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Mark Esper, Former Secretary of Defense Under President Trump, Interviewed on Documents Found by FBI at Mar-a-Lago; California Narrowly Avoids Rolling Blackouts Due to High Energy Usage during Heatwave; Teachers Union in Seattle Votes to Strike. Aired 8-8:30a ET

Aired September 07, 2022 - 08:00   ET




WILLIAM BARR, FORMER U.S. ATTORNEY GENERAL, TRUMP ADMINISTRATION: I don't think the appointment of a special master is going to hold up. But even if it does, I don't see it fundamentally changing the trajectory. In other words, I don't think it changes the ball game so much as maybe we'll have a rain delay for a couple of innings.


BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN ANCHOR: All right, joining us now to discuss this, former secretary of defense under President Donald Trump Mark Esper. He's also the author of "The Sacred Oath, Memoirs of a Secretary of Defense During Extraordinary Times." Sir, thank you so much for being with us this morning.

MARK ESPER, FORMER DEFENSE SECRETARY: Good morning. Good to be with you.

KEILAR: What are your concerns here about this latest revelation?

ESPER: Well, with regards to the nuclear documents at Mar-a-Lago, it's very, very troubling that this type of information would be there, anywhere for that matter. We know at this point that there's been over a period of months 300 classified documents found at Mar-a- Lago. And that simply should have never happened in the first place.

KEILAR: We spoke this morning with David Sanger of "The New York Times" who said Trump was significantly more interested in the nuclear weapons efforts of North Korea and Iran than other countries. To be clear, we don't know from this report which country this is talking about. Do you expect that this was information about the military, though, of an American adversary?

ESPER: Well, we simply don't know -- exceptional interest in the nuclear capabilities or aspirations of North Korea and Iran, we all did for national security purposes. But we don't know whether it was a friend or a foe. And the issue is not just about the content of the report, but what it may reveal about our sources and methods and capabilities to find out and learn about another country's military capabilities. So that is a particular concern as well, which why I think it's all

the more important that the intelligence community quickly conduct its risk assessment of what may or may not have been released at Mar-a- Lago.

KEILAR: What are your concerns about that? As secretary of defense, you were read on to some of these programs that only a dozen or so people in government had access to. When you're looking at that kind of information, if that fell into the wrong hands, if that became public, what kind of risk would that put people, sources, methods in?

ESPER: Well, you don't want your adversaries to know that you know what they have or what they can do, because otherwise they change their capabilities, they change their own security procedures, et cetera. The same is true, of course, by the sources and methods. You don't want them to know how you're getting that information, whether it's through signals intelligence, human intelligence, overhead surveillance, you name it. So you safeguard all those things, because otherwise you compromise your access and thus your own nation's security. And that would be my principal concern and I'm sure a concern of most national security officials.

KEILAR: If while you were secretary of defense, you found out that in the prior administration the president, the former president had kept information this sensitive, what would you be doing?

ESPER: Well, look, we exercise pretty strict document control at the Pentagon. Anytime we went to the White House, we would -- we knew how many copies we took over and how many we brought back. And if I were sitting in that chair again, I would be very concerned about information released, which is why it is imperative that a thorough and quick assessment be conducted by the intelligence community so that we can, again, assess the risk, and then understand how to adapt to it and see if maybe the adversary is making adjustments.

KEILAR: We know that foreign national nationals, suspected spies have been arrested at Mar-a-Lago for trespassing, although clearly, they have been suspected of doing worse than trespassing. Do you worry they would have been able to gain access to classified information like this that was there?

ESPER: Sure. Look, you don't know what you don't know. And several of our adversaries have very capable intelligence operations. And so we just don't know the extent that these documents were available, exposed, discussed, maybe taken out of the storage rooms. Who knows? That's why it's important to get to the bottom of this very, very quickly.

KEILAR: I do want to ask you about something else, which is a letter that you signed along with several other former defense secretaries, and former chairmen of the Joint Chiefs, warning of vulnerabilities to a hallmark of American democracy, which is civilian control of the military and how these two roles relate to each other.

I want to read part of this letter. It says, "Politically, military professionals confront an extremely adverse environment characterized by the divisive divisiveness of effective polarization that culminated in the first election in over a century when the peaceful transfer of political power was it disrupted and in doubt."


Can you tell me more about that and how much that played into the need for this letter, in your view, that you signed on to?

