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Witnesses Offer Clues to How Gabby Petito May Have Died; Standoff Between Moderates, Progressives Puts Agenda at Risk; Trump Lawyer Memo Laid out Process Towards a Coup; Op-Ed: GOP is Marching Toward Authoritarianism. Aired 6-6:30a ET

Aired September 23, 2021 - 06:00   ET


BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN ANCHOR: Hello, I'm Brianna Keilar alongside John Berman on this NEW DAY.


There are new clues in the search for Gabby Petito. What a witness saw just hours before she disappeared.

And drama on the Hill. Democrats turning on each other, while President Biden fights to move his agenda forward.

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: Pfizer gets the green light for -- to start giving booster shots to some Americans. We'll ask the former FDA commissioner about the next steps.

And why one of China's most famous and wealthy actresses has just been erased from the Internet.

KEILAR: Good morning to our viewers here in the United States and around the world. It is Thursday, September 23.

And dive teams will be back in the water today near the Florida home of Brian Laundrie. The fiance of 22-year-old Gabby Petito has not been seen now for nearly two weeks since returning home from their road trip alone.

A large van and a boat from the Sarasota County Sheriff's Office arrived midday Wednesday at a swampy 25,000-acre reserve where Laundrie told his parents that he was headed last week. After four days of searching, there is still no sign of him.

BERMAN: This morning, new clues what may have been the final hours of Petito's life. A couple who says they witnessed an incident involving Petito and Laundrie in a restaurant. It may have been one of the last sightings of Gabby before her death.

The couple reports seeing a commotion that had Petito visibly upset.

KEILAR: Amara Walker is on the story for us in Venice, Florida, with the latest on the search for Brian Laundrie.

Amara, what are you hearing?


Yes, yesterday a specialized team of divers was on scene all day. But we're told their search turned up nothing. So law enforcement will be resuming that search here at the Carlton Reserve for Brian Laundrie. And they say they're trying to cover every acre.


WALKER (voice-over): Still no signs of Brian Laundrie this morning, as investigators expand the urgent search for Gabby Petito's fiance.

COMMANDER JOE FUSSELL, NORTH PORT POLICE DEPARTMENT: We have deployed numerous resources. And we are trying to cover every acre in this reserve.

WALKER: Authorities using canines to help search on the ground and flying drones over the 25,000 acres of swamplands of this Florida nature reserve. Specialized underwater dive teams arriving to assist while high-water vehicles navigate through waist-deep water.

CHRIS SWECKER, FORMER FBI ASSISTANT DIRECTOR, CRIMINAL INVESTIGATIVE DIVISION: Physical searches like that and that type of remote were area present all kinds of problems. I mean, it's a marshy area. It's thick with foliage. It's very hard to get into certain spots.

WALKER: Laundrie going missing after returning to the Florida home the couple shared with his parents without Petito on September 1. Now the FBI is asking the public to help find Laundrie.

ANDREW MCCABE, CNN SENIOR LAW ENFORCEMENT ANALYST: Going to the public for help is usually a sign that you have a very challenging manhunt on your hands.

WALKER: They're also seeking assistance to piece together the timeline of Petito's final days.

On August 12, Petito sharing this photo from the Arches National park on Instagram. That's the same day a witness dialed 911 to report a domestic dispute between her and Laundrie, prompting police to pull them over.

GABBY PETITO, FOUND DEAD AFTER GOING MISSING ON CROSS-COUNTRY TRIP: We have been fighting all morning. And -- and he wouldn't let me in the car.

WALKER: One week later --

PETITO: I love the van.

WALKER: -- the couple posting this video on their YouTube page, documenting their cross-country journey. Jessica Schultz telling "The San Francisco Chronicle" she saw Laundrie in his van a week later, on August 26, close to where authorities discovered Petito's remains.

JESSICA SCHULTZ, WITNESS: As a van lifer, I was checking out their van, and I was checking out to see if it was a couple or a solo dude. So it was a solo dude as far as I could see.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Here he is on the left.

