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Gabby Petito's Death Ruled a Homicide; Trump Sues Niece, Reporters for Disclosure of Tax Docs; NYT: Trump Campaign Knew Lawyers' Conspiracies Were False; Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger is Interviewed about Newest Trump Efforts to Reverse Election Results; Biden's Economic Agenda at Risk, U.S. Nears Default on Debt. Aired 6-6:30a ET

Aired September 22, 2021 - 06:00   ET


JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: I'm John Berman, alongside Brianna Keilar on this NEW DAY.


The Gabby Petito case is now a criminal investigation. Authorities confirm she was killed on her cross-country journey with her fiance, now nowhere to be found.

Plus, breaking news: former President Trump targets his own niece in a $100 million lawsuit over a story in "The New York Times."

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN ANCHOR; A dangerous games of brinksmanship on Capitol Hill, with the country about to run out of money to pay its bills.

And a couple from Texas kicked out of a restaurant because they were wearing masks. They will join us live this hour.

BERMAN: Good morning to our viewers in the United States and all around the world. It is Wednesday, September 22. I'm John Berman. And, yes, alongside Brianna Keilar this morning.

The frantic search intensifying this morning for the man who came home from a road trip without his fiance. And breaking overnight, the news the family of Gabby Petito feared most: it is her body found at a remote campground in Wyoming. The medical examiner ruled her death a homicide nearly a month after she disappeared on a cross-country road trip with her fiance, Brian Laundrie.

Now, as a criminal investigation officially begins, he is missing. And the FBI is pleading for the public for help.

KEILAR: Now, investigators are resuming their search for Laundrie in a nature preserve near his home in Florida.

You'll remember that days after anyone last heard from Gabby Petito in late August, Brian Laundrie returned home to Florida in early September, alone. Ten days after that, her family reported her missing. Laundrie, after refusing to speak to police about Petito's

whereabouts, disappeared, and he's been missing ever since. At this time, he has not been charged or named as a suspect.

Amara Walker is in North Port, Florida, where the Laundrie family lives, with our top story -- Amara.

AMARA WALKER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Good morning to you both.

Yes, sadly, it has been confirmed. The FBI tweeting out on Tuesday that the Teton County coroner has confirmed the human remains found Sunday in Wyoming are, indeed, those of 22-year-old Gabby Petito. As you said, her death has been ruled a homicide. But the cause of death, exactly how she died, remains unclear. That is pending the autopsy's final results. And hopefully, we'll understand a little bit more as to how Gabby Petito died.

The FBI also tweeting out that they searched a remote area searching for evidence there in the Bridger-Teton National Forest on Tuesday.

Now, here at the Carlton Reserve, guys, the focus is now on the whereabouts of 23-year-old Brian Laundrie. The search for him is expected to resume around 8 a.m. this morning. They'll be combing this area, a 25,000-acre reserve.

And this has proven to be quite a difficult search area. The treacherous -- it's been a very treacherous terrain. Much of it filled with water, 75 percent of it water, some of it waist deep. Authorities saying that these waters are gator and snake-infested. And that is why authorities will be deploying technology to help them in the search, including infrared cameras, we are told.

Now, what's also making the search quite difficult is the fact that Brian Laundrie had about a four-day head start. Just take a look at this timeline.

August 27, that is what Petito's mother said that she received one of the last communications from her daughter. It was an odd text, according to an affidavit.

And then August 30, the family's lawyer saying that a last message came in from her phone, although they don't believe it came from her. And that message said there was no service in Yosemite. And police believed at this point that Petito was in the Grand Teton National Park.

This is where things get interesting. September 1, Brian Laundrie shows up at his North Port, Florida, home without Petito. This is where he lived with his parents and Petito. And police say that he refused to cooperate with police. Neither did his parents.

