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Judge Dismisses Charges In Trump Election Interference Case; House Passes Bill Potentially Banning TikTok; Putin Warns Of Nuclear War Readiness; Navalny Aide Assaulted With A Hammer; Nearly A Thousand Family Dollar Stores Facing Closure; Trial Of Oxford School Shooter's Father Underway. Aired 2-2:30p ET

Aired March 13, 2024 - 14:00   ET




BORIS SANCHEZ, CNN HOST: Six charges quashed the judge in Donald Trump's election interference case in Georgia, killing several charges in the indictment against the former president. But an even bigger decision remains. It could come before the end of the week, whether Judge McAfee will disqualify D.A. Fani Willis. Plus, the fate of TikTok is in the hands of the U.S. Senate after a House vote that could lead to a ban on the app, a ban with potentially serious political consequences.

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN HOST: And a free agent signing for the ages. Could quarterback Aaron Rogers go from the football field to a presidential ticket? We're following these major developing stories and many more. All coming in right here to CNN News Central.

SANCHEZ: We begin this afternoon with a win for Donald Trump, not on the campaign trail, but in court. A Georgia judge has just dismissed several charges against the former president and some of his co- defendants in that sprawling, racketeering and conspiracy case he's facing in the Peach State. He and more than a dozen others are accused of trying to overturn his 2020 election loss there.

A total of six of the 41 counts have been thrown. The judge saying that prosecutors committed a, quote, fatal mistake in filing the charges he ordered be dropped. And one of the dismissed charges involves defendants' interactions with Georgia's Secretary of State, Brad Raffensperger, who you'll remember received this infamous phone call from Trump in 2021.


DONALD TRUMP, FORMER PRESIDENT: All I want to do is this. I just want to find 11,780 votes. Which is one more that we have because we won the state.


SANCHEZ: Today's decision is a small victory as the former president still faces 80 plus criminal charges amid four separate indictments at the state and federal level. Let's discuss with CNN chief legal correspondent Paula Reid. Paula, explain why some of these charges were dismissed and what this means for the broader case.

PAULA REID, CNN CHIEF LEGAL AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: Well, here the judge is saying, look, it's not that you didn't make sufficient allegations in terms of the conduct. He said, look, there's an abundance of alleged criminal conduct here, but you were not specific in offering details. And without specific details to support these allegations, the defendants cannot properly prepare their defense. So going forward, the prosecutor's office has a few options. The judge has given them six months. You have a six-month window to bring this case back to the grand jury with the appropriate details. They can also appeal. But Boris, it's unlikely they're going to be able to figure out exactly what they want to do until they find out who is going to be handling this case. As we await the same judge making that decision.

SANCHEZ: Yeah, that's kind of the shadow that looms over all of this, whether Judge McAfee is going to disqualify Fanie Willis. He gave an indication as to the timing of that decision, right?

REID: Yeah, he appears to be sticking to his original timeline, which is by the end of this week, he will issue that decision. It's incredibly significant because what he's trying to decide is whether Fanie Willis and her entire office should be disqualified from the Trump case. Now, this is a sprawling RICO case. It involves not only former President Trump. But over a dozen other defendants. They've already gotten some plea deals. The case won't die, Boris, if Fanie Willis is disqualified. It will be handed off to another office. But all of that will result in delays.

And Fanie Willis already said she wanted to start this case in August. Clearly, these efforts to disqualify her have pushed back that timeline. It gets handed off, gets pushed back even further. And as we know, the crux of the Trump defense strategy right now in all of these criminal cases is to delay, delay, delay.

SANCHEZ: Delay, delay until after November. It's a complicated case, as you said. And it's one that comes with tremendous political pressure. We'll see what Judge Scott McAfee decides. Paula Reid, thank you so much. Brianna.

KEILAR: Now, to a potential social media crackdown that could affect roughly half the U.S. population. This morning, the House passed a bill that opens up the door to a ban of TikTok. And it passed in a rare show of overwhelming bipartisanship due to national security concerns linked to the hugely popular app. TikTok is owned by the Chinese company ByteDance.

And lawmakers fear Beijing could leverage it. The bill will leverage reams of U.S. user data to carry out surveillance and also propaganda operations. The legislation would require TikTok to split off from ByteDance or face a ban in U.S. app stores. The bill next will go to the Senate. President Biden said if it reaches his desk, he would sign it into law. Let's go to CNN's Manu Raju on the Hill now for more on this. This vote led to some pretty strange bedfellows there in the House, Manu.


