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Justice Department Looking at Trump's Actions in Criminal Probe; Democratic Strategists Urging Party to Label GOP as Extremists. Aired 6-6:30a ET

Aired July 27, 2022 - 06:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


[06:00:00]

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN ANCHOR: I'm Brianna Keilar with John Berman, and we do begin with a significant escalation in the January 6th investigation. CNN reporting that the Justice Department is looking at the actions of former President Donald Trump in its criminal probe of the Capitol insurrection. Key witnesses subpoenaed by the DOJ this week including two top aides of former Vice President Mike Pence were asked specifically about the fake elector scheme and the role of Trump's lawyers.

And according to the "Washington Post," Justice Department investigators in April received phone records of key officials and aides in the Trump administration, including his former chief of staff, Mark Meadows.

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: These are by far the most in-depth accounts of the federal investigation. Until now we had virtually no sign this investigation had touched on the actions of the president himself. And it comes as "The New York Times" reports new details on the so-called fake electors scheme, including previously undisclosed e-mails among Trump advisers that show knowledge as the "Times" puts it that a key element of their plan was of dubious legality and lived up to its billing as fake.

KEILAR: Let's go first now to CNN's Sunlen Serfaty who is live for us on Capitol Hill with the very latest -- Sunlen.

SUNLEN SERFATY, CNN WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: Brianna, this is certainly the most aggressive move that we've seen yet from the Department of Justice, an escalation in that investigation looking into efforts to overturn the 2020 election. This as the attorney general declines to rule out potentially prosecuting former President Donald Trump, vowing to pursue justice without fear or favor.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SERFATY (voice-over): The Justice Department investigating actions by former President Donald Trump in its criminal investigation into efforts to overturn the 2020 election, according to a new report from the "Washington Post." A source close to the investigation tells CNN prosecutors are focusing in on the fake electors scheme and the role of lawyers Rudy Giuliani and John Eastman, along with meetings that were part of a pressure campaign to convince then Vice President Mike Pence to disrupt the certification of electoral votes.

MERRICK GARLAND, ATTORNEY GENERAL: The Justice Department has from the beginning been moving urgently to learn everything we can about this period.

SERFATY: And in an interview with NBC's Lester Holt Attorney General Merrick Garland deflected criticism that the Department of Justice is not moving fast enough.

GARLAND: We have a huge number of prosecutors and agents working on these cases. It is inevitable in this kind of investigation that there will be speculation about what we are doing, who we are investigating, what our theories are.

The reason there is this speculation and uncertainty is that a fundamental tenet of what we do as prosecutors and investigators is to do it outside of the public eye. We do that for two important reasons, one is to protect the civil liberties of people and events that we're investigating, and the second is to ensure the success and the integrity of our investigation.

SERFATY: And when it comes to charging Trump and others, he is not ruling that out.

GARLAND: We pursue justice without fear or favor. We intend to hold everyone, anyone, who was criminally responsible for events surrounding January 6th, for any attempt to interfere with the lawful transfer of power from one administration to another accountable. That's what we do. We don't pay any attention to other issues with respect to that.

SERFATY: And when asked whether a 2024 presidential bid from Trump would change that, Garland reiterated.

GARLAND: I will say again that we will hold accountable anyone who was criminally responsible for attempting to interfere with the transfer -- legitimate lawful transfer of power from one administration to the next.

SERFATY: On Capitol Hill, in newly released audio, former acting Defense Secretary Chris Miller telling the House Select Committee former President Trump never gave an order to have troops ready to be deployed to the Capitol on January 6th.

CHRIS MILLER, FORMER ACTING DEFENSE SECRETARY: I was never given any direction or order or knew of any plans of that nature. There was no direct -- there was no order from the president.

SERFATY: Trump has said that he requested National Guard troops to be ready that day, saying he suggested and offered 20,000 National Guard troops.

And newly obtained e-mails obtained by "The New York Times" show that Trump allies knew that their electoral scheme was fake. In an e-mail sent to Trump campaign adviser Boris Epshteyn from a Phoenix-based lawyer writing, quote, "We would be sending in fake electoral votes to Pence so that someone in Congress can make an objection when they start counting votes, and start arguing the fake vote should be counted."

In a follow-up e-mail the lawyer saying, "PPS alternative votes is probably a better term than fake votes," smiley face.

And for the first time since leaving office Trump returned to office to speak about Republican policies at the America First Policy Institute's two-day summit, and air some grievances.

