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The Situation Room
Book Says, Top U.S. General Took Secret Action to Protect Nukes from Trump; Final Hours of Voting in High-Stakes California Recall; CNN Investigates Trump's Lies and Attempt to Overturn Election. Trump Lies About Voter Fraud Could Destabilize Election System. Aired 6-7p ET
Aired September 14, 2021 - 18:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: For now our coverage continues with one Mr. Wolf Blitzer right next door in "THE SITUATION ROOM." I will see you later tonight.
WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: Happening now, breaking news. Stunning new revelations about the top U.S. general's secret action to limit then- President Trump's ability to launch nuclear weapon. The new Bob Woodward book detailing high-level fears that Trump was going rogue after the January 6th insurrection.
Also tonight, Californians are in the final hours of voting, deciding whether to fire Democratic Governor Gavin Newsom. President Biden lending his support as Democrats declare the election a referendum on Trumpism and a GOP challenger borrows from the ex-president's playbook.
And a CNN investigation of Trump's pressure campaign to overturn the 2020 election, the calls, the texts, the voice mails and more, plus how his lies are still threatening the nation.
We want to welcome our viewers here in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.
Let's get straight to the breaking news. We're following truly stunning new revelations of very deep concern at the highest levels inside the Pentagon over former President Trump and his erratic behavior during his final weeks in office. They come in a new book by Journalist Bob Woodward and Robert Costa who report that the top U.S. general took apparently unprecedented action to limit Trump's ability to order a military strike.
CNN Special Correspondent Jamie Gangel is joining us now. She has got details of what was going on. Jamie, the Joint Chiefs chairman, General Milley, he was very concerned. He wanted to safeguard the nation's nuclear arsenal. He wanted to safeguard the military from what he feared would be Trump's actions.
JAMIE GANGEL, CNN SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT: Correct. These were precautions that the chairman of the Joint Chiefs would take in. Just to set the stage, it is January 8th. It is two days after the assault on the Capitol. He is worried. Woodward and Costa write that Milley believed that Trump was unstable, unpredictable, and according to Woodward and Costa's book, Milley believed he was in serious mental decline.
Nancy Pelosi calls him, we know, on January 8th, the speaker of the House. She calls him and she is also worried about the nuclear weapons. So, in the book, Woodward and Costa have an exclusive transcript of that phone call. And let me just read to you. Pelosi says to Milley, this situation of this unhinged president could not be more dangerous. Milley reassuring her, I can guarantee you, you can take it to the bank that there'll be, that the nuclear triggers are secure and we're not going to do -- we're not going to allow anything crazy, illegal, immoral or unethical to happen. Pelosi says, and how are you going to do that? Going to take the football away from him or whatever it is? She's third in line of succession. She knows what the football is.
Milley gets off the call and he's worried. He knows that from intelligence, China has been on edge about Trump. He saw what happened at the Capitol, and he thinks to himself, Pelosi is right, according to Woodward and Costa, and he decides to take an extraordinary action. And Woodward and Costa write that General Milley calls an extraordinary meeting. He brings together the generals and officials from the Pentagon's war room. He calls them in and he underscores that they must follow the process. They must follow the procedure.
And in Peril, Woodward and Costa write, Milley said, quote, if you get calls, no matter who they're from, there is a process here. There is a procedure. No matter what you are told, you do the procedure. You do the process. And I'm part of that procedure. It is unusual, as the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, he is not technically in command. But because of his authority, his respect and because he was so concerned that President Trump might do something unpredictable, something dangerous, he was making sure every precaution was in place.
BLITZER: The book -- and you have a copy of it right there, Jaime, the book also details a rather heated conversation that Trump had with the then-defense secretary, Mark Esper.
GANGEL: Right. This book is called, Peril. Woodward's last book was called, Rage. I would tell you that this book could be called Rage 2.0. There are so many behind the scene showdowns with Trump temper tantrums, where he is yelling and screaming at top officials and cabinet members.
This is one where right after those protests in Lafayette Park, you may remember, then-Defense Secretary Mark Esper comes out and he says -- makes a -- has a press conference and says there shouldn't be any -- there is no reason for an Insurrection Act. And then he meets with Trump. And according to Woodward and Costa, Trump goes -- just starts yelling.
And Trump says in the book, quote, who do you think you are? You took away my authorities. You are not the president. I'm the god damn president.
And after that, he's not only shouting at Esper. He turns to everyone in the Oval Office, the rest of the team, and we'll try to keep the language clean here, but Trump says, according to the book, quote, you're all f'ed up, everybody. You're all f'ed. Every one of you is f'ed up.
