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DOJ Filing Shows Indicted Informant Told FBI He Got Hunter Biden Dirt from Russian Intel Officials; Russia Set to Advance in Ukraine After Key City Falls; Police Identify Suspect in Texas Girl's Death. Aired 7-7:30a ET

Aired February 21, 2024 - 07:00   ET



POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: Okay. Max Foster, keep us posted as this continues. Thanks very much.

And CNN This Morning continues right now.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: The former FBI informant charged with lying about the Biden's business dealings in Ukraine says he got his dirt from Russian intelligence officials.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Republicans have touted those claims as part of their effort to impeach President Biden.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: If they continue with this investigation, they are simply doing the work of Vladimir Putin.

NIKKI HALEY, REPUBLICAN PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: But times change, and so has Trump. He's gotten more unstable and unhinged.

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN ANCHOR: Nikki Haley ramping up for attacks on the former president that she once served under.

DONALD TRUMP, FORMER U.S. PRESIDENT: She's down by 30, 35 points. You're not supposed to lose your home state, and she's losing it bigly.

HALEY: I'm not going anywhere.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: A tragic ending in the search for a missing 11- year-old girl in Texas.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We believe the appropriate arrest warrant is going to be for capital murder in the death of Audii Cunningham.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: He cried over this?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Since several nights, I have kids of my own. I feel that pain that they're feeling.


PHIL MATTINGLY, CNN ANCHOR: Good Wednesday morning, everyone. It's the top of the hour. I'm Phil Mattingly with Poppy Harlow in New York.

The ex-FBI informant charged with lying about the Bidens is now telling investigators that Russian spies fed him the false information. Alexander Smirnov hid his face. You can see him there under a scarf, hoodie, and mask and sunglasses as he left the courthouse in Las Vegas yesterday.

Prosecutors say Smirnov claims to have met with Russian intelligence officials as recently as three months ago.

HARLOW: So, the Justice Department is warning that Smirnov is still, quote, actively peddling new lies that could impact the presidential election coming up in November. Also, prosecutors say the effects from Smirnov's fabricated stories about the Bidens, quote, continue to be felt today.

This is a major twist, and it's raising questions about part of the DOJ's probe against Hunter Biden and also the effort by House Republicans to impeach President Biden.

MATTINGLY: Let's start things off with CNN's Kately Polantz. Katelyn, walk us through what's actually in this filing, what the Justice Department is saying about its concerns, not just with what has happened, but what could happen heading into the election.

KATELYN POLANTZ, CNN SENIOR CRIME AND JUSTICE REPORTER: Well, Phil and Poppy, this information about Alexander Smirnov comes to us because the Justice Department is afraid of what he will be doing if and now that he is going to be released.

So, what happened here was this man, Alexander Smirnov, an American citizen, was charged with a crime of lying to the FBI. He had been talking to them as an informant for ten years, talking to his handler nearly every day, passing them information. And then some of that information, the Justice Department says, was false, the information where he was trying to connect Joe Biden and Hunter Biden at a time when Joe Biden was the vice president to Burisma, that Ukrainian energy company, something that has smeared the Bidens politically for a couple of years now. That was false. That's what he was arrested on.

And then just after he was arrested, Alexander Smirnov tells the FBI just a week ago that information from Russian officials about Hunter Biden was being passed to them.

So now this calls into question a lot of what has been out there about Hunter Biden and a lot of these political smears trying to connect him to Russian intelligence. One of the things the Justice Department wrote to the federal court before Smirnov's hearing yesterday in Las Vegas was Smirnov's efforts to spread misinformation about a candidate of one of the two major parties in the United States, that's Joe Biden, continues.

What this shows is that the misinformation he is spreading is not confined to 2020. He is actively peddling new lies that could impact U.S. elections after meeting with Russian intelligence officials in November.

So, a lot of questions remain what is true from this person who was funneling information to the FBI. Was he lying about all of this? Was he going to continue meeting with Russian intelligence? The judge released him yesterday at this court hearing, allowing him to be released on his own personal recognizance. So, he didn't have to post a bunch of money or anything like that.

