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FBI: Gabby Petito's Body Likely Found, Fiance Still Missing; Biden Pivots to China Threat as He Angers France with Sub Deal; DHS Asks Pentagon for Help to Handle Migrant Influx; Trump Writes to Georgia Official, Asking Him to Decertify 2020 Results; Trump Wants McConnell Gone, Is Recruiting Challenges. Aired 6-6:30a ET

Aired September 20, 2021 - 06:00   ET


JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning to our viewers here in the United States and all around the world. It is Monday, September 20. I'm John Berman with Brianna Keilar.


This morning, a major development in the case of 22-year-old Gabby Petito, missing for weeks. This was a post from her father overnight: "She touched the world."

Human remains believed to be Petito have been discovered in northern Wyoming. An autopsy is scheduled for tomorrow. The FBI says cause of death has not yet been determined.

Law enforcement agents found the body after spending the weekend searching campsites on the eastern border of Grand Teton National Park.

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN ANCHOR: Authorities are now searching for Petito's fiance, Brian Laundrie, who was last seen on Tuesday by his family members in Florida. That's what they are telling authorities.

The couple left on a cross-country road trip in June, but Laundrie returned home earlier this month without Petito.

We begin with CNN's Leyla Santiago, who is live for us in North Port, Florida, with more -- Leyla.

LEYLA SANTIAGO, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Brianna, this is where the couple lived with Brian Laundrie's family. It's been pretty quiet here this morning, but North Port police are saying they will continue to work with the FBI today in search of answers.

Key to this investigation right now, what exactly happened and where is Brian Laundrie?


SANTIAGO (voice-over): FBI investigators announcing a body was discovered in the Grand Teton National Forest, saying it could be missing 22-year-old Gabby Petito. CHARLES JONES, FBI SUPERVISORY RESIDENT AGENT: Human remains were

discovered consistent with the description of Gabrielle "Gabby" Petito. Full forensic identification has not been completed to confirm 100 percent that we found Gabby, but her family has been notified of this discovery.

SANTIAGO: Petito disappearing on a cross-country drive with her fiance, Brian Laundrie, last month. The couple documenting their journey on social media.

GABRIELLE "GABBY" PETITO, MISSING WOMAN: And good morning. It is really nice and sunny today.

SANTIAGO: Posting photos and videos of their trip, starting in July, with plans to end in Oregon in October.

But Petito's family says they lost contact with her at the end of August.

PETITO: I've really excited all morning.

SANTIAGO: About two weeks after police in Moab, Utah, responded to a report of disorderly conduct between the couple. After the incident, police filing a report, saying Petito and Laundrie "engaged in some sort of altercation." No charges were filed.

Laundrie returning to Florida without her on September 1. Ten days later, Petito was reported missing.

JOSEPH PETITO, GABBY'S FATHER: My gut tells me that something bad happened. And I am never -- I'm never going to be able to hold my baby girl again.

SANTIAGO: Now the search is on for Laundrie, who has disappeared. Federal and local authorities launching a massive effort, looking for the 23-year-old at this nature reserve. Laundrie's parents saying Friday they last saw him on Tuesday.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: His family says that this is a place that he frequents. They also believe that this is where he came.

SANTIAGO: Petito's family sharing their grief overnight. Her father tweeting this photo of his daughter, writing, "She touched the world."

Meantime, the FBI is still looking for any leads about Petito's disappearance.

JONES: This is an active and ongoing investigation. So we ask everyone to maintain distance from law enforcement personnel and equipment, vehicles and related activity, for their own safety, as well as to protect the integrity of our work and respect privacy for Gabby's family.


SANTIAGO: And Brianna, I can tell you last night quite a bit of a law enforcement presence here.

There is certainly a sense of frustration among investigators, quite frankly among the community, wanting more cooperation, more help from Brian Laundrie's family. In fact, just turning into this neighborhood, you will find a sign that reads, "Brian, bring Gabby home" -- Brianna.

