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CNN TONIGHT: Biden Now "Convinced" Putin Has Decided To Invade Ukraine; Minnesota A.G. On Ex-Officer Kim Potter's Two-Year Sentence; Democracy Warrior: The Former Federal Judge Who Helped Pence Fight Pressure To Overturn Election. Aired 9-10p ET
Aired February 18, 2022 - 21:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
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JOHN BERMAN, CNN HOST: The news continues. So, let's hand it over to Laura Coates, and CNN TONIGHT.
LAURA COATES, CNN HOST: Hey, John, nice seeing you. Do you get to go to sleep now? I mean, do you get - I see you every 12 hours, it seems, every 12 to 15 hours.
BERMAN: Fingers crossed! Fingers crossed! Have a great weekend.
COATES: You too. Thank you. And John, thank you so much.
And I'm Laura Coates. And this is CNN TONIGHT.
At this hour, the situation on the ground, in Ukraine, is fluid. And it's changing rapidly. Joe Biden speaking, once again, as Commander- in-Chief, saying Vladimir Putin has already chosen war.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
JOE BIDEN, PRESIDENT, UNITED STATES OF AMERICA: We have reason to believe the Russian forces are planning to and intend to attack Ukraine, in the coming week, in the coming days. We believe that they will target Ukraine's capital, Kyiv, a city of 2.8 million innocent people.
As of this moment, I'm convinced he's made the decision.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
COATES: 2.8 million people!
Let's dive into what we know, at least right now. And it is, again, very fluid. But Russia's approximately 190,000 troops are poised, on three sides of Ukraine. And, by the way, that's 90,000 more, than just three weeks ago. Every day, this week, we've reported more and more numbers.
And now, new tonight, satellite images show a buildup of Russia helicopters, now, near the border. That's in addition to medical equipment, the Pentagon says, is in place, to deal with casualties.
It's images like these that make the Military brass, so confident.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
LLOYD AUSTIN, DEFENSE SECRETARY: I don't believe it's a bluff. I think it's a - I think he's assembled the right kind - the kinds of things that you would need, to conduct a successful invasion.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
COATES: It's not just what's in place. It's what's already, and we're already seeing, take place, on the ground, and how it fits with, frankly, the Russia playbook. I mean, first, the White House now blames Russia for a massive cyber-attack.
Ukrainian banks were hit this week. Finances were hit this week. It's a move the Pentagon warned could actually be but a first step.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
JOHN KIRBY, PENTAGON PRESS SECRETARY: It's a piece of the Russian playbook to lay down a foundation for these military action with cyber operations.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
COATES: We also saw a vehicle explode, in the City of Donetsk. That's a key location, in Eastern Ukraine. The State Department calls it a false-flag operation. The fear is something like this might be used, as a pretext, to invade.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
ANTONY BLINKEN, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: Russia plans to manufacture a pretext for its attack.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
COATES: And we've seen renewed shelling in the Donbas region. The area is technically under a ceasefire agreement, and has been a key focus, of the Russian misinformation machine.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
NED PRICE, STATE DEPARTMENT SPOKESPERSON: Russia relies on misinformation and disinformation.
It could involve claims about Ukrainian Military activity in the Donbas.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
COATES: Now, we've seen forecasts, of Military action, by Russia, fail to pan out, this week. That's true. And it leads so far. So, it's important to keep track of where things actually stand, on the ground, particularly within fluid occurrences, like this.
So, for that, we turn to Matthew Chance, in Kyiv, a city that's home to more people, by the way, than the City of Chicago, and one that the President of the United States, now calls a target.
Matthew, how are you? And how are Ukrainian officials, now responding, to President Biden's comments?
MATTHEW CHANCE, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, it's a good question, Laura. And, actually, they're not responding, as sort of, starkly, as you might expect them to. Because I think there's a sense, in which, even though - I think they're a bit shocked, actually.
Even though, there are tens of thousands of troops that have gathered, from the Russian side, close to Ukraine's borders? The Ukraine is still, even after President Biden's latest remarks, which are pretty stunning, still not entirely convinced that President Putin of Russia has made that decision to go in.
President Biden said that he's convinced that Putin has decided to invade.
I spoke to Ukrainian officials, earlier tonight. And they said this. "It's impossible to say with certainty exactly what's going on in the thoughts of the Russian leader."
