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Attorney General to Testify Before Judiciary Committee; House GOP Struggles to Agree on Spending Deal; Striking Auto Workers Adjust to Living on Strike Pay; GOP Donors Fret Over Trump's Staying Power Ahead of Debate. Aired 6-6:30a ET

Aired September 20, 2023 - 06:00   ET


ANDY SCHOLES, CNN SPORTS: Yes, he went on to hug his teammates in the dug-out. So what a night for the moms there in Major League Baseball, Kasie.


KASIE HUNT, CNN ANCHOR: Andy, you're going to make me cry before 6 in the morning. I love it. Oh, my God. I love (UNINTELLIGIBLE). That was amazing to watch. Thank you, Andy, for that very much. We'll see you tomorrow.

Thank you all for being up early with us. I am Kasie Hunt. Don't go anywhere. CNN THIS MORNING starts right now.

POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning, everyone. It is hump day.


HARLOW: Wednesday. And there's a lot of news to get to this morning. "Five Things to Know" for this Wednesday, September 20.

In just hours, Attorney General Merrick Garland will testify before Congress, and he will say he is not the president's lawyer, and not Congress's prosecutor.

MATTINGLY: And keeping our eyes on the Capitol, Republican dysfunction in the House, it continues. A handful of far-right conservatives blocking debate on a Pentagon spending bill as the clock ticks down to a government shutdown.

And Donald Trump's ex-assistant says the former president told her to play dumb about classified documents, according to reports.

HARLOW: Also, new federal charges in the fentanyl death of a 1-year- old child at a day care center in the Bronx. Investigators say they found a kilogram of that drug on top of play mats.

MATTINGLY: Writers and Hollywood studios will be back at the negotiating table today after five months of strikes. It comes as the auto workers strike enters day six.

CNN THIS MORNING starts right now. Wednesday can be a hard day, middle of the week, hump day. Well, you

kind of grind through it, and it's a little bit like House Republicans trying to grind through, no end in sight. At least we know Friday is coming.

HARLOW: Do not compare our Wednesday to what House -- House Republicans are going through right now.

MATTINGLY: At least we know where Friday is. They have no idea or concept where the end game is as it currently stands. They're also having a major hearing today, which we're going to have eyes on, and that's where we start new this morning.

We're getting a sneak peek at Attorney General Merrick Garland's testimony as he prepares to testify and defend himself on Capitol Hill. Just hours from now, Garland is set to appear before the House Judiciary Committee.

We're expecting him to forcefully rebuke Republicans who have accused him of weaponizing and politicizing the Justice Department.

HARLOW: Also, CNN this morning has obtained excerpts of Garland's opening remarks. He will tell the committee that the DOJ's, quote, "job is not to take orders from the president, nor from Congress, or from anyone else about who or what to criminally investigate." That's a quote.

This will be a rare opportunity for House Republicans to question Garland face to face on live television about the criminal probe against Donald Trump -- probes against Donald Trump -- and the federal investigation of Hunter Biden.

Let's bring in CNN national security and justice reporter, Zachary Cohen. There's so much to get to with Garland and the framing of this, with all of the politics involved, is going to make it, I think, even more explosive. And he's anticipating that, isn't he, with these remarks that we've received?

ZACHARY COHEN, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY AND JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Yes, absolutely. A little bit of preempting on Garland's end here. And look, we expect him to really emphasize the point that, when it comes to investigating and indicting, the Justice Department stands on its own. It isn't influenced by the White House or Congress. It makes charging decisions and investigative decision as its own entity.

And that is really a central point of what Garland is going to say in front of the House Judiciary Committee today. One expert -- excerpt really hones in on that point. It says, look, "I'm not the president's lawyer. I will also add that I'm not Congress's prosecutor. The Justice Department works for the American people."

You know, again, making clear that, when it comes to investigating and criminal charges, the Justice Department makes those decisions outside of political influence.

Now, look, Republicans and Democrats are going to have their chance to question Garland directly, as you said. Republicans are really going to probably focus on two main issues, right? Hunter Biden, this idea and the claims that he got a sweetheart plea deal. Also, that there was claims of political influence over the investigation of Hunter Biden.

And they also want to ask questions about the two indictments of Donald Trump by Special Counsel Jack Smith. Expect a lot of questions on those topics today.

