Return to Transcripts main page

CNN Newsroom

Griner Speaks In Court; China Fires Missiles Near Taiwan; Federal Grand Jury Issues Subpoenas For Former WH Counsel And Deputy Counsel. Aired 9-9:30a ET

Aired August 04, 2022 - 09:00   ET



JIM SCIUTTO, CNN ANCHOR: A good Thursday morning to you. I'm Jim Sciutto. Poppy is off this week.

We do begin with breaking news.

This hour, right now, closing arguments underway in a Moscow courtroom for the WNBA star Brittney Griner. The two-time Olympic gold medalist who also plays in Russia during the off season pleaded guilty to drug charges last month. A prosecutor seeking, though those charges are minor, nine and a half years of jailtime.

Griner just spoke moments ago. Let' let's listen.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: (Speaking in Foreign Language).

BRITTNEY GRINER, WNBA STAR DETAINED IN RUSSIA: I want to apologize to my teammates, my club, (INAUDIBLE), the fans and the city of Ekat (ph) for my mistake that I made and the embarrassment that I brought onto them.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: (Speaking in Foreign Language).

GRINER: I want to also apologize to my parents, my siblings, the Phoenix Mercury organization back at home, the amazing women of the WNBA, and my amazing spouse back at home.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: (Speaking in Foreign Language).

GRINER: I never meant to hurt anybody. I never meant to put in jeopardy the Russian population. I never meant to break any laws here.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: (Speaking in Foreign Language).

GRINER: I made an honest mistake, and I hope that in your ruling that it doesn't end my life here.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: (Speaking in Foreign Language).

GRINER: I know that everybody keeps talking about political pawn, and politics, but I hope that that is far from this courtroom.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: (Speaking in Foreign Language).

GRINER: I want to say again that I had no intent on breaking any Russian laws. I had no intent, I did not conspire or plan to commit this crime.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: (Speaking in Foreign Language).

GRINER: I hope that you take into account all the documents, all the character lists, everybody that sent in on my behalf.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: (Speaking in Foreign Language).

GRINER: Again, I want to apologize to my teammates, and the organization, (INAUDIBLE), for any damage that I may have done to them. I never intended on hurting them. This is my second home. And all I wanted to do was just win championships and make them proud.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: (Speaking in Foreign Language).


GRINER: Thank you, your honor.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: (Speaking in Foreign Language).

SCIUTTO: You've been listening there, just moments ago, to the comments inside a Russian courtroom of Brittney Griner, the WNBA star, as she awaits sentencing there for drug charges. She said she wanted to apologize to her teammates, fans, siblings, the WNBA. She said she had no intent to commit a crime. She also said interestingly she wanted the phrase political pawn to be far from the courtroom. Now we will await what the court decides in terms of her sentencing, while negotiations continue for a possible prisoner swap to earn Griner and perhaps other Americans currently held in Russia their freedom.

CNN's senior international correspondent Frederik Pleitgen is live outside the Moscow courtroom, also CNN national security correspondent Kylie Atwood covering.

Let's begin with Fred.

Fred, what happens from here? How long before we expect to hear a decision on sentencing?

FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, we just got word from the court, Jim, that they've, for now, are taking a break and they expect to be back in I'd say about an hour, 45, maybe an hour and 40 minutes from now, and that's when we can expect a verdict, right within that time frame. It could take a while for the court to then establish itself, but that's around the time that we expect a verdict to come down.

But a lot really happening today. I mean we just heard some of those remarkable words there from Brittney Griner that she just did addressing the court. But even as she came into the court earlier today, she immediately held up a picture of the team that she plays for here in Russia, the team of Ekaterinburg. You'll recall that when she took the stand a couple of weeks ago, she said that she wanted to get back to her teammates so badly that she quickly packed her stuff and got on that plane, and that maybe in that haste she accidentally packed those cartridges which, of course, you know, contained that cannabis oil, at least that according to the prosecution. So, Brittney Griner already holding a picture earlier today.

The prosecution, for its part, calling for a very tough sentence, asking for nine and a half years in prison. That's nine years and six months. And, on top of that, a fine of about 1 million rubles. I'd say that's about between $16,000 and $17,000. They are saying that there's no doubt that she intended to take the vaping cartridges with cannabis oil in them to Russia.

Again, there was a plea by her defense team, closing arguments by them, and they were then saying that she absolutely didn't mean to take them here. They also believe that there were some procedural errors that were conducted by the authorities when Brittney Griner was apprehended at the airport near Moscow, the Sheremetyevo airport, on February 19th. For instance, she didn't have enough access to a translate. She didn't know some of the documents that she was signing, what exactly they were about. They also called into question some of the analysis that happened as well.

