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DOJ Filing: Indicted FBI Informant Told FBI He Got Dirt On Hunter Biden From Russian Intel Officials; Alabama Fertility Clinic Halts IVF Treatments After State Supreme Court Rules Frozen Embryos Are Children; Haley Sides With AL Supreme Court: "Embryos To Me Are Babies"; Being Replaces Head Of 737 Max Unit After Door Plug Incident. Aired 3-3:30p ET

Aired February 21, 2024 - 15:00   ET



JESSICA DEAN, CNN HOST: Plus, legal experts warned this was coming just days after Alabama's Supreme Court ruled frozen embryos are equal to children. It's getting harder to undergo IVF treatment in that state.

BORIS SANCHEZ, CNN HOST: And did they keep their son's grisly crime a secret? Today, for the first time since their daughter was murdered, Gabby Petito's family is coming face-to-face with her killer's parents.

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

DEAN: Spies, lies, bribes and Russian disinformation, it sounds like something out of a novel, but it is a very real drama playing out in Washington right now. A longtime FBI informant who provided explosive allegations of a Biden bribery scheme now charged with lying to the FBI and accused of passing off false information that he got from Kremlin intelligence officials. The claims from ex-informant Alexander Smirnov were a central part of House Republicans' impeachment inquiry of President Biden. But for now, the GOP has no plans to pull back on that probe.

CNN's Katelyn Polantz is tracking all of this.

Katelyn, what more have we learned about this case?

KATELYN POLANTZ, CNN SENIOR CRIME AND JUSTICE REPORTER: Well, Jessica, this is a major case from one of the special counsel working within the Justice Department. It is a case against a man named Alexander Smirnov, who lives in Las Vegas, an American citizen, but as an FBI informant over many, many years, was putting disinformation into investigative authorities in the U.S., specifically the FBI. He was charged last week and arrested on charges related to lying to the FBI, speaking to them about Joe Biden and his son Hunter Biden, their connections to Burisma, this Ukrainian energy company. He had alleged that there were bribes. There were none of those of Joe Biden and Hunter at that time. And so he was charged with lying, because that had become part of the political discourse. It was something that the FBI had heard from him. You can't tell lies to the FBI as a confidential informant. Then, just yesterday, we see him in court because the Justice Department is fearful that he could continue to sow disinformation into American authorities, investigators. That's because he told them, even after his arrest and in recent months, that he was receiving information from Russian officials, specifically Russian intelligence, and he had a lot of contact with foreign intelligence services.

So the Justice Department went to court, and they told the judge yesterday, this man, Alexander Smirnov, he was spreading misinformation, not only in 2020 about Joe Biden to us, the FBI, but also he's actively peddling disinformation still that could impact U.S. elections related to Joe Biden, information coming from, apparently, the Russian government. Jessica?

DEAN: Wow. And so Katelyn, there's now this new push by the special counsel to get Smirnov back in jail, right?

POLANTZ: That's right. So they tried really hard yesterday in court to keep Alexander Smirnov detained. The judge said no. The political ramifications and warnings about misinformation weren't enough, and so the judge said, I will release you. He let him go walk out of court. He was still wearing his jail crocs (ph) when he walked out of court. He wore a GPS monitor. He's not allowed to go around airports. He is allowed to go to court whenever he needs to in Los Angeles to face his charges.

But the Justice Department popped up again today, and they're appealing that release and those conditions, saying to the judge, we fear that he has so much contact abroad, especially with foreign intelligence services, and he has millions of dollars if he wants access to it, that he should be detained. He should not await his trial living as a free man, even with a GPS monitor. He should be in jail. Jessica?

DEAN: Wow. All right, Katelyn Polantz with the latest on that front. Thanks so much.

Let's go down to Capitol Hill with Lauren Fox, and Lauren, Republicans remain defiant about the impact this is going to have on their Biden probe and what are Democrats saying?