MATTINGLY: Zach, I want to underscore, I think, Poppy's very salient point, which is this was planned, right. Doing the excerpts, the way that they're structuring this, the fact they're putting it out before the hearing, but also the specific elements they're putting out.

They have a plan here to get in front of this, including on the criticism that Garland and other Justice Department and FBI officials have faced from Republicans, right?

Z. COHEN: Yes, absolutely. And they want to make the point that, when it comes to career officials at the Justice Department, Garland does not think that they should be publicly criticized. In fact, it's dangerous.

One quote says, "All of us at the Justice Department recognize that with this work comes public scrutiny, criticism, and legitimate oversight. But singling out individual career public servants who are just doing their job is dangerous, particularly at a time of increased threats to the safety of public servants and their families. We will not be intimidated. We will do our jobs free from outside interference. And we will not back down from defending our democracy."


So some defiance in there from Garland, setting the stage for his appearance on the Hill today.

MATTINGLY: All right. Zach Cohen, going to be a busy day. Thanks, man.

HARLOW: This is the first time that Attorney General Garland will testify since Donald Trump and Hunter Biden were indicted. So you can say it's a big deal.

Many Republicans in Congress have been zeroing in on the pair of investigations for years, alleging a double standard. You can expect to hear a lot about that today. Just listen to this from Judiciary Chair Jim Jordan.


REP. JIM JORDAN (R-OH): At the heart of all of this is the disparate treatment, the unequal application of the law, the double standard.


HARLOW: In the Hunter Biden case, Republicans allege that the Justice Department had its thumb on the scale. They point to, among other things, this testimony from IRS whistleblower Gary Shapley.


GARY SHAPLEY, IRS WHISTLEBLOWER: The Justice Department allowed the president's political appointees to weigh in on whether they charged the president's son.

I watched United States Attorney Weiss tell a roomful of senior FBI and IRS senior leaders on October 7, 2022, that he was not the deciding person on whether charges were filed.


HARLOW: So what he was talking about there was then-U.S. Attorney David Weiss, who is now, by the way, a special counsel in this probe.

CNN did just get ahold of new transcripts from a number of FBI and IRS officials that say they do not remember Weiss ever saying that he was not in charge of this decision about where to charge. And Attorney General Garland said as much when he testified. This is all the way back in March.


MERRICK GARLAND, U.S. ATTORNEY GENERAL: I promise to ensure that he's able to carry out his investigation and that he be able to run it, and if he needs to bring in another jurisdiction, he will have full authority to do that.


HARLOW: Let's bring in CNN anchor and senior political analyst John Avlon. What I just said and read, I think, is confusing probably to a lot of people.

JOHN AVLON, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST/ANCHOR: There's a lot going on there, yes.

HARLOW: It's confusing to me. I had to go through it a few times. So why does it matter?

AVLON: Because this -- this is the first time the attorney general is addressing two urgent issues affecting the whole country. One is the ongoing special counsel investigation into the former president.

And the other is this incipient impeachment inquiry into President Biden.

Merrick Garland, as the attorney general, is the person uniquely capable of addressing those partisan concerns, and he's walking a line here.

But he's walking a line I think you saw Zach Cohen refer to part of his testimony: I'm not the president's lawyer. It's important people understand that about the attorney general. I'm also not Congress's prosecutor. And there is an attempt to politicize justice in our country, to reduce faith in law and order and justice. And so this is a chance for the attorney general to try to draw a bright line and clear that up.

So, by the way, I would add, were his decisions to make both these investigations under special counsel status, so that that should remove any concern. But in this bizarro world we are living in politically, people project their grievances onto almost anything.

MATTINGLY: Garland has several times now, at least twice in congressional testimony, said explicitly that David Weiss had the authority, if he wanted to, to pursue whatever he wanted to, obviously going against what we heard from the IRS whistleblower.

We're laying out that there have been others who were in that meeting that have different recollections of things.

If he does that, again -- and I think every expectation is he will; he's never hedged from that -- today, does that put to rest the idea that the thumb was on the scale here?

AVLON: It won't put it to rest, because there are people deeply invested in pumping up that narrative, to rile up their base on the right; to fund-raise off those claims of conspiracy; to say they're unequal, you know, standards of justice in this country.

Of course, the core principle in our country is equal justice under law. And, you know, look, I think when Shapley came forward, as the IRS whistleblower, that deserves to be taken seriously.

HARLOW: Two of them came forward.

