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Washington Post: Trump Rejected Lawyers' Efforts To Avoid Classified Documents Indictment; Pence Refuses To Say If He'd Pardon Trump If Elected; Sen. Tuberville Blocking More Than 250 Senior Military Promotions From Clearing Senate. Aired 9-10p ET

Aired June 14, 2023 - 21:00   ET




KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN HOST, CNN PRIMETIME: Good evening. I'm Kaitlan Collins.

We have breaking news, tonight, on what might have been an exit ramp, instead of the road that ended, yesterday, in federal felony charges, against Donald Trump, for mishandling highly sensitive government documents. Might have been if the former President hadn't said no to the idea.

This is new reporting, according to the Washington Post, tonight. It begins in the fall of last year, at the end of 2022.

Christopher Kise, one of his attorneys, who we should note, appeared with him, in court, yesterday, apparently proposed, trying to quietly arrange a settlement, with the Justice Department. The hope was that according to this report, Attorney General Merrick Garland would be looking for a way not to prosecute, and that Kise would, quote, "Take the temperature down."

However, The Post, citing three people, who were briefed on the matter, says that Mr. Trump wanted a more combative approach. And so, instead, Kise abandoned this outreach. It never actually happened.

I should note that separately, a source, close to the legal team, tonight, is telling me, they're casting doubt on that ever being a real opportunity, given what was listed, in the indictment, yesterday, predates when Kise actually joined the team, late last August.

Fast forward all of this, to the present, and what is happening now, Attorney General, Merrick Garland, is weighing in, not on the case itself, but defending the man, who was running it, the man, who was in the room, yesterday, for the first time, with the former President, Special Counsel, Jack Smith.


MERRICK GARLAND, ATTORNEY GENERAL: Mr. Smith is a veteran career prosecutor. He has assembled a group of experienced and talented prosecutors, and agents, who share his commitment, to integrity and the rule of law.


COLLINS: Want to get more now, on all of this, from CNN's Paula Reid.

Paula, I mean, this is notable because it's the first time we have heard, from Garland, since news of this indictment, of course, came out, last week. What else did he say about Jack Smith?

PAULA REID, CNN SENIOR LEGAL AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: Well, it's surprising, Kaitlan, because this is not an Attorney General, who talks much at all, about the Special Counsel. So, to even hear him come out, and defend Smith was significant.

He's also defending the Justice Department, as a whole, from the rhetoric, from former President Trump, and his allies.

Now, he went on to emphasize that the Special Counsel is operating independently, and the Justice Department is all about accountability.

He was also asked about concerns about possible violence. And he said he wants to protect people, from threats of violence. So obviously, that ship has sailed. But also wants to protect people from any of those threats actually being realized.

COLLINS: Yes, and of course, those were threats that you talked about, yesterday.

We've heard from a lot of Republicans, allies of the former President's, who say, this is Attorney General, Garland, who is prosecuting Biden's top political rival, right now.

But what actually is Garland's role, when it comes to the Special Counsel's process? Obviously, he appointed him. But what is his actual role now?

REID: So, up until former President Trump announced that he would be running again, for the White House, Attorney General, Merrick Garland, and the Justice Department, were overseeing, the criminal investigation, into the possible mishandling of documents, at Mar-a- Lago, in addition to the former President Trump's role, in January 6.

But once he announced his candidacy, Special Counsel, Jack Smith, was appointed, by Merrick Garland. And the reason you have a Special Counsel is so that you can have someone, who can independently investigate, if the Justice Department feels there might be appearance of a conflict of interest, or a real conflict.

And here, Jack Smith has been operating mostly independently. While he is subject, to the same rules and regulations, at the Justice Department, technically, the Attorney General can fire him.

Mostly though, the Attorney General issues broad deference, to any decisions, prosecutorial decisions, made by the Special Counsel. If he was to decide to do something that the Attorney General didn't like, he could override it, but he would have to notify Congress. [21:05:00]

Now, I can tell you, Kaitlan, for the past few months, Garland's staff, they have been emphasizing the fact that this decision would likely be mostly, by the Special Counsel, and would be granted, broad deference.

I swear, you could ask, one of his staffers, what time it is, and they would respond, by saying, "Just so you know, the Special Counsel is granted broad deference. This will ultimately be his decision." They're really trying to emphasize how this is independent.

COLLINS: Yes. Paula Reid, thank you for that context there, of course.

We also have new reporting, tonight, on the former President's view, of these latest charges. What does he really think?

And these two clips here appear to reflect it. One that we're going to show you is from the night of his arraignment, in New York. Of course, those were charges of falsifying business documents. The other is from last night.

