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Leader of Wagner Group States His Paramilitary Forces May Withdrawal from Current Positions in Ukraine; Reporting Indicates Judicial Activist Arranged for Cash Payments to Justice Clarence Thomas's Wife Ginni Thomas; Special Counsel Investigating Classified Documents Found in Former President Trump's Possession Asks Trump Organization for Additional Surveillance Footage from Mar-a-Lago. Aired 8-8:30a ET

Aired May 05, 2023 - 08:00   ET



YEVGENY PRIGOZHIN, WAGNER GROUP FOUNDER (through translator): These men here who died today are Wagner PMC. Their blood is still fresh. You think you are the masters of this life? You think you can dispose of their lives? You think because you have warehouses full of ammunition that you have that right?


KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN ANCHOR: Prigozhin says his mercenaries are leaving in five days. Of course, it remains to be seen if that actually happens. But if they do, losing this battle could be a major setback for Russian forces as they are bracing for an expected Ukrainian counteroffensive. CNN's chief international security correspondent Nick Paton Walsh is live for CNN in Zaporizhzhia in eastern Ukraine. Nick, of course, the methods here from Prigozhin are not new, neither is how blunt and how outspoken he is. But what is significant to you about this video that he posted overnight?

NICK PATON WALSH, CNN INTERNATIONAL SECURITY EDITOR: The fact that they are saying they will leave in five days. They have never said that before. They have threatened that they might compromise their position. For about almost a week now, we have been seeing these messages from Yevgeny Prigozhin, and it's comes after people had thought perhaps his long-term rift as the head of the Wagner mercenary group with the Russian defense ministry establishment, the ministry, the top brass, might have begun to be healing.

He has long been complaining they haven't got the artillery shells they need to keep their positions, but this is utterly stark. That expletive-laden video, he's done that before in front of corpses to try and ask for more ammunition, but quite a different tone.

But this would be, frankly, a staggering gift to the Ukrainian forces if, indeed, Wagner was able to pull its forces back. Withdrawing from a city like this under fire is exceptionally difficult in the best of times, particularly in this case it might appear if the Russian defense establishment didn't want you to pull your forces back. So how and when this happens mid next week will be particularly complex and interesting to see play out.

But it is, as I say, a gift to the Ukrainian forces, informationally alone ahead of that counteroffensive. For Russia to be saying it's going to pull what may be about half of its forces back from this key symbolic city that has been slogged over brutally over the entire winter, it's extraordinary. What is that going to do to Russian morale, even the suggestion that it needs to happen. This information float out across Russia's front lines, Russian troops will hear it, and they will begin to wonder quite what's happening at the heart of the Kremlin.

I should hold out, point out here, Yevgeny Prigozhin has made false statements in the past and tried to play sides off each other, but this is remarkable. And it's a second sign of extraordinary weakness at the heart of the Kremlin after they had to admit, or chose to admit that drones had attacked the Kremlin just 48 hours ago. Now their military is seen as having an extraordinary rift. And you have to wonder quite what is going through Vladimir Putin's mind ahead of Wednesday's important Victory Day celebrations, next week's important Victory Day celebrations. A startling situation for us to be in, Kaitlan.

COLLINS: Yes, I was just going to say, it's so notable that this deadline that he is offering, this five days would come right after that major holiday there in Russia. We'll see if they actually do pull out. Nick Paton Walsh, thank you.

ERICA HILL, CNN ANCHOR: New this morning, "The Washington Post" reporting a high-profile conservative judicial activist, Leonard Leo, arranged for the wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, Ginni Thomas, to be paid tens of thousands of dollars in 2012 while also making it clear there should be no mention of her.

So according to "The Post," this how all of this happened. Judicial activist Leonard Leo advises a network of conservative non-profits, including the Judicial Education Project. So he wanted Kellyanne Conway to give Ginni Thomas, quote, "another 25k" with, quote, no mention of Ginni, of course. On that day Conway's company billed the Judicial Education Project for $25,000. That money was for Ginni Thomas. It's unclear exactly what she did for Conway's polling company or for the Judicial Education Project, but that non-profit did file a brief in Shelby versus Holder in 2012 where the court invalidated key parts of the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965. Justice Thomas wrote an opinion in that case that was consist with the non-profit's position.

CNN's Joan Biskupic joining us now. So, Joan, what do you make of all of this?

