Return to Transcripts main page

CNN News Central

DOJ Tells Trump He's Target in Classified Documents Probe; Religious Broadcaster Pat Robertson Dies at Age 93; Wildfire Smoke Engulfs East Coast, Pushes South. Aired 9-9:30a ET

Aired June 08, 2023 - 09:00   ET



SARA SIDNER, CNN ANCHOR: It is the clearest sign yet that former President Trump could soon be indicted. The Justice Department tells Trump he is the target in a classified documents probe.

KATE BOLDUAN, CNN ANCHOR: Apocalyptic, mars like, there are so many ways to describe it but it was eerie and it is still dangerous. Smoke still hanging over millions of Americans as the Canadian wildfires continue to burn.

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: And this just in. One-time presidential candidate, the founder of the Christiane Broadcasting Network, Pat Robertson, has died.


SIDNER: You are looking at live pictures outside two U.S. federal courthouses. On the left there Miami, Florida. On the right, Washington, D.C. We are waiting to see if there is any movement from two federal grand juries. Why? The Justice Department has officially notified Trump's legal team that he is a target in an ongoing federal investigation.

It is the clearest sign that we have seen yet that former President Trump could be indicted accused of failing to turn over classified documents. The former president Trump has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing in the probe. He says he declassified the documents while he was still in office. In an interview with "New York Times" Wednesday, Trump said he was not told he'd be indicted.

But the decision to tell the former president that he is a targeted in the investigation does show Special Counsel Jack Smith is focused on the former president's actions and not just the actions of the people around him.

CNN's senior crime and justice reporter Katelynn Polantz is here with us as well as CNN senior justice correspondent Evan Perez.

We're going to start with you, evan. This new information that is sent to Donald Trump's lawyers, does that mean that an indictment is imminent or not?

EVAN PEREZ, CNN SENIOR JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Well, it certainly means that the investigators at this stage are notifying the former president at this stage of this investigation. It means that they're about to make that decision or, you know, certainly an indictment could, could be imminent.

Look, we've never been here before. We've never been in a position where a former president could be facing an indictment, could be facing criminal charges. And it really just, you know, the word unprecedented and the word momentous, I think, you know, gets overused but this is definitely one of those times where it's appropriate to use that word.

The former president is looking down at a number of possible charges. Of course the Justice Department laid out some of those possible charges in the documents when they -- when they released those documents about the search at Mar-a-Lago last August. That includes the mishandling, the illegal retention of national security -- national defense information, obstruction of justice.

Those are among the possible charges that we're looking at. And the fact is that for the Justice Department to provide that notification, which prosecutors can do, they don't necessarily have to do it, but they do it out of an abundance of caution in case there's something that a defendant wants to present.

SIDNER: All right. I'm going to go now to Katelyn.

Can you tell me a little bit from your perspective just how this went down? Like what was found exactly inside Trump's Mar-a-Lago property that really started all this?

KATELYN POLANTZ, CNN SENIOR CRIME AND JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Sara, this has been a protracted effort by the federal government to get federal records back from Donald Trump. So it started after he left the presidency. The National Archives really wanted him to return any documents he might have in possession.

They realized that he had some. And then when Trump finally did send back 15 boxes to the National Archives in January of 2022, that's when this criminal investigation began because that's when the federal government looked through those boxes and realized there were many classified records within them or documents with classification markings on them.

So the intelligence community gets involved, the Justice Department gets involved. They subpoena Trump and say turn over everything in your possession. We need anything with a classification marking on it. His attorney went and looked, found 38 records, called the Justice Department, they came down and claimed it from Mar-a-Lago in June. But then, that's whenever the investigation really heated up.

That's when the Justice Department continued to look and realized that there was evidence that they believed would convince them that there have been records concealed and removed, and that they had not recovered everything in Trump's possession leading to that FBI search in August.