First, I should note, of course, both of them have been fact-checked. Both contain unfounded allegations. And the former President's claim in the second clip that you'll see here, which is about the Presidential Records Act, is false. It's just not true.

We're showing them though, because of the contrast that they seem to reveal, between how Trump then, and how Trump now, is responding to these respective charges, and the different way he sees them.

Here he is after he was arraigned in New York, back in April.


DONALD TRUMP, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Our elections were like those of a Third-World country. And now, this massive election interference, at a scale, never seen before in our country, beginning with the radical left George Soros-backed prosecutor, Alvin Bragg, of New York.


TRUMP: As it turns out, virtually, everybody that has looked at this case, including RINOs, and even hardcore Democrats, say there is no crime, and that it should never have been brought.


COLLINS: That was the former President, back in April, being almost offhanded, about the situation, at the time dispensing it, not really talking at length about it.

This time, though, our reporting is that he is taking these charges, far more seriously, to the point that his legal team, signed off, on his remarks, last night, actually reviewed that speech, before he gave it.

This is a part of what he said.


TRUMP: Judge Amy Berman Jackson's decision states under the statutory scheme established by the Presidential Records Act, the decision to segregate personal materials from presidential records is made by the president during the president's term.


TRUMP: And in the president's sole discretion.

The SOX decision, as it's known, also states, quote, "The National Archives and Records Administration or NARA does not have the authority to designate material as presidential records."

The President enjoys unconstrained authority to make decisions regarding the disposal of documents.

Many people have asked me why I had these boxes. "Why did you want them?" The answer, in addition to having every right, under the Presidential Records Act, is that these boxes were containing all types of personal belongings, many, many things, shirts, and shoes, and everything.


COLLINS: Again, that's not what the Presidential Records Act says. You can read it. It's quite short.

Joining us now, CNN Anchor and Chief Domestic Correspondent, Jim Acosta; CNN Chief Political Analyst, Gloria Borger; CNN's Legal Analyst and former Deputy Assistant Attorney General, Elliot Williams; and Republican strategist, Doug Heye; all here with us tonight.

Elliot, let me start with you, on this reporting, from The Washington Post that Chris Kise, still a Trump attorney, had this idea, to go to the DOJ, and essentially play nice with them, had this strategy.

Is that actually even something that at that time, in the fall, after the search of Mar-a-Lago already happened that the DOJ would have taken him up on?


Remember the old Woody Woodpecker cartoon. If Woody had gone, right to the Police, this would never have happened. And there were many points, along the way, where, Donald Trump had gone, right to the National Records and Archives Administration, this could never have happened.

COLLINS: But was post search warrant being executed, and then finding all these classified documents, too late for that? WILLIAMS: They could have -- the Justice Department can always strike an agreement, to make charges go away. If a defendant is now complying, making every effort, to make them -- whatever happened in the past go away, then yes, the Justice Department could.

Look, at this point -- at that point, they hadn't yet brought charges. They had simply executed a search warrant. And a lot of the basis for the indictment, against Donald Trump, was the acts of obstruction of justice, along the way.

And yes, it's -- the point's well-taken that this was well down the road that that request was made. But the gentleman didn't have to charge Donald Trump with a crime. A lot of it was his, own behavior. And this could have been avoided.

COLLINS: And Jim, you saw him last night. I mean, you know, Trump very well, obviously. You covered him for many years, when he was inside the White House.

You see what he said, last night, the way he's speaking to his supporters. We also just learned from his campaign, though, that they've raised $7 million, since news came down, since he announced last Thursday, that he had been found -- that he had been told he was being indicted.


JIM ACOSTA, CNN ANCHOR & CHIEF DOMESTIC CORRESPONDENT: Yes. And also first thing, I mean, shocker, he's not listening to his lawyers, you know? And that when have we heard that story before, Kaitlan?

Yes. I mean, this is a familiar pattern, with Donald Trump. He gets into legal trouble. That legal trouble creates a spectacle. And he uses the spectacle, to raise money, and fire up his base. And that's what he's doing. And the cycle -- that cycle will continue.

I mean, look, I talked to a longtime Trump adviser, earlier this evening. He said, there's just no way Donald Trump drops out of this race. But he said, but, he said, what happens with the collective weight of four different indictments? If we see two more indictments, what does the collective weight of those indictments do? If he's looking at the prospect of jail time, what does he do?

And what, I think, is very interesting, right now, is looking at this Republican field, and seeing all of these candidates, out there, floating the possibility that they may pardon him. They're not just running for Vice President, these days. It sounds like they're running to be his savior.

And so, this adviser was essentially saying, "Listen, maybe Donald Trump, being the most transactional person we know, does he step aside, in exchange for potentially a deal, to get a pardon, from one of these other candidates?"


