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Trump Is A Target Of Special Counsel's Jan 6 Criminal Probe. Aired 12-12:30p ET

Aired July 18, 2023 - 12:00   ET



ANDERSON COOPER, CNN HOST: Target Trump, CNN confirming today that the former president is now the target of the special counsel's 2020 election investigation. It is a historic moment that foretells a whole lot of legal trouble for the former president United States. I'm Anderson Cooper in New York,

DANA BASH, CNN HOST: And I'm Dana Bash in Washington. You're watching a special edition of Inside Politics. Donald Trump in legal peril again. At 9:21am eastern Trump hit send on a truth heard around the country. "Jack Smith, the prosecutor with Joe Biden's DOJ sent a letter. Again, it was Sunday night, stating that I am a target of the January 6 grand jury investigation."

Mr. Trump goes on to say, he now expects to be arrested and indicted again in short order. Another indictment guarantees another data point in Trump's political campaign strategy that he is a victim, and therefore the GOP should rally around him.

CNN is reporting out every single angle of this from the Justice Department to the former president's plan to respond. We're going to start though, with CNN's Katelyn Polantz. Katelyn, you've been doing reporting on this for a very long time. First question is, did the special counsel's office confirm that they sent this letter as the former president is saying?

KATELYN POLANTZ, CNN SENIOR CRIME AND JUSTICE REPORTER: Dana, they're being very, very true to form and they're offering us no comment right now from the spokesperson for the special counsel's office. But my colleague Casey Gannon over at court today, she is watching and there is a grand jury that is meeting today as they have been on Tuesdays for many months investigating January 6, the same grand jury being used by this special counsel's office in this historic probe.

And we do know that there is an active grand jury because the grand jury has given Donald Trump an opportunity to come speak to him -- to come speak to them. What they said in the target letter, according to Trump himself is that he was the target of the January 6 grand jury investigation. That's a federal investigation that we know has been largely based out of Washington, D.C., and that he was given a very short in his words, four days to report to the grand jury.

That is very likely an invitation for him to speak to them on his own behalf. If he so chooses, he doesn't have to take that opportunity. And everyone who is viewing this, who is hearing this, who understands how these Justice Department investigations work, how this target letter works and how this special counsel operates, believes that this indicates a charge is imminent.

This is the sort of situation where you're notifying the former president of the United States that he is not only just a person, there has been information collected about in this grand jury criminal investigation, but that he is very likely to be charged with a federal crime.

And Dana, there are a lot of aspects of this investigation that we have seen play out over many, many months, even predating the special counsel's appointment last November. But putting it all together, much of the grand jury activity has centered around Donald Trump and what he did, while he was president, after he lost the election, leading up to end on January 6.

BASH: Katelyn, thank you so much for that reporting. Here with me to help put this dramatic moment into perspective, CNN's Abby Phillip, CNN's John King, former federal prosecutor Laura Coates, CNN's Jeff Zeleny, former Deputy Director of the FBI Andrew McCabe, and former federal prosecutor Elliot Williams. Thank you, one and all.

Laura, I want to start with you as a one of the former federal prosecutors here to talk about the potential scope of charges. Because we have seen and kind of gotten the sense based on the interviews that the special counsel was doing and the testimony that he was calling before the grand jury, that you saw the lawyers in and around, lawyers and air quotes around the former president, around January 6 going in. It was a big question whether or not he was going to be a target, whether they had the goods on him. What does this tell you?

LAURA COATES, CNN CHIEF LEGAL ANALYST: Well, we're in a kind of a deja vu again, he can almost always copy and paste his prior statements about being arrested or anticipating being arrested and indicted on a charge like this. Taking a step back. We have to delineate.

This is not the classified documents territory and longer. This is also not finding Willis. This is also not the Manhattan days office, Alvin Bragg. This is about the substance of what happened leading up to January 6, even more so than what happened on January 6, the leading up to it.