[06:05:09]

DONALD TRUMP, FORMER PRESIDENT: I ran for president. I won. And I won a second time, did much better the second time.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SERFATY: And while Trump continues that baseless claim that the 2020 election was stolen from him, a new CNN poll finds that 45 percent of Americans feel that Trump's actions after the 2020 election were illegal and 80 percent believe that he acted unethically -- John and Brianna.

KEILAR: All right. Sunlen Serfaty live for us on the Hill. Thank you.

BERMAN: All right. Joining us now CNN political commentator and "New York" magazine columnist and the host of the "You Decide" podcast, Errol Louis, and CNN senior legal analyst and former federal prosecutor Elie Honig.

Elie, I want to talk to you both about this news first reported in the "Washington Post," the federal prosecutors are asking about the actions of Donald Trump when he was president. When we learned that Marc Short and Greg Jacob have received subpoenas and testified, we knew that this investigation had reached the inner workings of the Trump White House. By these questions we know the investigation has reached into the Trump Oval Office -- Elie.

ELIE HONIG, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: Well, first thing's first, this is a big darn deal. There is no other way to put it. This is what an actual criminal investigation by the United States Department of Justice of Donald J. Trump looks like. This is the kind of questions you would be asking of the people you would be asking, Marc Short, Greg Jacob, what were your conversations with the president, what did he say, what did he do.

Also important I think the fact that they pulled phone records of Mark Meadows. That's also what you would do at DOJ if you were focused on the White House. And the change here is, remember, Merrick Garland's mantra is ground up. At his confirmation hearing, he said we start from the ground and we build from there. Well, it's no longer a question of can we flip one of these Oath Keepers in face paint and, you know, weird hat, and hope to reach Donald Trump. Now they're going at people who actually will have information about Donald Trump.

KEILAR: How do you see it? ERROL LOUIS, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Indeed. We're getting closer

and closer physically. If you look at the offices of the people that they're talking to, the phone records that they're seizing you're getting closer and closer to the Oval Office. There's only one person that they can, you know, logically be trying to get information about. Whether or not it results in an indictment, where this all goes, is a separate question, but they are certainly building an important case.

The polling suggesting that, some of this is getting through to America, that people are starting to understand just how serious this was and that, you know, the part that Congress is dealing with about all of the drama of January 6th is in one category, but the actions of the president who led the fake electors scheme or who certainly had some involvement and may have been directing all of this are questions that have to be answered, the Justice Department is going to answer those questions.

BERMAN: And about what they are asking, Elie, they seem to be focused on meetings that dealt with the fake electors scheme, what are the questions they seem to be asking about Donald Trump tell you?

HONIG: So here's the trick with the fake electors scheme, I see why prosecutors are drawn to it, because, of all the different schemes, remember, this is six or seven interlocking schemes, the pressure on the vice president, the effort to take over DOJ, the pressure on state and local legislatures, but I think what's drawing prosecutors to the fake electors scheme is it's tangible. There is documents that people signed and submitted to the federal government saying we are the electors.

So as a prosecutor is looking at that and thinking fraud or potentially fraud, that fraud alarm is going off in your head, but the question is going to be, was this fraud in the sense that they were trying to trick somebody? The Archives, the American public into thinking we are the duly elected electors, or will their defense be, to quote that e-mail that was just referenced in the piece, these were alternate slates of electors.

Let's keep in mind. Two of the seven documents that were submitted say, hey -- I'm paraphrasing here, but this is just in case we win in court, we are going to be the people who take over. So it's not necessarily a slam dunk case of fraud, those are the issues I think prosecutors are looking at.

LOUIS: Yes, but it will be easy to get to the bottom of it in part because people have helpfully written e-mails saying these are fake electors, let's wait until the last minute. It starts to sort of track with what the statute prohibits around fraud and trickery and deception. I think we'll find out whether or not this is going to be the avenue that they pursue, but if I were a prosecutor that's the first thing I would look at.

KEILAR: As Donald Trump wakes up this morning he's waking up to a day where DOJ is looking at his conduct on January 6th. How might that affect his calculus, Errol, on a declaration to run again? LOUIS: I think he's going to do it sooner rather than later. He will

shift into a very different position and Donald Trump has always been very attentive to this kind of consideration. He's going to shift into an entirely different position, and it will be much harder for the Department of Justice to talk about him without all of us having to sort of tack on to every news story the probable nominee of the Republican Party is now being investigated, considered a target of a criminal probe.

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It becomes much more difficult to just sort of charge ahead and say, well, we're just talking to everybody to see what happened with this past event. Now it's more forward-looking. Now different sort of considerations start to enter. And I think Donald Trump is going to take full advantage of that.

