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U.S. Navy Salvage And Diving Unit Assisting In Salvage Operations; Trump Attends Service For Fallen NYPD Officer As He Highlights Crime On Campaign Trail; Trump Lawyers Argue Election Subversion Charges Should Be Tossed. Aired 3-3:30p ET

Aired March 28, 2024 - 15:00   ET



JESSICA DEAN, CNN HOST: The challenge of a lifetime. Engineers now face the critical task of removing the twisted wreckage of the bridge and reopening the Port of Baltimore as lawmakers now debate how Congress will pay for the massive project of replacing the span.

Back in court, Donald Trump's legal team trying to dismiss the Georgia election interference case against the former president, arguing that what he said was protected under the First Amendment. The judge has yet to rule in that. We'll break down the legal arguments.

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN HOST: And could today be the day for this number here? Investors hoping to see Wall Street break a record with a once unthinkable number. We're keeping a close eye on the markets and following these developing stories and many more all coming in right here to CNN NEWS CENTRAL.

DEAN: A construction worker employed at the same company as the six workers, who were on the Francis Scott Key Bridge, when it collapsed, just confirmed to CNN he was supposed to be on the bridge at that time, but he requested a last minute shift change, which he says saved his life. And he says all of the victims would have likely been on their break at the time of the impact.

Also, the U.S. Navy saying it's now leading the massive salvage operation there. We're told a barge and cranes capable of holding hundreds of tons are now on their way to that scene.

CNN's Brian Todd is in Baltimore.

Brian, what else can you tell us about this massive salvage operation underway now?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Jessica, we can tell you that the Maryland Department of Transportation has requested about $60 million in funding from the federal government to assist in the cleanup and salvage operation here just to the east of us where the Francis Scott Key Bridge came down into the water. That's a massive salvage operation. You were just mentioning cranes on the way here, heavy cranes, floating cranes on the way to assist in removing the huge amounts of debris and the massive pieces of debris. We're told that once they get on site, Jessica, they've got to actually chop up the pieces of the bridge into smaller pieces just so they can remove them. The first floating crane we're told is going to be on site later tonight. You mentioned the Navy diving operations. They are also taking part in the diving and salvage operation. This has moved from a recovery operation to a salvage operation. Four people still remain unaccounted for and presumed dead from this accident.

And we're told that the conditions in the water have just gotten steadily worse for the divers and the others who are excavating that you have to remember that as horrible as it is above the surface with huge fragments of the bridge still draped over the vessel, it's maybe even worse below the surface because visibility is almost zero. There is a lot of tangled metal and concrete below the surface and it's just extremely dangerous for the divers and the weather has not cooperated very much.

Meantime, you've got just a massive stoppage of billions of dollars worth of cargo traffic and commerce here at the Port of Baltimore. I'm going to step away from the camera and let our photographer, Joe Merkel (ph), train in on the Palanca Rio there.

That's one of the ships, one of the 11 ships that we're told is stranded in the Baltimore harbor. In addition to the Dali, which is the container ship which crashed into the bridge, 11 ships total are stranded here in the harbor. They include three bulk carriers, one oil and chemical tanker, and a vehicle carrier among those 11 ships that are stranded.

We were also about 25 miles - excuse me - 25 miles south of here earlier on the Chesapeake Bay where there were, we counted eight tankers just in our view. Eight tankers, cargo ships and others just anchored there waiting for guidance as to where to go. That's something that Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg has spoken about in the last couple of days that there is a - just an enormous federal government operation, a logistical and tactical operation going on now to try to reroute some of the traffic, some of the cargo traffic to other ports, including the Port of Virginia at Hampton Roads, Virginia, which is about 220 miles south of Baltimore. But there - these ships are also going to be rerouted to places like Philadelphia, New York and elsewhere.

Again, a massive undertaking. That's in addition to trying to get this channel open. And you and I were just talking about the salvage operations and what it's going to take to remove the fragments of that bridge. There was one expert who told CNN a little while ago that it's possible that if everything goes right, they could open the channel maybe in May sometime. But again, that's - if everything goes right and the weather cooperates and that's never a guarantee, Jessica?


DEAN: Yes. That is very true. All right, Brian Todd for us in Baltimore. Thanks so much.

And I want to talk more about that salvage operation with retired Navy captain and diver Bobbie Scholley.

