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Wall Street Journal Reports, Informant Tipped Off FBI About More Classified Documents at Mar-a-Lago; Violent Rhetoric Heats Up on Pro-Trump Sites After FBI Search; DOJ Charges Iranian Operative With Trying to Assassinate Bolton, Pompeo. Aired 10-10:30a ET

Aired August 11, 2022 - 10:00   ET




POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: Top of the hour. Good morning, everyone. I'm Poppy Harlow.

ALEX MARQUARDT, CNN ANCHOR: Great to be with you, Poppy. I'm Alex Marquardt in today for Jim Sciutto.

And this morning, we are following several new developments about the FBI's search of former President Donald Trump's Mar-a-Lago home in Florida. Overnight, new reporting in The Wall Street Journal laying out how the investigation into the classified documents at Trump's Florida home, how that escalated. They're reporting, quote, someone familiar with the stored papers told investigators there may still be more classified documents at the private club.

HARLOW: So, all of these new developments signal that there may have been additional material there, even after the former president turned over 15 boxes to the National Archives earlier this year.

We also have new reporting from CNN this morning that some Justice and FBI officials internally have argued that staying silent on this search is harmful to the department and the public's interest, in part because Trump and his allies have filled the void with their rhetoric, largely not fact-based on this.

So, let's go to CNN Senior Justice Correspondent Evan Perez, he's been following the story. Let's begin with the first thread from The Wall Street Journal, which mentions this inside tip that led the feds to do this search. What more can you tell us?

EVAN PEREZ, CNN SENIOR JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Well, that's right, Poppy. I'm told similarly that the FBI had a witness who told them that there may have been additional classified documents that were being held there, even after the National Archives had taken 15 boxes of documents and items, and that included classified information. Obviously, that's the reason why this investigation, this criminal investigation has -- exists.

What I'm told, though, is that this is in addition to other evidence that investigators had developed. So, what this tells us is, you know, it really does explain a little bit about why this escalation occurred in this period of months where Trump's lawyers were talking to the National Archives and to the Justice Department to try to come to terms on these documents that the Archives believes are U.S. government property, that should never have been taken to Mar-a-Lago.

So, it tells us a little bit about why things seem to fall apart and that led to the search that happened on Monday.

MARQUARDT: Evan, there is, of course, this fierce public debate about whether DOJ and Attorney General Merrick Garland should be saying more, offer more clarity about what specifically those who carried out the search were looking for. But you're also learning that there is also a debate internally at DOJ.

PEREZ: Yes. Look, I mean, I've covered the department for more than a decade, and I know the Justice Department rules, which are, you know, that they don't comment on ongoing investigations. But those rules also say that there sometimes is a public interest for the department to make clear that what it is doing -- you know, what it is doing is actually, you know, trying to pursue investigations under the law.

And so that's where some of this debate is happening inside the department. The view is that because the department has said nothing, it has left the field open for Trump allies to make claims, including the fact that you heard from Rand Paul and others that, you know, evidence may be getting planted by the FBI, which, of course, you know, they have offered no evidence to support.

So, that's where this debate is going on, even inside the department about we know that, you know, we can't say very much about ongoing investigations, but that there is room for the department to at least assure the public that what they did was obviously authorized by a court.

MARQUARDT: All right. Evan Perez, you've been on top of this story, we know you'll stay on it. Thank you very much.

Joining us to discuss this is former Federal Prosecutor Renator Mariotti. Thank you so much for joining us this morning.

I want to start with where Evan left off in terms of what DOJ could be doing right now. Where do you fall in this debate in terms of DOJ, Merrick Garland, Chris Wray, the FBI, saying something, doing something, maybe even going up to Capitol Hill to talk to those loud voices that have been condemning this search at Mar-a-Lago?

RENATO MARIOTTI, FORMER FEDERAL PROSECUTOR: Well, usually, as Evan pointed out a moment ago, the policy at the Justice Department is to say very little about ongoing criminal investigations.


