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Impeachment Inquiry Amid Russian Disinformation; Dual U.S.- Russia Citizen Detained In Russia; Ecuador's Notorious Gang Leader Escapes; Republican Probe Continues Despite Charges; Trial Begins For Armorer In Rust Movie Shooting; Biden Campaign Fundraising In California. Aired 2-2:30p ET

Aired February 21, 2024 - 14:00   ET




JESSICA DEAN, CNN HOST: Now on CNN News Central, the President's brother appearing before House Republicans who are pushing to impeach President Joe Biden. It's as an impeachment informant says he was fed information by the Russians and is accused of, quote, actively peddling new lies that could impact U.S. elections. Plus, a ballerina with dual U.S.-Russia citizenship is detained in Russia for donating to Ukraine. The U.S. now telling Americans to get out immediately. What we're learning about the arrest and the effort to bring her home.

BORIS SANCHEZ, CNN HOST: And one of Ecuador's most notorious gang leaders lived, quote, like a king behind bars, then he escapes. We're taking a closer look at his lavish lifestyle and the violence that came after he broke out. I'm Boris Sanchez alongside Jessica Dean in the nation's capital. We're following these major developing stories and many more all coming in right here to CNN News Central.

Republicans are not backing down after explosive new charges and signs of Russian disinformation threatened to derail their impeachment inquiry into President Biden. One of the key informants that House Republicans were relying on for allegations of a Biden bribery scheme was not only charged with lying to the FBI; now he admits that he got information from Russian intelligence officials, information that the DOJ now says was false.

DEAN: GOP lawmakers vow to keep the probe going. That's exactly what they're doing this afternoon. They say Episcopal lawmakers are using a conundrum to [sic] they're doing right now, grilling the President's brother, James. So far, James Biden has vehemently denied the GOP's claims about Joe Biden's involvement in his business ventures. CNN's Manu Raju is getting a lot of reaction off the hill. Manu, I know you're talking to a lot of Republicans today. What are they telling you?

MANU RAJU, CNN CHIEF CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yeah, a lot of them are defiant and saying that their investigation will continue to proceed, even as this FBI informant has been charged with lying to the FBI about this Biden bribery scheme that had been central to this investigation. In fact, the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Jim Jordan, had said that that is one of the most credible pieces of information that they had over this investigation.

He said that recently. So today, I put the question to him about this indictment, about the charges against Alexander Smirnoff, and the fact that he told the FBI, according to filings, that Russian intelligence was behind this disinformation. But Jordan contended that this, this probe is even broader.


RAJU: You said the 1023 is the most corroborating piece of information you have.

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

RAJU: It's not true.

JORDAN: Well, so, okay, so it's -- the FBI told us that this source was so -- 14 years this source was a paid source by the FBI.

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

JORDAN: Not at all. We're -- looking at the four facts I just gave you. Those facts are true.

RAJU: What evidence do you have of a bribery scheme now?

REP. WILLIAM TIMMONS (R-SC): I was a prosecutor for five years. And I don't have trust in our criminal justice system and -- our system of justice generally.


RAJU: So you're seeing some Republicans distance themselves from this informant, others saying that they cannot trust the Justice Department, and some simply saying that there's much more information, like Jim Jordan, who says that the facts that they have gathered so far are enough, in his view, to prove a bribery scheme, even as we have seen the aftermath of these DOJ charges against that FBI informant here.

But the question ultimately is, where does this impeachment probe go? James Biden behind closed doors today, Hunter Biden, the president's son, behind closed doors next week. And then the decision will be made. Will they actually move forward with votes to impeach Joe Biden? What evidence do they have? And can they convince skeptical Republicans to go along with this effort? That is a big question in the days ahead.

SANCHEZ: And Manu, what are you learning about the James Biden interview so far? What has come out of that?


RAJU: Well, we've seen his opening statement, which said that he contended that his brother had never had any direct or indirect involvement in his business activities. And it also made some questions about a loan repayment, some loans that the president gave to his brother and the repayment of that. Some Republicans had questioned about that.

He contended it was simply because he was underwater at the time and needed some funds. And his brother paid him that, lent him that money. So, the question is, does that resolve any of the concerns Republicans have? We have not heard from any Republicans in the aftermath of this testimony. It's expected to go through the course of the day today. But Democrats are coming out, like Jamie Raskin, saying there's nothing to see here.