There are so many outbursts like this throughout the book that you understand how in the lead-up to when you get to January 8th and Milley's actions and the assault on the Capitol, cabinet officers were concerned.
BLITZER: Yes. They were really, really concerned. I can't wait to read Peril by Bob Woodward and Robert Costa, excellent reporting as usual. Thank you so, so much.
Let's get to the California recall right now as the clock ticks toward the first results. Some Republicans are relying on the Trump playbook. Our Senior National Correspondent Kyung Lah is out in Sacramento for us.
Kyung, not a single vote has been reported yet, but the Republicans already are planting seeds of doubt when it comes to election integrity. Update our viewers. Give us the latest.
KYUNG LAH, CNN SENIOR NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Those Republicans are Donald Trump himself and then the leading Republican challenger here to Gavin Newsom, Larry Elder. He has been -- in these final notes of the recall election been talking about baseless election fraud theories. He's been throwing it out there, saying that he's posted a website where people can report things, that he's hiring lawyers. I want you to take a listen to what he said just a short time ago.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
LARRY ELDER (R), CALIFORNIA GOVERNOR CANDIDATE: So many people are going to vote yes on the recall, there won't be any question about the outcome. I just hope my opponent is willing to accept the results when he loses.
I have every hope that this election will be free of fraud and it's going to be one of integrity.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
LAH: I want to point out, Wolf, that not a single vote has been counted yet. The actual vote count does not take place until after all the polls close here at 8:00 P.M. Pacific Time. Those ballots are sorted but they're not actually counted until that time. The Newsom camp says that they are prepared to respond if necessary and at this point there trying to connect Elder to the larger Republican Party saying that this will be the coming attraction for 2022 and 2024 in other contested races and other non-contested races across the country.
So, as far as where it stands right now, there are -- I mentioned that they haven't been counted yet. Ballots though still are being counted as they're coming in, the actual numbers of them. 9.1 million ballots have been cast so far, 52 percent by Democrats, 26 percent by Republicans. And Newsom campaign says that is in part because they have been so successful in getting Democrats engaged on that national message, Wolf.
BLITZER: All right. We'll see what happens later tonight. Kyung Lah, reporting for us, thank you very much.
Meanwhile, the secretary of state, Antony Blinken was back in the hot seat once again today facing bipartisan criticism from lawmakers as he defended the chaotic U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. CNN National Security Correspondent Kylie Atwood has details.
KYLIE ATWOOD, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT (voice over): Secretary of State Tony Blinken back in front of Congress for a second grilling, this time in person, defending the administration's response to the collapse of the Afghan government.
ANTONY BLINKEN, SECRETARY OF STATE: In the military, placed on standby by President Biden, was able to secure the airport and start the evacuation within 72 hours. And, yes, that evacuation was an extraordinary effort under the most difficult conditions imaginable.
ATWOOD: While Blinken faced bipartisan criticism for the withdrawal --
SEN. BOB MENENDEZ (D-NJ): Information from state, the Pentagon and the White House has often been vague or contradictory. This was obviously a fluid and difficult situation, frustration among many members was high and this has to improve.
ATWOOD: -- the hearing on the end of America's longest war became a partisan battle.
SEN. JAMES RISCH (R-ID): The administration is paying itself on the back for this evacuation is like an arsonist, taking credit for saving people from the burning buildings he just set on fire.
SEN. BILL HAGERTY (R-TN): The lack of accountability in this administration is shocking to me.
SEN. JEANNE SHAHEEN (D-NH): I want to know where that outrage was during the negotiations by the Trump administration and former Secretary Mike Pompeo when they were giving away the rights of women and girls.
ATWOOD: Several lawmakers focused in on the failure of U.S. intelligence to anticipate the possibility of the Taliban taking over the country in just 11 days.
SEN. MARCO RUBIO (R-FL): We have the wrong people analyzing this. Someone didn't see this. Either someone didn't see this or someone didn't want to see this.
BLINKEN: You're right that I think we need to look back at all of this because, to your point, we collectively, over 20 years, invested extraordinary amounts in those security forces and in that government.
ATWOOD: When it comes to the way forward, Blinken said the administration is keenly focused on around 100 U.S. citizens that remain in Afghanistan, prioritizing them above thousands of U.S. green cardholders who are still there.
SEN. MITT ROMNEY (R-UT): In terms of the legal permanent residents, is your priority just as high to get them out as it is to get out citizens, or is there a different level of commitment for a legal permanent resident's return to the United States relative to a citizen?
