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Inside Politics

Former White House Official Told Prosecutors Trump Knew Proper Declassification Process; Moment Ago: U.K. PM Sunak Makes First WH Visit; Trump Is First President To Get Target Letter In Federal Probe; Supreme Court Orders AL Voting Maps To Be Redrawn; Religious Broadcaster Pat Robertson Dies. Aired 12:30-1p ET

Aired June 08, 2023 - 12:30   ET



ZACHARY COHEN, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY & JUSTICE REPORTER: Yes, exactly. This is a career official, and it's somebody who advised 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 and even cited specific examples to prosecutors about times that the Trump administration followed the correct process.

So it's really interesting to hear what this official was asked by prosecutors in both different investigations. In the Trump probe, prosecutors were really aggressively focused on anything that had to do with firsthand interactions with Trump, especially about conversations related to the declassification process.

And we've seen that play out in the time since this official went in for an interview. We've seen multiple senior Trump officials go in and testify before the grand jury about declassification process and about their conversations with Trump. But compared to the Biden interview, it was very different.

This official went in and it was really more about the mechanics of these boxes. How did these boxes get packed, who can packed them? And how did they make their way to Delaware? So very different areas of focus. Trump trying to get a sense of his mindset. Biden, they want to hear more about logistics.

JOHN KING, CNN HOST: And so, forgive me, again, correct me if I'm wrong, that Trump thing to them seems to be a lot more serious.

COHEN: Absolutely.

KING: The Biden thing is a mistake. Not justifying it. It's a mistake. It was wrong. Something bad and wrong happened. But the context, the scope, the depth of the Trump investigation --

COHEN: Yes. This former official said the Biden interview did not match the intensity of the Trump interview at all. So he's really characterized those two things as very different tones. KING: All right. Circle back for more of the details in a minute, but just put it into significance. The case, you're trying to build a case against Trump.


KING: And we focus all the time. You know, former chief of staff is a grand jury witness. Former spokesman is a grand jury witness. But if you're building a case, Shan, to you first, sometimes it's the less glamorous witnesses who actually can do the nuts and bolts. He knew the rules, he was told the rules. He was reminded repeatedly of the rules, right?

SHAN WU, FORMER FEDERAL PROSECUTOR: No, absolutely. And that's what they've been doing, is they're building that kind of foundation as to what was his mindset. And to Zach's reporting, the point is, you can tell so much, not only from the intensity, but the kinds of questions.

If as a prosecutor, you're focusing on mindset, you're thinking there's some personal criminal exposure here. If you're focusing on factual questions, who packed the boxes? You're looking at, is there a problem with the way this stuff gets transmitted and preserved not did somebody commit a crime.

KING: And again, we showed the officials these are not nobodies, these are senior people. Two of the three lawyers, John Kelly as the Chief of Staff. Don McGahn and John Eisenberg are both lawyers. Close to the president of the United States. John Kelly says this, in Zach's reporting, "Nothing approaching an order of that foolish" -- the idea that Trump had this standing order that I could just, you know, snap. Things are declassified.

"Nothing approaching an order that foolish is ever given. I can't imagine anyone that worked at the White House after me would have simply shrugged their shoulders and allowed that order to go forward without dying in the ditch, trying to stop it."

In other words, Kelly using military language there --

REID: Yes.

KING: -- to make the point that we understood the rules and we were not casual about them. Therefore, the process should have been followed, period.

REID: That's exactly right. And I've even asked one of former President Trump's lawyers on camera, hey, have you ever heard of the standing declassification order? And, no, they've never seen it. They've never heard it. And clearly, if they've never seen it, it likely doesn't exist.

What's so great about Zach's reporting is it really undercuts so many of the public explanations and public defenses that the Trump team has put forth, right. They've tried to draw this false equivalency between the Trump documents investigation and the one into President Biden and the one that has since been closed into Vice President Pence. Now, we know from our reporting, even though Biden and Trump are both facing a special counsel investigation into the possible mishandling of classified documents, these are very different in terms of volume, right? Dozens of documents versus over 100. Also, the conduct, right, cooperation, possible obstruction.