JOAN BISKUPIC, CNN SUPREME COURT ANALYST: Good morning, Erica. This is yet one more piece that we're finding out of the very secretive world of money and influence with the Supreme Court justices. But I do want to say this one seems very different from what we've heard about in recent days and weeks involving Harlan Crow.

But before I get to that, let's at least say what Leonard Leo, how he responded to "The Washington Post." He said, "The work Ginni did here did not involve anything connected with either the court's business or other legal issues. Knowing how disrespectful, malicious, and gossipy people can be, I have always tried to protect the privacy of Ginni Thomas and Justice Thomas." So that's how he responded.

And I do have to say, I know that, Erica, that Justice Thomas and Leonard Leo go all the way back to like 1990 when they were both working at the D.C. circuit, Justice Thomas as a lower court judge then and Leonard Leo as a law clerk to another judge on that court.


So they have a deep, longstanding friendship. They have always -- they've just always have been tight. But as much as that's different from the evolving friendship of Harlan Crow, and as much as the disclosure requirements might have been different, and I'll just mention those real quick. With Harlan Crow, he gave gifts to the justice and the justice's family that arguably and probably should have been reported in some way. There is a question of whether this money for Ginni Thomas should have been disclosed anywhere, and frankly on the justices financial disclosure reports, there isn't a place for specific amounts of money that go to a spouse.

So setting that aside, I just want to say that the larger context here is what are these people thinking they are buying? Even though there is some friendship involved in both these cases, it raises a very real question whether these people of great wealth and influence think they are buying something or getting something from the justices, the justice. And it's certainly a suggestion that's out there for the public, and I think that is what's concerning.

The case that's mentioned here, the Shelby County versus Holder case, there is no way in the world that Clarence Thomas was going to vote any way different than he did on that case, that very important voting rights case where a narrow majority rolled back significant voting rights protections nationwide. So, you don't know -- a connection there is not so obvious.

But we don't know about other connections in other cases. And the overriding theme I have to say, Erica, is we don't know what we don't know, and we don't know what these people think they might be buying or getting with the influential money here.

HILL: It's such a great point. Joan, really appreciate it. Thank you.


COLLINS: There has also been a new turn in the investigation into former President Trump's handling of classified documents, with "The New York Times" now reporting that federal prosecutors have secured the confidential cooperation of a person who has worked at Mar-a-Lago in the past. The insider's identity not yet known, but this new report says the Justice Department is looking into whether Trump ordered a box of sensitive materials moved out of a storage room. It comes on the heels of CNN's own exclusive reporting that prosecutors have recently issued several subpoenas to the Trump Organization seeking additional surveillance footage from Mar-a-Lago. According to "The Times," prosecutors have questioned a number of witnesses about gaps in that footage, why those gaps exist.

Joining us now, Alyssa Farah Griffin, CNN's political commentator and, of course, the former White House communications director under Trump, and Elie Honig, CNN's senior analyst and former assistant U.S. attorney in the Southern District of New York. Elie, what is the significance for Jack Smith, the special counsel here, if they do have someone who worked at Mar-a-Lago cooperating?

ELIE HONIG, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: It's all about cooperators when you are talking about feds making cases. If you watch TV shows you would think all cases get solved with ballistics and DNA and lab magic. The reality is, as a federal prosecutor, you live and die with cooperators. You need someone on the inside. If you want to get inside Mar-a-Lago and what happened, you need someone who was inside Mar-a- Lago.

Now, there's a couple big questions. Is this a cooperator who has pled guilty to being a part of some crime and has an agreement to testify in exchange for consideration? That's what we would consider a capital C cooperator. Or is this somebody who was not part of criminal activity, who is just providing information? Second of all, how much does this person know? Sometimes cooperators can connect the dots, sometimes they can give you the whole story.

HILL: There is also the question of how important is this information coming out in terms of how other potential witnesses may take it, obviously, how Trump world will take it. We probably have a sense of that. You have a sense, obviously. But that impact can't be ignored.

ALYSSA FARAH GRIFFIN, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: It can't be. And I think any time someone comes forward there is pressure on others within Trump world who may know information to decide in that moment, which camp are you going to be in? Are you going to stick by the president as his former valet has, or are you going to come forward to avoid risking any kind of potential conflict that you could get into?

What I think is interesting, and this is my non-legal, more political take on it, is this case is ultimately I think going to come down to the obstruction, because now that Vice President Pence, the current president have also had some issues with mishandling classified documents, it's not clear cut just about simply the documents.