BLINKEN: Senator, our number one priority is American citizens, and that has, I think, long been the case in this situation.
ATWOOD: Given the wide ranging questions about the withdrawal, many of which remain, the top Democrat on the committee also voiced frustration that Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin had not accepted his request to testify alongside Blinken.
MENENDEZ: I may consider the use of committee subpoena power to compel him and others over the course of these last 20 years to testify.
ATWOOD (on camera): Now, we should note that Secretary Austin had already agreed to testify before another committee on the Hill later this month on Afghanistan, which may be one of the reasons that he didn't come to the hearing today.
One of the other things that Secretary Blinken got asked about was that recent U.S. drone strike that the U.S. military said killed an ISIS-K operative. There are now questions about that claim given investigations by news outlets, including CNN. Blinken was asked if that strike actually killed an ISIS-K operative or an aid worker. He said he didn't know. He doubled down and said the reason he doesn't know is because there is an investigation into that that is ongoing. Wolf?
BLITZER: All right, Kylie, thank you very much, Kylie Atwood reporting.
Just ahead, we're getting new details on Donald Trump's pressure campaign to overturn the 2020 presidential election.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
DONALD TRUMP, U.S. PRESIDENT (voice over): Hello, Frances. How are you?
Hello, Brad and Ryan and everyone. RUDY GIULIANI, FORMER TRUMP PERSONAL ATTORNEY (voice over): Bill, it's Rudy Giuliani.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: You are going to hear from local election officials who were on the other end of very disturbing calls, texts and voice mails. The CNN investigation is next.
BLITZER: Right now, we're getting a new window into the Republican's embrace of Donald Trump's big lie. Check out our exclusive new CNN poll. It shows a majority of Republicans say believing Trump won the 2020 election is important to being a member of the GOP. 36 percent say it's very important. 23 percent say it's somewhat important.
This as we're learning more right now about the ways Trump and his supporters have actually threatened American democracy. Trump not only insisted he won the election, he lies. His lies made millions and millions of Americans doubt the U.S. election system. He relentlessly pressured local election officials and the Department of Justice to help reverse the results of the election. And when that didn't work, his supporters turned to changing voting laws across the country.
To understand how dangerous this is for our democracy, you have to take a closer look at the entire scope of the actions by Trump, his inner circle and Republican politicians who are clinging to his lies. And it started on Election Day, and it's still going on right now.
CNN's Senior Investigative Correspondent Drew Griffin joins us with an in-depth look. Drew?
DREW GRIFFIN, CNN SENIOR INVESTIGATIVE CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, CNN spoke to more than a dozen state and county officials involved in elections for this special report, many of them Republicans that all expressed concerns about the future of the United States, that Donald Trump's big lie could change this nation forever.
GRIFFIN (voice over): Donald Trump's attempt to subvert the election started long before anyone voted --
TRUMP: We're not going to lose this, except if they cheat.
GRIFFIN: -- continued on election night.
TRUMP: We want all voting to stop.
GRIFFIN: Sparked and attempted insurrection.
TRUMP: We fight like hell. GRIFFIN: As disgraceful as Trump's public words were, behind the scenes, Trump and his inner circle were using all the powers of the presidential office to cheat, not to stop the steal, but to start it.
RICHARD L. HASEN, LAW PROFESSOR, UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA, IRVINE: It was an attempt to undermine the will of the people. It was profoundly anti-democratic, and potentially criminal.
GRIFFIN: The 45th president of the United States tried to coerce the Department of Justice to lie on his behalf while also strong arming state and local election officials to overthrow the election.
MATT MASTERSON, FORMER SENIOR CYBERSECURITY ADVISER/CISA: There's no question that our democracy is at a breaking point.
GRIFFIN: In the weeks following the election, Trump and his inner circle would wage a high pressure campaign.
TRUMP (voice over): Hello, Frances, how are you?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Hello, Brad and Ryan and everybody.
GIULIANI (voice over): Bill, it's Rudy Giuliani.
GRIFFIN: At least 30 contacts between Trump and Republican officials in crucial states, Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Arizona.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is the White House operator.
CLINT L. HICKMAN, BOARD OF SUPERVISORS, MARICOPA COUNTY, ARIZONA: I was out to dinner with friends, and a phone call came in from Washington, D.C. of a number I did not recognize.
GRIFFIN: Clint Hickman, a Trump supporter who was then the chair of the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors couldn't believe it.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I was calling to let you know that the president is available to take your call if you're free.
