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Hearing Raises Questions About Legal Exposure for Trump, Allies. Aired 6-6:30a ET

Aired June 17, 2022 - 06:00   ET


BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning to viewers here in the U.S. And around the world. It is Friday, June 17. I'm Brianna Keilar with John Berman.


And there are new questions this morning about Donald Trump's legal exposure in the January 6th attack and attempted coup, as new evidence reveals he and his allies knew their scheme was illegal but continued with it anyway, putting Vice President Pence's life in danger as angry mobs vowed to hang him at the Capitol.

This was Pence on January 6th, sheltering in a secure location for nearly five hours as rioters overwhelmed the Capitol. They came within 40 feet of the vice president's evacuation route.

And we're also learning more about a heated phone call between Trump and Pence on that morning of January 6th. Here's what witnesses, including Ivanka Trump, said about the former president's demeanor.


NICHOLAS LUNA, FORMER TRUMP SPECIAL ASSISTANT: Yes. I remember hearing the word "wimp." He called him a wimp. I don't remember if he said, "You are a wimp. You'll be a wimp."

IVANKA TRUMP, DAUGHTER OF DONALD TRUMP/FORMER SENIOR TRUMP WHITE HOUSE ADVISOR: It was a different tone I heard him take with the vice president before.


So a major new piece of evidence reviewed by the committee. John Eastman, the lawyer central to plans to overturn the election results, asked for a pardon after January 6th.

And new this morning, "The New York Times" has obtained a copy of a letter sent by the House Select Committee to Ginni Thomas, the wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. They want to speak to her next month.

The panel has email correspondence between her and John Eastman. And Thomas says she's looking forward to appearing before the panel to clear up any, quote, "misconceptions." "New York Times" reporter Luke Broadwater posted the letter. The

letter has not been released to the public. Not exactly clear how "The Times" obtained it. More on all this ahead.

First, though, let's bring in CNN senior Washington correspondent Pamela Brown with the key moments from these hearings -- Pamela.

PAMELA BROWN, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: Yes, John, the committee highlighted testimony from former White House aides indicating that Trump likely knew about the violence at the Capitol but sent that tweet anyway, calling Pence a coward on January 6th. Something one aide said poured gasoline on the fire and put Pence's life in danger.


BROWN (voice-over): Former President Trump relentlessly pressured his vice president, Pence, to prevent the certification of the presidential election, despite knowing Pence didn't have that authority.

REP. BENNIE THOMPSON (D-MS): He resisted the pressure. He knew it was illegal. He knew it was wrong.

BROWN (voice-over): The Select Committee Investigating the January 6th attack chronicling the plan to have Pence overturn the election that was pushed by Trump's lawyer, John Eastman.

The 11th-hour pressure campaign reached a boiling point on the morning of January 6th. During a contentious phone call between Trump and the vice president.

I. TRUMP: He was on the telephone with who I later found out to be was the vice president. The conversation was -- was pretty heated.

LUNA: I remember hearing the word "wimp." Either he called him a wimp. I don't remember if he said, "You are a wimp. You'll be a wimp."

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's also been reported that the president said to the vice president that something to the effect of you don't have the courage to make a hard decision.

GEN. KEITH KELLOGG, FORMER PENCE NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISOR: I don't remember exactly. It was something like that, yes.

I. TRUMP: It was a different tone than I had heard him take with the vice president before.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Do you remember what she said her father called him?


BROWN (voice-over): The president then took his last-minute plea to a crowd of his supporters.

D. TRUMP: Mike Pence is going to have to come through for us. And if he doesn't, that will be a sad day for our country.

BROWN (voice-over): The violent mob then proceeded to the Capitol, many enraged Pence wouldn't do Trump's bidding.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Mike Pence has betrayed the United States of America!

BROWN (voice-over): The rioters made it within 40 feet of the vice president. The committee released a play-by-play of how close the violence was to Pence, featuring pictures of Pence from that day.

Minutes before Pence was taken to a secure location within the Capitol, Trump put out a tweet blaming Pence.

SARAH MATTHEWS, FORMER TRUMP PRESS AIDE: The situation was already bad. And so it felt like he was pouring gasoline on the fire by tweeting that.

BROWN (voice-over): In the months before the Capitol attack, Eastman continuously peddled the theory in the White House that Pence could overturn the election in his capacity as president of the Senate.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And they thought it was crazy.

ERIC HERSCHMANN, FORMER TRUMP WHITE HOUSE LAWYER: I said, "Are you out of your 'F'-ing mind? You're going to cause riots in the streets."

BROWN (voice-over): Pence had pushed back repeatedly that it was not within his authority to act.