I always have to state, had I done this with documents when I was in the federal government, I would likely be in prison. It is a breach beyond what anybody in senior government should be doing. But now it comes down to the intent. Were they trying to hide these documents? Were they trying to mislead or keep the documents from NARA, from the Department of Justice? And that's where it's going to be, these individuals who had actual visibility into it that are going to be able to connect the dots.

COLLINS: And that's why this is so interesting when it talks about the surveillance footage and the questions of, are there intentional gaps in the footage? Was it just a technical problem? Elie, one of the two programs that stood out the most to me in "The New York Times" reporting, it says one of the previously unreported subpoenas to the Trump Organization sought records about his dealings with the Saudi- backed professional golf, of course, LIV, the golf tour that they have.


It's holding tournaments at several of his courses. We have seen that. "The New York Times" says it's unclear what bearing the relationship with LIV golf would have on this broader investigation, but it does suggest they are examining certain elements of his business. How do you take that?

HONIG: That jumped off the page to me when I saw that, because I think it's fair to assume that LIV golf has nothing to do with moving boxes and documents around Mar-a-Lago. And so that tells me that the scope of the special counsel's investigation has expanded and is getting it into the financial dealings that Trump Organization had with LIV golf and potentially others. And that's really important, because if you look historically at special counsels, Robert Mueller wanted to expand his investigation to get into the financial dealings and was told no. But if you look back at Ken Starr, that started off as Whitewater and expanded from there. So how much leash this special counsel going to be given? But this tells me that they're now beyond Mar-a-Lago. They're looking into broader topics.

HILL: What does that do in terms of timing?

HONIG: It expands the timeframe for sure. But if I was handling the prosecution here, I would put things in different buckets. I wouldn't hold up the Mar-a-Lago case while I was making a financial case.

GRIFFIN: I want to be careful in saying this because it's pure speculation, but you can't rule out that the documents investigation and the tie to the LIV investigation could be related to classified documents related to the Saudis.

COLLINS: That's what I'm wondering.

GRIFFIN: That was always something that was floated, but we don't know that. We'll probably never find out specifically what's in these classified documents. But that's a thread that may be being pulled.

HONIG: Yes, which would get into the financials directly, right?

HILL: To your point, we may never find out what specifically is in those documents, but there is a good chance we will have a broader sense of what they may have covered, right? We could set gross margin -- depending what happens when this investigation, whether there is a -- if there are charges, if there is a trial, more of that could come?

HONIG: I think if there is no charges, we probably won't find out. But if there are charges based on these documents, they're going to have to show what these documents are because it gets to the intent. Why would Trump have kept these? Why would he have moved them around?

GRIFFIN: And there is a vital public interest there even to high level be able to say what's in them.

COLLINS: And you mentioned Walt Nauta. He is the former valet who now was in the White House, now went to work for him. One thing that they talked about here and I'm curious your thoughts on this is the way they pursued him, could they use the carrot or stick strategy, carrot by simply being like please help us out with this, blah, blah, blah. But instead it says that they took the stick strategy, threatening him, essentially saying that if you don't help you could potentially be found guilty. And "The New York Times" reporting is that they don't feel like he was fully forthcoming with them, did not give anthem a totally thorough explanation for that, and that he is basically not talking to them anymore.

GRIFFIN: This is a pattern within Trump world and something that Donald Trump is very good at is making people stay loyal to him. And he can create financial incentives to do that, he can provide counsel to people to make them want to stay on his side in investigations. My sense is that's probably where Walt came down in this. You are up against, do I want to cooperate with the DOJ, rack up a bunch of legal bills I have to pay myself, or try to stick is out with Donald Trump? My caution would be, a, first and foremost, always do the right thing, but b, he will hang you out to dry eventually. We have seen this enough times with the former president. So I just don't know that that's the long term strategy.

HONIG: It's scary turning on Donald Trump. Alyssa Farah can tell us all the ways that a person gets raked over the coals if they do that. But if you are DOJ and you're going to use the stick approach, you're going to say you better tell us the truth or we're going to charge you, you better be ready to use the stick. So you can't threaten that and then let a person give you a half-truth because and then do nothing about it, because they're you're going to end up with no testimony. You're not going to have your case made.

COLLINS: We will see what happens. Elie, Alyssa, thank you both for joining us this morning. Happy Friday.

HILL: Police in California have arrested a former U.C. Davis student after a string of deadly stabbings near campus. We're going to have a live report from California.

