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Early Start with John Berman and Zoraida Sambolin

Capitol Riot Hearings; Interview with Palm Beach County, Florida State Attorney Dave Aronberg; Interview with Former Federal Prosecutor And "That Said with Michael Zeldin" Podcast Host Michael Zeldin; Senate Passes First Major Federal Gun Safety Bill; Supreme Court Striking Down New York Gun Law; Guns in America; Russia's War on Ukraine; Protests in Ecuador Over Rising Costs. Aired 5-5:30a ET

Aired June 24, 2022 - 5:00   ET



LAURA JARRETT, CNN EARLY START ANCHOR: Good morning, everyone. Welcome to our viewers in the United States and all around the world. It is Friday, June 24th. I'm Laura Jarrett. Christine is off this morning.

We begin with a remarkable hearing on Capitol Hill, Thursday as the American public heard powerful testimony about former President Trump's effort to weaponize the justice department for his own political ends. Three Trump appointees, top justice department officials painting a vivid portrait of a former president who wanted the veneer legitimacy from DOJ to back his bogus claims, overturn the 2020 election, and stay in power. Even some Trump allies, now privately acknowledging to CNN, that some of the testimony from yesterday was, "Damaging".

This is the room where it happened. A dramatic high stakes meeting in the oval office just three days before the Capitol riot in January of 2021. The witnesses testified that Trump leaned on them to publicly call the election fraudulent and corrupt, something they wouldn't do. And that when the Acting Attorney General, Jeffrey Rosen, there refused, Trump threatened to replace him with this little-known environmental lawyer from the civil division, Jeffrey Clark. The justice department officials in the room all pushed back threatening to resign.


RICHARD DONOGHUE, FORMER ACTING DEPUTY ATTORNEY GENERAL: He said, so suppose I do this? Suppose I replace him, Jeff Rosen, with him, Jeff Clark. What would you do? And I said, Mr. President, we resign immediately. I'm not working one minute for this guy, who I just declared was completely incompetent.

And so, the president immediately turned to Mr. Engel and he said, Steve, you wouldn't resign, would you? And he said, absolutely I would, Mr. President. You leave me no choice. And then I said, and we're not the only ones. No one cares if we resign. If Steve and I go, that's fine. It doesn't matter. But I'm telling you what is going to happen, you're going to lose your entire department leadership. Every single AAG will walk out on you. Your entire department leadership will walk out within hours.


JARRETT: Clark had been a linchpin in Trump's plot here. Cooking up a letter to have the DOJ officials, who testified yesterday, that they were going to claim falsely that the fraud in Georgia was justification for the State's lawmakers to disregard the election results there and appoint a new slate of electors. A plan so bold that it was described by Trump's own White House lawyers in video testimony as, "Nuts and a murder-suicide pact".

Now, just hours before yesterday's hearing, reports emerged that federal agents had actually conducted a search of Clark's home. Now, it's unclear exactly what those investigators were looking for. Here with me now, let's bring in Florida State Attorney for Palm Beach County, Dave Aronberg, and former federal prosecutor, Michael Zeldin, host of the podcast, "That Said with Michael Zeldin".

Gentlemen, so nice to have you. A lot to get to. A lot to unpack. Dave, I want to start with you. Yesterday, was so striking to me. So much of this testimony, we had heard through, sort of, drips and drabs. But they really laid out a portrait yesterday, a picture, if you will, of how desperate the scene was in those leading up to the Capitol riot. What stood out the most to you?

DAVE ARONBERG, FLORIDA STATE ATTORNEY, PALM BEACH COUNTY: Yes, I think the quote from Trump the -- that says, "Just say the election was corrupt and leave the rest to me and the Republican congressmen". That, to me, was the closest thing to a smoking gun that we've seen so far. It establishes some criminal intent on the part of the former president and could lead to criminal charges.

In particular, conspiracy to defraud the United States, which is punishable by five years in prison. And possibly a violation of the Hatch Act which is punishable by up to three years in prison. That's the crime of attempting to intimidate, command, or coerce a federal employee into engaging in political activities. And when you tell DOJ officials, government employees, just to declare this none-existing corruption and just leave the rest to the former president and Republican members of congress, that to me sounds like a political ask possibly in violation of federal law.

JARRETT: So, let's play exactly what you're talking about there because the one who was the acting DAG, Donoghue, actually testified about that in particular yesterday. So, let's listen to that.



