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Man Tries to Open Plane's Emergency Exit Door; Republicans' Collapsing Case Against Joe Biden. Aired 1-1:30p ET

Aired February 21, 2024 - 13:00   ET



BORIS SANCHEZ, CNN HOST: The collapsing case against Joe Biden, Republicans' effort to impeach the president may be running out of steam. Today, they're grilling President Biden's brother behind closed doors, a critical interview for an impeachment push that's now on life support.

And yet another midair scare, this time, passengers tackling a man to the ground after he tries to open an emergency door mid-flight. Details on what happened.

JESSICA DEAN, CNN HOST: And new charges filed just moments ago after an 11-year-old girl was found dead in Texas. More on the man now facing capital murder charges in her death.

We're following these major developing stories and many more. It's all coming in right here to CNN NEWS CENTRAL.

SANCHEZ: The Republicans' impeachment inquiry into President Biden is potentially hanging by a thread after one of their core allegations of a Biden bribery scheme appears to have been completely made up.

The claims came from FBI informant Alexander Smirnov. The GOP spent months touting his credibility, but he's just been charged with lying to the FBI. And he admitted that some of the supposed dirt he had on the Bidens was provided to him by Russian intelligence officers.

Today, Republicans on the Oversight Committee are trying to get their probe back on track. They're pressing the FBI for an explanation and they're currently grilling the president's brother James Biden behind closed doors.

Let's start with CNN's Marshall Cohen.

Marshall, what do we know about this indicted informant?


These are some really startling allegations. We're talking about Alexander Smirnov, the former informant who was charged last week with lying to the FBI about the Bidens, as you mentioned, falsely accusing the president and his son Hunter Biden of taking millions of dollars in bribes from Ukraine. Now, after Smirnov was arrested last week, he told authorities about

his longstanding contacts with foreign operatives. According to court filings, he claimed that Russian officials tied to Russian intelligence agencies previously passed information to him about Hunter Biden, information that the DOJ says was false and information that has had a major impact on our politics.

Congressional Republicans have peddled Smirnov's uncorroborated robbery allegations for the better part of the last year. Now, look, Boris, Smirnov is charged with lying to the FBI, so it's kind of hard to know exactly what to believe here.

But in this filing, special counsel David Weiss and his team really sent up a flare, a warning about potential election interference. Let me read this for you.

They wrote that -- quote -- "Smirnov's efforts to spread misinformation about a candidate of one of the two major parties in the United States continues." Dot, dot, dot. They went on to say that he is actively peddling new lies that could impact U.S. elections after meeting with Russian intelligence officials in November, as recently as just a few months ago.

Now, for his part, Smirnov has not yet entered a plea, but his attorney said that he is going to mount a rigorous defense to these felony charges -- Boris.

SANCHEZ: Now, Marshall prosecutors felt that he was a flight risk. They wanted him jailed during his proceedings, but a judge opted to let him out, right?

COHEN: That is correct.

A federal judge in Las Vegas last night released Smirnov from jail. That was over the objections of the special counsel, who warned that Smirnov could use his foreign contacts to flee. Prosecutors even raised the possibility in that hearing yesterday that he might try to escape to Russia, where he can't be extradited.

But the judge let him go with strict conditions. He will be subjected to GPS tracking and the government seized his passports. According to court filings, he has both U.S. and Israeli citizenship, and they said he has more than $6 million in the bank. They were passing that information to the judge, so that -- as part of their case that this guy might try to flee.

But the judge decided to let him go, but in the last hour, Boris, those prosecutors asked a separate judge in California to reconsider the detention and send Smirnov back to jail, so more to come on this.


SANCHEZ: Yes, we know you will keep an eye on it. Marshall Cohen, thanks so much for the update.

We want to take you now to Capitol Hill with CNN's Melanie Zanona. Melania, a major part of the impeachment push from House Republicans

hinged on this allegation that there was a bribery scheme between the Bidens, but now the key source of that allegation acknowledges that it was made up.


But, at this point, there is no signs that Republicans are planning to drop their impeachment inquiry into President Biden. In fact, they have been defiant, even though that FBI informant was charged by the FBI for making up these false bribery allegations about Joe Biden.

Those now-discredited claims were memorialized in a document, an FBI document known as a 1023, something that Republicans fought for months to make public last year. And it really was at the heart of the reason why they opened an impeachment inquiry in the first place.

But now they are trying to downplay the significance of that allegation. Just take a listen to this exchange between Manu Raju and House Judiciary Chair Jim Jordan.