And that's when -- I was just looking at the affidavit that the FBI put together, the document that they put together showing exactly what they removed from Mar-a-Lago in August and it is extraordinarily detailed. It doesn't tell us what documents specifically but it is documents from the U.S. government marked with classification markings at every level, including top secret. The sort of thing that should never be in an unsecured location or out of hands.

And so that's what the FBI found and from then on the investigation continued into whether there was obstruction of justice, and also trying to get back records from Donald Trump, an effort that continued even into this year whenever the Justice Department said turn over a record that we believe Donald Trump was talking about on an audio recording waving around in a room, shortly after he left the presidency and even then Trump's attorneys were unable to locate that particular document.

SIDNER: Katelyn Polantz, there from Miami, thank you. And thank you also to Evan Perez who is in Washington. The two places where you guys are closely watching what is happening in court today. Appreciate it. John?

BERMAN: And of course if we see any movement from either place we'll go there right away. In the meantime, with us now, former federal prosecutors Katie Cherkasky and Elliot Williams.

Elliot, first to you, look, a former president is a target of a federal investigation. That in and of itself is historic. Now I don't know if you've had the privilege of representing anyone to receive a federal target letter before, but what must that have been like for Donald Trump's legal team?

ELLIOT WILLIAMS, FORMER FEDERAL PROSECUTOR: It's quite profound, John, and let's -- first let's unpack what a target letter is. It is a notification from the Justice Department that your client is -- that the Justice Department has substantial evidence linking your client to a crime. That they are the primary focus of an investigation. That's far beyond well, you know, you got pulled into an investigation we were working on and we might have some evidence linking you.

It's quite significant and it's very pointed. And so it's also a sign that the Justice Department is at least thinking about charges, and look, wink-wink, odds are that charges are coming. And so any attorney ought to be concerned if they receive such a letter from prosecutors.

BERMAN: Now we've been looking at both Florida and Washington, D.C. If we can get those shots so people can see what it looks like outside the courtrooms right now. Very quiet, not a lot of activity there, Katie. But walk us through the mechanics of how this would work if there were to be an indictment. One of these grand juries -- and we don't know if the Washington, D.C. grand jury is still meeting. One of them would have to vote, correct?

KATIE CHERKASKY, CRIMINAL DEFENSE ATTORNEY: Well, one of the grand juries would have to vote. And it is significant where the DOJ chooses to bring this case, the venue as it were. And ultimately Merrick Garland has to make the decision to charge. So even if there's a vote for an indictment, that has to be affirmed by the DOJ itself.

So essentially once the indictment is unsealed, we will know specifically the charges, whether it relates to the actual classified information itself or more of the obstruction piece of things, or both. And really I think the most interesting part might be whether there's any sort of conspiracy allegations as well.

So ultimately when we get that information we'll know where they're bringing the case, the venue, and the nature of the charges maybe not all the specific evidence underlying that but that's dependent on how they decide to issue that indictment.

BERMAN: If the documents were in Florida, if the documents were hidden or kept, it happened in Florida and if there was obstruction perhaps it may have been in Florida, or maybe not, Katie. Talk to me about the possibility of an obstruction charge and if you need another crime to issue that?

CHERKASKY: Sure. So there's a lot of questions about can you charge somebody with obstruction of justice if you're not going to charge them with, quote-unquote, "an underlying offense related to the investigation." The answer is yes, it can be charged, but it's not as strong of a case typically because you need to, as a prosecutor, still prove the intent to obstruct. And when you have, let's say for instance, documents that ultimately -- and I know that this is up for debate -- may or may not have rightfully been in the possession of former President Trump and he somehow moved them or put them in different areas of his own property, can he then subsequently be charged with obstruction for moving what is later determined to be his own property?

That's a very significant question for the DOJ to consider in a case like this. So the obstruction is something that is separate. It doesn't require a finding that the classification status was one way or the other but it is a significant consideration for prosecutors in proving beyond a reasonable doubt that he intended to obstruct an investigation.