REP. ADAM KINZINGER (R-IL): Let's take a look at another one of your notes. You also noted that Mr. Rosen said to Mr. Trump, "DOJ can't and won't snap its fingers and change the outcome of the election." How did the president respond to that, sir? DONOGHUE: He responded very quickly and said, essentially, that's not what I'm asking you to do. What I'm just asking you to do is just say it was corrupt and leave the rest to me and the Republican congressmen.


JARRETT: Michael, do you agree with Dave that that speaks to the former president's intent here?

MICHAEL ZELDIN, FORMER FEDERAL PROSECUTOR AND "THAT SAID WITH MICHAEL ZELDIN" PODCAST HOST: Absolutely. And I also would add to that that on the January 3rd meeting in the White House, Rosen and Trump were having a conversation and Trump says to Rosen, you're not going to do anything about this, are you? You're not going to send this proof-of- concept letter that Clark drafted this fraudulent letter about fraud in Georgia? And he said, I'm absolutely not going to do anything about it. And he said, I can't do anything about it. It's unconstitutional. It's illegal. And in the aftermath of that, Trump still moved forward in an effort to get this false letter out there. So, to the point of criminal knowledge, criminal intent, I think both of these conversations speak exactly to that.

JARRETT: Well, it's interesting, we -- one of the new things we learned yesterday is that on the White House call logs, before that meet being even takes place, someone in the White House had actually characterized Clark as the acting attorney general which means even before Trump confronted Rosen -- there you go. Before Trump confronted Rosen and says, you're not going to do any of this, are you? Internally within the White House, they had named somebody else to the job. And so, Dave, I wonder if that's one of -- what you might call an affirmative act in the legal sense.

ARONBERG: Yes, although Trump may just blame it on the coffee boy to making that mistake. But, yes, I mean, Jeffrey Clark was the biggest loser of the day yesterday. He was portrayed rightly so as some bomb villain. He was given the John Eastman treatment. I mean, he tried to achieve his dream of becoming attorney general at the expense of our country and our experiment with democracy.

And that plan to corrupt the DOJ went a lot farther than we thought because of what you mentioned, the call logs. And if he had become acting attorney general, can you imagine? The attempted coup would have been led by the nation's top law enforcement officer. That's a scary thought. Here is this unqualified environmental lawyer who has never tried a criminal case, never been before a jury, but he had a ton of ambition. An unlimited loyalty to Donald Trump. So, my advice to him would be to not buy any green bananas because the FBI may come back and take him away pretty soon.

JARRETT: Well, we know the FBI has already been at his home on Wednesday -- or at least I should say federal agents were at his home. On Wednesday we learned they essentially did a -- carried out an early morning raid. He was outside in his pajamas while they were inside for some number of hours, is our understanding. What does that timing say to you, Dave? ARONBERG: Well, the timing could be anything. Because, you know, people saying, well, the Feds timed it to coincide with the hearing. But, you know, to get these warrants, you got to show probable cause and get a judge to sign off on it. And the probable cause would be that there is evidence of a crime inside his house.


ARONBERG: So, it shows that there has been a lot of investigation of this guy and rightly so. And he got what he deserved. He should be standing outside alone in the dark in his pajamas watching the Feds raid his place and take his electronic devices. That's what you get when you do something like what he did to jeopardize our country's democracy.

JARRETT: Michael, I also want to ask you about this Trump documentary. Now, we've only seen, sort of, teasers, little bits and pieces. But the filmmaker here, Holder, has been on our air talking about this whole issue of Trump's intent. I want to play a little bit of that sound.


ALEX HOLDER, DOCUMENTARY FILMMAKER: I had this debate with our director of photography, Michael, about whether or not the president actually believed that the election was rigged. And I was of the opinion that, of course, he doesn't really believe the election was rigged. This is just sort of Donald Trump rhetoric. But after that interview, when he left, and I was now thinking about what just happened, my entire position changed. He absolutely genuinely believes that he won and that the election was stolen from him.

DON LEMON, CNN DON LEMON TONIGHT ANCHOR: And in that moment you changed your mind?

HOLDER: Absolutely. I changed my mind to the point that he didn't really believe it, i.e. my conclusion was that Donald Trump genuinely believes that he won the 2020 presidential election. And that is terrifying.


JARRETT: Michael, what do you make of that? He's been told any number of ways from any number of people, you lost. This is going nowhere fast. Even if he somehow does still believe it, does that matter legally?

