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Inside Politics

Trump Is Target In Federal Classified Docs Probe; Trump & Aides Gather In Bedminster, NJ; Source: Trump Team Reaching Out To Hill Allies Ahead Of Potential Indictment; Pence "Hopes" DOJ Resolves Trump Investigation Without An Indictment; Christie: Trump's Problems Are "Self-Inflicted"; Burgum: Voters Must Decide On Support For; Former White House Official Told Prosecutors Trump Knew Proper Declassification Process. Aired 12-12:30p ET

Aired June 08, 2023 - 12:00   ET



JOHN KING, CNN HOST: Hello, and welcome to Inside Politics. I'm John King in Washington. Thank you for sharing this important news day with us. Target Trump. The former president's legal team gets official notice, he could face charges in the federal investigation over classified document. This is an unprecedented legal and political moment, as one piece of the special counsel investigation nears its end just as Trump's 2024 comeback bid gears up.

Plus, new CNN reporting on a critical building block of the case. A career government expert interviewed by prosecutors detailed exactly what Trump knew and was told about the classification rules, and the political impact of Trump being named to target. The former president rolls out a familiar playbook where he is the victim and lies are plentiful. His 2024 rivals now must decide what to say. This is Mike Pence's cautious choice.


DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: If that is something that investigators see as possible, even enough potentially to indict the former president. Do you think that that should go forward?

MIKE PENCE, FORMER VICE PRESIDENT: Well, I would hope not. I really would now. I mean, there is several reasons for that. Number one, as I think, I think it would be terribly divisive to the country.


KING: We began, and we'll spend much of this hour in simply unprecedented territory. Donald Trump is on notice that he is a target of a federal criminal investigation. The target letter is from the special counsel. And it deals with the investigation of the former president's decision to take dozens of classified records with him when he begrudgingly left the White House.

The word target has specific ominous legal meaning. It puts you on notice. The government has evidence, you have committed a crime and or have critical information about criminal activity. Most people who get target letters get charged. The individual receiving this target letter is of course a former president of the United States and the leading Republican candidate in the already busy 2024 race. That's where the unprecedented part comes in.

The special counsel has grand juries here in Washington and in Florida, not that far from Trump's Mar-a-Lago hotel home. Trump is forcefully attacking the investigation today, but says, no one has told him he will be indicted. But he was cagey when asked by Maggie Haberman of The New York Times, if he had been told he is a target, saying he does not talk directly to prosecutors.

With me now to share their reporting and their expertise, CNN's Paula Reid, the former federal prosecutor Shan Wu, and the former assistant U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, Elie Honig.

And Elie, let me just start with you. We'll get into the nuts and bolts of the emerging case in a moment. Just target letter. Put it into context for anybody out there at home who's not a lawyer, who may not be familiar with this process. The federal government, a federal prosecutor decides to send a target letter to somebody when and why?

ELIE HONIG, FORMER ASSIST U.S. ATTORNEY, SOUTHERN DISTRICT OF NY: When you believe that that person is substantially tied to criminal activity, and to quote, the official DOJ rules a putative defendant, meaning a likely or expected defendant. And John, in your intro, you use the perfect word, you said, ominous. That's what this is. When a prosecutor sends a target letter, it is very likely not certain, though important to know. But very likely that that person will get indicted.

The reasons you send a target letter can vary depending on the case, sometimes you send it because you want to send a message and give that person a chance to cooperate. I don't think that's really in play here. Other times you send it as a courtesy to let the person know, hey, you're in trouble. We may be coming for you. You're going to want to get a lawyer, you're going to want to remain silent.

And I think the reason DOJ sent it here is to make sure they have all those bases covered and can't be accused of taking any shortcuts or failing to give Donald Trump full warning of what's to come. So, I think it's an indicator that we are very likely to see an indictment.

KING: That's ominous, just the way you just said that. So, Shan Wu, let me stick with you. Again, from a federal prosecutor -- former federal prosecutor perspective, the special counsel operates largely independently to bring an indictment against Donald Trump, though or anybody but a former president United States, the special counsel would have to then go to the attorney general who can say yea or nay, correct?