Captain, thanks so much for being here with us. We just heard that report from Brian. This mission has been shifted to a salvage operation. It is apparently no longer safe for the divers to navigate around that debris. Help us understand what that means, a salvage operation and how it changes the approach here.

BOBBIE SCHOLLEY, U.S. NAVY DIVER (RET.): Well, it makes a big difference that it's a salvage operation, obviously. The divers are going to have to change their mindset. Although I know that in the back of their mind, their priority is still those families and trying to bring their loved ones back so they can get closure. But the whole scope of the operation has gotten much larger. And the unified command has now, it sounds like, brought in some of the very best, and I say that because I'm a retired Navy diver, but the Navy's mission is harbor clearance.

And whether it's peacetime or wartime, that is something they train to do all the time. And that's one of the units that I had command of. That is what we did. We cleared out harbors and they are trained, they have the equipment, they will come in with surface-supplied hard hat diving equipment, which is much safer for the divers than the scuba equipment that they would have been using earlier.

And that way they can work around all that heavy debris, the steel structures, the concrete that is very dangerous for divers to be swimming around. And they can get in there and work in the - that environment with the low visibility, the cold water, and the debris that is unstable, much safer than they were before.

It's still a very complex operation. They'll have their engineers and their other experts helping them. And it's going to still take a long time to get this done. But the experts will be on scene and that's very reassuring.

DEAN: Yes. And you just laid out why this is so complicated, why there are so many factors to consider to keep these divers safe. How will the officials determine whether the conditions are safe enough for them to continue - for them to get back in the water? Obviously, this different equipment they're going to have can make a difference, too.

SCHOLLEY: They'll have the engineers on scene to evaluate it. They'll have additional equipment. They'll still have their remote-operated vehicles that'll go down and do some evaluation with cameras and much better lighting. And they'll have the divers that'll get in the water as well.

The Navy also has divers that are engineers that will evaluate the stability. And I'm sure there'll be some additional commercial experts that'll be part of the team. But they will come up with a plan. That's always the first thing. Evaluate the situation, come up with a plan before they even put divers in the water.

And I'm sure part of that plan is also going to include evaluating how to remove the Dali from the situation. They've got to get the ship out of the way first before they can start connecting to the debris and with the cranes and start pulling large pieces of the bridge out of the way in order to start clearing the channel.

So the planning is key before they can start even putting divers into the water and start with the process of removing pieces of the bridge to get it out of the channel.

DEAN: All right. Captain Bobbie Scholley, thank you so much for giving us all of that context. We really appreciate it.

SCHOLLEY: My pleasure.

DEAN: Brianna?

KEILAR: Here moments ago, former President Trump attended the funeral of New York Police Officer Jonathan Diller. Three days ago, Officer Diller was shot and killed during a traffic stop in Queens. Here was former President Trump.


DONALD TRUMP, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Sad event, such a horrible thing and it's happening all too often. And we're just not going to let it happen. We just can't - 21 times arrested, this thug. Their child, brand new, beautiful baby sitting there. Innocent as can be. Doesn't know how his life has been changed.


But the Diller family will - you'll never be the same. You can never be the same. And we have to stop it. We have to stop it. We have to get back to law and order. We have to do a lot of things differently because this is not working. This is happening too often.

KEILAR: Let's turn now to CNN Chief Law Enforcement and Intelligence Analyst John Miller, who was previously deputy commissioner of intelligence and counterterrorism for the NYPD.

John, you have been to dozens of funerals like this. How is the former president's appearance here being received?

JOHN MILLER, CNN CHIEF LAW ENFORCEMENT AND INTELLIGENCE ANALYST: Well, I think that the test that most police officers go by because they have a natural suspicion, especially of politicians who they don't normally see when they show up in times of grief is did the former president come to the wake, did he engage with the family, which he did. And when he left, did he make it about himself.

And the answer is within his comments, he didn't do politics, really. He didn't talk about himself. He talked about the tragedy. He talked about the family and he talked about the injustice and his concerns about the justice system and left it there. So I think that they are going to look at it as a supportive visit as he was invited by the Nassau County executive, a fellow Republican to come.

KEILAR: Yes. This is a horrific what happened as Officer Diller was on patrol. We did hear former President Trump talking about a return to law and order. And I wonder how that squares with what you're seeing with crime statistics in New York City. Obviously, always room for improvement, of course. But what is the direction in which they're going right now?

