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Netanyahu Orders Military To Plan For Evacuation Of Rafah; Scholars: A Win For Trump On Ballot Case May Mean A Loss On Immunity Bid; White House Briefs Reporters After Scathing Special Counsel Report. Aired 1:30-2p ET

Aired February 09, 2024 - 13:30   ET



NIC ROBERTSON, CNN INTERNATIONAL DIPLOMATIC EDITOR: And it worries them because they know how hard it will be to execute their mission to capture and kill Hamas where there are so many civilians.

And the Egyptian foreign minister just the other day said this could get so bad people in Rafah could try to get over the border and come into Egypt. What's that? One million people, half a million people, who knows what the number might be.

But this is a scenario that is really worrying. And the worries go outside of Israel. They go into Egypt, too.

BORIS SANCHEZ, CNN HOST: And that reverberates across the region and even here politically in the United States.

Nic Robertson, thanks so much for the update.


BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN HOST: Let's discuss this further now with retired Army Brigadier General Steve Anderson.

General, it's great to have you.

Because your expertise is logistics. You now have Prime Minister Netanyahu asking the IDF to draw up a plan to evacuate well over a million people from Rafah, something the White House says would be a disaster.

Is this even possible? What would this look like?

BRIG GEN. STEVE ANDERSON, U.S. ARMY, RETIRED: Thank you for having me, Brianna.

Yes, it would be possible but it would be very difficult. But I think it misses the point that Nic made, in which Netanyahu is trying to pass the buck to the military to solve this problem for him.

Whereas this is a political situation. They need a political solution, the two-state solution. I mean, what's going on now in Gaza? Now four months into this, you

essentially have got a petri dish for growing future terrorists going on in there.

This is not a military solution at this point. We need to have a political situation solved. You need a two-state solution.

I mean, an occupation force like this, down in Rafah and all the rest of Gaza, plays right into the Iranian hands. They can point at Israel, the United States as hating them and everything they stand for.

It also -- Saudi Arabia has a problem with this. They will not sign a peace deal with Israel as long as this is going on.

The other thing is it's a math problem. There's only 10 million Israelis. There are two million people in the Gaza Strip. There is no way they can occupy all the Gaza Strip effectively without having a major impact on their economy, their entire way of life.

So they've got to do everything they can to come up with a political solution, Brianna.

KEILAR: You have, though, Netanyahu calling Rafah Hamas's last bastion. You have Israeli officials raising the specter of taking on Hezbollah in Lebanon in a big way.

These are not the words of officials who are talking about backing off. What do you think about what you are hearing and where this is headed?

ANDERSON: Well, true, Hezbollah is a real threat to Israel up north. They've probably got 25,000 soldiers up there. They claim to have 100,000 rockets. There are attacks happening up there almost every day.

But the last thing they need to do is open up another front with Hezbollah. They do not need to take on Hezbollah in any way, shape, or form.

They need to solve the problem on the Gaza Strip, which is huge. They need to come up with a political situation -- solution to this, a two- state solution.

The other thing I would say, Brianna, is they have yet to -- the Israelis have yet to account for what happened on the 7th of November -- of October, four months ago.

It is still incredible to me that there has been no accountability from this, the most significant letdown in national defense by a country maybe in the history.

It's almost inconceivable that they could allow the advance like the 7th of October happened.

Everybody sympathizes with Israel, but they had about a three- or four-month window of opportunity there to solve this problem. After that -- I mean, right now, Israel is turning into a political

liability for President Biden and the rest of the world is getting ticked off.

They've got to come up with a political solution now. They need to rescue the hostages and they need to develop a two-state solution that gives the Palestinians self-rule.

KEILAR: General Steve Anderson, thank you so much. We appreciate your time today, sir.

ANDERSON: Thank you.


KEILAR: Ahead, we are standing by for the first White House press briefing since that scathing DOJ report. We know the spokesperson for the White House Counsel's Office is going to be joining the White House press secretary. So we are going to be bringing this to you, live.


SANCHEZ: Donald Trump may face win-lose rulings in his Supreme Court battles. The justices appear poised to side with Trump in the historic ballad eligibility case before them right now.

KEILAR: And according to some legal scholars, the high court might then be open to taking up his immunity case and rule against the former president.

We have CNN's Paula Reid with us now.

Paula, these are two entirely different issues. Why are some scholars connecting them?

PAULA REID, CNN CHIEF LEGAL AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: Because they are connected by the same person in the middle, former President Trump.

Look, two things can be true. This is a high court that's under enormous scrutiny. Questions about ethics and partisanship.

