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Smollett Claims Attack But Possibly A Hoax; President Declares National Emergency; Trump Admits He Didn't Need To Declare Emergency; Trump Undercuts His Own Case About Need For Natl Emergency; Democratic Candidates Hammer Early Voting States; Payless Shuttering All Of Its 2,100 U.S. Stores; Justice Ginsburg Returns To Supreme Court After Absence. Aired 8-9p ET

Aired February 16, 2019 - 20:00   ET


ANA CABRERA, CNN ANCHOR, NEWSROOM: Smollett told police these attackers beat him, yelled homophobic slurs, put a rope around his neck and poured an unknown chemical on him. Now, two police sources tell CNN that new evidence suggests Smollett may have paid two men to stage the whole thing.

CNN'S Ryan Young joins us now. He's helping to break this news. Ryan, what's the latest?

RYAN YOUNG, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Ana, two law enforcement sources with knowledge of the investigation tell CNN that Chicago police believe Jussie Smollett paid two men to orchestrate the assault. The men who are brothers were arrested Wednesday were released without charges Friday after police cited the discovery of new evidence.

Now, the sources tell CNN that the two men are now cooperating fully with law enforcement. Smollett told authorities he was attacked early January 29th by to men who were yelling out racial and homophobic slurs. He said one attacker put a rope around his neck and poured an unknown chemical substance on him. Now, the sources tell CNN that there are records that show the two brothers purchased a rope found around Smollett's neck at a Ace Hardware store in Chicago.

Now, CNN attempts to reach both Smollett's representatives and attorneys or their attorneys were unsuccessful. And I can tell you, Ana, we've been working the phones nonstop in this case. We know 12 detectives have been working since the day of the attack. They've been able to track down the images. They've been able to track down the men's whereabouts for the days after the attack. And then, the next thing you know, they went to the men's house. They kicked open the door. They made sure they served a search warrant. They got all this evidence but they did not charge those two men.

Now, we know all these new details did not charge those two men. Now, we know all these new details. It's a very interesting twist in this case.

CABRERA: Ryan, stay with me. I want to read something we just got our hands on from the chief communications officer for Chicago police, now on the record, confirming this reporting, saying, we can confirm that the information received from the individuals questioned by police earlier in the Empire case has, in fact, shifted the trajectory of the investigation.

We've reached out to the Empire cast members' attorney to request a follow-up interview. Let me remind our viewers what Jussie Smollett said on Thursday, when he broke his silence on this attack publicly and said this.


JUSSIE SMOLLETT, ACTOR, EMPIRE: And I see the attacker masked. And he said, this maggot country. (INAUDIBLE) punches me right in the face, so I punch it back. And then, we started tussling. You know, it was very icy.

I noticed the rope around my neck, and I started screaming. And I said there's a (INAUDIBLE) rope around my neck.

I want them to see that I fought back. And I want a little gay boy who might watch this to see that I (INAUDIBLE) fought back. And it doesn't take anything away from people that are not able to do that. But I fought back. They ran off. I didn't.


CABRERA: So, that's what he said then, Ryan. What is he saying now?

YOUNG: Well, you can understand that we've reached out to his representatives. We haven't heard back from them just yet. Especially after we broke this story this afternoon, we wanted to reach out and give them a chance to respond to us. We do know the detectives want to reach out and talk to him again.

Ana, I can tell you, we took the other step in this case as well. We've walked the entire route that he took night. We walked from his residence to the subway and back. We tracked all the cameras in between. We know with the canvassing done by detectives as well. They got all that video evidence together. We know they have video of him walking into his residence with that noose around his neck. And he talked about, in that GMA interview, the fact that there was a camera nearby. But it was pointed in a different direction.

We've even talked to the residents in the area who didn't believe this attack happened, because of the kind of neighborhood this is. So, from that point, when the image came out about those two men, the possible people of interest, this was a, sort of, shining light for detectives to try to track these people down. We do know not only did they track them down through ride share and taxi cabs, but they were able to see that the two men were in the area.

And then, of course, when the men arrived from Nigeria, they were met at the airport by police. They were taken into custody Wednesday. And then, all the interviews took place.

Now that we know they're fully cooperating with police, it gives us more information about this. And, of course, talking to the two sources this afternoon before we broke the story, it was very interesting to hear how they have systematically gone through this, to the point where they had the financial records to go back and see that the men had purchased the rope from that Ace Hardware.