LAUREN FOX, CNN CONGRESSIONAL REPORTER: Yes, Republicans this morning trying to distance themselves from Alexander Smirnov, trying to argue that his claims were not foundational to their impeachment probe, despite the fact that their past statements suggest otherwise. But today, the focus was all on James Biden, the President's brother who met with congressional investigators behind closed doors, met with members of the House Oversight and Judiciary Committees.

And what Republicans are trying to do is tie James Biden and Joe Biden directly together, and specifically try to show that Joe Biden benefited not just financially, but was involved in his brother's business dealings. [15:05:06]

But James Biden testified to the opposite of that, saying in an opening statement, "Because of my intimate knowledge of my brother's personal integrity and character, as well as my own strong ethics, I have always kept my professional life separate from our close personal relationship. I have never asked my brother to take any official action on behalf of me, my business associates, or anyone else."

And in part because of that opening statement from James Biden, in part because of those explosive allegations against Alexander Smirnov, you have Democrats, like Jamie Raskin, the leading Democrat on the Oversight Committee, arguing it is time for Republicans to give up their impeachment probe. Here's Jamie Raskin earlier today.


REP. JAMIE RASKIN (D-MD): I think it's time for Chairman Comer and the Republicans to fold up the circus tent, and we should get back to work for the American people. This impeachment investigation is nothing but a wild goose chase that is based on Russian disinformation and propaganda.


FOX: And let's lay out the political reality here for so many Republicans. This was always going to be tough to convince this narrow majority to be united to - go ahead and impeach Joe Biden. But what you're seeing right now is with so little evidence, with no direct tie between Joe Biden benefiting financially from his brother or his son's business dealings, it's really unclear how some of those moderate Republicans, some of those Republicans who are running for re-election in swing districts, who are going to need Biden supporters in order to get re-elected, how they are going to proceed, and whether or not Republicans will ever be able to actually impeach Biden on the floor of the House of Representatives, Jessica?

DEAN: Lauren Fox for us on Capitol Hill, thanks so much for that reporting. And we're joined now by CNN Senior Political Analyst, Ron Brownstein and former Deputy Assistant Attorney General Tom Dupree. Great to have both of you.

Tom, Jim Jordan has been blaming the FBI for relying on this informant's false information. We know the FBI warned last summer about releasing this information. Can you walk us through the process for sharing confidential source information between the DOJ, FBI, Congress, like how does it typically go in a situation like this and how did it break down?

TOM DUPREE, FORMER DEPUTY ASSISTANT ATTORNEY GENERAL: Well, typically the DOJ wants to do anything but share this type of information with Congress. I think when an investigation of this nature and this sensitivity is being carried out, the last thing in the world the Justice Department wants to do is share raw intelligence, materials and dossiers with folks on the Hill. I think in this case, there was a lot of political pressure being brought to bear on the FBI. I think the government ultimately did elect to share this information and we've seen what happens. I think it really - this whole episode really underscores the dangers in relying on raw intelligence data, which hasn't always been properly vetted. It comes from sources of great questionability in some cases. And if you kind of plan your activities and you draw conclusions based on what you're seeing in these raw reports, it can occasionally backfire as it appears to have done here.

SANCHEZ: Yes. And Ron, not only did it backfire, but Republicans like Jim Jordan were pointing to this information from the informant as "the most corroborating evidence we have against Biden and the Biden family." So now moving forward, Republicans already had this razor thin majority. It was going to be a tough proposition impeachment to begin with. At this point, is it effectively over?

RON BROWNSTEIN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: It's hard to see how they get every House Republican to go along with this. There are 17 Republicans in districts that Biden won. Democrats just flipped the 18th, the former George Santos district. The investigation has kind of been dead end after dead end. The most they have uncovered is that kind of classic Washington unseemliness of people, lobbyists trying to impress their clients with their proximity to important people.

And Biden - President Biden may have made some errors in judgment in kind of allowing that to happen, but they have not found any evidence of him either doing favors for or benefiting from these transactions. And from the beginning, I felt this impeachment was more about Trump than about Biden. It was a way for House Republicans to try to ease the sting of Trump's impeachment by creating an equivalent threat for Biden and also a way to weaken Biden for a general election. But they are kind of running out of runway, I think, especially after the results in that New York special election.