What was a possible conspiracy to try to conspire to use the resources available to the executive branch of government? To try to undermine a congressional lawful proceeding of a criticism of power? What about the false slate of electors? Was there an act of obstruction to the investigation as well?

The realm of possibility is actually very, very wide. I'll be very eager to see what aspect he focuses on with Donald Trump. Because remember, this is a person who very rarely gives a direct order. Has a direct thread that says, I want you to go do this on behalf of me. That's what's happening. BASH: Or has a paper trail. He doesn't email. So, this has to be based on largely on testimony.

ELLIOT WILLIAMS, FORMER FEDERAL PROSECUTOR: Testimony, individual face-to-face conversations with the former president phone calls, whatever else it might be. So, sketching out and adding to some of the things Laura said, sketching out to the back of the envelope, or at least the top of the legal pad, what potential charges might be possibly conspiracy to defraud the United States, conspiracy to obstruct Congress, conspiracy to obstruct an official proceeding.

You could have misdemeanor interference with elections, and then any other host of other sort of lower-level crimes. If this went really big, and I'm going to like, it's sort of doubt they would, but they could potentially charge Rico or Racketeering, sort of a criminal enterprise, bringing in a number of different charges. I think that's highly unlikely to be clear, but they could just do it.

And sort of, and then the big one, seditious conspiracy. Again, you're going to have a really hard time looking the former president to that, because like you said, Dana, you're going to need one-on-one conversations with the president agreeing with people to use force to obstruct Congress. So, I think you get something probably in the realm of these conspiracies to get in the way of Congress.

BASH: And how do you see it?

ANDREW MCCABE, FORMER DEPUTY DIRECTOR, FBI: Very similarly. I think there are other, you know, a lot of what will happen here will learn by other people who also receive target letters. So, it's unlikely that the president would be indicted as a sole defendant in an indictment of this nature. And whoever else gets charged with him will give us some insight as to what direction the prosecutors are likely to go.

There are other folks who are kind of on the periphery of the activities leading up to January 6. There was, of course, a potential conspiracy to impact the Department of Justice with the removal of the acting attorney general, that's up. I think -- I tend to think that those are issues that will be addressed later.

If they are focused on the president right now, likely be simply the president and those two, maybe three individuals who are closest to him at that time on those core issues of defrauding the government, obstructing Congress and potentially even inciting (crosstalk).

WILLIAMS: And one important just quick point as to what a target letter actually is. When you identify someone as a target as a prosecutor, they're saying that there is substantial evidence to believe that that person committed a crime. It's not just sort of, they were linked to something, or they have evidence. No, they actually think if there's a really good chance that this person committed a crime.

ABBY PHILLIP, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: I mean, it does, just saw the substantial evidence piece. This is a case that basically has had almost for a first trial run through an impeachment proceeding that came before it. And so, it strikes me that to get to a point of criminal charges, after a special counsel has taken a look at this, the evidence is going to have to be substantial to warrant charging a former president with a case that is as broad as it is.

And where to your point earlier, Trump's involvement in this would be not the way that you would expect it. He's not going to write an email saying, go do this or go do that. He's not writing a text message saying go do this or go do that.

So, the to be able to prove that, strikes me that the Justice Department has a high bar to reach in terms of evidence, understanding also the incredible amount of scrutiny that they will be under, not just for this case, but all the others that Trump faces.

BASH: Right. For so many reasons, the first of which is that he's a former president. The second among, I guess, equal reasons is that he's a candidate for president. And we know that the legal strategy and the political strategy, we've said this so many times, they are one in the same.

JOHN KING, CNN ANCHOR & CHIEF NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: And Donald Trump leads with the political strategy. Why disclose this today? On a day, Ron DeSantis is having a big interview on this network. On a day when there's a big hearing in Florida on the classified documents case. Donald Trump tries to essentially poison the well and keep his people. We don't know a lot about this yet.