So, when you put all of this together, you can understand why police have more questions for the actor and how this story is, sort of, unraveling, at this point, in terms of what the investigation is pointing towards. Of course, he may be able to fill in some gaps. But, right now, you can see how the picture is going and what investigators are thinking right now.

CABRERA: All right, Ryan Young in Chicago for us. We know you're continuing to work your sources. Thank you.

Joey Jackson, Criminal Defense Attorney, is back with me, as well as former Philadelphia police commissioner, Charles Ramsey.

Joey, what kind of legal trouble could Jussie Smollett be in right now?

JOEY JACKSON, CRIMINAL DEFENSE ATTORNEY: I think the legal trouble is significant. You can't file false reports. And you cannot alert the police and divert resources like he did.

[20:05:02] Remember what the police did here. What they did was they left no stone unturned, really, in terms of what they did. They went, canvassed the area. Spoke to as many people as they possibly could, I'm sure.

In addition to that, executed search warrants. They got phone records, et cetera. You heard Ryan Young in his excellent reporting, talk about, you know, the ride sharing and other things that they did.

And so, you know, you send, generally from a prosecutorial perspective -- I'm a former prosecutor. You want to send the message of a deterrent value that this is just not a way to use the system. Particularly, when there are victims, that are real victims that suffer abuse from people. And you want detectives on those cases to solve those problems.

And so, filing a false report is problematic. It exposes him to some risk. And I think that a judge and, you know, other people, the prosecutor moving forward, is going to take this very seriously.

CABRERA: We know that Jussie Smollett spoke with police prior to this new reporting. Our understanding is now, Chief Ramsey, that police are trying to reach back out to Smollett to say, we need to talk to you again. What might that follow-up interview now look like?

CHARLES RAMSEY, FORMER COMMISSIONER, PHILADELPHIA POLICE DEPARTMENT: Depending on what those two individuals that were custody had to say, which must have been pretty significant, they want to re-question Mr. Smollett now to ask a lot -- a whole new series of questions to find out whether or not this, in fact, this did happen.

I mean, the fact that the communications section has now come out and said that the investigation has taken a different turn. I mean, that's very, very significant. They wouldn't come out and say that, unless there was some information that they had obtained that would actually move the -- move this case in a different direction.

And not only that. I think we have to remember that a case this high profile, before they released those two individuals, they certainly would have run this by the state's attorney's office, too, prior to releasing anybody.

So, there is something that's going on. But until we hear it from a superintendent or, you know, an official statement from the department like that, we still don't have all the answers to this.

CABRERA: Now, you did point out, they released these two other individuals who, again, we understand, may have been part of this staged attack. The fact that they were released, I assume they wouldn't just take their word for it. That if they said, yes, yes, yes, he paid us to do this. Would they have to have some kind of corroborating evidence?

RAMSEY: Well, they probably do have some more evidence that we just aren't aware of. I believe they excused search warrant. Don't know what they may have recovered there. There may be some more information they want to get from Mr. Smollett as well. Probably looking into not only his phone records, maybe financial. I don't know all the steps that they've already taken. But, certainly, they're going to leave no stone unturned in a case like this.

A case this high profile, you just don't make this kind of accusation without some good evidence to back it up. And, again, we don't know if this is true. The department has not come out and said that it's true. But, certainly, it has taken a different -- a different direction.

CABRERA: And, Joey, quickly.


CABRERA: How do you see those two individuals playing into this at this stage?

YOUNG: Oh, it's huge. And I'm just curious as to whether you talk about the state's attorney general's office or the state's attorney's office, whether or not there's some immunity deal that may be given to them if there's not any discussions already to come clean. Because you're under no obligation to speak to police. Right? I mean, if you want to you can speak to police but you don't have to. \ And so, they're fully cooperating. And the play would be to get them to tell all, with regard to Mr. Smollett's action, so that they can learn precisely what happened. What discussions were, if any. What he told them to get. How they were going to do this. Where they were going to do this. When they were going to do this.

