Return to Transcripts main page

CNN This Morning

Indicted Informant Told FBI He Got Hunter Biden Lies from Russians; Trump: Navalny 'Very Brave' But Doesn't Condemn Putin; Haley Vows to Stay in Race 'Until the Last Person Votes'. Aired 6-6:30a ET

Aired February 21, 2024 - 06:00   ET



POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning, everyone. So glad you're with us. I'm Poppy Harlow with Phil Mattingly in New York.

And we begin here: a major new twist in the Hunter Biden saga. The former FBI informant accused of spreading lies about the Bidens now says that information came from Russian intelligence.

PHIL MATTINGLY, CNN ANCHOR: Plus, Donald Trump addresses Alexei Navalny's death on camera for the first time. You'll be stunned to learn he made it about himself.

And Nikki Haley, staring down defeat in her home state of South Carolina, makes a defiant new vow to go the distance in the primary.

CNN THIS MORNING starts right now.

HARLOW: The ex-FBI informant charged with lying about the Bidens is now telling investigators that Russian spies fed him those lies. Alexander Smirnov hid his face under a scarf, a hoodie, a mask, and sunglasses as he left the courthouse in Las Vegas yesterday. That's him in the middle there, wearing orange -- orange prison shoes.

MATTINGLY: Prosecutors say Smirnov claims to have met with Russian intelligence officials as recently as three months ago, and they're warning that Smirnov is still, quote, "actively pedaling new lies that could impact the presidential election in November."

Now, in his core filing, the Justice Department special counsel says Smirnov's fabricated stories about shady business dealings in Ukraine and the Bidens taking bribes have had affects that, quote, "continue to be felt today."

This big development, of course, raising huge questions about the DOJ's criminal case against Hunter Biden and the effort by House Republicans to impeach President Biden.

HARLOW: So let's start with our colleague Katelyn Polantz to walk us through all of this.

Just -- like just reading this is so remarkable, the detail, especially the fact that the prosecutors allege that this is continuing on today. What do we need to know about the DOJ's biggest concerns with this misinformation?

KATELYN POLANTZ, CNN SENIOR CRIME AND JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Well, they certainly have concerns over this man who was giving information to the FBI for ten years. In one of these filings, it says he was talking to his FBI handlers nearly daily and even recently was telling them he was in contact with Russian spies; that he had extensive and extremely recent contact with Russian intelligence officials and other people there.

And he was passing to the FBI information about Hunter Biden, information that could be damaging about Hunter Biden.

Now, this guy is charged with lying. Alexander Smirnov allegedly was telling the FBI, as part of his contact with them over the years, about connecting Hunter Biden and Joe Biden closer to Burisma at a time when Joe Biden was the vice president than what was actually true? That's what he's charged with.

But there are also these other things that he was telling the FBI that are coming up now, because the Justice Department is concerned about him. They are concerned he might flee the country, and they wanted to keep him in jail. They weren't successful at that, but they're putting this out all now in these court filings in a way that is recasting our understanding of what's been in the political ecosystem about Hunter Biden.

MATTINGLY: You mentioned, Katelyn, the political ecosystem. Hunter Biden's lawyers have acted in the wake of this coming out. What are they saying right now?

POLANTZ: Well, they want judges to look at this, and they want more information about this guy and about what he was saying, what Alexander Smirnov was saying to the FBI and to other investigators.

Because they want to try and unravel his two criminal indictments that he's facing, one on tax charges and one on gun charges. They're trying to sow doubt in the investigations around Hunter Biden, even though those two charges, as far as we know, don't connect back to Smirnov and what he was telling his handlers.

But I will say one thing that is really important here is how the Justice Department cast this as something that continues to be problematic. They write in their filings to the court yesterday before Smirnov's detention hearing in Las Vegas, that his "contacts with Russian officials who are affiliated with Russian intelligence services are not benign."


They say that his efforts to spread misinformation about a candidate of one of the two major political parties in the United States, as Joe Biden, continues. And what this shows is that the misinformation he is spreading is not confined to 2022. He's actively pedaling new lives that could impact U.S. elections after meeting with Russian intelligence officials in November.

So that's the Justice Department's concern about elections. We'll see if it actually has any impact on Hunter Biden's criminal cases.

HARLOW: Katelyn Polantz, thank you very much. We'll get back to you soon.

