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Justice Department Signals It May Not Fulfill House GOP Document Requests; Treasury Dept Expected To Designate Russian Mercenary Wagner Group As A "Transnational Criminal Organization"; NM Attorney General Opens Investigation Into Pena's Campaign Finances. Aired 3-3:30p ET

Aired January 20, 2023 - 15:00   ET




ALISYN CAMEROTA, CNN HOST: It's the top of the hour on CNN NEWSROOM. I'm Alisyn Camerota.


The Department of Justice just delivered a major blow to the new GOP- controlled House. In a letter to House Judiciary Chairman, Jim Jordan, the department signaled in may not fulfill House request for information on ongoing investigation.

CAMEROTA: As you know, there are now special counsel investigations into how President Joe Biden and former President Trump handled classified material.

CNN's Sara Murray and Jessica Dean join us now.

So Sara, what does this letter from the Justice Department say?

SARA MURRAY, CNN POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, look, Jim Jordan has asked DOJ for all kinds of things, all kinds of documents, all kinds of staff briefings. And in this letter, DOJ is saying essentially, thank you so much for your interest, but here are the guidelines around what we're actually going to be able to give you.

And most importantly, it's not going to be a lot when it comes to ongoing criminal investigations. Here's a portion of that letter.

It says, "Consistent with long standing policy and practice, any oversight requests must be weighed against the department's interests in protecting the integrity of its work. Longstanding Department policy prevents us from confirming or denying the existence of pending investigations in response to Congressional requests or providing non- public information about our investigations."

So essentially, we're not going to be able to give you a whole lot when it comes to ongoing criminal investigations. And as you said, we have heard from Jim Jordan and a number of other House Republicans. They are very interested in learning more especially about the special counsel investigation into Donald Trump's handling of classified documents, and the special counsel investigation into Joe Biden's handling of classified documents.

BLACKWELL: Jessica, to you, what are lawmakers there on Capitol Hill saying about the response from the Justice Department?

JESSICA DEAN, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: It's out along with the rest of us just in the last little bit, and so we're waiting to see just how they're going to respond.

But a couple of things to keep in mind is that, of course, Republicans in these panels, they have subpoena power and I think it's a safe bet to think that they will use that and deploy that at some point. They certainly want to get their hands on these documents or as much information as they possibly can. But what this is setting up is a very familiar dynamic, frankly, that we've seen here on the Hill, especially with House Democrats and the then-Trump administration is - remember, they were trying to get their hands on documents. They eventually had to go to court. It became this long lengthy legal battle that really played out months, even years in some cases. Could that be the case here?

That search certainly a potential at this point, but you can bet that Republicans - this is just their first strike here, this is just their first go with this. There's going to be many more attempts to get more information. They're going to keep going back to that and again keep going back likely to that subpoena power that they do have, Victor and Alisyn, and so the question becomes, what, if any, and just how much of this information might they be able to get their hands on in the next two years.

CAMEROTA: Okay. Jessica Dean, Sara Murray, thank you very much.

Let's bring in Dave Aronberg, he's the State Attorney for Palm Beach County, Florida, and CNN Political Analyst, Astead Herndon. He's the National Political Reporter for The New York Times. Great to have you both here.

So Dave, you heard how this is going to go. We've seen this movie before. So the Republicans in the House are now going to subpoena these documents. We assume the DOJ will fight that. It will go to court. It will be tied up in court for months or years. Is there any other option here, any other path that you see?

DAVE ARONBERG, STATE ATTORNEY, PALM BEACH COUNTY: Well, they can try and negotiate, but this is not a good faith effort by Jim Jordan. He wants to win points in far-right media and he'll do so, he'll win by losing. And it's interesting that he's had a sudden change of heart about the importance of complying with subpoenas.

You'll remember, Jim Jordan refused to comply with his own subpoena issued by the January 6 Committee, because I guess he subscribes to the legal doctrine of subpoena is thee but not for me. And you know, there's a reason why we prosecutors can't discuss pending investigations.


It puts witnesses at risk, it alerts suspects where you don't want them to be told what's going to happen and you have problems with possibly having a Sixth Amendment violation of a right to a fair trial for the ultimate defendant. So it's bad news all around. They're not going to get this stuff no matter how hard they try.

BLACKWELL: Astead, that seems to be the point here is to create the image or ask for things that you know, they're not going to give, so you create the image of a stonewalling administration or stonewalling White House and potentially sets up the narrative for this Congress.