The chief justice is under enormous pressure to find, for example, in the ballot case, find some sort of opinion that can draw bipartisan consensus, likely be very narrow. If you listen to the arguments yesterday, it's clearly possible he can do that.

But at the same time, you have two cases that are not equal in terms of their legal merit for the former president. Ballot eligibility, also a strong argument for him, a very ambiguous Constitutional provision. Different outcomes across states, across the country.

And this idea that you would allow states to Strip voters of their choice of candidate it is one that is powerful, not only in the high court, because it's for case law to defend that, but also the court of public opinion. This idea of absolute presidential immunity, I know from talking to

sources in and around the Trump legal team, even they know that it is not a winning issue on the merits for them.

And in many ways, they are litigating that issue, not only to try to exercise their clients' rights to the fullest extent, but also to try to get the Jack Smith case delayed until after the November election.

So what people want to say, oh, maybe the Supreme Court will split the baby here. I think it is just the fact is the law allows them to do that. Trump has a strong case on ballot eligibility, far less on immunity.

I think people around the former president think it's unlikely the Supreme Court will want to take up the ballot eligibility question.

So the question is, how long does it take them to get an answer on what they are going to do? That, the timing, really matters more than anything. The longer it takes, then the less likely Jack Smith can bring his case.

SANCHEZ: It's fascinating, Paula, that you say that, in speaking to the Trump legal team and people in that orbit, they share with you this acknowledgment that the immunity case has its flaws. Because when you listen to their testimony in court, they contradicted themselves a few times.


REID: They did. And they were throwing some hypotheticals, right?


REID: The president, on January 6th says to take out their arrival. You are kind of locked into being, like maybe. You have to go through impeachment. They are boxed into a really untenable idea.

Of course, we want our presidents to have some protection and immunity so they can conduct wars, so they can do their job without worrying about personal liability.

But there has to be limits to that. They have not been able to identify reasonable limits. That's why they are likely to lose at the Supreme Court if they even take up the case.

SANCHEZ: Paula Reid, thanks so much for the update.

So we just got a two-minute warning from the White House, that press briefing -- we see the podium there -- is set to start shortly.

This is the first one since President Biden's impromptu press conference last night. Some missteps and miscues for the president. We will see how the White House answers for them in just moments.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) KEILAR: All right, we're watching the White House briefing. Here you see Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre speaking. She is going over a couple of topics and then she's going to be handing it over to Ian Sams, who is the spokesperson for the White House Counsel.

This is going to be the first time we've heard from him. This is the first briefing we have heard since President Biden's press conference last night.

SANCHEZ: It was one in which the president made some remarks that contradicted details that were in the report.

We have with us Paula Reid and Norm Eisen.


Norm, what did you make of the president's remarks last night? A different moment, he seemed to go against what was in the actual details of Robert Hur's report, right?

NORM EISEN, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Boris, it's not unusual for there to be some dispute around particular details of a special counsel report.

The big takeaway is that the special counsel, Robert Hur, found there was no actionable misconduct here, that no laws were broken. President Biden certainly agreed and is vehemently so that he hadn't broken any laws.

And I think there is a legitimate discussion to be had. Of course, I was the Obama White House ethics czar. I was talking to the Bush-era ethics czar. We were surprised that the special counsel veered, in our view, gratuitously into comments about the presidents age and memory that are the most hot-button political issues right now.

There is a long-standing DOJ principle that prosecutors should avoid that kind of thing when they don't charge. Former Attorney General Eric Holder spoke about it.

As this sinks in, we understand better some of why Biden was concerned. I'm not justifying what he did with the documents.

KEILAR: Let's listen to Ian Sams at the White House.

IAN SAMS, SPOKESMAN, WHITE HOUSE COUNSEL'S OFFICE: I will talk about a few things I think are important for you all to hear. And for the American people to hear.

The president spoke powerfully about this last night. After a long investigation that turned over every stone and explored every theory, the special counsel decided that there was no case there.

Notably, he said this would be true whether President Biden was president or a private citizen.

The special counsel's assignment, when he was appointed, was to determine whether any criminal conduct occurred. He found it didn't. That was the finding. The case is closed.

I want to read you something from none other than Ken Starr, who most people in this room will remember as the independent counsel who investigated former President Clinton.

After that investigation, here's what he said the Congress. Quote, what I see the conclusion as being is just a determination that no criminal charges would be brought. Period, full stop. And that's it. It's all over at that stage," end quote."

That rings true here.

The special counsel report goes on at length about the presidents unprecedented cooperation in this case.

I want to share a few things about that because I think it is very important.

Number one, when the classified documents were found, it was self- reported. The president directed his team to ensure that any classified documents were returned immediately.