MANU RAJU, CNN CHIEF CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yeah, you rarely see this level of bipartisan support over something so controversial that could affect a significant swath of voters in the middle of a hotly contested election. But that's exactly what happened earlier today when the House did, in fact, pass this bill on a 352 to 65 vote. A majority of Republicans and Democrats voted for this plan. Fifty Democrats voted against it. Fifteen Republicans voted against it. The rest of them voted for it, siding with those national security concerns over the concerns over freedom of speech.

Now, former President Donald Trump had publicly come out against this, even though he had supported banning TikTok in the past, reversing his posture, citing in part the fact that potentially that Facebook could benefit from the possibility of TikTok being banned. He detests Facebook. He also met with a GOP megadonor who has a major stake in TikTok recently. But nevertheless, I had a chance to catch up with some of Donald Trump's closest allies who voted against this plan. And I asked them whether or not Trump had any influence on their vote.


MAJORIE TAYLOR GREENE, (R-GA): I think that this is opening Pandora's box. And the last question I have, who's going to buy Twitter? Is it going to be Mark Zuckerberg?

RAJU: How much did Donald Trumps opposition weigh in on you?

GREENE: I haven't spoken to Donald Trump about the bill.

RAJU: You've seen what he's said.

GREENE: I haven't spoken to Donald Trump about the bill. These were my own conclusions and I made the vote based on my own conclusions. And by reading the bill myself. You know, he has his opinion on the bill and he can voice it. So it doesn't mean that we're all robots. We make our own decisions and mine was to vote no on this bill based on everything I just told you. RAJU: Is it because of Trumps opposition. Is that why you opposed it?

NANCY MACE, (R- SC): No, I've been against this from the very beginning before anyone else weighed in. I was against it. It's libertarian in me. It's not the role of government to ban apps from the app store. Nowhere in our constitution does it say that.


RAJU: Now, despite this overwhelming vote in the House, its chances in the Senate are uncertain. It's because a number of senators have different ideas about how to get to their overall hope that TikTok would be banned. Some of them are concerned about this legislation worry that it may not be constitutional by naming a specific company and the underlying legislation. The Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has been noncommittal about this, Brianna, saying just simply in a statement the Senate will review the legislation when it comes over from the House.

He had indicated yesterday that the committees of jurisdiction would look into this matter further, and some of those chairmen of those key committees have their own ideas on how to do all this. So, it's going to take some time to get there, but will it become law? That is still a question that will only get harder as it gets closer to the election. Brianna.

KEILAR: All right, Manu Raju on the Hill. Thank you. Boris.

SANCHEZ: Let's dig into this now with a pair of experts. We have with us Washington Post columnist Josh Rogin. He's the author of Chaos Under Heaven, Trump, She, and the Battle for the 21st Century. And also, with us CNN media analyst Sara Fischer. Thank you both for being with us. Josh, first to you, do you think lawmakers have sufficiently made the case to the American people that TikTok is a danger to national security?

JOSH ROGIN, COLUMNIST, THE WASHINGTON POST: Well, it's clear from the vote in the house that lawmakers in both parties do see that their constituents are calling for some action on TikTok. Whether or not this is the action that ends up making it through the Congress remains to be seen. But we can just see from the public evidence why that's the case. Employees of ByteDance have been caught inappropriately accessing the data of Americans multiple times, including spying on the journalists reporting on this very issue.

TikTok has censored topics that are sensitive to the Chinese government. Research suggests they are suppressing content related to Beijings political aims. So, everybody knows we've got some sort of problem here. The question is, is this a solution that can pass muster both in Congress and then through the courts? And I think those are two big open questions right now. SANCHEZ: And Sarah, U.S. social media platforms are not available in China, and they have vowed, Beijing has vowed retaliation if TikTok is ultimately banned. How could China retaliate? What would that look like?

SARA FISCHER, CNN MEDIA ANALYST: Well, that's a good question. I mean, there's a lot of investment from Chinese firms into U.S. companies. If you think about major U.S. firms, think about Snapchat, for example. Tencent was a big investor there, right? So, they could limit investment from their big private equity firms, venture firms into U.S. companies, which is a big part of our economy. The thing to understand here, Boris, is that in the U.S., our values, right, capitalism, open democracies, can be weaponized by other governments who don't share those same values. And so I think what we're looking at here is this could create sort of an economic detente between the two big world powers. And that, you know, has a huge impact. We saw even during COVID, right, when supply chains were being stretched between the two firms, it could be a big deal.


SANCHEZ: Josh, you recently wrote about Donald Trump's change of heart when it comes to TikTok after his administration pushed to ban it with an executive order that was overturned in the courts. He's now opposed to regulating TikTok the way that this legislation does. In your piece for the Washington Post, you tie some of Trump's financial issues, given his legal problems, with this change of heart. Put that into context for us.

