeal, of course, but I don't see a lot of likelihood of overturning on appeal, is thinking about a pardon from a second term of former President Trump. So that's what he went for.

SANCHEZ: Yes. His attorneys previewed a potential appeal talking about his words being what convicted him and saying that he has the free and fair use of the First Amendment at his disposal, never mind that he had a cache of weapons waiting for him in Virginia.

Jennifer Rodgers, as always, thank you so much for your insight.

RODGERS: Thanks.


SCIUTTO: This is just in to CNN. It's a new video, a remarkable video, shows the moments just before a critical Russian warship ship was struck by an unmanned surface vessel in effect a naval drone in the Black Sea. The video shared with CNN by Ukraine appears to contradict claims by Moscow that the ship had been able to thwart a Ukrainian attack using drones and it's remarkable to watch them.

And as you see it here, this is a camera from that drone. It only stops just as it appears to make contact with the hull.

Our Fred Pleitgen is in Kyiv, Ukraine.

I wonder what you're hearing from Ukrainian officials. Are they saying this was a successful attack? And do they have any sense of damage to the Russian ship?

FRED PLEITGEN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, they certainly believe that it's a successful attack, Jim. One of the things they don't know is how extensive the damage was.

But, of course, the fact that they managed to get to that ship to the Ivan Khurs which, as you correctly pointed out, is an intelligence ship from the Russians that was in the Black Sea. That in itself to them is, of course, a big success, especially since it contradicts those claims that we heard yesterday from the Russians.

And the Russians didn't only claim that the attack was unsuccessful, they even put out video of the ship, apparently destroying one of those surface vessels. And now it seems it turns out that actually the ship was indeed a hit.

And you can see on that video how that surface drone - you can only see the tip of it, it's coming towards the ship. You see the ship apparently firing into the water in front of the drone, but then the last frame is, of course, the drone getting right up to that ship.

And this in many ways is really remarkable on the part of the Ukrainians, because of course, it shows that the Russian warships in the Black Sea are not safe from these kinds of attacks from the Ukrainians. That's a big deal for the Ukrainians.

But also the ship itself, this intelligence ship is a really important one for the Russians as well. It's one of the most modern intelligence ships that the Russians have. It only went into service in 2018, obviously a lot of sophisticated electronics. Again, they're not sure what the damage is, but certainly a big blow it seems once again to the Russian Navy, Jim.

SCIUTTO: Well, you pointed out an important detail if we could run it again. As the video is running, you could see those little flashes of water in front which appears to be someone on board the Russian ship trying to take it out before it hits, also notable because when the Moskva went down last year, drones it's believed played a part in that successful missile strike on the ship in terms of distracting the planes' defenses.

Fred Pleitgen, good to have you there. Keep yourself and your team safe. Brianna. KEILAR: Coming up with just one week to go until the nation defaults, a group of Republicans is making 11th hour demands, what they want added to any potential deal.

Plus, the newly official presidential candidate, Ron DeSantis, was just asked if he'd pardon January 6th insurrectionists. Hear his answer to that.

And an 11-year-old boy shot by an officer that he called for help, we'll have the details ahead.



KEILAR: A completely preventable economic meltdown could be one week away. So you would think that negotiations between Republicans and Democrats in Washington would be proceeding at a frantic pace. Instead House lawmakers are leaving for the long weekend.

Progressives on the Democratic side are signaling they will not back any concessions that President Biden may agree to and 35 hard right Republicans just sent a new list of demands to Speaker Kevin McCarthy. None of this is encouraging, right?

And then you add in the fact that even if the two sides strike a deal to raise the debt ceiling, the bill still has to be written. Then House rules stipulate they spend a full three days reading through the text. And oh right, it needs to pass both chambers of Congress.

CNN's Manu Raju is on the scene of this pressure cooker.

Manu, money lots of twists and turns today. I didn't even mention the Senate and that long winding clock that goes on there. What are you hearing on the Hill today?