Why did he do that? Because the president takes classified information seriously. He always has.

He did not intentionally take classified documents. He understands documents like that belong with the government. He never, never made any attempt to obstruct.

Two, he took unprecedented action to get the special counsel what he needed. He opened up every room in his family home and his beach house for comprehensive FBI searches, the first time in history.

He sat for two days of interviews, an interview that, I will add -- and the president talked about this last night -- took place the day after the brutal attack on Israel.

The president was managing an intensive international crisis. You just heard the vice president talk about this. He answered dozens of follow-up questions to the special counsel in writing.

Three, he didn't exert executive privilege over any contents of the report. He was transparent. He had nothing to hide. There was a long, intensive and, in many ways, yes, excessive investigation.

But for context, you should all remember, in the case of former Vice President Mike Pence, who had a very similar incident occur right after President Biden, the case was closed within a few months. It was a brief, one page letter to Mike pence.

But in this case, there was a 15-month investigation. The special counsel interviewed 150 witnesses. He sought and obtained seven million pages of documents, down to emails about moving trucks during the transition in 2016 and 2017.

He spent more than three and a half million taxpayer dollars exploring every possible theory that he could. And what was the result? He reached the inevitable conclusion, based on the facts and the evidence, that there was no case here.

This is important to think about in the context of how this report is being viewed and being covered. This is the first special counsel investigation, ever, that hasn't indicted anyone.

Every theory was explored, but the facts and the evidence disputed them. The decision was that there was no case to be made.


In that reality, we also need to talk about the environment that we are in. For the past few years, Republicans in Congress and elsewhere have been attacking prosecutors who aren't doing what Republicans want politically.

They have made up claims of a two-tiered system of justice between Republicans and Democrats. They have denigrated the rule of law for political purposes.

That reality creates a tone of pressure. And in that pressurized political environment, when the inevitable conclusion is that the facts and the evidence don't support any charges, you are left to wonder why this report spends time making gratuitous and inappropriate criticisms of the president.

Over the past 24 hours, we've actually seen legal experts and former prosecutors come out and give their analysis.

Former Attorney General Eric Holder said the report, quote, "contains way too many gratuitous remarks, and is flatly inconsistent with long- standing DOJ traditions."

The former acting FBI director said he had overseen many cases like this and, quote, "you have to have explicit evidence of willful retention of documents and that is just not present in this case."

The former FBI general counsel was also the lead prosecutor in the Special Counsel Mueller investigation, said, it was, quote, "exactly what you're not supposed to do," which is putting your thumb on the scale that could have political repercussions.

That is the assessment of seasoned professional law enforcement officials and prosecutors with deep experience at the Department of Justice.

Unfortunately, the gratuitous remarks that the former attorney general talked about have naturally caught headlines and all of your attention. They are wrong. And they are inaccurate.

And they obscure a very simple truth that I want to repeat one last time since I know it is hard to wade through 400 full pages.

One, the report lays out example after example of how the president did not willfully take classified documents. The report lays out how the president did not share classified

documents with anyone. The report lays out how the president did not knowingly share classified information with anyone.

On page two, which I know you all read, the report argues that the president willfully retained materials. But buried way later, on page 215, the report says, and I quote, "There is, in fact, a shortage of evidence on these points." Two hundred pages later.

Put simply, this case is closed, because the facts and the evidence don't support the theories here.

The gratuitous comments that respected experts are saying is out of line, are inappropriate. And they shouldn't distract from the fact that this case is closed. And the facts and evidence show that they reached the right conclusion.

With that, I'm happy to take questions.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: When did -- was the president briefed about the contents of the report?

SAMS: President Biden was briefed by his lawyers.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: And second, the president, as you mentioned again, you've obviously - (INAUDIBLE) -- were gratuitous. Does the president still have confidence in Merrick Garland, after selecting Hur to be put in this position?

SAMS: If the president spoke to this last night -- I can't remember which of you asked him what his thoughts were on the appointment of special counsel, and he answer that I think thoughtfully and powerfully. And I don't really have anything to add beyond what the president said.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: (INAUDIBLE) -- is important the release of the entire transcript of his interview, to put to rest some of the things that you think are being overlooked?

SAMS: That's a reasonable question. I think that it is important to know that we are dealing with classified materials in this conversation. There are classified issues there. I don't have the announcement on releasing anything today.

But it is a reasonable question, and there are classified stuff and we will have to work through all of that.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: But once you -- get a redacted version, will the president support of the release, as long as you can obviously keep what needs to be kept secret, secret?

SAMS: We will take a look at that and make a determination.