MATTINGLY: Well, Donald Trump delivering his first on-camera remarks about Alexei Navalny's death during a friendly FOX News town Hall. Trump called the Russian opposition leader very brave. He never actually condemned Vladimir Putin for Navalny's death.

CNN's Alayna Treene joins us now.

Alayna, the former president, flies on a private jet, currently is living free of prison, and was given an hour of airtime in the highest rated prime time block.

So how is he comparing himself to Alexei Navalny?

ALAYNA TREENE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Right. Well, and I agree with you, Phil. I think, you know, staying in Mar-a-Lago is not quite the same as an Arctic prison cell.

But look, Donald Trump is essentially co-opting Navalny's legacy to suggest a false equivalency with his own legal troubles. And instead of condemning Russian President Vladimir their Putin and condemning the death of Putin's top critic, Alexei Navalny, he's instead trying to suggest that he's being politically persecuted in a similar way.

Take a listen to how he put it last night at that town Hall.


DONALD TRUMP (R), FORMER U.S. PRESIDENT, 2024 PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Navalny is a very sad situation, and he's very brave. He was a very brave guy, because he went back. He could just stayed away and, frankly, probably would have been a lot better off staying away.

It's happening in our country, too. We are turning into a communist country in many ways. And if you look at it, I'm the leading candidate. I get indicted. I never heard of being indicted before. I was -- I got indicted four times. I have eight or nine trials, all because of the fact that -- and you know this -- all because of the fact that I'm in politics.


TREENE: Now, Phil and Poppy, this is a strategy or a messaging strategy, I should, say that Donald Trump has used repeatedly when talking about his various legal cases.

He's arguing that they are all linked, which we know is not true. These cases are, you know, in different jurisdictions. Some are states. Some are federal. Some are criminal. Some are civil.

And he's also trying to argue that this is an effort by President Joe Biden to attack him and try to prevent him from running for president or potentially becoming president again.

But he has received a lot of backlash from this, not necessarily from some of his top allies on Capitol Hill, but from his leading challenger, Nikki Haley, as well as a President Joe Biden, who said yesterday, quote, "Why does Trump always blame America? Putin is responsible for Navalny's death. Why can't Trump just say that?"

And this is something that we've seen. You know, in the immediate aftermath of Navalny's death Donald Trump did not bring up Vladimir Putin, did not condemn Russia. And he's continuing due to try to argue that he is similar to Putin's top critic here, which of course, again, many people argue is just an absurd thing to state, as a former president and also the leading candidate to become the Republican nominee.

MATTINGLY: All right. Alayna Treene for us. Thank you.

HARLOW: With us now, strategic communications expert Lee Carter; Moynihan public scholar fellow at City College of New York, Christina Greer; and CNN national security analyst and former CIA chief of Russia operations, Steve Hall.

Steve, let's start with you. Just your take after you read through this filing and the claims that Alexander Smirnov is making. Do you buy them? That they are from Russian spies? And if you do, why would he say that? Why would he admit it?

STEVE HALL, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: Well, with regard to whether or not Russia is actually involved, I mean, first of all, it's very consistent with how the Russians run information operations, especially using a human source, in this case, for the FBI.

I mean, the other indication that it is, indeed, the Russians that he was meeting with and he's not making this up out of whole cloth is the fact that apparently, the FBI is taking that quite seriously.

I mean, it is a little -- it does put the FBI in a bit of a difficult position. It allows people to ask questions. Why would you be running a confidential informant for ten years? And when did you know he was actually under the control of the Russians? And how did you manage that information?

So the fact that the FBI is saying that and the fact that it's extremely consistent, not to mention the fact that Vladimir Putin, of course, would favor somebody like Donald Trump to be the next president, as opposed to Joe Biden, based on nothing more than Donald Trump's positions about you know, Russia, Ukraine, and the rest of it. So it seems to make sense to me.

MATTINGLY: Steve -- Steve, were you surprised by the amount of information that federal authorities put into this? I mean, to your point, a longtime confidential informant, they kind of lit him on fire to some degree when you actually read through the pages of this.

HALL: You know, it's not much of a surprise, really, because again, you know, there's nothing more frustrating -- and having experienced this myself from the foreign intelligence perspective -- when you're running a source for a long period of time, and it turns out that the source that you're running, for whatever reason, has been, you know, giving you a whole bunch of stuff that isn't necessarily true.