So, they play a significant role, in terms of their own liability, right? You can't aid and abet a crime. So, they could have some exposure. And I think the good play for them would be, take whatever immunity you can get. Speak about what he did. And you move on. CABRERA: Guys, stay with me. I want to bring in a couple of other voices on this breaking news. Joining us now, anchor of "People T.V." Lola Ogunnaike, and CNN's Chief Media Correspondent Brian Stelter is also with us on the phone.

Lola, you were always skeptical about this story. What's your reaction?

LOLA OGUNNAIKE, ANCHOR, "PEOPLE T.V.": You know, Ana, I was hoped that this day would never come. Since I first heard this story, I was praying that this day would never come. But here we are and I have to say I am not surprised at all. I found this story to have a lot of holes from day one. I found it to be incredibly implausible.

But, again, I was hoping and hoping that someone wouldn't torpedo in the -- their career in this way. Someone with so much to lose wouldn't do this, but, alas, he did indeed do this, it appears.

CABRERA: Right, that that's the accusation, at this point, as the investigation is still ongoing. I want to play some sound from the show's creator, "Empire." The highly-respected Lee Daniels, his -- here's what he said after the attack.


[20:20:02] LEE DANIELS, FILM WRITER: It's taken me a minute to come to social media about this because, Jussie, you are my son. You didn't deserve, nor anybody deserves, to have a noose put around your neck. To have bleach thrown on you. To be called (INAUDIBLE) or whatever they said to you. You are better than that. We are bet -- we are better than that. American is better than that.

It starts at home. It starts at home, you know. We have to love each other, regardless of what sexual orientation we are because it shows that we are united on a united front. And no racist (INAUDIBLE) can come in and do the things that they did to you. Hold your head up, Jussie. I'm with you. I'll be there in a minute. It's just another (INAUDIBLE) day in America.


CABRERA: Wow. Brian, if this reporting is true, he not only lied to police, he lied to his fans. He really burned those closest to him.

BRIAN STELTER, CNN CHIEF MEDIA CORRESPONDENT: And our colleague, Victor Blackwell, said it so well on Twitter. He said, the real tragedy here is if Jussie orchestrated this scam, it'll be that all the victims of real hate crimes may not be believed. There are other stories of real victims that may not be believed in the future. And that is, indeed, the real tragedy here.

You know, we saw a lot of politicians and Hollywood celebrities and activists rally around Jussie Smollett's side as soon as he made these accusations several weeks ago. And there are good reasons why they believed him. It's hard to imagine why anyone would think of orchestrating something like this. And if the allegations are true, it's deeply disturbing. And it speaks to the danger to rush about rushing to judgment. In this social media age, where we learn everything on Twitter and Facebook, and we hear everything so urgently, there, often times, rushes to judgment. And, in this case, but also in so many other cases with so many other alleged crimes.

And, in this particular case, there's a tension between believing the alleged victim, believing the allegation, which is, obviously, an instinct that so many people likely have. There's a tension between that and people taking advantage of that instinct to believe the victim. There's such attention there. And Jussie Smollett may have exploited that. After all, his employee, the Fox studio backed him up very strongly. Even in a statement a couple days ago, they said he's a core player on the show.


STELTER: He -- the Fox studio stands by him. We don't know if that'll change now. I have calls and questions into Fox. And there's no comment on that yet on this new reporting.

CABRERA: Lola, the big question, then, is why? Why he would make something like this up?

OGUNNAIKE: Well, it has been alleged that he was going to be written off the show. Empire producers have said that that is not indeed true. But it has been alleged that he was hoping to actually maintain his 15 minutes of fame, maybe use the attention garnered from this alleged attack to garner more attention towards a future -- a stronger future -- future roles.

I'm not sure why anyone would do this. I know that, in the foreseeable future, if this turns out to indeed be a hoax, his career for the foreseeable future is indeed over.

CABRERA: Chief Ramsey, given your investigative experience, what does that experience tell you about possible motivation for something like this?

RAMSEY: Well, I have no idea why anyone would do that. But I would have to say this. It's not the first time I've ever had a case where someone provided false information. I'm sure, for the detectives that handled this case, it wouldn't be the first time either. You take all of that into consideration.

But it doesn't taint the way in which you move forward with new cases. A hate crime is a hate crime. If it occurs, you're going to investigate it as thoroughly as possible to try to person or persons responsible and bring them to justice. I mean, you always look at these cases and try to put together the facts.

