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Inside Politics

Next Hour: Hearing On Unsealing Affidavit Behind Mar-a-Lago Search; Ex-Trump Finance Chief Pleads Guilty In Tax Fraud Scheme; Weisselberg Expected To Serve 100 Days In Prison After Guilty Plea; Weisselberg Defies Predictions & Pressure, Does Not Flip On Trump; Cook Political Report Update: PA Sen Race Now Lean Dem; Midterm Climate Improving For Dems With 82 Days Left; Poll: Generic Congressional Ballot Split Evenly Between Dems & GOP; Trump Plots Political Future Amid Intensifying Legal Storm. Aired 12-12:30p ET

Aired August 18, 2022 - 12:00   ET



JOHN KING, CNN HOST: Hello, and welcome to Inside Politics. I'm John King in Washington. Thank you for sharing a very busy news day with us. Soon a courtroom-fight over whether to make public that sealed affidavit. The affidavit the FBI used to justify its search warrant for Donald Trump's Mar-a-Lago home.

Plus, a midterm shift, a key Senate race moves toward the Democrats and away from Republicans plagued by weak candidates. And you might call this an inkblot test on the economy. Housing slides into a recession. But there is more good news on gas crisis.

To begin the hour with a court showdown, over whether we should get to see just how the FBI secured its search warrant from Mar-a-Lago. Next hour, lawyers for the Justice Department and several media organizations will argue inside a federal courtroom in Florida. An issue, whether the affidavit, the DOJ file to support the application for that unprecedented warrant should be made public or whether it should stay secret.

The document contains sensitive details not only to the government, including the identity of witnesses who cooperated with federal investigators. The Justice Department argues making those details public would hand deliver its investigative roadmap to team Trump, and perhaps threaten the safety of those witnesses.

Let's begin with CNN's Jessica Schneider. Jess, the Justice Department says keep it public, we will see if the judge agrees, keep it private, excuse me.

JESSICA SCHNEIDER, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Exactly. That's right, keep it private. We'll see what the judge how he sides on this when this hearing starts at one o'clock. He'll deliberate probably after that. There are big stakes here because of course, this affidavit provided all the underlying details the probable cause for that search warrant. So, Justice Department prosecutors, they will be arguing forcefully to continue to keep this affidavit out of public view. Meanwhile, it's the media organizations including CNN, who are asking for the unsealing of this affidavit. You know, in their filing, they've said that it really is in the public interest to get more details surrounding the Mar-a-Lago search. They say it hasn't been since the Nixon administration that the government has used its power to get records in such a public fashion.

Now, we have been waiting for a response from the Trump team. They were supposed to file this morning, but we have seen nothing in the court docket yet. We'll see if they're in the courtroom, if they make any arguments. But this will play out with the federal judge in Florida really peppering both sides of this, the Department of Justice and the media.

So, DOJ prosecutors, you know, they'll reiterate what we saw in their filing, saying that the release of this affidavit would derail their investigation. They say it would reveal investigative techniques, sensitive witness information that they cannot have out in the public. The media organizations, meanwhile, will be arguing for full disclosure here.

Now, it is also possible that the judge in this case here, he could review this affidavit, eventually behind closed doors, maybe decide what selectively to release from the affidavit, not the whole thing but parts of it. So, all of this playing out once the hearing begins at 1pm. We'll wait and see if Trump team, Trump's legal team will be in the courtroom making any arguments. But John, for the most part, this is between the DOJ and the media organizations pushing to get it released.

KING: Jessica Schneider, appreciate you're kicking us off. Let's get some important expertise and insights now from the former federal prosecutor, Elliot Williams. So, Elliot, first let's just focus on the issues at hand, then we'll get to the Trump question. The Justice Department says, keep it secret. The media organizations say it is very relevant because of the public interest to make it public. What is the bar? What is the legal bar that the media organizations need to cross?

ELLIOT WILLIAMS, FORMER FEDERAL PROSECUTOR: Yes. Focus on the words in the public interest? Now look, our constitution guarantees that criminal proceedings are public and open for the protection of defendants. Affidavits in support of search warrants are kind of an exception to that, because number one, we give prosecutors the ability to conduct their cases without jeopardizing evidence or people's safety.

Now, that can be lifted if a judge finds that it would be in "the public interest to do so." And that's an open question. Both sides are going to argue about it. Now the courts tend to lean toward the views of prosecutors when they say look, this is a public safety question. And this will mess up our investigative techniques. I'd have a hard time believing this would be released publicly, John?

KING: At least one of Trump's lawyers Christina Bobb is there at the courthouse, so they were invited to file. We have not seen a filing from them. Are they technically a party to this case? In the sense that it's the Department of Justice, FBI affidavit doesn't belong to them. But does their opinion matter?