KEILAR: All right. Leyla Santiago, live for us in Florida. Thank you that report.

BERMAN: All right. Breaking this morning: huge obstacles to President Biden's domestic and foreign policy agendas, his $3.5 trillion spending plan very much in jeopardy this morning.

Axios reports that West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin, who we knew wanted to slow down the process on this, now wants to wait until 2022. For some Democrats, that might mean forever, or never.

And it throws into flux the passage of the bipartisan infrastructure bill, as well, since some Democrats say they won't pass one without the other.

On top of that, the Senate parliamentarian said overnight that immigration reform, as written, cannot be included in the budget bill, which means for now, no path to citizenship for eight million or more immigrants.

This as the crisis at the border is escalating this morning. Homeland Security is calling in the Pentagon to help with the flux of migrants in Del Rio, Texas. The crowds this morning estimated to be around 12,000.


KEILAR: As the president is heading to New York for the U.N. General Assembly tonight, tensions are high between the U.S. and its oldest ally.

The White House says that Biden and French President Emmanuel Macron will speak here in the next few days to try to, quote, "move forward" after Australia canceled a multi-billion-dollar defense deal with the French for a fleet of submarines in favor of an agreement with the U.S. and the U.K.

This is a move that infuriated the French, who then recalled its ambassadors to both the U.S. and Australia for what's believed to be the first time in modern history.

The move by the U.S. designed to bolster Australian efforts to keep tabs on China's military in the Pacific.

Now, the Biden administration is also under scrutiny on the world stage over a botched drone strike in Afghanistan that killed 10 civilians, including seven kids.

BERMAN: I want to bring in David Sanger, CNN political and national security analyst and White House and national security correspondent for the "New York Times."

David, great to see you this morning.

I think two things are at play with this submarine deal with Australia. No. 1, what's the best way to confront China in the Pacific? And then No. 2, what's the best way for the U.S. to treat its allies? I actually think they're separate, or may be separate here.

So what exactly is France so upset about? And when the president, President Biden, speaks to Emmanuel Macron earlier [SIC] this week, how's that conversation going to go?

DAVID SANGER, CNN POLITICAL AND NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: Well, John, we -- I think we'd all like to be the fly on the wall for that conversation. But it's going to be pretty unpleasant.

You've got it exactly right. From a strategic viewpoint, these submarines are the right way to take on China. I mean, obviously, it's not all of the China challenge, which is military, economic, technologic.

But the submarines that -- that Australia was going to buy from France simply do not have the range, do not have the ability to go deal with the China of, say, 2030 or 2035 when these come out.

So there's no question that having nuclear-powered submarines that can pop up off the Chinese coast unexpectedly would throw the Chinese back on their heels.

That said, they could not have managed the alliance part of this worse. What American officials tell me, John, is that they relied on the Australians, who said, Oh, don't worry about it. We'll take care of the French. You know, we're having that conversation.

Well, they never really told the French they were breaking up. And so when the announcement came, they really learned about it in detail only when news articles began to appear in Australia and here in the United States.

And that's when the French ambassador was called into the White House, and they explained this to them.

So, you know, here's an ally that was preparing on Friday to celebrate their help to the United States that goes back to the Revolutionary War. And they ended up withdrawing their ambassador that day.

BERMAN: And have they ever withdrawn their ambassador before like this?

SANGER: Not that I can find.

BERMAN: It -- it makes it seem like this is a huge deal for France. But really, it's about losing a sale, right? I mean, at a point, it's about losing a sale.

I guess, on the other hand, it's also about how important the United States feels its relationship with France is and where that relationship ranks in U.S. policy around the world. The U.S. seems to be saying right now, we're more concerned about China than we were about keeping our friends close?

SANGER: There's a lot of that to this. You know, a good part of international relations is you want to say the -- each one of your allies is vitally important. But some are more vitally important than others, John. And that's what the French have just learned.

