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Early Start with John Berman and Zoraida Sambolin

Soon: Verdict Expected In Trump's $370 Million Civil Fraud Trial; Georgia D.A. Fani Willis' Testimony: "I'm Not On Trial"; Former FBI Informant Charged With Lying About The Bidens' Role In Burisma. Aired 5:30-6a ET

Aired February 16, 2024 - 05:30   ET




KASIE HUNT, CNN ANCHOR: All right, you're looking live at New York City, the home of Trump World Tower, Trump International Hotel, Trump Palace, and more than one Trump play sits all on the line today.

Good morning. Thanks for being up early with us. I'm Kasie Hunt. It is 5:30 on the nose here on the East Coast where Donald Trump is about to find out if he's going to be banned from doing business in the state of New York.

A decision is expected today in the former president's civil fraud trial. The state is also seeking more than $370 million from Trump for fraudulently inflating the Trump Organization's financial statements for a decade. The New York attorney general also wants to ban Trump's two adult sons from running a business in the state for five years.

This also as we've got fireworks in Trump's Georgia election subversion case. The D.A., Fani Willis, forced to take the stand to answer deeply personal questions about her romantic relationship with her handpicked special prosecutor. The D.A. is clearly not happy about being on the other end of an interrogation.


FANI WILLIS, DISTRICT ATTORNEY, FULTON COUNTY, GEORGIA: You're confused. You think I'm on trial. These people are on trial for trying to steal an election in 2020. I'm not on trial no matter how hard you try to put me on trial.

You've lied in this and let me tell you which one you lied in. Right here. I think you lied right here.


WILLIS: No, no, no, no. This is the truth, Judge.


WILLIS: And this -- it is a lie. It is a lie.


HUNT: All right. Let's bring in criminal defense attorney and CNN legal analyst, Joey Jackson. Joey, good morning. It's always wonderful to see you.

This was a pretty astonishing -- I mean, look, there's not cameras in every courtroom, right? We don't often get to see something like this. I was kind of glued to it to be perfectly honest.

What did you make of it?

JOEY JACKSON, CNN LEGAL ANALYST, CRIMINAL DEFENSE ATTORNEY (via Webex by Cisco): Yeah, Kasie, good morning to you.

It was an embarrassing distraction at the end of the day. And certainly, we learned a lot about where she hides her money in her house, and about Belize, and about her knowledge of continents. And about when a man thinks a relationship ends and when a woman thinks a relationship ends, and when did it end, et cetera.

But I think at the end of the day, the question, Kasie, becomes did it legally move the ball forward to potentially disqualifying her and her team from the prosecution? What, if any, material effect did it have upon that prosecution? And I just did not see anything there.

And so, she says she wasn't on trial for that day -- yesterday, Kasie -- she was. But at the end of the day, you have to ask yourself was the financial entanglement to such a degree -- if you can evaluate and view this as a financial entanglement -- as to make it such that she shouldn't be appearing on the case.

And certainly, while she could have exercised better judgment with respect to the relationship and while it was perhaps very entertaining Kasie to everyone but her, I think that it doesn't move the ball to the issue of saying that you know what, this is just too much here and she has to be thrown off, and we have to look for another team to prosecute. I did not see that.

HUNT: So, Joey, there were a couple of moments where she seemed to tangle with the judge a little bit. And she is going to be back on the stand today.

Do you think she needs to be careful how she approaches the judge who has all the power? Like, has all the cards?

JACKSON: So, Kasie, I think the judge will make decisions on the merits. I'm certainly very impressed with the manner in which he handled himself and in the manner in which he handled, really, the whole issue surrounding it.

And she was feisty, right? Clearly, she's upset. Clearly, she's annoyed at the fact that she should be put through this and putting her whole life out there in terms of whether she had an affair with him and when it was, and the business meeting she met him at in 2019. And when they began. And him being a mentor and her having respect for him. She's upset and I think she's showing that. But I think at the end of the day, notwithstanding her comportment and

demeanor who people can take issue with, I think the judge will base it on the merits and determine whether or not this entanglement was of such a nature and degree as to potentially impair Mr. Trump and the other defendants to a fair trial. And that's the critical question he'll hone in on notwithstanding the fact that, yes, she was feisty, she was annoyed, combative, and she was ready.