GRIFFIN: Hickman let the call go to voice mail. Days later, the White House operator called back. Hickman, again, refused to pick it up.
HICKMAN: Obviously, I thought it was going to be something to do about election and operations and I was not prepared to talk about that. The governor of Arizona had already certified it, the attorney general of Arizona, the secretary of state had certify it.
GRIFFIN: Records now revealed dozens of text messages and multiple phone calls from the White House, from Rudy Giuliani, and also the head of Arizona's Republican Party.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I just talked to President Trump and he would like me to talk to you. GRIFFIN: Trying to put pressure on the Maricopa County Republican supervisors to intervene in a free and fair election that Joe Biden won. Supervisor Bill Gates believes it was an attack on the Constitution.
BILL GATES, BOARD OF SUPERVISORS, MARICOPA COUNTY, ARIZONA: I saw that a voice mail had popped up. It was just unbelievable to hear, you know, instantly I knew who it was. I knew that voice, you know, Rudy Giuliani, America's mayor.
GIULIANI (voice over): Bill, it's Rudy Giuliani, President Trump's lawyer. I have a few things I would like to talk over with you. Maybe we can get this thing fixed up.
GRIFFIN: The Maricopa County Board of Supervisors had just received this subpoena demanding election officials hand over millions of ballots to state Republican politicians who were launching fraud investigations.
GATES: He wanted us to turn over the ballots as soon as possible, so that the state senate could get to work.
GRIFFIN: Get to work doing?
GATES: One of the objectives was to get their hands on the ballot before the January 6th hearing in the Capitol. They wanted evidence to support decertifying the election.
GRIFFIN: It's Constitution be damned, really?
GATES: Right. One of the main reasons I became Republican in 1980s was I thought the Republican Party was the party of the rule of law, the party of the Constitution.
GRIFFIN: In Michigan, a Wayne County Republican official voted to certify the election then changed her mind after a call from Donald Trump.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I have provided them with a copy of my affidavit rescinding my vote.
GRIFFIN: In Georgia, Trump not only called the state's top elections investigator --
TRUMP (voice over): But whatever you can do, Frances.
GRIFFIN: -- but in what now is being investigated as a possible crime. Trump tried to convince Georgia's Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger to change the vote count.
TRUMP (voice over): And there's nothing wrong with saying that, you know, that you've recalculated.
HASEN: It seems clearer and clearer that Trump was actually trying to steal the election. He was actually trying to create conditions where he would be declared the winner even though he actually lost the election. It is incredibly dangerous and destabilizing.
GRIFFIN: And perhaps most dangerous of all, President Trump even tried to use the United States Department of Justice to pull off his attempted coup. In the notes of a December 27 phone call now handed over to congressional investigators, Trump told his acting attorney general, Jeffrey Rosen, and his deputy, Richard Donoghue, just say that the election was corrupt, leave the rest to me and the R congressmen. Both men refused Trump's request, and both have testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee chaired by Senator Dick Durbin.
DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: What was the most shocking to you?
SEN. DICK DURBIN (D-IL): Just how directly personally involved the president was, the pressure he was putting on Jeffrey Rosen. It was real, very real. And it was very specific.
GRIFFIN: Trump tried to pressure Rosen to file a lawsuit in the Supreme Court, to declare that the Electoral College votes cast cannot be counted. His chief of staff was repeatedly emailing top DOJ officials at least five times asking they investigate conspiracy theories about voter fraud.
MASTERSON: It's an attempt to use the Department of Justice in order to influence the election that's run at the state and local level. So, it's dangerous, it's inappropriate and it should be unacceptable.
GRIFFIN: And Trump had been secretly working with someone inside the Department of Justice. An official from the environmental division named Jeffrey Clark who was pushing allegations of voter fraud despite all the evidence against it. Clark urged his bosses to sign a letter to Georgia's governor containing a lie. It falsely claimed the Justice Department identified significant concerns that may have impacted the outcome of the election and advised the governor to convene in special session.
Acting Attorney General Rosen and the deputy A.G., Donoghue, said no.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The country came very close to a coup.
GRIFFIN: It was the violence of the insurrection on January 6th that finally ended Trump's plans to prevent the certification of Joe Biden as president. Yet, with no proof, with no facts, with no evidence at all that fraud played any role in his defeat, Trump has convinced his base of support that the electoral system of the United States is corrupt.