That sort of turns the handler around and forces them to say, Well, wait a second. What happened here?

And then once you find out that you have actually been lied to and betrayed, especially if you're law enforcement. Yes, you're going to push that -- push back as hard as you can. So that -- no, that's not a big surprise to me.

HARLOW: Lee, what Katelyn said before about how so much of this has been in the political ecosystem. That's exactly right.


HARLOW: Much of it has been at, you know, the hands of Republicans, who have claimed these things about Hunter Biden and Joe Biden and the Biden family.

Just listen to what a number of them are now saying about this. Here it is.


SEAN HANNITY, FOX NEWS HOST: There are now real and growing concerns that your president, the president of our country, is compromised.

How real of a bribery scan, Joe Biden bribery scandal allegation is this?

REP. JAMES COMER (R-KY): Well, every day this bribery scandal becomes more credible.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We already know the president took bribes from Burisma.

HANNITY: This is about the big guy himself, Joe Biden, a corrupt career politician, who is now very credibly accused of public corruption on a scale this country has never seen before.

REP. JIM JORDAN (R-OH): The most corroborating evidence we have is that 1023 form from this highly credible, confidential human source, according to U.S. attorney Scott Brady.


HARLOW: That last bit from Jim Jordan there, that was just in January. The prior remarks from Comer and Sean Hannity were July and August. But now what for this probe? They're not saying, okay, never mind.

CARTER: No, they're not. This is really, really troubling for a number of reasons. This is the foundation of the argument that so many Republicans have

been using, that there is a two-tier system of justice, that Donald Trump is being held to a different standard than Joe Biden. Joe Biden is equally guilty of all kinds of corruption.

And that, I don't know how you unwind it. More than 70 percent of Americans believe that to be true. It's so much foundation of what Donald Trump is running on.

And when Donald Trump makes some of these, I mean, false equivalence, you can call them of him as a political opponent or as whatever, they're they're trying to say in reaction.

It's -- it's -- I don't know how you undo it. It is a message that's been out there for so long, and it has so much traction. And I think just because this is now coming out doesn't mean that all these people are suddenly, we were wrong.

HARLOW: More than 70 percent of Americans? I'll just follow up on that poll number.


HARLOW: Or Republicans?

CARTER: No, of Americans.

MATTINGLY: To that point, it's both on the Navalny thing, which was again, very -- making it about himself and making him the victim is frankly the entire kind of animating feature of his nominate -- or candidacy at this point. That's not a surprise.

Nor is the fact that the vast majority of the allegations that are underpinning the impeachment effort ended up being completely untrue.

What might be a question now is to that point. I don't think you can unwind it. I don't think people, even if you tried to unwind it, would be paying attention, because they're already set in their ways. So what do you do if you're the Biden administration? What do you do if you are the Biden campaign to try and utilize this going forward?

CHRISTINA GREER, MOYNIHAN PUBLIC SCHOLARS FELLOW, CITY COLLEGE: Right. We're at a moment. This is the moment that George Washington warned us about in his farewell address, where we have sort of foreign adversaries infiltrating our country and also hyperpartisanship.

The Biden administration is not going to convince Republican Trump supporters to move over. They're not going to convince them to sort of see reality and facts. That's just -- that's not where Trump supporters are.

They think he's the second coming. They think he's the Messiah. He's always the victim and the hero in his own story.

So what the Biden administration really needs to do is to mobilize and galvanize people and inspire them to actually turn out. Because of the misinformation and disinformation that's out there, there are a lot of people who are just tired of politics. They're not interested in either candidate, whether it's because they're long in the tooth or they both seem corrupt.

I teach young people all the time. They're just really disgusted at the state of politics in general on a local, state, and federal level.

So Joe Biden needs to actually try and get more people inspired to come out to the polls on November 5, because Donald Trump's cult members. I don't know. You know, I mean, this is -- we're beyond partisanship right now. They will come out and support him.

And to Lee's point, because you can't unwind it. I mean, we've already seen what January 6 looks like, and that's a consistent message for Donald Trump and his supporters, as well. If it doesn't go my way at the ballot box, we have other measures and other means, because you all support me so much, dot-dot-dot.