They said they wanted to concentrate, on the other parts of Joe Biden's message, which is that diplomacy is still a possibility. And that's the option, they say, they intend to pursue. There's also been reaction tonight, within the past few minutes, in fact, from the Kremlin, or at least from the Russian Foreign Ministry.
Because Maria Zakharova, who is the Foreign Ministry spokesperson, saying this, "The American President has repeated this unstamped - unsubstantiated thesis, about Russia, attempting to attack Ukraine, and threatening Moscow, with sanctions in the event of escalation. The Russian Federation, categorically denies such statements, and escalation plans, attributed to it." In other words, they're saying that "We're not going to invade."
And so, it is really, from our point of view here, and from the Ukrainian government's point of view, quite extraordinary, to see that President Biden has gone really all-in, at this point, in saying that there will be Russian invasion, within the next few days, and appealing to Russia, really, sort of not to take that final step.
COATES: I mean, Matthew, it's kind of a tale of, from Russia's perspective, of us looking at Russia, who you're going to believe? Me or your lying eyes, right?
You're talking about the build-up. You see the presence. Surely, people are aware that satellite imagery is going to be able to confirm, and substantiate, a presence of Military forces, an increase in the amassing of troops.
And so, I wonder, from that disconnect, on the one hand, I understand that there is not the complete accord, in terms of what is being presented, by the Ukrainian President, and our own Commander-in-Chief.
But it's almost like intimating that somehow, perhaps the Intelligence might be wrong. Is that what they're suggesting? Or are they just trying to essentially not stir panic? What do you think?
CHANCE: No, I just think that no one ever said or believe that Russia didn't present a credible threat. Obviously, it has tens of thousands of troops on the border.
CHANCE: It's made no secret about that. It says they're there for drills. But it's always been the intent, what Putin intends to do.
And that's always been, up until tonight, something that the United States, and others, have said, "We just can't tell, because he hasn't said, what he intends to do." Is he really going to invade? Or does he just want some kind of diplomatic compromise that he can take and declare a victory?
Tonight, the U.S. President, remember, said he was convinced that President Putin had decided within the next few days, to invade this country. And, again, he pointed to this city of 2.8 million people, as the capital city that, according to his Intelligence, will come under Russian attack.
COATES: It's very scary, the prospects. Matthew Chance, in Ukraine, thank you so much.
While, the U.S. Intel agencies have so far called Russia's moves, before they had even happened? I mean, talking about not being able to predict, or no one's intent? Well, as Matthew just explained, the only thing we haven't been able to predict is well, when the Russians would cross the border.
So with that in mind, I'm joined by two men, who know the situation better than just about anyone. Former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine, William Taylor, and former European Affairs Director for the National Security Council, Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman.
Gentlemen, I'm so glad that you're both here. Thank you.
Let me start with you, in terms of how this works, Lieutenant Vindman, because so often, as we're hearing about, there seems to be this disconnect of sorts. And maybe that's not even the right word. But there is a difference of, perhaps, opinion, about the urgency or the imminence of a threat that Russia poses.
You know this country quite well, and the Military tactics of it. Do you think the United States is getting ahead of its skis, in ringing the alarm? Or do you think that Putin is now more than a provocateur, at this point?
LT. COL. ALEXANDER VINDMAN (RET), U.S. ARMY (RET), FORMER EUROPEAN AFFAIRS DIRECTOR FOR NATIONAL SECURITY COUNCIL, MILITARY FELLOW, LAWFARE: Well, it's interesting, I think there are actually three sides to this story.
There's the U.S. side, and the massive, enormous amount of data and evidence that the President, had to consume, to make the judgment that the Russians have made the decisions, that Vladimir Putin has made the decision, and an attack is coming in the next couple days. That is coming not just from satellite intelligence.
We have a powerful all-source analysis capability. We have signals intelligence that has shrewdly picked up the communications between different echelons of Military commands, saying that the execution order has been given, move into assault positions, get ready to act, probably the communications between the security services.
Then you have the Russian side, which says, "Look, there's nothing to see here. This is just another exercise," although they've never done anything like this before, never assembled this much force, on the border of Ukraine, never conducted an exercise that would incorporate all these assets.