One person -- if, in fact, this turns out to be that that person did not tell the truth and provided false information, should not taint how the department moves forward in the future, when they get cases of crimes committed. Hate crimes or otherwise. If you're a cop, believe me, you've probably seen something similar to this before, although maybe not at this magnitude.

And as far as motivation, I have no clue. If this -- in an individual like this, who you would think on the surface has it all, why you would do something like that just makes absolutely no sense at all.

CABRERA: I want to -- I want to play another clip from his interview earlier this week in which he says, here is the truth.


SMOLLETT: I was talking to a friend. And I said, I just want them on find them. And she said, sweetie, they're not going to find them. That just made me so angry.

[20:15:00] Because -- so, I'm just going to be left here with this? You know what I'm saying? Like, I'm just going to be left here with, like -- so they get to go free? And go about their life and possibly attack someone else, and I'm here to left with the -- left with the aftermath of this bull? That's not cool to me. That's not OK. So, I understand how difficult it will be to find them. But we got pissed off.

ROBIN ROBERTS, HOST, ABC "GOOD MORNING AMERICA": What is it that has you so angry? Is it the attackers?

SMOLLETT: It's the attackers but it's also the attacks. It's, like -- you know, at first, it was a thing of, like, listen, if I tell truth, then that's it. Because it's the truth. Then it became a thing of, like, oh, how can you doubt that? How do you -- how do you not believe that? It's the truth. And then, it became thing of, like, oh, it's not necessarily that you don't believe that this is the truth. You don't even want to see the truth.


CABRERA: Joey, how would you advise Jussie Smollett now? Does he go public or should he stay very, very quiet?

JACKSON: I mean, you know, the point is that the cat's out of the bag, in terms of public. He said everything he had to say. And just in terms of advising him before that, you think about all the people who are victims of hate crime, you think about the vitriol that's being spread right now. Look at what's happening with the blackface issue, as it relates to Virginia. Look at what's happening in the attack on immigrants. We are in trying times.

And so, to add this to our political discourse is really not something we need right now, at this point in time. You know, he'll -- he will have his cross to bear. And, in the event that this is not true, he'll be prosecuted. And the -- you know, you can't file false statements because it just does too many damaging things to people who really need help.

And so, he's going to have to, with his lawyer, really own this. And he's going to have to accept responsibility, if in the event that this is not true. And he's going to have to come clean and ask for, really, the mercy of the court and asked to be redeemed by all the other things I'm sure he's done in his life which are of value. But these are trying times.

And in terms being mum now, he's -- right, you saw the clips. He's pretty much said it all. So, we can only hope that he heals and he's in a place of healing. And all those who love him and supported him and who let down right now. And who are disappointed in him and his conduct could absorb this and that we all could move forward from this.

CABRERA: Again, if true, we've got to use that if true.

JACKSON: Absolutely.

CABRERA: Because, right now, he doesn't have any charges that he's facing, as far as we know. And we all are seeking the truth here. But, Lola, how does he now redeem himself in his professional credibility?

OGUNNAIKE: If this turns out to indeed be true, I think he needs to go on a Mea Culpa tour. He needs to explain what exactly motivated him to do something this heinous. And he would have to be incredibly honest about what fueled this exactly. Because, right now, I think I speak for a number of people, this makes absolutely no sense on the surface. So, there has to be something deeper here.

But I also do think it's important to note that in him allegedly doing this, he has hurt a number of people of color, people part of the LGBT community, people who are actual victims. Their stories may have difficulty being believed because of this alleged lie. Again, we don't know if this is indeed a hoax, but it's looking like it.

But, again, like I said earlier, I just found it incredibly implausible from the beginning. It sounded like a plot line from an "Empire" episode, so I'm not surprised that we're here. I was just hoping that I would not be right.

CABRERA: Exactly. Brian, you're our media expert. I'll give you the last word. How does he use the media, perhaps, going forward?

STELTER: I think, in retrospect, that on "Good Morning, America" interview which allowed him to tell his side of the story, that just made things worse for him. And, perhaps, the questioning was not tough enough on "Good Morning ,America." But, ultimately, this is not about the media or about politicians or activists, or any other people that might have been fooled. It's about Jussie. And I agree with what everyone else has said. This is about why he might -- and, so far, we don't know. But why he might have made this up. It just boggles the mind -- Ana.