BERMAN: Just to be clear, we don't know that he is the target of a criminal probe. We don't even know exactly -- he's literally being investigated. What we do know based on all of this reporting is that prosecutors are asking about his actions and this is the first time by a long shot that we have had any sense that investigators were doing that.

This all gets to my question, Elie, which is what will you look for now? We may not get any more leaks. I mean, the press lucked into finding out that Marc Short testified before a grand jury because they were there covering the Steve Bannon verdict and they saw him walking out. That's the only reason anyone knows about any of this. So there may be other things going on behind the scenes, other people testifying that we don't know about, but whose testimony would you look for now? What would set up alarm bells?

HONIG: So it's really interesting. So, first of all, when a person gets a subpoena he is free to tell the world about it if he wants, right? We know that a lot of what happens behind closed doors in a grand jury is secret, has to be, but if Errol Louis got a subpoena, he won't, but he can say hey. I was subpoenaed and I was asked A, B and C.

So I'm looking for who else is going into the grand jury. Are there other people who would have had that kind of access that Marc Short had? Are there other people who would have been inside the White House? Are they starting to subpoena some of the witnesses we just saw from the January 6th Committee? Are we going to see Cassidy Hutchinson, Sarah Matthews, Pottinger, Matthew Pottinger, who testified last week?

If they start getting subpoenaed or interviewed, that's a big deal. I'd also really be interested in watching what happened to Mark Meadows because who had more proximity to Donald Trump than Mark Meadows? We know that they pulled his toll records, his phone records, so I'd be watching for other key players going in. And of course the obvious indicators like search warrants. We know search warrants were done on the two lawyers, Jeffrey Clark and John Eastman. Those are some of the indicators we can match.

KEILAR: So Chris Miller who was the acting secretary of Defense on January 6th has made it clear now, we've learned he says Trump is lying about ordering the National Guard on the ready ahead of January 6th. Why is this significant, Errol?

LOUIS: It's significant in part because what Donald Trump has said, and some of his followers had strongly suggested, is that, well, this was a political demonstration that got out of hand. The president acted responsibly, the disturbance was quelled, and that he was ready for it and he did everything that he was supposed to.

The January 6th Committee has painted a very different picture which is now being confirmed which is that, although there was abundant evidence that there could be violence, that there would be violence, there were these incendiary speeches that were delivered by the president and a lot of his followers at the rally, it turns out that there were no provisions made to put the National Guard on alert and to defend the Capitol.

I mean, it's startling, it's stunning, it's completely -- well, it's 180 degrees from what Donald Trump has said in the past and it's one more piece of evidence, I think, that this was not just an accident. This was not just a legitimate rally that got out of control.

BERMAN: Merrick Garland said a lot of words on TV to Lester Holt in not answering many of the questions that Lester was posing to him. But where is he, Elie, based on the actions that we now know?

HONIG: Yes, so it's the Merrick Garland daily affirmation seemingly now where he says we will follow the facts where they take us, and I don't want to be glib about that because that's all he can say, but I do want to -- let me make an analogy of where this is. OK. I know we're all experienced outdoors people. Let's say you're climbing a mountain and you climb hard and you get to where we are now which is they're asking questions about Donald Trump.

We think, wow, that's momentous. It is momentous. But then you look up and you think, oh, that's a pretty steep climb to him becoming a target. DOJ often does send target letters. Then you've looked up and there's an even higher, rockier cliff to get to indictment. That is a massive, massive leap from investigating to indictment and then way, way up, miles up in the distance, even rockier, is to conviction.

The road from where we are now to indictment to conviction is incredibly long, steep and treacherous. So this is really important, but nobody should be talking about Donald Trump in an orange jumpsuit. That is vastly premature and we're nowhere near that now.

BERMAN: Time for some trail mix.

HONIG: Yes.

BERMAN: On the climb.

HONIG: Is that what outdoors people -- BERMAN: It sounds like what you're saying is take a break, have some

trail mix, keep your energy up.

HONIG: M&Ms mostly.

BERMAN: Don't (INAUDIBLE).

KEILAR: Totally M&Ms mostly.

BERMAN: All right. Errol, Elie, thank you both very, very much.

So how is this for a quote, "These people are out of their minds and we need to say so." The new Democratic strategy to label Republicans as extremists.

And a brand-new poll shows Pete Buttigieg neck and neck with his boss in a potential New Hampshire primary. One of the former mayor's chief campaign advisers who I can actually see sitting and waiting to come on the set right now joins us shortly.