KING: And if the attorney general said no, the attorney general has to notify Congress. So, we would find out if the attorney general disagrees with a recommendation of the special counsel of the law. Am I right about this that requires that they notify Congress? WU: That's great.

KING: And so, just in terms of legal, wow, where are we?


WU: Well, I think it's very unlikely that Garland would overrule Jack Smith here that would be both not like Garland's personality and will probably be against the weight of the investigation evidence that's been gathered. The one thing I would note here is it sounds like Trump's lawyers already had a meeting with Smith attendee.

Because of what you just said, John, I would expect that if they're being told target indictments likely coming and often that happens at the same meeting, notify the targeted indictment. They would probably still ask for me to a Garland because after all, like you said, he could overrule it.

KING: He could, he could, but he has said pretty consistently and a few things he said about this, that the appointed special counsel for reason. Paula Reid, Donald Trump, this part, this territory we are in legally and politically is unprecedented. The playbook Donald Trump is using is familiar. This is posting on Truth Social.

No one has told me I'm being indicted. I shouldn't be because I've done NOTHING wrong, but I've assumed for years and then he goes on weaponized DOJ, FBI, hoax, Russian collusion, Mueller report. Donald Trump's hope here, even though this is a new investigation, and like the January 6 hearings.

Most of the witnesses here or people who worked for Trump, who were loyal to Trump, who were forced to testify under subpoena. Trump is saying one thing that it's everybody who's against him. This case walks us through it is built on the people who had eyes on him.

PAULA REID, CNN SENIOR LEGAL AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: Exactly, which is why we've known that he's been a focus of this investigation for a long time because prosecutors have interviewed everyone from, you know, maintenance workers at Mar-a-Lago, all the way up to his former chief of staff, Mark Meadows.

We also know the kinds of evidence that they have collected, they look for surveillance videos at his home, they even have this bullet bombshell audio recording that we reported last week where he's heard, claiming to have a classified document saying, he would like to share it but acknowledges the limits of his ability to do so.

The type of evidence that they have gathered, our reporting as well. It is clear that he has been a focus, but the target letter really makes it official at crystalizes, that they are in fact focused on him, not just the people around him.

KING: I want to get deeper into that some of the nuts and bolts of what we know, and then the attorneys can talk about how you build a case on that. But what is Donald Trump's mindset at the moment? Where is he at the moment? Just into CNN, we're learning much more about Donald Trump's current whereabouts. In the wake of the news that he is a target, a target now of that federal criminal investigation.

CNN's Kristen Holmes joins us now live. Well, Kristen, what do you know?

KRISTEN HOLMES, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, John, currently Trump is at Bedminster with a small group of aides, but we are told that some of his senior advisors will be arriving in the next couple of days. Now this was planned. They were already going to be coming to Bedminster. He has two campaign trips this weekend. But it comes at a time in which his entire team believes that an indictment is imminent.

And I did just learn from a source that Trump's team has already started reaching out to Hill allies and trying to get their support, get them to back and they are expecting those top allies like Elise Stefanik, like Jim Jordan to play a prominent role in defending the former president, but it gives you an idea of where their heads are at. They believe that this is coming.

And again, Trump is sitting in Bedminster right now. He has told people around him. He has made calls saying that he believes that this point he is getting indicted and talked about his mindset. That is where they are the team as well expecting this to come and they say it could come any moment, they are ready for it.

KING: They say they are ready for it. Kristen Holmes, noteworthy those calls to allies. Again, Trump asking Republican allies in Congress to attack law enforcement, to attack institutions to say Donald Trump has done nothing wrong. Kristen, appreciate that reporting.

So, let's walk through some of the nuts and bolts of the case, including the grand jury witness we saw yesterday. Mr. Budowich, which was a former spokesman for Donald Trump. We know some of this. I want to read some of the New York Times reporting here too. That the question there was, he was a spokesman for Trump at the time. And they were about to release a statement saying, that everything had been returned. And then somebody internally said, whoa, well, let's not do that. Because we don't think that is true.