Former Republican New Jersey Oregon Christine Todd Whitman, who started a group to safeguard U.S. democracy, says this is a threat to the country.
CHRISTINE TODD WHITMAN, CO-FOUNDER, STATES UNITED DEMOCRACY CENTER: Abraham Lincoln said if this government falls, it will fall from within, and we have to remember those things because it can. It could happen.
GRIFFIN (on camera): Wolf, one thing that Bill Gates, the Maricopa supervisor told me, is that if it weren't for Republicans willing to risk their careers to stand up for what's right, there might have been a different outcome. And some of those election officials are dealing with threats to their very lives. Wolf?
BLITZER: All right. Drew, standby. Our in-depth look at the assault on democracy will continue. That's next.
BLITZER: More now on the assault on democracy being fueled by former President Trump's continued lies about a rigged election.
Let's discuss with CNN Political Commentator Michael Smerconish, the host of CNN's Smerconish. Also with us, CNN Senior Legal Analyst Elie Honig, his new book, by the way, is called, Hatchet Man, How Bill Barr Broke the Prosecutor's Code and Corrupted the Justice Department.
Michael, when you see all of this come together, it becomes much more clear just how much at risk our democracy really was and actually continues to be, doesn't it?
MICHAEL SMERCONISH, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: You're right. When I watch Drew's report, I have two reactions, the first of which is to say that when you look at the full report instead of the component parts, some of which we have heard before, I think it becomes pretty compelling of there having been an orchestration here, haphazard, for sure, but that there was this overall plan that was being initiated.
The second thought that I have, Wolf, is that there's quote from a Matthew Masterson in that lengthy piece, read it online, Department of Homeland Security official who speaks about the exodus of local officials. This is the same concern that I have about school boards in the midst of the pandemic, that there are people out there providing a public or community service. They're working for very little wages. Here to for, they have been faceless, nameless. And all of a sudden you listen to those voice mails, they are subject to such vitriol and hatred and death threats, it makes me worry there is going to be further exodus from those jobs and that partisans will fill them.
So this is not something at a macro level. This is not just former President Trump and members of Congress. No. We need to be concerned in each of our respective communities about the fallout from this.
BLITZER: And, Elie, it wasn't just the former president peddling unsubstantiated claims of voter fraud. There was at least one high ranking official within the Justice Department who was supposed to try to prevent this kind of thing from even happening, right?
ELIE HONIG, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: Exactly, Wolf. And one of those high ranking Justice Department officials, Jeffrey Clark, he's a real villain in this story. I mean, Michael used the term, orchestration. He was Donald Trump's tool in the Justice Department. And what Jeffrey Clark did is the exact opposite of what the Justice Department ought to be about, which is truth, integrity and independence.
Jeffrey Clark tried to get the Justice Department to send out a fraudulent letter saying to the state of Georgia and other states, we have identified significant concerns that impact the outcome of the election. That's a lie. That's a fraud. There is no evidence for that.
Now, thankfully, other officials at DOJ refuse to go along. But if Jeffrey Clark had gotten his way, it would have turned things ugly. It would have thrown us into absolute chaos.
BLITZER: You are absolutely right. Michael, Trump has convinced his supporters that voter fraud remains a threat to this country. Are Republicans in power doing enough right now to make sure the wounds he has inflicted are healed?
SMERCNOISH: Well, hell, no, absolutely not they haven't. And they're afraid to step out on this issue. I think the vast majority of them, the office holders know that these charges of a theft are bogus. But they're scared to death of the base where your membership in the party demands fealty to the former president.
BLITZER: Michael Smerconish, thank you very much. Elie Honig, thanks to you as well. And to our viewers, be sure to join Michael for his show, Smerconish, every Saturday morning at 9:00 A.M. Eastern only here on CNN.
Across the country, election officials have been threatened and harassed just for doing their jobs because of Donald Trump's lies.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You rigged my (BLEEP) election you (BLEEP) piece of (BLEEP). We're going to try you and we're going to hang you.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: One of the dangerous consequences of Donald Trump's big lie is that tens of millions of Americans mistakenly believe Trump actually won the 2020 election. Some of them are threatening violence against election officials for just doing their jobs.
Let's bring back Drew Griffin. Drew?
GRIFFIN: There are two things happening all across the country, Wolf, and at an alarming rate. Both are dangerous to democracy, threats against election officials, which are causing some to quit, and laws in more than a dozen states that changed the rules on voting.
We have to warn you some of the language you are about to hear is very graphic.