But here we know the types of questions prosecutors are asking. They're just asking about boxes and packing, right? The Trump lawyers probably wish those with the questions that they were asking about that investigation. And it's clear that they believe, they do not believe the Trump defense is in the court of public opinion, that he didn't know the process, that he didn't have to follow it. So it's really significant because it shows not only is this our impression in our reporting, but this is a testimony that they're getting in both cases from an expert.

KING: And the expert's testimony helps them when they question other people who around the President at the time about what was happening. And we know other grand jury witness now. We know Mark Meadows, his former chief of staff, who had eyes on so much of what Trump did.

Robert O'Brien, the former National Security Adviser, Richard Grenell, who was the former Acting Director of National Intelligence and a Trump loyalist. Based on what the expert says and the significance of those witnesses, connect the dots.

COHEN: Yes, we've seen, you know, the special counsel in the Trump investigation really sort of follow the advice or what this former official said in their interview, as a roadmap to the types of witnesses and the types of evidence that they've been working to secure in the time since. We know that they've been pushing to get these additional records from the National Archives that include communications between Trump and his top officials about the declassification process.

When to declassify, how to declassify. We know that they've brought in several senior Trump officials, including Robert O'Brien, who told the grand jury that, look, we had conversations with Trump specifically, directly, and we told him and made clear there was a process pretty classifying things. You can't just, you know, wish it to be true.


And so, the grand jury is hearing the exact kind of testimony that this former official laid out as important months before.

KING: Yes, critical reporting. Again, in the context of the former president having a target letter now saying he has a target. This is the reporting. We will see where we go from here, but that's an important building block.

Zach, appreciate it. Paula and Shan. Shan, appreciate you being here ago.

Just moments ago, the President of the United States welcoming the British Prime Minister at the White House. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)


KING: Just moments ago, President Biden meeting with the British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak at the White House. This is the first time the two leaders have met.


JOE BIDEN, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Together we're providing economic, humanitarian aid and security assistance in Ukraine in their fight against the brutal invasion of the Russians.

RISHI SUNAK, BRITISH PRIME MINISTER: It's daunting to think of the conversations that our predecessors had in this room. And again, for the first time in over half a century, we face a war on the European continent. And as we've done before, the U.S. and the U.K. have stood together to support Ukraine.


KING: CNN's Arlette Saenz joins us now live from the White House. The first time the Prime Minister has met with the President inside the White House. A lot to discuss. What's most important?

ARLETTE SAENZ, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, John, this relationship between President Biden and British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has really been cemented around their support in rallying the world around Ukraine and that is expected to beat the top of the agenda.

Of course, this meeting comes at a critical time as there has been an uptick infighting in Ukraine and both U.S. and Western officials have said that they have seen some signs that that long anticipated counteroffensive has started. Now, in addition to Ukraine, these two leaders were expected to talk about economic cooperation as well as regulating artificial intelligence.

That's an issue that's been quite important to the British Prime Minister, but this is also a key moment in their relationship. They've met about four times before, but this invite to the White House is really the most sustained interaction that we've seen between the President and the British Prime Minister. While they have been quite united on Ukraine, there have been differences between them, of course, generational differences as well as ideological differences.

And in just about an hour, we do expect for the two of them to speak at a press conference where they could be asked a host of questions. But Ukraine is certainly top of mind.

KING: Ukraine is certainly top of mind as well.

Arlette Saenz live at the White House. Thank you.

Let's bring the conversation back with our great reporters. A reporter tried to ask during that session about all the smoke coming from the Canadian wildfires to the United States. I suspect another one of the questions will be about Donald Trump. Let's get to that in a second.

One of the key tenets of the Biden reelection strategy anyway, even before the dramatic news that Donald Trump has received a target letter of federal investigation, is to do your day job and do it well. In that context, how important is this meeting, especially as we are seeing the indications that Ukraine's long planned counteroffensive is beginning?

JULIE PACE, EXECUTIVE EDITOR & SENIOR VICE PRESIDENT, THE ASSOCIATED PRESS: I think it's hard to know. You know, I always wonder in these moments how much Americans are paying attention to these day in and day out interactions that the President has had. But I think the bigger picture that Biden is trying to portray is even if you're not paying attention, it's because it's all going OK.