MILLER: Well, technically right now crime in New York City is down. And even though crime in New York City is higher than it was, say, before the pandemic, when you compare it to the crime rise you've seen in all the other cities, New York is still the safest big city in America.

Part of the issue that New York is suffering and part of what police are especially hurt by is the fact that the criminal justice system has changed. There's a great resistance to holding people on bail in jail, resistance to sentencing them to prison. Laws have been reconfigured to stop that. And what you've seen as a partial result of that has been recidivism rates that have spiked.

So, if you look at 2017 versus now in burglary, in shoplifting, auto theft, grand larceny, you'll see recidivism rates that were 6 percent, 7 percent. Now, you're looking at 24 percent, 25 percent. So, police feel that they're seeing the same suspects committing the same crimes over and over again and not doing time.

In the case of the death of Officer Diller, one of those suspects was arrested less than a year ago with a loaded gun and is out on the street again, while that case is still somewhere in the system.

KEILAR: And had so many previous arrests in his record. This reflects this death of the officer, it - I think it really reflects - and you can speak to this that in a way some of these officers just feel like they're sitting ducks when it comes to this.

MILLER: Well, I think that's true. And if you look at history a couple of years ago, we had two police officers assassinated in the 32nd precinct coming to a family dispute call. And then there's the case of, of course, Officer Ramos and Liu, where President Biden came to Rafael Ramos' funeral and gave the eulogy and basically talked for a long time in that church. And there was not a dry eye in the house as he spoke directly to the family with messages about loss, about tragedy, and about hope. Here's part of what he said.


JOE BIDEN, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: But I also know from experience that the time will come, the time will come when Rafael's memory will bring a smile to your lips before it brings a tear to your eyes. That's when you know it's going to be okay.


MILLER: And that was something that left a real impact with the Ramos family and his partner, who was also killed in that incident, Officer Joe Liu (ph). Biden started a relationship with that family to the point that Officer Liu's father, when Joe Biden's son died, came to that funeral and hugged the President for a long time saying, you were here when I needed you and I'm here for you, essentially.


Yes, these are very important moments. And we're seeing that as we look at all of these officers lined up paying tribute to Officer Diller. So many of them, you can see just the pain on their faces and the family as well.

John, we really appreciate your perspective, especially as former NYPD. Thank you so much.

MILLER: Thanks, Brianna.

KEILAR: Former President Trump's lawyers are taking another crack at getting his election subversion charges in Georgia tossed out by saying that he can't be prosecuted for what he said about the election.

And a new report, white supremacist propaganda incidents hitting a record high last year, what the Anti-Defamation League says is behind the surge.

You're watching CNN NEWS CENTRAL.



DEAN: We are awaiting a key ruling out of Georgia in the Trump election subversion case there. This morning, Donald Trump's defense attorneys pushing to dismiss the complex claims against him. With their simple argument, they say the charges violate Trump's First Amendment rights.

KEILAR: But Fulton County prosecutors say that the former president's statements in the wake of the 2020 election do not have free speech protections because he made them as part of a criminal conspiracy. Let's go to CNN's Nick Valencia who is outside of the Fulton County courthouse.

Nick, this judge already rejected similar requests by other defendants in this case. Did he hear any novel arguments today?

NICK VALENCIA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Not really and that's a hugely important point that the judge has heard similar arguments like this that have been unsuccessful. So no ruling today and no real drama. We had become accustomed to that drama with two months of disqualification hearings for the Fulton County DA Fani Willis. But with that in the rearview mirror, today was back on the facts of this case and a very important day indeed.

We saw Trump's attorney, Steve Sadow, argue that the charges against Trump should be dismissed and the indictment thrown out because of a First Amendment protection, saying that the former president's conspiracy theories and lies about the 2020 election were at their core political speech and therefore protected by the First Amendment. But the DA's office are saying not so fast. Not only were they lies, but they were lies told with the intention of inciting a crime under Georgia state law. Listen to the exchange between Steve Sadow, Trump's attorney, and Donald Wakeford for the Fulton County DA's office.


STEVE SADOW, TRUMP DEFENSE ATTORNEY: I don't think there's any question that statements, comments, speech, expressive conduct that deals with campaigning or elections has always been found to be at the zenith of protected speech.