WILLIAMS: To your point, just it's important to note that not all charges, not all criminal charges, are created equal.


WILLIAMS: And what you're looking at here, in this federal case, is up to 20 years, in prison. It's a very long time, very different from New York. And also, the New York, the court papers didn't lay out the evidence, frankly, as many people thought, to the great detriment of the D.A.'s office, because they didn't spell out what they were charging him with.

BORGER: Well --

WILLIAMS: Here, you have a much clearer explanation, of quite serious conduct that could carry --


WILLIAMS: -- decades in prison.


BORGER: I thought that's why his speech, last night, was very different, from the one, he had given, previously, after being indicted with, because he was listening to his lawyers, a little bit. I mean, that speech was vetted by lawyers.

COLLINS: And it was a defense.

BORGER: And it was a defense. And it was a lawyerly speech.

COLLINS: A lot of misleading and wrong defense.

ACOSTA: Pretty flawed defense.

BORGER: And it was --



BORGER: -- it was -- there were a lot of inaccuracies in it. But it was clearly not Donald Trump, off the top of his head --

HEYE: Right.

BORGER: -- as the other one was because they realize, of course, the severity of these charges, against him.

And you could see it in the tone. I mean, he did say, "I did nothing wrong, and they indicted me." But you could just see, in the way he was reading it that he had been put on notice. "You got to stick to this script, because this is getting dangerous, if you say anything, you shouldn't be saying."

WILLIAMS: It's also playing to the cheap seats signed up -- sort of. It's giving a speech, to an audience, a crowd, across the country that simply does not understand the law, on this matter. And if you say the words, "Presidential Records Act," enough?

BORGER: Right.

WILLIAMS: It sounds legitimate. It has a veneer of legality that people sort of believe it.

COLLINS: Doug, Republicans are trying to win back, the White House. They feel that they have a real chance of potentially beating President Biden.

Is this where they want to be, at this point, in the primary process, which is where they're kind of twisting themselves, into pretzels, talking about whether or not they would pardon their former -- the former President, if he gets -- if he gets charged -- if he's indicted (ph)?

HEYE: The short answer -- the short answer is no. And $7 million is a lot of cheap seats, by the way.

And we see a lot of things happening here, at the same time. They feel that they have to rush to Donald Trump's defense. And ultimately, what they're doing, when they lash out at DOJ, or they use terms, like "Witch-hunt," or things like that "Weaponize," the people, who are running against Donald Trump are reinforcing his core message. Not typically what you see when your political opponent has been indicted.

What we're also starting to see, as Jim referenced, the weight of indictments that as these are coming, we're starting to see some cracks. We don't know if that weight is going to cause the dam to burst.

But this nomination, as we see Mike Pence now saying that he takes these very seriously, can't condone what's been charged? We see Republicans starting to inch out a bit more. They realize, at some point, this nomination goes through Donald Trump. It doesn't go around them.

Ultimately, Darth Vader -- Luke Skywalker has to take on Darth Vader. You can't depend on the Force.

BORGER: Well, it's the Republican --


BORGER: -- two-step right now. Because the first step is to say that justice is not distributed equally, in this country, that, the FBI and Justice Department have been weaponized. The second step is to say, now, "These are serious charges, and we have to take them seriously."

ACOSTA: But the question that Donald Trump has not answered is why did he not give these documents back?

All of us, sitting at this table, if the federal government came to us, and said, "You have some documents, you need to give them back," we would rush down to the Justice Department.

BORGER: Because he thinks he owns them.

ACOSTA: He doesn't play by the rules.

And I think there's a question to be asked. Whether or not at some point does patience run out inside the Republican Party?

Right now, obviously, you have to kowtow to Donald Trump, to win a bright red congressional district, or else you're going to get primaried. Or a bright red state for a Senate seat. But as soon as that calculus starts to change?

As you know, I mean, during Watergate, with Richard Nixon, the Republican Party was behind Richard --

BORGER: I didn't know that.

ACOSTA: I know you didn't. I'm not suggesting you did.


ACOSTA: But the Republican Party was right there, behind Richard Nixon, until they weren't.



HEYE: Ernest Hemingway said things happen very gradually, and then suddenly.


HEYE: We're starting to potentially see some of the gradually.

COLLINS: Increasingly.

HEYE: It won't happen on Capitol Hill. It'll happen by those Republican candidates, who want to be here.

COLLINS: Now, what is the argument? When you talk to other Republicans, what is the argument, if you are someone, who is like a Nikki Haley, or someone who's down, 40 points beneath Trump? He's been twice indicted. What's the argument for tiptoeing around that?

HEYE: Well, there's the public argument. And there's the private argument. And those conversations have always been very different, when it comes to Donald Trump.