CABRERA: We're all going to stay on top of it. We're going to bring our viewers every last detail as we learn new information until we get the full story. Everybody, thank you so much for being with me. Joey, Lola, Chief Ramsey, Brian Stelter, I really appreciate you guys.

A legal battle shaping up, meantime. We'll turn to a totally different story here. Just a day after President Trump declared an emergency in order to get funding for his border wall. We'll have details on that just ahead here in the CNN Newsroom.



CABRERA: A live look here at Washington, D.C. tonight. The capital city of the nation, that according to the president, is under threat right now by criminal forces, clawing their way across the southern border. So urgent is the attack, again in the view of the president, that it warrants the declaration of a national emergency.

Not surprisingly, President Trump and his emergency declaration to fund construction of a southern border wall is dominating the campaign conversations this weekend. Many of the Democratic hopefuls are sitting lawmakers who will be part of the Congressional or the legal challenge to the president's plan.

Let me get Senior Political Analyst Ron Brownstein in here. Also with us, CNN Political Commentator and "Daily Beast" senior columnist, Matt Lewis; and managing editor of "The Beat D.C.," Tiffany Cross.

Ron, the president spent the first day of this declared national emergency playing golf in Florida. Does that really underscore the severity of this problem, this crisis, this emergency at the border, as the president describes it?

[20:25:00] RON BROWNSTEIN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: It tells you all you need to know, especially after yesterday when he said, I didn't have to do this. I only did it because I wanted to build the wall faster.

Look, the reality is, as we've talked about many times, the undocumented population of the U.S. peaked in 2007. So, it's about a million and a half lower than it was, at that point. Apprehensions at the border are at, what, down by two-thirds since the beginning of the century? Far below their level under the George W. Bush presidency. The idea that there is an objective emergency that is different than the situation we've been dealing with, you know, is very hard to sustain. That, however, does not mean the courts might not defer to the president in the end. So, we don't really know where, you know, where this will end up.

I think the likelihood is that the Congress will pass a resolution to disapprove, but not by a veto-proof majority. And as, like many other things in modern American life, it will ultimately depend on what John Roberts is thinking the day that it comes before him.

CABRERA: We're hearing a lot from Democrats. We know legal challenges have already begun. Democrats are threatening this move in Congress.

Matt, there are bound to be many more challenges in the days ahead. What will that tennis match look like when the -- when they start flying, the challenges flying back at the White House? MATT LEWIS, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, look, I think Donald

Trump has put our -- the emergency here, of course, is actually that our country is supposed to have separation of powers. And I think that these are -- these occasions are actually supposed to be used for emergencies. And for a president who's overstepping his bounds, I think it's not good for the country. That's the real emergency.

But what's it going to look like -- Donald Trump, either way, has escaped. I mean, he was outmaneuvered by Nancy Pelosi. He was not able to deliver on his promise of building a border wall. This is his only way out.

And so, I think that Trump, kind of in a way, has won politically, no matter what happens, even if the courts do what I think is the right thing and block this. But you can't -- I think Ron's right. You can't guarantee that they will. But even so, Trump has escaped this trap.

CABRERA: How does -- how does Trump, though, win politically, when the majority of Americans, according to every poll that's out there say, --


CABRERA: -- a border wall does not merit a national emergency declaration? Tiffany, what's your take on that?

TIFFANY CROSS, CO-FOUNDER AND MANAGING EDITOR, "THE BEAT D.C.": Well, I think he's won the battle but not the war. He's now set up a precedent for when there's a Democratic White House, that these people can do the same thing. Ana, we've gone from talking about one hoax to another. This whole idea of a national emergency is a hoax.

And let's just point out, if we may, the hypocrisy of the mega-crowd who cheers this on. In order to do this, he's taking away funding from our armed services. Where are all these people who are all about supporting the troops? And to do this, he would have the take away land from private citizens to build this wall that he wants to build.

I'm sorry, where are all these small government Republicans who scoffed at such a thing? I remember when that right-wing nut had a stand-off in Nevada with law enforcement over this very issue. And he had a whole amen (ph) corner cheering him on to protect his land. Yet, now that this wall is coming, it's no problem.