There is a lot of good reasons for that, not only to protect the rights of the people who are under investigation but also to ensure that their investigations are not interfered with in any way. I have to say that the Justice Department in the past has veered from that from time to time, both notably when James Comey was talking to the public about an ongoing investigation of Hillary Clinton. I don't think that turned out very well. And I think the smart course of the Justice Department would be to just play it by the book and, frankly, I think all the critics are making wild charges and conspiracy theories are going to do that regardless of what is said or done by the DOJ.

HARLOW: There is nothing, Renato, legally stopping the former president or anyone on his team from releasing publicly the search warrant and any potential attachment to the warrant, which could have more details on the potential underlying crimes that they were looking into, right? Nothing. It doesn't take a judge unsealing it for them. If they've got it, they can do it, right?

MARIOTTI: Correct. And I actually don't even think there is a legal -- like it would hurt their legal case in any way. It is purely a P.R. move, I would imagine, that it enables them to spin it in whatever way they want without making the facts public.

MARQUARDT: Renato, this insider who tipped off federal authorities that there was more at Mar-a-Lago, how worrying do you think this person should be for Trump's inner circle and what more could they offer, do you think, to investigators?

MARIOTTI: Well, I suspect that they're continuing to stay in touch with the Justice Department. Typically, when we had cooperating sources, we would stay in touch with them. If there were any threats, we would try to take steps to protect those sources. I had situations where some of my cooperators had been threatened. I know my office even had a cooperator who was murdered. So, it is something that the department takes seriously.

As for this source, I'm sure that they're concerned about potential reprisals and, you know, I think they should be concerned about that. Obviously, not violence or something like that but I think they could be concerned about their employment and their future.

HARLOW: The Wall Street Journal reporting overnight also includes reporting that the boxes that were retrieved of documents from Mar-a- Lago on Monday are still at the FBI field office down in Miami. Can you explain, you know, what happens to them now, where they go, who sifts through them?

MARIOTTI: Well, they're likely in evidence right now. There is a chain of custody that is respected, and because they're not only classified documents, okay. So, they are held in an area that is secure, but they are also evidence in a criminal investigation. I mean, the fact that a search warrant was executed indicates that there is a criminal investigation and that there were potential charges that were presented before a judge and probable cause and so forth.

So, right now, I think what happens with those records really depends on whether or not the Justice Department intends to pursue a criminal case. If they pursue a criminal case, those records may be kept in evidence. Otherwise, they will likely be returned to its secure location so that they are kept safe.

HARLOW: Renato Mariotti, thanks so much, as always.

So, this morning there are experts warning that of what we're seeing, which is a stunning amount of violent rhetoric aimed at the Justice Department circulating on pro-Trump online forums in the wake of the FBI search of Mar-a-Lago earlier this week. These threats include people writing things like, lock and load, kill all feds, there is another post that says, I'm just going to say it, Garland, who is the attorney general, needs to be assassinated, simple as that.

FBI Director Christopher Wray, I'll remind you, appointed by former President Trump, warned against these threats on Wednesday. Listen.


CHRISTOPHER WRAY, FBI DIRECTOR: Any threats made against law enforcement, including the men and women of the FBI as, with any law enforcement agency, are deplorable and dangerous.


HARLOW: Let me bring in Brian Murphy, the former acting undersecretary for the Homeland Security Intelligence Office under Trump administration. And I should remind people, Brian, that at the time you found the whistleblower complaint in 2020 accusing Trump appointees of pressuring career officials to downplay the threat posed by white supremacists. So, that's the background, that's where you rang the alarm bells, and now you work for a company that combines A.I. and experts to, as you call it, tackle myths and disinformation, putting them together to try to stop this growing threat.

You have seen, as I understand it, a growing threat since Monday, since this search on Monday.


Is that right?

