Return to Transcripts main page

CNN Newsroom

CNN NEWSROOM. Aired 3-3:30p ET

Aired August 09, 2022 - 15:00   ET


CARI CHAMPION, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: But we all wanted to see her and perhaps we still will. I mean, I'm going to keep hope alive that maybe perhaps that will happen. But what we're watching right now is she's giving us a heads up is her struggling with it too.


CHAMPION: She's not making this decision or (inaudible) this decision lightly. She is struggling with the choice of choosing family as she so eloquently said over her tennis resume. And as a woman, it's unfortunate she has to do that and you called her the greatest of all time. I mean, one of the greatest athletes of all time.


CHAMPION: Not the greatest female athlete but one of the greatest athletes of all times, so apropos.

BLACKWELL: And that's why I stopped it right there, because you don't have to add qualifiers. She is one of the greatest of all time. Cari Champion, I thank you for a couple of minutes, thanks.

Top of a brand new hour here on CNN NEWSROOM. I'm Victor Blackwell.

Questions are growing, the party lines are widening after the FBI's unprecedented search of Donald Trump's Mar-A-Lago resort. It's the first time in American history the Bureau has searched a home of a former president. And sources say agents removed boxes of items and Trump's attorney confirmed papers were taken.

CNN has learned the warrant is tied to an investigation about how presidential documents were handled, including ones that were deemed classified. The former president while at Trump Tower in New York confirmed the FBI was in his home and he says broke into his safe.

Now, top Republicans are rallying behind the former president after the search, which likely was approved by leaders of the Justice Department including Trump-appointed director of the FBI Christopher Wray.

Joining us now CNN's Gabby Orr and Katelyn Polantz.

Katelyn, you're up first. Unprecedented as we've said, what do we know about the search?

KATELYN POLANTZ, CNN CRIME AND JUSTICE REPORTER: That's right. Well, Victor, this was a search that began in the morning yesterday and as far as we know, lasted quite some time. Law enforcement went in to Mar-A-Lago. They were focused on Trump's offices, some of his personal spaces. But what they were looking for was evidence, that is what you are collecting in a search.

And what they ultimately removed from Mar-A-Lago would have been boxes, paper documents. We did see the president's son, Eric Trump, come on to Fox News last night and say that his belief was that this was - the purpose was whether or not Trump had documents in his possession.

But at this time, all we can really say about what this investigation is, aside from knowing it's linked to this classified document investigation is that it's a serious criminal investigation. And it is not a decision that would be taken lightly by the Justice Department to make a decision to go in to Mar-A-Lago like this.

We also know that because this is a search warrant and the way that this would be conducted is the Justice Department would have had to make a strong showing to a federal judge about why now, why they needed to go in physically to get these documents that they believed evidence would be there, and that there was probable cause for them to be investigating at this level. Victor?

BLACKWELL: All right. Gabby, now to you, we know that this inquiry into these presidential documents has been going on for some time, give us the chronology and context.

GABBY ORR, CNN REPORTER: Yes, Victor. If you can believe it, this actually began all the way back in May of 2021. And I want to pull up a very helpful timeline that shows back in May of last year, the National Archives and Records Administration first reached out to Donald Trump wondering about some records from his White House that they felt were being held at Mar-A-Lago either knowingly or unknowingly.

We then jumped to earlier this year, January and February of this year, after consulting with Trump's attorneys at the time, archives officials arranged to pick up 15 boxes from Mar-A-Lago and then publicly revealed after they retrieved those boxes that they did, in fact, contain classified information.

Shortly after those boxes were retrieved from the president's - former president's primary residence in Palm Beach. The National Archives Administration actually asked the DOJ to look into this, to launch an investigation. And at that point, this became sort of a very slow burning process. We didn't get much updates from our sources on this matter until yesterday when this raid occurred.

