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Interview With Rep. Veronica Escobar (D-TX); President Biden Heads to Battleground States; House Holds Hearing on Afghanistan Withdrawal; Peter Navarro Heads to Jail. Aired 1-1:30p ET

Aired March 19, 2024 - 13:00   ET



BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN HOST: A Trump ally surrenders, Peter Navarro becoming the first former White House official to be imprisoned for defying Congress. What will his four months in prison look like? We will talk to an expert on white-collar crime, and we will discuss how the former president's legal problems may finally be catching up with him.

And former top generals in the hot seat on Capitol Hill, as House Republicans hold a high-stakes election hearing on the Biden administration's botched withdrawal from Afghanistan.

BORIS SANCHEZ, CNN HOST: Plus: escape from Haiti, Americans caught in the chaos consuming that country now trying to flee. In just moments, we're going to be joined by a nonprofit group working to bring them home.

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

KEILAR: An infamous first for a once-powerful Trump ally.

This morning, Donald Trump's former White House trade adviser Peter Navarro arrived at a federal prison in Miami to begin his four-month sentence for contempt of Congress, becoming the first former White House official to be incarcerated for defying lawmakers.

He was convicted after flouting a subpoena from the House January 6 Committee. He refused to testify. He refused to turn over documents as well.

We have CNN's Randi Kaye outside the prison in Miami.

And, Randi, Navarro decided to speak outside the prison. Tell us what he said.

RANDI KAYE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, he made a real show of his entrance into the prison.

Just before he went to the prison, he stopped at a parking lot across the street and spoke with the media for about 30 minutes, and he was very, very angry and frustrated with the system. He railed against Democrats, the judge in his case, the January 6 Committee.

And one of the things he also addressed was his reason for -- that he claims, for not obeying that subpoena. He says he was bound by executive privilege. So, I asked him when he took questions if he regrets not just going to the House Select Committee and explaining that privilege to them.

And he said that, no, he has no regrets. He wouldn't have done that, because that would have been breaking his oath of office. Here's a little bit more of what he had to say to the media today.


PETER NAVARRO, FORMER DIRECTOR, WHITE HOUSE OFFICE OF TRADE AND MANUFACTURING POLICY: When I walk in that prison today, the justice system, such as it is, will have done a crippling blow to the constitutional separation of powers and executive privilege.

Every person who has taken me on this road to that prison is a frigging Democrat and a Trump hater.


KAYE: And, while here, he is expected to stay in a dormitory for elderly male inmates.

Navarro is 74 years old. And, also, it's worth noting from his prison consultant that they don't expect him to serve the full four months, more likely 90 days, we are told, because there are laws in place for the early release of federal inmates -- Brianna.

KEILAR: All right, Randi Kaye in Miami for us, thank you.

Let's bring in CNN's Katelyn Polantz here in Washington now.

Navarro, Katelyn, took this fight all the way to the Supreme Court. And even today, he says he's covered by executive privilege, which is questionable.

KATELYN POLANTZ, CNN SENIOR CRIME AND JUSTICE REPORTER: The Supreme Court did not want to look at this and hold off him serving his prison time.

What Peter Navarro is experiencing is because of the particular facts of what happened with him and Congress. They subpoenaed him. He didn't respond. He says that this is a travesty because there should be a bubble around the presidency that is being breached right now.

But, actually, he never showed anything in court or even to Congress that would have said he should have had some sort of protection, an executive privilege protection, even though he was a Trump White House adviser at the time, where the president would have wanted him to have protection.

He just didn't have that evidence. So, that makes him different and that makes him in this situation he is now going to prison for four months to serve that sentence for contempt of Congress.


The one thing he does say that is correct is that he is the first senior White House official to go to prison for this charge. That said, there are other former officials in administrations who have gone to prison for a host of crimes.

KEILAR: That's right.

He's the first Trump official who -- or former Trump official who we see going to prison. He may not be the last, of course. Steve Bannon was also convicted. Unlike Navarro, he was able to delay his sentence. What happened there?