We know what Donald Trump is telling us. So, let's just rely on recent history. When he said he was a target in the classified documents investigation. His lawyer said, it was a limited case. It was 30 something this and then when it was actually released by Jack Smith, we find out, whoa, this is a lot bigger, a lot deeper.

The documentation is intense and critically as Donald Trump tries to politicize Jack Smith and say, this is Joe Biden going after his opponent. In the classified documents case, all of the evidence before us and Donald Trump is still innocent till proven guilty. But everything in that indictment was from people close to Donald Trump, people who worked with Donald Trump.


Back to Abby's point about January 6. We know Jack Smith. He has the power of a federal grand jury. Many of the people around Trump, you know, arm's length to Congress. They would not cooperate, or they gave very limited cooperation. We known as special counsel, when you're under risk of being charged with perjury, it's a different thing.

So, the one thing we do know is Trump is trying to lead the conversation here, as he did when the classified documents target letter came in. And we quickly found out that a lot of what we say today, I'm guessing yet again, we'll be overwhelmed by what we see when Jack Smith now delivers what is likely, you don't send a letter like this to the former president United States unless you're prepared to look forward. BASH: And you mentioned, the fact that there is a lot of testimony. I mean, just look at the names that we're talking about, just to remind people. This grand jury has heard from Mike Pence, his former vice president, who obviously was very intimately involved in what happened on January 6. Mark Meadows, his chief of staff. And then it goes on and on and on and on.

KING: Wait a minute, a very quick point about that. This justifiable focus on January 6, because of the horrendous, reprehensible conduct of that day. But if you talk to some of the people who've gone in before this grand jury, they say this goes back to even before the election. That the conversation started even before the election about what happens.

We will say, as Donald Trump said on election night, against the advice of his political advisors and his legal advisors, that the election was stolen. So, I would say today, as we focus on this again, and following what Donald Trump says it's about, just to be very cautious about that, and realize that we know from the witnesses that they were asked about things happening in the last weeks of the campaign up to election day, all the way up to January 6, and then even after that.

COATES: That's what we know though, how long this has taken. If this were just about the day of January 6. It's a much more focused, it's a much more violence related investigation about the actual activity inside the Capitol. But it seems to be more and more from the investigation, the testimony that January 6 was likely the culmination of a whole series of events guided towards that particular day. That's why you have this length.

BASH: And so, the question is, Jeff Zeleny, as somebody who spends a lot of time on the campaign trail, talking to Republican voters who are going to determine whether or not Donald Trump is the nominee the next time around. How do they see this?

JEFF ZELENY, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: Look, I mean, he clearly, as John was saying, and everyone's saying, he's trying to control this message, he's trying to orchestrate all of this for fundraising. It has been very successful for him in the past. He's stayed strong in polling. But we do not know if the past is necessarily the same as this. This is a much more serious case that we saw play out in real time.

So, when you talk to Republican voters in Iowa and New Hampshire. This was last night, talking to some of them, who again, liked Trump's policies, but not his personality. More of them have an open mind than I was expecting about sort of how this year is going to play out. This could be different. It could not be, we'll see. But I do not think that we should necessarily automatically assume that his strength will continue on this because of the different nature of this.

And as you said, he was -- all of the people who were interviewed are people from his inner circle, Jared Kushner and other things. And I'm thinking back to the days right after the election between that period and the inauguration, when he acknowledged privately as we reported, that he may have lost.

So, this is all going back to, yes, his core has stayed with him, but there are half the party is ready to move on. The question is what to his rivals, how do they seize upon this? We just have to be patient and watch this play out.

BASH: OK. I'll go back to Anderson in New York. Anderson?

COOPER: Dana, thanks. Next, the other legal case against Donald Trump is back in court. And what exactly is the former president doing right now. More CNN special coverage on Inside Politics next.