DEAN: Ron, I just want to stay with you for a second because obviously if you're solidly a Democratic voter, you're looking at this one way. If you're solidly a Republican voter, you're looking at it another way. It is that sliver of independent voters that won Joe Biden the presidency, tipped it in his favor in 2020.


How do you think this whole thing is playing out with them? Aren't they kind of the key constituency here in terms of politically what this means?

BROWNSTEIN: Yes. Look, one way to think about this election is there's not a majority of Americans who affirmatively want to reelect Biden for another four years for a lot of reasons, primarily his age, concerns about inflation and the border. There's not a majority of Americans who want to return Donald Trump to power if he is a Republican nominee. It seems inevitable. And the issue is what does the shared - where those two Venn diagrams overlap, what we have sometimes called the double negative or double hater voters, what do they do. I think they are, as on many things, going to be conflicted on this. I mean, there is evidence in polling that Republicans have succeeded in raising doubts about Biden's ethics among some voters. On the other hand, I think what we saw in 2022 is very relevant here, which is that an unusually - Democrats had a better election than expected because an unusually large number of voters who were dissatisfied with the way things are going in the country or dissatisfied with Biden still would not vote for the Republican alternative because they considered it too extreme. And that is exactly what House Republicans are playing into by pursuing an impeachment investigation without any real evidence to justify it.

So there are some risks for Biden in them continuing down this road, but there's certainly risk for House Republicans, especially given all the other dysfunction that has been going on in this Congress.

SANCHEZ: And Tom, I'm wondering from your perspective, it seems like political polarization is making the U.S. more susceptible to foreign interference. If you have lawmakers seeing an incentive to use this sort of raw, unproven material to go after their enemies, that is an open opportunity for the Kremlin.

DUPREE: I think there's a lot of truth in that and I think what happens sometimes is you see people on all sides of the political debate seizing on this type of information, again, raw, unverified intelligence information that you need to take with a few grains of salt or in this case, a few gallons of vodka, and immediately waving it around to the public and saying, look, this is gospel. We can trust this. Look at this reports that we've gotten of the terrible things our opponents have been doing, and losing sight of the fact that normally the way this material is evaluated is it goes through the ringer at DOJ, our counterintelligence experts study it, they peruse it, they check sources, they corroborate it before acting on the information. But you short circuit that whole review process when you use these materials for political purposes.

And so I think it's kind of a cautionary lesson for everyone in Washington that we really need to be careful about taking unverified intelligence information and immediately depositing it into the public sphere.

DEAN: Right. It needs to be filtered through the appropriate channels. Ron, when it comes to pushing back, opposing Russia, staying vigilant against Russia and its threat to the United States, do you think any of this does anything to reignite that posture among Republicans in Washington? This, as we see the former president who is leading - the leading chance to be the nominee, the forerunner to be the Republican nominee, still refuses to condemn Putin over Navalny's death.

BROWNSTEIN: Yes. Yes, I - look, I think we are watching the collapse of the internationalist consensus that dominated the Republican Party from Dwight Eisenhower through Trump's first election. And even during Trump's term, a substantial portion of the Republicans in Congress and even in his own administration held to that traditional Reaganite view that the U.S. had to be the leader of the free world taking an assertive role in combating authoritarianism. Now, what do we see?

A majority of House Republicans voted against Ukraine aid last September and the House Speaker won't bring it to the floor. A majority of Senate Republicans voted against Ukraine aid in the most recent vote.

And very, very few Republicans other than Nikki Haley have condemned Donald Trump's comments about NATO, even though polling out again today shows two-thirds of Americans believe NATO is a good deal for the US. I mean, what we are watching is Trump's consolidation, I think, of the Republican Party on foreign policy.

And you do get the occasional statement criticizing Putin over Navalny, but Marco Rubio put one out today saying, we need more people like Navalny who put country over kind of personal interest. That's to say Marco Rubio, who just voted against Ukraine aid in effect rewarding Putin at the behest of Trump.