MANU RAJU, CNN CHIEF CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: You said the 1023 is the most corroborating piece of information you have.

REP. JIM JORDAN (R-OH): It corroborates, but it doesn't -- it doesn't change those fundamental facts. So now...

RAJU: But it's not true.

JORDAN: Well, so -- OK. So the FBI told us that this source was so -- 14 years, this source was a paid source by the FBI. When we were trying to get the 1023, they told us, oh, this could jeopardize national security, this -- to this source, didn't want to release it.

And now they're saying, oh, he gave false information. The other thing, there was a story out. Scott Brady, the U.S. attorney, did check the travel records of this confidential human source and found that he was at those places he said he was. So...

RAJU: But your promotion of a bribery scheme was false.

JORDAN: Not at all.


ZANONA: Yet Republicans have hauled in witness after witness who have testified that Joe Biden was not involved in his son's or brother's business deals overseas and that he never took any official actions because of those deals.

And, in fact, James Biden just testified behind closed doors and repeated that assertion. I want to read you a part of his statement which was obtained by our colleague Annie Grayer. James Biden said: "I have had a 50-year career in a variety of

business ventures. Joe Biden has never had any involvement or any direct or indirect financial interest in those activities, none."

Yet Republicans are continuing to search for a lifeline here for their flailing impeachment effort, as they have struggled to convince many of their own members to get on board with impeachment. So these depositions, both today and next week with Hunter, are very high stakes for Republicans here.

SANCHEZ: Melanie Zanona live from Capitol Hill, thank you so much.

DEAN: And let's discuss this now with CNN legal analyst Norm Eisen and former CIA chief of Russia operations Steve Hall.

Gentlemen, great to see you.

Steve, let's start first with you. Who, if anyone, got duped here? Is it the FBI, Republicans, both?

STEVE HALL, FORMER CIA OFFICER: Well, duped is kind of an interesting word.

I mean, it's always difficult, whether or not you're the FBI and you're handling confidential informants who you may or may not trust, depending on what they're reporting. I did the same thing in the foreign field where you're dealing with foreigners who are who are informants providing you with information.

And it's always difficult to tell what exactly is going on. You have to be constantly testing. So the FBI is responsible for doing that. But in the Smirnov case, the fact that they have had him as a confidential informant for 10 years does speak to the fact that they kept going back to him, therefore believing, at least in some part, what he was saying, until I guess it came out recently that he was lying.

This is very consistent with what the Russians are doing. That's the other thing. If the Russians are pushing a confidential informant on the FBI and they're controlling it in the background, it can be much harder for the FBI and other organizations to try to suss it out.

So it's complicated, this human collection activity, and the FBI is sort of in a position right now where they have got to figure it out.

SANCHEZ: Yes, no question that it's complicated, Steve, but I'm wondering, what processes are there for officials to try to suss out if someone is effectively a double agent and feeding information to our intelligence services from another intelligence service, this one being hostile in Russia?

HALL: Yes, again, it's complicated. I don't want to speak to the FBI process too much.

You would better to -- better to get an FBI person to explain that to you. But I can tell you that all collection elements of the U.S. government, whether it's domestic, FBI, or foreign, CIA, they have processes by which you're going to vet these people.

Part of it is the information they're providing compared to other sources. Some of it is simply how they behave in operational testing of these sources to try to find out what exactly they're telling you and if it's actually true. So there are processes that are in place to do this.

But, as has become clear, they're not always perfect and sometimes things slip through. That appears to be what happened this time.

DEAN: Yes.

And, Norm, let's talk a little bit just generally about this impeachment process. You have some experience with impeachment for Democrats with the first Trump impeachment. Where does this probe go next? Because we saw Manu's interview there with Jim Jordan. They don't want to drop this.


NORM EISEN, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: I'm afraid it's going nowhere next.

And that's been clear for a while now. The testimony of Mr. Smirnov was contained in a memo. And the Department of Justice and the FBI warned again and again that that memo should not be publicly disclosed. They signaled the unreliability of this information.

Like so much else that this majority has done in the House, there was no basis once the investigation became clear. CNN reports that there have been eight witnesses who have all uniformly said no evidence of wrongdoing by Joe Biden.

So this is the most outrageous example of what has been a series of failures. There should not have been an impeachment inquiry. That's the bipartisan consensus of experts that I joined. There was no predicate for the inquiry. And there's no basis for an impeachment. And it looks very much, with even the leaders of the efforts saying they may not be able to accomplish an impeachment, that this is heading no place.