GREG JACOB, FORMER COUNSEL TO VICE PRESIDENT MIKE PENCE: Common sense and structure would tell you the answer cannot possibly be that the vice president has that authority.

There is almost no idea more un-American than the notion that any one person could chose the American president.

BROWN (voice-over): In previously recorded testimony, Pence's counsel, Greg Jacob, said he was party to conversation on January 4, where Eastman conceded to Trump the plan was not lawful.


Nevertheless, on January 5, Eastman renewed the plan, requesting Pence reject the electors.

JACOB: I said, John, if the vice president did what you're asking him to do, we would lose 9-0 in the Supreme Court, couldn't we?

And after some further discussion acknowledged, Well, yes, you're right. We would lose 9-0.

BROWN (voice-over): Eastman, for his part, emailed Rudy Giuliani a few days after the Capitol attack, asking to be considered for a presidential pardon, and pleaded the Fifth over 100 times before the committee. EASTMAN: I assert my Fifth Amendment right against being compelled to witness against myself.





BROWN (on camera): And we're also learning this morning the Justice Department is pressing the January 6th Committee for witness transcripts in a new letter, saying it is now readily apparent that the interviews the Select Committee conducted are not just potentially relevant to criminal investigations, but are likely relevant to specific prosecutions that have already commenced.

While Congressman Jamie Raskin says the challenge here is the breadth of the request but says the committee is working on accommodating DOJ. And it is unusual, I should note, for DOJ to be the one asking Congress for all of this evidence. Usually, it's the other way around -- John and Brianna.

BERMAN: It is very peculiar. We'll talk more about that in a moment. Pamela Brown, thank you very much.

KEILAR: Let's bring in CNN senior political analyst John Avlon; CNN political commentator Errol Louis; and CNN legal analyst Jennifer Rodgers.

KEILAR: We're getting this picture of what President Trump knew. Did he know that it was illegal? Was he told it was illegal? Was he told there could be violence?

He was told so many times, it turns out, Jennifer, that this was illegal. What are the ramifications of that?

JENNIFER RODGERS, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Well, you know, a few things.

First of all, of course, the committee is working on potential legislative solutions. Do they want to amend the Electoral Count Act? Do they want to put some restrictions on what the president can do, the vice president can do?

But criminally, that's the big million-dollar question, right? What is DOJ going to do?

And the evidence that was presented yesterday, like the evidence in the first two hearings, was blockbuster, dynamite. I mean, DOJ has to be looking very seriously at criminal charges for President Trump and his allies, who created this whole scheme and this seven-point scheme that they've been laying out.

BERMAN: What evidence, Jennifer, if I can ask, yesterday did you find to be blockbuster? What was presented yesterday that makes things different this morning?

RODGERS: So the evidence that everyone knew that this scheme, while they were concocting it, not just after the fact, was unlawful, and President Trump knew. Because they all told him. All of his aides told him. Mike Pence told him.

John Eastman, the architect of the scheme, even told him. Even though John Eastman admitted he didn't believe that it was lawful; he knew it was unconstitutional.

So everyone knew, including President Trump, and that's the key here.

KEILAR: Let's listen to Marc Short, the former chief of staff to former Vice President Mike Pence, talking about what Pence relayed about this very point.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Mr. Short, is it -- Was it your impression that the vice president directly conveyed his position on these issues to the president, not just to the world through a "dear colleague" letter but directly to President Trump?


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And he had been consistent in conveying his position to the president?

SHORT: Very consistent.


KEILAR: What do you think about that and how all of this -- that being just a piece of what we saw yesterday -- changes things.

ERROL LOUIS, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: It changes things because it paints a picture of the president's frame of mind. Right? I mean, you can't have a criminal conviction without getting to whether or not -- what was in someone's mind.

And in this case if he's told by absolutely everyone -- family members, his paid staff, his lawyers, the White House counsel, the outside advisers, everyone is saying the same thing -- and asking for a pardon, by the way, which is sort of an indicia of a possible exposure, at least the perception of exposure.

When Eastman comes around and says, Hey, add me to the list, the fact that there is a list, capital "L," is itself somewhat telling. And he says, after the fact, Look, I may need a pardon after all of this, which strongly suggests that both he and all of the other advisers and possibly the president himself all knew this.

And one other thing. To the extent that they're asking for some clarifications, the Department of Justice is getting involved in this, they have guidelines where they have to do it before an election. I think that might be where the urgency is coming from.

Give us the information as quickly as possible. We may have to do something. We may have to take action before the midterm elections.

AVLON: That's a key point. And maybe, you know, factoring into some people's 2024 timeline suggestions.