So I do think we are watching an important shift in the Republican Party. All of these events make it somewhat uncomfortable, but probably not uncomfortable enough to reverse and overcome the impact that Trump is having in driving them in this direction.

SANCHEZ: Ron Brownstein, Tom Dupree, thank you both.

DUPREE: Thank you.

SANCHEZ: Of course.

So Boeing is making some changes to who is running the show when it comes to one of its plane models.


This is weeks after the door plug on one of those planes blew off mid- flight.

DEAN: Plus, we are already seeing the real world impact in real time of an Alabama court ruling that says frozen embryos are children by law.


SANCHEZ: This just in to CNN, the University of Alabama at Birmingham Health System is now the first organization in Alabama to confirm that it's pausing in vitro fertilization treatments. This comes after Alabama Supreme Court ruled that frozen embryos under state law are children. The justice is declaring last week that the wrongful death of a minor act applies to all unborn children regardless of their location.


Let's go to CNN's Isabel Rosales.

Isabel, this is exactly what critics of this decision feared would happen.

ISABEL ROSALES, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hi, Boris. That is exactly correct. And this one of its kind ruling, first of its kind, is putting back into the national focus this question of when life begins.

Now, as you mentioned, the University of Alabama at Birmingham Health System is the first organization in the state to say that it is pausing IVF treatment in light of this ruling. I want to show you a piece of their statement right here.

It reads, "We must evaluate the potential that our patients and our physicians could be prosecuted criminally or face punitive damages for allowing the standard of care for IVF treatments." So that's part of their statement right there.

Let me take a step back into how we got to this point. This ruling stems from wrongful death lawsuits filed by the parents of "several embryonic children," children that would have come into light via IVF. And what happened was that these embryos were in a nursery, frozen, awaiting implantation, but then a patient got access to that nursery, accidentally dropped those embryos, and they were destroyed. And that's where the wrongful death lawsuits came about.

Now, a reproductive rights advocates warned that this could have huge implications for IVF moving forward, making it less accessible to patients and more costly, that it could skyrocket liability costs and force patients to deal with potentially lifelong storage fees for those frozen embryos. And then there's the question of who gets to decide what happens to unwanted or unneeded embryos.

Now, an attorney for one of the couples involved in that lawsuit that made its way all the way to the Alabama Supreme Court told CNN that this case is simply about accountability and allowing a path forward for those couples who lost those embryos to get justice, Boris.

SANCHEZ: Isabel, walk us through your conversations with fertilization patients. You've been speaking to them. What have they shared with you?

ROSALES: Yes, just today I spoke with Gabrielle Goidel. She and her husband, they've been trying to get pregnant for two years. And after three miscarriages, they made the difficult decision together to undergo this process of IVF. They are halfway through their first cycle. That has not been an easy choice because of the preparation, the physical preparation that she has had to undergo, the emotional readiness of not getting the news that they want to get. And then there's also the financial burden.

Gabrielle spent $20,000 so far in this process. Here's what she had to say.


GABRIELLE GOIDEL, ALABAMA IVF PATIENT: I was already fully invested in this process. We had paid our clinic in full. We had purchased all of our medication. It's been months long. And then to be told that there was a possibility that we would have to stop this in the middle of one of the most important parts of it is really terrifying.


ROSALES: And Gabrielle has confused us to the next step. She's in touch with her clinic, but it's a wait and see sort of pattern. She doesn't know what exactly will happen next. She told me that if the worst comes to pass here and she's not able to dispose of embryos that would not be viable and instead would be forced to keep them frozen and pay those fees, she doesn't see that as financially - her family is financially capable of doing that. She's actually considering, Boris, she told me, moving out of the state of Alabama if it comes to that.

SANCHEZ: Wow. Isabel Rosales, thank you so much for bringing us their story.

This issue is now becoming part of the conversation when it comes to the 2024 presidential campaign. In fact, we just got word that Republican presidential candidate Nikki Haley has weighed in on this. She's actually someone that has undergone artificial insemination. She has said that she believes embryos are babies. Let's listen to some of her response now to a question from NBC News.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I want to ask you about some news of the day, specifically something that's come up in Alabama. The Supreme Court there said that embryos created through IVF are considered children and are offered those same protections, do you agree?