SANCHEZ: Manu Raju, live for us on Capitol Hill. Manu, thanks so much. We have CNN chief legal correspondent Paula Reid with us now. Paula, a lot of moving parts in this



SANCHEZ: -- in this story. Untangle the information aspect of it, the falsehoods that this informant was spreading and what DOJ is now saying about it.

REID: These were stunning new details we got last night. This came from special counsel David Weiss. He's the one who has brought two criminal cases against Hunter Biden. And he is also now seeing this case against Alexander Smirnoff. Now, he was an FBI informant for about 10 years. But last week, the Justice Department charged him with lying to investigators when he said that Hunter Biden and Joe Biden accepted $5 million in bribes. They're now saying that was a false statement.

He was subsequently arrested. And while he was in custody, Boris, according to this new filing, he told investigators that some of the information he had about Hunter Biden came from Russian intelligence officials. So that raises the possibility, right, of an effort by the Russians to put disinformation into the U.S. political system, something we've seen before. Now, that would be a bombshell. But I also want a caveat that in this filing, your prosecutor, say they have not independently verified his claims. And this is a guy who clearly has a problem with the truth.

All of this came out because the prosecutors were trying to convince the judge to keep him behind bars. They said, look, this is a guy who lies about how much money he has. He says he has a few grand. In fact, he has about $6 million. Lies about the Bidens. This is someone with extensive international foreign contacts. We don't think he should be released. But the judge didn't buy it. The judge said, look, politics here don't matter, and called the Russian connection, quote, speculative to say the least.

SANCHEZ: It's really fascinating. Also, this may have implications for those charges that you mentioned were brought against Hunter Biden, right? His legal team filed something regarding this informant. REID: Yeah. So, they filed that right before we learned about the possible Russia connection. And they said, look, this guy has, quote, infected this case. And what they mean by that is they say his claims, this is a lot of what the GOP has based their impeachment inquiry and their relentless attacks on Hunter Biden on. They say that has created enormous political pressure that they believe David Weiss sort of succumbed to when he let their plea deal collapse and then filed these two separate cases. So, they have a lot of questions for the FBI and also for Congress.

SANCHEZ: Paula Reid, thanks so much for walking us through that. Jessica.

DEAN: The White House is warning Americans in Russia to, quote, leave right now. That is after Russian authorities arrested a woman from California for treason after she allegedly donated to a Ukrainian charity. The woman's employer says she's a dual U.S.-Russia citizen who was visiting family when she was arrested. The State Department says it is aware of her detention and that the U.S. has not been granted consular access to her because Russia does not recognize dual citizenship. CNN senior international correspondent Fred Pleitgen is following the story. Fred, what more are you learning about why she was detained?

FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Hi there, Jessica. Yeah, we are learning that her name is Ksenia Karolina. And what we have learned from U.S. sources, but also from Russian sources as well, is that apparently she entered Russia on February the 2nd, and the U.S. learned of her detention on February 8th. Now, apparently all this happened in the town of Yekaterinburg, which is about, say, about a two and a half hour flight east of Moscow. And that's also where she's supposed to go on trial, actually, in the next coming days.

The trial was supposed to happen today, but it's apparently now been pushed back to February 29th while she remains in custody. And as you've already mentioned, so far there's no chance to get her any consular services because the Russians don't recognize dual citizenship. Now, I've read some of the sources from the Russians that came out about all of this, and they say that she donated to a Ukrainian organization that provided, as the Russians called it, tactical medicine, whatever that is. And then also that this group was also purchasing weapons for the Ukrainians, and that specifically she had also made pro-Ukrainian comments in the past couple of years since, or the past year and a half, since this war has been going on.


The spa that she worked at in Beverly Hills, they also put out a statement as well, and they said that she donated, as they put it, $51.80 to a Ukrainian charity, and that she was visiting her grandmother in Yekaterinburg, who is 90 years old. So, the Russians are seeing this as treason and are obviously going to try and bring these charges, which could bring a massive jail sentence with them. Again, right now, unclear what sort of aid the U.S. embassy in Moscow is going to be able to provide to this U.S. citizen, but certainly a very dire situation, especially, of course, right now, as things are even more charged up than usual in Russia, guys.

DEAN: Unbelievable. All right, Fred Pleitgen, thanks so much for that reporting. Boris.

SANCHEZ: All of this is happening as Russia continues to make small gains in the east after taking a key town in Ukraine, but its forces seem to be meeting fierce resistance in the situation. Let's discuss with CNN military analyst, retired Lieutenant General Mark Hertling. General Hertling, great to see you. Thanks for being with us. The White House put out a warning in light of this arrest of a dual U.S.- Russian citizen in Russia, asking any Americans in Russia to immediately leave. How significant is the risk for Americans who may still be there?

