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Justice Dept. Signals It Will Fight GOP Over Document Requests; Treasury Dept. Expected To Designate Russian Mercenary Wagner Group As A "Transnational Criminal Organization"; U.S., Germany In Standoff Over Sending Tanks To Ukraine. Aired 2-2:30p ET

Aired January 20, 2023 - 14:00   ET




VICTOR BLACKWELL, CNN HOST: Hello, I'm Victor Blackwell. Welcome to CNN NEWSROOM.

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

This afternoon, President Biden will meet with a bipartisan group of mayors at a White House event. Just minutes ago, the Justice Department dealt a major blow to Republicans hoping to investigate the president. DOJ signaled it will fight House Republicans over their document requests as part of their committee probes into Biden's past.

BLACKWELL: We have a team of correspondents covering these breaking developments. CNN's Phil Mattingly is at the White House. CNN's Manu Raju is on Capitol Hill. We're going to start with CNN's Paul Reid. Paula, give us the latest on what the Justice Department is telling House Republicans.

PAULA REID, CNN SENIOR LEGAL AFFAIRS DEPARTMENT: Well, Victor, we certainly didn't expect that the Justice Department was just going to hand over evidence related to a series of ongoing criminal investigations. But in this letter to House Judiciary Chairman Jim Jordan, the Justice Department makes it clear that they are unlikely to comply with his broad requests for information on a number of different matters.

Now, the department makes it clear though, they believe oversight is important. They do want to cooperate, but they need to balance that against the need to protect ongoing criminal investigations. Jordan has made it clear though he wants to examine how the Justice Department has handled a series of matters, including its ongoing investigations into former President Trump and current President Joe Biden, and the possible mishandling of classified documents.

This letter really lays out the hurdles that Jordan is going to face. So right now, he's not getting anything from the Justice Department. But this letter lays out how they want to go into these negotiations to see if they can possibly accommodate any of his requests. But in a short time, those requests are going to go unanswered. CAMEROTA: OK. So, Manu, what are House Republicans going to do now?

MANU RAJU, CNN CHIEF CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, they haven't officially said yet. They are -- they just received the letter. But I can -- you can expect they're not going to take this line down. They certainly have the ability to issue a subpoena. And we'll see how the Justice Department would respond to that with this as -- well, we can expect probably over the next several months and years to be -- for Republicans who are now in charge to be frustrated that some of their demands will not be met.

This happened when the Democrats took control of the House back in 2019. They issued letter after letter, subpoena after subpoena to the Trump administration. The Trump administration didn't respond. Sometimes that went to court and that led to a years-long drag-out -- knockdown drag-out fight. And we'll see if that ever gets to that or if there was some sort of accommodation where the House Judiciary Committee could get some answers.

But there are some log -- some questions that some Democrats have. Democrats want to make sure that the documents that were mishandled by the president were -- did not include any information that could harm national security. Including one Democrat that I just spoke with, Senator Ben Cardin, who said that the president needs to be completely transparent about what happened.


SEN. BEN CARDIN, (D-MD): I want to see complete transparency on how this is handled and brought forward to the American people. I'm convinced there was no intent by the president to do something that was wrong.

RAJU: Do you think this hurts him politically? Are you concerned about that at all?

CARDIN: Well, this is a matter that needs to get -- the president needs to get behind. He has to get all the information out. He has to square it away and make it clear that there was no intent here, that it was kept in a -- in a place that did not compromise the national security of America, and that there are steps in place today to make sure this does not happen in the future.


RAJU: And there have been bipartisan requests for more information about the president's handling of the situation. The Senate Intelligence Committee led by Democrats has asked for a briefing to ensure that there was no damage that was done to national security by the release of these documents. And when Congress returns next week from its recess, expect those calls to intensify from Republicans in particular, but also some Democrats as well.

BLACKWELL: All right, Phil, to you at the White House. The president, he spoke out about the mishandled documents investigation, what did he say this time? PHIL MATTINGLY, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: You know, I think it's interesting in the context of what we've been discussing here, how the White House views investigations in a very different manner. And I'd start with House Republicans.

You heard what the Justice Department laid out, as Paula reported, White House officials have also received a number of document requests related to this issue of classified documents from House Republican chairs. Haven't responded yet. Have said they would respond to good faith efforts. But also attacked members of that committee repeatedly in kind of implicit way of saying they don't view any of the questions that they've gotten up to this point, as in good faith. So, that'll be something to keep an eye on.