NIKKI HALEY, (R) PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I mean, I think - I mean, embryos to me are babies.


SANCHEZ: She went on to say when she was asked about how this decision might hurt people who were seeking IVF treatment, that it was an incredibly personal issue, adding, "this is one where we need to be incredibly respectful and sensitive about it." Jessica?

DEAN: This just in to CNN, Boeing has removed the head of its 737 MAX passenger jet program. This, of course, comes after the dramatic and terrifying midair incident last month where a door plug blew out during an American Airlines flight.


We'll bring in CNN Aviation correspondent Pete Muntean.

And Pete, this unit had several issues over the last five years. What are you learning about the shakeup?

PETE MUNTEAN, CNN AVIATION CORRESPONDENT: Well, this is the first time heads have rolled since the Alaska Airlines flight 1282 door plug blowout back on January 5th. Also the first since the NTSB preliminary report of a couple of weeks ago, which found none of the four bolts that hold the door plug in place on that Boeing 737 MAX 9 were reinstalled by Boeing at its factory in Renton, Washington. The person playing the price now is Ed Clark. He is the fifth head of the 737 MAX program and the latest to be fired after a series of problems.

In fact, he came into power after the fatal crashes in 2018 and 2019 involving MAXes abroad that led to 346 deaths and a 20-month grounding of the plane. In this case, the MAX 9 was grounded in the U.S. for 19 days. Boeing CEO Dave Calhoun has acknowledged that Boeing caused this problem. He insists Boeing airplanes are safe. He said that on Capitol Hill earlier this month. For now, Calhoun's job is safe.

Boeing also created a new job in this announcement, the senior vice president of quality because Boeing is under a lot of scrutiny when it comes to its quality control. The person leading that is Elizabeth Lund now, previously oversaw production of Boeing airliners. This is really significant because the FAA is auditing Boeing's quality control right now.

In this company-wide memo that announced all these changes, the head of Boeing Commercial Airplanes Stan Deal said, Ed, the person departing, departs with my and our deepest gratitude, but that the change is effective immediately. Some would say too late. The first person being shown the door after this door plug blowout, Jessica.

DEAN: And Pete, update us too on where the investigation stands into the MAX planes generally following that incident.

MUNTEAN: Well, there are two investigations taking place right now. There's the NTSB investigation. That is only partway done. We just have a preliminary report. Those typically take a couple years to reach final conclusions and a probable cause.

The FAA, the Federal Aviation Administration, is looking into the MAX 9 quality control at Boeing's plant in Renton, Washington. There was an audit there taking place right now. We know from FAA Chief Mike Whitaker that he recently visited the plant in Renton, Washington. Also, there are about a dozen FAA inspectors now on the site there.

The FAA did halt by emergency order the 737 MAX 9 production taking place there right now. Boeing has done a quality stand down to try and listen to employees about what could be changed on the production line and we're also waiting to hear from the FAA about a survey of Boeing employees about the culture on Boeing's production line there about what could make things better as these planes get moved through.

There is some criticism of Boeing, though, that it may have gotten out of control with things not being too vertical in the company. It used to make everything in-house. Now Boeing farms some of that out to subcontractors. And the company that builds the fuselage, a company named Spirit AeroSystems, is all the way in Wichita, Kansas. It also builds the MAX 9 door plug in Malaysia.

All of those parts come together in Kansas. They're put on a train. They're sent to Boeing's factory in Washington where everything is assembled finally. So there is some criticism that maybe Boeing should bring all of that in-House after this incident. DEAN: All right. Pete Muntean with the update for us. Thank you so much.

And still ahead this afternoon, Russia is celebrating a key victory in its war on Ukraine with President Vladimir Putin personally awarding medals to a group of soldiers. But as the fierce battles continue, we are getting new perspective on the ground. We'll have a live report from Christiane Amanpour. That's next.