ZELDIN: I don't think so. There is a defense that he could argue which is diminished capacity or some mental incapacity that he doesn't believe the facts that have been presented to him.


But, you know, I can understand that the filmmaker would feel convinced by Trump's alleged lack of true belief. But the objective facts that give rise to all the information that Trump had makes it impossible for that type of thinker to not understand the truth that is presented to you. Again, unless you have some sort of diminished capacity.

JARRETT: And, certainly, an unreasonable belief and completely unfounded to say the very least after all of the warnings that he was given from, as I said, any number of different people. His own appointees told him time and again that you lost. Give it up. All right, gentlemen. Thank you so much, Dave and --

ZELDIN: And in fact, Laura --

JARRETT: Go ahead, Michael.

ZELDIN: Sorry. I was just going to say, one thing that the Acting Deputy Attorney General Donoghue said in the interview was that he wanted to tell Trump -- he said -- his words were, very bluntly that he lost. He wanted there to be no confusion in Trump's mind.


ZELDIN: So, when you have that very bluntly presentation, it's impossible to say that you didn't know the truth of the matter.

JARRETT: Yes, and he was not the only one. All right. Michael Zeldin and Dave Aronberg, thank you guys so much for getting up bright and early for me. Appreciate it. Big day yesterday.

ZELDIN: Thanks.

ARONBERG: Thank you.

JARRETT: All right. The U.S. Senate passing a bipartisan gun safety bill and now it heads to the House where the top three Republicans oppose it.

Plus, tensions boiling in New York after the U.S. Supreme Court strikes down the State's handgun law.

And this --



JARRETT: -- Ecuador in turmoil, protests turning deadly as food and gas prices soar there.



Welcome back. For the first time in decades, the Senate has passed a bipartisan gun safety bill.


SEN. SHERROD BROWN (D-OH): The yeas are 65. The nays are 33. The motion to concur with an amendment is agreed to.


JARRETT: 15 Republicans joined Senate Democrats to pass the first major federal gun safety legislation, a deal that includes millions of dollars for mental health, school safety, and crisis intervention programs. CNN's Daniella Diaz joins us live from Capitol Hill this morning.

Daniella, so this will now set up a vote in the House. How soon will that happen?

DANIELLA DIAZ, CNN REPORTER: In just a couple of hours, Laura, we should expect the House to convene and take up this legislation. The final step that needs to happen before it goes to President Joe Biden's desk for signature. Of course, the priority being that lawmakers finish and pass this legislation before they go for a two- week recess starting this afternoon. In fact, some of the senators have already left the Capital.

But look, this is monumental, Laura, that -- for the first time in nearly three decades, the Senate was able to pass a bipartisan bill on gun safety legislation. Of course, some Democrats argue that it does not go far enough. They, of course, were hoping to include some legislation on banning assault rifles.

But look, it does have millions of dollars, as you said, Laura, for mental health, school safety, crisis intervention programs. It also makes significant changes to the process when someone age 18 to 21 goes to buy a firearm. And it also closes the so-called boyfriend loophole, a major priority for Democrats in these negotiations.

So, now it's passed to Senate. Late last night happened. Of course, 15 Republicans joined all -- six -- 15 Republicans joined all 50 Democrats in supporting that legislation, including the top Republican in the Senate, Mitch McConnell. Now, it'll go to the house. However, we do expect just only a handful of Republican votes in the house, not including the top three Republicans in the House, McCarthy, Stefanik, Scalise.

But it'll still pass because it only needs a simple majority and it will go to President Joe Biden's desk for signature. And he has already endorsed this legislation, Laura, so we expect that to happen as soon as possible. So, a really, really huge news.

JARRETT: All right. A big day there on Capitol Hill. Daniella, thank you for covering it from the very beginning for us. Appreciate it.

Still ahead for you, Russia tightening its grip on a key region in Eastern Ukraine as the European union signals interest in Kyiv's request for membership. We're going to take you live to Kyiv for the very latest.

And the political unrest turning deadly in Ecuador. What this means as the daily demonstrations against the government there enter a 12th day. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)


This morning, Russian forces continue to press towards a key pair of cities in the Donbas region of Eastern Ukraine making some gains in the past 24 hours, claiming two villages to the South. CNN's Salma Abdelaziz is live for us in Kyiv.

Salma, good morning. The East, under heavy attack. We understand you have some new reporting on hundreds of war casualties yet to be determined here.