ASTEAD HERNDON, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Absolutely, though Jim Jordan is not surprised by this response. This would be one that the House Republicans are expecting. What they see this as is a first step for an ongoing set of back and forth between this White House to your point. They're going to try to paint this as a White House that's not responding to those concerns.

It is absolutely hypocritical from the stance that we saw Republicans take left and right during the Trump administration, but what they're betting on is that this is going to paint the Biden administration in a shady, negative light. This is where the Trump base also wants the Republican Congress to really push on.

This is why some of those one knows holdouts were so emboldened against Speaker McCarthy. This is their attack dog arm and they see this as the first step, definitely not the last.

CAMEROTA: Astead, I have a different political question for you and that's about declassified documents found in President Biden's home and office. President Biden spoke out about it yesterday and said that he has no regrets. Basically they're following the letter of the law in terms of turning them over or the protocol and he has no regrets, politically speaking, okay?


CAMEROTA: Not ethically or morally. If they had done it earlier, would that have helped them if they had disclosed to the public before the new Congress, would that have been a political win or loss?

HERNDON: Yes. I mean, it's just so hard to say - I want to shout out the new reporting from my colleagues in The New York Times Washington bureau. I was just reading their story about how the White House is really explaining that gap in time before they told the public kind of what has become clear.

And it seems clear that the White House's kind of bet on this front was that providing a different type of legal cooperation than certainly the Trump administration provided in their time will kind of cool the Justice Department off of seeing these as a thing to continue.

That's not become the case. But we should not ignore the politics here. This came just days before the Midterm Elections, where the White House was trying - was part of the Democratic effort to paint Republicans as bad stewards of democracy. It is not surprising to me that the politics of that also line up with where the White House landed.

That's going to be the question, though, will these Republican efforts continue to chip away at that narrative that the White House is trying to put forward, which is to say that they cooperated legally. And because they saw the differences between them and Trump, that meant that they did not have to disclose before the Midterms, even though we know that certainly would have been a big topic for voters heading into the Election Day.

BLACKWELL: So Dave, the President said there's no there there that the special prosecutor investigators will find that out. He bemoaned the attention focused on this versus what was happening in California. I feel like we've been desensitized by the last administration to a president deriding a special counsel and the Attorney General, because Trump did it nearly every day. Is it problematic that the President has spoken about this? Would you advise him to - even in the measured way he has - to just say nothing or are these disclosures of descriptions fine?

ARONBERG: He should probably say less. He's creating a political problem for himself when he talks about how the documents were locked in his garage next to his car. But from a prosecutor standpoint, he doesn't have a legal problem yet, because the only way the Department of Justice is going to prosecute him - and they can't prosecute a sitting president mine you. But if they ever do, it would be for something like obstruction or you have to show intent and none of those elements exist here.

Yes, she should have probably announced the investigation early on the finding of the documents. But that's a political problem, not a legal one. And remember, Victor, we wouldn't even be here today talking about this issue. If the Biden team did not alert the archives of finding these documents. If they really wanted to obstruct, they could have tossed them aside, but they told the public. We assume they told the archives about it, who then told the DOJ and that's how the public found out.

CAMEROTA: David, but I have heard other attorneys like you saying he shouldn't say this, his lawyers wouldn't want him to say it. What's wrong was saying there's no there there. Why can't the President say that? How's that going to jeopardize anything?

ARONBERG: Alisyn, I think he should, because remember, Biden is trying to be different than Trump instead of deriding prosecutors, he's the one cooperating with them. And this is different than a typical defendant. This is the sitting President of the United States, so he has different concerns. He wants to be transparent.

And if you just clam up and say nothing, that's the opposite of transparency. That's not what people want.

[15:10:00] At the same time, you don't want to give too much like say, hey, they

were locked up next to my car and that doesn't look good and that's a political issue. So I think there is a balance where his lawyers should allow him to say something, but not too much.

CAMEROTA: It wasn't a car, it was a Corvette ...

BLACKWELL: It was a Corvette.

CAMEROTA: ... Dave.


CAMEROTA: Corvette.

HERNDON: Just not any car.

ARONBERG: It's not just any car.



BLACKWELL: All right. Dave Aronberg, Astead Herndon, thank you.

So today, the Treasury Department said it plans to designate the Russian mercenary organization, the Wagner Group, as a transnational criminal organization with links to North Korea.

CAMEROTA: At a White House briefing this afternoon, U.S. security officials describe the intel that led to this decision.


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.