The judge said political ramifications were not enough to keep him in jail no matter what the Justice Department fears.

MATTINGLY: All right. Katelyn Polantz, thank you.

And joining us now is CNN Senior Legal Analyst Elie Honig, Elie, there's a lot to get to here, but as a former prosecutor, I know this is national security world, but as a former prosecutor, can you answer kind of the glaring question for me is how can you be running a confidential informant for a decade, and then this indictment just paints the picture of an absolute fabuloulist? Where's the disconnect there? Is that normal? How does that actually work?

ELIE HONIG, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: Well, Phil, the short answer is the FBI got burned here. The FBI handles thousands of what we call confidential informants at any given time. And what a confidential informant is is a person who's providing information to the FBI, to the Justice Department, but without the expectation of that person ever taking the stand and testifying.


It's essentially a secret source of information.

And one of the challenges with any confidential informant is the FBI and DOJ have to verify that person, have to confirm the things that they're being told, and here they clearly failed to do that.

It is a real embarrassment for the FBI. It's a black eye to have someone who has been providing information, apparently very what the FBI took as important information for a decade, and now to learn that he lied to them. They got played, they failed here. That happens. I'm not excusing it, but it's a failure by the FBI.

HARLOW: For people waking up to this news who may think, oh, this changes everything in terms of the DOJ probe against Hunter Biden, that's about firearm possession and tax issues. Does this impact that at all?

HONIG: Right. So, this should have no impact on the actual pending indictments, plural, against Hunter Biden.

And it's important to note, by the way, the person who's been charged with the FBI's investigation is the special counsel, David Weiss, a person who was put in office as U.S. attorney by Donald Trump in 2018, then confirmed to the Senate in 2019. Now, the special counsel has brought two indictments against Hunter Biden, one of them the federal case in Delaware relating to firearms possession, the other a federal case in California relating to tax fraud. Neither of those cases appears to be implicated by anything this particular informant, Mr. Smirnov, said or any of his information. So, I think those two cases will continue on.

We have seen reporting the Hunter Biden's attorneys are going to argue that, well, to the extent the FBI relied on this person's statement at all, they should have to go back to the deal, the plea deal that they had in place, because the reason that the FBI backed out on that plea deal, according to Hunter Biden's lawyers, is because they were relying on faulty information from Mr. Smirnov.

I think that's an interesting argument. I think it's perhaps overly aggressive. So, I think those two indictments are going to stay in place and proceed.

MATTINGLY: Elie, if you're reading this indictment, you'll say, wow, a lot of that looks familiar to what we've heard from House Republicans over the course of the last several months related to their impeachment inquiry. And the reason why is because it is.

I think my question is, does this undercut that? What happens next if you're Jim Jordan or if you're James Comer?

HONIG: Oh, yes, this is an embarrassment for Jim Jordan and for James Comer, any way you cook it. Look, the impeachment inquiry, which was officially authorized by the House in December, I believe, was already built on a shaky foundation. But this guy was a big part of that foundation. And now it is crumbled all together.

I mean, the primary information that he provided to the FBI on which the House relied is essentially that there was this multimillion dollar bribe payoff made to Hunter Biden and to Joe Biden. And now the FBI has figured out that that was false, so false, so obviously false, that they've now charged Smirnov with making false statements for saying that.

So, I think the House impeachment inquiry had a flimsy basis to begin with. And now they've got nothing.

HARLOW: Okay, changing gears here in a major way. I think it's. It's really interesting what the New York attorney general, Letitia James, told ABC News she is going to do if Trump cannot afford to pay the $300 million plus in penalties from his civil fraud trial. Here's what she said.


LETITIA JAMES, NEW YORK ATTORNEY GENERAL: If he does not have funds to pay off the judgment, then we will seek judgment enforcement mechanisms in court, and we will ask the judge to seize his assets.