GRIFFIN (voice over): In Milwaukee, Elections Executive Director Claire Woodall-Vogg has been bombarded by hate ever since an extremist right wing web site, Gateway Pundit, published lies about her.
You rigged my fucking election, you fucking piece of hit, we're going to try you and hang you.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You rigged my fucking election you fucking piece of shit. We're going to try you and we're going to hang you.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We're coming for you Claire.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I really sincerely hope you get what's coming to you, you fraudulent fuck.
GRIFFIN: What was your immediate reaction to what on that machine?
CLAIRE WOODALL-VOGG, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, MILWAUKEE ELECTION COMMISSION: It's frightening because there are crazy people out there. And while it might just be them blowing off steam, I think it's clear that they believe it. And I think only someone who truly believed it would act on it.
GRIFFIN: How many threats do you think you have gotten?
WOODALL-VOGG: I think over 150.
GRIFFIN: 150 threats?
WOODALL-VOGG: Yes. I received a letter, very colorful language to my home, which did make me very frightened in that I have a three-month- old and a four-year-old to think about, and all because I did my job, and made sure that all of the city of Milwaukee's ballots were counted.
GRIFFIN: What did that letter say?
WOODALL-VOGG: Am I allowed to tell you the swear words on camera?
WOODALL-VOGG: It said, you are a fraudulent (BLEEP). A lot of the emails (BLEEP) bitch, a whore. The common thread was that no one also has any respect for women in the world.
GRIFFIN: What happened in Milwaukee is happening all across the country. In Phoenix, Republican Bill Gates and his fellow supervisors faced their own threats every single day.
GATES: Just last Friday, my colleagues and I all were treated to an orange jump suit that a gentleman sent to us, and, you know, declared that we will end up in jail someday because we are traitors in the minds of these people.
GRIFFIN: This could lead to a damaging loss of experienced professionals who know how to conduct elections. A report from the Brennan Center for Justice found one in three election officials feel unsafe because of their job. Matt Masterson was the lead cyber security adviser for the Department of Homeland Security in the 2020 election and says it's all creating an alarming situation.
MASTERSON: Local election officials are going to leave and then that opens the door to adding less professional, more political actors into the election space, which, again, is incredibly dangerous.
Woodall-Vogg says she's staying but she closed the elections office until she can beef up security.
WOODALL-VOGG: And so it made me really concerned how powerful conspiracy theories have become that my job would become dangerous, that election administrator now in our very well established democracy has lots of checks and balances is now a dangerous profession.
GRIFFIN: The danger isn't just the obvious threat of violence but the threat to democracy. Experts say Donald Trump and his Republican allies have injected enough doubt into the election process to threaten its stability.
HASEN: It's going to be a self-fulfilling prophesy. He is undermining the system in a way that is going to cause the system to deteriorate.
GRIFFIN: Some Republicans are also undermining the system with new unnecessary legislation. Across the United States, Republican state lawmakers are passing law after law aimed at fixing a problem that does not exist, mass voter fraud.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This bill, I'll say it one more time will make it easier to vote and harder to cheat in Pennsylvania.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Easy to vote, and hard to cheat.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: In Arizona, we want to make it easy to vote, but hard to cheat.
GRIFFIN: At least 18 states have enacted 31 laws with new restrictions on voting methods since the beginning of the year. The most concerning are being called election subversion laws, impacting how elections are run and who's in charge.
WHITMAN: They didn't like the fact that they lost those states, and so now they're rewriting the rules for the future, but they're doing it in a way that will make it extremely problematic because they make it very partisan.
GRIFFIN: Former New Jersey Governor Christine Todd Whitman, a Republican, is part of a group working to safeguard U.S. democracy.
WHITMAN: What you have with local official secretaries of state and others are people who are trained to oversee elections. That is their job to do that. Now, what you see in the states like Texas, Arizona, Georgia, is they are starting to pull it back and put it in the hands of legislatures, the political legislatures.
GRIFFIN: Case in point, Georgia's Election Integrity Act of 2021, 98 pages long. It was signed into law in March by Governor Brian Kemp repeating that Republican mantra.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This bill makes it easy to vote and hard to cheat.
GRIFFIN: Among its provisions, it strips power from the Georgia secretary of state and allows lawmakers to intervene in how counties administer and count the vote.
It sounds like it makes it easier for the politicians to cheat.
TONNIE ADAMS, HEARD COUNTY, GEORGIA ELECTION SUPERVISOR: You could have that perception. You're going to have your I.D. with you.
GRIFFIN: Tonnie Adams is Heard County, Georgia's elections supervisor.