BERMAN: So, Elliot, look, the target letter in and of itself is a reason to be on high alert for the possibility of action either in Washington, D.C., or Florida sometimes perhaps very soon. Another bit of information that we learned over the last few days was that the former president's former chief of staff Mark Meadows did testify to a grand jury about both the January 6th investigation and the investigation into the classified documents at Mar-a-Lago.

So if -- again I'm putting you on the former president's legal team right now. If you see that Mark Meadows has testified, what concerns you about that?

WILLIAMS: I think his proximity to one-on-one conversations with the former president would be the most troubling if I were the former president here because, look, as former White House chief of staff he would have had a front row seat to, number one, firsthand conversations with the president that he was part of, but number two, virtually everything the president did.

Mark Meadows, so for instance, on January 6th was in the Oval Office with the former president would have been privy to every conversation he would have had with members of Congress or others around the White House at that point. Number two, with respect to documents, Mark Meadows was one of the president's or the White House's representatives to the National Archives.

Every conversation in which the National Archives conveyed that as of the moment the next president is sworn in, those documents are no longer yours, they belong to the American people, that would speak to possibly the president's intent with respect to possessing the documents or maybe even an obstruction of justice charge.

In general if you're being investigated and people around you are talking to law enforcement, you've got a problem. And setting aside the president's guilt or innocence the mere fact that his chief of staff was speaking to a grand jury is itself cause for significant alarm.

BERMAN: And Elliot, one more question very quickly here. "New York" magazine is reporting that there's strife or tension within Donald Trump's sprawling legal team. This is a quote from that article. "Multiple lawyers for working for Trump however told me there is no meaningful coordination across the groups. There are no standing meetings or calls, a common feature of large defense teams handling complex matters on behalf of a single client, to provide updates or compare notes among the groups."

I think we've become accustomed to chaos within Trump world but when it's within your legal team and you might be facing federal indictment, how much of a problem is that?

WILLIAMS: It's a big problem because you have to think through what your strategy is going into any federal charge, starting with, are you going -- is the defendant going to plead guilty to an offense, a minor offense, some offense or what conduct will he or she admit to? Now setting aside the question of whether the president has an incentive in pleading guilty to a crime, it's an important question for anyone facing potentially law enforcement exposure to face.

You know, do you plead to a misdemeanor, do you agree to never run for office again. All of those questions are entirely fair ones for a legal team to sort out. And if they're fighting about questions like that, they're really going to have big problems down the road. So it happens all the time when you have, you know, as that reporting in some sprawling big legal investigations but this is quite a significant one and one that ought to concern the client.

BERMAN: Elliot Williams, Katie Cherkasky, don't go far. We're all watching Florida and Washington very closely this morning. Kate?

BOLDUAN: Absolutely. Very close to that. In the meantime we have this just in. The founder of the Christian Broadcasting Network, one-time presidential candidate, Pat Robertson, has died. The Christian Broadcasting Network announced his passing this morning.

CNN's Stephanie Elam has a look at his life and legacy.



STEPHANIE ELAM, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Pat Robertson was a seminal figure of the religious right. He founded the Christian Broadcasting Network, the political advocacy group the Christian Coalition, and the Christian College Regent University. But he was also known for his outspoken views on homosexuality, feminism, and a host of other hot button issues.

ROBERTSON: There isn't one single civilization that has survived that openly embraced homosexuality.

ELAM: In 2001, he agreed with fellow televangelist Jerry Falwell that God allowed the 9/11 terrorists to succeed because America had moved to the left and removed religion from the mainstream.

ROBERTSON: I totally concur.

ELAM: The Yale Law School graduate and Korean War vet had a religious awakening in the late 1950s. He bought a bankrupt local station in Portsmouth, Virginia, and it became the first outlet for the Christian Broadcast Network. It was the first Christian TV network in the U.S. and became one of the world's largest TV ministries. Its flagship program was the daily show he hosted, "The 700 Club," named for the 700 donors who launched it in 1961.

ROBERTSON: I plan to make a formal announcement of my candidacy for the Republican nomination for the presidency of the United States.

ELAM: Robertson, whose father was a congressman and U.S. senator, ran as a Republican presidential candidate in 1988.