POLANTZ: Yes, he's received the same sentence as Peter Navarro of four months, but it is on hold because Steve Bannon has a claim before the appeals court.

What happened in his case that is a little bit different -- they did the same thing, ultimately, with Congress. They both got these subpoenas in the House January 6 investigation and didn't respond to them in any substantial way, didn't show up for testimony.

But Bannon's difference is that he had a letter that served as what he believed could be some sort of evidence showing that maybe he was directed by Donald Trump not to show up. Now, why he's appealing and why it's on hold is because that particular letter, because of the law, he couldn't show that at his trial.

So, his attorneys are appealing on a lot of legal issues around how to prosecute these cases, what actually he could bring into court about executive privilege and as a defense, a very different situation than what Peter Navarro is experiencing. Peter Navarro's last words there, "See you on the other side."

KEILAR: "See you on the other side." Well, maybe he can tell Steve Bannon what it was like.

Katelyn, thank you so much for that -- Boris.

SANCHEZ: We're joined now by prison consultant and the founder of White Collar Advice, Justin Paperny.

Justin, thanks so much for sharing part of your afternoon with us.

What would you be telling Peter Navarro now as he begins his first day of incarceration?

JUSTIN PAPERNY, CO-FOUNDER, WHITE COLLAR ADVICE: I would tell him this four months can feel like 40 years if he complains all day and finds people who will tell him exactly what exactly -- what he wants to hear, that it wasn't his fault, or he can adjust properly.

Don't complain about the length of his sentence, which can be off- putting to people who have been in prison for a long time. He can do his job with humility. He has a Ph.D. in economics from Harvard. He could use his experience to educate people. So, it could be a great time in his life or it can be a miserable time.

The good news for him, at least he gets credit for time served today. He's one day closer to home.

SANCHEZ: That's true.

He may not be a household name. He's not really a celebrity. He is well-known in politics, though. He was a prominent figure in the Trump White House, a MAGA loyalist. He was able to hold a 30-minute press conference before starting his sentence. And most inmates don't have that luxury.

I'm wondering how you think his life on the outside will play on the inside.

PAPERNY: Most people who go to prison, like me, are unknown. Because of his stature in the administration, there will be people who are sympathetic to him. There will be sycophants all around him offering to help him.

And he can take that advice or help or he can lay low and recognize, in the totality of his life, this is a little blip, and he can use the experience for good. But, certainly, guards and prisoners are going to come up to him and offer him things. Others won't care. And others will loathe him, of course.

He has an obligation to his family to adjust well, to never complain, and use this experience somehow, some way to benefit people in prison who have not had the opportunities that he has had throughout his lifetime, use the 120 days on the inside to educate and help people. It's possible. But he has to make that choice.

SANCHEZ: I appreciate that sort of stoic philosophy that you're recommending.

There is not much privacy, apparently, in that elderly men's dorm that he's likely to live in. You mentioned keeping a low profile. Would that actually be possible under those circumstances?

PAPERNY: If he chooses to create that profile, certainly, he can.

When I was in prison, I woke at 4:00 -- woke up at 4:00 in the morning, so I had several hours alone to think and create and write while the dorm slept. And I would exercise alone, go to the library alone, walk that track alone. And by exercising and working hard, you go to bed earlier because you are exhausted.

Or he can do what so many prisoners do, sit in the chow hall and lament and complain. The great thing about complaining in prison is, it will eventually be your turn, and there will be others who will be willing to listen to those complaints. The choice is his.

But if someone tells you cannot find respite or privacy in federal prison, that tells me they haven't been to federal prison. If he wants it, he can do it. But it's going to require an adjustment, I think, in his attitude. Again, it is a little blip in his life.

Use the experience for good to teach, rather than complain, which is what too many new prisoners do. All eyes will be on him. I hope he adjusts properly for his -- for his sake and his family's sake. They're watching.


You did mention that he will have to find a job while he's in prison. What would you recommend he do? What do the options look like potentially for him?