ROGIN: Right. Well, as Sarah correctly mentioned, one of the levers that China has is their investment in U.S. companies. Another one is that they hold hostage U.S. investment in Chinese companies. And ByteDance is heavily leveraged with U.S. capital cash. From private equity firms who are run by donors, including Jeff Yass, the head of Susquehanna, KKR, and others. And it seems like they got to Trump. It seems like the makeup between the Club for Growth and Jeff Yass and the Trump team comes at a very convenient time for TikTok.

And, you know, there's no direct quid pro quo, but you don't have to be crescent to figure out what's going on here. They've made an alliance heading into the general election. So that explains a lot of why we see what's going on here. But, you know, to be honest, Trump is so unpredictable that if he became president, he might just go back and change his mind again to the opinion that he had when he was president the last time, which is that we should ban TikTok. So, you know, the Chinese government and ByteDance are trying everything they can propaganda, lobbying money, leaning on U.S. investors in order to try to kill this legislation and at least to delay it until the election. And then if Trump wins, then all bets are off. SANCHEZ: As well as putting a prompt in the app asking users to contact their congresspeople in order to get this bill killed. It didn't work in the House. We'll see what the Senate does. But, Sarah, I'm wondering what the impression is you're getting from other executives in Silicon Valley, executives at other platforms like Meta and X, whether they're worried about regulation or what many see as First Amendment concerns tied to this specific piece of legislation.

FISCHER: Well, the Valley is excited about this because if TikTok is forced to sell to a U.S. company, now you've got a bunch of firms who would kill to get in there, right, as long as they could get regulatory approval. That's actually an open question, right? If we force ByteDance to divest TikTok to a U.S. firm, you see what the antitrust landscape is like. We're blocking mergers all the time. So I'd be curious to see who we'd even allow to buy it. But I think Silicon Valley is actually excited. I think companies like Meta see this as an opportunity to bolster reels, potentially if TikTok gets banned. So they're happy.

On the First Amendment issues, you better imagine that any foreign app is looking at this and whether it would set a precedent because you can't just ban something. This is why I think if TikTok does, if this bill does pass, TikTok is going to appeal, right? They're definitely going to sue because you can't just ban something, you know, alleging national security concerns without major proof and not have that be a First Amendment issue. And by the way, you might not realize it, but we do use a lot of apps here in the U.S. that are from other countries. Think about it. How many ads do they have in the Super Bowl? Shein is one of the biggest fast fashion companies in the U.S. So it would set off a huge precedent that we would go through probably litigating in the courts for many months, if not years.

SANCHEZ: Sara Fischer, Josh Rogin, very much appreciate the perspective. Thanks so much. So Russian President Vladimir Putin says that his country is ready for a nuclear war if the need arises. The latest on his eyebrow-raising remarks. Plus, who's going to be RFK Jr.'s running mate in his third-party bid for the White House? Some of the names on his shortlist are surprising. And nearly a thousand family dollar stores are closing. We'll break down what's prompting this move, what it could mean for shoppers across the country. CNN News Central returns in just moments.



KEILAR: Russian President Vladimir Putin says Moscow is ready to use nuclear weapons if the country's security is at stake. But he adds there has never been such a need. Putin made these comments on state TV just days before Russia's presidential election in which he is set to win a fifth term in office. And during the interview, he also warned the U.S. and Poland against sending ground troops to Ukraine.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) VLADIMIR PUTIN, PRESIDENT RUSSIA: If it formally comes to military contingents of foreign states being deployed in Ukraine, I am confident this would not change the situation on the battlefield. This is the most important thing. Likewise, the delivery of Western weaponry to Ukraine failed to change anything. Another point, this may lead to serious geopolitical consequences.


KEILAR: All right let's turn now to CNN Chief National Security Correspondent Alex Marquardt. Alex, tell us about this message and the timing of it.

ALEX MARQUARDT, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Well, I think those are two very important things, Brianna. When you look at the timing, we're just days away from a Russian election in which President Putin is expected to win his fifth term.


And so, in this interview, he's speaking directly to that domestic audience at a time of real trouble for the Russian military in Ukraine. And here he's reminding the Russian people that they are a formidable nuclear force, that they're very strong, that they have this extensive nuclear arsenal that is very modern. At the same time, whenever he talks about nuclear weapons, you can be sure that the international audience is also listening. Brianna, I just came from a meeting with senior Estonian intelligence officials. They pay very close attention to what Russia is doing. And they noted that Putin has spoken about nuclear weapons and the possibility of using them some 30 to 40 times since the beginning of this war.