WILLIAMS: Not really, because, again, this is really between the Justice Department and the court. Now look, it is a rare instance where the defendant is asking for the information to be released because think about all the information that might be in an affidavit, laying out why prosecutors think that someone might have broken the law. So that's usually in most cases very bad for defendant.

Now, of course, this is not a usual case. So, we shall see, you know, how much the court considers the views of the defendant here. But again, usually it's the prosecutor whose opinion carries the most weight here. They're a party to this, like we said, sort of the beginning. The President Trump is a party to this has a right to weigh in if the judge is called, but both parties argue and file the pleadings with the court.

KING: Right. You just said it is unusual for Donald Trump. Donald Trump has said publicly on his Truth Social site, that he wants the affidavit released. Does that matter at all to the judge, though? Does that have any legal standing? Or what is attorneys need to say that in court for the judge to consider it?

WILLIAMS: You know, there's a hodgepodge of questions that will go into this idea of, if something is in the public interest. And one question might be, well, the defendant has asked for this to be released. Does that sort of Trump pun intended? What the prosecutors have said about this? At the end of the day, the questions that are going to drive the judge's opinion are number one, are investigative tactics going to be jeopardized? Number two, what are the views of the prosecutors here?

And most importantly, I think very importantly, could anyone safety be put at risk here, either in the form of witnesses and cooperators or agents themselves if this evidence or their names are made public. And you can't cleanly redacted, John. You can't sort of black out people's names because all the information in it is so secure.

KING: So, I was just going to follow up on that. You don't see a middle ground in the sense that could the judge instead, you know, order a summary to be released, but that's a new dock, you'd have to create a new document and that's not what's at stake here, right?

WILLIAMS: Yes. And what the new documents still going to reveal investigative, if the whole point here is, is showing the public what the investigative techniques are, even a new document wouldn't really help there. John, it would literally be search warrant executed on whatever date, it was August 10, or whatever. And then 20 pages of black boxes almost out of an old spy movie, it would be totally useless to the public to try to redact this. There is just no clean way, I think that you could do it.

KING: Elliot, standby for us. Without your (Ph) views on something related sort of in just a minute and we'll ask for that. We go to New York and more Trump related courtroom drama. The former Trump chief financial officer, Allen Weisselberg, entered a guilty plea this morning. 15 felony counts in a massive tax fraud scheme.

The deal will not turn Weisselberg into a states' witness, but it will compel him to testify against his former company should the case against the Trump Organization ever go to trial. CNN's Kara Scannell is live for us in New York. Kara, walk us through what happened and what it means?

KARA SCANNELL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, John. So, this hearing wrapped up just a short while ago. It was about an hour long and Allen Weisselberg in the courtroom. The judge going through every one of the 15 counts that he was pleading guilty too, asking Weisselberg if this was what he was pleading to? He said in each of those times, he said, yes, your Honor, in a very hushed tone. He didn't give any other statements.

But as part of this plea agreement, Allen Weisselberg will have to testify against the Trump Organization, where he has worked for more than 40 years. And the Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg, issuing a statement after this plea deal, claiming victory. He said, instead of paying his fair share, like everyone else, Weisselberg have the Trump Organization provide him with a rent-free apartment, expensive cars, private school tuition for his grandchildren, and new furniture all without paying required taxes.

This plea agreement directly implicates the Trump Organization in a wide range of criminal activity and requires Weisselberg to provide invaluable testimony in the upcoming trial against the corporation. Now Weisselberg will also have to pay back $2 million in taxes, interest and penalties. The judge warning him today that if he does not live up to all of those obligations, he could face a stiffer sentence and what they agreed on. And today they agreed, he would serve five months in prison. His lawyer saying the time off for good behavior that could be 100 days.

Now I just got in a statement from the Trump Organization, they're calling Allen Weisselberg a fine and honorable man, someone who was harassed, prosecuted and threatened. They also reiterated that they, the Trump Organization is not taking a plea deal. They said they have done nothing wrong. And they're looking forward to their day in court. John?

KING: Kara Scannell, live for us, a very important development. Kara, thank you. Let's bring Elliot Williams back into the conversation. Elliot, help me with the distinction. He is not a state's witness. But he is compelled by this plea deal to testify if there is a trial to the Trump Organization. So, he has to answer questions, but he's not, what?

WILLIAMS: Right. He could testify at trial, but he's not providing interviews and background information about the former president. Like think about cooperators, if you watch mob movies, the guys who are literally flipped to testify against their bosses or to provide wiretaps and that didn't really happen here. But to provide information against their bosses or the folks they work for, that's not going to happen here. Now, if there's a trial, he can be called as a witness, and he's agreed to that.