And then you fast forward to September 17. That is when his parents, who called up police, told them that Brian Laundrie left on September 14 with a backpack to the Carlton Reserve. So they called police on a Friday. He left on a Tuesday, allegedly. So a big question as to why there was this four-day delay before they told police that Brian Laundrie was no longer in the home.

FBI in the meantime asking people to call if they have any information -- Brianna.

KEILAR: Yes. The effect of those few days is that he had that head start, as you mentioned. Amara, thank you so much for that report from Florida.

Breaking overnight, former President Trump suing his niece, Mary Trump, and three "New York Times Times" reporters, alleging a, quote, "insidious plot to obtain his private tax records."

CNN's Sara Murray is joining us live with more here. This is quite the family drama coming out of this, Sara.

SARA MURRAY, CNN POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: I know. The Trump family food fight. It just feels like it never ends.

And in this case, the former president is suing his niece, Mary Trump, as well as a few handful of "New York Times" journalists for disclosing his tax information. The former president is asking for no less than $100 million in damages.

And I don't think it will surprise you that none of these parties are backing down. In a statement, Mary Trump said, "I think he is a loser, and he is going to throw anything against the wall he can."

"The New York Times" said they disclosed this information to inform the public. And they said that this lawsuit is an attempt to silence an independent news corporation. They, of course, vowed to defend the journalists.

And remember, these "New York Times" journalists won a Pulitzer Prize for this story regarding the former president's tax information, Brianna.

BERMAN: So Sara, while we're talking about "The New York Times," "The Times" is also reporting that the Trump campaign knew, people inside the Trump campaign knew that some of the wild claims about election fraud being peddled by Trump's lawyers were baseless. So what's going on here?

MURRAY: You know, wild claims of election fraud, claims that ended up being very dangerous, claims that many of these attorneys are still making.

What "The New York Times" reports is that there were a number of folks within the Trump campaign who knew pretty early on that these were false.



MURRAY (voice-over): As the former president started his big push of the big lie, Trump campaign officials reportedly already knew those claims were false. The "New York Times" obtaining an internal campaign memo from November 14, filed as part of a defamation lawsuit against the Trump campaign by Eric Coomer, a former employee of Dominion Voting Systems. I major target of a conspiracy theory launched just days later.

The company, a major target of a conspiracy theory launched by Trump's then-legal team just days later.

SIDNEY POWELL, FORMER TRUMP CAMPAIGN ATTORNEY: What we are dealing with here and uncovering more by the day is the massive influence of communist money through Venezuela, Cuba and likely China.

RUDY GIULIANI, TRUMP'S FORMER ATTORNEY: A company whose chairman is a close associate and business partner of George Soros, the biggest donor to the Democrat Party, the biggest donor to Antifa, and the biggest donor to Black Lives Matter.

MURRAY: But according to "The Times," the Trump campaign knew these claims were untrue before Rudy Giuliani and Sidney Powell's press conference.

The memo finding Dominion did not have ties to Antifa, George Soros or Venezuela. Nor did the company use Smartmatic software in the election.

It's unclear whether the former president saw or knew about the memo, "The Times" reports, adding the documents indicate the Trump campaign staff avoided discussing the topic.

But the paper suggests it's likely Trump was unaware of the findings, pointing to the motion they obtained that alleges "The Trump campaign continued to allow its agents to advance debunked conspiracy theories and defame Coomer, apparently without providing them with their own research debunking those theories."

Giuliani dismissing the Trump campaign's memo, reportedly saying in a deposition that he had not seen it before his presentation and also questioning the author's motives, saying, "They wanted Trump to lose because they could raise more money."

Over 10 months after his defeat to President Biden, Trump continues to say, without proof, that the election was stolen.

DONALD TRUMP, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We won the election, but what are you going to do?

MURRAY: While former lawyers Giuliani and Powell contend with the legal fallout of their claims.

In August, Dominion filed lawsuits of its own against the two, as well as Trump ally and My Pillow CEO Mike Lindell. The company is seeking billions of dollars in damages for their role in promoting false election claims against the company.