And we know that this raid was in part precipitated by a meeting in June between attorneys for former President Donald Trump and counterintelligence agents who visited Mar-A-Lago to discuss the keeping of White House Records at Trump's properties.

During that visit, they toured a basement facility as has been described to us by sources on the ground there and saw where some of these records were being kept. They also were presented with documents that had top secret and other classified markings on them, I'm told. And after that meeting, Trump's aides at Mar-A-Lago received a letter in the mail, basically asking them to do a better job of securing where these documents were being stored.


We are told by sources familiar with the matter that they added a padlock to that basement facility, but that that was the extent of the effort they made to secure potentially classified information.

And so, fast forward again to yesterday when this raid occurred, there are still a lot of unclear questions about what was taken away by FBI officials on the ground at Mar-A-Lago, whether it was just documents or mementos from Donald Trump's time as President, we are still looking for those answers, Victor.

BLACKWELL: All right. Gabby Orr, Katelyn Polantz, thank you.

With me now is U.S. Attorney General under George W. Bush, Alberto Gonzales. He's now Dean of Belmont University College of Law.

Judge Gonzales, we appreciate your time and perspective. I want to start here with what Peter Strzok told us; former deputy assistant director of the FBI, that a subpoena was likely never on the table to try to retrieve these documents. He says it's never been used to collect classified information. Either the agency goes to a subject and says you have these documents, we want them and they're handed over or you get the search warrant to retrieve them. How does that align with your experience?

ALBERTO GONZALES, FORMER U.S. ATTORNEY GENERAL: I think that that is true. And one thing that I think is important for viewers to understand is for the attorney general, rarely does the attorney general's sign off on a search. In fact, during my time three years as attorney general, I only signed off on one search, it involved a historic search of the congressman's office on Capitol Hill, which had never been done before.

So it's unprecedented much like this situation where you had an unprecedented search of the home of the former president. So it's for that reason, I really do believe that on the recommendation of the FBI director, Chris Wray, who is a Trump appointee, Merrick Garland made this decision to go ahead and authorize a search.

BLACKWELL: Okay. So Wray had to be - had to sign on and Garland had to sign on as well to apply for this (inaudible) ...

GONZALES: It's not a question of having this signed on.


GONZALES: Yes. It's not a question of hiving this signed on, Chris Wray would - I - I'm very confident, approved or agreed or recommended that the search was necessary and important for this criminal prosecution. And the attorney general as head of the department, of course, can say yea or nay. And in this specific case, I think he was consulted, I think was bright that he'd be consulted, because the implications here are so serious.

And I suspect, I really do, I suspect that the White House did not know this was coming. I think standard law enforcement practice is you don't involve the White House in decisions regarding investigations. And the White House, I think, is pretty uncomfortable, because this kind of action is unprecedented and no one really knows where this goes from here, obviously. It's generated some outrageous comments and accusations by critics of that this president and of this Department of Justice.

And I would just say that people just need to - just hold their horses. Need - they need to understand and be reminded of the fact that this was done pursuant to standard practice, a federal judge was involved. The Department made the requisite showing, they got a search warrant, they collected the information.

And so, again, this doesn't mean that Donald Trump is going to be charged, it doesn't mean there's going to be a trial. This is call part of the process of gathering up information.

BLACKWELL: A Judge Gonzales, is there an echelon of classified information, a universe of documents that you believe would justify this or the existence of any classified information in possession of someone who should not have it justifies getting this search warrant and taking this unprecedented step?

GONZALES: Well, obviously, there are different levels of classification ranging from confidential, secret, the top secret to code word classified. So - and obviously, it covers a wide range of activities. And as to whether or not you know, something would justify as - under the circumstances really depend upon the facts surrounding or involved in the information that's being sought.