You also have Customs Border Patrol turning away unaccompanied children seeking asylum. I'm sorry, where are all the pro-life people who love fetuses but don't love live children in the dessert trying to save their lives? This is hypocrisy and we have to call it out for what it is. And as long as we keep putting a blanket and a pretty bow over this type of ridiculousness, then it'll keep -- it will continue. I think we have to call the president out in the main problem are the followers because that's who this wall is for.

CABRERA: Democrats and Republicans both believe that border security is an issue that needs to be addressed. It's part of why they passed the amount of money that they did in the spending bill. But when it comes to whether it's an emergency, Ron, I want to play the sound bite. The chip from the president's Rose Garden --


CABRERA: -- announcement yesterday that you referred to.



DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: And the wall, they skimped. So, I did -- I was successful, in that sense. But I want to do it faster. I could do the wall over a longer period of time. I didn't need to do this. But I'd rather do it much faster. And I don't have to do it for the election. I've already done a lot of wall for the election 2020. And the only reason we're up here talking about this is because of the election.


CABRERA: So, Ron, as Democrats have also said, if he didn't really need to do it, then it must not be an emergency. We know there are Republicans who don't think this is the right move, for many reasons that have already been discussed here, Rand Paul, Marco Rubio are a couple -- just to name a couple.

But do you see Republicans actually breaking with the president, if this resolution to stop this emergency passes the House and goes to the Senate?

BROWNSTEIN: Well, first, can you imagine how much any of the litigants would have paid an attorney to get them -- if they could somehow get the president under oath to admit what he just said at that press conference? Any of the people opposing the wall to get him to say, I -- it's not an emergency. I didn't have to do it. I only want -- I'm only declaring because I want to do it faster.

[20:30:02] Look, I think this is -- in both parties, there was a sense that this may have been the only way out of persistent government shutdowns. But I really disagree with Matt, in terms of this being a win for the president, because this is an end of goal, building a wall that he has never been able to generate majority support for.

And now, he is using a means to advance that goal that it is opposed by an even larger majority of the country. Two-thirds of the country consistently in polling over the last few weeks and said they opposed the -- I want to say the final numbers will probably be a little better. Republicans will rally toward it.

But there's no question that this is something most Americans oppose and it is opposed by super majorities. Two-thirds or more among all of the groups that power the Democratic takeover of the House. Young people, minorities, college educated whites.

I suspect there may be enough Republicans to join with Democrats in the Senate to pass a resolution of disapproval. But are there 20 Republicans in the Senate who were willing to break from the president? Probably not. And that means that even if there is a resolution of disapproval, he can veto it and they'll have a very hard time stopping him.

It is, though, a marker, another marker how the president is bending the Republican Party toward his agenda on immigration. It's easy to forget that during 2016, very few Republicans supported the wall at all. He is defining the party as one hostile to immigration in general and through demographic change more broadly. And that is a long term consequence for Republicans, whether they want to admit it or not.

ANA CABRERA, CNN ANCHOR: Ron, Matt, Tiffany, hold on. I've to squeeze in a quick break and I'm going to come back because I want to talk to you guys also about the race for the White House and the 2020 diverse field, as it's shaping up to be.

It is --is it a disadvantage to be running for the democratic nomination as a white male? I asked one of the Democratic candidates that question. And we'll discuss when we come back.


[20:35:27] CABRERA: I'm back now with senior political analyst Ron Brownstein. CNN political commentator and Daily Beast senior columnist, Matt Lewis. And managing editor of the Beat DC, Tiffany Cross.

Guys, let's talk about the race for the White House in 2020. Take a look at the map of where some of the democratic candidates showed up today. The field of candidates is big, it's diverse. The state of New Hampshire is so big but no less than four candidates. You can see there. Hit campaign spots today in New Hampshire. Some of them in the same city.

And a short time ago, I spoke to one candidate for the White House. The one who's actually been running this race the longest, declared his candidacy back in July of 2017, former Maryland congressman, John Delaney. Listen.


JOHN DELANEY, FORMER MARYLAND CONGRESSMAN: So I think if I would have run 30 or 40 years ago as president, being a White man would have been an advantage. Right?

The way I think of it now is that we're all on a level playing field. And isn't that the way it should be? And I don't have any advantage running for president as a Whiteman which I would have across history. Right?