DONALD WAKEFORD, CHIEF SENIOR DISTRICT ATTORNEY, FULTON COUNTY: It's almost saying that because these statements are false, that these charges should be dismissed. It's like, well, you can't punish falsity on its own and yet each time you look at the charge, the government's saying, the state is saying that he lied, so that must be the end of the inquiry. But that's not the end of the inquiry at all. That's not what the indictment says.


VALENCIA: The judge also heard arguments from the attorney for David Shafer, who's the former state head of the GOP party here in Georgia, the point man of the so-called fake elector scheme, who tried to argue that his client, was not trying to subvert democracy by participating as a fake elector, but rather trying to give his candidate a legal fight, a chance to challenge this election.

So we're still waiting for Judge McAfee's ruling. He usually responds rather quickly in writing, but it'll probably be sometime next week before we hear an answer. Meanwhile, some big outstanding questions remain, principally, will Fani Willis be able to get this case back on track for that August trial date that she's seeking? Brianna?

DEAN: All right. Nick Valencia for us, thanks so much. Let's get some analysis now from former assistant special Watergate prosecutor, Nick Akerman.

Nick, great to see you.

We just heard Nick Valencia kind of walk us through that the judge has already denied efforts by these former co-defendants on these similar arguments about free speech. Was today's hearing redundant? Did you hear anything new? Any new sort of argument from Trump's attorneys?

NICK AKERMAN, FORMER ASSISTANT SPECIAL WATERGATE PROSECUTOR: No, there was nothing new here. In fact, it's not only redundant of what this judge has already denied with other defendants. It's also redundant of the exact same argument that Donald Trump made in the election interference case in Washington, D.C., where Judge Chutkan denied the same motion.

So I don't think this motion is going anywhere. I think it's going to be denied, and you're going to see an opinion next week.

KEILAR: Yes. And his attorneys certainly know that, Nick. I don't think they would be surprised by your analysis, and it might even be the analysis they share. So is this just about delay, adding as much time as possible to this process? AKERMAN: Well, it's part of it. But look, every defendant in a criminal case makes certain pretrial motions. This judge is not really looking at this in any way as a delay. He's taking it in course. What is really delaying the case is the appeal that appears before the Supreme Court right now on the immunity issue, because that issue applies just as much to the Georgia case as it does to the election interference case in Washington, D.C.

So once the Supreme Court gives the green light that Donald Trump had no presidential immunity based on the indictments in both cases, then I think what we're going to see is that the D.C. case will move forward and I think the Atlanta case will wind up taking a back seat to that.


DEAN: Nick, I found it interesting that while the Trump team was arguing that they would essentially say that he was - that it's his right to say these things that were untrue, that that's his First Amendment right. But they have not gone so far to say, yes, he lied. They won't say that quite outright. How do they continue to walk that line? Will they ever have to admit, yes, he wasn't telling the truth here?

AKERMAN: I would think at some point, once you get before a jury and you try and argue that Donald Trump really believed that the election was stolen in face of the overwhelming evidence that he knew it wasn't stolen, he knew that he lost, you've got his own lawyers saying that in December of - before January 6th, you've got his own lawyers saying that Donald Trump was going to have to lie in an affidavit he was going to file with the federal court.

So there is lots of evidence out there that he was lying and that the object of these lies was to interfere with the peaceful transfer of power and to stop it from happening and to stop Joe Biden from becoming president.

KEILAR: And Nick, there was also this issue of the fake elector, one of them, David Shafer, who's the former GOP - the Georgia state GOP chair - today arguing that he was just following legal counsel. Can bad legal advice absolve someone of a crime? And I think I may know the answer to this, but explain this to us.

AKERMAN: Well, the obvious answer is no, but there is a following - basically relying on advice of counsel. And I think what he's going to say is that he was doing this because if they were successful in these other lawsuits, that this would provide the opportunity for the electors to change in Georgia.

I think there's lots of evidence that's even set forth in the indictment in Georgia that shows that Mr. Shafer knew that there was an issue here. He lied to investigators. He did a number of things from which a jury could infer that he knew that what he was doing was unlawful, that he knew he was skirting the law and violating it.

So even though this is an argument they're making on the motions, this is an issue that will ultimately be decided by a Georgia jury and a jury in Washington, D.C.

DEAN: All right. And we will see how that all plays out.

Nick Akerman, thanks so much. Always great to have you on.

AKERMAN: Thank you.

DEAN: A new report finds white supremacist propaganda was distributed in record numbers last year. What's behind this alarming rise? That's next.