So the pivot to Asia that Barack Obama talked about during his presidency is actually happening in the Biden presidency. And that means when you pivot, that you're turning your back on someone.

And what they were learned here was that the British and the Australians are more important, in the Biden view of the universe, than the French are. And that's a hard thing to swallow.

And in some ways, I think, you know, rough as it is to lose a $60 billion plus contract, to discover you're not really in the inner circle of the alliance, that's another.

And the French were sort of going that way with their talk of strategic autonomy, separation from the U.S., even before this.

BERMAN: And I know a lot of European allies to the United States looked at the Biden administration, hoping that it would be different than the Trump administration, that they would be closer to -- some of those relationships would be repaired. What does this do with that?

SANGER: Well, you know, the spring was all about, you know, the Trump era is over. We're back to rebuilding our alliances. We treasure our allies. We'll consult with you.

Then the British felt that they didn't really get consulted with as we pulled out of Afghanistan. Then, as we pulled out of Afghanistan, of course, the Taliban took over, which didn't do much for the concept that the Biden administration was pressing for democracy over autocracy. A lot of autocracy is coming back to Afghanistan.


And then this, which was just an avoidable error. Had they not trusted the Australians to work this out, and sat down and talked through with the French or come up with another project that would have shown that, in fact, the alliance is vibrant.

And there are many, because you know, France is part of NATO. And there are many other things we do with the French, including in Africa. But they just didn't do it. And, you know, this is not the kind of error you would expect them to make.

BERMAN: David Sanger, very interesting. This will be a fascinating week to watch at the United Nations for President Biden.

SANGER: It's going to be quite a week.

BERMAN: Thanks, David.

The Department of Homeland Security says it has flown more than 300 Haitian nationals to Port-au-Prince from Del Rio, Texas, with more flights planned as authorities are struggling to deal with thousands upon thousands of migrants living under a bridge right now at the southern border.

CNN's Josh Campbell is live for us in Del Rio, Texas, this morning.

You know, this is a scene of, you know, mass humanity with very poor conditions, Josh.

JOSH CAMPBELL, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY AND LAW ENFORCEMENT CORRESPONDENT: Absolutely, Brianna. There are thousands of migrants, including families, pregnant women and children, living under the Del Rio International Bridge in this makeshift camp in squalid conditions, sleeping on the dirt next to piles of garbage, being exposed to the elements.

This is being described as a humanitarian crisis. Not only because you have thousands of migrants trying to make their way into the United States, living in these terrible conditions, but we're obviously still in a global pandemic, and officials are worried about the public health aspect here.

Now, we know that the DHS is working with the Red Cross and other aid agencies to try to get food into this camp, to improve the sanitary conditions.

And you can see behind me, the Del Rio port of entry is now closed. Authorities are redirecting traffic to other locations.

This area has been flooded with state troopers, hundreds of federal agents, and officers. Now DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas was on CNN yesterday speaking with our colleague Jim Acosta, making it clear that, if there are migrants in this group that don't have a lawful reason to enter the United States, such as seeking asylum, they will be sent back to the place from which they came. Take a listen.


ALEJANDRO MAYORKAS, HOMELAND SECURITY SECRETARY: We are increasing the frequency and size of the repatriation flights. We have sent a very clear message early on, in light of the fact that we are in the midst of a pandemic, that the border is not open, and people should not take the perilous journey here. We are returning people to other countries.


CAMPBELL: Now, on those repatriation flights, we understand that they have already taken off to places like Haiti. We expect that there will be more.

Now, as far as numbers, as of yesterday, there were still just under 12,000 migrants still in this makeshift camp. Officials say they have a goal of processing 3,000 per day. At that rate, we're still days away from seeing any type of noticeable diminishment in this situation here under this bridge.

But obviously, a serious situation for border officials as well as the migrants themselves, who are living in these awful conditions in what, again, is being described as a humanitarian crisis -- Brianna.