I have a good relationship with the British Prime Minister. I have a good relationship with the rest of the world. I'm keeping those relationships going. You can count on me to do that and not have all of this controversy bubbling up. I think that's almost more important than sometimes what he's actually getting out of these individual meetings.

KING: And just the visibility of the President. This President, whether you support him or don't support him, has very few interactions with reporters. We won't get a full blown press conference. I suspect it will be the old two and two to each side. But we'll see him later today and again at an interesting moment both on the global stage. But I think it's inevitable he gets asked about Donald Trump.

AUDIE CORNISH, CNN ANCHOR: Sure, but doing your job is not a strategy, right. Like he has to do his job. Also, both of these figures are fascinating because they came after tumultuous times in their countries politically. The British Prime Minister is really following the mess that was Brexit, or almost Brexit.

And so both of them promised their voters, in a way, stability. And having just a regular old meeting where you sit in chairs and it doesn't end up in a lawsuit or impeachment or anything like that is what's supposed to happen.

JULIE HIRSCHFELD DAVIS, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Right. And the fact that it doesn't blow up is important. But also, you know, Sunak obviously, comes to the White House with a particular agenda of issues he wants to talk about with Biden, and the administration here also would like to see some progress on those. But I do think it all will be overshadowed by what's going on in Ukraine and, of course, what's going on here domestically with the Trump investigation. So --

CORNISH: Domestically, I don't think it has to, but definitely internationally, Ukraine is a problem, right?

DAVIS: Right. Yes.

CORNISH: And it is something that has worldwide implications. I'm not surprised we're going to hear more about it.

KING: And you mentioned the tumultuous politics in both countries, both these leaders into power. Sunak clearly trying to make the case that that's over. He threw out the first pitch at the Nationals game last night, went up to Capitol. He's trying to say normal. I think Biden's trying to do about the same thing, too. We'll see how it plays out.

This quick programming note for us is CNN Primetime exclusive. Kaitlan Collins talks with the U.K. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak about his meeting with President Biden and about the war in Ukraine and more. That's on CNN Primetime. It airs tonight at 9:00 Eastern.

And next, twice impeached. The Capitol insurrection. At least four ongoing investigations. And now a target letter from federal prosecutor. Donald Trump and the places no one has gone before.



KING: Unprecedented and Donald Trump go together, it seems. His hostile takeover of the Republican Party in 2016 and then his victory over Hillary Clinton. His language from a president about immigrants and judges and law enforcement. His lies about elections being rigged and stolen. His silence for hours as the Capitol was being attacked. The list goes on and on.

And now its top line is this, the first former president to get a target letter from federal prosecutors. Not to mention to get that letter while a candidate to get his old job back.


My great reporters are back with us. I just wanted to take a few minutes there at the end of the program to just -- to tap into your experience, to just get into the -- it's the unprecedented moment for him, for the party, for the country, and also for our business in like, how do you cover this? Because everything you say about him, he attacks.

PACE: Absolutely. I mean, we are very much a part of this story, I think. And I think we have to acknowledge that. I mean, we've been doing this for a long time here, and I feel like we've always come back to that notion of it is unprecedented, and then there's always something that is more unprecedented than the last one. This certainly will be.

Again, I think, even though that is the case, and even though you can feel a bit numb to it at certain points, I think certainly our job as journalists is to keep reminding people that this is new. This is unprecedented. It is serious. And even if there's a wide swath of the electorate that just ignores it or washes it away, I think we have to keep reporting on it. It's history, and we are in so many ways doing the first draft of history. CORNISH: I mean, I feel a little bit different because there's a Chicken Little quality to it that I think journalists have suffered from over the last half decade. And fundamentally, I don't think we can spend that much more time looking at our hands, saying, look what's broken. You know, like what happened here. Why -- I think we actually have to face the reality of what is different and start to approach those questions, approach things with more of an intention of questioning than telling. Because I hear the audience telling us that they want more.

DAVIS: Well --

KING: And knowing -- I would say knowing, not thinking, right? People think a lot of things about Trump. Our job is to report what we know, not what we might think. And Trump has benefited when people -- some of his critics get breathless and some of his critics get careless and they go too far, and then he benefits from that.