PAPERNY: I recommend he does his job, because, if he's in prison, there's already about 17 people who have come up to him and said, you shouldn't be here. I will do your job for you.

It shows humility and deference if you're willing to contribute to that community of felons. He could be an orderly, work in the commissary, serve food. Maybe he's scrubbing toilets and showers. I'm not sure.

I know you do your job on the inside. You avoid disciplinary infractions. You avoid the prison hustle. And you never, ever complain. That's what he needs to do, presuming he wants this four- month experience to be a productive experience in his life and one that will not define the rest of his life, as it does for so many people who go through this system.

SANCHEZ: Justin Paperny, we really appreciate an illuminating conversation. Thanks so much.

PAPERNY: Thank you.

SANCHEZ: Of course -- Brianna.

KEILAR: To Capitol Hill now, where an election year hearing is starting on the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan back in 2021.

For the first time since leaving their jobs, the top generals in charge at the time will be testifying about what happened, going before the House Foreign Affairs Committee. In August of 2021, before Kabul fell, the world saw images we can't really forget, Afghans running after planes, cramming on board flights, desperate to flee Taliban rule.

Ultimately, more than about 120,000 people -- 120,000 people were evacuated from Afghanistan, but the U.S. military lost members, several members, in the process. On August 26, a suicide bombing at the airport killed 13 American troops and more than 150 Afghans.

Committee Chair Republican Mike McCaul said families of the U.S. victims are seeking accountability from President Biden.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) REP. MICHAEL MCCAUL (R-TX): They are not happy with this president. They don't think he's ever publicly apologized to them. So, I do think this will lead to accountability. It should.

But the fact of the matter is, the commanding officers on the ground at that time were all promoted. There was no accountability within the DOD.


KEILAR: CNN's Natasha Bertrand -- CNN's Natasha Bertrand is with us now.

So, Natasha, what should we be expecting from this hearing?

NATASHA BERTRAND, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY REPORTER: Well, Brianna, this hearing is just getting under way right now.

And it is the first time that we are going to be hearing from these two retired generals since they left their posts. And the big question is going to be whether they feel a little bit freer now to criticize the Biden administration's approach to this withdrawal or at least offer a more public and fulsome idea of what their recommendations were to the president at that time.

If you will recall, the president pretty starkly contradicted something that his former Central Command commander, Frank McKenzie, said when he was discussing the advice that he was getting from his military leaders surrounding the withdrawal from Afghanistan.

President Biden said in an interview with ABC that he was never advised by senior military leaders to keep a troop presence in Afghanistan, something that Frank McKenzie, the Central Command commander, is expected to again dispute today at that hearing.

But here's a clip of what President Biden said at the time.


GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS, ABC "THIS WEEK" ANCHOR: Your top military advisers warned against withdrawing on this timeline. They wanted you to keep about 2,500 troops.

JOE BIDEN, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: No, they didn't. It was split. That wasn't true. That wasn't true.

STEPHANOPOULOS: They didn't tell you that they wanted troops to stay?

BIDEN: No, not at -- not in terms of whether we were going to get out in a time frame all troops. They didn't argue against that.

STEPHANOPOULOS: So, no one told -- your military advisers did not tell you, no, we should just keep 2,500 troops, it's been a stable situation for the last several years, we can do that, we can continue to do that?

BIDEN: No. No one said that to me that I can recall.


BERTRAND: Now, General McKenzie has said publicly that he did recommend that the Biden administration keep a small troop presence, a footprint in Afghanistan of about 2,500 troops.

Expect him to reiterate that again today, because military officials felt that would be one way to maintain stability in the country and keep the Taliban really from overrunning it.

Expect also Mark Milley, who's the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to reiterate that he has regrets about how this was handled and his recommendations to the president and to the National Security Council that they begin evacuations much sooner than they were actually started, which was really at the 11th hour, in August, right before the Taliban began to overrun Kabul.