WALKER: The next day, YouTube bloggers also say they spotted the vehicle, one woman telling CNN she saw Petito and Laundrie in Jackson, Wyoming, that day, describing a commotion between the two, where Petito was in tears, and Laundrie was visibly angry.

NINA ANGELO, YOUTUBER: She was hysterically crying. And she walked out, and she -- she was crying and she was standing on the sidewalk. And I was watching the whole thing unfold. He walked back in, like, four more times to talk to the manager and to, like, tell the hostess off.

WALKER: It's the same day an affidavit revealing Petito's mother received an odd text from her daughter's phone that referred to her grandfather by "Stan," which she never did.

One expert saying witness tips can help move a probe forward.

CHARLES RAMSEY, CNN LAW ENFORCEMENT ANALYST: Every little bit helps in an investigation like this. But right now, I -- the focus has to be on trying to locate him, dead or alive.


WALKER: So the FBI, of course, is focused right now on finding Brian Laundrie. But they're also focused on this timeline from August 27 to the 30th. They want to know what happened between Gabby Petito and Brian Laundrie. And they're asking anyone who may have had contact with them or even just saw their vehicle in the Grand Teton National Park to give them a call -- Brianna.

KEILAR: Amara Walker, thank you for that report.

BERMAN: I want to bring in Andrew McCabe, CNN senior law enforcement analyst and former deputy FBI director, the author of "The Threat: How the FBI Protects America in the Age of Terror and Trump."

Andy, so nice to see you.

This new bit of reporting last night from Randi Kaye, who's been out in Wyoming, this restaurant, where a couple saw, you know, a heated exchange between Brian Laundrie and the people who worked at the restaurant. Gabby Petito visibly upset. May have been the last time anyone saw her alive.


How does that fit into the puzzle for investigators?

MCCABE: Well, John, these reports are incredibly helpful to investigators, primarily because they put the victim and the potential subject in a definitive place at a specific time. So that helps them build this timeline to kind of bridge back to that moment of when Gabby was killed. As for the -- the kind of personal remembrances of people who may have

seen their interaction, that becomes less helpful. We all know that eyewitness testimony is typically -- can be very inaccurate. People's remembrances of things change over time. So -- but being able to pin them down a lot to that restaurant at a particular day in time is very helpful.

BERMAN: I want to talk about the search for Brian Laundrie. They keep going back to this nature preserve. And now they have divers searching underwater. Do they have to have some sign of some shred of concrete evidence to keep on doing this, or is this just hoping for something?

MCCABE: Well, you know, the law enforcement on the scene has been very definitive, saying they're going to search every acre of that property, 25,000 acres. That's approximately 40 -- 40 square miles of turf they've got to cover. I think I read somewhere there are at 80 miles of hiking trails within that park. So it's a -- it's a big place.

At some point, if they find no sign of Brian whatsoever, they're going to have to redirect those resources to other investigative efforts.

BERMAN: How hard would it be if he were to be on the run right now? How long could someone like that do it, do you think?

MCCABE: It's incredibly hard to be on the run. I can tell you, in my 21 years in law enforcement and the FBI, I've seen very few people do it successfully for a long time.

You're thinking about Whitey Bulger. You're thinking about Eric Robert Rudolph, the -- the Olympic Park bomber, who allegedly lived in the woods five years before we found him.

You have to have money. You have to have support from your family, from the community, and you have to have a deep level of kind of cunning and street smarts to be able to kind of bridge from one place to the next.

There's no indication that Brian Laundrie has any of those things working to his advantage at this point. And if he's, in fact, in that reserve, that's an incredibly harsh environment in which to try to sustain yourself.

BERMAN: You brought up the family there. And again, we have no indication that the FBI is investigating the parents or the family in connection with any of this.