(END VIDEOTAPE) MURRAY: Now, what's striking about this memo is when you look through it, a lot of it is very publicly available information, easy to find, and it is striking to see, you know, these attorneys, as well as the former president, continue to just peddle these patently untrue claims -- Brianna, John.

KEILAR: Yes, it's really amazing. Sara, thank you so much. Sara Murray.

Donald Trump's attempts to steal the election have not stopped, even to this day. His latest effort, to try to decertify his defeat in Georgia. We'll be speaking live with the Republican secretary of state, next.

BERMAN: The House moves ahead with passing a budget bill along party lines, setting up a showdown with Republicans that could plunge the country into an economic disaster.

KEILAR: And so much for personal choice. A Texas couple kicked out of a restaurant for wearing masks. They're going to join us live on NEW DAY.



BERMAN: Developing overnight, court documents obtained by "The New York Times" reveal the Trump legal team knew. They knew that allegations of fraud involving Dominion Voting Systems were baseless but continued to peddle the false allegations in the effort to overturn the election results.

And continuing the big lie, Donald Trump just wrote a letter to Georgia's secretary of state, Brad Raffensperger -- this happened just days ago -- asking him to decertify the results of the election in Georgia.

As you will remember, Trump already made this request to Raffensperger in January.


TRUMP (via phone): All I want to do is this. I just want to find 11,780 votes, which is one more than we have, because we won the state.


BERMAN: Joining me now is the Georgia secretary of state, Brad Raffensperger, who is also the author of the forthcoming back, "Integrity Counts."

Fitting title, Mr. Secretary. Thank you so much for being with us this morning.

Look, this news in the "New York Times" that the Trump campaign knew that some of the things that the Trump lawyers were saying was bunk. Broadly speaking, do you think that the president and/or the people around him knew that this stuff was a fantasy when he was on the phone calling you to pressure you?

BRAD RAFFENSPERGER (R), GEORGIA SECRETARY OF STATE: Well, it's pretty obvious now we're starting to see this information come out. His campaign team had told him that he was behind right after the election. They told him, basically, that he had lost. And now there's more misinformation, disinformation.

It's been 10 months now. And it's really unfortunate, because it's undermining confidence in the election process here in Georgia and, really, nationwide.

BERMAN: And January 6th, this memo revealed in the Woodward and Costa book "Peril" that John Eastman, a lawyer to the Trump campaign, wrote and handed to Mike Pence. In that, he says, you should throw out the electoral votes of seven states. Georgia was one of them.

So how does that make you feel, that there was a written-down plan from a Trump lawyer to just discard the votes of your state?

RAFFENSPERGER: Well, we held the line here. We made sure that we had a fair and honest election, and I followed the Constitution. And I'm glad that others, you know, stood on the line and they stood for the Constitution also. It was a very challenging day in America.

BERMAN: Just a challenging day? The reason I say just that day, because last week you got another letter from the former president of the United States, asking you still, at this point, to decertify the Georgia election results. How important is it to stand up and publicly say no to him? You have a book about this.


RAFFENSPERGER: Well, I look at his letter as a plea for attention. He knows he's lost. He's been told that multiple times by a lot of people.

But at the end of the day, that information that he talked about, we opened up an investigation. Lots of investigations that go on. And then once we have our findings, we report those to the state election board for final disposition. But the fact is, is that President Trump did not carry the state of Georgia.

BERMAN: That will be news to him. Or maybe it won't be news to him if, you know, he knows it and is continually lying about it.

Look, there's this January 6th Commission looking into what happened that day and the events that led up to it. Do you think Republicans are scared to testify?

RAFFENSPERGER: I think that most people probably want to make sure that there is a bipartisan nature to it. Just like when you have election reform legislation. I know that elections are very political. But the process itself needs

to make sure that it's -- you know, down the line, that we can really have confidence in it. No matter what side of the aisle we're on.