COLLINS: And coming up, we are also going to talk to the New York City public advocate and a former New York police officer about what happened when a man was killed on a subway after he was put in a chokehold by another rider. We spoke to friend of the victim last night.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: And my heart bleeds that our human species can still treat each other like that.




COLLINS: Police in California have arrested a former U.C. Davis student after the rash of stabbings that happened near campus. Of course, the stabbings two people ultimately were killed one injured. The sheriff's office has released this photo of the suspect, his name is 21-year-old Carlos Dominguez, they believe he is responsible for all three stabbings, all connected over the last week. CNN's Veronica Miracle is following this investigation closely. She joins us live this morning from Davis, California. Veronica, what are the next questions that investigators have here for this 21-year-old suspect?

VERONICA MIRACLE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Kaitlan, they haven't released any information about a motive. And they also haven't released any information and they're still trying to figure out if he knew the victims, how he was connected, or was this all random. Police yesterday at their press conference really thanking the community for their help in making this arrest possible. They say two days ago they got a cluster of phone calls.

And they say all 15 of those phone calls were about people who said that they saw a man with the same description of the suspect that police were searching for. They discovered 21-year-old Carlos Dominguez at a local park where that second homicide took place. The first homicide happened last Thursday, where a man was stabbed at a park near U.C. Davis. The second one happened on Saturday where U.C. Davis student was killed at a different park and then on Monday, a third stabbing took place that woman is in critical condition, and this happened in New York Campus.

Now, when police were asked, if when he was discovered, if he was potentially searching for his next victim. They said they don't know but they did find a large knife on him. Another interesting and very disturbing note to add is that he is a former U.C. Davis student as of last week, he was apparently a junior who separated in their terms from the university due to academic reasons. And that happened two days before the first murder took place. He has been charged with two counts of homicide and one count of attempted homicide and could be arraigned as early as Monday, Kaitlan.

COLLINS: Veronica Miracle in Davis, California, thank you.

HILL: Protesters in New York City are calling for an arrest after a homeless man was put into a chokehold on the subway and died.


HILL (voiceover): Demands there as you hear for justice for 30-year- old Jordan Neely. Last night on CNN Neely's friend Moses Harper said she is devastated by his death.

MOSES HARPER, FRIEND OF JORDAN NEELY: I was disturbed, I was disgusted that such Barbarism could take place. And my heart believes that our human species can still treat each other like that.



HILL: So, on Monday, Neely got on a train going uptown. Witnesses say he was acting erratically, never got aggressive. At one point, a man came up to him put him in a chokehold, pinned him to the ground, another passenger eventually joins him. We don't know how long they were there, or how long they held him there rather. Video of parts of the incident though, video lasts for more than four minutes. Eventually, Neely stops moving, he was later pronounced dead at a hospital. We should note CNN has not independently confirmed what happened leading up to the incident.

I do want to bring in though now, New York City Public Advocate Jumaane Williams and the Policy Director of Criminal Justice and Civil Liberties at the R Street Institute. Jillian Snider, who's also a retired NYPD officer. It's good to have both of you with us this morning. So, Jumaane you've called, you want charges to be brought immediately. You put out a lengthy statement here. Mayor Adams is saying the investigation needs to be allowed to proceed first. We saw some of those protests. What do you say to Mayor Adams this morning?

JUMAANE WILLIAMS, NEW YORK CITY PUBLIC ADVOCATE: Well, so, first, the baseline that we know, there was a homeless man that was talking about his needs. He was choked to death, that is what's happened. I do agree about an investigation, I think that should start with charges. A lot of things can happen after the charges but when you have a man who was killed on video by another man, this should be charges that are put out there.

And I think it's because who was killed that hasn't happened. I also am concerned that we have a mayor that has yet to say that vigilantism is not what we want. I'm also concerned that we have a governor that hasn't made those type of statements, even previously saying she's making laws around bail based on what she sees on the paper, not on what's actually happening. So, I'm concerned that our executives are creating an environment where these things can continue.

COLLINS: As a former New York Police Department officer, how do you see it when it comes to this subject of vigilantism and people stepping in, in a situation like what we saw here?

JILLIAN SNIDER, CRIMINAL JUSTICE & CIVIL LIBERTIES POLICY DIR. R STREET INSTITUTE: I don't know if I would call it vigilantism. Again, I wasn't on the subway, we're still learning as things unfold. I don't know what the perception of fear of the individuals who are in the subway car was. I do not know what the individuals who held Mr. Neely down. I don't know what they were thinking. So, again, I don't want to call it vigilantism. I want to say it was an attempt to subdue someone who, yes was mentally ill, was homeless, who was definitely displaying that he needed stuff. And he wasn't getting what he needed. So, I think we really need to see how this pans out.