But you brought up Eric Rudolph, you know, Whitey Bulger, the idea that family can sometimes help you. If, at this point, there were anyone trying to help, and it would be very hard because now the FBI is there --

MCCABE: That's absolutely right. So it's those efforts to support a fugitive that often lead the law enforcement, FBI right to that fugitive's doorstep. Right? So they'll be looking closely at any sort of communications, access to

financial instruments, all sorts of things that might connect someone in the community, be it a family member or otherwise, who might be supporting or communicating with Brian. That could actually direct law enforcement to his location.

BERMAN: You know, I asked you -- you talked about the preserve and the idea it would be hard to hide there. If -- again, if he is on the run -- and we don't know that he is, and we don't know that he's a suspect, per se -- how far away -- he's not there, how far away could he be reasonably at this point? If you were in the FBI, what would you be thinking?

MCCABE: Well, certainly he has time on his side. Right? So he had a several days' lead on the law enforcement effort to find him. And that's -- that would definitely be to his advantage.

However, in this case, Mr. Laundrie is widely known by the public, right? He is on the television. His picture is on television. His social media posts for the weeks leading up to this. So he would be very recognizable, were he to leave the reserve and try to make a run for it, you know, as we say, on the economy, just through local -- through, you know, local society around where he lived.

BERMAN: You hear a lot of people say he had a head start. He had a head start before the FBI started looking. Is that actually something that you think is real?

MCCABE: I think he did. There's no question the family didn't even tell law enforcement he was gone until the 17th. They said he had left on the previous Tuesday, which was the 14th. So if you think of it, they don't start looking for him until that Friday or Saturday, and he's been gone since Tuesday. That's a pretty good head start under normal circumstances.

However, as I said, with as recognizable he is, to go out into the world and try to do it on your own, very tough. To try to live in that reserve, probably even tougher.

BERMAN: Andrew McCabe, great to have you on, giving a sort of inside look at what might be happening right now. Really appreciate it.

MCCABE: Thanks, John.

BERMAN: Critical few hours and days ahead on Capitol Hill, with Democrats fighting for votes within their own caucus. Can the president hold his party together?

KEILAR: And the FDA authorizes the first booster shots for some Americans. We will answer your questions.

BERMAN: The Chinese government has censored one of the country's most famous actresses, deleting her from the Internet.



KEILAR: High drama on Capitol Hill playing out over the past 24 hours and setting up a fierce showdown today.

First President Biden essentially playing referee between progressive and moderate Democrats, who are fighting over his $3 trillion spending plan, as well as the bipartisan infrastructure deal.

This as the U.S. is on verge of default and the government potentially shutting down.

Second, police reform talks officially dead now. Officially. We've known that they've been floundering for a while, but they're officially dead as the White House and Democrats accuse Senate Republicans of demanding too much after months of intense negotiations.

Third, members of the Congressional Black Caucus going to the White House, livid over the treatment of Haitian migrants.


REP. MAXINE WATERS (D-CA): I'm pissed. I'm unhappy. And I'm not just unhappy with the cowboys who were running down Haitians and using their reins to whip them. I'm unhappy with the administration.


What we witnessed takes us back hundreds of years. What we witnessed was worse than what we witnessed in slavery. Cowboys with their reins, again whipping black people, Haitians, into the water, where they're scrambling and falling down. And all they're trying to do is escape from violence in their country.


KEILAR: Both lawmakers -- both Democrats and Republicans storming out of a classified briefing on Afghanistan, frustrated by the lack of answers, as they see it, from the Biden administration.

And then on top of all of this, Biden's approval rating is sinking. And -- as his agenda is facing some serious jeopardy, not only because of Republican opposition but also because of these hardliners in his own party.

Let's talk about this now with CNN political commentator Jess McIntosh.

Jess, good morning to you. Just give us the context here of how big of a week this is for President Biden.


Actually, I don't think it's hyperbolic to say this could be the biggest week of Biden's presidency. And that's surprising. But the brinksmanship here is surprising, considering how widely popular this agenda is.