SANCHEZ: Norm, this reverberates beyond Congress too, because Hunter Biden's legal team jumped on this through Abbe Lowell, and they filed something in his criminal prosecution arguing that this Smirnov situation has infected Hunter's case, that it was the basis for the special counsel to blow up the plea deal before he was even actually special counsel.

How does this impact Hunter Biden's legal case?

EISEN: It will have some collateral or atmospheric impact, Boris.

But the brunt of the legal case is really focused on gun possession charges and tax charges that are independent of Mr. Smirnov's alleged wrongdoing. I mean, you really highlighted how shocking that is, that Russian disinformation may be entering this impeachment inquiry and the American congressional and legal system through Mr. Smirnov.

That being said, while those charges are questionable, they were the subject of a plea deal, a no-jail plea, and now they have exploded into these two cases, they're questionable on other grounds. I don't think the Smirnov incident is going to undermine them. Although there are other legal problems with those charges, Smirnov's not a major part of that.

DEAN: All right, Norm Eisen and Steve Hall, our thanks to both of you for being with us this afternoon.

Still ahead here: Donald Trump compares his legal battles in the U.S. to the death of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny. And coming up, you're going to hear his comments. We will also bring you the facts.

Plus: It's a life-changing day for more than 150,000 people who just found out their student loan debt is no more.

And an American Airlines passenger allegedly tried to open the emergency door mid-flight. See how passengers and the crew worked together to tie him up.

We have these stories and more coming up this hour.



DEAN: Some terrifying moments on an American Airlines flight, a man allegedly trying to open an emergency exit door in midair, prompting passengers to subdue him as the crew restrained him with duct tape and flexicuffs. The plane then returned to Albuquerque, where it landed safely.

CNN aviation correspondent Pete Muntean joins us.

Pete, whenever you join us, something wild has happened.


DEAN: And this is no exception.

PETE MUNTEAN, CNN AVIATION CORRESPONDENT: I feel like I'm trying to make people scared of flying.

DEAN: Right.

MUNTEAN: And I don't want them to.

DEAN: Right.

MUNTEAN: And the silver lining here is that it's really, really hard to open an emergency exit in flight, just because the inside of a cabin is so pressurized. The air outside is much more dense. Makes it harder to pull it in and open it -- or more dense, inside, rather than outside. I got that backwards.

Unruly passengers were a really big problem back in 2021. It seems like we can't really escape it, though, and it continues to follow us into 2024. Passengers tell us that this man was seated in the emergency exit row and tried to open the emergency exit, even got the cover of the handle off.

Passengers tackled him. Flight attendants restrained him with tape and those flexicuffs. So, American Airlines flight 1219 from Albuquerque to Chicago O'Hare diverted back to Albuquerque, because this only happened about 20 minutes into the flight.

You can see in the video there, this man being led by police down the jetway emergency exit stairs, the gate there. Not clear if he's been arrested yet. We're still looking for charging documents. The FBI, though, does tell us it's investigating this, FAA also investigating.

They say there have been about 254 cases of unruly passengers so far this year. Just want you to compare that to 2021, when there was the federal transportation mask mandate in place that drove a lot of these incidents, 5,973 incidents back in 2021.

The rate is really key here, especially when you consider, back in 2021, there really weren't all that many flights flying still because of the downturn of the pandemic. The rate did go up a little bit last summer, but now it's down to a bit more of a normal level. So this is a bit of an anomaly, although we keep hearing about these incidents from time to time.

DEAN: I know. It's nice, though, and reassuring that the passengers, like, banded together. I do feel good about hearing that.

MUNTEAN: Yes. And you have to hand it to the flight crew, because, really, they are the last line of defense to try and make it so that these incidents don't happen.


I said yesterday, the top tip on a commercial airliner, don't check a bag. The real top tip is be good to the flight crew.

DEAN: Be good -- yes.

MUNTEAN: Because they are the last line of defense between you and something bad happening on a commercial flight.

DEAN: I also -- before you go, there's a new FAA investigation under way in Denver.


DEAN: What's that about?

MUNTEAN: There was a United flight that had this issue. On Reddit, actually, passengers brought this to the attention online and said, should I mention this is the flight crew? They said yes. This is the image that they saw out of the wing. It's similar to the

Alaska Flight 1282 incident, in that people are paying attention more and more to things happening on planes. That was a brand-new MAX 9, a 737. This is a 30-year-old 757. And you can see the damage there to the slat.

