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CNN This Morning

U.S. Justice Department Says Ex-FBI Informant Provided False Information about President Biden and Hunter Biden; Former President Trump Compares Himself in Fighting His Legal Battles to Recently Deceased Kremlin Critic Alexei Navalny; Biden Almost Doubles Trump in January Financial Filings; Now: US Attorney Makes Case for Assange Extradition. Aired 8-8:30a ET

Aired February 21, 2024 - 08:00   ET



POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: You heard the first ever black female artist to steal that top spot. This also makes her the first woman to top both the hot country and hot R&B hip-hop song charts since the list began in 1958, joining Morgan Wallen, Justin Bieber, Billy Ray Cyrus, and Ray Charles as the only artists to have led both charts.

PHIL MATTINGLY, CNN ANCHOR: You'll recall Beyonce surprised fans by releasing two singles, "Texas Hold "Em" and "16 Carriages" during the Super Bowl. Her new album, the second installment of the renaissance trilogy, will be out on March 29th. Is there anything she cannot do?

HARLOW: It's official.

MATTINGLY: Yes, it's official.

HARLOW: Queen.


HARLOW: Forever and ever. Loved that.

MATTINGLY: CNN THIS MORNING continues right now.


REP. DAN GOLDMAN, (D-NY): This should put the nail in the coffin, because not only is there no evidence of any wrongdoing by President Biden, but it now appears as if the House Republican majority is being used by Russia to interfere in the 2024 election on behalf of Donald Trump.


HARLOW: Well, that is new reaction from Democratic Congressman Dan Goldman after a stunning development in the FBI informant case. Goldman, of course, a top critic the Republican efforts to impeach President Biden. According to the Justice Department, the indicted ex- informant says he got false allegations about Hunter Biden and Ukraine from Russian intelligence. What does this mean for his case and the push to impeach the president?

MATTINGLY: Also happening right now, a last-ditch appeal by Julian Assange more than a decade after being charged in the WikiLeaks scandal. What could happen today that sends him to America for trial.

HARLOW: And a passenger jet diverted over damaged wing, one passenger describing what they heard while on board.

This hour of CNN THIS MORNING starts now.

And this is where we begin. The ex-FBI informant charged with lying about the Bidens is now telling investigators that Russian spies fed him all of that false information. His name is Alexander Smirnov. He hid his face there under a scarf, hoodie, and mask and sunglasses as he left the courthouse in Las Vegas yesterday. The Justice Department is warning that Smirnov is still, quote, actively pedaling new lies that could impact the presidential election in November.

MATTINGLY: A prosecutor says Smirnov claims to have met with Russian intelligence officials as recently as just three months ago. It's a major twist and it's raising serious questions about the effort by House Republicans to impeach President Biden.

Let's bring in CNN senior crime and justice reporter Katelyn Polantz and CNN senior law enforcement analyst and former FBI deputy director Andy McCabe. Katelyn, I want to start with you. When you walk through this indictment, there's a lot that stands out. What really caught your attention?

KATELYN POLANTZ, CNN SENIOR CRIME AND JUSTICE REPORTER: Phil and Poppy, this is about disinformation. That's the overarching thing, both in the indictment of Alexander Smirnov, and in what the Justice Department is saying now, in the indictment accusing him of lying and providing false information to the FBI, an agency he was in frequent contact with, giving them information, often about Hunter Biden, things that could be damaging about Joe Biden in the 2020 election. The Justice Department now says those were lies.

And then what we hear from them this week in court now that Alex Smirnov has been arrested and spoke to authorities after his arrest, he continued to be providing information to the FBI, now saying that he was in touch with Russian authorities.

So not only was this informant of the FBI providing false information about Joe Biden and Hunter Biden, now there is this this piece of it tying him back, not just in 2020 when he was talking to them then, but now in the 2024 election, talking to Russian intelligence officials, spies in Russia, and providing information as well.

HARLOW: Thats one of the things, Any, that was most striking to me is they say this threat is ongoing, right, and it could impact November. Two questions, Andy, how would -- do you buy this, that it came from Russian spies? And how would the FBI go about verifying that?