BRIAN MURPHY, FORMER ACTING UNDERSECRETARY, DHS OFFICE OF INTELLIGENCE AND ANALYSIS: Yes, that's right. What we have noticed after the search went down in Mar-a-Lago, as we were looking and are looking at a variety of threats related to the primaries, and I'm going to get back to the primaries in a minute here, from that kind of nucleus, that social media ecosystem, the threats against the FBI specifically and other members of the DOJ and the supporting entities really came out of nowhere and it went straight up.

And the threats that I'm talking about to the FBI aren't people letting off steam or expressing their First Amendment feelings or displeasure, these are clear threats, as you just displayed, to the lives of the FBI agents, naming facilities, FBI field offices to be targeted. It is clear, direct and it is alarming.

HARLOW: And it is not just anonymous threats like that online. You also have absolutely shocking, tragic rhetoric from some sitting lawmakers. I'll just read you two, Marjorie Taylor Greene, a congresswoman, calling to defund the FBI, but Paul Gosar, again, a sitting congressman, calling to, quote, destroy the FBI. Does that rhetoric make it actually, in your mind, more dangerous for these officials, for the FBI to do its job every day?

MURPHY: I think the two politicians just named, we've got to put them in context. It is not just the right or left, it is both sides. And what we've seen, and what I've seen in my 27-year career doing this is, both 20 years at the FBI, DHS, and now at Logically, the company I'm at, is both sides get a vote here. And the two politicians you named, certainly, they bear some responsibility here.

But we see this going back and forth. And the way social media works in today's environment, people fit within these ecosystems they want to live in and they're not taking in outside opinions. So, when you have folks of influence saying those types of things, it does have an impact and it leads to --

HARLOW: But, Brian, can you specify -- can you specify by what you mean when you say both sides? Are you talking about any Democratic lawmakers right now saying things like what I just quoted from those two Republican lawmakers? What are you saying specifically?

MURPHY: Sure, thanks. Over time, I'll give a more recent example, so when the Supreme Court ruled on abortion, you know, we're looking at the same kind of ecosystem, and we saw people that were upset with the ruling to take violence as an answer to their grievance.


MURPHY: And threaten and to, you know, carry out acts of violence.

HARLOW: Okay. But your answer was in response to my question specifically about the danger of rhetoric like that from lawmakers.

MURPHY: Yes, that's right.

HARLOW: I'm talking about lawmaker, members of Congress.

MURPHY: Sure. Yes. I don't think there is an equivalency between what is happening right now and be clear and kind of what happened with the Supreme Court debate. But I think my point is that where you have lawmakers speaking about the system in a way that is highly negative and not kind of normal political speak, but with a point to it, people in social media will take that as a beacon --

HARLOW: Words have weight, yes.

MURPHY: That's right.

HARLOW: And they matter very much, especially when you're an elected position of authority and power, but thank you for clarifying though that you weren't equivocating on that.

I do want to play for people something that Christopher Wray said in his direct testimony before the Senate just last week. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

WRAY: I don't care what side of the issue you're on, I don't care who you're upset with or what you're upset about, on abortion or anything else, you don't get to use violence or threats of violence to act on it. And we're going to go after that conduct aggressively.


HARLOW: How do you discern between what rhetoric is free speech, because it is a protected First Amendment right in this country, and rhetoric that crosses that line that goes beyond that?

MURPHY: Look, it is a challenge. But I think there are clear demarcations. And what we saw with the FBI raid and the reaction of some people on social media and the threats I'm talking about in that context are people saying, you know, we need to kill FBI agents, we need to target them, we need to assassinate them, I mean, it is clear. And that is where the FBI has a tough job of going back and looking at these cases and seeing whether or not there is action behind those words.

But, again, to put this in context, when we see this really sharp rhetoric of -- which is, you know, we need to kill the FBI agents, at multiple field offices, not just in one location, I think that leads the opening for the FBI to investigate and make those determination whether a criminal statute has been reached, violated.

HARLOW: We appreciate you very much, Brian, especially given your background on this front.