KEILAR: All right. Josh Campbell, thank you so much, live for us from Del Rio, Texas.

Former President Trump is making another ill-fated effort to undermine the 2020 election, despite being under investigation for election interference. The new letter that he just wrote to an official in Georgia.

BERMAN: Plus, new reporting about Trump's alleged campaign to oust Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell from power. Will other Republicans get on board?

And the Brazilian president says he will ignore United Nations rules and give his speech this week in New York without being vaccinated.



BERMAN: The former president of the United States just wrote it down. For anyone trying to suggest he's not actively, aggressively, and openly trying to regain power now, he just wrote it down, pushing to decertify the 2020 election.

Trump sent a letter riddled with lies to Georgia's secretary of state, Brad Raffensperger, asking him to decertify the results in Georgia, citing all sorts of debunked claims.

Trump writes, "I would respectfully respect that your department check this and, if true, start the process of decertifying the election or whatever the correct legal remedy is, and announce the true winner."

Remember, the former president is under investigation in Georgia for trying to muscle officials to overturn the election there.

Joining us now, CNN political analyst and Washington correspondent for "The New York Times," Maggie Haberman, and CNN senior political analyst John Avlon.

Maggie, what's the most interesting thing about this letter to you?

MAGGIE HABERMAN, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: That it's on paper. That's the most interesting thing. No, in all seriousness.

I mean, this is something that Donald Trump has been saying privately for a while. And it's been a slow escalation. It started with the fantasy that Mike Lindell, the My Pillow CEO, had been pushing, that Trump would be reinstated in August. Trump was, you know, murmuring that to people and trying to get others to say that out loud.

When that, obviously, passed us by -- August is over -- he started focusing on decertification in a handful of states based on what are not actually audits. These are just investigations of some kind that don't have any legal binding but that some state legislatures are going along with.

Now he's putting this down on paper. I spoke to some of his folks about this over the weekend, and the response that I got was this is really, really about, you know, boosting his base, and he's targeting Raffensperger. And that sounds like four-dimensional chess to me.

I mean, basically, he's -- he's putting down that he wants the election to be undone.


You know, it's not the same as when he was in office and pressuring the secretary of state to do that. But it is still really jarring. And there are people out there, whether he believe this or not sort of doesn't matter anymore. There are his followers who are not going to understand that he might not believe it.

JOHN AVLON, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Yes, but I mean, there are a couple big differences. Right?

First of all, he's under investigation for election interference. So a man under investigation for election interference is continuing to ask for the election to be decertified, i.e., sort of posthumously trying to interfere with the election.

Is this a setup for an insanity defense? Because he actually has legal culpability. He's no longer president of the United States. He's not shielded. So he's certainly making -- you know, not that he ever thinks about whether he's making his lawyer's case more difficult, but he's making it doubly difficult.

And so there's real jeopardy as well as threat, I think, to the country and the republic on this. And I think it increases the reason why there needs to be legal accountability, why this isn't academic. Because it's clear he doesn't care. He does not believe he will ever be held accountable. And until someone shows him he's wrong, he's going to continue to behaving in ways that destroy our democracy.

BERMAN: It simply speaks to motive, right? And he actually put it down on paper, so now there's no doubt. Not that there ever was, frankly, about what he was trying to do in the previous phone calls to Raffensperger there.

And Maggie, what is -- you know, Republicans try to explain away what Trump has done and is doing. Yet, it's on paper now. He's trying to throw out the election.

HABERMAN: It was pretty jarring to see it floating around over the weekend and realize that I don't think a single Republican talked about this. I actually didn't really see Democrats talking about it either, frankly.

And I think what you're seeing is this ongoing uncertainty, both from Democrats and from Republicans, for whom he remains the leader of their party until there is another nominee.

