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Judge Sets Up Possible Release Of Redacted Affidavit Justifying Mar-A-Lago Search; Ex-Trump Org. CFO Pleads Guilty In Tax Fraud Scheme; Jobless Claims Dip Signaling Strong Labor Market. Aired 3-3:30p ET
Aired August 18, 2022 - 15:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
ALISYN CAMEROTA, CNN HOST: A judge has just set in motion a possible release of some portion of the affidavit. It would likely be heavily redacted. This is the key document that would explain why the FBI felt so compelled to go to Mar-A-Lago last week. The Justice Department is trying to keep it sealed, telling the judge today that revealing it could not only jeopardize the investigation, but put its investigators and the witnesses at serious risk.
Several media organizations including CNN, petitioned the court to unseal the affidavit and other documents related to the search pointing to the 'historic importance' of these events.
CNN Senior Crime and Justice Reporter Katelyn Polantz is outside of the courthouse in West Palm Beach. She was inside the courthouse while all of this was happening. So tell us what happened at the hearing between the Justice Department, the judge and the media lawyers.
KATELYN POLANTZ, CNN CRIME AND JUSTICE REPORTER: Right. Well, today, the judge really did indicate that he is leaning towards some additional level of transparency in this unprecedented situation. And he set in motion, essentially, a process where the Justice Department can come and propose redactions to this crucial document that backs up that search and seizure at Mar-A-Lago last Monday.
So during this hearing, there was a media lawyer advocating for transparency here saying that the judge is in this - in the place of the media, in the place of the public and becomes the gatekeeper here for what is released widely. But the judge also was hearing from the Justice Department from Jay Bratt, the head of counterintel, one of the top attorneys that we know has been working on this investigation.
And one of the things that Bratt emphasized is that this is an ongoing criminal investigation that needs to be protected. There's Grand Jury activity described in that affidavit. There are several witnesses whose interviews with the FBI or with a grand jury are also described in that affidavit that it does have extensive information about the investigation about the techniques that the Justice Department has used to arrive at the point where they needed to go into Mar-A-Lago and seize the information.
The judge at one point pointed out that there's not alleged probable cause here to investigate several crimes, Espionage Act, obstruction of justice, criminal mishandling of federal records. There is probable cause for that search and seizure to take place. Another thing that the Justice Department did mention was their fear of how this could show witnesses, if there was too much information released if the judge ordered too many things to be released in the future.
But that is not something at this time that they're really even willing to say much about at all, because they do not want any information that could possibly indicate who exactly was talking to them. And they - and the information, apparently, is specific enough in this affidavit that there are witnesses providing enough that you could figure out who they might be if too much was released here.
So this process begins now, the judge is going to talk to the Justice Department more potentially and at least hear more of their legal arguments for secrecy, but does seem to want to at least disclose papers, potentially. We're going to have to wait and see though, Alisyn.
CAMEROTA: And Katelyn, you and I were talking earlier, the judge did unseal some documents that are just the most innocuous documents connected to this. So tell us what the public can now see.
POLANTZ: Well, there's a couple of different things. There's several procedural papers in court, the ceiling request from the Justice Department, the judge's decision to unseal or to keep unsealed that sealing request, sort of the paperwork that sets up around this affidavit and the search.
So some of those pieces of paper are going to be able to be made public as soon as today the judge did order those to be unsealed. But he clarified that really the only substantive information in this case remains in this affidavit under seal confidential, that's what he and the Justice Department are going to be looking at. And that really is where the Justice Department has outlined the most that they were willing to up to this point, at least in court regarding the investigation, what they've done so far, what they've learned so far and who they've spoken to.
CAMEROTA: Okay. Katelyn Polantz, thank you very much for all of that breaking news.
Joining me now is former Deputy Assistant Attorney General Harry Litman, he's now the host of the Talking Feds podcast, CNN Political Commentator, Mia Love, former congresswoman from Utah and CNN Security Correspondent Josh Campbell, a former FBI Supervisory Special Agent. Great to see all of you.
Harry, are you surprised that the judge appears to be considering releasing some portion of this affidavit?
HARRY LITMAN, FORMER U.S. ATTORNEY: I was surprised and it's kind of a great country in a way. He's a longtime AUSA (ph). You have to figure he understands the government's concerns here. And nevertheless, this is such an important and unprecedented case. He's taking the public's right to know very, very seriously.