Two questions. First, you said at the top of the president takes information seriously. And the president said last night that he never discussed classified material with anyone.

But the special counsel's report said that on three different occasions, he did discuss it with his ghostwriter. I understand it didn't meet the bar for prosecution, but how do you reconcile the president staying he never discussed material?

SAMS: Sure. Well, if you read the full report, it actually gets into each of those three instances. I think Justin rightly points out that we are talking of three instances out of 250 pages of evidence that they are talking about, criticizing.

I think it is important to look at those three examples. Two of them are his own notes to himself in his personal diary, that he was reading about to his ghostwriter, for his memoir, for a memoir about his life after his son, Beau, died.


And, he was reading these passages that he had written to himself, to share information with him. And he took pains, and the report lays this out, to express how sensitive some of the information was, and that we should be careful with it.

And of those two passages from his diaries that he talked about with his ghostwriter, not in the book. There is no classified information in the book. And so I want to just make that point.

And the second is, there is kind of an allegation of willfully taking a classified document that he talked about with his ghostwriter. That is false. As the president talked about last night.

He was, again, talking about a handwritten letter that he had sent to President Obama, and facts to him, about the Afghanistan troop surge.

These are the president's own personal writings. You know, the president's own diary notes to himself.

And I think there is an important thing to think about here. There is plenty of historical analogues. The most notable of which is Ronald Reagan, President Reagan, whose diaries were very famously became a subject of a lot of attention in the country.

And the Justice Department knew that President Reagan's diary had classified information, new it at the time. He took those diaries home. He read those diaries to people.

He shared the actual physical copy of the diaries, which is this special counsel report talks about. Joe Biden never even gave custody of his notebooks to anybody.

And they never even asked for those diaries back, and they never launched an investigation. And why is that? It's because historically, going back to the beginning of the country, presidents keep diaries.

We should want our presidents to be thoughtful and deliberative about the decision that they make on the most consequential issues of our time. And, we have entrusted presidents to be safekeepers of this information.

And we have expressed great gratitude, including many of you in the press, when presidents share through books and other things insights into their thinking and decision-making, and historical context.

And so I think it is lost in the shuffle of all of this that the president did what all of his predecessors had done, which was take notes for himself, to keep a diary of his own daily life, so that he could think back on these big moments of the time.

And so, that's important to know about this allegation that there was sharing --


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Right. Is it your contention that just because the president reroute classified material in his own words, and then shared with somebody who didn't have the security clearance for it, that it was OK?

SAMS: Well, let's look at the report. I mean, we talked a lot about this. I understand it's long, 400 pages. I'm not sure how many people in this room have read the entire thing.

Page three, which I think everybody is asking about, and understandably, says, quote, "Mr. Biden shared information, including some classified information, with his ghostwriter."

But if you go to page 248, the report says, quote, "We conclude that the evidence does not establish that Mr. Biden willfully disclosed national defense information to his writing assistant."

That's in the report. That's the conclusion that was made based on the evidence.

And there's something else I want to add about this, because we have gone back and forth. On page one of the report, it says, "The president willfully retain classified-mark documents related to Afghanistan."

But on page 215 of the report, it says, quote, "There is, in fact, a shortage of evidence on these points."

On page five of the report -- everybody read that, first few pages. It says, quote, "Mr. Biden's memory was significantly limited."

But here's something that everyone should make sure that they see. Elsewhere in the report, he says, quote, "We expect the evidence of Mr. Biden's state of mind to be compelling," pointing to him providing, quote, "clear and forceful testimony."

That is his comments on his state of mind later in the report.


SAMS: And so I think it is important to take the report in its totality and understand that, in that report, the facts and evidence refute the theories that are floated that they explored.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Maybe we disagree on the -- if he should be qualified.

But there's one thing I want to ask you about, which is that his attorney has said that they were going to work on the process to make sure that none of this happens again.

Obviously, there's the potential that this administration has less than a year left, so I'm when or if you can detail -- what the timeline is on that, what you guys are considering for that type of process.

SAMS: That's a great question. I think that something that this issue a year ago brought to light is that this is, unfortunately, a very common occurrence in our country.

The National Archives has talked about how 80 different libraries and collections, just in the last decade or so, have called and said, oh, we found classified documents in these papers. And they have a process that you're supposed to turn those back in.

But then, we have the issue with President Biden. Immediately after that, we had the issue with Vice President Pence. And I think it's important to understand that this is a common occurrence. And the president thinks that we should fix it.


Like, he gave all of these documents back. He knew he did not -- that these governments should not be -- that the government should be in possession of these documents.