They view obviously, the special counsel investigation in a very different manner. However, the president in his first public remarks in a couple of days on the issue gave you a pretty good window into how senior White House officials are both viewing things at this moment and engaging on it generally. Take a listen.


JOE BIDEN, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We're fully cooperating and looking forward to getting this resolved quickly. I think you're going to find there's nothing there. I have no regrets. I'm following what the lawyers have told me they want me to do. It's exactly what we're doing. There's no there there.


MATTINGLY: I point to two things there that I think are good windows into what I hear behind the scenes here. The first is the idea of no there there. You hear that a lot from White House officials that they believe well, they don't have full visibility into the actual documents discovered, they don't have a sense that this is going to end up with any major problems once the investigation is done. Now, granted, they don't know how long the investigation will take or where the special counsel will take things, but that's their view of things at the moment.

And the other is the president's reference to his lawyers. That has been so critical in how they've operated throughout this entire process. Sometimes, to the frustration of a lot of us who want more answers, very clearly looking at the legal side of things far more than even the political or communication side, guys.

CAMEROTA: OK. Paula, Manu, Phil, thank you.

Former federal prosecutor Renato Mariotti joins us now. Renato, great to see you. So, these Justice Department documents that the House Oversight -- the House committees, the Republicans on House committees want, are there no documents that the Department of Justice could turn over to them that wouldn't jeopardize an ongoing investigation? RENATO MARIOTTI, FORMER FEDERAL PROSECUTOR: There may be some. But I would say, Alisyn, that these requests, I think are designed to achieve this response. In other words, there's a lot of things that the House could be engaging in oversight regarding the Justice Department. There's been a lot of high-profile investigations over the last few years. And the former president had obviously significant investigations into him. There's a lot of questions about how the Justice Department handles things.

But instead, they're focused on ongoing criminal investigations. That's where the Justice Department is going to be the most sensitive in handing over information. That's where the courts and the law is going to be on their side. I almost to be -- I'm not a political analyst but I will just say that it seems like these are designed to be -- to result in this result that we're seeing here.

BLACKWELL: There's an interesting line here in this letter from the Office of the Assistant Attorney General where they start the second paragraph with, we welcome your interest in the department's work. I mean, it's kind of like we know you're coming for us. You have -- you have telegraphed this move. But they also, in these pages highlight that, yes, we expect and understand and it's appropriate for there to be an oversight but we have to stay within these parameters because we can't go too deep into, even confirming the existence of an investigation.

MARIOTTI: Well, that's right. I mean, you know, if you -- if I was sitting down with House members and they were asking me, look, what are the things that we -- what are requests we can make they can generate actual documents in our possession? I'd say, look, there's a lot of investigations into the former president, you could look into how those are handled, those investigations that are already closed, you can look at the practices of the Justice Department, there are a lot of questions -- legitimate questions about the practices that they have, and, you know, political influence on the department more generally. There's a lot that they can look into.

But this focus on ongoing criminal investigations appears to me to be to have some political motive. I don't -- I wouldn't -- you know, I know there's a suggestion a moment ago comparing it to stonewalling during the Trump era. I don't regard that here. I think this is sort of what you'd expect from the Justice Department regarding ongoing criminal investigations.

CAMEROTA: So, now the House can issue a subpoena for the documents to the DOJ, and whose power Trump's the other no pun intended. I mean, is it the -- does the DOJ have the last word on this or does the Oversight Committee?

MARIOTTI: Well, the beauty of our system is that neither side has the last word. Ultimately, the House is going to have to go to court if they want to enforce this. And that -- we've seen that play out during the Trump administration where there were, I think, unprecedented, you know, refusals to produce documents to Congress that ultimately went to the courts. And I think the public has to see that it often takes a long time for the courts to resolve those matters. And the same happened during the Obama administration when there were disputes about documents or records. And I think part of our system is that you know, these -- the -- these interplay between the branches ultimately can be resolved by political power often rather than through any sort of definitive legal decision one way or the other.

BLACKWELL: Renato Mariotti, always good to have your expertise. Thank you.

MARIOTTI: Thank you.

BLACKWELL: Joining us now is the former governor of Arkansas, Asa Hutchinson. Governor, good to see you. So, let's go back to before the election. Republicans ran on crime, the border, and inflation.


That -- those were -- that was the trifecta, the trinity they were going to attack. The -- some of the early bills though once they got into power out of the gate were on abortion and in these flurries of investigations they're launching. Do you think they're on the right track as they start this Congress?