And now, they're building the case for it, these false flags, emerging out of Eastern Ukraine, about some sort of Ukrainian offensive.
But unfortunately, you have a third side. You have the Ukrainian side. And, I think, to me, it seems clear that Vladimir not - Volodymyr Zelenskyy has his head in the sand. He has seen the same kind of Intelligence. He's been talked to, by numerous people, about what's likely to unfold. He knows what kind of forces are arrayed.
But he chooses to interpret the information, in a way that suggests that the Russians are merely bluffing. They're called - it's about of diplomatic origin. And that has been an enormous disservice to his country.
VINDMAN: For weeks now, he should have been preparing his country. He should have been positioning. He should have been calling up the reserves.
He should have made sure that his forces were digging in, preparing for combat against Russians, demolition for bridges, obstacles, minefields, everything moving into place, to prepare, for what's going to be a withering attack.
VINDMAN: And unfortunately, this might be the fact that President Zelenskyy is - his background, is as a comedian. He was untested. And this is the biggest test of all. And he may - he very well, looks like he's failing to meet the challenges.
COATES: Ambassador, do you agree with that assessment? I mean, is his head in the sand? Or is it a cooler head that's prevailing, in terms of thinking about this strategically?
You actually have spoken to that President, recently. And I think you had a very complimentary view, of how he was approaching this, and give him a lot of credit. Does it strike you that the Lieutenant Colonel is more accurate now?
WILLIAM TAYLOR, FORMER U.S. AMBASSADOR TO UKRAINE: It doesn't. I did meet with President Zelenskyy, about two weeks ago. We had a good conversation, on this very topic, Laura.
And you're right. There are two messages that need to be presented.
One is the urgency that President Biden has made. And it suggests that there needs to be good preparation, and accurate and full preparation. And that's going on.
There's another message that needs to be presented. And that's what you hear from President Zelenskyy, which is a calm determination, a resolute force that is not going to give President Zelenskyy - Alex is right.
President Zelenskyy is not an experienced politician. He's had two years in the job. He's facing Vladimir Putin, who has 22 years in the job, and a former KGB operative. And President Zelenskyy is staring him down, Laura.
President Zelenskyy is calm, and resolute, and is not giving in to the pressure that is on his borders. And President Biden is right with him. So, there are two messages.
TAYLOR: And one is you need to get prepared. And the other message is, stay calm, and stare him down.
COATES: Well, on that point? I mean, as you mentioned, the idea of the United States, and of course, you've got the backing of NATO.
Even though they're not a member of NATO, it strikes me as a bit easier, per se, to stand your ground, knowing that the American President, and Commander-in-Chief, is willing to carry the torch to some extent.
On this point, Lieutenant Colonel, I wonder if your assessment, I mean, the idea of being critical, of Zelenskyy? I understand. And you were very articulate and thorough in why you address it.
But there's also the notion that there has been a ubiquitous and constant presence of Russian forces, along this border, the idea that perhaps they've been lulled into a false sense of security, or the fact that they've been lulled into, really, an accurate sense of security that these bluffs have not been - have not carried out, at least in some years.
To the extent that if you were to extend the benefit of the doubt, to the tactical strategy of Zelenskyy, do you think Ukraine now has the ability, and time, if Russia were to invade, to now no longer be flat- footed, in the way you described?
VINDMAN: Definitely not. And frankly, I have given President Zelenskyy, the benefit of the doubt.
I've been, I guess, internally critical, about the way he's managed this situation. I was concerned about the fact that he was - I certainly understood the need to keep calm, keep the population calm, keep the markets from becoming skittish. That all is completely valid.
But then, there should be commensurate preparations, on the ground, behind-the-scenes, by the Military. And the people that I'm speaking to, the people that would know about this, are saying that these preparations are not occurring.
And that, to me, is deeply disturbing. That to me, seems to suggest that he's arresting the kinds of preparations that his Military believes are necessary, to prepare, for a Russian invasion.
And we're facing a situation where, if when Russia - if and when Russia attacks? Now, it's all but certain. We'll just take President Biden's word for it. He's probably not going to be the President, for much longer.
There's going to be a new leader that the Russians are going to attempt to, and place. And then, we're living in a whole different world. At this point, it's, I think, it's short-sighted to think about President Zelenskyy, beyond the horizon of a couple weeks, if this offensive occurs.