HUNT: Indeed.

Joey, let's look ahead to today because we're finally anticipating that this ruling is going to come down from Judge Engoron around whether or not Trump can continue to do business in New York. Whether or not -- you know, how much money he's going to pay around this.

What are you expecting the judge to do here?

JACKSON: Yeah. I really think that there's enough evidence -- it seems, right, through the course of following the trial over multiple weeks -- for the judge to make a ruling that look, Trump acted improperly, acted unlawfully, acted illegally. And the issue is the extent to which, Kasie, he'll have to disgorge funds -- that is give up a certain amount of funds. How much of a fine he'll be having to pay moving forward. And so I certainly think that the Trump (sic) will find liability exposure as to Mr. Trump.


The real issue for me is what he does with the sons. It doesn't seem to me that he's as persuaded by the sons -- that is, Donald Trump's sons' conduct -- the nature and level of any criminality or not a criminal trial, a civil trial. But certainly, elements of fraud in this case, but the nature of any fraud.

And so I think as to Mr. Trump, he's in trouble. I think his business dealings in New York, Kasie, are in trouble moving forward. But I'm not sure that in that decision the judge will really extend it to his kids, but we'll see -- and very soon.

HUNT: Indeed.

Briefly, Joey, this first criminal trial appears to be scheduled to start March 25. How do you see that playing out?

JACKSON: Yeah. I think, look, we're moving forward, right? Yesterday, the judge making very clear that -- what stands out to me in that hearing, Kasie, from what we know -- certainly, no cameras in the courtroom in New York -- but what is your legal argument for deferring the trial? For having it not moving forward? Well, my client's campaigning. That's not a legal argument.

And so, I think the matter will move forward. You could say what you will but at the end of the day, there's 34 counts relating to filing false documents and what intent Mr. Trump had in filing those documents. That's a crime. Not the case of the century but certainly one that under New York State law would be brought against many other defendants, and why not Mr. Trump? He is, by the way, equal under the law, and as a result, I think this moves forward.

And I think he has exposure in the event the jury buys what is a documentary case. There are these ledgers of paybacks and what were they for? And if they're deemed to be hush money, guess what? That equals a conviction if proved beyond a reasonable doubt.

HUNT: All right, Joey Jackson. Joey, thank you very much. I'm always very grateful to have you.

JACKSON: Thank you.

HUNT: All right, turning now to Capitol Hill where the Trump- appointed special counsel David Weiss may have just blown a large hole in the Republicans' impeachment inquiry into President Biden. You may remember the many claims from Republican lawmakers of a whistleblower who could show that Biden was involved in an illegal foreign bribery scheme.


SEN. CHUCK GRASSLEY (R-IA): The foreign national who allegedly bribed Joe and Hunter Biden allegedly has audio recordings of his conversation with them -- 17 such recordings.

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

REP. KEVIN MCCARTHY (R-CA), THEN-SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE: Even a trusted FBI informant has alleged a bribe to the Biden family.


HUNT: Well, that informant, Alexander Smirnov, has now been arrested and charged with lying to the FBI and creating false records about President Biden, his son Hunter, and their business dealings.

Smirnov has been key to this impeachment inquiry led by the House Oversight Committee. But now the committee's chair, James Comer, is insisting the investigation is quote "not reliant" on Smirnov.

Let's bring in congressional reporter for Punchbowl News, Max Cohen. Max, good morning.

Can you help us get to the bottom of this? I mean, what do we know about what happened here? And can you just fact-check Comer for us? I mean, how much of their case is reliant on this informant that has now been arrested and charged with lying about things?

MAX COHEN, CONGRESSIONAL REPORTER, PUNCHBOWL NEWS (via Webex by Cisco): I think this informant is key to the GOP investigation, quite frankly. So much of what House Republicans say about President Joe Biden and his son Hunter Biden is reliant on this theory that there was foul play going on in Ukraine.

At the heart of it is Burisma, this energy company which Hunter Biden served on the board of. And Republicans say Joe Biden, when he was vice president, used official acts to make things better for Burisma because Hunter was on the board.