ASA HUTCHINSON, FORMER REPUBLICAN GOVERNOR, ARKANSAS: Well, I do. Whenever you look, Victor, at this Congress under Kevin McCarthy, the first thing is the extension of the debt limit. And, of course, we're raising the issue of too much spending that's out of control that we've got to have the plan to address. And so that goes to the inflation issue that the American people expected Congress, the Republicans to address.

Obviously, whenever you're looking at the allegations of politicization of the Justice Department, those are very important questions for oversight hearings. And that's expected by the American public as well. And so, you can do the oversight role. You can look at border security. You can look at the issues of crime. And so, all of those need to be addressed.

But let's start where we are with the debt ceiling and how this administration, the Biden administration has spent excessively that has hurt us in terms of our inflation rate. Europe is doing a better job of controlling it than we are. And that's appropriate to raise these -- this issue during the discussions on the debt limit.

BLACKWELL: Before I go to the debt limit, you're a former U.S. attorney. And this letter just sent over from the DOJ to House Republicans in which they say any oversight requests must be weighed against the department's equities in protecting ongoing matters and to avoid an even a perception that our efforts are influenced by anything but the law on the facts. Do you agree with the approach from the DOJ that anything that even confirms the existence of an investigation or gets to some of those questions about those investigations should be off-limits for the House?

HUTCHINSON: Well, they have legitimate concerns about grand jury material about ongoing investigations and improper influence or revelations concerning those. So, it's really more important as to where it goes from here. And there needs to be a conversation. There needs to be a sense of cooperation from the Justice Department to provide Congress their oversight responsibility. Enough information to address it, as one of your previous guests said, it's appropriate to ask questions about the process.

How did you get from point A to point B? Did you follow your rules? Did you follow the existing Department of Justice guidelines? The specific -- (INAUDIBLE)

BLACKWELL: But nothing specific about the investigation? OK.

HUTCHINSON: I'm sorry.

BLACKWELL: I got it from you. Thank you, Governor.

Let's move down to the debt limit. And this standoff where the White House says no negotiations, no cuts, we want to clean bill, Republicans say that there must be cuts. When you were in the House, you were a freshman then in 1997, there was an increase in the debt limit up to $6 billion, sounds quaint now.

So, it happened as part of the Balanced Budget Act. There was a fight then, but it got done. There were some cuts. There were some increases in spending. A different environment, but I wonder how you see this ending? What are we going to see over the next five months in this fight over the debt limit?

HUTCHINSON: Well, in the end, you have to increase the debt limit in order to maintain the full faith and credit of the United States. And so, the end goal is to protect the financial stability in our economy from paying our debts. That's what the United States does, and our allies need to understand that and be assured of that.

But whatever you see the out-of-control spending by this administration, it's also appropriate to say, Mr. President, let's sit down, let's have a framework as we can address and bring this spending under control. And this is a good time to do that where we're focused on an extraordinary debt that is at a record amount and continues to grow. And so, the president should be --

BLACKWELL: But must those two things be -- must those two things be tied to one another? Do you -- do you say that there must be cuts in order to increase the debt ceiling?

HUTCHINSON: There should be a framework to address excessive spending. That is important. And the president should be willing to work with Congress to address that. The president should have a framework to control spending if he doesn't shame on him.

And so, if you -- if you don't have that framework, let's work with Congress to do it. That is an appropriate request by Congress. Let's get that done. And obviously, you want to do what's necessary to pay the bills in the United States.

BLACKWELL: Yes. Last one on the debt ceiling here. Former President Trump posted on social media. "Under no circumstances should Republicans vote to cut a single penny from Medicare or Social Security." Some Republicans say that everything, including entitlement programs, should be on the table. Where are you on cuts to Social Security and Medicare?


HUTCHINSON: Well, Social Security and Medicare are not something that should be dealt with in this environment. We got to maintain the confidence of the American public in the protection of those two programs. Whenever you look at Medicaid, Medicaid I'd have to deal with it regularly as a governor. And absolutely, there's ways that you can control that entitlement program to a greater extent. And so that's something that should be discussed as to how to control those costs.

BLACKWELL: As part of the debt limit conversation? As a requirement to raise it?

HUTCHINSON: As a framework to address this out-of-control spending.


HUTCHINSON: And most of the spending is a discretionary area that we're concerned about, which is the Inflation Reduction Act, and the trillions of dollars that have been put out there that the Republicans opposed begin with. And so, you can address a framework on spending without touching Medicare and Social Security. It is those other areas of discretionary spending that has to be addressed.