So, again, I'm operating in the dark like everyone else in terms of the need, but you'd like to think that for something this dramatic, that the department believes that there was a very important information, very sensitive information in the possession of the former president or senior officials in the president's orbit, and that they - and that for whatever reason, the time was now to try to get this information. Perhaps negotiations broke down about getting access to this information, perhaps they had some kind of information that the documents were about to be destroyed, the documents were about to be compromised and therefore they took action at this particular time.

BLACKWELL: There are bipartisan calls now for attorney general Merrick Garland to speak to say something. We know that the department typically does not do that the AG doesn't do that, but the department typically doesn't execute search warrants on former presidents' homes either.


Do you think he should speak out? GONZALES: I think there will probably be limited public comments

consistent with standard practice. The standard practice is he goes up to the Hill and in confidential hearings or confidential conversations provides an explanation as to what's happened here. But you don't make public comments about an ongoing investigation, that's just the standard practice of the Department of Justice.

And so - but I - given the reaction, I suspect that Attorney General Garland will probably go up to the hill and have private conversations. Perhaps, if it involves classified information, those will be classified conversations as well. But I think there needs to be some level of explanation from the department to Congress about the need for this information and why it was done at this time.

BLACKWELL: All right. Former U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. Thank you, sir.

GONZALES: Thank you, Victor.

BLACKWELL: All right. With me now CNN Legal Analyst Norm Eisen. He was special counsel for the House Judiciary Committee in the former president's first impeachment trial. Also with us, Michael Bender, the political correspondent for The New York Times. He is the author of the book "Frankly, We Did Win This Election: The Inside Story of How Trump Lost".

Let me start with you, Mr. Ambassador, and what you heard there from the former U.S. Attorney General where he says that there should be now this exchange between the AG and Congress. Although some are asking for Merrick Garland to speak publicly. What's your thought?

NORM EISEN, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Well, Victor, I think it's important that we let the law enforcement process unfold. The fundamental principle of American law is that no person is above it. So I think that's in the discretion of the attorney general. If he chooses not to brief Congress, if he chooses not to speak, I defer to him.

We've all said there's evidence of criminality in plain sight as to Trump. He's now acted and I think he has our trust. So that's for the current AG to decide.

BLACKWELL: Michael, there's already fundraising happening. Now, Office of the RNC sending out a text trying to raise some money here ahead of 2022. Our reporting is that the former president's already decided to run. Your reporting today is that there have been increasing doubts about his viability as a candidate in 2024. Is that the context in which we should read his statement, watch this video understand everything that happens over the next several days and weeks?

MICHAEL BENDER, POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT, THE NEW YORK TIMES: Yes, I think that's - some important context there. I mean, the former President is considering an unusually early campaign announcement, in part to shield himself against some of this torrent of bad news that is coming out from numerous investigations into his actions before and after the 2020 elections. To be clear, the Trump's primacy inside the Republican Party has never

really been in doubt. We see that today last night and today as one Republican after the next step in battleground races, in the midterms, are singing from the same playbook defending the president and painting him as a - as political prey here and avoiding any kind of talk that - of criminality.

These are statements that are designed to maximum outrage among the voters with a minimal amount of facts about the investigation. But the question moving forward from - for the former president here is how he'll fare as a general election candidate. Certainly he will be the front runner for the Republican nomination, but one of the underreported stories in 2020 was his loss was due to a large amount of Republicans abandoning him at the polls.

Our research, our polls have shown that Trump has done nothing to bandage that. In fact, it's become worse. Sixteen percent of Republicans say they won't vote for Trump in a general election rematch against President Biden. That's like - that's about double what it was in 2020.

BLACKWELL: Let's talk about, Michael, the Republicans in Congress and their reaction to this. This is what we've heard from Senator Lindsey Graham today.


SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R-SC): We're 90 days before a major election and this seems to be unnerving, dangerous, ill-advised and the country is divided enough so I think we need some answers.


I've talked to him twice today and I told him that there's legal systems in his country, avail yourself of it, and time will tell as to what's going on. I think President Trump is determined now more than ever to straighten his country up. I think this president, President Trump is going to push through this.


