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Trump Cancels Indictment News Conference; California Facing Tropical Storm Watch; Hawaii Fire Investigation. Aired 1-1:30p ET

Aired August 18, 2023 - 13:00   ET



BORIS SANCHEZ, CNN HOST: A search for answers, the ATF now in Maui investigating what sparked a catastrophic wildfire, as crews search for more than 1,000 people still missing, and, in the aftermath of the disaster, a top emergency management official stepping down even as he defends the response to the fires.

Plus: delay, delay, delay. Donald Trump's legal team testing the limits of that legal strategy, proposing to start one of his special counsel trials in April of 2026. Will the judge buy their reasons for the setback?

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN HOST: And serious skepticism from the White House to the Pentagon about Ukraine's current strategy and where Kyiv is targeting its fight against Russia.

We are following these major developing stories and many more, all coming in right here to CNN NEWS CENTRAL.

SANCHEZ: We start this afternoon with major growing questions on the cause and the response to the deadly Maui wildfires.

Right now, the ATF's national response team is joining the investigation. The death toll remains at 111, but 1,000 people or more could still be missing. Teams are still searching the burn zone for human remains, while Maui's mayor says that 45 percent of that area has been searched.

As the recovery effort continues, a stunning resignation overnight. This is Maui's emergency management chief, Herman Andaya. After facing intense scrutiny for not activating the island's warning sirens and just one day after defending that decision, he has resigned, citing a health reason.

Separately, Hawaii's water management agency is also facing questions. CNN has learned a state official may have delayed giving permission to use extra water to fight the flames.

Joining us now live from Maui is KITV Island News Jeremy Lee.

So, Jeremy, you are at a distribution center right now. What are you seeing? JEREMY LEE, KITV REPORTER: Well, so many have come here to collect

goods and so many also want answers. As one survivor asked, why don't they tell us the truth? We have already lived it. How much worse can it be?

Now, amid that uncertainty and desire for answers, there are stories of inspiration. All of these distribution sites popped up organically beginning day one. Communities north of Lahaina all the way up to Kapalua rallied together in order to collect goods and make sure that those who had evacuated northward from Lahaina had a place to go and had food and were able to be helped.

Now, so many I have spoke to as I have stayed here over the last week have said they want the full truth. Add to that the ATF has come in with electrical engineers and is now researching the origins of the fire. At some point, this fire was not just simply a brushfire anymore, but became an urban fire, an industrial fire and consumed all of Lahaina town.

Now, those that I spoke to are waiting for answers. The one that they were not satisfied with came from Herman Andaya, the chief emergency management leader who has stepped down, resigned after defending the decision to not activate the tsunami warning sirens.

His reasoning? He said that those would indicate to head to higher ground, and he didn't want people to head towards the fire uphill. Those who I spoke to who survived said they knew exactly which direction to go. They wanted that to be activated to wake up others who might not be aware of the situation.

They said they knew where to go. It was away from the black cloud of smoke hovering over Lahaina town and delivering its imminent destruction -- back to you.


SANCHEZ: A controversial, potentially costly decision not to activate those sirens.

Jeremy, I'm curious to get a reflection from you what you have heard from residents, because we have heard a back-and-forth about whether tourists should be visiting Maui. What have residents and officials told you about whether they support the idea of tourists visiting?

LEE: Early on, officials came forward and said, we do not want to put an end to all tourism to Maui. That would be disastrous.

On the other side of the island, you have Wailea,Kihei, and then to the north, Paia, the road to Hana, all these other parts of the island that welcome tourists and still do today. The way Maui is geographically is, you have the main island, mass and then West Maui, which juts out.

That's where I am right now, where Lahaina is to the south and the towns of Kaanapali all the way up to Napili, where I am now, and Kapalua. Those are the towns that cannot support tourism at this time because of the decimated infrastructure.

The rest of the island is welcoming tourists. Sometimes, what starts as a social media campaign with good intentions may not necessarily deliver what would be good for the economy here on Maui.