He came in second in the Iowa caucus, but his campaign didn't fare as well in other primary states. He dropped out of the race and returned to hosting "The 700 Club," where he famously made bold predictions that didn't always come true.

ROBERTSON: Romney will win the election.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You believe that?

ROBERTSON: I absolutely believe it.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What makes you believe that?

PATERSON: Because the Lord told me. ELAM: Pat Robertson, a key founder of the conservative Christian

movement who never shied away from expressing his views, no matter how controversial they might be.


BOLDUAN: Thank you so much to Stephanie Elam for that. Pat Robertson was 93 years old. Sara?

SIDNER: Some flights delayed, some schools closed as part of the country experiences some of the worst air quality in years. When will the smoke clear? We'll take a look.

A knife attack on a playground in France. Four children are among those who are hurt. We're following the new developments there.

And Miami gets Messi. After weeks of speculation, the Argentinian World Cup star is coming to America.



BOLDUAN: Millions of people are suffering for yet another day of dangerous smoky conditions blowing into the United States from the wildfires in Canada. The smoke seems to be just sitting on top of a large portion of the northeast and mid-Atlantic.

This is a live picture right now of Philadelphia where the air quality has been declared very unhealthy. You can see the haze sitting over top. We want to show you also, take a look, this is a life picture from New York City right now. That is a vast improvement and it's not good. The smoke gave New York a new distinction and one it has never wanted.

The city with the world's worst air quality right now. Incredibly today appears to be a slight improvement from yesterday when New Yorkers were facing this. It was this strange other worldly orange world that you could not escape. Let me show you a time lapse that we put together. The city skyline disappearing over a period of hours in behind this orange haze.

The poor visibility is forcing more delays today. LaGuardia airport dealing with another ground stop on operations this morning.

This video we're going to show you, this is from yesterday actually, shows what it was like for passengers landing at the airport. You can just imagine as this is coming in, as they're descending through this cloud of smoke.

CNN's Athena Jones is back out in it for us this morning. Athena, what are you seeing there? What are you seeing out there? How is it feeling? I mean, I still can't get my voice back today. It still feels the same.

ATHENA JONES, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Good morning, Kate. Well, you know, it's -- the situation has abated somewhat here in New York city but you can still see the smoke looking out over Brooklyn. We've seen tons of people wearing masks. A lot more people than we've seen over the last couple of years wearing masks outdoors.

Officials have warned that conditions could worsen again later in the day. The air quality index right now is about 194, 195 right now. That is unhealthy especially for sensitive groups. And just like yesterday it was -- you know, sort of at this level yesterday but by 5:00 p.m. it got up to 484, according to the mayor. So that is what officials are concerned about, the air quality health advisory remains in effect until tonight here in New York, until 11:59 p.m.

And, of course, they're advising everyone to wear a mask, to limit their outdoor activities. New York City has canceled all outdoor events and the state is handing out a million masks to folks who want to make sure that they are protected, all to make sure they're protected from these harmful tiny particles that can infiltrate the lungs and get in the bloodstream -- Kate.

BOLDUAN: Yes. I mean, it's almost -- I was obviously like everyone else who's in New York yesterday taking video and pictures, what it was like when I went outside. The camera almost like doesn't do it justice. It kind of shows more than you see with the naked eye. It is wild to see it in person. That orange just sitting on top of the city. And now, all of this, or a lot of this, is now expected to kind of move to the south, Athena. What is this going to mean?

JONES: That's exactly right. And so folks south of us will begin to experience what we've been experience experiencing, the smell, the sense of being in a cloud. We know the bulk of the smoke that hit New York is expected to drift south heading towards Baltimore, towards Washington D.C. You already heard what's going on in Philadelphia. This is affecting air travel. There was a ground stop here in New York.

Now the FAA is saying they're going to have to manage the flow of traffic in Philadelphia, even down to Charlotte, North Carolina. So this smoke moving down. People south of here are going to experience what we've been experiencing up in New York for several days. And one thing that officials keep saying is that this is the beginning of the fire season in Canada. So this might go away for a while but it doesn't mean it's not going to come back -- Kate.