COOPER: Welcome back to CNN special live coverage. This hour, we are getting more details about how what the former president is doing. Now that he's received a target letter from special counsel prosecutor. CNN's Kristen Holmes has more. So, you're told he's working the phones and trip planning. What else?

KRISTEN HOLMES, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes. So, we are told that the whole entire Trump team actually was working the phone. They were trying to figure out if anyone else received a target letter in this investigation. They thought that would help them understand what the scope of these charges might actually be and what a potential case against the former president could look like.

Now, so far, we are told that not -- that they have not found someone who has received a target letter. But again, they are still working the phone. They were caught off guard by the timing around this target letter. I'd spoken to multiple sources in the last several weeks, who said that they actually thought that this investigation had cooled off recently.

Now, when we talked about planning travel. Trump is on his way to Iowa tonight because we cannot forget he is running for a third presidential bid. Right now, he is in the middle of campaigning and none of that is going to change. He is doing a town hall tonight with Sean Hannity. And of course, we expect this to come up.

But one thing I will note is, so far, I have not seen any fundraising emails off of this target letter. That's usually the first thing that they do. As we reported last week, when we saw his FEC numbers. They believe that they actually raise more money when he gets either indicted or a target letter faces these legal problems.

So interesting to see them not doing that just quite yet. But again, there's a lot of confusion. A lot of conversations still going on right now all around the fact that they still have -- all while having this third presidential campaign that they're running.

COOPER: Kristen Holmes, appreciate it. Join me now in New York, Jamie Gangel, Van Jones, Kaitlan Collins, former Georgia Lieutenant Governor Geoff Duncan, and former prosecutor in the Southern District of New York, Elie Honig.

Kaitlan, let me start with you. Not a surprise, I guess. There's a lot of different aspects that Jack Smith could be looking at in terms of January 6.

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN ANCHOR: Yes. But the fact that he is talking about this target letter has gone to Trump zeroes in on Trump in his mindset. We got an indication last week that that is something Jack Smith was really looking at.

COOPER: That it's not just the people around Trump, it is Trump himself.

COLLINS: Which is what I had seemed to focus on. Initially it was the fake electoral scheme a few months ago that we knew he was zeroing in on and talking about. Then we knew it was that crazy meeting that happened in the Oval Office six weeks after the election.


COOPER: With Rudy Giuliani in the land of misfit.

COLLINS: Sidney Powell, Patrick Byrne, yes, it was one of the craziest meetings. But then we got an indication, he was looking at Trump's mindset specifically that's because he brought in Jared Kushner and Hope Hicks. They are not people who were necessarily involved in planning January 6, the fake electors and what that was going to look like. But there are people who can offer insight into Trump's mindset that very few other people really can do so.

And so, it's Hope Hicks specifically, that's I had a conversation last week with a source. And I said the idea that they brought in Hope Hicks in June, so not even that long ago. What does that tell you? And they said, it's very clear, they're looking at Trump, Trump himself in a way that they did not know previously.

I think this caught Trump's team off guard, though. It's not a surprise, obviously, we knew this investigation was coming, and that this was underway and that charges were likely, but the fact that Trump has gotten a target letter. And so far, out of everyone we've spoken to, no one else that we know of yet has gotten a target letter. Maybe they're not telling us, maybe they have, maybe they'll get one in the days to come is shocking to Trump's legal team.

COOPER: There's also the question of who may be cooperating and we know Rudy Giuliani met with the special counsel for two days, Mark Meadows has been sort of a wall.

COLLINS: Mark Meadows, a lot of people in Trump's orbit think that he is cooperating. They don't know to what extent or what he's telling them. But they do think that that is happening. We don't have that confirmed. That's just what Trump's orbit believes.

Rudy Giuliani has not gotten a target letter. He's the one that we're told has not gotten one. He did go voluntarily before them for two days. But Trump's team, I mean, they get kind of in hoping best case scenario, which they realized this is not really a best-case scenario that he could be like an unindicted co-conspirator here. Now he is very likely staring down charges. And Trump himself is already mounting a defense, saying he has a right to protest the election.