ADAMS: I believe it's a massive power grab. The secretary of state has been removed as a voting member of the state election board.
GRIFFIN: Basically tossing the secretary of state aside for a political person?
GRIFFIN: in Arizona, Republican legislators have made their power grab blatant, passing a law that strips some election oversight powers from the Arizona secretary of state currently a Democrat and gives them to the Arizona attorney general, currently a Republican.
It expires in less than two years, making sure it's a Republican who oversees any disputes in the important mid-term elections.
Gates says his party's big lie about vote fraud is getting way out of hand.
BILL GATES, BOARD OF SUPERVISORS, MARICOPA COUNTY, AZ: I'm worried about the people who look at this now. They have listened to their leaders, their Republican leaders, and they're now convinced that our system is corrupt, that there is this large conspiracy. And we have yet to see many Republicans speak out and tell people no, the election was fair. It's time to move on. Enough is enough.
GRIFFIN: In Texas, which Trump won, Republican legislatures passed a law that bans drive thru and 24-hour voting favored in heavily minority Houston, and creates new hurdles for mail-in voters. The Texas legislation also makes it a crime for election workers to interfere with partisan poll watchers.
CARL SHERMAN (D), TEXAS STATE REPRESENTATIVE: We're at a tipping point as a nation in our democracy is at stake.
GRIFFIN: Democratic legislatures fled the state trying to prevent a vote on the bill. The stand-off ended after 38 days.
SHERMAN: It matters because we've got a long history of cherry picking who can vote and who cannot vote.
GRIFFIN: If all these election laws being surfaced in Republican-led states seem like a coordinated effort, that's because it is.
JESSICA ANDERSON, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR AT HERITAGE ACTION FOR AMERICA: We have honed in on these eight specific focus states.
GRIFFIN: A former Trump administration official who now heads up the conservative Heritage Action for America said the group had made recommendations to several states which ended up in election related bills.
ANDERSON: From there, as we create this eco chamber, we're working with state legislatures to make sure they have all the legislation they need to draft the bills. In some cases, we actually draft them for them, or we have a sentinel in our behalf give them the model legislation so it has that grass roots from the bottom up type of vibe.
GRIFFIN: Donald Trump's big lie and his party's willingness to go along with the facade is now the biggest threat to free and fair elections we face.
RICHARD L. HASEN, LAW PROFESSOR, UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA: It used to be unthinkable to contemplate election subversion in the United States. It's now become something that we need to spend the next few years guarding against. It is the greatest danger facing American democracy today.
GRIFFIN (on camera): It's dangerous, Wolf, because it is destabilizing, according to all the election officials and experts we talked to. A democracy depends on the losers agreeing that the election was conducted in a fair way and agreeing to fight another day. If you don't have that acceptance, you really don't have a democracy. Right now with Donald Trump and his followers, we do not have that -- Wolf.
WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: CNN's Drew Griffin with truly excellent, excellent reporting.
Coming up, countering the assault on democracy. We're going to talk about what's being done and what should be done with the former attorney general of the United States, Eric Holder. There you see him. He's standing by live. We will discuss when we come back.
[18:52:43] BLITZER: More now on the ongoing lies about election fraud and the growing concern they're undermining American democracy.
Let's discuss that and more with the former attorney general of the United States, Eric Holder. He's now the chairman of the National Democratic Redistricting Committee.
Attorney General, thank you so much for joining us.
Voter fraud claims, voting restrictions, one election expert told CNN's Drew Griffin, you just heard, that this trend is, quote, the greatest danger facing American democracy today.
Do you agree?
ERIC HOLDER, FORMER U.S. ATTORNEY GENERAL: Yeah, I do. I think the things that you're seeing around the country with regard to voter suppression is really subverting our democracy.
The fight that we have now as Americans is not really over a particular issue. We can talk about infrastructure and how big a bill should be. That's not really the primary thing we should be concerned about as Americans.
Our democracy is at stake. Republicans have made a determination that they want to hold on to power and do everything they can to hold on to power. If it means subverting our democracy, making us a less democratic nation, they're okay with that.
You see this being repeated in state after state with the package of these bills in state after state. But it's something we all need to recognize and we all need to fight.
BLITZER: The refrain from Republicans that you heard is that these new voting laws make it, quote, easy to vote but hard to cheat.
What impact do you think these laws that are now in place in places like Texas and Georgia, for example, will have on voters, particularly voters of color?