ESPER: First of all, you're right. Civilian control of the military is a bedrock principle in our democracy, as is the importance of maintaining an apolitical military. It was very important to me when I was secretary of defense, and that's why I think all of us, the 13 of us, felt it important at this point in time to talk about these -- the best practices that have helped us maintain healthy civ-mil relations over the past 200 plus years.

So it was that reason why we felt it important to speak about these issues. And look, I have an entire chapter in my memoir about civilian control of the military. It's that important that we continue to reinforce these principles, best practices, and make sure that they -- we defend the institutions wherein these people work and reside.

KEILAR: I agree with you as someone who takes an interest in civ-mil relations. I will tell you, when you talk to a lot of people about this, I think that their eyes glaze over because it can seem very academic, it can seem very abstract. So in very real terms, can you make the case for why this matters so much? Taken to its logical end, and the destruction of civ-mil relations, what happens? What kind of country do you end up living in?

ESPER: You never want your military to be politicized. You never want the perception of them taking sides for one political party or another, which is why I and others have always said we take an oath to the Constitution, not to a party, not to a philosophy, not to a president. And so it's important that we maintain it. Otherwise, we become a banana republic, right, that changes governments once as the military moves behind one faction or another. That's not what we don't have, I don't think we will ever have it. But it's always important to safeguard the institution and reinforce these core tenets, not just for the military, the people at the Pentagon and the DOD, but for the American people, which is why it's important that you and I are discussing this today so we can have those discussions in town halls, in classrooms across America, where people can discuss the importance of an apolitical military where civilian control is exercised as a bedrock of our democracy.

KEILAR: How do you see President Biden's role in that? Look, I ask you that as someone who is part of an administration where I'm not sure that these civ-mil relations have suffered more. We saw a lot of suffering of these relations, this bedrock principle as you're describing under President Trump. He really took it to the limit. But what is President Biden's responsibility as you see coming on the heels of that?

ESPER: Look, I think every secretary of defense and chairman of the joint chiefs faces this at one point in time, where a president wants to do something or does something that they don't like, that they think touches the line, crosses the line, gets close to the line. That's not uncommon. You're right, President Trump took it to a new level. But even President Biden has had his moments. Just the other night, the speech he gave in Philadelphia was very political. And I thought it was wrong to have the Marine sentries standing behind him at attention in that speech. They were used as props. And I don't think that was -- I thought that was politicizing the military by using those Marines in the background. So those are the things we have to guard against. We have to talk about it and make sure that we prevent it from happening in the future.

KEILAR: Former secretary of defense Mark Esper, we appreciate your time this morning. Thank you.

ESPER: Thank you.

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: This morning, California's power grid struggling to keep up with surging demand amid a punishing heatwave. People there were warned for hours last night of the possibility of rolling blackouts, but that did not happen. CNN's Natasha Chen live in Los Angeles this morning. The good news, the rolling blackouts avoided. The bad news, it sounds like it was really close.

NATASHA CHEN, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, John, we narrowly avoided these planned rolling blackouts. And that's because of how much intense pressure was on the state energy grid. Power plants like this one, just on overdrive, and Tuesday did see the highest peak demand of energy in state history.

Now, energy officials did issue an alert level three. That's the last level before those planned rollouts -- blackouts. And we started to get these push alerts on our phones. And something must have worked, because let me show you this graph of the usage of energy last night. That alert went out 5:17 p.m., about 30 minutes later you can see an actual drop-off of usage there. So people did really respond to this.

This is all an indicator of just how record-breaking this event has been, not just the temperatures records that have been broken pretty much every day since this past weekend, but also how prolonged this has been, days in a row without much relief and cooling overnight.


And, of course, as some places like we have talked about don't even have central air because maybe once upon a time it wasn't as needed, that includes 40 Denver public schools. So 30 of those schools are closing early this week, four of them closed altogether. Of course, very dangerous fire behavior in this kind of weather as well. The Fairview fire, southeast of us, is experiencing more acreage burned, only five percent contained right now. Two people already died trying to escape that fire. And overnight, we saw more evacuations and warnings from there, John.

BERMAN: So many challenges. Natasha Chen in Los Angeles, thank you so much. KEILAR: Right now, the first day of school in Seattle delayed after

the union representing thousands of teachers and other professionals voted to go on strike. It's set to start here in about an hour. Contract negotiations stalled over workload, class size, salary, and support for students in special and multilingual ed.

CNN's Nick Watt is joining us live now from Los Angeles. This is some start to the school year here, Nick.