(END VIDEO CLIP) HARLOW: Those assets include big buildings here in New York City, including, she talked a bit about 40 Wall Street. Is that what would play out here normally for someone, and do you see this happening?

HONIG: Yes. So, this is the way it will go, Poppy. First of all, Donald Trump, within the next 25 days or so, is going to post a bond, meaning some cash element, plus the deeds, the rights to some of his properties, including potentially some of those buildings.

Then Donald Trump will have the right to appeal, of course. And whatever comes out of that appeal, whatever is left of this verdict, maybe all $350 million-plus, maybe some smaller number, maybe none of it, but whatever comes out of it, Donald Trump then has to pay.

This is not negotiable. This will be a judgment owed not to individuals, but to the state of New York. And if he cannot put up cash to satisfy that judgment, then the next move that a prosecutor makes is you seize and liquidate assets until you get up to that number.

HARLOW: And correct me if I'm wrong, but the way I understand it is he can't wait for an appeal to play out before paying anything. He would at least have to put that money in escrow or those assets would get taken now or all of it waits until after an appeal?

HONIG: So, nothing technically gets taken from him now. It is essentially an escrow situation, but he doesn't necessarily have to put $350 million cash in escrow. The judge will decide how much cash is necessary. And usually it will be some fraction of the amount. And then the rest, perhaps the judge will say, well, also we need the deed to a certain property and you just sort of hold that as well.

HARLOW: Okay. Elie, thank you very much.

No condemnation of the Kremlin or Vladimir Putin, but Donald Trump is finally talking publicly about the death of Alexei Navalny.


He called it sad and also praised the Russian dissident's courage, calling him brave. He's also suggesting, though, that he and Navalny, that's right, Trump and Navalny, somehow have a lot in common. Listen.


TRUMP: Navalny is a very sad situation and he's very brave. And he was a very brave guy because he went back, he could have 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 got indicted four times, I have eight or nine trials, all because of the fact that I'm -- and you know this -- all because of the fact that I'm in politics.


MATTINGLY: All righty. President Biden is waking up on the West Coast this morning where he's there for a fundraising swing and he's doing so because the money is pouring in right now for his campaign. New filings show the campaign entered February with nearly $56 million on hand. That's nearly double the amount Trump's campaign had available.

Now, Biden is also directing his campaign aides to amp up the attacks on Trump's inflammatory comments.

CNN's Arlette Saenz joins us now from the White House. Arlette, as is the case every single day, when I want to know what Biden is actually thinking, I read what he says in closed door fundraisers, very late at night in the West Coast in the pool notes. He, as he always does, kind of let it rip a little bit last night. What did he say?

ARLETTE SAENZ, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Phil. President Biden once again went on the attack against former President Donald Trump and Republicans calling the GOP a party of chaos. The president spoke to donors at a closed-door fundraiser out in Los Angeles and he really went after and took aim at Trump over the fact that he has not condemned Vladimir Putin for the death of Alexei Navalny, the president calling that outrageous.

And it really echoed comments the president made in a video the White House released last night. Take a listen.


BIDEN: The former president said was so dangerous. It does nothing but encourage bad behavior.

Why does Trump always blame America? Putin is responsible for Navalny's death. Why can't Trump just say that? Putin is responsible.


SAENZ: And it comes as the president has really shown this willingness to take on Donald Trump since the start of the year. And behind the scenes, he's been more direct with his team telling them that they need to turn up the heat as well.

Sources told CNN that the president personally told his senior aides that they really needed to start highlighting the crazy stuff that they believe Trump says. The sources used a more colorful language than the word stuff to describe Trump's inflammatory remarks.

And it really comes as the campaign has sought to put these contrasts between Biden and Trump front and center, whether it's on temperament or policy issues.

And one thing the campaign firmly believes is that they need to remind voters of what another four years of Trump in the White House would look like, and that that will work to their advantage in November.

HARLOW: Okay. Arlette Saenz at the White House, thanks very much. MATTINGLY: Well, Vladimir Putin calling Ukraine's withdrawal from a key city a quote, unconditional success. Christiane Amanpour joins us live from Kyiv to discuss ,next.