HARLOW: Steve, pretty deep in this filing, the -- almost near the end is this, talking about the informant, Alexander Smirnov's, quote, "efforts to spread misinformation about the candidate of one of the two major parties," meaning Biden, "continues. The court should consider this conduct, as well, when evaluating his personal history and characteristics. What this shows is the misinformation he is spreading is not confined to 2020. He is actively pedaling new lies that could impact U.S. elections after meeting with Russian intelligence officials in November."


What's the threat now for the upcoming election?

HALL: Well, the threat is pretty much the same as it's been in previous elections, but it's sort of in an elevated state.

And that is, is Russia going to be successful at somehow influencing -- making sure that its influence and its goals are carried out in the American election? And we're seeing this across, you know, the boards. This is just one -- one case.

I can guarantee for every Smirnov there is, there are other Russian assets out there that are also trying to -- trying to influence, you know, our political system.

So that's -- that is obviously, yes, absolutely. This is exactly what the kind of thing that George Washington is referring to in terms of foreigners trying to get in and influence us at a time when it's a very politically, you know, split situation.

The Russians love to do that. They understand that there's not much they have to do in the American political system to really cause a lot of chaos. They've been successful at it before, and they're trying to do it again.

HARLOW: All right, everyone stay with us. We have a lot more ahead. Also this: Nikki Haley is not dropping out of this race. Donald Trump

says he thinks he knows why. That's ahead.

MATTINGLY: And a U.S. citizen arrested on treason charges in Russia for collecting donations for Ukraine. What we're learning about Moscow's latest detainee. That's next.




NIKKI HALEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: South Carolina will vote on Saturday, but on Sunday, I'll still be running for president. I'm not going anywhere.

I'm campaigning every day until the last person votes.


MATTINGLY: Just three days until voters in Nikki Haley's home state of South Carolina cast their ballots in the Republican presidential primary. And she is vowing not to bow out of the race this weekend.

HARLOW: Haley and the frontrunner, Donald Trump, made last-minute pitches in the Palmetto State yesterday, trading jabs along the way.


HALEY: Many of the same politicians who now publicly embrace Trump privately dread him. They know what a disaster he's been and will continue to be for our party. They're just too afraid to say it out loud.

TRUMP: She's doing poorly in the votes. Look, if she was doing well, I'd understand it. But she's doing very poorly. She lost in record numbers in Iowa, record numbers in New Hampshire. Nevada, no name beat I know name. We had no name.


MATTINGLY: I'm sorry. I just find that to be funny.

Our panelists, Lee Carter, Christina Greer, are back with us. And "New York Times" politics correspondent Michael Gold joins us now from South Carolina.

Michael, you're on the ground there. I think poll after poll makes very clear Donald Trump has a pretty solid grip on the state of South Carolina.

But in the wake of the speech yesterday, which to the Haley campaign's credit, saying that there's a big speech about the state of the race, not saying what it is. That's going to get every network to take it live. And she can make your case across the board. What is the goal right now, the end game for the Haley campaign as

they look past even South Carolina?

MICHAEL GOLD, POLITICS CORRESPONDENT, "THE NEW YORK TIMES": I think that's a big question that a lot of people in the Trump campaign have when they look at what she's doing right now.

You know, there's a sense in which she might be setting herself up for 2028. I think there's two possible scenarios, if you look at the future of the party.

One is that Trump loses, and Haley gets to say, Look, I tried to be an alternative and you guys ignored that, but I'm ready for the future.

And the other is that Trump wins, that in four years, the party's ready for somebody else. And I think she's trying to show that she has strength with women and show she has strength with the wing of the party that's not under his thrall.

HARLOW: Do you agree just, Michael, being on the ground there with -- I thought "Politico's" analysis last night was interesting, saying, look, her staying in as long as possible doesn't hurt her for 2028. It doesn't hurt her for 2040, they said, where she would still be younger than the two guys running and leading right now in their respective parties.

That this shows the fortitude that she has and that it doesn't harm her the longer she stays in.

And I wonder if that's the sentiment you're hearing from people on the ground, who may not support her.

GOLD: I think that's right. I mean, I think there was a sense with Ron DeSantis, too, where people felt, hey, it's not your time, but maybe in four years this will be the moment for you.


GOLD: I think in South Carolina, even among Trump's supporters, there a lot of people here who who liked Nikki Haley when she was governor. And I think those people look at her and say maybe there's a moment in which I could be swayed to vote for you. It's just not right now.