I -- I know there's a tendency to say that he's stuck between progressives and centrists. But given the reality in this country, the objective reality that we need to upgrade our infrastructure so that we can mitigate the effects of climate change, we need to create the kind of economy that allows families to care for each other without going bankrupt. These are just the realities in this country.

And given that, I would say that he's stuck between progressives and obstructionists. Largely, the entire Republican Party, and then several members of his own.

We've seen Republicans many times now start negotiations, start down the path towards a deal, and then turn against it, even though they have participated in the process. We saw it right away with the American Rescue Plan. We've just seen it again with police reform, now that Republican Tim Scott has rejected that final offer, and that is dead. We're seeing them whip votes against the bipartisan infrastructure framework.

So bipartisanship is lovely. But if it doesn't result in the ability to care for a child or an aging parent without losing everything, then it doesn't matter. And that's what Biden has to stay focused on. It's the outcome, not the process.

KEILAR: You know, for right now, he doesn't need bipartisanship to get this $3 trillion bill passed. So he really is stuck between these two factions of his own party. He has the majority in the House. He has enough votes in the Senate.

And obviously he -- It seems that he would be more likely to attract all Democrats than he would be to win over any Republicans.

I do want to ask you, because there is -- we're seeing hard lines -- we're seeing lines drawn by both of these factions. We had Pramila Jayapal on yesterday, the congresswoman, head of the Progressive Caucus. And she said, essentially, it's a red line.

How serious is this ultimatum that progressives are putting out there in the House that either pass it all, both the bipartisan bill and this big bill, only by Democrats, or get nothing. How real is that?

MCINTOSH: I think -- I think anything that results in doing nothing for American people who are facing multiple crises -- I mean, we've just gone through, largely, the worst year and a half of most people's lives in this country. And that requires a massive response.

I honestly can't speak to what the obstructionists in our own party are thinking. I know that Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema have smart people around them. They have to be telling them that, Hey, we fought for you to get less will be a reelection bad slogan in West Virginia and Arizona.

But right now, the progressive wing seems to be the people who are closest to the pain Americans and feeling and the ones willing to embrace widely politically popular solutions. So that's just the current reality right now.

KEILAR: Jess, are they really going to settle for nothing? Are progressives really going to settle for nothing?

MCINTOSH: I mean, I know that the progressives that I talked to, they are motivated by helping people fix their lives. There are a lot of things that are broken in this country right now.

So I am sure that the ultimate goal of what progressives are doing is to get as much as possible to the people who need it the most. I would be surprised if they were happy with nothing given that reality.

But I think it's really important that they take a stand, that they say, this is not negotiable. Fixing our infrastructure to handle climate change is not negotiable when you still have people without power, you still have people fleeing smoke and fire and floods. That's the reality in America right now.


So the idea that we could negotiate a solution to help people handle that away, I think that -- that can't be the first thing that they come to the table with.

KEILAR: Yes. Look, it's a pivotal week ahead, as you say.

Jess McIntosh, thank you so much.

MCINTOSH: Thanks, Brianna.

KEILAR: More damning proof that former President Donald Trump and his allies attempted a coup. Our next guest says the Republicans are at the point of no return when it comes to authoritarianism.

BERMAN: Plus, an emergency room physician who spends her free time spreading dangerous disinformation about the pandemic. And that's not the only big lie she's connected to. CNN confronts her.



BERMAN: It was a how-to guide to subverting an American election. A Trump lawyer, ahead of January 6, writing out a six-step plan for Mike Pence to overturn the 2020 election results.

The memo came to light in Bob Woodward and Bob Costa's new book, "Peril." And it's just the latest example of the Republican Party's slide, says our next guest, into authoritarianism.

He has spent much of his career trying to understand authoritarianism and the breakdown of democracy. And in a Twitter thread that went viral, Brian Klaas wrote, "I'm growing increasing pessimistic about the prospects for American democracy, because of one simple question. What could slow down the GOP march toward authoritarianism?"

Joining me is Brian Klaas, associate professor of global politics at the University College in London and "Washington Post" columnist.