But we're starting to see. Again, these are very small baby steps, but they're not significant -- they're not insignificant. They're starting to show that they can see around the corner. And this is what I tell my Republican friends, when they say this isn't good enough is, if we're in the business, of welcoming converts, we have to welcome those steps. BORGER: Well, what was so interesting to me, about Nikki Haley, was when she started talking about her husband, being deployed, and that these are national security documents, and that what the President allegedly did, would put her husband at risk.

And I think she personalized it in a way that a lot of people can understand it. Because it's -- the Presidential Records Act is this vague thing. Putting troops at risk is something everyone can understand. And I think that was very effecting, for her to --

HEYE: The politicians --

BORGER: -- for her to talk about it that way.

HEYE: Politicians always want to look for a permission structure. This is an example of where she's able to do that.


BORGER: And the former Attorney General gave them a little --

ACOSTA: At the end of the day, Donald Trump's always going to do what's best for Donald Trump.

And, I mean, we've all talked about will Walt Nauta turn on Donald Trump? I think Walt Nauta should be worried about Donald Trump turning on him. There are more people underneath Donald Trump's bus than there are inside of it. And so, that to me is another thing that we haven't really contemplated in all of this, now.

COLLINS: And Walt was there, last night, as he was giving those remarks.


COLLINS: I was told, he was inside, as that speech was happening, not outside.

But thank you all for joining us tonight, with all of your insights.

Up next, we're going to get reaction, from Republicans, on Capitol Hill, and former Vice President Pence, as they were asked about a potential pardon, should he beat his old boss, for the 2024 nomination.

I'm joined as well by New Hampshire Republican governor, and Trump critic, Chris Sununu. We'll ask him more about, what Gloria just called, the Republican two-step.

Later, Tommy Tuberville, the Senator, from my home state of Alabama, and his campaign, of holding up Military promotions, raising a big question, what does he hope to achieve? Also, how his detour to Bedminster, last night, truly, actually affected Senate business?



COLLINS: Here, in Washington, Republican reaction, to seeing their party's leader, booked on federal charges, is divided, tonight, largely along the lines that you would expect, especially, when it comes to the Senate, where Trump supporters are jumping to his defense, but Trump critics are criticizing him.

And Minority Leader, Mitch McConnell, as he usually does, on most things, staying silent on the subject, as he keeps his powder dry, on this issue.

Senator Lindsey Graham, in the meantime, a very obviously ardent Trump ally, is warning about what he says could be coming next, from the Special Counsel.


SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R-SC): If the Special Counsel indicts President Trump, in Washington, D.C., for anything related to January 6th? That will be considered a major outrage, by Republicans. Because, you could convict any Republican of anything in Washington, D.C., and I fear that's where this is going, as sort of an insurance policy.


COLLINS: As for the current charges that he is facing, former Vice President, Mike Pence, weighed in on those, today, saying that the substance of the indictment, and whether or not he would issue a pardon, if his former boss wins the -- if he wins the White House, what he would do, for his former boss?


MIKE PENCE, (R) PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE, FORMER VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I take the pardon authority very seriously. It's an enormously important power of someone in an executive position, and I just think it's premature to have any conversation about that right now, guys.


COLLINS: Joining us now is another Republican critic, of the former President, one who we should note is staying out of the race, this time, New Hampshire governor, Chris Sununu.

It's about to get easier to count which Republicans are not getting into this race. But we'll get to that in a moment.


COLLINS: But Governor, what does it say to you about the state of your party that the twice-indicted front-runner, who just pleaded guilty -- not guilty, excuse me, to 37 counts of federal charges, was able to raise $7 million, since he was indicted, less than a week ago?

SUNUNU: Well, look, it's unfortunately, not a surprise. In this day and age, that kind of extremism on both sides raises money. It gets people excited. People invest into the fight, which is exactly what most of America doesn't want to see, right?

So, it really is -- I don't think it's a sole negative on the Republican Party. I think it's really an unfortunate statement, on where we are, with American politics, with American discourse, which is why some of us isn't just about walking the middle line, or anything.

I'm a strong Republican. I know very strong Democrats that are tired of this divisive nature, and folks trying to just make another buck on the fight.

COLLINS: And you heard there, from former Vice President, Mike Pence, who is obviously running. He says it's premature to talk about whether or not he would pardon Trump.

But do you believe that any Republican candidate should rule out pardoning Trump, if he was to be convicted?

SUNUNU: Look, anyone -- to use the line of your previous guest, anyone who's talking about pardoning Trump, is doing a two-step, straight off a cliff.

If you're a candidate, running against somebody that is 40 points ahead of you, if you're talking about pardoning him, and if you're talking about why he's innocent? All you're doing is defending him. You're not -- you're clearly not serious about running against him. And that's what I'm most shocked about, with all these candidates.