HARLOW: Also coming up, award-winning journalist Savannah Guthrie opens up in a new book about her faith journey.


SAVANNAH GUTHRIE, AUTHOR, MOSTLY WHAT GOD DOES: Knowing God and believing in God is how I hold hands with my father, totally. It's how I hold hands with him because I believe God has one hand in the heavens where I believe my father is in one hand holding mine.





CHRISTIAN AMANPOUR, CNN CHIEF INTERNATIONAL ANCHOR: Can you hold out? You said you will not fall, but a big town has fallen, or a medium- sized town, and they're putting pressure on the second biggest city in Ukraine right now.

DMYTRO KULEBA, UKRAINIAN FOREIGN MINISTRY: We wouldn't lose Avdiivka if we had received all the artillery ammunition that we needed to defend it. That is my answer to your question.

AMANPOUR: As simple as that?

KULEBA: I don't think it requires any additional comments.


HARLOW: A very stark message there. That was our Christiane Amanpour speaking with Ukraine's foreign minister on Tuesday.

Meantime, Vladimir Putin calling Ukraine's withdrawal from the eastern city of Avdiivka quote an unconditional success, this is Putin is awarding the soldiers who captured that town. And it is clearly not the end of the Russian offensive with Putin adding that his troops must be prepared to push further.

The White House blaming the loss of Avdiivka on Republican inaction in Congress when it comes to additional U.S. aid for Ukraine, that same Congress that is on a two week break. The White House is targeting Russia in another way. Listen.


BIDEN: I told you we'd be announcing sanctions on Russia. We'll have a major package announced on Friday.


HARLOW: Joining us now from Kyiv, our Chief International Anchor Christiane Amanpour. Christiane, thank you for being with us.

The question about sanctions, though, is it hasn't deterred Putin, not with Navalny and not in Ukraine. Can the White House do more that would actually deter him?

AMANPOUR: It's a very difficult question Poppy because the world thought that they would isolate Putin with the unprecedented level of sanctions that started rolling out after the beginning of this invasion two years ago.

But what they've seen instead is that, after some stumbling, Putin pivoted his economy to the homegrown defense production. And that industry and it has proven much more resilient and much more fruitful than the west had realized.

And not only that, it's proving hugely impactful on the front line because they're churning out ammunition, they're churning out armored vehicles and tanks and other military systems. They have aid from Iran, North Korea in terms of actual drones and missiles. So, they are getting a huge amount of extra weaponry to fight this war while the pipeline to Ukraine is blocked from the United States. So, this is causing a big imbalance on the battlefield right now.

MATTINGLY: To that point, I want to play something from a little bit more from your interview with the foreign minister, Dmytro Kuleba, where he talks about the juxtaposition between what we've seen on the battlefield and the debate that's ongoing in Washington. Listen.


KULEBA: They are making miracles, and they must be credited for that. But the reason they have to sacrifice themselves and die is because someone is still debating a decision.


MATTINGLY: Christiane, his reference there to Ukrainian soldiers. Can you talk about morale right now? Is there a sense of what soldiers on the front line are thinking and feeling as Washington continues to debate?

AMANPOUR: Do you know there is, because I've actually reached some of them via Skype and FaceTime and we're going to be putting that report out. They are desperate, as are people in this city, which is quite far from the frontline, but they remember what nearly happened to them two years ago.

And they are really in a state of despair because they see that these promises that were made, remember, we will support Ukraine for as long as it takes. We will give, we will do, we will help, because this is the biggest battle for democracy, freedom, the rules of the international road that exists right now in terms of what the U.S. and its allies want to achieve. They always said we must be sure that Ukraine wins and Putin doesn't win, et cetera., et cetera. And right now, it's hanging -- really, it's on a knife's edge.

So, they are literally strolling their phones, I've been told, on the battlefield to see when this news will come through of a potential unblocking of the congressional budget for Ukrainian military hardware.