NICK WATT, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Brianna, tens of thousands of kids should be waking up soon, getting ready for that first day of school, but they are not. And this is a decent-sized district, more than 50,000 kids, more than 6,000 staff, and many of them will in just a couple of hours be on the picket lines after the sunrises here in the west.

So here's what happened. The deal between the union and the district expired about a week ago. Then yesterday the union members voted pretty overwhelmingly to strike unless a deal was made by midnight. Then the district kind of preemptively canceled the first day of school. And at two minutes after midnight, I got an email from the union saying that the strike was on.

I'll quote a little bit. "They say at this hour Seattle public schools has failed to agree to a contract that adequately staffs special education and multilingual learners and that provides pay that allows educators to live in the city where they work."

Now, the school district says that they are offering, quote, "a substantial package, competitive pay." But none of this is a good look for either side. After all the chaos of COVID closures, then staff shortages, and all the learning loss, it is not a good look. The school district today is offering free sack lunches to kids.

The big question, how long will this last? Well, we don't know. The union says it is going to last until a deal is struck. Interesting to note that the Kent school district, which is just a little bit south of Seattle, they were supposed to start school nearly two weeks ago, two weeks ago tomorrow. But there is a similar labor dispute there that is still not resolved. So those kids are still not back. So all eyes on the negotiations again today to see if they can hammer this out and get those kids back into school sooner rather than later.

KEILAR: Look, the victims in this are kids, because we have seen those test performances, they're not good. We're looking at a potential generation of remediation here, and kids need to be in school. Nick, thank you for that report.

New this morning, long time Trump ally and adviser Steve Bannon set to surrender to prosecutors in New York.

BERMAN: The nation asked to be on the lookout for Fat Leonard, the mastermind of a major Navy bribery scheme.

And what to expect from Apple's far out iPhone 14 event.



BERMAN: Longtime Trump ally Steve Bannon is expected to surrender Thursday in New York to face charges for allegedly duping donors who gave money to fund building a wall along the U.S. southern border. The crowd fund-raising effort called "We Build the Wall" raised more than $25 million. According to prosecutors, Bannon falsely told donors that all the money contributed would go toward the construction effort.

Now, federal prosecutors charged Bannon with the same basic alleged crime in 2020, but Donald Trump pardoned him as he was leaving office. Presidential pardons do not apply to state investigations.

With me now is CNN's new chief law enforcement and intelligence analyst John Miller. He recently served as deputy commissioner of intelligence and counterterrorism for the NYPD. He's also an award- winning journalist who worked at ABC News and CBS News and he famously interviewed Osama bin Laden in 1998.

It's great to see you again. Welcome aboard.


BERMAN: So, here we go. Let's jump right into it. Steve Bannon, going to surrender tomorrow, we understand, to state on state charges here and people might look at this and say, well, wait a second, we thought he was pardoned already for this, double jeopardy. Why not?

MILLER: So, he was pardoned by President Trump on the way out the door from federal charges saying that he was part of this scheme to divert money to personal use. But that pardons him from all federal prosecution. This is a state prosecution. It's an outgrowth of the Manhattan district attorney's office, where they have done their own investigations, got their own documents, and shared information with the federal government back and forth. But legally no protection from state charges, that's what a president -- that's what a presidential pardon doesn't deliver.

BERMAN: And these are serious charges too, potentially.

MILLER: Well, it is basically a million dollar fraud case where the call was donate money to build a wall, the front man was an ex-U.S. Special Forces person. It seemed very patriotic.

But when you went through the books, and you went through the million dollars, that $300,000 went to this guy's consulting firm, a lot of it was Bannon's expenses for travel and unrelated things, or so the charges allege, and it's a paper case, which is always hard to defend against.

BERMAN: I want to ask you about something that you were intimately involved with up until very recently, which is crime here in New York City. I think people might be surprised to see the statistics that show that the murder rate and shooting incidents actually down year to year. Down 54 percent the murder rate, shootings down 30 percent.


I want to focus just on that for a second, if I can. How do you think that was achieved?

MILLER: Well, I know how it was achieved because I was there.

BERMAN: Right.

MILLER: And that was achieved by extraordinarily smart deployments, which is the Bronx was driving the shooting numbers for the city a year ago. They flooded the Bronx with police officers on overtime. They flooded with the Bronx with police officers working a sixth or seventh day.