ANDREW MCCABE, CNN SENIOR LAW ENFORCEMENT ANALYST: Sure. So your first question, I think, is the hardest one. I mean, it's a confounding piece of reporting, partially because on one hand it makes sense. It is consistent with what we know the Russians did in the last two presidential cycles, that is interfere with the election, and also do so on behalf of trying to help candidate Trump.

However, I think there's a lot of reasons, Poppy, to question whether or not this is accurate and to question whether or not the government even believes that it's true. I mean, first of all, the indictment of a source that's been on the books. as it were. for 10 years is essentially DOJ's version of a burn notice. This is the way that they're telling the world you cannot believe anything that this person says.


And then I think it's also important to remember the context with which we learned this. This is not an indictment. It is not a motion before the court in which the government is trying to prove the truth of the position they're taking. What they're essentially saying in this bail, this is an application to see that he's denied bail. And what they're saying is you cannot believe this person, you cannot trust this person, and therefore, they shouldn't be trusted with bail.

And I think finally the last thing for me that kind of leans in this direction is if the government actually believed these ongoing contacts with Russian intelligence are true, they would likely have an investigative interest in that. And if they had an investigative interest in that, they would not be exposing this person's connection to intelligence officials in such a public way.

So I think there's a lot that mitigates against it. What you do with it now is you try to do exactly what they did in the indictment. In the indictment, they went back and looked at all of his emails to them. They looked at his emails to other people. They looked at his travel records. And when they pieced all that incontrovertible evidence together, it painted a picture that this guy had been lying to them about the reporting that alleged a corrupt deal on behalf of Joe and Hunter Biden. So that's the sort of corroboration they need to do now.

MATTINGLY: Katelyn, those lies, at least according to the Justice Department, also form a pretty significant chunk of the basis of a Republican impeachment inquiry. Can you -- like how much of this sits at the center of what House Republicans have been pursuing? What does this do for that effort?

KATELYN POLANTZ, CNN SENIOR CRIME AND JUSTICE REPORTER: Well, House Republicans are trying to distance themselves from this. That was the initial reaction after the indictment of Smirnov. But they have been saying he was credible, and this was something -- the things that he was falsely telling the FBI about, those were in the political bloodstream.

So now House Republicans are still trying to muster some sort of impeachment of President Joe Biden, trying to link him to foreign money. What Alexander Smirnov was saying about foreign money coming into Joe Biden and Hunter Biden through Burisma, through Ukraine, that was false. And so that part does not exist anymore.

But that doesn't mean that House Republicans are done. We still expect them to do an interview with Joe Biden's brother, James Biden, today on Capitol Hill. And Hunter Biden is still scheduled to sit for a deposition next week. That long fought over deposition, or interview with House Republicans in this impeachment saga, they are going to be bringing him in. That has been agreed to.

HARLOW: Yes. Forgive people, Andy, if they're a little bit confused on all of this, both the political side of it that Katelyn was just talking about, and then the ongoing cases against Hunter Biden. Those charges are related to gun possession, firearm possession, and also taxes. Does this impact that at all?

MCCABE: Well, it's a great question. And I think Hunter Biden's lawyers are doing kind of a very artful job of trying to tie the two. And what they're essentially saying is that when they were on the brink of a plea deal last summer that would have resolved the gun charges and the tax charges, they are alleging that it was at that time that they received this reporting or had renewed interest in this reporting by this source, and that understanding that these crazy corruption allegations made them pull back from the plea deal that they had already agreed to.

And so Hunter Biden's lawyers are essentially arguing like, look, the very reporting that the government was relying upon to walk away from this deal was false by their own claims now. And so therefore, judge, you should force them to live up to the deal that they had negotiated, the plea deal they negotiated previously. I'm not sure that that's going to work for them, but it's a pretty interesting legal maneuver.

MATTINGLY: And credit for speed to in which they started to move on that renewal. Andy McCabe, Katelyn Polantz, appreciate it, guys. Thank you.

HARLOW: So five days after Alexei Navalny's death, we are finally hearing Donald Trump speak about the Russian opposition leader.