The - now the DOJ had anticipated this possibility and they basically had argued, if you make us redact, it's going to be just pages and pages.
This is probably a 50 or a hundred-page document blacked out marks, et cetera, so it will be incoherent. Thursday will be the proof of that. They'll come in and redact everything, including things that could identify even secondhand some of the witnesses and we'll see what they then have and there'll be a little bit of a tussle with the judge.
One more point, this could be appealed by the DOJ to the first - it's a magistrate judge to the district court and then the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals. So it's not over yet even given his inclination.
CAMEROTA: Josh, the Justice Department prosecutor argued vehemently that none of this should be revealed to the public basically arguing that it would put personnel, and staff and witnesses at risk. What's your biggest fear about some portion of this? I mean, having been an FBI agent, what's your fear about this being released?
JOSH CAMPBELL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, this is certainly a document that would have a lot of rich detail about this ongoing investigation. I think it's important just to pause and remind our viewers what this document is. This is the FBI and the Justice Department going to a federal judge, asking permission to search a location. And as part of that, what they have to do is provide that judge enough information to persuade them to sign on the dotted line and give the government the authority to actually do that search.
Now, what's in the document? I was an FBI agent, I would sit down with a federal prosecutor. We would lay out portions of our case to try to make that persuasive argument to the judge and you're including things like sources and methods. You're talking about witnesses. You're basically answering the question to the judge, here's how I know what I'm actually including in this document.
So a lot of rich detail there with - which, obviously, if you're in the middle of an investigation, you don't want that to get out. You want to be able to safeguard that information and that also includes potential additional subjects that may eventually be part of the investigation.
So that is what's giving the Justice Department so much concern here that if that were to get out then that's essentially us, laying out our case open to the public. With that said, there are obviously a lot of questions that the public is demanding to know to include us in the media.
This is, as Harry mentioned, an unprecedented case. We've been saying all along that people should pump the brakes. Let's wait to learn more before drawing conclusions about this investigation and what it entails. One thing is clear, this is something we've never seen before, the FBI going into the residence of a former president, so a lot of questions there.
Obviously, the Justice Department will try to keep the cards close to the vest. But it sounds like the judge is at least acknowledging that this isn't like a typical affidavit that will be brought before this court.
CAMEROTA: And Congresswoman, let's rewind the tape a little further than what Josh just did. This is because former President Trump took home documents that were labeled classified and top secret. I mean, the highest classification and he took them home to his house in Mar- A-Lago and he was not storing them properly and he wasn't giving them back.
In fact, he was refusing to give them back when the National Archives was - had tried, according to the DOJ for more than a year to get the people's documents for posterity, for history back. Again, these are top secret. He wasn't being helpful. That's what this is about.
And so the idea that - according to some of President Trump's allies - that his team wants some of this affidavit released. Why is that a badge of honor? Why would they want the public to see that?
MIA LOVE, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: I'm not really sure. I don't really know what they have up their sleeves. I don't know what that is going to reveal. Which is why I think that the DOJ has an incredible job to do. They will - they're going to need to balance legitimate security and legal concerns with the instability of the country and record low confidence in the FBI. But they need to realize that additional transparency is needed. They can't expect Americans to just take them at the word - at their word that this wasn't politically motivated.
I - that's why I'm happy to hear some of the information that I'm hearing from Mike Pence right now in telling Republicans that they can't attack the rank and file members of the FBI. They can ask questions, but calling to defund the FBI is like calling to defund police.
CAMEROTA: Yes. Understood and you're right, Mike - Vice President Pence had talked about that.
Harry, President Trump's legal team did not make a vociferous argument in court today, why not?
LITMAN: Yes. This is a careful what you wish for kind of situation for them. He spouts his - I want transparency. But look, what is this document that Josh described? It's a hundred pages of criminal conduct by people down there, maybe with his knowledge, and chapter and verse of their continued refusal and lying about it. That's not something that he wants to get out with his series of excuses. It would put the lie to each and every one of them. So notice surprised they took no position when it actually came to court and however redacted it's going to be, it's not going to be good information to see the light of day team Trump.