They shifted tours around. They were very strategic watching every shooting, every dot on the map and pushing resources there. And they were able to suppress that.

They had done the same in Brooklyn prior to that. And it's a live moving map. You put -- you find the dots, put the cops on the dots.

The problem is that if you take the shootings and murders out, where this incredible suppression effort happened, and you look at the rest of crime, it's up 26 percent.

BERMAN: Well, that's what we had up on the screen there, that was my next question to you, which is why? How come you can get the murder right and shootings down, but robbery, felony assaults, and overall crime, all up?

MILLER: So, robbery, felony assaults, burglary, auto theft, larceny, which is just stealing without the use of force, these are the crimes that are skyrocketing. When you take the larceny, burglary, auto theft, these are all covered under New York's new bail reform laws which is criminals know -- criminals have very good intelligence, as good as the police when it comes to collecting information and distributing that among each other, they know that there are certain charges where the judge in New York state, not just New York City, is legally prohibited, prohibited by law, from setting bail in that case.

So, they know I commit the crime, if I get caught, I'll be out as soon as I get my hearing. Now, that has caused recidivism, which was always a problem, to skyrocket. So, basically when you look at the larceny, the robberies, which are just larcenies where somebody tried to stop them, the burglaries, the auto thefts, we have people, John, coming from New Jersey, where they have plenty of cars, to steal cars in New York City because they know if they get caught, they will not go to jail.

BERMAN: All right. You also know and I think you probably saw some of this, too, Texas Governor Greg Abbott is busing migrants from Texas to cities across the country, including New York City here.

What do you think of that move, and what kind of pressure did that put or does that put on city services?

MILLER: Well, it puts a lot because when the federal government pushes people towards a place, the presumption is that that comes with financial support and backing. When the governor of Texas starts to, as the New York mayor has called it weaponize migrants, and send them to New York and Washington, by the hundreds and then the thousands, that comes with nothing but migrants.

Now, this city has a must shelter law, which means if someone asks for shelter, the city is bound by law by federal court ruling to supply that. So it puts enormous pressure on New York.

Now, New York is a place with a big heart. The mayor has greeted the buses, the city service people have been there to say, we're here to help you. But at the same time, they're sending a team down to Washington to figure out what are the mechanics of this -- I'm sorry, sending a team to Texas, to say what are the mechanics of this. They actually need to gather intelligence, because when you ask Texas how many people are coming, when, how many, where they are they coming from, what is the background, all that, you're getting crickets.

And the Department of Homeland Security doesn't have much information. NGOs are very careful about what they'll share. So New York is kind of catching each one of these things as a fly ball, which is a lot of pressure on a city that already has a homeless problem.

BERMAN: And how does it help solve the problem in Texas?

MILLER: You know, Texas can send those people wherever they want, but they have invested $12 million.

And, John, you have to ask yourself the question, if they took that $12 million, and they put that as aid toward immigrants, would it be more effective humanitarianly or less effective politically as a -- as a tool?

BERMAN: John Miller, great to see you again. Look forward to conversations going forward.

MILLER: Well, it's great to be here and thanks.

All right. So, the Obamas making a return to the White House later today after a break in the decades-long tradition.

BRIANNA KEILAR: And a historic ruling, an elected official has been removed from office for his participation in the Capitol riot.



KEILAR: This afternoon, Barack and Michelle Obama are expected to make a highly anticipated return to the White House to reveal their official portraits. The portrait ceremony is a long-standing tradition where the succeeding president honors the previous commander in chief, regardless of political party. As president, Obama hosted his predecessor, George W. Bush, who hosted Bill Clinton, who in turn had hosted the elder George H.W. Bush.

But in a break with tradition, former President Donald Trump did not host the Obamas during his presidency.

Joining us now is CNN senior political correspondent and anchor of "INSIDE POLITICS SUNDAY," Abby Phillip.

And, Abby, that brings us to what is actually unusual in that Biden is going to be hosting Obama.

ABBY PHILLIP, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Yeah. I mean, first of all, it is out of order. This is not the way that the order is supposed to be. It should have been Trump but -- I mean, we were discussing, I mean, think about how unusual it is actually in recent American history for a former vice president to host, you know, his former boss at the White House as president himself. That's very unusual.

Actually, vice presidents don't ascend to the presidency all that often. And so that's what creates this kind of interesting dynamic here.

I think today at the White House, it's going to be extraordinarily celebratory. This is a political party, the Democratic Party, that still very much loves Barack Obama.