SANCHEZ: Such an important thing to point out.

Jeremy Lee, thank you so much for your reporting.

Let's discuss the investigation into the cause of the fires now.

Edward Dabkowski is a former assistant special agent in charge for ATF.

Sir, thanks so much for sharing part of your afternoon with us.

Now that the ATF is on the ground in Maui, what is the process like for a wildfire of this scale and this kind of devastation? What are the challenges these agents are facing?

EDWARD DABKOWSKI, FORMER ATF ASSISTANT SPECIAL AGENT IN CHARGE: This is an immense scene to try and grapple with.

Every fire has a story. These are the experts you want to have on scene to help find that story. And the first phase is going to be the where and the when. Where did this fire start and when did it start? And that's where, as your reporter mentioned, you have got electrical engineers as part of the staff.

You have got specially trained certified fire investigators for ATF that have training in cause and origin to help look for those initial spots, because once you find the where and the when, then it's going to be about the how. They're going to be talking to first responders. They're going to be talking to witnesses. They're going to be looking at the physical evidence as well.

SANCHEZ: So, on that note, given that they're studying physical evidence, and much of it has been decimated, it's ashes, most of what we're seeing in that area, is it possible that we may never know the true source of these wildfires?

DABKOWSKI: And that's a great question. And that does happen frequently.

Not only is it an immense scene with -- that's been charred. It's also been run over by first responders, people escaping by other people that were in the area. A lot of these times, you're trying to unpack what happened and try to get down to the bottom-most layer to find it. And, sometimes, the answers are not as clear as we want them to be.

But it's still very early in this investigation. There's still a lot of tasks for all the investigators to do and all the engineers to look at.

SANCHEZ: Yes, no question, it is going to be an immense task. I am wondering, Edward. Residents and state officials have been very

focused on faulty power lines as a potential spark for the wildfire. How big a focus is that going to be for investigators, the local power company?

DABKOWSKI: Yes, they're going to focus on all potential sources and causes of the fire.

I mean, that's where I mentioned they talk to witnesses.They will look at the physical evidence. They're going to take into account any potential source.

SANCHEZ: So, in previous situations like this, I'm curious, what does accountability look like if negligence is discovered?

DABKOWSKI: Well, ATF's job and the NRT's job here is to come in and find the cause and origin and do the investigation and do the fact- finding.

Then they turn the results over to the jurisdiction that invited them in. The ATF NRT comes in at the invitation of the local departments. All the evidence, all the findings are turned over to them, and then it's taken from there.

SANCHEZ: It's going to be a difficult task, but we certainly look forward to the results of their work.

Edward Dabkowski, thanks so much for sharing your perspective with us.

DABKOWSKI: Thank you.

SANCHEZ: Of course -- Jim.

SCIUTTO: The head of FEMA says there is enough in its disaster relief fund for the initial response to the Maui fires, but it is set to run out of money this month, and hurricane season has yet to peak.

Experts say the climate crisis has strained those coffers over the last several years. The numbers since 2016 are shocking, 139 big disasters killing at least 5,200 people in total, with more than a trillion dollars in damages.


Let's go to CNN White House correspondent Priscilla Alvarez.

Priscilla, it's a measure, right, of the effects of all these storms and natural disasters tied to climate change that it's -- well, means the coffers are running empty for response to a lot of these disasters. So what are the options to replace them?


This is an agency that has to contend with the fact that natural disasters are getting worse, and they only have so much money. And that means asking Congress for more. This is something that the White House has been monitoring.

And they included in their supplemental request to Congress $12 billion for disaster funds. Of course, that is part of a broader funding request which already faces an uphill battle. But, at least for FEMA, there is growing concern about what it might mean if these funds are depleted by the end of the month.

Already, the federal government has tallied 15 weather-related disasters that funds include over a billion dollars have gone to the assistance and recovery for those disasters, just to give you a sense of just how much funds they have already had to use before the hurricane season has started in earnest.