COATES: Ambassador Bill Taylor, Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman, you've described about six different scenarios. I wonder what will actually occur. Obviously, difference of opinions. But looking at the scenario, I guess, it comes down to one opinion, that of Vladimir Putin.
Gentlemen, thank you so much.
TAYLOR: Thank you.
COATES: Coming up, an explosive and tearful day, as the former police officer, who shot and killed Daunte Wright, learned her fate.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
KIM POTTER, CONVICTED OF KILLING DAUNTE WRIGHT: I am so sorry that I hurt you so badly.
KATIE WRIGHT, DAUNTE WRIGHT'S MOTHER: Today, the justice system murdered him all over again.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
COATES: Is a two-year sentence justice served? Even the judge grew emotional, as she explained her own sentencing decision. We'll go through it.
And Minnesota Attorney General, Keith Ellison, will join me live. That's ahead.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
K. WRIGHT: A police officer, who's supposed to serve and protect someone, took so much away from us. She took our baby boy with a single gunshot through his heart.
How much time is my son's life worth?
(END VIDEO CLIP)
COATES: It was a final plea, from Daunte Wright's mother. And she urged a judge to impose the maximum sentence, against the officer, who killed her 20-year-old son, last year, after mistaking her gun for a Taser.
Kim Potter was sentenced to just two years in prison, far less than the seven years and two months that prosecutors asked for. And, in fact, even though that was the figure, they asked for, even with the two-year sentence, she'll likely only spend two-thirds, or 16 months, of that sentence, assuming she demonstrates good behavior.
Now, the judge, she was notably emotional, at times, while she tried to explain her decision, this way.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
JUDGE REGINA CHU, HENNEPIN COUNTY DISTRICT COURT: This is not a cop, found guilty of murder, for using his knee, to pin down a person, for nine and a half minutes, as he gasp for air.
This is not a cop, found guilty of manslaughter, for intentionally drawing his firearm.
Officer Potter made a mistake that ended tragically. She never intended to hurt anyone. Her conduct cries out for a sentence significantly below the guidelines.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
COATES: The judge was obviously talking about the trials of Derek Chauvin and another officer, Mohamed Noor, who was found guilty, of shooting, his weapon, killing Justine Ruszczyk, in Minneapolis, who is currently serving time.
And she's right. That was a significant departure, from the sentencing guidelines, in the downward direction.
But, under Minnesota law, you know, the maximum penalty for that conviction, on two counts of manslaughter, while you're charged under the highest one, and sentenced under the highest one, of first degree, which was predicated on what's called the reckless handling, of a firearm. That notion of her using her gun, instead of a Taser. Well, that maximum is 15 years in prison.
Now, the State's guidelines actually offer the judge the discretion, to sentence somebody, like a Potter, who had no prior criminal history, which you would expect, of course, from a police officer. But that discretion was really roughly six to eight and a half years in prison. And again, she gave two.
Now, before the sentence was actually announced, Potter actually stood, before the court, and even addressed Daunte Wright's mother, directly.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
POTTER: Earlier, when you said that I didn't look at you, during the trial, I don't believe I had a right to. I didn't even have a right to be in the same room with you. I am so sorry that I hurt you so badly. My heart is broken and devastated for all of you.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
COATES: Daunte's mother, of course, had also mentioned the indignity that she felt, hearing Kim Potter, only refer to her son, as the driver, throughout the trial, and excoriating her for that, and not providing the dignity of her son's name.
Now remember, how we got to this moment. A traffic stop, for an expired license plate tag, and a dangling air freshener, from a rear view mirror. And, of course, there was the attempted arrest for an unrelated warrant that would lead Potter, the 26-year-old police veteran, to inadvertently, she says, draw her handgun, instead of her Taser.
Now, the Wright family, they say they feel cheated, by today's sentence.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
K. WRIGHT: This is the problem with our justice system today. White women tears trumps--
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Wow!
K. WRIGHT: --trumps justice.
And I thought my White woman tears would be good enough, because they're true and genuine. But when they're coerced, coached, and taught by the defense attorney? I guess, we didn't have a win in this at all.
ARBUEY WRIGHT, DAUNTE WRIGHT'S FATHER: I feel cheated. I feel hurt.