CAMEROTA: Josh, do you agree that the only part that would be valuable for President Trump and I'm basing this upon the fact that he's been fundraising on it is just the fact that the FBI went to his home. The FBI went to his home and that's the part that he has already raised millions of dollars on, but not the underlying reason why the FBI went to his home to get top secret documents back.
CAMPBELL: Right. And that's the part, obviously, that they're not wanting to focus on as much. I think that one thing that former President is going to seize upon, and we've already seen this hearing some of his supporters on cable news and other places basically make a robust defense of the former president, the idea that, okay, there may have been some wrongdoing here or there may be some kind of sloppiness, but that does not warrant federal agents going into the home of a former president.
And so I think what they're going to do - say the information does get out that's in this affidavit, I don't think it's going to. I think, at least the sensitive parts. But if it does, I think they would still tried to shift those - the goalposts a little bit and say, well, even regardless of what this is, this doesn't warrant this over handedness that we've seen from the FBI, because that has been the former president's playbook in the Mueller investigation, in the various Russia investigations to basically go after the investigators themselves.
So to your point, obviously, they're not going to focus on the top secret part. He's already said that, perhaps he had some standing order that would automatically declassify information. And so basically, you have a lot of different - they're basically flooding the zone here with different arguments. But I think they're going to be ready and we should be as well, that each new piece of information that gets out, obviously, the press - former president and his supporters are coming out and trying to defend him trying to go against the bureau.
The one thing that, obviously, has caused a lot of heartburn for people in law enforcement is the political nature of these attacks, going after these investigators, putting their lives in danger. And so, I talked to people on both sides of the aisle, including people inside the FBI, some of them have concerns about what the FBI did here and so far as it's a former president, they want answers, but I think in the main, both sides, or at least those who are acting reasonably understand that you can criticize the FBI and to include the former president with actually going after kind of down that route of actually physically calling for these attacks like we've seen.
And so we'll have to wait and see what's in the affidavit. Again, it'll a lot will depend on what actually comes out. But I think the former president will recalibrate and continue this line of effort to basically say this is government overreach.
CAMEROTA: Congresswoman, that's what you were talking about. I mean, the idea that the Republicans have swung - some in the house, I'm thinking of the people who said destroy the FBI. I mean, after they were so up in arms, no pun intended, about the calls for defund the police to now be saying, destroy the FBI.
The FBI was just doing their job. Anyone who was in possession of top secret government papers, they would have to retrieve them and get them back. This was - I mean, in other words, I heard one argument, if they can do this to President Trump, they can do this to anyone. Yes, they can do this to anyone. You're not allowed to take top secret documents. So your thoughts on how the narrative has swung so far so quickly.
LOVE: And like I said when I was a member, I would always say, instant certainty is the enemy of truth. Which means that anytime somebody goes out and they make a public statement, they have a definitive answer before they know all of the information. They're doing nothing at this point but trying to find information to defend what they've just said or that statement that they just made.
And so the best thing that anybody can do right now, especially my former colleagues, is to wait. Ask for information, absolutely ask for transparency, get as much information as possible. But it is not our job to defend the former president. It's our job to defend the Constitution of the United States and do the work of the American people.
CAMEROTA: Harry Litman, stay with us if you would. Mia Love, thank you very much. Josh Campbell, thank you as well.
Meanwhile, a longtime chief financial officer for The Trump Organization pleads guilty to a tax fraud scheme. We're going to talk about what this means for the former president.
CAMEROTA: A spokesperson for The Trump Organization tells CNN they will not take a plea deal in New York's criminal investigation into their business practices. But that's just what the former chief financial officer to the organization did today. Allen Weisselberg pleaded guilty to a 15-count tax fraud scheme. Weisselberg was facing 15 years in prison, but will only serve roughly five months. But Weisselberg attorney says he will not implicate Donald Trump. CNN's Kara Scannell joins me live. So Kara, why is he getting such a short sentence?
KARA SCANNELL, CNN REPORTER: Well, Alisyn, this is the deal that his attorney struck with the Manhattan District Attorney's office. And as part of this deal, Whitesburg had to plead guilty to 15 felonies. That was the entire indictment that he was charged with all tax related charges, all relating to corporate benefits he received including a company paid apartment that prosecutors say and Weisselberg admitted to in court today he did not pay any taxes on.
So this was the deal he negotiated in exchange for this shorter sentence of five months, which his lawyer says could amount to 100 days in jail. Weisselberg will be required to testify against The Trump Organization when it goes to trial in October on the same indictment and the same charges.