Brian, thanks so much for being with us. You know, we've talked about it on this show before. There is an old, chilling saying which goes, What do you call a failed coup? And the answer is, Practice.

Why do you think that's a relevant quote here?

BRIAN KLAAS, ASSISTANT PROFESSOR OF GLOBAL POLITICS, UNIVERSITY COLLEGE LONDON: Well, I think we have information that shows there was an organized attempt to effectively install a president in power, despite the fact that he lost an election. And that is authoritarianism.

Now, what I'm worried about is how this could possibly end or reverse itself. And every trend that I'm seeing is that it's actually accelerating with a ratcheting effect.

And the reason for that is very simple. If you put yourself in the shoes of a moderate Republican, someone who, in their heart of hearts, believes in democracy, they're looking around to their party, and they're seeing that the rising stars are people who are embracing Donald Trump's lies about the election, are embracing attempts to install him into power despite his election loss, are praising January 6th; while people who criticized Donald Trump are watching their careers die. People who stand up for democracy are becoming pariahs in the GOP.

So that's creating a ratcheting effect where authoritarian rhetoric and extremism has been a litmus test for the party, and that is moving the base towards, I fear, an inevitable slide towards authoritarianism, as a defining feature of the party.

BERMAN: Yes, you write, there are no countervailing forces here. The opposite. That people who are moderate -- I'm not talking about politically moderate or moderate on the partisan scale, but I mean sort of intellectually moderate, culturally moderate here, or want to moderate extremism. It's not a reward structure. It's the opposite of that.

KLAAS: Exactly right. And I think there's also a phenomenon going on right now with the stardom that comes with authoritarianism extremism. That's a very unfortunate dynamic that's been amplified, both by the breakdown of party control in the Republican Party and by social media.

So somebody like Marjorie Taylor Greene, who has said some unbelievably abhorrent things, spread conspiracy theories, amplified lies, and embraced authoritarianism, is a breakout star in the party, rather than the pariah that she should be.

Now, what signal does that send to everybody else? It says if you follow in her footsteps, you too will become a breakout star in the party.

And so what I'm really worried about is I can't answer the question, as someone who studied authoritarianism, the breakdown of democracy, I've seen no signs of this reversing itself. I see no evidence that moderates in the party, who are saying, Look, we disagree with Democrats on health care or taxes, but we agree that democracy is important. I see no evidence that those people are the future of the Republican Party. Quite the opposite: Their careers are dying. They are pariahs.

And so the tea leaves are very clear for Republicans to read. And that's why authoritarianism, unfortunately, has become the rational strategy for rising Republican politicians to embrace.

BERMAN: We put up on the screen, you laid out this sort of several step plan or reason why you think there is nothing to check authoritarianism. And we've been going through them in reverse order, because I think you and I both think that the ones you put at the end may be even more important than the ones you put at the beginning.

You talked about no countervailing forces to prevent it. You talked about the rise of social media. I'm always hesitant to put all the blame on social media here. The medium, as it were. Because I think if there weren't a receptive audience to it, it wouldn't be effective.

You know, it's easy to blame Facebook for Marjorie Taylor Greene. But why not talk about the masses of people who want to be susceptible to her?

KLAAS: You're absolutely right. So it's not just social media. It's also institutional factors like how you win an election in America.

And because of gerrymandering, where politicians pick their voters, rather than the other way around, by drawing districts; or because of primaries that amplify the voices of extremists, the people who are the activists who vote like clockwork in primaries, the reward structure is to become more extreme. The only way you can lose a lot of these uncompetitive districts is to compromise with Democrats, to embrace democracy.

So you have a perfect storm, effectively, where you have the institutional incentives, in other words the way you win an election, combined with the social media stardom of being an authoritarian in the Republican Party, means that that's the right strategy if you want to get re-elected.

So until the party either is dealt a crushing defeat or until Democrats reform the system to -- to insulate the institutions from authoritarian --