HOLDER: Yeah. Well, they will have a disproportionately negative impact on people of color. But I think people need to understand, they want to make it more difficult for people who are not like-minded voters.
So, if you're -- you live in the suburbs, if you are a young person, they -- you're targeted, as well. They're coming from your vote, as well.
You know, the measures that they have put in place are nakedly partisan. You know, they talk about not allowing people in Texas for instance to vote on the 24-hour basis when it was done in the past election without any indication of fraud. They want to make it more difficult to use mail to cast vote. They want to make it more difficult to drop off your vote at these ballot boxes.
All of these are designed to keep certain people away from the polls, make it more difficult for people to vote.
And this is all in the face of no indication that there is any widespread voter fraud. The Brennan Center has done a study and said you're more likely to be hit by lightning than to cast an in-person fraudulent ballot.
So, this is -- these are measures that they're taking for a problem that really does not exist.
BLITZER: So many Republicans are building on former President Trump's big lie. Politicians cry foul in future elections. How worried are you, Attorney General, about laws transferring power away from election officials and putting that power into the hands of partisan lawmakers?
HOLDER: That is really one of the most frightening parts of these laws. This notion that you take these career -- really people who we really didn't know, career people who are just trying to do a good job. They're Republicans. They are Democrats. They are progressives. They really just want to get the job done, these election officials.
Replacing that important -- replacing them and those important jobs with people who have political agendas, really is something that will undermine confidence that we have in elections. In addition, these political people might actually take steps to reverse the will of the people.
I really wonder if we had these laws in effect and if we had these political people in charge in a variety of states around the country, with the challenges the Trump campaign tried to raise, would we have seen the same result in Georgia? Would we have seen the same result in Arizona? That is -- that should be something that we're all -- all concerned about.
BLITZER: Yeah, certainly concerning, indeed.
Democratic Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia is co-sponsoring a revised voting rights bill called the Freedom to Vote Act.
Does this -- do you believe does this still go far enough in your view, doesn't this still come up against potentially the filibuster, which would require 60 votes in the Senate?
HOLDER: Yeah, I think the Freedom to Vote Act is a good piece of legislation. It deals with the problem of partisan gerrymandering. It does with these problems that we're talking about now, about these voter suppression tactics, and also comes up with ways in which you try to keep dark money out of the system. So, it's a really good piece of legislation.
I think that ultimately, it's going to come down to, is the Senate ready to discard this Senate procedure, the filibuster? And I think the determination that senators have to make, Democratic senators have to make is do you want to stand on the side of democracy or do you want to stand on the side of an arcane Senate procedure that has been used in the past to frustrate civil rights legislation?
What we're now considering in this new act that Senator Manchin has introduced is really a great piece of civil rights legislation. Are we going to let the filibuster yet again be used to deny the people of this country, the ability to get a good civil rights bill that will protect our democracy and make voting more fair for all of our citizens?
BLITZER: But, are you concerned, Attorney General, that if the Democrats are the minority in the Senate, the Republicans, the majority could ramp through a lot of legislation strictly with a majority vote, the Democrats wouldn't have that filibuster?
HOLDER: Yeah, the threat is so immediate. Our democracy is such -- so much risk right now that we have to deal with that problem right now. And that means passing this bill. That means doing away with modifying the filibuster.
And what happens in the future, you know, we'll have to deal with it as it comes. Yeah, there is potentially, I suppose, some risk but the risk to our democracy that exists right now requires a solution that must be found, must be passed right now.
BLITZER: Did you ever think, Attorney General, that the United States of America would be back in this place with so many fighting tooth and nail against these voting restrictions?
HOLDER: You know, like many people, I perhaps got a little complacent and thought that America was a fundamentally different nation, that our democracy was so enshrined in the concept of who we are as a nation it would never really be at risk. And the reality is our democracy is now at risk.
And now that takes me back to, you know, the 20th century. I think about what those democracies that were lost in the middle part, the early part of the 20th century where democracy was not adequately defended and authoritarian regimes rose.
And it wasn't because democracy was unpopular. You know, democracy was strong. But the reality is the defense of democracy was weak and we cannot allow that to happen in this country.
We came very close in this last election to having a coup. That is in essence, what was going on there, and you look at everything from before November, the November election, all the way up through January the 6th and after that. It was all part of a process designed to somehow (AUDIO GAP) in which the minority would win an election that they lost at the polls.
BLITZER: All right. Attorney General, former Attorney General Eric Holder, thanks so much for joining us. A critically important issue, indeed.
And to our viewers, thanks for watching.
"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.