CAMEROTA: Nic Robertson is CNN's International Diplomatic Editor, Jill Dougherty is a CNN contributor and former CNN Moscow bureau chief.

Nic, what's the significance, what will change now that Wagner is designated as a criminal organization?

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN INTERNATIONAL DIPLOMATIC EDITOR: It's going to make it harder for them to do business around the world. They've become an effective extension of the Russian state in some ways, extending their influence and money making abilities from Africa to the Middle East in Syria. And they've become a very effective fighting force in Ukraine. So blunting them is to - blunting their abilities and trying to cut

off money to them is the blunt their effectiveness and their effective for Putin.

BLACKWELL: Jill, we heard from John Kirby today that there is some concern within the Russian government about the recruiting practices of the Wagner Group, 80 percent of their mercenaries, their fighters are convicts. There's also some disagreement over taking credit for the fight in Soledar. How fraught is the relationship between the Wagner Group and Prigozhin, and the Russian government and military and Putin?

JILL DOUGHERTY, CNN CONTRIBUTOR & FORMER MOSCOW BUREAU CHIEF: There's definitely tension between them, because as - the Wagner Group used to be kind of in the shadows before all of this came out and so now they're very much public. And they have been claiming that they were the people who went into Soledar, and defeated the Ukrainians, et cetera, and criticizing the regular Russian military for not being able to do that, for essentially screwing up the war.

So this is really, I think, a significant back and forth between those two groups. It looks as if now you've got the government - Putin's government coming out more on the side of the regular military. But Wagner is really important. It is estimated that they have 50,000 fighters in Ukraine right now, 10,000 are contractor contractors and the other 40,000 are prisoners who are let out in order to fight. And they have money, they're backed by oligarchs. They're an important part of what Russia is trying to do in Ukraine, unfortunately.

CAMEROTA: Nic, we've learned that CIA chief, U.S. Intel officials are briefing or have briefed President Zelenskyy about this coming Russian offensive. What do we know about what that would look like?

ROBERTSON: The potential is for Russia to have re-equipped and retrained a large number of troops. We know that they said that they recruited about 300,000 forces towards the end of last year. It's believed they committed about a hundred thousand of those to the fight in Ukraine already. There's potentially an estimated 100,000 to 150,000 of them left who could well have been given the training that all those others that have been used as cannon fodder on the frontlines haven't been given.

Just this week, President Putin visited an armaments factory. He commended them for their work told them how important it was, mentioned that they were working 24/7, shifts a day to keep production of armaments high, because that's what's required.

So it seems at the moment that Russia is getting itself ready to launch another offensive and the clock is ticking on that. And that's made the conversations in Germany about the possibility of sending tanks to Ukraine all the more pressing. Ukraine is listening to that sort of intelligence and unlike the time before the war a year ago when they said that they didn't believe in offensive was coming, this is much more critical.

Russia if it comes back with a big push, with better trained, better equipped forces, better organized than previously, this is a potential worrying and a dangerous threat for Ukraine right now on the frontlines in the east.


BLACKWELL: Jill, is it likely? Are there signs that that Russia will be able to come with that better trained, better equipped, better strategized, better lead fighting force in the spring?

DOUGHERTY: They may have learned something from bringing in - during the last mobilization that started in September, when you have a lot of regular guys from big cities being pulled into the military. They were - there were multiple reports and we've talked about this, where they went into the field with very limited kit, not enough weapons, not enough supplies, their families were providing some of what they needed.

But - so it appears that the Kremlin has improved on that, but it's still their - the way they command their troops and the preparation is not at all on the level of what NATO does. So it's a matter of personnel and weapons and strategy and that's where the Russians often fail.

BLACKWELL: Jill Dougherty, Nic Robertson, thank you both.

CAMEROTA: First on CNN, New Mexico's attorney general has launched an investigation into Solomon Pena's campaign finances over allegations that narcotics funded part of it. This is the man who allegedly orchestrated shootings that targeted Democrats. We're going to talk to his lawyer about it all when they join us.

BLACKWELL: Also ahead in Illinois, a judge is set to rule on a lawsuit that challenged the state's assault weapons ban. We're live in Chicago with those details.



CAMEROTA: First on CNN, the New Mexico Attorney General taking over the investigation into failed Republican candidate Solomon Pena's campaign finances and other crimes. Pena has been charged with masterminding the shootings at the homes of four Democratic officials. Now, officials are investigating whether he received campaign contributions made with illegal fentanyl sales.