This lady got a slap on the wrist. And we still, every night, sitting around, crying, waiting for my son, to come home. I'm upset.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
COATES: We're going to bring in the Attorney General of Minnesota, who asked this judge, to impose a stiffer sentence, initially. But now, he's urging everyone, to accept the decision that she rendered.
So, where does, Keith Ellison think, the fight for justice should go, from here? He says he has a lot of ideas. Next.
COATES: 16 months. That's how much time Kim Potter will likely spend in prison, for the killing of Daunte Wright. It's nowhere near what Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison asked for.
In fact, his sentencing memo to the judge requested the presumptive 86 months, or roughly six years, saying quote, "It must always be remembered first and foremost that this case is about the death of Daunte Wright. A living, breathing human being, who loved, and was loved. The presumptive sentence reflects the seriousness of the loss of his life."
A.G. Keith Ellison joins me now.
General Ellison, nice to see you this evening. I have to say, and, of course, this, as you know?
KEITH ELLISON, (D) MINNESOTA ATTORNEY GENERAL: Good to see you, Laura.
COATES: This is our home state. We're both from Minnesota. And so, this is particularly close to home.
COATES: And I have to ask you. It's one thing when you ask the people, to trust in the process, and the outcome is a conviction. There's that optimism, a sense of justice being served.
And then, when a sentence comes out, that's quite distinct, from what the families wanted, let alone from what the prosecution asked for, what do you say, to the public, to have them understand that the process is still working? Are you confident that it is?
ELLISON: Well, I think it's important to keep in mind that a jury of our peers did convict Kim Potter, of first degree and second degree manslaughter. It is important.
I know, we're talking about the sentencing tonight. But we could easily lose track of the fact that 12 objective Minnesotans looked at the evidence, and said that she was guilty, beyond a reasonable doubt. That's important.
Now, on the issue of the sentencing, the fact is, is that I would say to everyone, that despite how the family legitimately feels, that I think it is important that we accept the sentence. Not that we agree with it. Not that we endorse it.
But that we understand that the court heard both sides, read everything, listened to that - read the pre-sentence investigation, and rendered a sentence. I don't think it's important that everybody agree with it. But I think that it was within the court's discretion to make that decision.
And I would say that, rather than look at this as a loss, I think it's important to remember that she will lose 24 months of her life. That is a substantial sentence. Anybody who's ever been to prison, or sent somebody there, knows that it's nothing to sneeze at.
Is it what we wanted? No. Was it we thought is appropriate? No. But I think that, to throw your hands up, and say like, "This is a slap in the face, and this is nothing," is not true. Being confined for two solid years, is a serious consequence.
And I think that what we need to focus on now is how do we heal? What do we do next? The movement for justice, is still ongoing. It doesn't stop us. It doesn't discourage us. It lets us just keep on marching forward, demanding that we have equal justice, under the law.
COATES: Well, you've been quite consistent, frankly. I remember, when the Derek Chauvin trial, when the verdict was rendered, you even cautioned people then, that justice does not come down, to a single trial, that it cannot be confined--
COATES: --confined to that moment.
And you and I are prosecutors. We know full well, that oftentimes the community or perhaps even the victim's family, won't always agree with the sentencing decisions that we've made, or the charging decisions. But that in the process, sometimes injustice can also occur.
But, in this instance, I know that the judge here, as you well know, made reference to two other very high profile cases. And so, I wonder--
COATES: --what you made of that moment, because on the one hand, people really believed and had optimism that there was accountability. There was a trend of accountability, an area that officers had often eluded.
And then, to compare and contrast, to two other high profile officer cases, did it undermine, in your mind, the way, in which people could view the contextual success or pursuit of justice?
ELLISON: In my view, you have to look at every case as unique, because all of the facts are different. And you - and to bring up those other matters? I'll put it like this. I would not have done it. I think that it is important to remember the unique facts of this case.
And Laura, I just want to point out that you should have seen the family, at the sentencing hearing. You and I know what allocution is.
ELLISON: That's when the victim, and the victim's family, gets to tell their story. And they - the Wright family was brilliant. They were - they really gave a true picture of the young man that Daunte Wright was, and could have been. That in and of itself is important.