So this was a deal that was struck between them. Importantly, Weisselberg is not going to testify against the former president. He is not going to implicate former President Donald Trump or any of his adult children who worked at The Trump Organization. But he will testify at this trial.
And the Manhattan District Attorney issuing a statement today emphasizing the importance of this. He says, "Instead of paying his fair share like everyone else, Weisselberg had The Trump Organization provide him with a rent-free apartment, expensive cars, private school tuition for his grandchildren and new furniture - all without paying required taxes. This plea agreement directly implicates The Trump Organization in a wide range of criminal activity and requires Weisselberg to provide invaluable testimony in the upcoming trial against the company."
Now, as I said he's not going to testify against - he's not going to help the District Attorney's office in their ongoing investigation into The Trump Organization's finances and the loyalty between Weisselberg and the organization remains strong. The Trump Organization issuing a statement today saying that Weisselberg is a fine and honorable man, someone who was harassed, prosecuted and threatened. Alisyn?
CAMEROTA: Okay. Kara Scannell, thank you very much for the latest from the courthouse there. Let's bring in former Deputy Assistant Attorney General Harry Litman. He is back with us now. So Harry, about that plea deal, it was so much shorter than the 15 years that were possible. It's only five months at most. Is this a win for the DA?
LITMAN: I think it is. He actually not just gets Weisselberg to say guilty, Your Honor, 15 straight times on what - were not the biggest charges. This was sort of what was left over to try to put pressure on Weisselberg. But when we first heard about it, it seemed like Weisselberg stood tough, won't cooperate against Trump. And you know what, they still get half a loaf because he was indicted along with The Trump Organization. That very case is now going to trial and he's all of a sudden the star witness. Everything he pleaded guilty to today mirrors what The Trump Organization is charged with.
It makes Bragg's case much easier now and the organization is looking at either heavy fines or even the possibility of dissolution. And as close as it is identified to Donald Trump, yes, it's not cooperation to put him in jail, but it puts a heavy hurt on him nonetheless, given the importance of The Trump Organization for his whole empire.
CAMEROTA: But Harry, explain that, how could The Trump Organization be dissolved?
LITMAN: Okay. So they go to trial and the very same charges that were pleaded, except they're on the other side against The Trump Organization. They masqueraded all this compensation as perks in a way to get out of paying tax. And then the DA will argue for what the penalty should be, New York law provides for penalties but up to and including dissolution of the company if they're found to have acted seriously and chronically.
And chronically, they certainly are going to have here, because this was done over the years. So that's a possible - that would be the equivalent of the life sentence for a person. That's the toughest sentence for these charges, but it's one that likely the DA will ask for.
CAMEROTA: Harry, every person that we have ever spoken to who has worked at The Trump Organization, Michael Cohen was just in here, has explained that The Trump Organization is Donald Trump. Donald Trump controls every inch of The Trump Organization, everything goes through him. So why isn't he in trouble?
LITMAN: Well, look, he's not in immediate criminal trouble here, though he is in three or four other places, but given that identification - go ahead.
CAMEROTA: Yes, just with this, why isn't he in trouble with this?
LITMAN: Why isn't he personally in trouble? Because Weisselberg, he was the ultimate loyal accountant, the meek 75-year-old man who just wouldn't give him up. The ultimate loyalists, hired 50 years ago by Trump's dad. So he's not in trouble for jail. They couldn't have made a case against him or this was the controversy, by the way.
Remember, Vance, Bragg's predecessor wanted to bring the case and Bragg came in and said it's too risky to bring against Trump and he folded his tent here. But there remains this case and this is the one that threatens The Trump Organization, just doesn't threaten Trump with time in jail. But still, it's a pretty serious body blow for him if it goes as strong as it could.
CAMEROTA: Okay. Harry Litman, thank you very much for explaining all of that.
So there's new data on the economy today, home sales and mortgage rates are falling. What this means for homebuyers, ahead.
CAMEROTA: This week's jobless claims dipped slightly to 250,000. That's a sign the labor market is still strong. Mortgage rates also dipped slightly amid signs that inflation may have finally peaked and home sales declined for the sixth month in a row.
CNN's Matt Egan is with us now to explain all this. What does all of it mean for the economy?