Now, the FEMA administrator told reporters here at the White House this week that they expect to have enough funds for the initial response in Maui, but any delay in further funds could put their recovery into next year.


DEANNE CRISWELL, FEMA ADMINISTRATOR: We have enough funding to support the ongoing response efforts because we take events like this into consideration. But it would delay -- if we don't have additional funding, it would delay some of the recovery projects and push them into next year.


ALVAREZ: Now, other consequences include that money would -- or at least people and items could not get to places before a disaster happens.

I spoke to a FEMA official who told me that, oftentimes, these are funds that are used for prep or pre-deployment. So if they know a hurricane is coming, for example, they can at least get people and assets there for what will happen on the back end and what that recovery will include.

But, without those funds, it just makes that all the more difficult, so certainly growing concern within FEMA as these funds run dry.

SCIUTTO: And, as we were saying, the hurricane season just on its way for real.

Priscilla Alvarez at the White House, thanks so much.

Right now, parts of Southern California are under a tropical storm watch, speaking of weather events, for the first time in history. A Category 4 hurricane named Hilary is barreling up the Eastern Pacific towards Mexico with 145 mile-per-hour winds. It could eventually bring heavy rain and flooding to California.

CNN meteorologist Allison Chinchar joins me now.

This is a West Coast hurricane, Allison. What does this tell us about the threat and the danger going forward? ALLISON CHINCHAR, CNN METEOROLOGIST: So let's take a look at the

latest numbers that we have, right now, sustained winds 145 miles per hour, that forward movement to the northwest at 10 miles per hour.

So you have got watches and warnings out for many of these areas in anticipation of where this system is going to go. Yes, we do have tropical storm watches in and around portions of Southern California, the first time ever the National Hurricane Center has issued such watches for California, but they spread even farther south along Baja California, where the storm is anticipated to be a little bit stronger.

So you will notice there you have got more of the hurricane watches and hurricane warnings. It's still expected to maintain its strength for at least the next 24 hours. Then we will finally start to see some gradual weakening of this storm as it continues its way off to the north, eventually making landfall around California, likely in the tropical storm phase.

Now, here's the big reason why. It's going to be entering much cooler water. And that's really going to help this storm weaken considerably as it shifts off to the north. The main concern with this storm is certainly going to be the potential for flooding, because as it spreads up into the north, it's going to bring all of that moisture with it.

So you have a high risk in effect for excessive rainfall for Palm Springs, a moderate risk for places like Las Vegas and San Diego, just to show you the -- how widespread this rain is expected to be. Most of these areas will pick up two to four inches of rain. Some areas could top out at eight or even 10 inches of rain.

Keep in mind, for a lot of these places, that's a year's worth of rain in just a short period of time. Taking a look at last year, this was when we had some very heavy rain in Death Valley last year. That was only 1.46 inches in a short period of time. They only get two inches on average every year, the forecast for this weekend, three to four inches.

That's why you have got these flood watches in effect. And it's not just California, areas of Arizona, Utah, as well as Nevada also looking at the potential for some flooding here. Winds will also be another concern. They're going to be the strongest farther south. But even as this system continues to spread to the north, you're still going to get some very gusty winds that could end up triggering some damage, bringing power lines down, trees, of that nature, as we head into Saturday and Sunday.


A lot of the question here is the exact track, because if it shifts farther west or farther east, you're going to have different impacts for different portions of the state of California, and even for areas of Arizona and Nevada as well.

But, all in all, the biggest impact is certainly going to be rain. And that is regardless of where this track ends up going.


CHINCHAR: Rain is going to be the biggest concern, absolutely.

SCIUTTO: So, you were saying, as it reaches the colder waters up closer to Los Angeles, it's going to weaken.

But are the warmer waters where this formed over, is that tied -- are we seeing more of these kinds of things? Is that tied to climate change effects, or is it too isolated to make a conclusion?