But Democrats are also unsure how to go about dealing with this. Because when somebody has no shame and is willing to just do whatever they want, that you know, gives them an edge in politics. And Democrats are still grappling with how do you deal with this without, you know, spreading this information? How do you deal with this without giving him negative attention, which is what he wants?

You know, he would probably be enjoying us talking about this right now, because it's still a focus on him. He's been out of the limelight.

But it's -- at a certain point, everyone averting their gaze doesn't really do much either.


AVLON: Yes. Look, I mean, he is saying the quiet part allowed in the context of an investigation. He, as long as people are cowed by him, he will continue to accumulate power.

This is the oldest lesson in the book that kids in the schoolyard know.

HABERMAN: There's also one other point we should make, which is that last week, Anthony Gonzalez, who is the sitting congressman --


HABERMAN: -- who voted against him in impeachment, got out of his race because he's being challenged by Max Miller, who is a very Trumpy candidate, a former White House aide. That is how Trump starts to amass power again, is in these small increments.

BERMAN: Yes. And look, we know this is now a central tenet in the Republican Party. Belief in the Republican Party, where 78 percent in our recent poll said that they don't think Joe Biden won the election.

AVLON: And so when Bill Cassidy goes on air and says, listen, if we're bullied, we're going to lose, guess what? They're being bullied. And guess what? Bullies only respond to strength. Full stop.

BERMAN: All right, friends, stick around. Don't go anywhere. We have much more for you. Former President Trump reportedly mounting a campaign to oust Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. How are Senate Republicans reacting this morning?

KEILAR: Plus, a big night at the Emmys for one of our favorite shows here on our show, and that is "Ted Lasso". So we're going to break down all of the winners and losers, coming up.





KEILAR: Developing this morning, "The Wall Street Journal" is reporting that former President Trump wants Mitch McConnell gone and has recently spoken with senators and allies about whether any Republicans are interested in mounting a challenge to the Senate minority leader.

Now, sources tell "The Journal" that so far there is little appetite among the Senate GOP for such a plan.

We're back now with Maggie Haberman and John Avlon.

You know, Maggie, this is an interesting one, because Mitch McConnell is someone that most Republicans -- you know, they don't want to go up against. You're even seeing major Trump allies that are not getting on board with this.

HABERMAN: I think this is a couple of things, Brianna. I think this is Trump trying to, you know, flex a muscle. I think this is Trump trying to stay relevant, frankly. And I think that it is just his ongoing personal animus with Mitch McConnell.

But I don't think that there is a -- A, he is not having any luck trying to recruit a challenger; and, B, if you read "The Wall Street Journal" story, the Trumpiest candidates in there, who you think would be the likeliest to go with him, still wouldn't say that they think that McConnell should go.

So I think that Trump is going to have to be careful what fights he chooses within the Republican Party. The Senate is not the House. His power is not the same in the Senate. And it certainly isn't the same in terms of trying to, you know, overcome McConnell. We have seen that on a number of occasions.

So I don't know, you know, whether there's a long-term goal here. My sense is that this has not been that serious around Trump. It's certainly something he is talking about.

But I think this is going to be, potentially, for him a test that points to less strength than he would like to show.

KEILAR: Well, that's exactly the point, Avlon. Why is he doing something -- clearly, he doesn't realize he is -- that's going to point to the boundaries of his influence here?

AVLON: Because he doesn't care. I mean, you know, the Trump aides are always talking about him as a honey badger. And he's not president anymore, so he doesn't have any institutional power. But in some ways, that further unleashes him.

And look, you know, the constant drumbeat of demonizing Mitch McConnell may not be taking -- any takers inside the U.S. Senate, but among the base, you can be damn sure that it does. And this just -- what it shows people in the Senate, whether you're

Mitch McConnell or any of the lieutenants or the lowliest back bencher to the extent that that exists, is it -- should remind folks that loyalty is a one-way street with Donald Trump.

And the steps that were taken not to put him out of the game through impeachment, through, you know, really taking the January 6th Commission seriously, frankly, through invoking --