The New York Times puts it this way. The statement that Mr. Trump initially wanted to send, according to two people briefed on the matter, said that he had returned all the presidential material he had. Prosecutors have a draft and have asked witnesses about emails that aides sent about it, according to people briefed on the matter.

The idea of being that somebody internally, Trump wanted to say, I gave it all back.

REID: Sure. Yes.

KING: And somebody internally said, yes, but we haven't. So maybe we shouldn't say that.

REID: Exactly. Probably wise counsel, right? But who knew that they hadn't given everything back? And when they say they hadn't given everything back. Are they talking about presidential records, records that belong to the government? Are they talking about classified documents, potential defense information? How did they know that potentially not everything had gone back? And what were they doing about it? Were they making a good faith effort to make sure it was return?

Hope clearly, the Justice Department didn't think so because they subsequently searched Mar-a-Lago. They got a subpoena, they searched, they also pressed the lawyers to do their own searches of other locations where we know additional materials were turned up. So, prosecutors are probably very interested in what they knew about what hadn't -- had not been turned over back early in the investigation.

KING: So, Shan, take us through the book, if you will. If you're a prosecutor, you're looking through federal law, but what might have gone wrong here? What charges might I be able to bring here? Trump in this audio recording, says he has a classified document. In the CNN town hall with Kaitlan Collins, he said he took classified documents.


So, he's on the record, saying he took them. And now you have recounts like this of the back -- a monthslong. We know this was a monthslong back and forth with the Justice Department in the national archives. You have our records. We want them back and back and forth. So, what's in the book that you could possibly bring here?

WU: What's in the book on this messaging issue? What should be stated and what wasn't stated, that really goes to obstruction, which is if Trump is telling his people, put out a message says, we've returned everything, and then obviously, they didn't. And they themselves also saying, hey, you can't say that. We didn't, that's going to go to his mindset on obstruction.

In addition to that, of course, his team and he has mounted this notion that, oh, it's not classified. I can declassify, obviously, there were classified documents, but also goes to, was it national defense information?

KING: And so, Elie, let's button up this conversation. We're going to come back to some of this later, including to Shan's point with some great new CNN reporting about what Trump knew about the classification rules. But if you're looking at, you know, misappropriating, taking with you documents, you know, you should not have taken with you. Then obstructing, lying to the government in the process of trying to, you know, when the government saying, hey, they belong to the government, let's give them back.

If you're building that case, then you have to remember -- you have to remember, even though justice is supposed to be blind, and Donald Trump should be treated like John Doe. This is a special counsel who sent the target letter to the former president of the United States. What's the extra step that takes place in internally knowing, both the legal consequences of that and the political consequences of that?

HONIG: Well, John, I think as a practical matter, if you're DOJ, if you're the special counsel, if you're the attorney general, you do have to recognize this case is different, like it or not, maybe for better or for worse for either side. This is going to be, if there's an indictment, a first in American history, a first time we are seeing a former president indicted by the U.S. Department of Justice.

And so, I absolutely think that they are giving more care, more attention to this case than they would any ordinary case and rightly so. And I think to Kristen's new reporting, which is so interesting about Trump starting to meet with his advisors and try to get out ahead of his strategy.

The courtroom is largely its own entity. And while there will be a PR strategy, while there will be a political strategy on Capitol Hill, this case will ultimately play out before a judge and a jury and none of those things can really interfere with this.

KING: I think to your point about the extra care caution and thought, they would give to this now that we know it's a target letter assuming that extra care, caution and thought has already taken place. That tells you again, more about the consequence of a target letter. Appreciate everybody part of the conversation. Again, we'll continue more of the legal part later.

But next, the political impact. Trump plays the victim card, reaction from his 2024 rivals is mix. One says Trump should step aside. Mike Pence says, though that indicting Trump would be a bad idea.




KING: Donald Trump is as always trying to turn legal peril into political game, claiming with zero evidence. He's the victim of overzealous prosecutors. His 2024 Republican rivals now have to decide how they react toward Trump is now the target of a federal criminal investigation. Mike Pence says, Trump's should never be president again. But at a CNN hall last night in Iowa, it was also clear Pence knows well, how Trump uses trouble to rally the Republican base.