Thanks for the time this morning.

MURPHY: Thanks for having me.


MARQUARDT: Very important conversation, Poppy. As you said, words have weight. They have real world consequences.

Still to come, some much needed relief at the pump as gas has dropped below $4 a gallon for the first time in months.

Plus, a Nebraska mother and her daughter are facing charges in an abortion-related case that involves Facebook messages. The social media giant now saying there is more to that story.

HARLOW: Also, the Department of Justice has charged an Iranian man with trying to pay someone $300,000 to assassinate former National Security Adviser John Bolton.


JOHN BOLTON, FORMER NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER: I was embarrassed at the low price. I would have thought it would have been higher, but I guess maybe it was an exchange rate problem or something.



MARQUARDT: Now, this is going to be a relief to so many Americans. For the first time since March, we're seeing gas prices just below $4 a gallon. AAA is saying the national average is $3.99.

HARLOW: Our Polo Sandoval following this story. It's more than that in New York, but it is good -- maybe not where you are. At my gas station, it is a little more than that. But, look, things have gotten so much better, Polo.

POLO SANDOVAL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, it does, guys. And look, Alex and Poppy, I think that this is certainly going to offer hope to millions of cash-strapped Americans throughout the country, at least going up to their fuel station and seeing a $3.97. Obviously, that is the average right now, is at $3.99. So, hopefully we will continue to see these numbers on this downward trend as Americans have been struggling, not just with gas prices but inflation and so on.

And just to remind viewers, though, remember where we were less than two months, when you look at the number that we hit in mid-June of the average cost of a gallon of gas at $5.02. That is well below what we see now, which is $3.99. But, look, that $1.03, it can go a very long way.

Just to remind viewers of what the last year has been. Just yesterday alone, the national cost of average according to AAA was at $4.01, about a month ago, $4.68. And we are still very far from reaching where we were a year ago, which is at $3.19. So, there is certainly hope among economists that this will continue on a downward trend.

And when you hear from the average American, in fact, I was speaking to one gentleman today that makes a living driving for a ride share company, saying because the prices -- he was hit so hard at the pump just a couple of months ago, he's had to scale back and basically alternate, work every other day because there were times it was cheaper to stay home.

So, I think that's what you're hearing. You're certainly getting some relief. Yes, Poppy and Alex, it may be only $1.03 difference from where we were during the record, but when you hear from Americans around the country, they will tell you every little bit counts. Guys?

HARLOW: Yes, of course it does, especially for folks who have big commutes. Polo, thanks very much.

MARQUARDT: The Justice Department has foiled a plot to kill a former national security adviser. It announced on Wednesday that it has charged a member of Iran's revolutionary guard with trying to pay someone here in the United States $300,000 to assassinate former Trump administration adviser John Bolton.

Now, the plot was likely in retaliation, the DOJ says, for the January 2020 killing of Iranian IRGC Commander Qassem Soleimani.

Now, this morning on CNN, John Bolton said that the plot spotlights how Iran is approaching its foreign policy. Take a listen.


BOLTON: This is a real window into what that government in Tehran is like. And it is not just a window into how they behave with their terrorist activities and sponsorship of terrorist groups, but how they conduct their foreign policy altogether.


MARQUARDT: Now, prosecutors are saying that the Iranian, Shahram Poursafi, had a second job for $1 million. Sources are telling CNN that was a reference to a plan to kill former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who, of course, also worked in the Trump administration.

So, for more, let's bring in former CIA Counterterrorism Official Phil Mudd. Phil, thanks so much for being with us this morning.

We have now also learned from sources that numerous current and former officials have protective details because of the Iranian threats. The DOJ has now named somebody, but how significant do you think this threat is still in this country?

PHILIP MUDD, CNN COUNTERTERRORISM ANALYST: I would say pretty significant. It looks like the FBI had that plot you're talking about early on, as early as 2020. That suggests to me not only that they're following the plot, Alex, that they were actually running the plot, that is they had an informant in the middle of the plot and they're using that informant to understand what the Iranians were up to.