KEILAR: Plus newly released surveillance video of a woman opening fire at the Dallas Love Field Airport.

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What police say she yelled before she began shooting.

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KEILAR: New CNN reporting, multiple Democratic strategists are urging party leaders to focus on labeling Republicans as extremists.

CNN's Edward-Isaac Dovere is joining us now. Tell us what this strategy entails.

ISAAC DOVERE, CNN SENIOR CORRESPONDENT: Look, Brianna, the Democrats that I've talked to are very worried that Republicans are going to have a good November and they're very worried about the consequences of that, from everything to a federal ban on abortion that could come if Republicans take the majority in Congress to lots of actions on the state level about abortion to things that would undermine democracy and elections leading up to the 2024 election.

And they feel like there has not been a stark enough case made to Americans about where things are and where the Republican Party has been headed and they want to do more of that to raise the stakes and show people that these midterms aren't just any midterms, aren't just any elections.

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BERMAN: How are they going to do that? Is it just about talking about it? How if they want to show this to the American people, how do they go about doing that?

DOVERE: Well, like it's about getting specific about some of the conversations, talking being those potential abortion restrictions, for example, but it's also about more votes that are going to come in the House and in the Senate. You've seen that there was a vote last week about codifying gay marriage, about the right to contraception. Those things to pin the Republicans down and say look what they're not voting for, look what they're against.

But also you're going to see days of action over the next couple of weeks from everything from a day of action about Women's Equality Day, talking about rights to contraception, and rights to all sorts of other reproductive rights, and also at the beginning of the school year there'd be a day of action to talk about gun control and things that haven't passed to really centralize the threat that a lot of children are under in their classrooms from mass shootings, and what hasn't been done about it in Congress.

KEILAR: They're targeting suburban women clearly with their messaging. How are they also targeting some Republicans?

DOVERE: Well, this is about going to the voters who they feel can be persuadable here, who can look at as one Democratic strategist said to me, this is about saying, hey, things are bad, we know it, you might not like Democrats, you're unhappy about inflation and the economy, but look at someone who is -- who believes in QAnon, look at someone who believes in pregnancy not being possible from rape and say, how can you vote for that person?

And that's an appeal to moderate Republicans, Republicans who don't feel comfortable with the sort of Trumpist turn of the party, but it's also about those voters who, for example, voted for Joe Biden in 2020 but went for Glenn Youngkin in Virginia in 2021. Those people who are in the middle there, thinking about where they really want to be and are not really tied to either the Democratic Party or the Trump-led Republican Party.

KEILAR: Isaac, great reporting. Thank you so much.

DOVERE: Thank you.

KEILAR: We're really watching the playbook kind of take shape here.

BERMAN: And joining us now Lis Smith, Democratic strategist. She was a senior adviser to Pete Buttigieg in his presidential campaign and she is the author of a very buzzy new book, "Any Given Tuesday: A Political Love Story." It is out in bookstores and in my hands at this very moment.

And Lis, you talk a lot about yourself in this book, you talk a lot about what you've worked on but you also talk a lot about the Democratic Party.

LIS SMITH, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: Yes.

BERMAN: And where it is and where it's going. When you hear Isaac's reporting right there, and I know you know what a great reporter Isaac is and he has his fingers on the pulse of what the party is doing, what do you think, labeling Republicans as extremists? What does that tell you about what's available to Democrats?

SMITH: Well, I have to say Isaac is definitely one of the best in the business, but, yes, not a news flash. Democrats are labeling Republicans as extremists because Republicans have become a party of extremists, the lunatics have taken over the asylum. The people who are in the mainstream of the Republican Party today, 10 years ago would have been shunned by party leadership.

I was in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, last night. I got home, you know, only a few hours ago, and I was talking with candidates who are running in districts where Biden won by 1 percent, and those are districts that Democrats should be losing in a bad year, but they have seen that the Dobbs decision and the recent mass shootings have really changed the tide for them because in Pennsylvania especially you have a gubernatorial candidate who is against abortion in all cases, no exceptions, and who is an election denier and would choose the next president rather than let the voters choose it for the people of Pennsylvania.

KEILAR: Is that messaging, calling Republicans extremists, enough or do Democrats need to do more than that?

SMITH: Well, we need to explain what is an extremist and what does this mean for people. What it means is that women will not be able to make their own health care choices, that voters will not be able to pick their next president, that children will not have the freedom to go to school without the fear of being shot up. And as graphic as that sounds, we need to lay out those stakes.