MANU RAJU, CNN CHIEF CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes. It is going to take a lot to get this bill passed and get it done to avoid the nation's first ever debt defaults and that it could have drastic economic ramifications. Negotiations between the House Republican leaders and the White House are still happening at this hour.

They still need to get a deal. They still need to sell it to the broader House and Senate conferences and caucuses on each side of the aisle and get that through the parliamentary process which can take many days and get that all done potentially as soon as June 1st to avoid that debt default.

But getting it done by then is - seems very unlikely at this point. And this comes all as your we're hearing mounting frustration from a number of members, particularly Democrats who have been shut out of these negotiations on Capitol Hill and are concerned that the White House is giving up too much to the House GOP.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) REP. JAMAAL BOWMAN (D-NY): I'm very frustrated. I called on the President to invoke the 14th Amendment and mint a coin and do not negotiate with hostage-takers. I mean, we don't negotiate with terrorists globally, why are we going to negotiate with the economic terrorists here that are in the Republican Party.

REP. RITCHIE TORRES (D-NY): I think the greatest regret that we should have is - was the failure to raise the debt ceiling limit back in December when the Democrats were in control of both chambers of Congress.


RAJU: Mm-hm.

TORRES: So that is a miscalculation that we will live to regret.

REP. DAN KILDEE (D-MI): The Speaker has decided to make this really a public relations effort and really turning it into a political process.


RAJU: And that's the concern among Democrats. On some of the hard far- right, a lot of conservative members are concerned about the prospects of the Speaker watering down the bill that passed the House in April.

And 35 of them are warning that they could vote against it, if it has not changed or it does moves too far off of the House GOP's positioned laying out a new list of demands always in questions about even if there's a deal, can they get the votes to pass it. It's still uncertain at this point, at this critical moment to avoid a debt default.

KEILAR: Yes, it certainly is. Manu, thank you.

I want to head down to the White House and CNN's Jeremy Diamond.

We heard the President Jeremy saying, look, they agree both sides on one thing, they don't want to default. He also did emphasize, however, what they do not agree on. How are they finding common ground right now? How is this weekend going to look with House members gone for the holiday?

DIAMOND: Yes. I mean, I think you're getting at the issue here, Brianna, which is that even though the White House and negotiators on the Republican side continue to describe these talks as productive, and they say that they are making some progress. It's also evident in listening to both sides, that the gaps are still so, so big.

I mean, we just heard President Biden moments ago talking about the fact that default is not an option. And he also, at the same time, though, was talking about the fact that he wants to see revenue increases included in his plan. That's something that speaker McCarthy has said is off the table, and we know that they are still very, very far apart on that top line spending number. I spoke earlier today also with the deputy Treasury Secretary, Wally Adeyemo. And he said to me that we are too close to default. And I asked him whether Americans should be worried, here's what he said.


DIAMOND (off camera): But just to drive that point home, how worried should Americans be right now?

WALLY ADEYEMO, DEPUTY TREASURY SECRETARY: I think we should all be worried that Congress has not taken the action they need to do which is raising the debt limit. Not doing so would be a catastrophe for the economy that would have an impact across not only the United States, but across the global economy.


DIAMOND: And one of the things that the Deputy Secretary also underscored to me that I think is so important is that the financial markets are already starting to react. We've only just begun to see some of the impacts in the stock market.

But for weeks now, we've begun to see some volatility in the bond market and that Adeyemo said, is raising the cost of borrowing for the federal government, which is ultimately going to increase costs for Americans if this continues, Brianna?

KEILAR: Yes. For everyone.

Jeremy Diamond at the White House, thank you. Boris?

SANCHEZ: Let's get some perspective now from Republican congressman, Anthony D'Esposito, of New York. He joins us live.

Congressman, we're grateful to have you. It appears you're coming to us live from New York. I'm making an assumption and thinking that you are on recess now for the long weekend. With so much hanging in the balance here with a fiscal cliff looming on June 1st, is it appropriate for lawmakers to be away from the nation's capitol right now?