KING: Now, if you go back in time, I just want to show you some headlines These are from months ago, way back 2021, more than a year ago actually. Yes. When Weisselberg, when we first understood, he was talking to prosecutors, when they were having about all this thing. If we could put up the headlines up there at the New York Times, Weisselberg, soldier' for Trump, faces charges and test of his loyalty.

There you see USA Today. You see the Washington Post. There was some thought then, there are a lot of people that Trump critics, every time there's a new investigation or big new development, say this is the one that Allen Weisselberg took this plea deal. But it's not a states' witness. What does that tell you about his tone and tenor when it comes to testifying down the road against the Trump Organization?

WILLIAMS: Yes. There is a few things here. Number one, he can certainly testify against the Trump Organization, but not the former president himself. Now, look, this really was never the one. At the end of the day, this was a relatively small case in financial fraud terms. And I know most Americans will never see $1.7 million as long as in their entire lives.

However, in the case of New York City financial fraud cases, it's not an enormous case. And this was never going to be, and it was actually - there were actually going to be some proof problems in convicting him. Ultimately, you would have to have proven that he intended to evade any tax law in his conduct.

And I think, a good defense attorney could get past a jury. The question of well, you know, he thought this was just his compensation. So, there would have been a number of challenges that this was never the mushroom cloud, smoking gun that was going to take down Donald Trump the man. Now, certainly there are questions about the Trump Organization that can face criminal charges. And we'll see what happens there.

KING: Elliot Williams, thanks for clearing that up. Appreciate the insights. Up next for us. What a top political analyst calls a blue summer breeze, several key race ranking shift in the Democrats direction.



KING: Today more signs of an improving midterm political climate for President Biden and the Democrats. The highly regarded Cook Political Report changed its rating of the Pennsylvania Senate race from toss up to lean Democrat. Now, we are 82 days out from the midterm vote counts. Still plenty, plenty and plenty of time for mood swings. But Cook also shifting Colorado's Senate race from likely Democratic to lean democratic, which means there's volatility out there, but still at the moment. Democrats are feeling better and the data back that up.

If last summer's theme song for the Democrats was Cruel Summer, this summer should be Summer Breeze. Those words the take of the Cook Political Report publisher and editor-in-chief, Amy Walter, who joins us now live. Amy, I like that, the idea. Last summer was cruel, if you looked at all the data for the Democrats, this one is better. The question is how much of a breeze, when you move this state now held - Pennsylvania now held by a Republican key to the 50-50 control who will control the Senate come January. When you shift that toward the Democrats, the question is why?

AMY WALTER, PUBLISHER AND EDITOR-IN-CHIEF, COOK POLITICAL REPORT: Yes, absolutely. So, on paper, Pennsylvania is a state that obviously incredibly competitive. Joe Biden carried it near, very narrowly. But it's a place where the Republican candidate has been unable to really benefit from what should be a pretty good environment. As I said that the breeze for Democrats or the environment for Democrats, a whole lot better than it was last summer.

But there is enough of a tailwind for Republicans, that candidate should be able to benefit. In this case, the Republican candidate, Dr. Oz is deeply underwater in terms of his image. It was a very messy primary. He's not been able to consolidate the bass. And he seems to have been on the defensive for the entirety of this campaign. The question is not, is he going to be able to close the gap?

I think he will. It will he be able to close it enough to be able to overtake the Democrat John Fetterman. This is a place where even Republicans, the most optimistic Republicans have become very pessimistic about this state. They haven't written it off by any chance. But they're much more pessimistic than they were say, you know, again, earlier in the summer.

KING: And so, another state will show you a new Marquette Law School Poll in Wisconsin. Again, that's a seat held now currently by a Republican incumbent. And what Republican do you think he might hold? Mandela Barnes, the democratic lieutenant governor up by seven points there. Again, I want to discuss that with you. But first, some context from what you write because you make the key point that 12 weeks, 82 days is a ton of time.

Where you talk about the shift from Cruel Summer to Summer Breeze, you also say overall, the mood among political operatives on both sides of the aisle is cautious, one GOP operative, while acknowledging that it feels like the environment is deteriorating a little, followed up by saying it'd be interesting to see how things feel in mid-September.

Longtime Democratic senator strategist argued that, while things were looking good in the data today, sustaining this mood for 12 weeks is a lot. It is a lot, but the democratic mood right now as I bring you in as, they feel better about Pennsylvania, you agree, and the Cook Political Party has shifted.

Democrats think OK, we are actually competitive in Wisconsin that tells us something. They feel they're actually fairly competitive in Ohio, another Republican health seat, and they feel much better about two key seats that we have Democratic incumbents, Georgia and Arizona. The question is, what do you look for? What do we watch in the 12 weeks left to see if that holds?