HILL: There's also this larger conversation, right? We've been talking here in New York City and have been so much talk about is it safe on the subway, is it not? You know, I did some digging into this last year. And when you look at the statistics, the statistics are one thing, but it's how people feel. And there was this effort, we're going to -- we're going to tackle mental health, we're going to put more officers down there in the subway stations to help work on mental health. Not a lot has happened since then. Is there any sense that you're seeing that things are changing in terms of not only how people experiencing a mental health crisis or homelessness are being treated and helped in the city, but also how the residents of New York City are addressing it, because that's part of it, too.

WILLIAMS: So, Jordan Neely would have been failed in the city and the state in how we do mental health now, just as he was failed the previous years. I do want to make clear that you can say vigilantism shouldn't be happening. While saying you're not sure what happened here. Both of those things can happen at the same time, and we need to hear that. But I also want to be clear, someone assisting law enforcement has always happened, that's always happened. Here we have someone that for some accounts, wasn't just holding someone down.

They had them in a chokehold for 15 minutes, Jordan Neely was choked to death. That's what happened. And we should call out his name, and I want to respect his humanity. We also, I just passed the bill to Exeter City Council called the homelessness Bill of Rights. What we didn't put in there is the right not to be choked to death on a subway car because we didn't think we had to. We want to make sure that people's humanities are respected.

HILL: Yes.

WILLIAMS: And that was saying things that don't cause the type of vigilantism that we don't want to see.

COLLINS: And one thing to notice that the person who did this who has been questioned it was released as a former Marine, John Miller, our Chief National or Law Enforcement Analyst, was saying yesterday that a chokehold like this is part of their training force in a very different scenario. But he also reported that Neely, which obviously this marine would not have known this had 42 arrests and also had been three assaults between 2019 and 2021. On the subway for unprovoked attacks in the subway, on females, how does that factor to how this is viewed?

SNIDER: It shouldn't, because at the time of the incident, no one knew Mr. Neely's background.

COLLINS: Right. SNIDER: No one knew he had any kind of criminal history. Again, we could speculate now, oh, he, you know, had issues, he had 42 arrests, he was charged with assault on the subway system, but again, that's all after the fact. So, I don't think that should be weighed in right now.

COLLINS: And one other thing, do you -- what do you make of what we just learned that Thomas Kenniff, who ran against Alvin Bragg, for the latest District Attorney election is now representing this former Marine? Do you read anything into that?

[08:25:07] SNIDER: I think that he does need representation because as public advocate Williams said, charges may be brought, the D.A. office and the New York City Police Department are very active in their investigation. They're seeking witnesses, they're seeking people to provide video surveillance. I know there's very limited footage from what we know now. But in order for them to bring charges. And we have to remember charges may not have been brought because of New York State's discovery law. Once the D.A. files charges, they have to then arraign and subsequently indict this individual very quickly, because they do have the right to a speedy trial. So, I'm speculating that might be why they have not brought any charges yet.

WILLIAMS: But -- and that may be true that I always think about the same set of circumstances and switch it. What if it was the black homeless man who had choked to death, a white Marine, because he was scared, we probably having this conversation with him with charter sitting on Rikers Island. And so, we want to make sure that the laws are being applied properly. We also want to make sure that we are continuing to respect the humanity of homeless people who have mental health issues, like Jordan Neely.

We have a situation where that is not what is what is happening. We're spending more time feeding the fear, as you mentioned, the statistics bear something else out. But you want people to be safe and feel safe. And if you're not feeling safe, that is the real thing that we have to address. But we have to say you cannot choke people to death on the train. And that doesn't seem to be coming from our top executive leaders. And that's very concerning to me.

HILL: Yes, it's such an important conversation. I'm really glad that both of you were able to be here this morning, we'll obviously continue to follow it.

WILLIAMS: Thank you.

HILL: Thank you.

COLLINS: Yes, thank you, Jillian, thank you, Jumaane.

WILLIAMS: Thank you.

HILL: I want to show you now some video, this is the father of a young baseball player. There you go. Something to be proud of dad, soccer punching the umpire. So, what set him off? Stay with us.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You know, the guy is not even facing because he's a coward. And then he just leaves.