LT. GEN. MARK HERTLING (RET.), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: It's highly significant, Boris. I think anyone who is considering going to Russia right now would be a fool to go. And even some of the U.S. citizens who are in Russia right now, the tourists places like St. Petersburg, Moscow, the places where you would consider that tourists would be welcome and relatively safe. But given the kinds of actions they've conducted against members of the press, against average citizens, against anyone who is doing something that Russia doesn't approve of, to be thrown in jail for long prison sentences, it's just a huge warning to stay away.

I visited Russia several times during my career. There was always concern about what you were doing, what people were listening to, how you were being perceived. So, I would just reinforce what the State Department is saying. Stay out of Russia right now.

SANCHEZ: Focusing on what's happening on the battlefield, NSC spokesperson John Kirby recently blamed congressional inaction for Ukraine, a retreating from Avdiivka in the east. Do you think that insufficient resources were solely to blame there?

HERTLING: They were absolutely a big part of it. Now, it wasn't the only reason, Boris. There have been the back and forth between Russian and Ukrainian forces over the last several months. But when you take a look at the tactical situation on the ground, Russia is attempting to put Ukraine on the defensive everywhere. And they have the artillery and the missiles to do that as Ukrainian arms continue to wear thin. They are in dire situations. Their supply lines have been disrupted over the last several months because of inaction.

And it has now reached an inflection point, a critical time. Ukraine is going to have to reestablish their defensive lines. They're going to have to withdraw from where they've been defending over the last several months. And unfortunately, it's all due to a lack of action and continued support, primarily by the U.S.

SANCHEZ: If these are the short-term consequences of aid getting logjammed in Congress, I wonder what you calculate the long-term consequences.

HERTLING: I'll just reinforce the short-term ones, Boris. First of all, the short terms are increased death of Ukrainian soldiers and citizens. In fact, it is a situation right now where it is life and death, depending on what arms Ukrainian soldiers can get. It's the increased destruction of Ukrainian infrastructure. It's continued holding of Ukrainian citizens and children as hostages in Russia. They just released several more a few days ago. But there are literally thousands of hostages that Russia has taken.

In the long term, it's emboldening Putin and the Russian leaders. Inaction has given Putin a second wind. It's allowing him to achieve his prewar strategic objectives regarding the division of NATO and the United States, as well as the attempts to subjugate Ukraine. In the long term, it's increasing dangers to other countries in Europe. I've talked to many of my former colleagues in European armies. They are very concerned, especially in several specific countries like Poland, Romania, the Baltics. They're concerned about what Russia might do next. And it's also the final thing is long-term, the potential of the U.S. being pulled into future conflicts, all while our standing on the world stage continues to deteriorate because of the lack of inaction of the Republican Congress right now.

SANCHEZ: Lieutenant General Mark Hertling, appreciate your perspective. Thanks for being with us.

HERTLING: Thank you, Boris.


SANCHEZ: Of course. Still ahead, jury selection is now underway for the armorer charged in a shooting death on the set of the film Rust. What we're learning about who could be called to testify. Plus, President Biden is traveling in California today asking for millions of dollars in campaign cash, and he's joking with donors about his age. We'll tell you what he said. And breathing easier because of EVs. How electric cars could make kids healthier. Next.


DEAN: Jury selection is now underway in the involuntary manslaughter trial of Hannah Gutierrez-Reed. She's the movie set armorer accused of loading a live bullet. into a prop gun fired by Alec Baldwin during rehearsals of the film Rust. That accidental shooting killed the cinematographer and wounded the director. Prosecutors claim Gutierrez- Reed was reckless, heavily drinking and smoking pot on the job, and even passing off a bag of cocaine after the deadly shooting. She has pleaded not guilty. CNN security correspondent Josh Campbell is following this trial from Los Angeles. And Josh, today marks the start of what prosecutors are calling justice for the woman who was killed in all of this. Where do things stand right now?


JOSH CAMPBELL, CNN SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Yeah, Jessica, and all along prosecutors have made that known time and again. Someone died as a result of this incident. No one is disputing that this was an accident, but prosecutors believe that those who are responsible should be held accountable. We know that Alec Baldwin has been recharged, but today's trial, today's hearing all about Hannah Gutierrez-Reed.