And I just want to let - remind people that it is important to remember that we did earn a conviction. Years ago, officers weren't even held accountable, for these kinds of things. Nobody would have been charged at all. Now, these kind of thing - in these cases that you know, there's equal justice for everyone, who does this conduct.
And two years is a substantial sentence. It's not what we asked for. But it's not a slap on the wrist. It is a substantial amount of time. And she will never be a police officer. She will never be able to own a firearm. She will always carry the stigma of being a convicted felon.
And, I think that it's important, to--
COATES: But wait, I am sorry. General Ellison, I want to--
ELLISON: --to look at what we did do.
COATES: If I could cut you off? And I hate to do so. But I keep hearing that word, substantial--
ELLISON: No. Go right ahead.
COATES: --that word substantial sticks in my craw. Because two months--
COATES: --I mean, two years. People are looking at the idea of somebody being killed. And the notion of substantial--
COATES: --being attributed to two years is not, I don't think, a genuine statement. Look, I hear the notion you are saying, and the notion that it is still 24 months of time, it is still a conviction.
But compared to the prospect of what the guidelines have required, and the downward departure, which you and I know--
COATES: --does not happen every time. I mean, I've been a prosecutor, and asked for upward or downward, judges, like here are the guidelines. And so, I know people take issue with that.
COATES: But the larger point, if you could wrap it home for me? And it's this. You are hoping that in the future, that the substantial part of justice, will be served, by what steps can be taken next, and even possibly having a role that Kim Potter could play in that. What do you mean by that?
COATES: What role do you see her, even though, again, under Minnesota law, wouldn't she still be able to get her retirement benefits? And there's the stigma. But there's still benefits, under Minnesota law, as a public employee?
What do you see her role being, in the future, to help people understand the gravity?
ELLISON: She can come forward, and say, "I took the life of a young man, who will never go home again, never pick up his son again. I did it, because I confused a Taser with a firearm."
Laura, these kind of crimes happen about every other year. You may recall Oscar Grant, was killed in a similar fashion.
ELLISON: At least that's what the defendant said. Another woman, in St. Louis, was shot. She - the victim - the victim didn't die. But weapons confusion again. About every other year, there is a fatality, at the hands of a law enforcement officer, of this kind.
I think that if Kim Potter comes forward and says she's going to be a champion, to prevent this, so that another family does not suffer? That might be something that is valuable and important.
And then, and stepping up, and being accountable, and apologizing, and trying to signal, to the entire community, how much pain, is associated with the loss, of someone, like Daunte Wright, or any other family member, who dies in similar circumstances? Let me say this, Laura, as we wrap it up.
ELLISON: The life and the worth of Daunte Wright cannot be measured simply by a number of months. The value of that young man's life, is infinite. It is infinite. And I just think we got to keep his memory in mind, and then just keep on marching forward, in pursuit of this justice that we are going to reach, one day.
COATES: Attorney General Keith Ellison, I deeply understand, the difficulties, of your job, and somehow threading those needles, and balancing so many interests. Thank you for taking the time today. All of our thoughts are with that family.
ELLISON: Well I read your book. So, I know you know.
COATES: Well, thank you for reading it. And I'm honored that you would take the time. And I really can understand and relate.
ELLISON: That's right.
COATES: And I do hope that one day, imagine if we don't just pursue justice, we actually catch it, Attorney General Ellison?
COATES: What a country we'll be then?
COATES: Thank you so much.
ELLISON: Yes. All right, now. Take good care.
COATES: Thank you.
To some brand-new revelations now, about how our democracy was saved, on January 6. There is much more to the pressure that was put on former Vice President Mike Pence that frankly hasn't even been told. The tweets. The tweets that might have played a huge role, in stopping a coup attempt, next. [21:40:00]
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
MIKE PENCE, FORMER VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: President Trump said I had the right to overturn the election. But President Trump is wrong. I had no right to overturn the election.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
COATES: And, of course, we all knew that. But took him more than a year to get, to that point in time. And apparently, it took Pence so long, he had to contemplate ways, to get advice, from other people, on this very issue.
He sounds confident right there, right? But there were moments that Pence did not sound so confident, looking to people, to clarify, and give him the confidence, to say that he in fact, could not do anything about it.
You may have heard, he actually asked, for people, like the former Vice President, Dan Quayle, asking him if there's anything he could do, to legally act, on the demands, from Trump, to stop these electoral vote certification. But apparently, he was truly torn about it.