Donald Trump is for Donald Trump. He stands for Trump. It's all about him. It's his show all the time. The rest of these Republican candidates need to separate, not just themselves, but the entire party. Let Trump deal with his issues.

Let these other candidates run for president, with strength, with leadership, making tough decisions, calling the balls and strikes, like you see them, even if it means understanding that the evidence against the former President is likely very, very strong.

And if there is a conviction? We've already seen what like most of the evidence is. It's mostly backed -- it will likely be backed by that evidence. So, you have to support that. The rule of law has to stand.


And let's just use former President Trump's own words, who said that, when it comes to issues, like this, and withholding classified documents, is a disqualifier. That's what he said about former -- about Hillary Clinton. He said it was a disqualifier.

But now we're going to change the rule? It's this hypocrisy that America is absolutely exhausted of, on both sides.

COLLINS: You just talked --

SUNUNU: 80 percent of America is tired of this. And --

COLLINS: Well you just talked about how --

SUNUNU: Sorry?

COLLINS: -- how strong the evidence you believe is here. Do you think that if Trump is convicted --


COLLINS: -- of any of these charges, some of these charges that he should drop out?

SUNUNU: If he's convicted, yes, he should. But that doesn't -- which way you and I think, what most of American thinks doesn't matter.

Donald Trump just does what Donald Trump is going to do. He's going to fight this thing to the bitter end. He's going to claim that he's a victim, and play that card, all the way to the end. He could get the whole nomination off it. And that would absolutely blow it for the Republican Party, in terms of turning the White House back here.

If you're a Republican, out there, and you want the Department of Justice, completely reformed, you better make sure Trump isn't the nominee, because it would only ensure that we don't win in November.

So, you have to actually go to another candidate, galvanize behind one or two other candidates, make this a real race, about Republican ideals, talk about inflation, energy independence, border security, fiscal responsibility, all these things that Republicans really do believe in, and galvanize around. But man, we have lost that. We are so bad at screwing up our own message, within our party.

But we are for something very powerful. We are for something that Independents like that those suburban moms that left us that they want to get behind. We need to get behind those issues again, and stop letting Donald Trump dictate what our message is going to be.

And these candidates are all doing it. It's absolutely baffling. Every single one of them is really responsible for allowing him to carry that message. They need to get together, unify on what the message is, about where this country goes forward, as opposed to litigating yesterday's news.

COLLINS: Yes, no sign of that yet.

You have said that you will support the Republican nominee. But can you make clear, tonight, if that Republican nominee is Trump, are you still going to support the Republican nominee?

SUNUNU: Well, look, my focus is if the Republican nominee is Trump, the biggest problem, we have, is the ticket. Because he doesn't just hurt himself, because he can't win. He drags everybody else down.

He will cost us Senate seats. He'll costs us gubernatorial seats. He'll cost us planning board and school board seats. I mean, that's how bad he is. It happened in 2018. It happened in 2020, when we got our clocks cleaned. We lost Senate seats in 2022. He is a three-time loser, when it comes to the party, which is why we have to move beyond it.

One of the main reasons I decided not to run for president, which is I want to make sure that we separate that message that we have candidates that can stand on their own, that can be positive, and optimistic, and something really good, for America, in terms of what they want to bring and see.

My point is Trump has to kind of live on his own. It's not going to go well for him, in the long run, ultimately, probably not good for America, because it just drags down, and with all that negativity that you're talking about.

COLLINS: But Governor, do you think --

SUNUNU: I'm going to focus all my time and efforts. Yes.

COLLINS: Given all of everything you've just said, in the last six or seven minutes, about how clearly you are -- your view of Trump is, and you were always very candid about that, why not just say that you won't, whether or not you would or would not support him, if he's the nominee? It seems like it's a yes or no question.

SUNUNU: Look, I don't even -- honestly -- because I don't consider him as a Republican. I really don't. His ideals do not -- are not founded in the Republican Party.

COLLINS: But he might be the Republican nominee.

SUNUNU: Well, I suppose so. Which is why I'm going to work for real Republicans, and those are the folks I'm going to get behind.

COLLINS: OK. So, you just -- you don't want to say whether or not you would support him, if he is the Republican nominee?

SUNUNU: Yes, I'm not even thinking -- look, I still don't think he's going to be the nominee. He could be. But I mean, that's a -- it's a real hypothetical. He's really -- I don't think he's going to be.

One-on-one, understand, he loses, right? He may hold 45 percent, even 45 percent of the vote, which would be more than he did in 2016. But he still loses one-on-one, 55-45.