But before you think that threat is mitigated, to get your question of how severe the ongoing threat is, think of two factors. Number one, early on, you would have learned one thing about the Iranian administration, and that is intent, willingness to conduct a lethal operation in the United States. It is very difficult to understand how foreign leaders think especially when you don't have access to them. This plot tells us how the leaders in Iran think.

The second thing you have to think about beyond intent is capability. If you choose to think that this plot has disappeared now that the FBI and the Department of Justice have filed charges, you got to assume that there is no other person in the United States among 330 million people that the Iranians are talking to. My guess is that the FBI is all over this, that this plot is mitigated, but I would never assume this. You got to judge if you're on the inside, Alex, that maybe, maybe there is somebody else out there the Iranians are trying to reach out to.


MARQUARDT: Now, John Bolton was asked who else might be on the Iranian target list, and he wouldn't say. But if there are numerous other current and former officials who have protective details because of this Iranian threat or these Iranian threats, who else do you think might be on that list? Would it be former President Donald Trump, for example?

MUDD: I think he probably would be too high on the radar for the Iranians. I would not look at individuals. I would look at categories of individuals, because you can't assume that you know everything that the Iranians are up to.

Those categories typically would be national security individuals who were involved, A, in the plot to go after Qassem Soleimani, the general you mentioned the other day, who was the head of one of the major military factions in Iran. So, that's people at the CIA, the Pentagon and the State Department.

If you look at the example of Pompeo and John Bolton, there is another element that I would add into my sort of risk calculus, and that is people who are known to be anti-Iran. In Washington and overseas, Pompeo and Bolton are both known as hawks on Iran. So, I would be looking at those categories, CIA, State Department, National Security Council, Pentagon and high level officials who are known as being attackers of Iran. Those are the people I would be worried about, Alex.

MARQUARDT: So, this Revolutionary Guard member, Shahram Poursafi, named by DOJ, reached out to someone here in the United States to hire a person who could eliminate someone. And this person turned out to be an FBI informant. So, how would that work? Did Poursafi just had bad luck and hit upon someone who was already close to the FBI or would this person have been contacted and then gone straight to the FBI and saying this guy in Iran is trying to get me to do something really bad?

MUDD: Heck no. That is not bad luck. That's good operational skill. I don't want to get into a ton of detail to tell the adversary what we're up to, but think about a few things that have to be happening in this operation. I don't think this is accidental. I don't think the informant walked through the door and said, hey, there is a guy who has been contacting me about conducting a hit in Washington, D.C., against a U.S. official.

There is a couple of ways this can happen. Number one, the FBI sees the Iranians trying to reach into the U.S. and they insert somebody in to accept that offer from the Iranians. Number two, the FBI is up on communications for a long period of time and is just following those communications over years and finally sees this kind of communication. You also have a classic operation which would be a human source operation, that is you know what the Iranians are up to because you have an informant in the security service and that informant says, watch out, they're trying to reach out to Washington, D.C.

In any of these scenarios, Alex, what you have is fascinating. From almost the beginning of the operation, you have the FBI telling the informant, this is how we want you to play that individual in Tehran, so that the FBI can dangle stuff and see how the Iranians respond, not only for this case but to learn what they're doing for the future. Really, this is a spy story for Saturday night T.V. MARQUARDT: Yes, it really is. It really does speak to just remarkable U.S. counterintelligence. Phil Mudd, sir, thank you, as always, for your expertise.

MUDD: Thank you. By the way, gas is $3.76 here in Memphis, just so you know.

MARQUARDT: Lucky you. Take advantage. Poppy?

HARLOW: See, everyone is happy about gas prices now.

All right, next, turning the page, there is a Nebraska mother and her teenage daughter facing criminal charges this morning over an alleged abortion. And the way that police investigated this case is raising concerns among some over online privacy in the post-Roe world.