A lot of today was also about Brittney Griner's character, though, Jim, where they said, look, Brittney Griner is a model athlete, is someone who's obviously very popular around the world, and also very popular here in Russia and who's done a lot for Ekaterinburg and for Russia. And just because of that, they believe that more leniency should be in order.

One of the things that we need to mention, Jim, is that the court, the judge, has a lot of leeway as far as the actual verdict is concerned. The prosecutor asking for 9.5 years. The judge could remain well below that. There is a lot of leeway. We're going to have to wait and see. But we do always have to remind our viewers that Russian courts definitely not known for leniency, Jim.

SCIUTTO: Thank you, Fred.

Kylie, we'd be remiss not to mention the political implications and influences here that Russian courts and trials, there are the Kremlin's desires as well, and they have a history of turning Americans and other foreigners into bargaining chips.

What is the status of negotiations, U.S. offers for a prisoner swap? The U.S., as you know, offered to swap the convicted arms smuggler, Viktor Bout, in exchange for her and Paul Whelan. Are those negotiations still ongoing?

KYLIE ATWOOD, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Yes, well, here's the thing, Jim, today will have a significant impact on those ongoing negotiations. And here's why. U.S. officials have long said that they believe Griner would have to admit guilt, which she did with that guilty plea back in July, and we heard it again today with her reiterating that this was a mistake, she never meant to break Russian law, and that she would also have to have sentencing as part of this trial. And that's what we're expecting will come today before there could be any actual prisoner swap that would come to fruition.

But even though U.S. officials expected that both of those things needed to be in hand before a prisoner swap could actually happen, they did put that offer for a deal on the table back in June to try and get the wheels spinning towards that direction.


Now, the Russians came back with a counteroffer saying, in addition to Viktor Bout, this convicted arms smuggler who is facing a 25-year prison sentence here in the United States, they also wanted another Russian who's serving a life sentence in Germany right now for murder. Now, the Biden administration said that wasn't a serious counteroffer.

So, the question now is that at the end of today, when this sentence is in, will a serious counteroffer from the Russians come in? And I also think it's important to note that the State Department is watching this incredibly closely and there isn't really any sort of assumption that there won't be sentencing here because there is a 99 percent conviction rate in the Russian judicial system.

So, the question is, now that this is over, can they move forward on these conversations over a prisoner swap? The backdrop, of course, being the fact that Russia is still engaged in this invasion of Ukraine. And the Kremlin may see having Brittney Griner as having leverage over the United States right now. Brittney Griner saying she doesn't want politics to be part of it, but politics are inherently part of this awful situation for her.

SCIUTTO: No question. And enormous pressure from Russia given the kinds of people that they are attempting to exchange for Brittney Griner here.

We will continue to monitor events from the courtroom. Fred Pleitgen, there in Moscow, Kylie Atwood, at the State Department.

Another story we're following this morning, Korean Air is canceling its flights into Taiwan for the next two days because China's firing multiple missiles towards the water very close to the self-ruled and democratic island. The live fire military drills are a response, China says, to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's visit to Taiwan. You could actually hear the drills off the coast.

China has called Pelosi's visit, quote, irresponsible and irrational. Taiwan is accusing China of acting like North Korea. There's actually been some bipartisan support here in this country for Pelosi's visit to Taiwan. This morning, Nancy Pelosi's focus on the Korean peninsula. She is in South Korea right now for her latest leg of her trip to Asia.

CNN's senior international correspondent Will Ripley is in Taiwan. Will, this morning Secretary of State Antony Blinken said he hopes

Beijing will not manufacture a crisis. From Taiwan, do they see this blowing over in the coming days or do they see a new level of tensions now?

WILL RIPLEY, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: I'm not sure that they are, you know, concerned to the level of, like, red alert, you know, danger is imminent, but this is extraordinarily troubling. I mean, you just look at the pictures of people who are living here in Taiwan and they're seeing, you know, those explosions, live fire drills, just off the shore, you know, 16 kilometers. Some of the sites were that close.

I mean this is a deliberate attempt by China, by Xi Jinping, to intimidate, to intimidate people here in Taiwan, to intimidate the leadership of Taiwan, to try to intimidate the United States. And to see Speaker Pelosi now, you know, potentially traveling to the Demilitarized Zone, we heard she might be planning to do that, she's in South Korea, you know.