SALMA ABDELAZIZ, CNN REPORTER: Yes, Laura. Let's start with what's happening in the Lysychansk Region in that all-important City of Severodonetsk because this appears to be a major loss that's happening now for Ukrainian forces.

Local officials saying that they have called on troops, commanded troops, Ukrainian forces now to withdraw from Severodonetsk, that's a place that has been under constant Russian attack for nearly two months. An important industrial city that would bring president Putin one step closer to that wider goal, the larger goal of taking control of the entire Donbas. And it happens as we see losses, territorial losses, for Ukraine all across that region. Russian forces taking towns and villages, using that superior military might to make that inch-by-inch advance.

And meanwhile here in Kyiv, we follow the stories of those who have died and their families looking for those bodies, so they can finally be laid to rest. Take a look at their struggle.


ABDELAZIZ (voiceover): Inside each of these body bags is a John Doe. Remains left in the ruins of war for weeks that are too decomposed to be recognized.


But among them may be this man, Daniel Sofanof (ph), the 28-year-old policeman was among the fighters believed killed in Mariupol's Azovstal plant in early May. His sister is here to try and identify his remains.

There was nothing left of him to recognize, she tells me. For a month and a half his body lay in the heat.

ABDELAZIZ (on camera): You said these were pictures that he carried with him from his son.

ABDELAZIZ (voiceover): This is how she IDed Daniel, drawings from his six-year-old son, tucked in his pocket, and somehow intact.

I prayed to God every day that I would find him, she says. The wait was unbearable. I feel calmer now that I can finally bury him. Her relief is extremely rare.

ABDELAZIZ (on camera): Authorities have set up a hotline so families can call in, report a missing person, and then they're asked to give a DNA sample. After that, they have to hope for a match.

ABDELAZIZ (voiceover): Inside the morgue, the complex process begins. Tissue is extracted from the deceased. A piece of bone is often the only option. The samples are then sent to a lab where analysts work to build a DNA profile. Of the nearly 700 unidentified, so far, cataloged, about 200 have been paired to their families, according to officials. The chief forensic expert here is behind tens of those matches.

ABDELAZIZ (on camera): How long does it take you to find one match?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Well, it depends on how many DNA profiles we have in the database. The more profiles we have, the more matches we make. I guess, it will take some years after the war will end to find all the unidentified human bodies.

ABDELAZIZ (voiceover): But there are families that will never get closure. Some bodies are too damaged to collect sufficient DNA.

We have parents who tell us, I understand you cannot find my child. But at least bring me some of the dirt they walked on from Mariupol to bury, she says. The unbearable agony of never laying a loved one to rest.


ABDELAZIZ (on camera): It's true in any conflict that there are many people killed in the war who will never be retrieved from the rubble. Even the right to bury your loved one is not a guarantee. Laura.

JARRETT: Very powerful reporting. Salma, thank you as always.

Now to these anti-government protests in Ecuador leaving at least four people dead. The country's capital, Quito, paralyzed by demonstrators blocking roads, burning tires, and clashing with police as you can see. The unrest posing a significant challenge for the right-wing government of the president who is struggling to revive an economy battered by the pandemic. We get more now from Stefano Pozzebon.

STEFANO POZZEBON, CNN JOURNALIST: Yes, Laura, protests are giving no signs of seizing in Ecuador, but at least four have died and scores have been injured, including at least 100 policemen according to Ecuadorean authorities since June 13. This nationwide wave of protests, which have been going on for over 10 days in the South American country has been led by the Confederation of Indigenous People or CONAIE in Spanish. They have been demanding the government to introduce better subsidies to reduce fuel prices and regulating the price of food amid the inflationary hike.

The government, President Guillermo Lasso, has made repeated calls for dialogue and has declared a State of Emergency in at least the six provinces. On Tuesday, the Confederation of Indigenous People presented a series of demand in order to reduce the protests including a partial demilitarization of the capital city, Quito, which has seen some of the worst clashes. But again, on Wednesday and Thursday, marches were reported across the country. And police had to use teargas in order to keep the crowds at bay. Laura.

JARRETT: Stefano, thank you for that.

President Biden now calling the Supreme Court's decision striking down New York's gun law called a bad decision. We're going to be joined by a former Clerk for Justice, Clarence Thomas, to talk about that ruling and what it means for other States now.

Plus, the high cost of energy about to soar even higher.