AVLON: Yes. Came very credibly. There are contemporaneous notes. CNN's new reporting showing that there are several other employees,

including his then-direct supervisor, who don't recall that. Is it self-significant, particularly against the weight of whether this is going to build into a credible impeachment inquiry?

So you need to balance all of this appropriately in your mind. That requires being fair-minded, and that's what people on Capitol Hill don't seem to be.

HARLOW: The context of all of this is the plea deal falling apart.

AVLON: That's right.

HARLOW: And now the Justice Department indicting Hunter Biden on the gun charges that before they were allowing to basically go through a, you know, diversion program.

AVLON: Right. Which is a very big deal.


AVLON: Especially given that very few people are indicted on this statute. HARLOW: Can we get to on this, Maggie Haberman?

AVLON: Let's do it.

HARLOW: Once again has great reporting in "The Times." This is fascinating.

So this is about Trump allegedly telling one of his closest aides, Ms. Michael, basically, you don't know anything about these boxes. This is talking about the Mar-a-Lago probe, right, classified documents, et cetera.

And that's significant. Let's explain who she is, vis-a-vis Trump. I want to play this from Sarah Matthews from the former Trump association.


SARAH MATTHEWS, FORMER WHITE HOUSE DEPUTY PRESS SECRETARY: So this is someone he knew very well, who would have had a lot of face time with the president. And they can't simply dismiss her, you know, as someone that he would not beware of or who wouldn't be in the know.


Because she was quite literally sitting right outside the most important office in the world, someone who the president knew by name. And I think that makes her a very credible witness.


HARLOW: To quote Maggie's reporting, "A former assistant to Trump has informed investigators that the former president told her to say she did not know anything about the boxes containing classified documents."

AVLON: It is a very big deal, because she was his gate keeper. She was his executive assistant. The fact she's speaking to prosecutors and saying that the former president ordered her to deny information during an official inquiry, not only speaks to the president's state of mind and apparent sort of obstruction.

But for the Trump folks, the calls are coming from inside the house at this point. These are people who can't be dismissed as having partisan axes to grind. These are folks who are and were very close to the former president.

And that's what happens when sort of the gears of justice start to grind. Some things are beyond politics, and she has credibility because of her proximity. It's going to be tough to demonize.

HARLOW: John Avlon, stick around.

AVLON: Thanks, guys.

MATTINGLY: Well, also this morning, there are only a few days left in -- before the deadline for government funding. House Republicans struggling to salvage a spending deal before that deadline to avert a shutdown. We're ten days, plus days. There it is: 10 days, 18 hours, 49 minutes.

HARLOW: I missed that clock.

MATTINGLY: And everything's going great.

Lawmakers are going back and forth over the issue. They were forced to delay a procedural vote on a defense spending bill. And then they met behind closed doors for four hours and seem to have made little progress.

CNN finds that right now, at least 15 members are opposed, and even more are undecided, which of course, would sink any effort without any Democratic support.

CNN's Lauren Fox joins us now and somehow has been keeping track of all of this.

Lauren, historically, there are stages to this process which is defiance, thrashing outrage, denial, grief and then reality. Where are we in that very scientific stages process?

LAUREN FOX, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, we're certainly in the thrashes stage right now, Phil, to put it scientifically.

There was a marathon meeting yesterday in the whip's office as members from every corner of the conference were coming in and out, as they were trying to figure out their path forward.

Kelly Armstrong telling one of our colleagues, Haley Talbot, that it was sort of a therapy session. People were laughing, crying, trying to come up with any path forward.

And right now, there just isn't one among Republicans. You have hardliners who are asking for some kind of agreement on a top-line spending number, somewhere around $1.47 trillion, with promises to vote on other appropriations bills one by one.

But it's not clear that even that would unlock some other hardliners, who have traditionally never voted for a short-term spending bill, Phil.


FOX (voice-over): The infighting from the Republican majority in the House rages on, barreling the U.S. government toward a shutdown at the end of the month.

SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY): I'm not a fan of government shutdowns. I've seen a few of them over the years. They never have produced a policy change, and they have always been a loser for Republicans politically.

FOX (voice-over): The Republican infighting has threatened House Speaker Kevin McCarthy's leadership position. But McCarthy is vowing to bring a vote to the floor Thursday for a Republican-negotiated short-term spending bill, despite already having to pull a procedural vote Tuesday.