DAVIS: Right. And it's very easy to get breathless. We were all just talking about how this feels that like it felt back in 2017 when we were just starting to get used to having Trump in the Oval Office and having every day be such a big drama and, oh my gosh, we just saw something we've never seen before. And it is important to communicate that to the public, and voters need to know that and understand it and appreciate it.

But I think at this point, there is so much out there about his conduct, about what he's saying and doing and the ways in which that manifests itself that are actually practical issues. It's not just, does it offend you? Is it, you know -- does it make you -- does it disappoint you. It's about, is this a fundamental problem in our democracy that I think, you know, it is our job to keep on looking at whatever it is we can uncover about what his conduct was?

I mean, there is a lot to still know about this -- the way he handles these classified documents. There's a lot to still know about his efforts to overturn the election, even though there's so much out there already. We just have to keep on digging because I think there's going to be more.

CORNISH: Can I just --

KING: Please.

CORNISH: One more thing. I actually really love that your focus next is going to be on voters because I think that no one knows better than you. You know, the magic wall is one thing when people are numbers and stats. And I think bringing what you know about where those pain points are, where people are frustrated because you see that in their swing back and forth in their vote is going to be really significant.

And I do hope more people will be having that kind of focus so that there aren't all those stories that are like, who voted for what. Like, we should not be shocked anymore going forward.

KING: The question -- you mentioned the word swing, the question is, is how willing -- are the American people willing to swing? This is Donald Trump. This is -- here's the -- at least four investigations. He's under indictment already in Manhattan. The Fulton County DA attorney, the special counsel, has two different investigations, one into the documents, one into the effort to steal the election and all that.

You mentioned voters. I mean, when I started doing this in the business, George H. W. Bush was president of the United States. My first campaign was 88. Bush wins after the Gulf War, he's at 90 percent.


KING: And then he loses the next election. Voters were willing to swing pretty wildly back then. We don't live in that world anymore,

PACE: And we don't see those galvanizing moments. I mean, the last one where there was a real question of could this be a galvanizing moment for the country, was probably the start of the pandemic. And look what happened there. It became this instant partisan food fight. It didn't become a rallying cry.


PACE: That's in large part because of the way Trump handled that, and we should be honest about that, but it didn't become a kind of national rallying cry here. And I think there is that real question. You go out and you talk to voters and they'll tell you, I'm an independent. You know, I don't vote on party.

Who did you vote for in the last four elections? And it very often tends to be the same party over and over again. And I think it's a real question. I will also be fascinated to see your reporting on how much of an appetite there is for people to really be open minded.

KING: Trump has changed to his benefit, blue collar workers. He has changed to his detriment, suburban women especially, but suburban voters. The question is, you know, target letter. Does something like this do anything about it? I don't know the answer.

DAVIS: It's hard to know. And how much of this, because there are so many investigations now actually penetrates down into, do people understand it? Do people understand why it's a problem?

KING: Well, we will watch. That's what makes it interesting.

Audie Cornish delves into the dark side of social media. Very dark side of social media. The negative impact it can have on the mental well-being of our children. New episode of The Whole Story airs this Sunday, 08:00 p.m. Eastern right here on CNN.

Ahead for us, an unexpected ruling at the Supreme Court that will affect Alabama's elections for years to come.



KING: Topping our political radar today, the Supreme Court ordering voting maps in Alabama to be redrawn to allow additional majority black districts. This decision will provide more opportunities for minority voters to elect the candidate of their choosing. And it's a surprising outcome given the court's conservative majority.

The Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Brett Kavanaugh siding with the three liberal justices in a five to four split. Religious broadcaster Pat Robertson has died. He was 93 years old. Robertson, best known for his 700 Club television show. At times, his on air pronouncements due criticism. He claimed, for example, the 9/11 was caused by God and described Islam as a violent religion.

And in 2014, he warned that towels in Kenya could transmit AIDS. Off the air, Robertson dabbled in politics and ran for the Republican presidential nomination in 1988. He leaves behind his wife, four children, 14 grandchildren, and 24 great grandchildren.

Thanks for your time in Inside Politics today. We'll see you tomorrow. CNN News Central starts right now.