Return to Transcripts main page

CNN Newsroom

AG Appoints Jack Smith As Special Counsel Overseeing Trump Investigation; Buffalo Mayor: Driving Ban Reinstated; Some Areas Have 20 Plus Inches. Aired 3-3:30p ET

Aired November 18, 2022 - 15:00   ET




VICTOR BLACKWELL, CNN HOST: Top of the hour on CNN NEWSROOM. I'm Victor Blackwell.

ALISYN CAMEROTA, CNN HOST: And I'm Alisyn Camerota.

We begin this hour with breaking news, Attorney General Merrick Garland just appointing a special counsel to oversee two criminal investigations into former President Donald Trump. Garland announcing that former federal prosecutor Jack Smith will take over that pivotal role.


MERRICK GARLAND, ATTORNEY GENERAL: Based on recent developments, including the former president's announcement that he is a candidate for president in the next election and the sitting President stated intention to be a candidate as well, I have concluded that it is in the public interest to appoint a special counsel.

Such an appointment underscores the department's commitment to both independence and accountability in particularly sensitive matters.


BLACKWELL: Jack Smith, that newly named special counsel will oversee aspects of the probes into January 6th and to the retention of National Defense Information at Mar-A-Lago. CNN's Evan Perez joins us now from the Justice Department, CNN's Katelyn Polantz in Washington.

Evan, you first at what more you're learning about what led to this decision by the AG?

EVAN PEREZ, CNN SENIOR JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Well, this was a - Victor, this was triggered, certainly by the former president's decision just a couple of days ago to announce that he is indeed a candidate for president. And, of course, it creates a an immediate, at least, appearance of a conflict of interest, with the current attorney general being obviously appointed by Joe Biden, who is possibly going to be his opponent, the former president's opponent, in the 2024 election. Of course, for the Justice Department, the importance here is that it tries to at least restore the idea that some insulation between these investigations and really what it does, Victor and Alisyn, it really does make clear that Donald Trump is at least a focus of both of these investigations.

The Justice Department has said very precious little. We know, for instance, obviously that there was a search of Mar-A-Lago, they were focusing on the mishandling of classified documents, National Defense Information and possible obstruction of justice.

But on the question of the January 6 investigation, they've said very, very little as to what the eventual goal of this and the idea being now that they've appointed a special counsel, because of the former president announcing. What it makes clear is that at least part of that investigation is going to look at Donald Trump's role in the efforts to obstruct the transfer of power, the whole scheme to get these fake electors to try to prevent Joe Biden's from becoming president, despite the fact that he had won the election.

I'll read you just a part of what the attorney general's order. It says here, it says that the - what they're going to be doing - what he's going to be overseeing is anybody - an entity, any person or entity who violated the law in connection with the efforts to interfere with the lawful transfer of power following the 2020 presidential election as well as any matters that arose or might arise directly from those investigation.

What's not under this, Victor and Aliysn, is the existing more than 900 - 950 investigations that are already ongoing for people who invaded the Capitol, the riot there on January 6.

CAMEROTA: Katelyn, what do we know about this new special counsel Jack Smith?

KATELYN POLANTZ, CNN CRIME AND JUSTICE REPORTER: Well, Jack Smith isn't the type of name that you regularly hear around Washington. He has worked for the Justice Department in multiple different positions in the past. He's been the leader of the Public Integrity section there, that section that looks at possible crimes related to elected officials.

But he also has been having a sterling resume as a prosecutor in other parts of the country and the world. He worked in the U.S. Attorney's Office in Tennessee as a former U.S. Attorney making prominent decisions there. We know he also, at one, point was working out of the Brooklyn Prosecutor's Office. That is a really high metabolism place for someone to cut their chops and also in recent years. He was a war crimes prosecutor at The Hague.

I mean, that is the type of sterling bullet point on a resume that you often see those people becoming federal judges. So he really is a person with a lot of different types of experiences in prosecuting different types of crimes.

[15:05:00] But at the end of the day, Alisyn and Victor, this is someone who a lot of people are asking who's this, we haven't heard of him and he hasn't really had that history in Washington to be painted either as a strong Republican or a Democrat or even really be a known political figure of some sort.

BLACKWELL: And as I noted, last hour, this is someone who's worked in the Justice Department under both Republican and Democratic administrations. As we saw with the Mueller investigation, he was a reliable Republican. We see here a bit of a difference here with Jack Smith.