REP. KEVIN MCCARTHY (R-CA): Listen, I think the best way to handle anything is you work through this conference, and you get the work done. And that's what we're doing.

FOX (voice-over): More than a dozen GOP lawmakers are refusing to support the continuing resolution, forcing moderate lawmakers from both parties to look at other options to avoid a shutdown.

The so-called Problem Solvers Caucus is set to meet today, along with House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries.

REP. SETH MOULTON (D-MA): Democrats have always stepped in to save us in situations like this. But you have to have a Republican Party that's willing to compromise, that's willing to work with us.

FOX (voice-over): The group is looking at a plan that could include the use of an arcane measure called a discharge petition, which includes a complex set of maneuvers that would allow the House to send a spending bill to the Senate.

That option could include a temporary stopgap measure that could keep spending at current levels, provide money for natural disasters, perhaps aid to Ukraine and could include some border security provisions.

REP. MATT GAETZ (R-FL): Well, if -- if moderate Republicans sign a discharge petition with Democrats, they are signing their own political death warrant.

REP. MIKE LAWLER (R-NY): If the clown show of colleagues that refuse to actually govern, does not want to pass a C.R., I will do everything we need to to make sure that a C.R. passes. The bottom line here is this: we're not shutting the government down.

FOX (voice-over): Further complicating matters, a crucial defense bill is still in limbo in Congress.


REP. DERRICK VAN ORDEN (R-WI): Five individual members of the Republican conference that are solely responsible for this happening.

REP. MIKE MCCAUL (R-TX): And I think it's disrespectful to our active duty, to our veterans, and our current service members. They deserve better than this from Congress. It's a good bill.


FOX (on camera): And the impact of a government shutdown on the economy would be insurmountable, some Republicans are arguing. You're going to expect furloughs for federal workers. Armed service members could go without pay, not to mention the long-term effects that this could have on the economy -- Phil.

MATTINGLY: All right. Lauren Fox, keep us posted. Thank you.

HARLOW: So we do have some new reporting this morning on the concerns major Republican donors have about former President Trump becoming the nominee again.

MATTINGLY: And we'll take you live to the picket line in a great American city, my hometown, Toledo, Ohio, with how the auto strike is impacting families.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Every dollar, every cent is accounted for, whether it goes for food, electric, gas, rent. It's ketchup and and hot dogs instead of having ketchup, hot dogs and applesauce. You know, it's just like -- it's like one less thing on the plate.



HARLOW: All right. Welcome back, turning now to the auto strike.

CNN has learned negotiators with the union are set to sit down with GM and Ford today. Another planned meeting with Stellantis is set for tomorrow.


Detroit's Big Three ae under pressure, with the UAW threatening to call more strikes on Friday if more progress isn't made.

Thousands of workers are starting their sixth day on the picket line this morning, and in some cases, attempting to adjust to the realities of strike pay.

Our Gabe Cohen is live in Toledo, Ohio.

Gabe, I'm so glad that you've been talking to them about this. They get a little bit of money from this fund, right, but it's not what they're used to.

GABE COHEN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Poppy, that's right. And look, along this picket line, so many workers have told me they are prepared to strike for as long as it takes.

But as we enter day six, some of these members and the city of Toledo are bracing for the potential financial impact of shutting down these plants.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: My favorite toy --

G. COHEN (voice-over): April Kulczak's morning ritual hasn't changed. APRIL KULCZAK: Your toothbrush. Which one's yours?

G. COHEN (voice-over): But providing for her three boys --

KULCZAK: Getting down to the bare minimum here.

G. COHEN (voice-over): -- just got much more difficult.

KULCZAK: I had to check my bank account every day.

G. COHEN (voice-over): This third generation Jeep worker and single mom typically makes about 19 bucks an hour, working an overnight shift at the Stellantis factory.

KULCZAK: Hopefully, we get back to work.

G. COHEN (voice-over): But with her plant now on strike, April has to figure out a way to live on her union-provided strike pay, just $500 a week, roughly half, she says, of what she's used to.

G. COHEN: It's not much when you have three kids.

KULCZAK: Oh, definitely not. You know?

G. COHEN: You're really tightening the belt right now?

KULCZAK: Yes, yes. Every dollar, every cent is accounted for, whether it goes for food, electric, gas, rent. It's ketchup and hot dogs, instead of having ketchup, hot dogs and applesauce. You know, it's just like -- it's like one less thing on the plate.