So the way I look at it right now is I think the Democratic Party voters are going to elect the person who they think is the best leader. And they're not going to think about all these other stuff.


CABRERA: John Delaney is saying, he does not feel any advantage to being a white male in this race. In all fairness, he was answering a question that I'd asked him about the diversity of the field, the diversity of America, the diversity of democratic voters.

But, Tiffany, what did you think of that answer?

TIFFANY CROSS, MANAGING EDITOR, THE BEAT DC: Yes. I thought it was interesting. I don't know that being a white male was an advantage 10 years ago of. I think maybe Congressman Delaney is just catching up with the demographics of the country.

Listen, I think communities of color all across this country have redefined what electability means. At one point, it used to mean appealing to white swing voters. And now, we've seen that's evidence by what happened in 2018. That's not necessarily what it means. There were key districts that Asian-Americans decided those races. There are key districts where Native Americans decided the race. There were key districts where African-Americans decided the race.

And I think we're going to see in this election cycle in 2020 that's going to be the same case. This is why you see a lot of politicians descending upon South Carolina whose voting population is a sizable share of African-Americans and this is why you see people including communities of color and policies of color that are relevant to these communicates and their policy platforms.

So I think is maybe the rest the country is just catching up. But I think for communities of color, we've been hearing a long time.

CABREBRA: Matt, Joe Biden says he's still not I he's running. He wasn't campaigning anywhere today but he was sort of like flexing his foreign policy knowledge and might in Germany today at this global security conference. If he does join the race, how does that change the dynamic?

MATT LEWIS, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Oh, I think he automatically becomes a front-runner, if not the front-runner.

And look, one of the benefits that Joe Biden has, that none of the other Democrats have, is that Joe Biden, he is who he is, right? So like, for example, Donald Trump, when Donald Trump was running in the Republican primary, everybody kind of knew who he was. So when he said something offensive, provocative, crazy, it really didn't hurt him. It was baked in the cake.

Whereas, I think, if Marco Rubio had a bad debate, it actually hurt him. And I think likewise, Joe Biden will have the same benefit. If a scandal pops of, if there's a slip of the tongue, he's kind of gap prone. I think it's baked in the cake. That's Joe being Joe.

And I think he can make the electability argument. I mean, look, Democrats, they don't have to worry about winning the popular vote. They can win the popular vote. The question is, can they win the Electoral College? And I think the best way to win the Electoral College is probably to try to take back the rough spell, working class White voters in Pennsylvania and Michigan.

[20:40:09] Joe Biden is probably the best candidate. At least on paper. Being originally from Pennsylvania before being a Delaware senator to make that case.

CABRERA: You know, I was just thinking about this. Given his standing in all the polls and he's not even running yet, Ron, and he's like at the very top at every single poll.

If he is planning to run, is he better off just sitting back and biding his time? Or should he get in now and make sure that these other candidates don't scoop up all of the best players to be on their team?

BROWNSTEIN: Biden his time, as it were, huh? Look, I think, first of all, to your initial question, we actually published -- I actually published on the website, we we're working with the NCN polling unit. A very detailed analysis of what the democratic primary electorate is likely to look like in 2020.

We examined all of the exit polls from 2016. All 27 states in which they were done. And if you look at the trends, it is entirely possible that non-white voters, to your point, will be 40 percent of all the democratic primary voters in 2020. And women will be 60 percent of all the democratic primary voters.

White men probably are going to be -- will be 29 percent in 2016, will probably even be a little less than that. So the democratic primary electorate is the most diverse that it has ever been. Although not reflected in Iowa and New Hampshire.

After that, as you look at from mid-February through mid-March, from Nevada and South Carolina through California, Texas, Alabama, North Carolina, Arizona, Florida, there is an explosion of diversity. And I think it's going to be very hard for anyone to win the nomination who cannot compete for at least a share of that extraordinarily diverse Democratic vote.

Now, Biden, I mean, his potential strength as a candidate, I think, above all, is that he may be unique among the Democrats in his ability to pull a little from here, a little from there. I mean, he's not kind of locked into one lane in the way that other candidates are.

And I don't think there is a super rush. I mean, people talk about, yes, there is a kind of a signing up process. But we are still a year away from those first votes. And the things that happened now can seem more important than they actually will be once we get closer to the actual event.