Let's bring in now - Katelyn and Evan, stay with us - but I want to add to this CNN Chief Political Analyst Gloria Borger, CNN Senior Political Analyst John Avlon, CNN Political Commentator Alice Stewart and CNN Legal Analyst and Former Federal Prosecutor Elliot Williams.

Gloria, let me start with you. And we're getting the first reaction from Donald Trump's legal team to this announcement, in which the statement says this is a totally expected political stunt by feckless politicized, weaponized Biden Department of Justice, I hand that to you.

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, I think that's totally expected. I mean, there's nothing that the Department of Justice has ever done or will do that Donald Trump will respect or say that it was warranted. And I think in this particular case, of the Trump people had to expect this, as Evan said, and as the Attorney General pointed out, he had no other choice because there was a clear conflict here.

You had somebody who announced for the presidency, Donald Trump, and somebody in Joe Biden who says it's his intention to run. And so I think he felt he had no other choice.

We know how Donald Trump feels about a special counsels. He hated Bob Mueller, as we all know. The difference here is that as president, he could threaten to fire Bob Mueller at any time. He had control over him.

The difference here with Mr. Smith, is that he's a citizen, and he cannot threaten to fire him. So Mr. Smith can do his work without worrying that the President of the United States is going to chop his head off. And he said today that this will go forward expeditiously. I'm sure the Trump people are worried that this is going to hang over their campaign like a like a soggy wet tent. But on the other hand, they also know that Donald Trump is very good at playing the victim as he did after the search at Mar-A-Lago and he's very likely to do it again.

CAMEROTA: And John, cue the oppo research that team Trump is no doubt doing right now as well. And if they can't come up with anything, and I remember this from Robert Mueller, the conspiracy theories from Trump team and his allies in right-wing media will start.

JOHN AVLON, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Facts are going to have nothing to do with the full frontal assault on this guy. I mean, again, Bob Mueller was a Republican who was absolutely attacked by Republicans for being a partisan, so let's get real about that.

Look, Donald Trump got in this game this early, in part because he wanted to act as a brushback pitch against any possible prosecution. I do think this is a measured, important thing that Garland has done, because it does take it out of the realm of the political, which is inherent when you deal with former president and the sitting president who might run again.

The implications may be that this may slow the progress as Evan Perez told us earlier, an hour or two ago. But it also may indicate an attempt to accelerate this. That maybe they're closer to a prosecution than previously understood.

Bottom line, and I think this is the bottom line, all the political attacks are going to come around here. The law needs to be applied. That's the standard and that's what I think a special prosecutor will help insulate it from, got to apply the law freely and fairly, even against former presidents.

BLACKWELL: And Elliot, we have to remember that this is an attorney general who came into this role saying that he wanted to return even the image and the work of the Justice Department to something that was apolitical after the former president politicized the investigations going into the 2020 election. So after the announcement from Trump, was this inevitable that there would be a special counsel?

ELLIOT WILLIAMS, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: And I think that's a great question, Victor, on account of the fact that even if the outcome were to be the same, right, even if at the end of this all, the Attorney General himself, were to have gone forward with charging the foreign president or if this special counsel did, there would still have been, from some, a political pushback as to how partisan or how politicized it would have been.

The Attorney General had to do this to take those questions off the table, at least or at least sort of by - like sort of as we said in the last hour, by the textbook. The thing to do is take the political questions off the table by putting in a special counsel. Now look, what they have done to their credit at the Justice Department is pick someone who basically checks every single box in terms of a stellar legal resume, both practice state - at the state and federal level, practice as a manager having served as the head of the U.S. Attorney's Office, international experience, private sector experience and on down.


And so if there is an individual who helps insulate some of those questions, then certainly this is the one. But to pick up on John's point from a moment ago, cue the opposition research people are still going to try I think very quickly and very soon to sort of make this a political question. But at the end of the day, this was probably the right legal call on the part of the Attorney General. CAMEROTA: Evan, it's interesting that he's tasked with these two investigations. And I would imagine that the January 6 one is a more sprawling, more complicated one than the classified top secret documents that he was keeping at Mar-A-Lago and so they won't necessarily be on the same track. I mean, I don't know how it works, but maybe he'll do one first and the other - or maybe they'll do them simultaneously, but you can't expect both of them to be resolved at the same time.