So, it remains to be seen just how open they're going to be. But, again, because they're not in government now, this could be a more illuminating hearing than ones we have seen in the past, Brianna.

KEILAR: Yes, those evacuations began so late, and the collapse happened so quickly.

Chairman McCaul said, Natasha, that the family members of those 13 American troops who were killed by that suicide bombing at Abbey Gate are going to be at the hearing. What more can you tell us about this?


BERTRAND: Yes, so these families, understandably, have really demanded more accountability for the very chaotic process that led up to, they say, the bombing at Abbey Gate in Kabul just days before the full withdrawal was complete that killed 13 American service members.

And they have demanded more explanations from the U.S. military about how this could have happened. They have demanded that people be fired for it.

And, importantly, they have demanded that some testimony from the surviving service members, surviving Marines be taken into account in the Pentagon's investigation of what happened here, because, at least one former -- at least one Marine said that he had the opportunity to take out the attacker that was responsible for this Abbey Gate bombing, but he was not given the appropriate permission to actually do that.

Now, the Pentagon has conducted a new review, an additional review of what happened at Abbey Gate, and they have just completed that investigation, including testimony from 12 additional service members who were not interviewed as part of the first probe.

The findings of that investigation have yet to be released, but they have been briefed, we are told, or they will be very soon, to the family members. So expect that also to be kind of weighing on them, in terms of whether it provides any new information about what exactly happened at Abbey Gate and, importantly, whether any of it could have been prevented.

KEILAR: All right, we will be watching for that.

Natasha Bertrand, live for us at the Pentagon, thank you.

And ahead this hour on CNN NEWS CENTRAL: the president heading West with an eye to Latino voters, his message to shore up support, as polls show that it is wavering with this key voting bloc.

And desperate to get out. The State Department says it has been contacted by close to 1,000 Americans in Haiti. We're joined by a military veteran who's trying to help rescue them.

Plus, he predicted the '08 financial crisis, and now he's betting on A.I.

The jobs it'll boost and those it could destroy -- coming up.



SANCHEZ: Right now, President Biden is taking his reelection pitch to the hotly contested battleground states of Nevada and Arizona, with a special focus on Latinos, who make up a significant portion of voters in those states.

Today, the president is rolling out his Latinos con Biden/Harris initiative and his campaign is launching a new nationwide ad in English, Spanish and Spanglish. It's all part of a push to slow and reverse gains that Republicans appear to be making with that subset of voters.

Let's discuss with Democratic Congresswoman Veronica Escobar of Texas. She's the national co-chair of the Biden/Harris campaign.

Congresswoman, thank you so much for being with us.

The president just did an interview with Univision and said that former President Trump -- quote -- "despises Latinos." Do you see that as the way to sway them?

REP. VERONICA ESCOBAR (D-TX): Hi, Boris. Thanks so much.

We are so excited to be kicking off Latinos con Biden. And I think it is really important that we are brutally honest with the community about the difference between the two men. And we lived through four years of Donald Trump. We saw the way that he demonized communities, Latino communities.

My own community was demonized as well. We see the way that he speaks in the most derogatory, hateful ways about immigrants, saying that immigrants are not people, that immigrants are poisoning the blood of America. This is a man, a candidate who is dangerous and who is a real threat to the vibrancy and the well-being of Latino communities across the country.

And I think it's important that we speak to that.

SANCHEZ: And yet, Congresswoman, poll after poll shows that the former president is gaining among Latinos.

And, conversely, when it comes to President Biden, one of his biggest areas of weakness is the issue of immigration, one that, as you know, disproportionately affects Latino communities, in large part because of geography. Do you think that going after Donald Trump on his rhetoric is that effective with those Latinos that have shifted toward him?

ESCOBAR: I think, first of all, it is still early.

And we are just now launching. We have been in communities, but we are launching ads. We are going to be door-knocking. You are seeing the president and the vice president in Latino communities to make sure that we are speaking to Latinos.