But look, here's, I think, the top line. It seems very clear after this third hearing.

The president knew that what he was arguing was not true. People told him after -- over and over again, the election was not stolen. There is no mass fraud that would change the outcome.

And we learned yesterday over and over again, he was told that the actions you're contemplating are illegal, unconstitutional.


And so that just begs the question. If something is illegal, where's the accountability? Because there's got to be accountability. Whether it's seditious conspiracy or something else. That's for the DOJ to decide.

But Donald Trump knew he was lying and knew he was breaking the law. And that seems to be proven by almost unanimous consent among people who testified under oath from his own administration.

BERMAN: I was blown away by this tweet that they talked about at length, which was sent out by Donald Trump. And Jason Miller confirmed that Trump dictated it to him. Where Trump lied, just lied, according to the testimony, about what he and Pence had talked about.

He said, Mike Pence and I are in exact agreement as to what the vice president can do in throwing out the Electoral College, and that just wasn't true.

RODGERS: Yes. That had to be an awkward conversation. Because Jason Miller testified about, you know, Pence coming and saying, How do I get information out if only two people were party to a conversation? In other words, they were the only two people there. Trump is lying about what's happening. How does he get out his side of the story and contradict the president? It gets very dicey.

But I mean, again, this is all evidence of what he knew. He's being told -- his own chief conspirator in this, John Eastman, tells him, we know that this is unconstitutional, and we will lose. They decide to press ahead anyway. And he's out there lying about what Mike Pence is doing. Mike Pence is on board, he tells the American people. That was absolutely untrue.

AVLON: Because this is his M.O. That's who he is. That's what he did.

And the question is, was Mike Pence that surprised at the end of the day? Who doesn't Donald Trump burn? Loyalty is a one-way street with him. Even though this is the most surreal example in American history. The president apparently signed -- you know, being OK if his -- his own vice president is torn up with -- by a mob that he himself incites. I mean, let's just get real there.

The fact that the FBI informant said that the Proud Boys would have killed him is itself a hell of a wakeup call.

KEILAR: There's been a big question of how much did Trump know that? How much did he use that? How much did people around him -- was it just the fog of things that this got out of hand? He sends out a Pence tweet at the exact wrong time to endanger Vice President Pence.

It turns out it was pretty clear to everyone around him what he was doing and that it wasn't just this kind of fog of things developing and getting out of hand. There seemed to be an understanding, as we learned yesterday from John Eastman, that maybe violence was OK. He felt that it had been used before in the past.

And there was an understanding, it appeared, of what that tweet would do at that moment. They knew what the situation was at the Capitol.

LOUIS: Yes. The focus on Eastman yesterday, I think, is an interesting kind of a wakeup call and warning to -- to attorneys everywhere. Right? Like, don't get too wrapped up in the possibly criminal scheming of your client.

You know, in an urge, I guess, to try and serve Donald Trump and to sort of advance his interests, he went completely off the deep end and later had to sort of come crawling back and say, you know, By the way, can I get a pardon for this, because I said and did all kinds of things that are exposing me to -- to real legal problems.

The fact that the Secret Service was contacted and told in advance, We may have a problem here. The vice president's life might be in danger, tells you all you need to know what the mood was like within these circles, about what was developing.

And the fact that everyone knew it was developing and was taking steps to try and get around it, both legally, the security situation. All of what we saw. You know, I think the -- this is like a seminar for the American people about how democracy goes off the rails.

BERMAN: If you can answer two quick questions. No. 1, Eastman and Trump's legal jeopardy, are they the same here? Or how do they intersect?

And No. 2, if the goal is accountability, which John is talking about, the accountability comes from the Justice Department. Why wouldn't the committee give them their work product, like yesterday?

RODGERS: Yes. So their accountability is largely the same, except for that Donald Trump may be on the hook for more in terms of causing the violence and stuff.

John Eastman seems to be more, you know, in the legal bucket of the plot to overthrow. I don't understand the hesitation to hand over the documents. I can't believe that anyone testifying in front of the committee didn't understand that DOJ was looking at this, actively investigating the information to be handed over.

They're going to do it eventually. I don't understand the hesitation. And the clock is ticking. I mean, John mentioned the 2024 election. If there are indictments that are going to be handed down. I think they have to be handed down by early 2023 to have a chance to get through the judicial cycle before the 2024 election. I think there is a real- time crunch here.

BERMAN: All right. Jennifer, Errol, John, thank you all very much.

So we're bringing you all these new details that we've learned about the January 6th riot. A Capitol Police officer who was badly injured by the mob, and you can see him sitting there, watching these hearings. He joins us next.