She was the armorer on the set, the person who was responsible for the safe handling and storage of weapons and ammunition. And authorities have charged her with involuntary manslaughter, essentially claiming negligence on her part. There's this separate charge in addition, and that is evidence tampering. Authorities say, as you mentioned at the top, that they believe that she handed off a bag of cocaine to another person after being interviewed by police. The reason why that is important is because so much of the government's case seems to point towards her sobriety on the day of that shooting.

Authorities said in a filing that she was likely hung over whenever she inserted a live bullet into a gun that was then used by an actor. Witnesses had also alleged that she had been using marijuana throughout the filming of that film. And, of course, on a movie set, if there's anyone that you would want to be lucid, it would be the person who is responsible for the safe handling of firearms. So, this is what this case is all about.

Now, at the start, when these charges first came out, I spoke exclusively with the district attorney. I asked, why now? Why this negligence charge? She explained what their investigation found. Have a listen.


MARY CARMACK-ALTWIES, NEW MEXICO FIRST JUDICIAL DISTRICT ATTORNEY: There was such a lack of safety and safety standards on that set that there were live rounds on set. They were mixed in with regular dummy rounds. Nobody was checking those, or at least they weren't checking them consistently. And then they somehow got loaded into a gun, handed off to Alec Baldwin.


CAMPBELL: Now, Gutierrez-Reed has pleaded not guilty to these charges. Her attorney says that she is being scapegoated. I think one thing that we will. Be watching for as this trial proceeds, as we've heard from her attorney saying, look, she wasn't just the armorer. She was also responsible for a host of other duties on the set, including handling props. You know, I've talked to a lot of people in Hollywood that are in this industry. They say it's unheard of that you would have someone who's focused on the weapon also saddled with other responsibilities. That will likely be a key line of defense as it moves forward, Jessica.

DEAN: All right. More to come on this. Josh Campbell, thanks so much for that updated reporting. And let's discuss this all now with legal analyst and trial attorney Mercedes Colwin. Mercedes, it is great to have you here with us. Thanks so much for joining us. First, just walk us through the challenges in the jury selection, because obviously this is a very high profile case. This has been an extensively covered case. The media has covered this case extensively. What are the challenges as they select this jury?

MERCEDES COLWIN, LEGAL ANALYST & TRIAL ATTORNEY: So great to be on the show with you, Jessica. Thanks so much for having me. And you are spot on. It is extraordinarily difficult when you're talking about a high- profile case like this. With a very high-profile case individual in the sidelines. Obviously not Gutierrez-Reed, but Alec Baldwin's defense is looking very closely at this case.

Well, there isn't going to be a person, unless they live in a cave, who doesn't know about the Rust production, the Rust movie, the Rust killing of Ms. Hutchings. All of Alec Baldwin being involved in the killing of Ms. Hutchings, whether he's found criminally liable or not, that's for a jury to decide. That's going to be the key issue for the defense. In fact, the defense had already made whispers of this and made motions about looking at whether or not Ms. Gutierrez-Reed could even have a fair trial in this proceeding in this venue. So, they've already looked at, obviously, the jury pool, knowing how difficult it's going to be to actually pick a jury.

DEAN: And we know also that the L.A. Times is reporting that the judge in this case has said that they will allow these text messages from Hannah Gutierrez-Reed allegedly indicating that the night before that deadly shooting, she was using drugs. How significant is that? And how strong do you think the prosecutor's case is here?

COLWIN: Well, Josh said exactly right. Because when you look at the armorer, they have to be in the right presence of mind. And they're loading, they're supposed to load it with these dummy blanks into the prop gun. And if already the safety concerns were so extreme that just a few hours before, Ms. Hutchings died, 14 crew members walked off the production because they felt unsafe.

So, in the in the midst of this chaos, the one person who is responsible for that prop gun is now not even putting in dummies. And that's going to be the big allegation. So, she's doing drugs and drinking the night before. She's in this altered state. She's trying to recover from a hangover. And she's handling the gun right before the gun is then handed to Alec Baldwin. That's key. That's why the defense tried desperately to make sure to suppress that evidence. They did not want the use of her drugs, the use of alcohol before that jury for that exact reason.


DEAN: And you can bet that Alec Baldwin, who is a co-producer responsible for a lot of people's safety there, who has a still to be determined trial date on this coming up, will be watching this very closely. Mercedes Colwin, thank you very much for your expertise. We appreciate it. President Biden is set to speak in just minutes after his administration wipes away more than a billion dollars in student loan debt. It's part of a California campaign swing where the president hopes to raise millions of dollars for his re-election bid. We're live ahead of his remarks.