That's been disproven in many situations but even more so in this whistleblower allegation. The FBI -- the FBI source, Smirnov -- the DOJ has arrested him for, as you said, making it all up. And that is a stunning admission that hits at the very heart of what House Republicans are saying, which is Biden, when he was V.P., did things in office to benefit his family's business.

And here we have one main allegation -- and as you just played, so many top House Republicans have pointed to this as crucial. It's all made up.

HUNT: Yeah, it's quite a stunning turn of events. I mean, honestly, let's be real. The impeachment inquiry has kind of been plagued from the beginning. They've had a couple -- they had a couple of kickoff hearings that didn't go as planned. But this really seems like a very significant turn.

However, Max, on another issue, the -- another special counsel, Robert Hur -- who, of course, is leading that investigation into Biden's handling of classified documents and put out that report last week calling Biden an elderly man with memory problems -- we do expect him now to publicly testify.


What do we think we're going to hear from him, and how does this play into the entire swirl? I mean, this seems very clearly related to the presidential election campaign. But, your take and your reporting?

COHEN: Sure, yes. So, Robert Hur is expected to testify publicly before the House Judiciary Committee next month. Of course, that report released last week was very politically damaging for the president purely because Robert Hur described Biden as an elderly, forgetful man.

On the merits of the case -- the actual mishandling of the classified documents -- Hur made clear that what Donald Trump is alleged to have done is far more serious with the classified documents.

So on the actual merits of what Biden did after he left the vice presidency with the documents, that's not going to be the focus. Let's be honest. The focus is going to be on does Robert Hur believe that Biden is fit to be commander in chief.

And Democrats I spoke to yesterday said look, they're going to use that opportunity when Hur testifies to ask him are you qualified as a doctor or someone to opine on someone else's mental acuity? Trying to poke holes in what the most damning part of the report was, right, and that was saying Biden was elderly, forgetful, et cetera.

HUNT: And these demands to release the transcripts of these interviews -- where do you think that's going?

COHEN: That's another interesting fight, right? House Republicans -- the same people leading the impeachment inquiry -- want those from the DOJ. They say look, now that the special counsel has completed his work, there's no reason we can't see these.

Kasie, honestly, I think this is going to turn out to be another procedural fight between the Hill and the DOJ. This could stretch on for a while.

You know, those transcripts could be politically damaging for President Biden but they also could show how extensively he sat for the interviews. And Democrats could say look, our president might have forgotten some things. At least he cooperated. Whereas, Donald Trump is alleged to have done the opposite.

HUNT: Right. I mean, that was the point of all this, right? The White House wants to say hey, look at us -- we're going -- open the kimono. We got -- we got it. And that's different from President Trump but it seems to maybe have backfired here.

Max Cohen of Punchbowl News. Max, thank you very much.

COHEN: Thank you.

HUNT: All right. Coming up later in the show, high drama and raw emotion in a Georgia courtroom.


WILLIS: You're confused. You think I'm on trial. These people are on trial for trying to steal an election in 2020. I'm not on trial no matter how hard you try to put me on trial.


HUNT: The D.A. in Donald Trump's election subversion trial in Georgia back on the stand in just a few hours with the whole case on the line.

Up next, we'll hear from the former Republican lieutenant governor who testified in that case, Geoff Duncan. He's going to join us.




STEPHEN COLBERT, HOST, "THE LATE SHOW WITH STEPHEN COLBERT": How good was the sex? Good enough to risk democracy over because I've never had sex that good.


HUNT: The case against Donald Trump for interfering in Georgia's 2020 election has taken a bit of a tabloid turn -- sex, affairs, money, cash -- and it may not be derailed by the conduct of the very woman who brought it. That is Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis.

She defended herself and special prosecutor Nathan Wade in a raw and often tense all-day hearing yesterday about whether she financially benefited from hiring Wade with whom she had an affair.

The hearing is going to continue today and the goal is to determine whether Willis can be disqualified from that election subversion case that she brought against Trump.

Let's bring in someone who has actually testified as part of this case, former Georgia Republican Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan. He's also a CNN political commentator. Geoff, it's wonderful to have you. Thank you so much for being here.

Look, you've got skin in this game. You testified in this case. You've been personally impacted by all of the things that Donald Trump did that brought us to this place.