MATTINGLY: Lee, we talk a lot about -- there's 50 different things you can talk about from Trump's town hall last night.


MATTINGLY: The one -- and we talked about this during the break -- that I'm obsessed with is Nikki Haley keeps saying he can't win a general election. Trump on vote by mail last night, I think we have it. Can we play it real quick?


TRUMP: You have mail-in voting, you automatically have fraud. If you have --

LAURA INGRAHAM, FOX NEWS HOST: Well, there's mail-in voting in Florida, and you won huge.

TRUMP: That's right. That's right. If you have it, you're going to have fraud.


MATTINGLY: If they can't turn the tide on vote by mail inside the Republican Party --


MATTINGLY: -- which they were decimated in their efforts in 2020 because of the former president. They spent a ton of money, the RNC, on the Bank Your Vote campaign. They got people supporting it. They got members of Congress supporting it. Even Trump made a video for it.

And now he comes out and nukes vote by mail again, even as Laura Ingraham is like, No, no, no, no, no. We use it well. It works for us.

I mean, the Democratic advantage in that is huge. You -- I don't think you can win a general election if your VBM strategy is don't do it.

CARTER: Yes, I agree with you. I think it's a really big problem. And we were just talking about a special election in New York. What would have happened or what did happen a result of state people saying that that they're not going to vote by mail.

The day of the election, there's a blizzard. People didn't turn out. And it was -- it is very different turnout than we had expected, because people just weren't able to go out and vote.

It's a very dangerous strategy to say that you're not going to go vote by mail in this day and age. And I'm not sure what his angle is on it. I don't know if he's trying to set himself up already to have a conversation about voter fraud.

But it really, I don't think, benefits the Republicans in any way, shape, or form to not encourage this form of voting.

HARLOW: Can we, Christina, just talk about the money? The reality is you can keep running as long as you have money.

GREER: That's right.

HARLOW: Nikki Haley has money but running into a bit of a cash crunch here, because she spent more in January than she raised. And she's got 13 million in cash reserves. Can she stick in this thing all the way to the end?

GREER: Yes. Because someone will finance that. It might not be in the abundant numbers that, you know, she would hope for.

[06:25:07] But, you know, I always tell my students when they're taking an exam, I'm like, if you get stuck on an answer, the answer is always money. Work your way back from that, right?

Nikki Haley wouldn't still be in the race if there weren't donors who were quietly, or not so quietly, supporting her to stay in.

They don't know if, by some chance, Donald Trump might find himself on the other side of a jail cell. They don't know -- you know, he's a little long in the tooth, as well.

So they're -- they need to have a candidate, since he's so volatile, since he goes against the RNC strategies. The fact that there's still very long-pocketed donors who are making sure Nikki Haley is still in the conversation, is -- should let us know that, as she says, Republicans aren't whole cloth with Donald Trump. They still want, slash, need an alternative.

MATTINGLY: Michael, when it comes to the money on the Trump side of things, the RNC doesn't have a ton of cash on hand. I think they ticked up maybe $800,000 or so. I think they have a little more than 8 million cash on hand.

We saw once again Trump's outside groups are -- his leadership PAC is giving a ton of money to pay for his legal bills.

Are their actual concerns about the money side of things for Trump? My assumption has been, like, there's going to be a billion-dollar per campaign race, no matter what. The money will be there.

The money doesn't look great for them right now.

GOLD: You know, the people I talked to have a sense that after the primary is over and people see it really as a choice between Trump or Joe Biden, the donors will start to come forward.

And that right now, they're just sort of waiting to see what might happen with the criminal cases, what might happen with Nikki Haley.

I think right now, when you look at Biden's war chest, part of it is that he's really been able to take advantage of the DNC. and they've really been able to fundraise him. And there's a possibility that once Trump is the nominee, he'll have that same kind of power.

MATTINGLY: Yes, it's a good point. When you have the party apparatus fully moving in the same direction as you, it matters.

Lee Carter, Christina Greer, Michael Gold, thanks, guys. We appreciate it.

HARLOW: Ahead for us, the body of the 11-year-old girl Audrii Corner [SIC] -- Cunningham has been found in Texas after days of searching. We do have new information this morning on the suspect.

MATTINGLY: And Vladmir Putin congratulates his forces for capturing a key Ukrainian city. We're going to be live in Ukraine. That's next. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)