BLACKWELL: So you talked about the Republican electorate, the Republican elected officials, this seems to be a rallying point for them now.

BENDER: Oh, absolutely it is. I mean, at one point to make clear from what Sen. Graham was talking about there, 90 days out from a midterm election. President - former President Trump is not on the ballot this fall and this point of view from Sen. Graham and others in his party up on Capitol Hill is a sharp reversal from what they said back in 2016 when the Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton was on the ballot and under investigation by the FBI for her use of a personal email server while she was Secretary of State.

If you recall at that time and I'm sure you do, because President - then-candidate Trump repeatedly said it was that an FBI investigation should prevent a candidate, was a disqualifier for someone running for office. We see that this time around, it's a much different stance.

BLACKWELL: Certainly several times on the campaign trail.

Mr. Ambassador, let me ask you this, it's something I've been considering. The former president has employed some unorthodox legal maneuvers or arguments in the past. Some of these documents are classified. Could he simply say I declassified them before I left office?

EISEN: Well, he could make the assertion, Victor. We know he's not shy about making outlandish claims. But document declassification is not that simple of a matter. It was one of my responsibilities as ethics czar in the Obama White House to work on our executive order, restructuring the classification system.

There are regulations and procedures in place. The President does have declassification authority, but he can't just sweep aside all the rules. So we would need to see if there was contemporary documentation, if the procedures were followed, if he was just making that up and even if he got out from under the classification issues under a variety of statutes, including 18 USC 2071, he's legally liable, potentially criminally liable for removing, mutilating or destroying any document not just classified one. So I don't think that ploy is likely to succeed.

BLACKWELL: All right. Former Ambassador Norm Eisen and Michael C. Bender, thank you.

We're following breaking news out of New Mexico, police in Albuquerque have arrested a suspect in the killings of four Muslim men. We have details on that next.

And as we've discussed, many Republicans are rallying around the former president after the FBI search, including House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy who was telling Attorney General Garland to clear his calendar for future investigations. That's assuming the GOP regains control of the House. Will this fire up Trump's base? More on that ahead.



BLACKWELL: All right. Breaking news right now, police in New Mexico say they have arrested a suspect in the killings of four Muslim men. CNN's Ed Lavandera is live in Albuquerque with the latest. Ed, what do you know?

ED LAVANDERA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Victor, well this story has changed quite dramatically in the last 12 hours or so. The police chief here in New Mexico, releasing on Twitter just a little while ago saying, "We tracked down the vehicle believed to be involved in a recent murder of a Muslim man in Albuquerque. The driver was detained and he is our primary suspect for the murders. We will update the media later this afternoon," so clearly, a major development happening here. As you remember several days ago, Albuquerque police had put out

images of a gray Volkswagen Jetta that they believed was involved in the shootings. But what is interesting about the police chief's statement here this afternoon Victor he says in connection with the murder of a Muslim man, singular.

Remember authorities here in New Mexico have been saying that they believe that the recent murders of four different Muslim men are all connected. But this statement carefully worded is not - is only using singular. So it's not clear whether or not investigators are prepared to charge this particular suspect with the murders of all four individuals.

But we should also point out as we've been working this story, CNN we were inside the home of a Muslim family here in Albuquerque this morning. That family tells us that late last night inside that home here in Albuquerque that police entered the home executing a search warrant. And we spoke with one man inside the house who told us he had been detained for much of the night by investigators here in Albuquerque.

In fact, while we were inside the home, we were invited inside the home by the family. He had been dropped off there at the house by Albuquerque Police after being questioned. So we are - have more reporting on this. We're continuing to flush out the reporting that we have trying to make sense and make sure we are crystal clear about what we have at this point.

But we do know that investigators and Albuquerque police were inside the home of a Muslim family here in the Albuquerque area late last night and all of this development now happening here today. We have reached out to community leaders here in our Albuquerque.