WALTER: And this is really the key, John, and this is why there's so much caution and confusion among political strategist, including those who've been around for quite some time. We've just never seen such a disconnect between opinions of the president, which continued to be a very low. He's gone up. Maybe a couple of points since his lowest on measurement earlier this summer, but he's still sitting somewhere around 39, 40 percent job approval rating. But the Senate candidates are outperforming that number in some cases by 10 or 12 points, that's just not supposed to happen. Opinions about the president really filtered down to the president's party.


I think, really what's happening and what has been happening over the course of the summer, John, is the fact that the focus has been almost entirely on Republicans, and not in a good way on things that put Republicans in an uncomfortable spot, the issue of abortion, and most importantly, January 6, and Donald Trump and the primaries that have - Republican primaries that have been incredibly contentious.

And were issues like, whether the election was stolen or not, have been front and center. This really, I think, has made it easier for Democrats to say, look, we're the party that understands the issues that are important to you. It's Republicans that are off here, focusing on all this extraneous stuff. So fundamentally, things have not gotten better for the president. Maybe the mood change is much more about the things that they dislike. And remember what they disliked about having Trump as the center of attention.

KING: And when you talk about those dynamics, they play much differently in these statewide races. We're looking at Senate races here. Where if the race is close in nine states out of 10, it comes down to the suburbs And, if the suburbs swing against Trump and against Republicans again, that decides the race, same for the governor's races. I just want to show you now, the latest generic ballot. This is from a Fox News Poll, and you look at the top from, go left to right and look at the generic ballot.

At one point in April and May, you know, the Republicans had opened up a pretty healthy lead. This is if you're voting for Congress today. So, House races, who would you vote for? If you go back, you see that 46 to 39. But now it's back even again, which again is better news for the Democrats, but that's not good enough, right? If Democrats are going to have a chance to defy history and hold the House, that number - they would have to get well ahead, correct?

WALTER: Absolutely. So, even just at even, that's three points, basically more Republican than the electorate was back in 2020, when they lost 12 seats. And is about seven points more Republican than when Democrats in 2018 won, actually probably nine points more Republican than when Democrats picked up 40 seats in 2018.

But I do think really understanding two things. One, are people more optimistic now about, maybe not now but by the time we hit the election? Are people feeling more optimistic about the economy? Are people feeling better about the Democrats handling of it, especially the president? I think that is something important to watch.

We're seeing a touch of optimism creep in, in terms of voters' opinions about the economy. It's not going to turn around overnight. But at least if the trend line is going in the right way, that's good for Democrats, the more Donald Trump is in the spotlight, that's also good for Democrats.

KING: All right. A lot of fascinating questions to answer in 12 weeks, 82 days of interesting. I'll put it, I'll call it interesting. Let's put it that way. Amy Walter, grateful for your time and perspective. We will come back to you soon. Up next. Donald Trump cashes and amping up his fundraising with attacks on the FBI. Allies now urging him to escalate that fight. They want him to release the surveillance video of the Mar-a-Lago search.




KING: For Donald Trump legal jeopardy, apparently is also political opportunity. The former president now raising giant sums of money, mostly by attacking the FBI for its search of his Mar-a-Lago home. And there are some Trump allies urging him to take this fight to a new level. They want him to release the surveillance video that shows the FBI conducting its search.

Here's a snippet of our CNN reporting on this. One person familiar with the conversations said there had been discussions about featuring the August footage in campaign-style ads, believing the footage could bolster Trump's claims of political persecution. A second person close to Trump cautioned, releasing the footage could backfire by providing people with a visual understanding of the sheer volume of materials that federal agencies including classified materials.

With me to share their reporting and their insights, Jackie Kucinich of The Daily Beast, Francesca chambers of USA Today, and NPR's Asma Khalid. You were just in Florida, the state where Mar-a-Lago is, the state where all this played out. Are real people following this and do they see Donald Trump is being persecuted or legally unlawfully investigated?

ASMA KHALID, WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT, NPR: John, I guess it depends, who the real people are that we're speaking about, right? I mean, Democrats, it's really not on their radar at all. But the story actually went down there, the report was unrelated. It was about inflation, the economy. But I was struck that in conversations with some Republicans.

I was speaking with a local Republican club head woman, and she said to me that the issue she feels that is energizing and animating. Republicans that she knows in her circle more than anything else, is the search of Donald Trump's property at Mar-a-Lago. And she says that it's anger, and anger, as we all know can be a real, you know, potential motivating factor for voters.

KING: You can see, it's also - it's a huge motivating factor has been since day one for Donald Trump's fundraising. The Washington Post reporting, and look at this, look at these numbers. Contributions some days topped a million dollars a day after the search, that's up from 200,000 to 300,000 per day on average. His political committee has raised over 100 million.