And according to Woodward and Costa's book, "Peril," Pence allegedly told Quayle, "You don't know the position I'm in." And Quayle said back, "Yes, I do. You have no power to throw out the results."
Now, even with that shady memo that was dangled, that Eastman memo that was all part of a campaign, to try to give him instructions, on how to pull off a coup? And the forces, around him, apparently had to, then ask yet another person, someone else to give him, the mojo, and the legal backing, and maybe backbone, to reject a crackpot scheme.
But before we tell you about who this new person is, that may have had a hand, in saving our country, I want to remind people about the way we talk about democracy in peril. It might seem hyperbolic. It might be an understatement to some of you.
But the truth of the matter is, we're finding out day by day, just how fragile this democracy was, and just how close we came to January 6, and the fact that frankly, there may not have been any guardrails in place. And to that end, the idea of, in case of emergency break glass, what if there was truly, truly nothing there?
Well, listen, I'm going to tell you now about a story that actually happened, and the notion of somebody, who had a hand, in really trying to potentially rescue, our Republic. And guess what? It comes down to a tweet. No, not a tweet, from say, the former President Trump, but instead, somebody very different.
I want you to listen right now, and urge you to listen, very closely, to a former conservative federal judge, his name was Michael Luttig, on what he calls essentially, well, one of the most significant moments in American history. The unfolding of what happened, from this retired judge? Well, it might just knock your socks off, to know just how fragile things are.
CNN's Jessica Schneider has the incredible story.
PENCE: The Senate will come to order.
JESSICA SCHNEIDER, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Vice President Mike Pence conveyed a calm demeanor, when he stood on the Senate dais, poised to certify the 2020 election win, for Joe Biden.
But it had been a turbulent two days behind-the-scenes. And former Federal Judge Michael Luttig was at the center of that storm.
J. MICHAEL LUTTIG, FORMER JUDGE OF THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE FOURTH CIRCUIT: I was first called by the Vice President's outside counsel, Richard Cullen, on the evening of January 4.
SCHNEIDER (voice-over): Cullen was calling for Luttig's help, since the former Federal Appeals Court judge is considered one of the top minds, in the conservative legal world.
LUTTIG: Law is an institution separate and apart from politics.
SCHNEIDER (voice-over): Luttig learned, his former law clerk, John Eastman, was advising Trump, and Pence that the Vice President had the authority, to overturn the election results.
LUTTIG: You can tell the Vice President that I said that he has no such authority at all. And Richard said, he knows that! He says, you know, we need to do something publicly, get your voice out to the country.
SCHNEIDER (voice-over): Judge Luttig had just opened a Twitter account, and the two men agreed a message online would be the best way to showcase Luttig's legal analysis, and provide Pence, with conservative cover, when he acted against the President's push, on January 6.
LUTTIG: I understood the gravity of the moment and the momentous task that I was being asked to help the Vice President with.
SCHNEIDER (voice-over): The 67-year-old Luttig confirmed with his tech-savvy son, on how to use Twitter, to blast out his lengthy message.
LUTTIG: He says, "Dad, I don't have time for this," to which I said, "You just tell me right now, how to get this done, or I'll cut you out of the will, OK?" SCHNEIDER (voice-over): And on January 5, Luttig tweeted his legal analysis, which Pence then cited, in a letter, he released, saying "The Constitution does not empower the Vice President to alter in any way the votes that have been cast, either by rejecting certain votes or otherwise."
That position prompted Trump, to go after Pence, in a since-deleted tweet, saying "Mike Pence didn't have the courage to do what should have been done to protect our country and our Constitution."
Trump had pressured Pence multiple times, both in private and in public.
DONALD TRUMP, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: And 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.
SCHNEIDER (voice-over): But Pence held firm, returning to the Capitol, after the hours' long siege, officially certifying the election result, just before 4 A.M., on January 7.
PENCE: The votes for President of the United States are as follows.
Joseph R. Biden, Jr., of the State of Delaware, has received 306 votes.
Donald J. Trump of the State of Florida has received 232 votes.
SCHNEIDER (voice-over): Pence called Luttig, hours later, to thank him.
LUTTIG: He said, "Judge, this is Mike Pence."