MATTINGLY: But instead of condemning Vladimir Putin, Trump double down on a narrative that his legal troubles are somehow the same as what Alexei Navalny went through in Russia.


DONALD TRUMP, FORMER U.S. PRESIDENT: 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, and you know this -- all because of the fact that I'm in politics.

It is a form of Navalny, it is a form of communism or fascism.


MATTINGLY: It is not, in fact, a form of any of those things. Here to discuss, though, CNN political commentator Bakari Sellers, and CNN senior political commentator Ana Navarro.

Bakari, I want to start with you, because I've pointed this out several times, like when you're flying in a private plane, when you live in Mar-a-Lago, when you get an hour of primetime television to have a full platform, like you are not Alexei Navalny.


However, the kind of martyrdom, it's about me and I'm a victim has worked very well in the Republican primary. Can he continue that as we move toward a general election?

BAKARI SELLERS, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Yes, he can continue it. I mean, he's been doing this now for the better part of eight years. But the problem I have is not with Donald Trump, though. Donald Trump is not a very smart man. He's almost just someone who accidentally falls into these places. But my problem is those individuals around him who we perceive to have good common sense. The individuals in the United States Senate, some of those individuals who embolden him, some people in the media.

But Donald Trump has done something beyond being this person who doesn't have a great deal of intellect. He's created this ecosystem or this echo chamber around him that reinforces these views which are just utterly disgusting. I feel really bad for Alexei Navalny's wife. I feel bad for those who support him having to go through this shame again, having to go through this while they're grieving, where you have someone up here who is running for president of the free world, comparing their plight to his is just disrespectful. But he's not a smart man. It's the people around him which should scare the rest of the country.

HARLOW: And I'm interested in your reaction to what President Biden said about this yesterday. Here he was.


JOE BIDEN, (D) PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: What the former president has said is 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.


HARLOW: It comes on the same day that our colleague M.J. Lee has some really interesting reporting that Biden is directing the people around him, his aides, to highlight the crazy stuff -- that Trump is saying, and to do so in public. What are your thoughts this morning

ANA NAVARRO, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, certainly you can include this in the crazy -- that Trump says. And I think that's a great idea. I think that Biden campaign should have a morning session -- they should have a morning TikTok, a morning Instagram and morning outlet in social media where they highlight the crazy stuff that Trump said the day before. They might need more than 280 characters. They might need more than one page, because it is a daily routine.

This is particularly offensive, and to me it's just befuddling. It's amazing. I have no explanation for how the party that I grew up idolizing Ronald Reagan, that confronted communism, that took on the USSR, that took on the Ortegas and the Castros of the world, can be kotowing to this horrible, assassin dictator in Russia and just instead, somehow equating to what's happening in America. It's beyond stupid. It's beyond crazy. It's offensive, and it is disgusting. We should, as Americans, all we speaking with one voice condemning Vladimir Putin and what he is doing. He is killing the dissidents. He is killing the opposition, and the blood on the hands is on Vladimir Putin, not on America.

But Trump has this weird need for martyrdom. He's always the martyr. He's always a Christ-like figure that's woe is me. I've never seen anybody who's been born with more, had more privilege just bestowed on him because of his birth and his last name and the position in life, and yet complaints more about being mistreated. Give me a break, dude. You got out of serving in Vietnam. You got into great -- because of your last name. You got money given to you. You got out of a bankruptcy because of your connections, and you're still complaining about your lot in life? Come to some neighborhoods -- Bakari and I can take you to some neighborhoods.

SELLERS: I think that.

MATTINGLY: Bakari, on the other side when it comes to Joe Biden, I would actually go -- I would like to travel through neighborhoods with both of you. I think they would actually be very interesting. But last night once again --

SELLERS: My momma says you need to eat some more, so you can come any day at a week.

MATTINGLY: I'm in. I'm in. I am absolutely. Let's book it now.

Last night, the president, he's out a fundraising swing. They had another good round of fundraising numbers, the campaign. And I always joke to poppy about this, like you read the pool reports where he's at a closed-door fundraiser, not on cam, and he just kind of lays out the attack lines in a way a normal candidate would that we don't actually see from him on camera.