And Putin sees that discussion as a very effective way of deterring the West, of scaring the West. And it is effective because you can see that when, for example, the United States and European countries give weapons to Ukraine, they forbid Ukraine from using those in Russia. Because the West is afraid of that escalation. But in terms of a nuclear war, Putin here is essentially downplaying the possibility. He says, yes, we are ready for a nuclear war. But he says that is not something that is going to happen as long as the Russian homeland is not attacked. Brianna.

KEILAR: How does the U.S. view the Russian nuclear threat, Alex?

MARQUARDT: Well, very formidably. And, you know, it is the closest rival to the United States when it comes to nuclear weapons. Now, Russia says that in terms of numbers, they have similar numbers. But Putin here is bragging that the nuclear triad, as it's known, so land, sea and air nuclear weapons, are more modern. And actually, for the past few days, we've seen these hearings on Capitol Hill with U.S. intelligence officials. And they did touch on the nuclear Russian capability. And they did talk about the fact that Russia is modernizing their arsenal, singling out the long-range nuclear capable missiles, as well as underwater delivery systems that are meant to penetrate or bypass the U.S. systems.

Now, they do admit that Russia talks about their nuclear capabilities as an effort to deter the U.S. and other countries. But they say, quite importantly, that Russia is going to rely on its nuclear capabilities more because of these setbacks that they have been facing in Ukraine in terms of their ground forces and their vehicles and the other weaponry that have really suffered, immensely, over the past two years. So, Russia is focusing on its nuclear arsenal. And the U.S. acknowledges that Russia has gone quite,-- has gone a long way in terms of modernizing that arsenal. Brianna.

KEILAR: All right. Alex Marquart, thank you for the report. Boris.

SANCHEZ: A former top aide to the late Alexei Navalny says that he will not give up, despite being violently beaten with a hammer. Leonid Volkov was outside his home in Lithuania when someone hit him repeatedly, breaking his arm and injuring his leg. He's now accusing Russian President Vladimir Putin of being behind the assault. CNN senior international correspondent Fred Plietgen is following this story. So, Fred, what else is he saying about what happened?

FREDERIK PLIETGEN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yeah, it seems to have been quite an attack. Apparently, it happened as he was actually pulling into his home in Lithuania, into the driveway. He said that someone with a hammer came and shattered the driver's side window of his car, sprayed mace or some other sort of tear gas into his face. The driver then started hitting him with that hammer.

Now, Leonid Volkov, he used some pretty graphic language to describe all that, saying that whoever the attacker was, obviously blaming it on the Russians, but saying that the attacker wanted to turn him into a hammered steak. He even used the word schnitzel at some point. He said that miraculously, though, his leg, which apparently was hit the most, was not broken in this incident, even though there were some pictures that came out of his leg afterwards, and it did not look good at all.

He did, however, say that his arm was broken, in the incident, as it was beaten by that hammer. Boris, he also, as you rightly say, he also did place the blame squarely on Russian President Vladimir Putin. I want to listen in to some of what Leonid Volkov had to say afterwards.


LEONID VOLKOV, RUSSIAN OPPOSITION ACTIVIST: Well, listen, this will pass. The main thing is that we will continue to work, and we will not give up. I'm not ready to give any comments yet, other than the obvious, that this was such an obvious, typical gangster greeting from Putin, from Gangster St. Petersburg. Vladimir Vladimirovich, hello to you, too.


PLIETGEN: That's Leonid Volkov there speaking after the attack, obviously saying that he is now on the mend. That he will continue the work that the Anti-Corruption Foundation of the late Alexei Navalny has been conducting. So far, we've got no comment yet from the Kremlin. However, we have had some from Lithuanian intelligence. They say they also believe that this operation, that this attack was orchestrated by the Russians.


They believe that the Russians are trying to intimidate the Russian opposition into stopping their activities in Lithuania ahead of what the Lithuanians call an undemocratic election in Russia. And then there was that one thing that Alex just mentioned before, saying he'd just spoken to an Estonian official. Well, the Lithuanians are also saying that they believe the larger goal of the Russians is to sew panic, as he put it, in the Baltic states. Of course, Boris, as you know, the Baltics are an extremely or are extremely important U.S.- NATO allies in the eastern part of Europe, Boris.

SANCHEZ: Yeah, yet another ugly incident for Russian opposition figures. Fred Pleitgen reporting live from Berlin. Thanks so much, Fred. For communities across the country, a family dollar may be the only place to find grocery store items for miles. But now close to a thousand of those stores could be closing. And the father of the Oxford - Michigan, school shooter will soon learn his fate in a trial that could drastically change those who can be held responsible for mass shootings.