COOPER: Jamie, what are you hearing?

JAMIE GANGEL, CNN SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT: So, I just think what's interesting today's just big picture context. We have been talking since January 6, about prosecutors. It's not hard to indict with a grand jury. But would they do it because it could be such a hard case to make to convict a former president, especially? So, I think the big picture takeaway today is Jack Smith thinks he has a very, very strong case, and so does Merrick Garland.

COOPER: You're saying that because you think they would be unlikely to take the myriad of risks that they are taking by doing this and the upheaval that it could potentially cause? If they didn't feel that a strong case?

GANGEL: No question. I spoke to several former very high-level Justice Department officials who know both these men, and they said that unless they felt they had a very strong case that they would not. I mean, I think we're close to indictment here. Certainly, Donald Trump thinks we're close to indictment.

And a lot of people along the way suggested that Merrick Garland did not have -- didn't want to go there. And I think now, Merrick Garland has been following this every step of the way. There is no question just the way with the January 6 documents, that there's been a prosecution memo that's been circulating that he's been looking at. These two men are convinced that there is a very strong case.

COOPER: And Elie, just on the legals -- from a legal standpoint, what stands out to you?

ELIE HONIG, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: So, the key issue for prosecutors is absolutely going to be intent. Donald Trump's actions are fairly open and public. We all saw what he did. And we've all learned from reporting what he did, leading up to an on January 6. But the hardest part of a case here is what was in this person's mind.

Did he have intent to break the law? Did he know generally that what he was doing is wrong? And I think that's exactly what to Kaitlan's point. Why we've seen DOJ focusing in on the people who were closest to Donald Trump. Hope Hicks, one of his closest advisors. Jared Kushner, a family member. Mark Meadows, we know they've spoken Mark Meadows's Chief of Staff.

Because those are the people who had at the time unvarnished, unregulated one-on-one conversations. And for somebody who doesn't really text, who doesn't really email like Donald Trump, you're not going to have a smoking gun document. But what you may have is crucial conversations from the people closest to you. GEOFF DUNCAN, (R) FORMER GEORGIA LIEUTENANT GOVERNOR: Well, as a Republican, as a conservative Republican, this is a bad day. Because our party is once again going to be blemished with technically the leader of our party. But this is a good day also for our party, because this is one step closer to telling the real story what happened on January 6. Is the real story about talking about what happened in the election in Georgia and clearing the slate and moving past this.

This is difficult stuff. I can't imagine what's going through Donald Trump's mind right now, right? They just mentioned earlier, he's going to go to Iowa. I mean, could you imagine having a federal indictment sitting on the edge of somebody's desk, ready to come your way? And then you have to go campaign for president United States. This stuff is going to start to mount, and I just hope our party wakes up.

COOPER: He sort of planned it this way though. I mean, it's better to be for him campaigning Van, than sitting at home, stewing in Mar-a- Lago?


VAN JONES, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Yes. I mean, a big part of his, the reason he announced is because he wants to be able to say look, I'm being persecuted. But I think just for ordinary people the thing that drives people nuts about our system is that little people do big time and big people do no time.

And so, you know, the Department of Justice has gone and gotten all these little lost puppies who were out there, and people are sitting in jail right now, because their role in January 6. And there was a sense that the big dog was never going to be gone after.

And so, I think for people who want to see equal justice, if you apparently you know, people say, we have a two-tiered justice system, we do. Anybody else in Donald Trump's position would already be in jail. And so, now he's finally maybe facing some justice. And I think it's fair, given that other people already in jail for January 6.

COOPER: I want to go back to Washington to Dana Bash. Dana?

BASH: Anderson, thanks. And on Capitol Hill, already we're seeing predictably partisan reaction to the target letter. In minutes, one of the Democratic impeachment managers will join me to talk about what's next.