So as long as it's a bipartisan buy-in, I think that it will probably get better legs on it and really dig in and get solid information. And that's a good thing. I think we want the information out there so people can understand what the facts were --

BERMAN: Liz Cheney --

RAFFENSPERGER: -- and don't have to deal with --

BERMAN: Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger are both Republicans. They are on that committee. Have you yet been subpoenaed to testify to that committee?


BERMAN: If you do receive the subpoena, will you testify to that committee?

RAFFENSPERGER: We'll take a look at it. And while we have other work going on right now, we're pretty focused here in George. We have a lot of municipal elections. We had a fairly extensive update of our election laws. And so we're incorporating that with rule making for all the county election directors. So we've got a lot on our plate right now.

BERMAN: You say we'll look at it. That's not a yes, Secretary.

RAFFENSPERGER: Well, that's why I have counsel on that. And we'll take a look at it.

We also have another investigation about President Trump's call that's going on in Fulton County. And so they're really intertwined efforts. And we just want to look at it in totality.

BERMAN: We played some of the audio from that phone call from President Trump to you way back when, and we showed the letter that he just sent you. Who else, or how many others from the Trump team contacted you during that period?

RAFFENSPERGER: Oh, I -- I have no idea how many people. I know we had multiple calls into our office. We thought that they were spoof calls. I know that Mark Meadows reached out. And there may have been other people. You'd have to really get with my team back in the office.

But anything that we have, you know, we will share that with, you know, law enforcement officials, obviously.

BERMAN: So there were others, though, who tried to pressure you who were called to try to get you to do something --


BERMAN: Not you personally?

RAFFENSPERGER: Not me personally. The only person, obviously, I talked, Senator Graham; I talked to President Trump. And those are out there. People know that we had those conversations. But that's really the extent of it.

I understood that we had an investigation. I learned a long time ago, I was on city council that outside people shouldn't be involved in the investigation process. Let the -- let the investigators do their work. Let them, you know, find out what the facts are, and then bring that, you know, to the state election board or bring that to our office so we can decide what further action needs to be taken.

BERMAN: But Mark Meadows, broadly speaking, was the White House chief of staff at the time; was also in contact with the officials?


BERMAN: Where we were today as we sit here in September, and you're writing a book with -- on integrity, which means standing up for what you believe in.

A lot of people in the Republican Party have tried to diminish what happened January 6th or ignore what happened on January 6th, or allow for the former president of the United States to continue to say that the election was stolen, which he does at almost every turn.

What damage does that do to the Republican Party, this silence or acquiescence, do you think?

RAFFENSPERGER: We need to get back to our founding principles, our solid Republican principles. Probably the best example we had, that I think Ronald Reagan knew how to build on conservative principles. You could be conservative but still have charisma, charm, and not be mean and nasty about it. And then you can build a big tent. And that's what he did.

It was really the beginning of the revolution. Obviously, both Bush presidencies, you know, worked off of that. People of honor and integrity. And I think that's what we really need to get back to and lean into that. And lean into integrity, that a lot of this stuff will work itself out.


But without integrity and chasing a cause, we're going to get neither.

BERMAN: The former president coming back to Georgia for this political rally and a number of politicians going to be there with him. What do you think the impact of that will be?

RAFFENSPERGER: Oh, I have no idea what. I think that the United States needs to move forward, and I think the Republican Party needs to move forward. And it's going to move forward when we lean back into our values of integrity, you know, hard work, decency, you know, civil conversations and then really getting the work done for the people. BERMAN: Any chance -- this fantasy of decertification, the former

president throws that word around and others do, too. How do you think that affects this political discourse we're having? Mr. Secretary?

RAFFENSPERGER: Over the years on both sides --

BERMAN: Sorry. Go ahead.

RAFFENSPERGER: We have -- we have seen a coarsening of the political discourse in our society on both sides of the aisle. I think people need to take -- take a look at what happens, perhaps just in the Georgia General Assembly, where we had respectful conversations. We didn't all agree on everything, but at least we had respectful conversations. And I think that needs to happen.