And I think it's really important to say that Dmytro Kuleba is a very diplomatic man, but you could sense the frustration, the controlled disappointment, the anxiety, and you can sense that all over this country in the few days that we've been here, going from west to here, we're going to go further east and south, and people are very, very concerned.

And they say, look, we've proved that we've been able to use all the military aid you've greatly sent us over the last two years. We've done it well, we've held off the Russians. But now you can see as, it's drying up, the Russians are taking towns, Avdiivka over the weekend, potentially, they're moving up towards Kharkiv. That is the second biggest city in this country. And they know that they want to pressure as much as they can now, this is the Russians, before, eventually, hopefully, for the Ukrainians anyway, they get more weapons.

HARLOW: One of the things that is just so stark to see in comparison to the U.S. inaction in terms of more funding for Ukraine is what Sweden just did, I mean giving their biggest foreign aid package ever to Ukraine, $683 million dollars. The significance of that, and if you expect other European countries to follow?

AMANPOUR: You know, Poppy, this is a really interesting question, because the rhetoric from the MAGA wing of the Republican Party is that the United States is shouldering the entire burden for Ukraine and Europe essentially is a deadbeat. This could not be further from the truth because the Europeans have also been providing a huge amount of money and military assistance.

Sweden is hoping to get into NATO, it's still being blocked, but they hope to get into NATO. And it has put its money where its mouth is throughout and this is its biggest recent and single donation. Canada upped its donation just yesterday. The other countries, the Baltics, Poland, all the others are doing their best and doing a considerable amount. And E.U. itself, as a whole, sent $50 billion worth a few weeks ago when it was clear the U.S. package wouldn't pass.

So, they are paying their way, they are contributing as much as the United States, although the U.S. obviously is the biggest in terms of actual military hardware. They are paying, you know, comparatively what the U.S. is doing towards NATO.

So, all these tropes about the U.S. not -- rather EU not doing its bit, you know, are designed essentially to confuse the story for Americans who still think NATO is good. The polls show Americans support NATO.

MATTINGLY: Christiane Amanpour, much more to come, I think, in the days ahead, lie for us in Kyiv, thanks so much. Well, coming up, a United Airlines plane makes an emergency landing in Denver. The details on that, ahead.

HARLOW: Also the body of an 11-year-old girl in Texas is found and police have identified a suspect with a very troubling past. We do have new details this morning.



MATTINGLY: New this morning, police in Texas identify a suspect in the disappearance and death of 11-year-old Audrii Cunningham. Her body was found Tuesday in a river, which went missing on her way to school last week.

Officials say the suspect, Don Stephen McDougal, has a long criminal history. The 42-year-old was a family friend and lived on the Cunningham property. He was already in custody on an unrelated assault charge.

CNN's Rosa Flores joins us live from Livingston, Texas. Rosa, what more are we learning about the suspect now?

ROSA FLORES, CNN CORRESPONDENT: You know, Phil, the details of this case are so disturbing for every parent watching this morning, because McDougal went from being a family friend who was trusted to take Audrii to the bus stop to a person of interest in her disappearance, who was also out in the community searching, trying to find her, and now to a suspect in her murder.

Authorities say that they have enough evidence to link this man to her killing and that they expect to charge him with capital murder. Take a listen.


SHELLY SITTON, POLK COUNTY DISTRICT ATTORNEY: At this time, we believe the appropriate arrest warrant is going to be for capital murder in the death of Audrii Cunningham. He is currently still in jail under an unrelated felony charge here.

BYRON LYONS, POLK COUNTY SHERIFF: We will continue to process the evidence that has been gathered to ensure that the justice for Audrii.


FLORES: Now, all this as we learn more about a long criminal history for Don McDougal that includes aggravated assault with a deadly weapon and also enticing a child, which raises the question, why was he not a registered sex offender?


Now, the sheriff was asked that question. He said he didn't know the details of the case, but he said that the charge was not enough to require him to register as a sex offender.

Now, we've exhausted efforts to seek comment from McDougal's family and attorney.