Are you disappointed in the D.A. around this?

GEOFF DUNCAN, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR, (R) FORMER GEORGIA LT. GOVERNOR (via Webex by Cisco): Well, it's certainly a plot twist of all plot twists, right? I mean, these two individuals, Nathan Wade and Fani Willis, were on the other side of this question-and-answer session, so they were definitely on defense yesterday. It almost sounded like two teenagers trying to justify coming home late or having alcohol on their breath.

But, yeah -- I mean, there's some disappointment here because I'm one of those individuals that think America needs to hear a verdict in this. Whether guilty or not guilty, these 19 individuals that tried to subvert democracy -- in my opinion, we need to hear a verdict. And this just puts a cloud of doubt as to whether or not this is an authentic procedure or case. And certainly, I hope we are able to move through this.

I don't envy Judge McAfee. He has certainly been in charge of that courtroom every minute of every day, so far, during this case. But he's got to certainly put on the scales of justice -- the weight of these discrepancies that have shown up.

HUNT: Geoff, we came in with Stephen Colbert. I mean, it was a joke but he kind of got at something fundamental about this that can be a little bit hard to say. But basically, when you are taking on Donald Trump around the subversion of the election, and knowing the way that he attacks people who come after, you absolutely have to play error- free ball. And that's not what happened here.

And I guess my question for you is -- I mean, you have been one of those people who has withstood attacks from Donald Trump and from his allies. How much ammunition did they give him here? I mean, you mentioned it kind of a little bit, but the thing that he does so aggressively in our politics is try to essentially say that things that didn't happen did and to use any little seed of questioning to make people who follow him, no matter way, believe something completely different from what others may believe, right?

I mean, how much ammunition did she hand him?

DUNCAN: Yeah. For people like me, this is more than just a court case. This is our life. I mean, my kids, my wife, my self have been threatened. Our lives have been threatened because of the lies that were spewed by these individuals that are under indictment.


So this is just more than just a court case. This is just more than just a tabloid picture that shows up at the grocery store. This is reality for us.

And so, to watch a foot fault like this show up where -- you know, at the end of the day, Fani Willis is an elected individual. She runs for office. And you know when you run for office that you're -- you know, you're held to a higher standard. And then when you indict a former president you have to have enough wits about you to know you're held to an even higher standard.

And to your point, Kasie, Donald Trump is the best at taking an inch and making it a mile. Just look at every case he's involved in right now. Just look at every dispute he's had over his four years as president. Let's just look at the ways he tries to justify January 6, and porn star payoffs, and all of that. I mean, you give this guy an inch and he takes a mile better than anybody. You talk to his former business partners.

And that's what is really concerning about this is -- look, if this all gets back on track and you have the case, can you just imagine every question that's asked, every interview that's given is going to be clouded with well, yeah, but is Fani Willis really authentic? Did she do this for the right reason? Is Nathan Wade really qualified to handle this case? That's the spot we're in.

And for me and millions of others, I hope we just get to a verdict.

HUNT: Yeah.

Geoff, if she is disqualified do you think this continues? And I also am curious how this is playing. George's a swing state. I mean, when you talk to family, friends, people who are watching this unfold, do they think that this proceeding still has credibility?

DUNCAN: Yeah. I think everybody's disappointed with what's going on and with Fani Willis' actions, right? Now whether or not that rises to the point of having to remove her, that's Judge McAfee's decision. And hopefully, he gets to a wisdom-filled decision and he makes something and moves forward.

But look, Georgia is a swing state and I still think that at the end of the day, Donald Trump has a math problem with the suburbs and Georgia has played that out over and over and over again in our various elections. When we have somebody like a Brian Kemp who leads with conservative policies, they win. When you have somebody like David Perdue or Kelly Loeffler who tries to fan the flames of conspiracy theories, they lose.

So hopefully, we can -- we can get to the -- get to the right decision here in Georgia and maybe get somebody other than Donald Trump to vote for if you're a Republican.

HUNT: All right, Geoff Duncan, former lieutenant governor of Georgia. Geoff, I always really appreciate your time. Thanks so much for being here.

DUNCAN: Absolutely.