I said to the Vice President that it was the highest honor of my life that he had asked me, and I will be grateful to him for the remainder of my life.
SCHNEIDER: And Judge Luttig is now looking to 2024. He's pushing Congress, to rewrite the Electoral Count Act, to make it clear that the Vice President cannot overturn the election results, and to clarify that Congress has no power at all, to decide the validity of state electors.
COATES: Thank you, Jessica. God, what an incredible story!
Someone, who actually knows Michael Luttig well, well guess what? I've got Republican election lawyer, Ben Ginsberg. And he's next.
(COMMERCIAL BREAK) COATES: Man, if a tweet could make a difference, as to whether a legally-elected president gets certified? Tell me what does that say about our democracy.
CNN Legal Analyst, Ben Ginsberg, joins us now. He's known Judge Luttig, for more than 30 years.
And I'll note, of course, Ben, he's a former federal judge, still a conservative. He was tapped in this way, to be able to give some counsel.
But, look, this comes down to the idea of how are we in a situation, where a Vice President, is scrambling, at the last minute, trying to figure out, "Do I have the power to overturn this in some way or not?"
What needs to be done, to really fortify this prospect, and make sure it never happens again?
BEN GINSBERG, CNN LEGAL ANALYST, REPUBLICAN ELECTION LAWYER, HAS KNOWN MICHAEL LUTTIG FOR 30+ YEARS: Well, these were unprecedented times that really stress-tested the whole system.
So, the Electoral Count Act, that this all operates under, is a law from the 1880s. If you're watching The Gilded Age, these days, they talk different, back then.
GINSBERG: And so, it makes sense, to modernize, streamline, make the law contemporary.
COATES: And in fact, Senator Susan Collins has a piece out, in "The Washington Post," today. And she's spearheading the effort, a bipartisan effort, I might add, to try to reform or modernize away from The Gilded Age, the Electoral Count Act.
But this is actually, interesting to have bipartisanship, in Washington, D.C., Ben, is one of the reasons, because no one quite knows how to game this, in a way that they will secure, a decisive advantage, for their party?
GINSBERG: Absolutely. Look, this is a unique law, in the sense that you're looking forward, with a lot of unknowables. You don't know who the Vice President will be. You don't know what the margins in the Congress will be. You don't know how great the differences will be, between candidates, in the States.
So actually, this is an example, one of the rare examples, where it makes sense, for both parties, to have clear rules, in what is a really contentious situation.
COATES: It makes sense, for a democracy, to have really clear rules here, right?
GINSBERG: Yes, it does. COATES: The idea of, everyone, especially going forward, I mean, it's unprecedented one time, in 2020. But it can't happen again. So, in terms of how it's modernized, what are we talking about? What are the things are trying to change? Is it taking it away completely, or looking at who has power, where, and when?
GINSBERG: Well certainly, the role of the Vice President needs to be clarified. How many members you need, to raise an objection, to a state's slate is one.
But the real difficult issues are how you balance the power, between the States, who run and decide, supposed to tally up the votes, in the election, Congress, which has what really is a ceremonial role, of opening up the Electoral College slates.
But suppose something's really wrong in the process? And then the Federal Courts, and how much can the courts jump in, at that point, to sort of be the arbiters, if there're bad state actors, who are sort of inconclusive congressional actors?
COATES: It goes back to that idea of, we - our time of, in case of emergency break glass, having something actually inside of it, right, in case this happens?
But, to be clear, this is not the same thing, as abolishing Electoral College, right?
GINSBERG: No, this is completely different.
COATES: This is totally different.
GINSBERG: This is a procedural rule that again, if there are tight contests, in the States that result in not a clear winner, of the Electoral College, how you judge who are the electors?
COATES: The right man, I told you, Ben Ginsberg. Thank you so much for clarifying.
GINSBERG: Thank you.
COATES: We'll be right back.
COATES: Thanks for watching, everyone.
"DON LEMON TONIGHT" starts right now. What a treat! It's Don Lemon, everyone!
DON LEMON, CNN HOST, DON LEMON TONIGHT: So, I'm always excited, to see you. But don't be mad!
COATES: Oh, God!
COATES: What did you do? What a preface!
COATES: "I'm excited, to see you. But don't be mad!"
COATES: I have my guard up. What Don?