But on top of that, on top of that, we know that inflation, gas prices are top of mind for voters and the Republican Party is not offering a single solution to offer any relief on these issues and that when they get into power it's not like they're going to go and help out working Americans. We know what they do when Republicans get power, they give tax cuts to corporations, they give tax cuts to the richest Americans.

BERMAN: So you write about this, Lis, in your book. You've worked for a number of different Democratic candidates in a number of different types of states. What have you learned about where Democrats go wrong, especially right now?

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SMITH: Well, and we see this -- we see this playing out a little bit on the national stage and with some of the Democrats griping about Joe Biden and all of that is that for the Democratic Party to be a majority party, we cannot be a party of political purity, and we cannot have a checklist and expect Democrats in every single state to look like a Democrat from the most liberal district in New York.

In the presidential primary, we saw this sort of rush to the left and a Democrat in West Virginia is going to look very different from a Democrat in New York and California and Ohio. And to get more Democratic senators, we're going to need to win states like Pennsylvania, we're going to need to win states like Wisconsin, we're going to need to win states like Ohio. And to win those states we're going to have to understand that the Democratic candidates are going to be candidates who reflect the values of people in their state and not every ideological special interest group in Washington.

KEILAR: And yet in the time that we've been in Washington, I don't know if there's been anything more endangered -- well, perhaps, you know, moderate Republicans -- than, say, blue dog Democrats.

SMITH: Right.

KEILAR: You know, especially on this issue of abortion, which Democrats want to use to motivate their base, to paint Republicans as extremists. Is there room for anti-abortion Democrats in the tent?

SMITH: Well, we still have -- you know, I think now there's not a single pro-choice Republican in Congress. There are two in the Senate. In terms of Democrats, it's getting smaller and smaller, but I do think that we need to have a big tent and be a big tent party and understand that people -- the abortion issue is a tough one and people have complex views on this issue. Most people are not in the 10 percent that says abortion should be illegal in all cases, most people are not in the 10 percent that say we need to shout out abortions, and we need to give room and space for Democrats to have a range of views on this issue.

BERMAN: There are two numbers I would like to draw your attention to this morning, both of which I imagine you are keenly aware of already. Number one, in the new CNN poll we asked Democrats who their nominee should be for president in 2024, only 25 percent said they wanted it to be Joe Biden, 75 percent said a different candidate.

Now, UNH did a poll in New Hampshire in advance of the New Hampshire primary, well in advance of the New Hampshire primary, and look at that, look who is at the highest ranking right there. Now, albeit they're statistically tied but Pete Buttigieg, a guy you know well, edging out Joe Biden. What does this tell you about what Democrats want or don't want?

SMITH: Well, it tells me there might be some awkward Cabinet meetings in the future, but I wouldn't read too much into these polls. You know, if you and I were sitting here at this point in 2018 Pete Buttigieg would have been at zero percent. We know by now that he went on to have the closest second place finish in New Hampshire primary history.

What it tells me is that Democrats, American people generally are very frustrated with the state of affairs. They're still feeling the pain of the pandemic, they're feeling the pain of inflation, they're feeling the pain of gas -- of high gas prices, which I will note have been falling for over a month, and they're taking it out on the president and that is quite normal in American history.

You know, at this time you looked at Republicans approval of Ronald Reagan in 1982, Bill Clinton in 1994, Barack Obama who I worked for in 2010, people said he was doomed, that he shouldn't run for reelection, that he should be replaced by Hillary Clinton. And we know how that turned out for him in 2012. The promising thing for Democrats is OK, put aside the presidential

polls. I know everyone in D.C. and we all love to talk about it, right, is look at the generic ballot for 2022 because it is telling a very different tale from Joe Biden's numbers and the tale it is telling is that when voters are presented with a direct choice between Republicans and Democrats on the ballot, that it is much more even race and Democrats are performing a lot better than they should be and I think it's because we know -- the American people know how high the stakes are of this election.

That women's rights, health care rights, election integrity, democracy are all on the ballot and only the Democratic Party can protect them.

BERMAN: Lis Smith, the book is "Any Given Tuesday: A Political Love Story." There is a lot in here. If you love campaigns, if you like campaigning, if you want some of the insights about what really goes on behind the scenes you have to read this.

Congratulations, by the way.

SMITH: Great. Thank you so much. Thank you for having me.

BERMAN: So Russia further cuts off energy supplies to the European Union. One official -- one U.S. official said this was, quote, "our biggest fear."

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