And so, when the Republican Party narrows this thing down, to one or two candidates, probably one much faster than they did before, likely before Super Tuesday? And that's the responsibility of all those candidates to have the discipline to move on. When they do that, he loses. So, that's the hope. And that's what all our efforts, all our focus has to be between now and then.

And the more we talk about, and get ourselves wrapped around the axle, on Donald Trump, and whether he's the nominee, and what happens if, blah, blah? Don't even worry about that guy. The next six months has to be about getting the best candidate, other than Donald Trump, because that's what's best for the Republican Party. And that's what's best for America.

COLLINS: Yes. Well, and we should note that one more Republican is expected to join this race, the Mayor of Miami, just growing that field, even bigger than it already is.

New Hampshire governor, Sununu, thank you for your time, tonight.

SUNUNU: Thank you.

COLLINS: Up next, how this White House, the Biden White House, is handling what no other White House has ever had to do before, the first of possible -- possibly multiple federal cases, against the predecessor, who came before them.



COLLINS: Even before the indictment, and arraignment, the former President has framed the federal investigation of him, as a vendetta, carried out by what he calls the Department of Injustice, and I'm quoting him there, on orders that he claims, are from President Biden.

The President, and the White House, by contrast have largely stayed mum on this.

Not entirely though.

CNN's Jeremy Diamond joins us now, from the White House, with more.

Jeremy, I mean, obviously, there's a strategy here. But it is noteworthy, just how little we have heard, out of the West Wing, on a story that is soaking up, so much oxygen, in Washington.


Another day, another no comment, from the White House, on this matter.

I tried asking the White House press secretary, earlier today, simply to respond, to something that the former President said, last night, when he made that false and baseless claim that the current President, essentially ordered his arrest.

The response from the White House press secretary, "I'm simply not going to comment on this." And that is indeed the strategy. They simply believe that the risks -- that the benefits rather outweigh -- the risks outweigh the benefits, forgive me, as it relates to this situation, and whether or not to comment, whether or not to fundraise off of this.

Now, by contrast, what we've seen is the first lady, Jill Biden, she has been willing to comment on this. She said, just a couple of days ago that she found it a little bit shocking that so many Republicans are sticking by the former President's, amid his indictment.


And today, she said this. "Take yourself back in your mind. You remember how U.S. policy was dictated in those late-night tweets. Or how about the constant assault on our most sacred institutions, our democracy and our freedoms, and it's only going to get worse... So that's the choice right now -- chaos and corruption... or you can choose strong, steady leadership." Those were comments that the first lady made, at another fundraiser, today.

And what's evident in that statement as well is just the fact that even without commenting, the contrast is very much on display, between the chaos of the former President getting indicted, getting arrested, and President Joe Biden focused on his work, and trying to show what Joe Biden is talking about here, that strong, steady leadership.


COLLINS: Yes. And still getting asked about his predecessor's actions, along the way.

Jeremy Diamond, from the White House, thank you.

For more perspective now, we are joined by CNN's Senior Political Commentator, David Axelrod, who served as a Senior Adviser to President Obama, and knows what is like behind those doors, inside the West Wing, very well.

Axe, what would, I mean, what would your advice be to the White House? If you were inside the White House, and something this extraordinary was happening, what strategy would you take?

DAVID AXELROD, FORMER SENIOR ADVISER TO PRESIDENT OBAMA, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Listen, Kaitlan, I think you have to start with what strategy Trump is pursuing. We're all speculating on whether this could impair his campaign. I think we're missing the point. This is his campaign, now.

He is wrapping his whole campaign, around these indictments, and the idea that Biden and a corrupt Deep State are coming after him, to try and silence him, because he is the Avatar, the avenging angel for the alienated American, who has been shut out, by this administration, that's being abused by this administration.

So, it would be nuts, to play that game. It would be nuts, to engage, in any way, on these charges. Because what Trump is trying to say is that these were politically-directed charges, by the White House. They clearly were not. But why even lend any credence to that, by commenting on them, in any way at all? I think they're doing the right thing.

COLLINS: Does it get more complicated, when he's on the campaign trail, and this is -- I mean, we're talking about when the court dates for Trump, are going to be? Right now, it is a race between the two of them, based on what the polling is, in the Republican Party? AXELROD: Yes, well, look, I think that it will be a different situation, in the general election.

Right now, Trump, these bricks on the load that are being laid on Trump's wagon, are not kryptonite. They're energy packs for him in the Republican primary. But once you get to the general election, they're going to weigh pretty heavy on his cart, and things will change.

And actually, listening to the first lady's comments, where she didn't engage in the details of his situation, but sort of went after those, who weren't willing to speak out about it? I think other Democrats can do that.

But ultimately, I think, Biden will benefit, if people do see him, as someone, who is earnestly trying to work on problems that affect their lives, while the Republican Party, and Trump, in particular is off on this crazy jag here.