Maybe we need to have everyone start going to Rotary and start doing the four-way test. Is it the truth? Is it beneficial to all concerned? It's really a novel concept, but it's really the American concept, where we work together as a community to move our country forward, bring our different viewpoints together.

But we have to have some respect. We also have to have the bedrock of it. The cornerstone of that is character and integrity, common decency.

BERMAN: Is it the truth? A first question, a low bar, but one that I think a lot of politicians are having trouble getting above and beyond at this moment.

Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, thank you very much for being with us this morning.


BERMAN: Ahead in our next hour, the authors of the new book "Peril" will join us right here, live in the studio, to discuss the stunning and chilling efforts by Donald Trump and his team to hold onto power.

KEILAR: And President Biden will meet today with congressional leaders with hopes of salvaging his agenda and preventing an economic collapse.



KEILAR: This morning, the clock is ticking on President Biden's economic agenda and the United States defaulting on its debt.

The House did vote to pass legislation on Tuesday to prevent a government shutdown at the end of the month and to suspend the nation's borrowing limit.

But Republicans are not expected to support the measure. This was a party line vote. It was 220-211. And that means the bill now faces an uphill battle in the Senate. President Biden planning to ramp up his engagement today. He's going

to meet with the House speaker, Nancy Pelosi, and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer. Also, he's going to meet with progressives who say that they will block passage of a smaller bipartisan infrastructure bill next week if there is not action on a $3.5 trillion spending package the Democrats are going alone on.

Still, the speaker seems optimistic about getting a deal to the finish line.


REP. NANCY PELOSI (D-CA): This is called the legislative process. This is called the Democratic Party. We are in the mix of all of it. And that's what's pretty exciting because everybody has their say, we come together, and we get it done.


KEILAR: Let's go to CNN congressional correspondent Lauren Fox to explain all of this to us. There are these divides that are threatening, obviously, Biden's legislative agenda here. They're threatening a functioning government, as well. Tell us what we're seeing.

LAUREN FOX, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Brianna, I think these stalemates are really intensifying on Capitol Hill. And there are really two different factions who are fighting over different issues here. You have Republicans and Democrats who are really at an impasse on what to do about the debt ceiling.

As you noted, last night in the House of Representatives, there was a bill to fund the government. That bill also included an increase in the country's borrowing limit.

But when it goes to the U.S. Senate, there's really no indication right now that Republicans are going to be ready or fall in line to vote with Democrats on this.

There are a few Republicans who have not said which way they will vote on this piece of legislation. You have some lawmakers from the hurricane-ravaged state of Louisiana, who haven't said how they're going to vote. You have Senator Lisa Murkowski, a moderate from the state of Alaska, who hasn't said how she's going to vote.

But that is far short of the 10 Republicans you would need, which potentially could put the country on a path of an economic issue in just a couple of weeks.

Now, you also have a fight over those two infrastructure and bigger spending bills that are going to move through Congress in the next several weeks.

You have a promised vote from the House speaker next week on that bipartisan infrastructure bill. But you also have progressives, like Rep. Pramila Jayapal, who met with the speaker yesterday, who told her in her office, progressives are lining up and ready to vote no on Monday unless you can ensure us that this bigger $3.5 trillion bill is going to be well on its way to getting passed by next week.

Given all the differences we're seeing, it's really unclear that that's going to be possible or even feasible. And you heard the majority leader, Chuck Schumer, say yesterday it's definitely not possible to pass it on the Senate floor in just a couple of days, given the timing and how long everything takes over in that chamber.

So you have the White House working very hard today to try to begin this effort to really cement the votes they need. This is the time when they're going to be trying to muscle things through, when they're going to be trying to remind people what is at stake, which is the Democratic agenda; which is the president's agenda; which is everything they have been campaigning on for the last several years, several decades, really, at this point.