As you imagine, the last week has been a fearful week for the Muslim community here in Albuquerque. Leaders are telling us that they are relieved and that they're hopeful that this news will bring people peace and not have to live in fear anymore right now, Victor?

BLACKWELL: Ed Lavandera for us in Albuquerque. Thank you, Ed.

Outrage, condemnation, threats of pay back, all coming from top Republicans who are rallying around Donald Trump following the FBI's search of his Florida home. Now, here's this tweet from GOP Sen. Marco Rubio: "Biden is playing with fire by using a document dispute to get the Justice Department to persecute a likely future election opponent. Because one day what goes around is going to come around."

And this from House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, telling Attorney General Merrick Garland to: "Preserve your documents and clear your calendar."

Alice Stewart is a Republican strategist, a former communications director for Ted Cruz and a CNN Political Commentator. Charlie Dent is a former Republican Congressman from Pennsylvania and a CNN Political Commentator. Welcome to you both.

Congressman, let me start with you. And what we're hearing from Republican members of Congress up until about six o'clock yesterday 2022 was about Biden, it was about the economy, it was about inflation, the price of gas, is this now what Republicans will try to make the midterms about?

CHARLIE DENT, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, Victor, I think it would be a terrible mistake to do so. My advice to my former Republican colleagues is to be very circumspect and cautious in their public comments. Let this process unfold. And every one of my former colleagues, whether that would be Republican or Democrat, they know that as a member of Congress, they had to sign a documented beginning of each Congress determining how they would handle classified material and that they understood there would be consequences if they fail to handle that properly.

The reason why we're here is because the former president knows no boundaries with respect to handling classified material, official documents or even dealing with a peaceful transfer of power. That's why we're here. And again, I think it is utterly reckless to go out and make statements that may undermine this investigation.

Chris Wray is a Trump-appointee who leads the FBI. I mean, I trust that man that exercise good judgment. I am sure that he must have signed off on this as have others. This wasn't done lightly. Like everyone else. I am uncomfortable with the precedent of this. But there are problems here, if they don't pursue what the former president did, there'll be consequences. If they do pursue it, there are consequences.

So this is not a great situation to be in, I think we can all agree on that. But we all have to (inaudible) the law and every - nobody is above the law, including the former president.

BLACKWELL: Alice, the search warrant was related to the investigation into miss handling documents, including some deem classified. Let's just get a refresher about what the then-candidate for president said about the mishandling of classified information during the 2016 campaign.


DONALD TRUMP, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: People who have nothing to hide don't bleach, nobody's ever heard of it, don't bleach their emails or destroy evidence to keep it from being publicly archived as required under federal law.


BLACKWELL: Now, let's listen to a couple of members of Congress as well, Alice, before we get your response, those who are now tweeting and have these statements about the search warrant at Mar-A-Lago.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) SEN. MARCO RUBIO (R-FL): Hillary Clinton is disqualified from being

the President of the United States, because she stored classified and sensitive information on her email server because she thinks she's above the law.

GRAHAM: I want somebody outside the Clinton network looking through these emails, because this whole system defies the letter and the spirit of the 2009 law and I think this thing is a very big deal.

SEN. RON JOHNSON (R-WI): And that's exactly what the Clinton email scandal was all about, is the maintenance of classified information.

SEN. CHUCK GRASSLEY (R-IA): According to the FBI, Sec. Clinton sent and received emails that contained highly classified information. If the average American did that, they'd lose their clearance, their job and might even go to jail.


BLACKWELL: Where's all that outrage now, Alice?

ALICE STEWART, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, there are serious questions about whether or not there was mishandling of evidence, but there's also serious questions about whether or not this is weaponization of the DOJ with regard to singling out Donald Trump. There was no raid on Hillary Clinton when there were questions about her server. This raid has raised many, many questions.


And as Charlie said, no one is above the law.