CHINCHAR: It is, because what you have to understand is, for some of those areas farther south, some of those areas are seeing -- and we have seen the same thing in the Gulf of Mexico and in the Caribbean -- some of these locations are dealing with record warmth and sea surface temperatures.

So, yes, it provides more fuel for storms like this one and many others to really be able to rapidly intensify much more quickly and even maintain that strength. As they get into what would typically be much cooler waters, they're starting off stronger. So, even though it is expected to weaken, most of these storms don't even make it here as tropical storm strength when they get this far north.

SCIUTTO: It seems like, every day, we get a reminder.

Allison Chinchar at the Weather Center, thanks so much -- Boris.

SANCHEZ: Still ahead this hour on CNN NEWS CENTRAL: Remember, President Trump promised he was going to hold an explosive news conference on Monday, finally showing proof to back his allegations of widespread fraud in Georgia, evidence so strong he said it would exonerate him?

Well, that press conference is canceled. The reason Trump says he shut it down.

Plus, thousands of Canadians are rushing to evacuate, as more than 200 fires burn across the country -- the latest there, as entire cities are being emptied.

And where was murder suspect Bryan Kohberger when four Idaho college students were brutally murdered? That is the focus of a hearing about to get under way just moments from now. We will have the latest details.

Stay with us.



SCIUTTO: One week. Donald Trump and his 18 co-defendants now have a week to turn themselves in on charges tied to their attempts to overturn the election in Georgia. Now some of the same Fulton County officials who are awaiting those

surrenders are facing threats. The FBI is stepping in, this after the grand jurors who voted to indict Trump were doxxed, as it is known, on far right sites.

We also have an update on the federal election subversion case. That's the federal one. Trump's defense lawyer -- lawyers have officially asked the judge to push that trial more than two years down the road to April 2026.

CNN's Paula Reid is tracking these developments.

So, why do they believe they have a right to a three-year delay?

PAULA REID, CNN SENIOR LEGAL AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: Yes, right, they're asking for approximately three years between indictment and trial.

They argue that they need that time to prepare. I have seen them argue in other cases in court, for example, in the Mar-a-Lago case, that, look, they have a lot of cases, they have a lot of work, and they can't do everything at once.

In their filing, they argue -- quote -- "The government's objective is clear, to deny President Trump and his counsel a fair ability to prepare for a trial. The court should deny the government's request."

And, of course, the government is requesting to take this to trial on January 2, 2024. But this is going to be up to the judge, Judge Tanya Chutkan. She has the final say, and she's looking at a calendar that's pretty crowded. You have got the possibility of four criminal trials, in addition to civil matters.

And I think there is a legitimate question, could this be the one or one of the trials that happens before the 2024 election? Most of the experts I have spoken with think this one probably has the strongest chance. But we will get an answer from Judge Chutkan on August 28.

SCIUTTO: Stronger even than the documents case?

REID: Yes, mostly because of the amount of preparation that is needed.

In a matter that involves classified documents, there are a lot of legitimate arguments about how long it's going to take to go through that discovery.


REID: You also, in that case, have a much less experienced judge.

Judge Aileen Cannon, who's overseeing the Mar-a-Lago documents case, a Trump appointee, she's only been on the bench a few years whereas Judge Chutkan, she's been on the bench for a decade. And, Jim, being in court with her for this case, one thing I have seen is, she moves quickly. She doesn't allow even short delays, so she seems poised to want to

move this along.

SCIUTTO: All right, in Fulton County, we're seeing so many threats against federal officials or state officials involved, as well as the grand jurors.

REID: Yes.

SCIUTTO: In addition to those persons' safety -- obviously, that's priority.

REID: Yes.

SCIUTTO: Are officials worried about a chilling effect on the justice system? I would imagine grand jurors down the road might say, hey, wait a second, if all my information is going to be out there on a sensitive case, I might face some threats.