PEREZ: Right. We don't expect that they would be, but here's the deal we have - we know that there are separate teams that are handling these separate investigations. And I do want to underscore something that I mentioned just a little while ago. Look, on the matter of the classified documents that were found at Mar-A-Lago that the FBI seized back in August, it was clear that the former president is under investigation for mishandling National Security information and for potential obstruction of justice.

That much is clear, because they served a subpoena. They did a search of his home and that much was clear. Until today, really, and until this appointment, Justice Department has said very, very little as to what the end target of the January 6 part of this investigation is. And what this makes clear the fact that they felt that this has to fall under this special counsel, it makes clear that Donald Trump is one of the potential targets in that investigation.

Look, we've kind of known that, but we've never heard that really from the Justice Department and so this kind of makes that very clear, crystal clear that Donald Trump is at the center of this effort to get these fake electors to try to prevent the transfer of power, never before done in this country, in this country's history. And not only trying to stop the certification, but in the end, obviously, we saw that he inspired the insurrection that happened at Jan - at the Capitol on January 6.

So those are the things that this special counsel is going to be inheriting. And as to your point, Alisyn, these two investigations are well underway. Their subpoenas we know have gone out to multiple witnesses. In fact, just in recent days, we know that there's new subpoenas and they're getting subpoenas, for production of documents or for testimony soon.

So in a statement that we got from Jack Smith, he said that he wants to do this expeditiously. He says that he doesn't want this, obviously to slow things down. We shall see whether that is actually what happens. But we know that these - both these investigations are well underway, Victor and Alisyn.

BLACKWELL: Alice, to you, in the summer months, the details that were coming out about the classified documents put a little bit of space between the former president and some elected Republicans and then that search at Mar-A-Lago rallied a lot of them right around him.

He's been getting some pushback since the midterm of how his endorsement of these election deniers are not the future of the party and now this announcement of a special counsel. Does this announcement have the potential to bring in those Republicans who are not inside MAGA world back closer to the former president?

ALICE STEWART, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Quite possibly, Victor. And it's comforting to see the wheels of justice continue to roll regardless of a presidential campaign. And they are looking not just at January 6 and the fake electors, but the bottom line here and the ultimate issue that needs to be addressed is was Donald Trump and his top associates were they involved in trying to stop the peaceful transfer of power, which is one of the cornerstones of our elections in this country.

And I'm not surprised at all that the former president immediately came out and pushed back on this and claims to be a victim of a political and judicial witch hunt, but I don't see that sticking. He has advocated and tried to relitigate 2020 ever since the polls were closed and Joe Biden was nominated a duly elected president.

And we're seeing more and more that people are tired of it. People are tired of relitigating the past and fighting president's past grievances. His base will stay with them, make no mistake about that. And his base will see he's a victim and all of this, but it's the independent voters who are ready to look at issues that motivate the American people as we saw in this election, it's not about election denialism it is about our economy.


But I do say we also need to keep a look at this Donald Trump is going to go to his Republicans in the House and push for more oversight of the DOJ and the FBI for this very reason. So I expect that to be the next shoe to drop by, Republicans when they take control of the House. But make no mistake, Donald Trump will use this as an opportunity who portray himself as the victim. His base will be on board with that, but a lot of rational Republicans are ready to put him and this issue in the rearview mirror.

CAMEROTA: But Gloria, to that point, there's very little that Donald Trump can't use to his political and/or fundraising advantage ...


CAMEROTA: ... as we have seen. And now that Nancy Pelosi is stepping down who has been a mortal enemy ...

BLACKWELL: The boogeyman.

CAMEROTA: ... the boogeyman of Donald Trump, now we have a new boogeyman.

BORGER: Well, Merrick Garland, I mean, I think they've always thought that Merrick Garland was Darth Vader to them. If you saw Merrick Garland today, he hardly appears to be a Darth Vader. I think he'll become more of one. You see Republicans starting to do investigations. I'm not sure that that is exactly what the public voted for. In fact, they did not a vote for that. But Donald Trump has shown over and over again, that he can play the victim card. Look, this is somebody who was impeached twice and now has had two special counsels working on - against him, he would say. I would say that these are two special counsels investigating his behavior. One thing I want to point out, though, is that it's clear that the issue of obstruction is front and center here, perhaps in both of these investigations.