And my question will perpetually be, why are we seeing more of --


MATTINGLY: Like, why are we seeing more of it? Because behind-the- scenes, I talk to the people in these fundraisers, they say he's fine. He's normal. These are good attack lines. Why aren't we seeing more of it?

SELLERS: I can't answer that question. I mean, I think -- I think that is the frustration that many people who are clamoring for more Joe Biden have.

You know, Julie Rodriguez, let me just say this is the best campaign manager that one can have. I mean, she is doing an amazing job with what she has around her and she is going to be the reason that this campaign survives and has the success.

I think there are people who were closer and more -- and confidantes to Joe Biden who have some fear, I would advise them to embrace his age. I mean, I would even do funny clips, maybe do a clip on IG or TikTok or Snapchat from a senior home and like, you know, be in the senior home and talk about all the accomplishments you have and the things you want to do in the future. Go out and play tennis, then eat dinner at 4:00 PM.

I mean, you know, sip on some prune juice. I mean, embrace it, laugh about it, make it funny. Get some good writers, but embrace that and then go out in the public and greet people.

People know that you're 80-something years old, but they still want to see you. They understand that you've been consequential. You're the most consequential grandfather this country has ever seen.

Embrace it. Go out there and be your authentic self.

Joe Biden is empathetic. Joe Biden is witty and Joe Biden has done a lot for this country in bridging the gap since Donald Trump, but he has to get out of Washington and the people around him not named Julie Rodriguez has to do a great job of just letting him go and letting him be.

HARLOW: Is dinner at 4:00 PM odd? By the way, just wondering.

Yes, Ana.

NAVARRO: I was actually at one of those fundraisers. It was held here in Miami by Chris Korge, who was a friend of mine, a campaign finance chair, a DNC Finance chair. It was -- it had the highest haul in history for any presidential candidate in Florida, over $6 million raised that afternoon, and I heard his pitch.

And look, I think part of the reason you don't see him doing it outside of these closed doors is because he also has to be president, right? And so punching and punching and punching at Trump, while he is saying that he is trying to be a uniter is not -- is not the look, I think he wants to reflect as he is trying to bring a resolution to the Middle East, as he's trying to condemn Putin, as he's trying to do all of these other presidential things.

There's a campaign mode and as a presidential mode, but I think at some point very, very soon, we need to see more of the Joe Biden that I saw in that closed door meeting, because he's very effective.

He's funny, he's engaging, and you know -- and people are responding to him enthusiastically. You see it in the fundraising numbers. People don't give money to people they don't think can win or want to win.

HARLOW: And I thank you, Bakari. Thank you. Let's all have 4:00 PM dinner together and toast to that. Thank you very much.

So big day ahead. Right now, one final hearing could determine if Julian Assange is extradited to the United States. We'll take you live to that court next.


[08:21:57 ]

MATTINGLY: Welcome back.

Right now, lawyers for the US government are in a London courtroom arguing that WikiLeaks founder, Julian Assange should be extradited to the US.

Today is the second day of a hearing into whether Assange should be allowed to appeal an earlier extradition decision against him. Assange is not there. He missed yesterday's hearing because his lawyer said he was unwell.

Now, you'll recall, Assange disseminated classified material related to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Lawyers for the US government argue he is not a journalist or a publisher and should be extradited to face charges under the Espionage Act.

HARLOW: Assange has lived in London since the US charged him. Two UK High Court judges are hearing the case. If they rule in favor of Assange, he can appeal the extradition decision.

MATTINGLY: Let's go now to Rebecca Vincent. And she is the director of campaigns at Reporters Without Borders, an organization that has petitioned for Assange's released for years. She spent the morning in the court listening to these proceedings.

Before we kind of get into the bigger picture here, I'm interested in your view. I know where you stand on this, but the US government's case, the lawyers, they are laying out right now. Is there anything new that the US lawyers are presenting in terms of what they're trying to say here?