President Biden says a recession is not inevitable. Why he says he is confident the U.S. can ride out inflation.

KEILAR: Plus, a deadly shooting at an Alabama church.


Two people killed. We've got the latest on the investigation.


BERMAN: For the first time, we learned exactly how close the mob got to then-Vice President Mike Pence during the election riot at the Capitol on January 6th.

It was 40 feet. And the Capitol Police officer, who was nearly killed by the crowd, heard these revelations firsthand. You can see him sitting between the witnesses during the hearing yesterday.

Officer Aquilino Gonell suffered serious injuries during that riot. He says the events of that day have scarred him, quote, "for the rest of my life."

And joining us now is U.S. Capitol Police Officer Staff Sergeant Aquilino Gonell. Thank you so much for being with us. I wonder what it's been like for you. We've seen you in the hearing behind the witnesses. What has it been like for you to hear this testimony?


OFFICER AQUILINO GONELL, CAPITOL POLICE: Shocking. Just being there and listening to all the people that knew what was going to happen and now coming forward. It's mind-boggling to know that nobody came forward at that time, even after the -- the riot or during the impeachment. Nobody came forward. And that's very troubling.

KEILAR: And what -- you tweeted a lot about former Vice President Mike Pence. Obviously, at the time we've learned he was repeatedly pushing back on President Trump, telling him this plan was illegal. You know, the president heard that over and over.

But you do not seem to absolve the vice president of action in this. Why not?

GONELL: Again, we -- I risked my life to give them time to escape, especially him. You know, given the fact that he's -- he was No. 2 in the line of the chain to the presidency.

And as you noted, he was 40 feet away from -- from encountering the mob. Imagine if I would have, myself and the other officers, wouldn't be able to hold the tunnel, the entrance.

And all those people would have flooded the entries and escape routes. That -- that's very troubling, that he still has not come forward and tell the American people what actually happened and how the former president pressured him and so forth.

You know, I think people are praising him for being courageous. Yes, he did that for just one day. But that was after he exhausted every other means to try to, you know, see -- try to see if it works for him to declare any of the ballots illegal, or send them back to -- to the states. Or everything that the former president wanted him to do, he tried to do.

And just because he didn't do it, doesn't mean he is not culpable in coming forward and saying so. For that moment on January 6th, yes, I praise him. But he entertained all the other's crazy ideas before that. And that's not very courageous.

BERMAN: What do you want to see him do now?

GONELL: Tell the truth. I mean, he -- I risked my life for -- in an attempt to give him time. I almost paid dearly for it. Officer Sicknick did pay for it, as a result of the injuries that he sustained. And the other officer who committed suicide because of that horrific day.

I think all those people who work at the White House, the inner circles, they knew what this person was capable of doing. Yet, nobody came forward.

And they only have come forward with -- only because they have been subpoenaed, most of them. And I think, if they want to -- to be really considered patriotic and honorable and courageous, they should come forward and tell the -- exactly what happened and what led to how the former president pressured them and what they did.

BERMAN: You want Pence to testify?

GONELL: -- on January 6th.

BERMAN: You want Pence to testify.

GONELL: I mean, he doesn't have to. Just -- he has a platform. He could just go, call any network or just tweet it, just like they have in the past. They have a platform. So I don't think he needs to testify. But if --

if that's what it would take, great.

But he has a platform. He could come, call you guys or FOX News and just say whatever happened to -- to him that day. I mean, I saw the picture of him at -- at the loading dock where he was, talking to some of the officers.

Meanwhile, I'm on the other side, fighting for my life in an attempt to give him the chance to be safe where he was. Because if I would have done that, even where he was, all those people would have gotten to him. So it -- I think he owes the police officer that much that -- to make our sacrifice meaningful.

BERMAN: Staff sergeant, thank you for being with us this morning. Appreciate your insight.


GONELL: All right. Thank you for having me. Good to see you.

BERMAN: So President Biden says that inflation is one reason Americans are really, really down. But he rejects claims that his COVID relief plan contributed to skyrocketing prices.

KEILAR: And heartbreak for the owners of that home that you saw literally fall into the Yellowstone River. They say it was like watching your own funeral. We're going to speak to them ahead.


KEILAR: President Biden says two years of pandemic disruptions and growing economic uncertainty has done a number on Americans' collected psyche.

The president telling the Associated Press, this: quote, "People are really, really down. The need for mental health in America, it has skyrocketed, because people have seen everything upset. Everything they've counted on upset. But most of it's the consequence of what's happened. What happened is a consequence of the COVID crisis."

He does dismiss claims?