And, to be honest, Boris, I have never put a whole lot of stock in polling. And what is going to be important is our direct engagement. And the campaign is absolutely committed to that. And it's more than really just talking about Donald Trump and the threat that he poses to communities like ours.

We also have to remind Latino communities what the administration has done on student loan relief. There are a number of Latino communities that have benefited significantly from the student loan relief. We know that Latino communities have also benefited tremendously from the cap on insulin and lowering health care costs and addressing gun violence through the bipartisan gun violence bill that the president helped lead us on.


But, yes, immigration, we have to talk about it as well. It is top of mind for all communities, including Latino communities, especially communities on the U.S.-Mexico border, like my own.

And what we saw and what should be absolutely clear to every American is that Republicans want the issue of a broken system. They do not want the solutions.

The president worked with a bipartisan group on the Senate. They crafted a bill that Republicans called the toughest bill, and it was Republicans who balked at it.

SANCHEZ: To that point, Congresswoman, I just want to say your note about polls, your not putting stock in them, it has to be noted that, in the actual election between 2016 and 2020, Donald Trump made significant gains among Latinos, despite his rough immigration policies, despite some of the rhetoric.

So I'm still questioning the approach. But on the issue of immigration, with President Biden backing that

bipartisan Senate bill that would have sharply restricted asylum claims, it would have allowed him to shut down the border, all without providing a pathway for dreamers and the other priorities that Democrats have had for years on immigration, do you think that that slightly more aggressive approach on border security resonates with voters, like in your district in El Paso, where, as I noted before, the very negative aspects to unfettered immigration are felt the most?

ESCOBAR: There's no doubt that, in communities like mine, we have seen our law enforcement agents need more resources.

We have seen our community itself need more resources in order to address this historic refugee crisis that the entire Western Hemisphere is seeing. I think it's also important to note that the president wasn't just willing to work with legislators on addressing issues at the border, but he also sees immigration as something advantageous.

And he gave us a bill. He gave Congress a bill early on in his administration that would have provided a pathway to citizenship for dreamers, that would have provided legal pathways for immigrants. In the end, people -- Americans want solutions.

And, yes, this moment calls for opening up legal pathways and providing opportunities for new Americans, but we also have to change outdated border policies. I have my own particular views on how to best do that, but the president has shown time and again he wants to work with Congress to address this.

But if you don't have a willing Republican Party -- and, in fact, in many ways, the Republican Party of today wants to create as much chaos as possible -- we are going to tell the American people about that. We're going to make sure that we remind them it's Republicans who have refused to provide Border Patrol and other law enforcement agencies with the resources that they need.

It's been Republicans who've walked away from the negotiating table time and again. We will continue to extend our hand in a bipartisan way to Republicans to address this, but it's important that voters know who stands in the way of progress on these issues, and it's Republicans.

SANCHEZ: They would argue, Congresswoman, that President Biden's executive orders have made the problem worse, specifically on the issue of parole.

We don't have much time, but I'd like for you to respond to that question of changing parole rules that have made it easier for a lot of people to enter the country and stay in the country without accountability, being able to skip their court dates.

ESCOBAR: Boris, so, first of all, Donald Trump used the parole system as well.

When ICE detention facilities were overcrowded during his administration, facilities that I toured, facilities that I brought my colleagues to El Paso to visit and tour, former President Donald Trump also used parole.

So, what Republicans are trying to do is claim two things, number one, that they need hard-line policies passed by Congress, which is why they're big champions of their own border bill called H.R.2. But then, at the same time, they -- they're trying to convince the American people, no, don't listen to what we just said; the president alone can fix it.

Neither one of those is true. We need to work together if we are going to solve this and achieve the opportunities that exist for us. It is Republicans, though, who continue to walk away. And we will continue to remind the American people of that.

SANCHEZ: Congresswoman Veronica Escobar, we have to leave the conversation there. Very much appreciate your time.

ESCOBAR: Thanks, Boris.

SANCHEZ: We want to go straight to Capitol Hill now, where there is a hearing under way on the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Here's the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark Milley, speaking to Congress right now.