COLLINS: What about questions voters have, when you see Trump, and other Republicans, saying, "Well, Biden did this, Pence did this," when it comes to documents, even though they're very different situations than what the former President is facing?

AXELROD: Yes. Well, look, I was reminded, last night -- I turned to Fox News, to watch the President's remarks, from New Jersey.

And I turned on the TV, and it was a lower third chyron, saying "Wannabe dictator speaks at the White House after having his political rival arrested." That gives you a sense of how polarized we are, and what people are being told, through the media sources that they choose to -- that they choose to listen to.

So, this is going to be -- that is the meaning that this is politically directed that they all do it. But he's being held to a different standard.

I will tell you that I believe Donald Trump has lived to a different standard, throughout his life. But he's been the beneficiary of it. He's done lots of things that others wouldn't have gotten away with. And I think he's hoping to, again, using voters, as his kind of shield here.

COLLINS: Yes, the political battle versus the legal one.

David Axelrod, as always, loved having you on. Thank you.

AXELROD: Great to see you, Kaitlan.

COLLINS: And still ahead, tonight, my home state, Alabama, Senator Tommy Tuberville, is the sole person, who is now responsible for holding up about 250 Military promotions, even as he is facing pressure, not just from Democrats, even within his own party, to back off.

Why he is doing it, and what Iraq War veteran, and Illinois senator, Tammy Duckworth, has to say about it. She'll join us next. [21:40:00]


COLLINS: Republican Alabama Senator, Tommy Tuberville, is standing firm, on his commitment, to hold up hundreds of promotions, in the Military, even as he is facing growing criticism, for doing so.

Tuberville says that the hold is going to stay, until the Senate votes on a Pentagon policy that ensures servicemembers have access to reproductive health care, after the Supreme Court overturned Roe versus Wade.

CNN's Manu Raju caught up with the Senator, today, asked if he was worried about whether or not Pentagon officials say that that backlog can actually impact Military readiness.

This is what he said.


SEN. TOMMY TUBERVILLE (R-AL): I've talked to the generals and admirals, and if I felt like it was really that much of a problem, we wouldn't be having this problem, but it's really not affecting it.

They could do these one at a time. We could do three or four a day, if they're really that concerned about it. But nobody is concerned about it. And so, why would I be concerned about it?


COLLINS: Joining me now, the Democratic Illinois senator, Tammy Duckworth, a member of the Armed Services Committee, and an Iraq war combat veteran, I should note.

Good evening, Senator. And thank you for being here.

You just heard what your colleague said there, telling Manu, no one is concerned about it, and that, if you really did have an issue, you could do three or four of these a day, which as we both know, would take an incredible amount of time.

What's your response to him?

SEN. TAMMY DUCKWORTH (D-IL): Well, perhaps he has not read the letter, from the seven former Secretaries of Defense that says that he is endangering national security by doing this.

He's inserting a social agenda, a political process, into something that has not (ph) been political, promoting Military officers, based on their merits, their ability, to perform their job, and defend our nation.


And it is really shameful that he's doing this. And he's doing it for political gain. And it has never been done. And really, he's endangering our national security.

COLLINS: Is it clear to you what he wants, for how this to end? I mean, clearly what he doesn't like is the policy that the Pentagon has put in place, for servicemembers, to be able to travel.

But, I mean, if he gives up on that position, he'll look like he lost. And, as you noted, he's gotten some praise from his own party about it. If Democrats or the administration gives in, it would just be rewarding his tactics.

How does this come to an end?

DUCKWORTH: Well, he's been given several opportunities. Listen, the best way to do this is through the legislative process.

Next week, we're actually doing the markup, on the National Defense Authorization Act. That's where he should be going through the process. He can put forward a piece of legislation that would counter this DOD policy. We would vote on it. It passes or fails. But he doesn't want to do that.

Senator Joni Ernst has a piece of legislation that actually negates this DOD policy. But he's not participating with that. So, even within his own party, he's been given options, off-ramps that would allow him to get the vote.

But bottom line, he's getting too much benefit, from this, whether it's his own, political status or -- and, by the way, he's fundraising off of this. He's fundraising off of an action that is endangering our national security. And it's really shameful.

COLLINS: And Senator Joni Ernst, I should note, has been working on that amendment, for a while, and effectively achieved the same outcome, but would be done through the legislative process.

Tonight, though, critics may look at this, and hear this interview, and remember, when you also vowed, to block the promotion and the confirmation of more than I think, it was 1,000 or so Military promotions, until you wanted the Pentagon, to guarantee that Lieutenant Colonel Alex Vindman would get his promotion that it wouldn't be blocked. That was only for two weeks.