PENCE: The serious matter which has already happened once in New York, of indicting a former president in the United States sends a terrible message to the world. I hope the DOJ thinks better of it and resolves these issues without an indictment.

BASH: Sir, if Donald Trump is convicted of a crime and you're elected president, would you pardon him?

PENCE: Well, I don't want to speak about hypotheticals.


KING: Didn't quite want to speak about that at all. With me in studio to share their reporting and their insights, Julie Pace at the Associated Press, CNN's Audie Cornish, and Julie Hirschfeld Davis of The New York Times. And I think we're making history here. All four people at this table are either current or one-time employees of the great family wire service, the Associated Press.

How does the Republican field deal with this? Let's start with Trump, who is doing what he has done before, which is, it's a witch hunt, they're after me. If you look at his Truth Social postings, a lot of what he says is simply not true. But it has worked for him in the past to have a rally around Trump movement in the Republican bases.

Our Kristen Holmes just reported reaching out to key allies on Capitol Hill saying, I need the Jim Jordan, Elise Stefanik and the others out there to create that echo chamber. Playbook we've seen and it works for him.

JULIE HIRSCHFELD DAVIS, CONGRESSIONAL EDITOR, NEW YORK TIMES: And he has that echo chamber on Capitol Hill. I mean, I think for the rest of the Republican field, it's a real dilemma, right? Because they obviously want to distinguish themselves from Trump. They want to use this to, you know, elevate their own candidacies, and to diminish him in the eyes of voters.

But they also know that a very important slice of their party is so loyal to him and does see this as the former president, obviously, as characterizing it and always has as a vendetta that's being taken out, not just on him, but on conservatives in general.

So, they have to be really careful and tread lightly in sort of making it clear that they are against the kind of conduct that he is accused of, or he is being investigated for. But without sort of belittling him to the point where they're going to lose those people. And that's a really difficult balance.

AUDIE CORNISH, CNN ANCHOR: More people to finite group of people, or else there wouldn't be so many Republicans getting in the race, right? There's certainly some suspicion about whether Trump is going to be able to ride this out all the way to 2024 nomination or else he just wouldn't have this many guys jumping in.

Last night on social media during a town hall, I saw someone say something to the effect of you can't ride two horses with one saddle, only they didn't use the word saddle. And I think it really speaks to the idea that Pence of all people was definitely trying to find a way to say that was bad, but not bad, but definitely really bad. And I, you know, and I think that that's just like a confusing message for any voter. And I'll be interested to see the other town halls sort of like how people speak to this issue specifically.

KING: And each candidate has to make a choice now about Donald Trump. Welcome to the conversations we've had before. But this one is unprecedented because it's not about what he says about Mexican immigrants or what he says about the judge or what he says about women. All course things way outside the norms of American politics that Donald Trump has taken us these places.

[12:20:00] But this one is the former president United States and the leading candidate for the Republican nomination got a target letter, which means he is likely to be indicted by the United Sates government. So, we can look at each individual candidate part of the political conversation is just, OK. We've covered a lot of campaigns between us, we've never done this.

JULIE PACE, EXECUTIVE EDITOR & SENIOR VICE PRESIDENT, THE ASSOCIATED PRESS: No. I mean, it is literally unprecedented here. And I think you are going to see a spectrum when it comes to candidates. You're going to see some small number, but some say this is unacceptable behavior. And Donald Trump should not be a candidate for president again, and you're going to see I think most trying to thread that, you know, that Pence says right?

And really being opposed to the actual action, but also being opposed to the legal action being taken against him, characterizing it as a witch hunt. I don't think we can say for sure, sort of where this ends up. Even though Trump certainly has been able to use any other illegal pressure that he's faced or any other attacks on him, he's been able to use it to galvanize his base.

And do you think because this is unprecedented, we should see what happens when a former president is actually apparently likely going to be indicted by the Justice Department because it's extraordinary?

KING: Right. And you already have the New York state 34 counts, I believe, criminal indictment against Trump too. And some of those hearings are supposed to take place next March, just as the primary process is kicking into high gear.