BOLDUAN: All right. Athena, thank you for being out there and being so safe while you're doing it. And we're going to continue to follow this throughout the show.

We're hearing that, I mean, this is just the beginning of it. It is -- it's really wild. It's not just one of those gee-whiz for one moment, like it was very dangerous yesterday walking around.

SIDNER: You could feel it. The headaches. People are reporting all sorts of things.


SIDNER: This is what it's like, by the way, in California during fire season at times.

BOLDUAN: I've never appreciated it, Sara. My voice I cannot get it right. I feel like I'm constantly having to clear my throat.


BOLDUAN: And I cannot get past this.

SIDNER: Because all that particulate is getting in there.


SIDNER: And speaking of which, it's not just about us here in New York. Turns out 75 million Americans across the Midwest, northeast, and southeast are under air quality alerts. President Biden has directed all available federal firing assets be deployed to help Canada suppress the wildfires that are burning there.

With us now, CNN chief medical correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta.

When you look at this air, and you can see it. When you can see it, k, it's bad. It can be bad without really being seen. But this is really bad. How unhealthy is it?


DR. SANJAY GUPTA, CNN CHIEF MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: It can be wildly unhealthy. I mean, you know, the way to think about it is to sort of visualize this. And we're breathing in air, which is 21 percent oxygen, it's mostly nitrogen, and now you add all this particulate matter to it. If it were a liquid, it would be a crunchy liquid. I'm just trying to give you a visual here, Sara, to sort of imagine it.

Now you're breathing in this air which is filled with particulate matter. And as Athena was just talking about, we think about, you know, it can obviously be irritating to your eyes, it can be irritating to your airways, to your lungs.

I don't think people always realize, Sara, it can get into your bloodstream. That's how fine this particulate matter is. Once it gets into your bloodstream it can cause clotting. People who may have underlying heart disease but have never had a problem could suddenly find themselves having some sort of symptoms. There's a 70 percent increase typically outside of hospital cardiac arrests and heart issues when you have really bad air.

So these are the concerns. I mean, respiratory problems, cardiovascular problems, women who are pregnant having issues with pre-term labor. It's the old and the young that are most at risk. But I think to your point, and Athena's point, and Kate, everybody is really at risk when you have air quality that's this bad.

SIDNER: What do we do to protect ourselves, Sanjay? I'm already seeing the masks that remind you of the pandemic again coming back out.

GUPTA: Yes. Well, first of all, I mean, I guess the most basic things being obvious here is that you need to avoid this. You know, stay inside as much as possible. You know, think of this like a big weather event. You check the weather, if it's raining really hard you maybe don't go out. You can check and you'll get -- put in your zip code, you'll get a reading.

I've been following this pretty closely. You'll find that later in the day, as I think Kate was alluding to, it typically is getting worse. You're getting some of the low-level ozone that's also coming off of the ground in addition to all that particulate. So that's probably the worst time of day.

Masks can be helpful. They've got to be good high-quality masks. They have to be fitting properly on your face. But, you know, when you look at N-95s, they came really -- their design came from the environmental world so, you know, they can be very effective if they're worn properly here.

Think about the air quality inside as well. This is going to sound familiar. But, you know, I mean, one thing the pandemic has taught us is that we have to improve the filtration of our air inside. More air exchanges that can be really helpful.

I will say, if you have asthma, this is one of those times people typically have rescue inhalers to rescue them if they're having an attack. This might be one of those times to take it before you go outside if they have to go outside. Talk to your doctor but about 15 minutes ahead of time could be really helpful.

SIDNER: Dr. Sanjay Gupta, that is such good advice especially for those folks with asthma. And it is really stark that it goes into your blood, it's that small. That is really something we need to be thinking about. Thank you so much for joining us today. John?

BERMAN: A brazen daylight knife attack. Six people injured, including children, new information coming in on the suspect.