But what would you say, to those critics, if they drew that distinction to here tonight?

DUCKWORTH: What I did is what senators do all the time. And usually, it's for a particular goal, which is to get an answer to a question. And I received my answer.

In fact, it was -- the Pentagon had nominated, Alexander Vindman to be promoted, along with a tranche of other officers, based on his ability to do his job. And the White House, pulled him up -- pulled him (ph) out of his cohort to say that "We're not going to promote this person," even though that he had been recommended, for that promotion. And I wanted to know why.

And I said, "OK, I'm going to hold these until you answer me." And they did. And I took down to hold, within 14 days, 14 days.

We're not talking about six months. We're not talking about endangering our national security, long-term. We're certainly not talking about fundraising, off of such a move, which is what my colleague is doing. And certainly, it wasn't to insert a social agenda, the way he's doing, into national security.

COLLINS: Senator Tammy Duckworth, thank you for your time, tonight.

DUCKWORTH: Thank you.

COLLINS: Coming up, we have a remarkable return, to the headlines, of the federal judge, who derailed the Trump documents investigation, only briefly, until an Appeals court weighed in, including two other Trump-appointed judges, I should note, that issued a legal smack-down.

More on Judge Aileen Cannon, next.



COLLINS: Among the many improbable turns, in the government's case, against the former President is that Judge Aileen Cannon is assigned to it.

She initially stepped in, if you remember her name, after the FBI's search of Mar-a-Lago, last August, and she slowed the investigation, essentially to a crawl, until a federal appeals court panel sharply overruled her.

Joining us now, Harvard Law School Senior Lecturer, and former federal judge, Nancy Gertner.

Judge Gertner, thank you for being here tonight.

Even the Trump team, I should say, people I've spoken with, are surprised that Judge Cannon seems like she's going to be the one taking this to trial.

There's a -- look at her experience, though, tonight. She's only been on the bait the bench since late 2020. She has zero experience, as a judge, prior to that. When you look at that, do you believe that she has enough experience for a trial of this magnitude?

NANCY GERTNER, FORMER FEDERAL JUDGE, SENIOR LECTURER, HARVARD LAW SCHOOL: You have to step back. No one has enough experience, for a trial of this magnitude, right? Nobody has any experience with this.

COLLINS: Yes, fair.

GERTNER: Because it's completely unprecedented.

No question about it that she comes to the table with less trial experience. And what that's going to mean is that there will -- things will be slower, unless she's doing it purposely, because she will -- in the pre-trial stage, she'll be trying to figure out what to do.

One of the things about having trial experience is that during trials, you make decisions, immediately. You have people waiting there, jurors, and you have lawyers waiting for a ruling. And that's where the difference could be. But who knows how this will turn out. As I said, this is going to be unprecedented from beginning to end.

COLLINS: Yes. It's an incredibly complex case. And I'm glad you made that point.

Judge Cannon did come under fire, though, last year, for suggesting, in rulings, which I should note were overturned, in a pretty embarrassing fashion, for a judge, essentially that Trump should basically get special protections, given he's a former President that others would not, in a situation like this.

When you look at that, do you believe that she has a duty to recuse herself because of that?

GERTNER: Well, I think it's a way more complicated question.

Does she have a duty to recuse herself? No. Because it wasn't that they said that the Appeals court said, "Hey, you were biased." The Appeals court said "You screwed up," that you -- the language that they used was essentially, "You screwed up mightily. This was quite a substantial screw-up."

But I don't think that there is a duty, because there -- that ruling didn't necessarily connote the appearance of bias. Would it be -- would it be a better and fairer were she to do that? That's a different issue.


Do I think that Jack Smith will move to recuse her? This is now completely speculative, but my answer is no. Because imagine this, Kaitlan, imagine if there is a trial, and a conviction, before a Trump-appointed judge? The legitimacy of that proceeding would be unquestioned, even by Trump, who can question anything. So, I don't know whether they would move.

The fact that she was appointed by Trump is not a basis, to recuse her. And even the overturning of her rulings, even in this, in thunderous way, is really not a basis to recuse her either.

COLLINS: Yes, that's a very good point. They didn't say she was biased. They just essentially argued she would -- she was wrong.

Essentially, it is still remarkable that this happened that she did get this, of course. They said it was a random selection, basically.

Judge Gertner, obviously we'll be watching closely to see what this looks like, going forward, as she is the judge, overseeing this very complex case, complex trial, going forward.

But Judge Gertner, thank you for your expertise, on this, tonight. GERTNER: Welcome.

COLLINS: Up next, on CNN, Arnold Schwarzenegger is weighing in, on Donald Trump's indictment, for the first time.

"CNN TONIGHT" with Abby Phillip, is next, right after a short break.