I covered that flashpoint, North Korea/South Korea for many years, and to now be sitting here at yet another flashpoint where you have once again missiles flying. It was North Korean missiles that were landing, you know, in Japan's economic zone. And now, for the first time ever, Japan says that Chinese ballistic missiles have also landed in their exclusive economic zone.

So, this situation pulls in not only the United States, because Speaker Pelosi was here in China, uses that as the excuse to start this kind of activity, but now you have Japan worried about their own security with Chinese ballistic missiles landing closer and closer to their island.

It's not the kind of dynamic that you want to see evolving out here in a very heavily nuclear armed part of the world. But this is the dynamic that we are in now where every little thing could trigger something else. And maybe they -- China was going to do this anyway. I mean clearly these military drill plans didn't just get sprung up overnight. Maybe they would have done it when she was here in April. We have no way of knowing.

But they're doing it now and now it's up to Taiwan, the United States, Japan and others in the region to figure out what, if any, response there's going to be.

SCIUTTO: That's right. And it is China, by the way, firing those missiles, right?

Will Ripley, thanks very much.


SCIUTTO: In the next hour, the jury in the Alex Jones trial will return to deliberations after just a wild final day of testimony that included the lawyer for the parents of Sandy Hook revealing they have Alex Jones' phone. Remarkable. Plus, the Justice Department sends a subpoena to yet another Trump

White House official as its January 6th investigation continues. Who that is, pictured there. What he might know, just ahead.

And Democratic Senator Kyrsten Sinema remains the lone holdout in her party on President Biden's economic package.


Now the president might be sending her a message.


SCIUTTO: First on CNN, the Justice Department has now subpoenaed former Deputy Trump White House Counsel Patrick Philbin, part of its ongoing investigation, criminal investigation into the January 6th attack on the Capitol. This comes just a day after we learned the federal grand jury has also subpoenaed his boss, the White House Counsel Pat Cipollone.

Joining me now, CNN's senior crime and justice reporter, Katelyn Polantz.

So, Katelyn, should we look at this as just complementary to the subpoena to Cipollone, or is there something specific and different that they might be looking for from Philbin?

KATELYN POLANTZ, CNN SENIOR CRIME AND JUSTICE REPORTER: Well, we don't' actually know exactly what they're looking for at this point, but we should be looking at these together at the very least. I mean these two men are people that were there in the crucial days of the Trump administration, at the very end. And the one thing that they witnessed that we know of at this point -- we don't know a lot about what Philbin himself witnessed.


We haven't seen him a lot in the House Select Committee hearings at least, although he did testify to them. They were there for that meeting on January 3rd where Donald Trump wanted to replace the attorney general. And they were a part of the group that said, everyone's going to resign if you do that.


POLANTZ: You can't do that. We're not going to continue investigating election fraud. Get over it at this point. And so we know he was there for that.

We also know, you know, he is in that White House counsel's role with Pat Cipollone. They are extremely high ranking people, well respected people inside the White House, giving advice. And so that's the sort of thing that the prosecutors are probably looking to nail down, both replicating what they said to the House and also fleshing out potentially other things that they weren't willing to say to the House, potentially things that they have claimed executive privilege on, Trump has claimed executive privilege on and that we know the Justice Department may be trying to line up to get a court to say, no, we should have access to that in this grand jury investigation.

SCIUTTO: It's remarkable because just like just a month ago that all the talk was what's the DOJ up to, and now, clearly, there's something going on at the Justice Department.

OK, CNN has also learned the Secret Service is now -- or may disable text messaging on employee cell phones as it faces these ongoing deep questions about what happened to all those text messages around January 6th. What's the importance of that?

POLANTZ: Yes, it appears to really be a reaction to all of this interest now in what happened to their text messages, both at the Secret Service and we're also getting this other news that there are secretary level people at DHS, same agency, where they're text messages were deleted.

But what we know now, my colleagues were able to report yesterday, that the Secret Service director, James Murray, he sent a memo on Tuesday, agency wide, saying that they were considering temporarily suspending the use of these text messages while they can figure out how to retain them if there are gaps in their procedures, in their systems.

Now, fully disabling texting for Secret Service, that could potentially be a problem that they don't want to bring about. You know, that is a way that law enforcement communicates. So, there is some indication they're going to make sure they don't shut off all avenues of communication for agents if they do that.


POLANTZ: But it is something they're looking into clearly when this retention is at issue for a lot of places.

SCIUTTO: Questions keep going deeper.

Katelyn Polantz, thanks so much.

All right, joining me now to discuss, Elie Honig, former assistant U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York.