G. COHEN (voice-over): Close to 5,800 Toledo auto workers are striking, and many face a similar financial strain.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Be out there as long as -- as long as I need to.

G. COHEN (voice-over): It's already squeezing neighborhood businesses like Zingers Bar and Grill, located near the plant. Factory workers typically drop in for lunch or after their shifts.

COHEN: How much is business down?

VIOLET WAGNER, BARTENDER, ZINGERS BAR AND GRILL: It's down probably about a good, like, 65 to 70 percent.

G. COHEN (voice-over): Violet Wagner has been a bartender here for more than 30 years.

WAGNER: I'm just praying that they come to some type of agreement, and that it gets better, because if not, I mean, I may have to look for other employment, as well.

G. COHEN (voice-over): Beyond these picketers, Toledo is home to a network of auto suppliers that are starting to feel the impact of the strike.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: No justice, no Jeep!

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: No justice, no Jeep!

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: No justice, no Jeep!

G. COHEN (voice-over): With thousands already losing work, local government officials estimate a month-long strike could cost the Toledo area economy about $36-50 million.

PETE GERKEN, LUCAS COUNTY, OHIO, COMMISSIONER: This is Toledo. It's a union town. We have a great history of supporting our work force.

G. COHEN (voice-over): County Commissioner Pete Gerken shows his solidarity, having worked at this factory for 30 years.

GERKEN: When these workers voted to go out, they knew that. They knew that. This was not a naive audience. And they are clever enough and resourceful enough.

G. COHEN (voice-over): The local union is now building a food pantry, piling up donations for any struggling workers.

ERIKA MITCHELL, STRIKING WORKER: I signed up for Instacart.

G. COHEN (voice-over): Some, like Erika Mitchell, feel the need to line up temporary jobs, in case the strike drags.

MITCHELL: I still want to find something else to do while my kids are at school to make a couple of extra dollars to cover, you know, surprises. With kids, you never know what can happen.

KULCZAK: And when I got into Jeep, it was like yes, finally. Like, my dad did it. My grandpa did it. And now I can finally give my kids the same opportunity.

G. COHEN (voice-over): Like many of these workers, April says she's prepared to weather this short-term pain, hopeful an agreement can be reached soon.

KULCZAK: It's only temporary. We're going to get back to work. But it's -- I try to keep the positive mindset as much as I can.


G. COHEN (on camera): And Poppy, this could be felt in other communities, if the union does, in fact, expand this strike on Friday, as the union president, Shawn Fain, has said they might.

But again, the message I'm hearing from workers, Poppy, is that short- term pain for long-term gain.

HARLOW: Yes. You can see it playing out. Thank you for always bringing us the human elements of this. Appreciate the reporting.

MATTINGLY: Well, coming up, why the White House is no longer deploying its top two advisers to Detroit to tackle the auto strike. And what we're learning about the violent confrontation at Sunday

night's Dolphins/Patriots game that led to the sudden death of a fan. Stay with us.



MATTINGLY: This morning, former President Trump is headed back to Iowa for back-to-back events.

Right now, Trump is by far and away the undisputed frontrunner for the Republican nomination at this point. And that, of course, has some major GOP donors quite worried.

With the second debate next week, and Trump planning to skip that debate like he did the first, they fear time is running out for an alternative candidate to break away from the pack. And that another Trump nomination could mean another loss to President Joe Biden.

CNN's Steve Contorno live for us in St. Petersburg, Florida, with more.

Steve, your story is fascinating. One, because there are so many analogs to 2016 on some level. But also, it's this internal debate donors are having of, well, if Trump's going to be the nominee, I might as well get behind him, because I don't want to be on his bad side. But I still don't like him. And yet, here we are.


And these donors we spoke with are looking at the size of the debate stage next week. And they are cringing at just how many candidates are still in this race. They want to see this field consolidate.

And the concern is that the window is closing for someone to demonstrate that they are a viable alternative. That the window is closing for someone to break out.

We talked to one donor, for example, Frayda Levin, who told us, quote, "I don't know if there's anything I can do to have an impact on this race. Every Republican's dilemma right now is do we try and undermine and destroy Trump, only to have it come back and haunt us, because he's the candidate, and it's Trump or Biden."

And the result is we're seeing a lot of donors right now remain on the sidelines.