CABRERA: All right. Ron, Matt, Tiffany, thanks for all of you for being here. Thank you to all of you. We'll be back in just a moment.

BROWNSTEIN: Thank you.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) [20:45:32] CABRERA: If you were a fan of Payless shoes, I've got some bad news for you tonight. The discount chain will be closing all of its more than 2,000 U.S. locations. Some will begin closing as early as March. Though most will stay open until May.

Payless is also pulling the plug on its online store. The company wide liquidation sales start tomorrow. Payless merely the latest casualty now in the age of online shopping joining other big names like Toys "R" Us and Brookstone.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg returns to the Supreme Court bench for the first time since her cancer surgery. We'll chat with a couple of filmmakers who have bene talking with Justice Ginsburg about her recovery, just ahead live in the CNN NEWSROOM.


[20:50:38] CABRERA: Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg returned to the High Court Friday for the first time since undergoing cancer surgery in December. Her illness inspired an outpouring of support from people all around the country, as well as speculation about her future.

And joining us now are two women who were very close to Justice Ginsburg, Julie Cohen and Betsy West, the directors of the Oscar nominated CNN film "RBG," which is airing in just a few minutes right here on CNN.

So happy for you both for the success of your film. Let's talk about Justice Ginsburg and her health. I know both of you have bene touch with her. Talk to us about how she's feeling and what she's been up to and her recovery.

BETSY COHEN, DIRECTOR & PRODUCER, "RBG": Yes. Well, she had a surgery in mid-December for some cancerous spots found on her lung, and she's been recovering -- we had the opportunity to talk to her two weeks ago to tell her that we have been nominated for an Oscar for the film, which was exciting to be able to tell her.

But the other great thing was just how strong she sounded. And at that time, she said that she's been reading and writing and keeping up with the work of the court. And sure enough she was back in conference on Friday.

CABRERA: So many people have been concerned about her health, obviously, and what it would mean if she couldn't return to the Supreme Court. Julie, how significant is it that she's back?

JULIE COHEN, DIRECTOR, "RBG": I think it's quite significant. I mean, she came-- she came to work on Friday and, of course, Tuesday are oral arguments, and she's planning to be there back on the bench.

So I think that's really an encouraging sign for all who care about her health, just beyond those who agree with her opinions and dissents, those who are concerned about our country or care personally about Justice Ginsburg are glad to see her back in court. CABRERA: Again, ladies, a huge congratulations for the Oscar nomination.

Why does she and the film, do you think, resonate so much right now?

WEST: You know, I think that the film has touched a nerve and her story has really resonated with people because of what she represents in fighting for women's equality as really you can call her the legal architect of the women's movement, what she did in the 1970s to secure fairness for American women and also what she represents right now as, you know, a very strong voice on the court for the views of our constitution that she believes in fighting for equal rights and reproductive rights and voting rights and other issues that people believe in very strongly.

CABRERA: Your film does talk about so much of her fight for women's rights and for sticking up for women in looking at cases and then trying to level the playing field in many ways, you know, rejecting discrimination.

As a couple people who know her so well, I wonder what you think her thoughts would be about the historic midterm election when we saw this record number of women now taking office.

COHEN: Well, you know, I think many of those women who are now coming into Congress realize that in their own fight, they're standing on the shoulder of Justice Ginsburg and the work that she's done over the past few decades.

And I think one of the nice things about the added attention to that work, which kind of, we feel, didn't get the full attention that it deserved in the past is that younger women and different generations are beginning to understand what was done in the earlier generations that opened the door to things like more women taking their places in the Capitol.

[20:55:14] CABRERA: And your thoughts on that too?

WEST: Yes. I think that Justice Ginsburg is happy to see more women getting involved in the judiciary and in politics and really taking their rightful place in all aspects of our society capitol.

I mean, she has said before, how many women should there be on the Supreme Court, and she said, "Well, there could be nine." And for a long time, there were nine men and what would be wrong with nine women?

CABRERA: Yes. Thank you both. Two wonderful ladies showing how to get the job done. We really appreciate you joining us. Thanks for shedding some light on Justice Ginsburg in your film and also today as she continues to fight back from her health challenges. Nice to see you, ladies.

Be sure to tune in for a special airing of the Oscar-nominated CNN film "RBG" with limited commercial breaks, that's next.