First I've got to ask you, Elie, because you were a prosecutor. You've been involved in a lot of investigations. Have you ever seen so many records go missing, you know, around a key date and, in this case, from multiple agencies, Secret Service, DHS, and the Defense Department? Does that add up to you as coincidence or something deliberate?

ELIE HONIG, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: No, Jim, it doesn't strike me as a coincidence. And, no, I've never seen this type of mass record disappearance. It raises so many questions. And, honestly, if this had happened while I was prosecuting a case, the case would have been dismissed. I mean if I went in front of a judge and the defense lawyers said, we need to see the texts between you as the prosecutor and the agents on the case, some of whom work for Secret Service, and I said, well, judge, we lost them, we did a communications upgrade and they're gone, that case would have been thrown out of court and I would have had some serious questions to answer. So I think there are major organizational questions.

The fact that Secret Service is even contemplating suspending the use of texts is really an embarrassment for Secret Service.


HONIG: But I think it says something. It's essentially like a parent saying, I no longer trust you with the keys to a car to a teenager, except Secret Service is saying, we no longer trust ourselves with the ability to send text messages. So I think that's how serious this situation has gotten.

SCIUTTO: Yes. We've got to remember, like DHS is -- they prosecute cybercrime, right? I mean they should be good at tracking this kind of stuff down.

So, the DHS IG now says - or told the Secret Service last month, I should say, his office was conducting a criminal investigation into the missing text messages. What exact laws would or could have been broken here?

HONIG: Yes, so I found that really interesting when it came out that there was potentially a criminal investigation because if there is mass organizational incompetence, that's not going to be criminal. People may need to be fired. Congress may need to get involved.

But when you see that there's potential criminality, that tells me that there was some intentionality about this, some decision made, hey, let's not preserve these because we may not want them to fall into certain hands, or even worse yet, let's delete them. Now, we don't know. We haven't seen concrete evidence that either of those things happened. But if they're looking at this criminally, Jim, then that's the kind of questions that they're asking.

SCIUTTO: OK. Let's look then at Patrick Philbin, deputy White House counsel Renato Mariotti made a point on the show yesterday that for he - for him and for Cipollone, the grand jury situation different from January 6th, in that they can't claim as broad an executive privilege here to refuse to answer questions. I wonder, do you agree with that? I know it's going to go to court, so it's going to be fought out, but do you agree with that and do you think they'll eventually be compelled to testify to some of those issues?


HONIG: Well, I agree that grand jury subpoenas, criminal subpoenas, carry more weight than a congressional subpoena, like you might see out of the committee, and courts do tend to give more deference to the criminal grand jury subpoena. But there still will be an executive privilege argument here.

We saw Cipollone in front of the committee in his videotaped deposition, a couple of times he said I'm not going to answer that, I'm going to take the - I'm going to cite executive privilege.


HONIG: But it appears from our reporting that DOJ is not going to accept that, they're not going to accept his assertions of privilege, and they're going to go into courts. Now, the upside for DOJ is, if they win, and I do think they will win, I agree with Renato that they have a stronger case to make in a criminal context, then they get those key conversations. The downside, of course, Jim, is delay.


HONIG: It takes time. We've seen these court battles, and you have to include appeals, take months and months and months, which is really incumbent, a, on DOJ to get in there quickly if they're going to have this fight, and, b, on our courts, our judges, they can hear cases as quickly as they choose to do so.


HONIG: If you get one of these case and you're a federal judge, please put it at the top of your pile.

SCIUTTO: Is this the kind of thing that would go all the way to the Supreme Court, to kind of give some guardrails around what exactly is executive privilege and how far it goes?

HONIG: So, it could. It would start in a federal district court, which is the trial level. Whoever loses there essentially automatically gets to go up to the court of appeals, which is that intermediate court. And whoever loses there will almost certainly try to get it up to the Supreme Court. But, of course, the Supreme Court doesn't have to hear anything they don't want to hear.

But, look, these are - these are sort of novel questions of executive privilege. We don't have a lot of law on these things. So, it might be of interest to the Supreme Court. But, yes, it will be up to the court itself if they want to take it.


Elie Honig, always good to have you on.

HONIG: Thanks, Jim.

SCIUTTO: Still ahead, I mean, stunning courtroom moment yesterday. A revelation in the Alex Jones trial begging the question, how did his own legal team send two years of incriminating texts, potentially incriminating texts, to the plaintiffs' attorney. More on all that and the damning evidence. The jury's deliberating. We'll have more.