REP. ANTHONY D'ESPOSITO (R-NY): Well, Boris, good afternoon. Yes, I just landed in New York. I'm back in Island Park, where I will attend some Memorial Day events this weekend. And yes, I do think that the Republicans have the right to head home to their districts and represent the people that elected them.

The fact of the matter is we did our part, we passed the Limit, Save, Grow Act a couple months ago. And while Democrats remained silent and they didn't want to negotiate while President Biden ignored speaker McCarthy and him extending that olive branch to talk, nothing was done until the last couple of days.

And as we see from the last segment, even Democrats are frustrated. They're saying that they should have acted back in December. Some are saying that they feel that they're left out of negotiations, and others like Mr. Bowman are just completely ridiculous and trying to describe Republicans as terrorists.

SANCHEZ: Well, on that point, Congressman, both parties have raised the debt ceiling every single time that it's been reached. It was raised three times under President Trump with zero preconditions, I should note. Why is it now a sticking point?

D'ESPOSITO: I guess right now, what we have is we have a different Congress, we have a different speaker. We have different members. And we feel that we are at a turning point. We are at the point of no return in our in our debt. And we put a plan in place that limits out of control spending that saves crucial federal programs that grows the economy. It doesn't cut Social Security; it doesn't cut veterans; it doesn't cut Medicare or Medicaid and we were willing to negotiate.

Speaker McCarthy has been willing to negotiate for months now and was ignored. So the fact of the matter is, like I said before, we did our part.


We put the wheels in motion. The Democrats have decided to ignore us and now as the time - the clock is ticking or the clock is on the field, as we say. Now the Democrats are screaming and yelling and trying to create havoc amongst America.

SANCHEZ: There is some dissent within your own party though, Congressman. Speaker McCarthy has expressed optimism. He says he is confident your party's not going to waver on the deal, but yet you had these 25 Republican lawmakers asking for more. And there is the potential looming that they may not vote for a deal that McCarthy strikes. Are you on board with the Speaker.

D'ESPOSITO: I am on board with the Speaker as the deal is thus far, I haven't heard any updates from today. I know that the Speaker usually keeps in touch - he tries to talk to all - the whole parts of the delegation, especially the New York delegation. He has been very open and transparent with us. So I look forward to hearing from him later today and see where we stand.

But I am fully confident of Speaker McCarthy and his negotiation skills. The team that we have in place, I know that they've been doing the hard work. They are keeping us in the loop and the moment we need to head back to D.C. to do the people's work, we'll be on the next flight out.

SANCHEZ: Congressman, if we do get to that point where the Treasury has to prioritize payments, and it has to decide which bills it's going to pay and which bills it's not going to pay, how would you go about prioritizing those payments?

D'ESPOSITO: Right now, I am confident that we're not going to get to that point. I'm confident, like I said, in Speaker McCarthy's ability to negotiate. I'm confident that our president will come to the table and negotiate the fact that he's neglected that over the last couple of months. I'm confident that in the next couple of days, we're going to get to an agreement. We're going to make a deal for the American people and we'll move this country forward.

SANCHEZ: It sounds like you're optimistic, but you noted that even among Democrats, there are also voices that are not quite as optimistic, and they don't want to see Biden strike a deal on work requirements, for example, for Medicare. Ultimately, what does it tell you that Congress is unable to reach a deal for the nation to pay its debts because this is about money that's already been spent. It's not about future spending.

D'ESPOSITO: It tells me that people from different parts of this country, and especially I will say in the Democratic Party, the people on the far-left have thoughts of this nation that are just not the truth and we need to stand our ground as Republicans and do what we did.

Like I said, this is about limiting out of control spending. It's about saving programs, growing the economy. It's not about sending our country into more debt for our children, grandchildren in the future.

SANCHEZ: Congressman Anthony D'Esposito, we appreciate you sharing part of your Memorial Day weekend with us. We hope that your optimism pays off.

D'ESPOSITO: Thank you, sir. Have a good weekend.

SANCHEZ: Thanks so much.

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