Campaign finance documents reveal the largest cash contributor to Pena's campaign was a man named Jose Trujillo. Trujillo was arrested in a car registered to Pena with nearly 900 fentanyl pills, more than $3,000 in cash and a gun that matched the one used in one of the home shootings.

Joining us now to discuss is the attorney for Solomon Pena, Roberta Yurcic. Ms. Yurcic, thank you so much for being here.

How does your client, Pena, know Jose Trujillo? ROBERTA YURCIC, ATTORNEY FOR SOLOMON PENA: In terms of how my client

knows Jose Trujillo, that matter is still under investigation. I don't know specifically what the relationship if any is. And I would just like to remind everyone that this case is at the very, very early stages of its investigation. The state has not yet had to produce their evidence to me. The deadline for them to do so hasn't yet come up, so there are a lot of unknowns.

CAMEROTA: Sure. It seems - it appears as though they have a relationship because here's a photo of them, they're in a car together. This is Solomon Pena and Jose Trujillo. There are - as we know, he was also arrested, this gentleman on the on the screen right now in Pena's car and he also is the person who made the largest campaign finance contribution to Pena's campaign $5,100, though he said he was homeless at the time.

Did Pena, your client, find that suspicious?

YURCIC: I can't comment on that. I don't know what representations were made by Mr. Trujillo in terms of his claim that he may have been homeless. I have yet to see that evidence and I have no information whatsoever on this newest announcement from the Attorney General, that they're investigating some type of link or relationship between a campaign donation and whatever activities that Jose Trujillo is alleged to be involved with.

CAMEROTA: Okay. So let me ask you this, do you know if your client, Solomon Pena is or has ever had any involvement with illegal drugs?

YURCIC: I can't comment on that. I haven't seen any proof of it.

CAMEROTA: Okay. So you have no evidence of that, but you don't know if he is or isn't?

YURCIC: The state has never shown any evidence or hasn't given any evidence to me to support that type of claim. In addition to that, I'm not aware of any type of involvement with - of my client with any type of illegal narcotics.

CAMEROTA: Yes. It's just that the 900 pills of fentanyl, according to this arrest warrant were found in his car.

YURCIC: In the possession of Jose Trujillo - allegedly in the possession of Jose Trujillo. Now remember, all of these claims that have been made are just merely accusations. They all still need to be tested in a court of law.

CAMEROTA: Yes. All right. Well, here's a couple of more things that we do have and we can see with our own eyes. Your client, Solomon Pena, went to the home of one of his Democratic opponents. This is of Debbie O'Malley, looking for her. So first he went to the wrong house, let me play you this moment.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Hello? SOLOMON PENA: Hi. My name is Solomon Pena. Can I speak with Debbie


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: She doesn't live here anymore.


PENA: Oh, okay. Well, the public record says she owns this. Do you know where she lives?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Yes, she lives around the corner (inaudible) street.

PENA: Okay. Thank you and I'm sorry to bother you.



CAMEROTA: Okay. So what has he told you about why he was looking for her?

YURCIC: So let me just back up just a brief moment. Debbie O'Malley was not my client's political opponent. Debbie O'Malley is an elected official, but she was not my client's opponent. And from what I understand, of course, there has been a lot of reporting, there has been a lot of information that's been made public through the filings in the court record that my client had some concerns about the outcome of the election. I don't know what Mr. Pena wanted to discuss with Ms. O'Malley, I think that would probably be a question to ask Ms. O'Malley.

CAMEROTA: Yes. Yes. And we did have her on. I'm glad you said that. So we did have Debbie O'Malley on and you're right, she's the commissioner. He was running for the state legislature. He then showed up at her real house and we have video of this that I can play for you.

And he asked her to come outside. She came out. They had a discussion over her. He's waving her out there. And they had a discussion over her gate. And she described him to us as being agitated and aggressive. He was angry that he lost the election, basically. And, I guess, skeptical that he lost the election. He's denied losing the election. So what does he told you about all that?

YURCIC: I can't comment on anything that I've discussed with my client. Again, my goal is just to remind everyone that my client is entitled to a fair trial and he - the presumption of innocence exists. And I don't know anything else about the discussions that he may have had with Ms. O'Malley.

CAMEROTA: Okay. Well, Roberta Yurcic, we appreciate your time. Obviously, we'll be following this case very closely. Thank you.

BLACKWELL: Constituents of George Santos are speaking out about the web of lies, the Congressman is weaved. We'll hear from them ahead. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)