That is something, a movable part on the front of the wing that essentially changes the curvature, the camber of the wing, to change how the wing flies at slow air speeds, like during takeoff and landing.

Ultimately, this was uneventful. This flight diverted. It was going to Boston, got diverted to Denver, where there's a big United maintenance base. The plane hasn't flown since, 165 people on board all OK. But this is a pretty significant thing, considering -- as many planes are getting older and older these days. These 757s are actually pretty old now, above the average.

The latest data says the average airplane in the U.S. used by a commercial airline is about 13 years old. And so that number will obviously change as some of these older planes get retired.

DEAN: All right. You always come with lots of -- armed with lots of information.


DEAN: But you're right. Don't be afraid. It's OK.

MUNTEAN: Don't freak out.

DEAN: All right, thanks so much.

MUNTEAN: Any time.

DEAN: Boris.

SANCHEZ: Let's talk more about the ongoing flight dangers with Mary Schiavo. She's a CNN transportation analyst and former inspector general for the Department of Transportation.

We should point out, for the sake of transparency, Mary has some ongoing litigation against Boeing from a 2019 crash.

Mary, thank you so much for being with us this afternoon.

First, on this unruly passenger, Pete outlined that it's very difficult to get one of those doors open in midair, but it's still terrifying that someone would even attempt to, especially if you're on that plane. What would you tell folks to do in that situation?

MARY SCHIAVO, CNN TRANSPORTATION ANALYST: Well, folks have to do it literally exactly what they did.

Remember, the flight attendants are on board primarily to assist you to save your life and get off the plane. But there's only one per about 50 passengers. So there are just not enough of them to subdue somebody, even though I always have to point out, in the case of the shoe bomber, it was an American Airlines flight attendant that threw herself on the shoe bomber to save the plane.

But, passengers, it's perfectly OK to band together and help the flight crew and literally save the flight in some cases from an unruly passenger.

You know, and Pete also pointed out, if the plane is pressurized -- that's the key point. If the plane is pressurized, it's difficult, I would go so far to say impossible, to get an emergency door or emergency window exit open, because you have to have about 1,000 pounds per square foot of pressure.

So, if you're -- if you have got six square feet, 6,000 pounds, 10 square feet, 10,000 pounds, human beings just don't have that much pressure. So if the plane is pressurized, you're not going to get it open. So Pete was exactly right. So people don't have to worry about that if someone tries, but they do have to worry about what the person is up to and how to -- how to take care of that person until the flight lands.

SANCHEZ: Mary, Pete also walked through the numbers of these kinds of incidents, and it seems that the rate of them is definitely trending down, especially from the pandemic, when it felt like once a week we were seeing these crazy videos of people on planes.

What do you make of the environment for flying right now? Or does it seem to you like there are more of these incidents? Or is it just that a lot more people have phones that capture video and we learn about them more often?

SCHIAVO: Well, I think a lot more -- I mean, surely in the last decade, we are able to see them, to review them. People comment on them. So, yes, the advent of the cell phones and the cell phone videos being posted online makes us much more aware of it.

But there have been lots of studies over the years, and the federal Department of Transportation has tried to keep track of reports of unruly behavior, passenger misbehavior, air rage, but it's very difficult because the reporting is sporadic. And, really, people with their cell phones capture a lot more than the Federal Aviation Administration does in many of these cases.

But the height of it -- in many studies, the height of it comes when you have a mix of alcohol, because the pressurization has an effect on the human body with alcohol. But in the case of these incidents where people try to open the door, many of them, there are no reports of alcohol, but there are other reports suggesting in some cases, not all, some kind of mental disturbance, feeling they were suffocating, feeling that a religious figure had told them to do this and all those sorts of things.

So, not all air rage incidents and passenger misbehavior are the same, but the flight attendants a while back did a study, and they equated a lot of it with alcohol.


SANCHEZ: They do an incredible job, especially in situations like this.

Mary Schiavo, always appreciate your analysis. Thanks.

SCHIAVO: Yes, thank you.

SANCHEZ: Of course.

Next: Given a chance to condemn Vladimir Putin, Donald Trump instead compared his own legal troubles to those of Alexei Navalny, the Russian opposition leader who died without explanation at a remote penal colony last week.

And will WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange be extradited to the United States to stand trial? A court in the United Kingdom is deciding that right now. We have the latest on his appeal.