REID: It's completely reasonable for anyone to think that.

This is a quirk of Georgia law, that the names of grand jurors are on one of the first few pages of the indictment. I was actually very surprised to see it the night we were covering the indictment. We don't see that in the other cases. This is the way Georgia does this, in the interest of transparency.

But, of course, here there are repercussions, the fact that these people have been doxxed. You have what purports to be their pictures, their addresses out there on the Web. And we know that that could have a chilling effect.

It was interesting. One of the women who testified in this case, a former Democratic state Senator, Jen Jordan, she said outright, she said, look, things like this, this could make it more difficult for prosecutors to be able to seat a trial jury, if people are worried for their safety and that of their families.


REID: Now, we have also learned that Fulton County officials have faced threats, though we don't have a lot of specifics. They're not sharing a lot of information.

And, of course, DA Fani Willis, who has repeatedly been criticized by former President Trump, security has been stepped up at her Georgia residence.


SCIUTTO: Yes, I spoke to a Republican lawyer yesterday who said that those -- as you say, those laws were designed for transparency, but they may not match this time, right...

REID: Exactly right.

SCIUTTO: ... when the attacks on the system are so frequent and often so violent.

REID: And some states have an option.


REID: Some states have an option if there's a public interest or security concerns outweigh, right, the need for transparency. And that could have been the case here if they had had that option.


Paula Reid, thanks so much -- Boris.

SANCHEZ: After his latest indictment dropped in Georgia, former President Trump promised a major news conference on Monday, during which he was expected to trot out more of his baseless claims about the 2020 election.

But now that event has been canceled.

Let's bring in CNN's Alayna Treene.

Alayna, why the backtrack?

ALAYNA TREENE, CNN POLITICAL REPORTER: Well, Boris, Donald Trump's team, many of them were actually pretty caught off guard by that post.

I spoke with some of his advisers immediately after it happened, and I know our colleague Kaitlan Collins has some of this reporting as well. And many of them didn't know that he was going to be saying that. And so I think many of his lawyers in Georgia are focused on these negotiations right now with the Fulton County district attorney's office about his potential surrender next week.

And so, when they saw this, again, a little bit of a surprise there. Now, we are told that his team advised him against doing this. I think there was a little bit of debate within Trump world and within his inner circle about whether or not it should go forward. And, clearly, the people urging him not to do this have prevailed.

Now, Donald Trump, when he announced that he is no longer holding this, he did say that he expects some of the claims in this report to be put into legal filings. I think there's still a question of whether or not that will actually happen.


TREENE: But this is him -- kind of an about-face for him.

SANCHEZ: Well, part of the reason it was a surprise is because Trump and his allies filed some 60 lawsuits after the 2020 election alleging that there was this widespread fraud.

But they provided no actual proof in court to corroborate his claims.

TREENE: Right. SANCHEZ: But then, all of a sudden, there's a new report out?

TREENE: Right.

Well, so details on this report, I have heard that it's kind of a pet project of one of Donald Trump's aides. Her name is Liz Harrington. And a lot of people describe her as someone who's a true believer that the 2020 election was stolen and kind of repeats the same false claims that Donald Trump has been repeating for years now about fraud in Georgia specifically.

Of course, these are things that he is being charged with, in part, in the Georgia indictment. And that's an obvious reason why his team did not want him to go forward with this press conference on Monday.

SANCHEZ: Potentially more legal liability.

TREENE: Exactly.

SANCHEZ: Alayna Treene, thanks so much for the reporting -- Jim.

SCIUTTO: Coming up next on CNN NEWS CENTRAL: The U.S. and other Western nations have been pumping weapons and money into Ukraine since the Russian invasion to help it defend itself.

We do have new reporting that U.S. officials are not entirely on board with Kyiv's latest military strategy.

Plus, it is not what you want to see when you look out the window of a plane. What happened on this flight from Texas to Mexico? Goodness, looks scary.