HUNT: All right. We are still waiting for charges in the deadly shooting at the Kansas City Chiefs Super Bowl parade. We're going to tell you what we know about that investigation. That's ahead on "CNN THIS MORNING."

And also, Iowa star Caitlin Clark etching her place in history. How she broke the all-time NCAA women's scoring record in extraordinary fashion. Our Bleacher Report is up next.


HUNT: Caitlin Clark makes history, setting the NCAA women's basketball scoring record in high style.

Andy Scholes has this morning's Bleacher Report from Indianapolis, which is the site of this weekend's NBA All-Star Game. Andy, good morning. What a night.

ANDY SCHOLES, CNN SPORTS ANCHOR: Yeah, good morning, Kasie.

Yeah, what a night. What a career, so far, for Caitlin Clark. You know, she came into last night eight points away from passing Kelsey Plum on top of the all-time scoring list and it did not take long for her to do it.


ANNOUNCER: Scoops a pass to Clark. Logo, three. Got it! Twenty-two is now number one. Caitlin Clark is the NCAA's all-time scoring leader in women's basketball history.


SCHOLES: Yeah, Clark nailing that three from way downtown in the first quarter to break the record. All the fans and her family just going nuts and celebrating in the stands.

Clark would go on to score a career-high 49 in front of a sellout crowd as Iowa beat Michigan 106-89.

And here was Clark after the game about now being on top of that all- time scoring list.


CAITLIN CLARK, ALL-TIME NCAA WOMEN'S LEADING SCORER: I don't know if you can really script it any better. I'm very grateful. I'm very thankful to be surrounded by so many people that have kind of been my foundation in everything that I've done since I was a young little girl. And I started crying watching it on video just because, like, I'm just filled with so much gratitude and love. And the way these fans support women's basketball is so much special -- is so special.


SCHOLES: All right. Here in Indianapolis, "INSIDE THE NBA" with a big show ahead of All-Star Weekend. And I caught up with the guys and asked them how impressed they have been with what Clark has been able to do.

CHARLES BARKLEY, ANALYST, TNT "INSIDE THE NBA": When you are a great, great player like that you have tremendous pressure on you every single night. And she's answered the bell (PH).

SHAQUILLE O'NEAL, ANALYST, TNT "INSIDE THE NBA": When it comes to the greatest -- I don't want to say women's player, but greatest players in college history -- I don't know their names but her name's in there.

BARKLEY: She's obviously a great player and I'm really looking forward to seeing her play in person at some point.


SCHOLES: All right. Klay Thompson, meanwhile, coming off the bench for the Warriors for the first time since his rookie season 12 years ago. Head coach Steve Kerr said Klay wasn't thrilled about it but he took out his frustration on the Jazz. Klay knocking down seven threes on his way to a season-high 35 points.

And afterwards, he said, "You can do two things. You can pout or you can go out there and respond. I thought I did the latter very well tonight."

The Warriors beat the Jazz in that one 140-137.

All right. And finally, Tiger Woods back on the golf course making his PGA Tour season debut at the Genesis Invitational. And he had his share of ups and downs. He finished the first round one over par with six bogies and five birdies. Tiger is going to have a little work to do today if he hopes to make the cut.

But Kasie, back here in Indianapolis, All-Star Weekend always so much fun. Of course, tomorrow night you've got the three point. You've got the dunk contest. You've got that special three-point contest between Steph Curry and Sabrina Ionescu.

And, of course, tonight things are going to get started with the rising stars. We've got Victor Wembanyama at All-Star Weekend for the first time, so looking forward to it.


HUNT: No, it sounds awesome. I'm jealous. It sounds like a great weekend for you.

And also, Caitlin Clark, man -- what a legend. That performance out of this world.

SCHOLES: It's going to be so much fun as we get closer to March Madness with Caitlin Clark involved, Kasie. I cannot wait.

HUNT: It's so much fun to watch her play. It's just an absolute thrill. And I love that it's making -- it's giving women's basketball a real boost.

Andy, thank you so much. Have fun this weekend.

SCHOLES: All right.

HUNT: And thanks to all of you for joining us. I'm Kasie Hunt. Have a great weekend. Don't go anywhere. "CNN THIS MORNING" starts right now.