So, let's walk through. Your heard Mike Pence. Now let's listen here. This is Chris Christie. Remember, the former New Jersey governor was a Trump opponent in 2016, then became a big Trump ally and led his transition, then became a big Trump critic again. Now he's running. Listen?


CHRIS CHRISTIE, (R) PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Pull it back for a second. It's a bigger problem whether he's indicted or not because these are all self-inflicted wounds, return the documents, and stop doing this. Why do you have to be the center of negative attention all the time? Why do you have to be angry all the time? And that's what Donald Trump has done. So, I'll wait to see and make a judgment on the indictment if and when one comes.


KING: That's one candidate. The longshot candidate who got in this hour yesterday. We're watching the program, the North Dakota governor, Doug Burgum. He was on CNN This Morning. And this was his answer.


DAVID WRIGHT, CNN POLITICS WRITER AND EDITOR: Do you think before a president is indicted, he should still be a potential Republican candidate for president or Republican nominee for president?

GOV. DOUG BURGUM, (R) PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Well, I just think there's a lot of voters out here. They're going to have to decide who their candidate is. That's what the democracy does. And there's a lot of folks that are wondering whether or not these processes of the Justice Department have become politicized. And I think that's what the America is going to be shifting through that.


KING: That last part gets you to where Donald Trump has brought us. The Republican base mistrust, distrust, despises the FBI, because Trump has spent years attacking the FBI. So, you have Republican candidates, who are, I don't know if afraid, is the right word, but reluctant to alienate their own voters because they need those votes and that creates this circle.

CORNISH: Even Pence last night, as he was asked about the closing of his own documents case, which was done fairly efficiently because he cooperated, still managed to say that President Biden had somehow gotten preferential treatment, even though his case went just fine. So, I think there is some incentive there to score that that particular political point, which is really against any kind of institution, which is where you really have a loss of faith.

PACE: The other thing that is really remarkable about this, though, is just we always knew Trump was going to be central to this GOP primary. But the idea that it is Trump's legal problems that are the central conversation about this Republican -- in the Republican primary, all the other issues that are not getting any oxygen at this moment,

KING: Right. And again, the conversation will continue. But as we go to break here, I just want to note, one candidate who said he should get out of the race is the former governor of Arkansas, Asa Hutchinson, who says Donald Trump is the target of an ongoing criminal investigation. He should step aside and put the good of the country above his candidacy. We'll see how that plays out with Republican voters.

Again, next for us, though some new CNN reporting on the building blocks of this case against Trump. A key White House official, interviewed by the special counsel lays out what Trump knew about classified record rules. And guess what, it is very different than what Trump keeps saying in public.




KING: Now some new and exclusive CNN reporting on a witness whose testimony would be an important building block in any classified documents case against Donald Trump. CNN has learned to key former White House federal official, excuse me, told federal prosecutors, Trump knew the proper classification process and followed it at times while in office. Here's the bottom line.

This is quote "the latest indication that prosecutors are seeking evidence suggesting Trump understood the process for declassifying documents. That could undercut Trump's claims that he automatically declassified everything he took with him to Mar-a-Lago."

Breaking this reporting and joining our conversation now is CNN's Zach Cohen, CNN's Paula Reid, and defense attorney Shan Wu are back with us. So, let's talk about why this matters and why it is so important? This official who served in both, correct me if I'm wrong about it, you know, Trump and the Biden administrations.

Our careerist familiar with the classification process has spoken to federal prosecutors about what Donald Trump knew, what Donald Trump was told while he was in the White House about the process. He understood the rules number one.

Plus, spoke Don McGahn the former White House counsel, John Kelly, the former White House Chief of Staff, John Eisenberg, the former National Security Council lawyer. Big players, smart people, close people to Donald Trump inside the White House. They all knew the process and they talk to Trump about it as well. So, what Trump says publicly, contradicts what you have learned here.

ZACHARY COHEN, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY & JUSTICE REPORTER: Yes, exactly. This is a career official and it's somebody who advise both the Trump and Obama administrations on the classification, declassification process. And it's somebody with very direct knowledge of how those two administrations followed the process.