And I remember back covering Mueller, Bob Mueller in the Russia investigation, that obstruction was also front and center. In the end, Mueller did not make any disposition clearly on obstruction because this was a sitting president. The question was, could you charge a sitting president.

And then the that Attorney General Barr came in and said, you know what, you can't. You can't charge him and I'm throwing out the obstruction issues. That would not happen in this case. Should it be decided that the former president obstructed justice, because he is the former president, not the current president.

So it's a whole different ballgame here. He's not in charge of this. He can't threaten to fire the special counsel, as I said before, so while he may play the victim here, he has no control over this process. And I think that probably scares him.

BLACKWELL: Hey, John, before you jump on that point, let me read for you what we're hearing from Senator Ted Cruz who has now tweeted since announcement: "Joe Biden has completely weaponized the Department of Justice to attack his political opponents. Three days ago, Trump announced and now a Special Counsel. This is Trump derangement syndrome but this time with a gun and a badge. HashtagJusticeCorrupted."

AVLON: Totally irresponsible and out of touch, but not surprising because he's so thirsty for the MAGA base. Look, Donald Trump's statement was just mad libs and Ted Cruz's statement is as well. This is not the weaponization of the Justice Department. This is ensuring equal justice under law and Ted Cruz of all people should know the difference.

Donald Trump is not a victim and it will not stop people like Ted Cruz from demonizing a special counsel. We've got to defend our democracy, right? That is the preeminent issue here. There's a bunch of people tried to overturn the peaceful transfer of power and the question is what will the accountability be, in the lot of previous prosecutions of Donald Trump for actions he did, it's the lower ranking people who end up being the fall guy.

So this is one of many questions and this is a very serious issue for our country. I'm not trying to make light of it. But taking these cheap partisan shots that kind of hackery demonizes special counsel and Justice Department in the - the idea of an independent Justice Department, that doesn't help, it hurts him and it's designed to, it's authentic.

BLACKWELL: All right. John, Gloria, Alice, Elliot, thank you and our thanks also to Evan and Katelyn. CAMEROTA: Okay. Now we have to get to this, a dangerous winter storm is in New York State right now. Half a foot of snow fell in just one hour in some areas. It is not stopping anytime soon.

BLACKWELL: And the Twitter train wreck just keeps getting worse. CNN obtained a memo Elon Musk sent two remaining software engineers, what he is begging them to do, ahead.



CAMEROTA: A gigantic snowstorm is pummeling western New York right now. Nearly a dozen counties are under a state of emergency. Since just last night, the storm has dumped four feet of snow south of Buffalo, that's at least 20 - and at least 20 inches in the city.

BLACKWELL: And it's still coming down. A buffalo official warn conditions have deteriorated very quickly. There is zero visibility in some areas. CNN Gloria Pazmino is in Buffalo, New York. I was like, she's there somewhere, there she is. What are you seeing?

GLORIA PAZMINO, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Victor, I am going to try and get just a little bit closer to you so you can see exactly what I'm dealing with here. It's slightly clearer right now but don't let those conditions fool you. The snow has led up for just a few minutes but things here have been changing so quickly. I've been out here all day and conditions change hour to hour. The snow begins to fall, the wind picks up and all of a sudden it's pummeling you right in the face. We're standing right across the Buffalo River, which empties into Lake Erie.


And that is where that lake effect snow is taking place. It is moving in bands all across Western New York and dumping all of that snow right here in the area. As you said, some areas to the south of here have already seen four feet of snow. We are expecting things to get much worse here in the evening hours. It was really bad last night. We got to see some of that thunderstorm, lightning while the snow was falling.

So right now it's slightly calm. There's a family that's lying in the snow, but we are expecting this to get a little bit worse in the evening hours and into tomorrow. There are several pieces of snow plows and heavy equipment out in force trying to keep the streets as clean as possible. And elected officials, both the Governor and the Mayor asking people to stay off the roads for now so that people can get around and clean and we can avoid accidents and traffic here in the area. Victor and Alisyn?

CAMEROTA: For sure, it actually looks very peaceful and placid right now as opposed to thunder snow, which is coming in her direction.


CAMEROTA: Standby for that. Gloria, be careful. Thanks so much for the report.

BLACKWELL: All right. We are following breaking news out of the Department of Justice where Attorney General Merrick Garland announced the special counsel to oversee the Trump investigations, how lawmakers are reacting, that's next.