BLACKWELL: Last one here. You said you're mulling running for president in 2024, listen to a potential opponent here, former ambassador Nikki Haley.


NIKKI HALEY, FORMER UN AMBASSADOR: I had a great working relationship with the president. What I'll tell you is the survival of America matters. And it's bigger than one person. And when you're looking at the future of America, I think it's time for new generational change.

I don't think you need to be 80 years old to go be a leader in DC. I think we need a young generation to come, step up, and really start fixing things.


BLACKWELL: Well, you're not 80, Governor, but you're over 70. What's your reaction to her call for generational change at the White House?

HUTCHINSON: Well, if I did make a decision to run, then I would be the youngest candidate in the race at this point. And so, I love Nikki Haley. And she's a former governor. I think it's important that we have more voices talking about the direction of our country.

Her voice is important. My voice is important as well. And so, we need to have more, not fewer that's engaged in this fight for our country controlling the Biden agenda on border security, addressing our national security issues. And so, her voice is important. I believe that my voice is important as well. And so, we'll all be making decisions, but I'm glad to see that there's others looking at it besides former President Donald Trump.

BLACKWELL: All right, Governor Asa Hutchinson, thank you.

HUTCHINSON: Thank you. Good to be with you today, Victor.

BLACKWELL: Thank you.

CAMEROTA: Septuagenarian, spring chicken.



BLACKWELL: 72 is the new 62.

CAMEROTA: It's true. It is true. All right. Meanwhile, the Biden administration set a designated Russian mercenary group as a transnational criminal organization. What this means for the war on Ukraine?

BLACKWELL: And the top Pentagon officials meet with key allies to hammer out a plan to get more weaponry to war-torn Ukraine. A key point of contention, tanks. We'll talk about them next.



CAMEROTA: The U.S. Treasury Department is expected to designate the Russian mercenary organization, the Wagner group, as a transnational criminal organization with links to North Korea. Russian President Vladimir Putin has increasingly relied on Wagner to carry out operations in Ukraine.


JOHN KIRBY, NATIONAL SECURITY COUNCIL COORDINATOR FOR STRATEGIC COMMUNICATIONS: As we have said publicly, North Korea delivered infantry rockets and missiles into Russia for use by Wagner toward the end of last year. Wagner is a criminal organization that is continuing wide -- I'm sorry, committing widespread atrocities and human rights abuses.


BLACKWELL: CNN's Oren Liebermann joins us from the Pentagon now. Oren, what does this new designation mean?

OREN LIEBERMANN, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: First, that means that Wagner and those entities associated with it perhaps not only in Ukraine, but other places Wagner operates such as Africa, Syria, will face more sanctions from the U.S. government. It's also a strong statement about how the U.S. views Wagner a mercenary group used by Russia as an additional force.

The U.S. recently declassified photos it says are other Russian train crossing into North Korea, but five cars on that Russian train, picking up ammo. You can see the images there, taking that ammo from North Korea and bringing it back to the fight in Ukraine. That's the part of this that makes Wagner a transnational criminal organization. The U.S. had talked about this just a couple of weeks ago, about late last year. And here they say is the evidence, the photographs that back that up.

Interestingly, it was Wagner that was using the artillery and the ammo provided here, not the Russian Ministry of Defense. And that gets at how Wagner is operating, essentially a mercenary organization that is competing with at times and operating independently of the Russian military primarily in Bakhmut, a town in eastern Ukraine. That's where we've seen Wagner operating, according to the U.S. with a very high percentage of convicts also filling in the shortages of, frankly, bodies in the Russian military that Russia is looking for, and suffering heavy casualties as well. This is another step against Wagner coming from the U.S., Victor, and Alisyn.

CAMEROTA: So, Oren, as you know, Ukraine wants more tanks, the U.S. is resisting that request, so what's the status?

LIEBERMANN: Well, it doesn't seem like there was any great progress on making sure that Ukraine gets more tanks. There was recently an announcement of tanks that was the UK sending about a dozen or slightly more of its own challenger2 tanks. But the real big question here was about Germany and its Leopard tanks.

And as we were waiting for some sort of announcement that Germany had either agreed to send its own Leopard tanks were approved, other countries that use German-made leopards to send those. Poland has been very vocal about its desire. Finland and others as well actually met on the sidelines of an international gathering in Germany earlier today to see if there was some way forward here.