REBECCA VINCENT, DIRECTOR OF CAMPAIGNS, REPORTERS WITHOUT BORDERS: So far this morning, we did hear the US start to respond to the arguments made for the basis of this application. I'd say they've doubled down. We haven't heard anything particularly new this morning.

The arguments, again, about the disclosure of bulk information, the disclosure of names, which they argue goes beyond journalistic practices. But it's my organization's position and actually that of his own defense that this was done in the public interest, the leaked classified documents, informed public interest reporting around the world.

And if Assange is prosecuted in this way, the precedent would then be set that could apply to journalists and media organizations, to many others. It's a normal journalistic practice to report on the basis of leaked information. We'll see this afternoon if the US government will respond to some

quite shocking information discussed yesterday about this allegations of CIA officials plotting his possible kidnapping or assassination. We haven't yet heard the US take that on in court, but that could happen this afternoon.

HARLOW: Yes, and the question the judges will have on that is what evidence do you have of that -- that assertion. Back to your point about this as what reporters and journalists do? The counter argument to that and you wrote a really interesting op-ed in "The Guardian" that I would encourage everyone to read making this case. The counter argument to that is his points could have been made public, that included redactions of some of the most sensitive classified information.

The other question becomes, you know, if that becomes the precedent, does it encourage more cyber threats of more release of very sensitive information? That is a differentiator here, and I wonder how you respond to that.

VINCENT: So that's quite a complicated area of the case that tends to be overly simplified because it wasn't actually WikiLeaks that initially published the unredacted dataset. An unusual series of circumstances led to the disclosure of the password by one of the media partners that WikiLeaks had worked with; another party accessed it, and was the first to publish.


We've heard evidence in previous court proceedings of how Assange tried to stop that, how he then called the White House and the State Department, warned them that publication was coming. I urge them to take action to protect anybody who might be harmed.

So it's not as straightforward as it looks and it's not as simple as him putting people at risk. He actually tried to avert risks. And so, it is really complex and doesn't often get the time in court or the time in public debate that that should merit.

MATTINGLY: Rebecca, just for people who are trying to figure out how this continues. It has obviously been going on for a long time.

If Julian Assange loses today, it kind of starts the clock, a 28-day clock, I believe. There is another mechanism he can try and pursue, but is today kind of viewed as the critical decision.

VINCENT: So we may not get a decision today. I hope we learned today at least when to expect that, but usually it will take a bit more time.

If all of his grounds for appeal are rejected this time, there is no further domestic recourse. So then it would be only the European Court of Human Rights.

However, if any of these grounds are accepted, there could be further hearings in the UK. So it very much depends on what happens next, but it has been going on a very long time, 13 years and counting. Although we still hope that the British justice system will deliver some form of justice at this late stage.

Ultimately, at its core, this is a political case, and it is still within the power of the US government to bring this to a close in other ways. We've urged the Biden administration to find a political solution. He's been in a high security prison for nearly five years already. Surely, regardless of what they think enough is enough. Five years is enough.

HARLOW: You have just, very briefly, before we go put forward your argument that you believe a political solution to this is more appropriate than a legal one. What is the argument you're making?

VINCENT: Well, we hope that a legal solution is still possible, but because it's a political case, it may not be the courts that deliver that solution. We believe that he shouldn't be punished a single day more. He shouldn't be in prison in the UK, in the US, or anywhere.

It's been 13 long years. The leaker in this case, Chelsea Manning served seven years in prison, and then President Obama commuted her sentence stating her longer sentence was disproportionate.

But if Julian Assange is extradited, he faces possibly 175 years in prison. That's absurd by any pretext, and I think for the country of the First Amendment, I would expect us to do better and we'd call again on the US government to abide by its own obligations to take a stand for press freedom and for journalism, and find a way out of this sooner rather than later.

MATTINGLY: Rebecca Vincent on a critical day in the UK, thank you.

A once peaceful country descends into gang violence. We're going to take you inside one of the most infamous prisons in the world where killers and terrorists are roaming freely.

HARLOW: And why Alexei Navalny's mother is now filing a lawsuit after her son's death in prison in Russia.