But right now, Berlin is not budging on sending tanks even though it was Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who came out and said it is tanks that are at the top of Ukraine's wish list. That group that met on the sidelines about a dozen or more other countries that operate leopards, they are optimistic that Berlin will budge and will give way to make sure that the West can provide Ukraine with tanks perhaps sometime in the future here.


LLYOD AUSTIN, U.S. DEFENSE SECRETARY: What we're really focused on is making sure that Ukraine has the capability that it needs to be successful right now. There are tanks in that -- in that -- those offerings. Poland, for example, continues to offer tanks and will provide tanks, and other countries will offer some tank capability as well. I don't have any announcements to make on him once. And you heard the German Ministry of Defense say that they've not made a decision on Leopards.


LIEBERMANN: Defense Minister Bo -- a new German Defense Minister Boris Pistorius spoke essentially just before that and said that Berlin had not yet come to a decision on tanks, saying there were reasons for and reasons against. But we have seen the U.S. putting pressure on Berlin and now obviously many other countries putting pressure on Berlin to give the green light. Poland even in threatening to go on its own, in Poland's where do the right thing and the moral thing, and just face the consequences from Berlin for not waiting for that export license, Victor and Alisyn.

CAMEROTA: Oren, thank you for all that. And just wanted to add that we're just getting in a news bulletin from our London bureau that Germany has just announced 1.08 billion in military aid to Ukraine. So, thank you for that, Oren.

Let's bring in now retired U.S. Army Brigadier General Steve Anderson. So, General, great to have you. So, between Germany's 1.08 billion military aid and the U.S. has this $2.5 billion military aid package which I'll just read to everybody what that includes. 90 Stryker Combat Vehicles, 59 Bradley Fighting Vehicles, ammunition for rocket systems, additional munitions for aerial defense systems. So, what will all this change in terms of Ukraine fighting the war?

BRIG. GEN. STEVE ANDERSON (RET), U.S. ARMY: Well, thank you, Alisyn. This is going to give the Ukrainians maneuver capability that they presently just don't have. I mean, the Bradleys and the Strykers, and the German Leopards, the AMX light tanks from the French, and the Challengers from the UK, they're going to give them the ability to move, shoot, and communicate and conduct offensive operations. And, of course, that's what we really need here.

The Ukrainians -- the United States want to see the Ukrainians succeed at the point of driving the Russians all the way out of the areas that they've occupied since the 24th of February, and also since 2014 in Crimea. So, they need to have that offensive maneuver capabilities that these vehicles are going to get them -- give them. So, this is really good news.

BLACKWELL: So, General, at every phase of the war and to nearly every request from Ukraine, there's been some reluctance from the west to give Ukraine the next level of technology. And President Zelenskyy pointed this out that a few months later, the U.S. -- the West typically just sends it over. Explain the reluctance, and if you think it makes sense, especially in the context of these tanks that are being held back.

ANDERSON: Well, I really don't understand reluctance quite frankly, Victor. I believe that we need to support the Ukrainians to win the war. Thus far, we've been doing things to make sure they don't lose. And there's a dramatic difference between the two. I mean, for instance, logistics. We need to give them all the logistics they need to sustain all this incredible equipment we have given them. And thus far we haven't done that. We need to give them, as I mentioned, the armored mobility, but we need to give them more air defense, we need to give them drones like Gray Eagle and Reaper, we need -- we have -- we could give them A-10 aircraft.

Now, I'm not saying put American pilots in the seats. What I'm saying is there's a lot of things we can do to make sure that Ukrainians actually win and just don't lose. And that's what needs to happen this next year, otherwise, we're going to have a very long protracted war. The right thing to do is give them everything they need.

Now, I would also add. I don't think they need M1 tanks. I think the M1 tank is too big, too heavy, it runs on jet fuel, too difficult to maintain. I think that we made the right call in giving them Strykers and Bradleys, but we need to do more to make sure that Ukrainians can actually win.

CAMEROTA: General, how about this new Treasury Department designation of the Wagner group as a criminal organization? What will that change?

ANDERSON: I don't think it will change anything. I mean, the Wagner group, it just reflects the basic corruption and incompetence of the Russian entire system, their leadership, and their military. I mean, they're poorly led, they're poorly equipped, they're poorly trained, they have to go out and get contractors essentially. They're getting conscripts, they're getting -- they're pulling out inmates from their prisons to throw them to the frontlines. I mean, just sending them to the slaughter.