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U.S. Strikes Pro-Assad Forces; Rosenstein Briefs Senate; Trump Lashes Out over Special Prosecutor; Trump Team and Flynn; Car Hits Crowd in Times Square. Aired 2-2:30p ET

Aired May 18, 2017 - 14:00   ET



[14:00:07] ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

BROOKE BALDWIN, CNN ANCHOR: Hi there. You're watching CNN. I'm Brooke Baldwin.

We've got this breaking news here out of Syria. Air strikes from a U.S.-led coalition has just hit pro-Assad regime forces. It's happened in an area that is labeled a quote/unquote de-confliction zone.

Let's go right to the Pentagon and our correspondent there Barbara Starr. And we also have Lieutenant Colonel Rick Francona, CNN military analyst and former U.S. military attache in Syria.

But, Barbara, first to you, first just on the facts. This area was breached by, I understand, five Syrian regime vehicles. What happened?


Let me walk you through it. You know, a very rare air strike in this area. And why is it so important? Because these militia groups, they were pro-regime, but basically Shia militias backed by Iran. They were moving on an area in southeastern Syria called al Pomp (ph) where the U.S. special forces have operated very frequently trying to train Syrian opposition.

So you have these Iranian-backed militias basically coming down the road, tanks, bulldozers, front-end loader vehicles and they don't get the hint that they're not supposed to be moving against this base where there's opposition and very likely U.S. and other coalition special forces. There was a - sort of a show of force. Aircraft fly over, trying to push them back. They don't get the message. They keep coming. So U.S. aircraft then rolled in and dropped a couple of bombs, destroying a tank, destroying a couple of the vehicles.

A message back to these Shia militias definitely to back off and stay away from where U.S. forces are operating. There's a very clear understanding of these so-called de-confliction zones. The regime knows about them. The Russians know about them. When the show of force came in the air, those on the ground, those militia groups, should have gotten a clue.


BALDWIN: So, colonel, you know, Barbara say this is just extraordinary rare. I mean do you even know how many times the U.S.-led coalition has hit pro-Assad forces?

LT. COL. RICK FRANCONA (RET.), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Yes. Yes, this is the second time we've done it intentionally. There was a mistaken attack on Syrian forces early on, but this is the second time we've intentionally struck Syrian forces. And we don't do this routinely. We're not there really to engage the Syrians. We're there to engage ISIS. But we have to protect our forces - our own forces, plus the forces that we are training in that area.

This is a very crucial area of Syria. This is where the borders of Jordan, Iraq and Syria meet. It's a crossroads. And prior to a few months ago was the main way that the Iraqi Shia militias were moving back and forth between the two countries. The Free Syrian Army has blocked that off. So now we're seeing a challenge and we're seeing the U.S. rise to that challenge.

So, Brooke, I hate to say this, but we're getting more and more involved in the fighting in Syria, not against ISIS, but the civil war.

BALDWIN: Colonel Francona, thank you, Barbara Starr, thank you, on the breaking news out of Syria. We'll stay on that.

But let's pivot now to more breaking news this afternoon up on Capitol Hill where right now Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein is about to face all 100 members of the Senate to reveal what exactly he knows about the decision that led to the firing of former FBI Director James Comey. It's not enough for someone who's been on the job for just 23 days. He will also have to explain why he just hired a special counsel to lead an independent investigation into Russia's interference in the election and possible collusion by the Trump campaign. That special counsel is none other than Robert Mueller. He was Comey's predecessor as the FBI director.

And his appointment spearheads the investigation - spearheading the investigation is getting much bipartisan support. But if you check the president's Twitter page today, he apparently doesn't have the support of the president. The White House first put out a statement seemingly urging a quote/unquote thorough investigation. But this morning the president lashed out on Twitter. Let me read it for you. Quote, "this is the single greatest witch hunt of a politician in American history."

Let's start on Capitol Hill with Phil Mattingly, who's hearing from both Republicans and Democrats. You know, many of them criticized, you know, Rosenstein for writing that letter initially, apparently at the request of the president, to fire Jim Comey. How confident are they that behind these closed doors they will start to get some answers?

PHIL MATTINGLY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: I think there's some sense of confidence because it's in a classified setting. They don't believe it's going to be a show for the cameras or they don't believe that he's going to be able to say he can't talk about specific things because he's in an open setting. So senators I've talked to on both sides believe they are going to get a candid assessment of things. And frankly, Brooke, if they don't, they will deem that severely problematic.

[14:05:02] Now, some of the pressure that will be - at least was heading into this meeting has been taken off by Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein's decision to appoint that special counsel last night. I'm told by Democratic aides that Democratic senators had been meeting, talking, even scheming in a way to use their questions in a unified manner to really press him on this issue specifically. Obviously, he took the wind out of those sails last night and we've heard bipartisan support for the decision for what he did in that appointment.

But that doesn't mean the questions have gone away, Brooke. As you noted, the memo that he wrote, the three-page memo he wrote was essentially given by many Trump administration officials as the rationale for the firing of Jim Comey. Obviously the president came out multiple times and more or less undercut that as the reason for doing so. But I think there's a lot of questions about that memo. Nancy Pelosi, the House Democratic leader, called that memo bizarre earlier today. Several Democrats behind closed doors have been even more scathing in how they feel about those - that memo.

So, there are still a lot of questions, not just about the investigation, but about the specifics of how Jim Comey was fired, why he was fired, what the White House involvement was throughout this entire process. And, Brooke, I also think it's worth noting, this isn't just Democrats that have these questions. There are Republicans who are very concerned about it as well.


MATTINGLY: And I will note one other thing. Obviously Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein will be briefing the full House tomorrow in a classified setting as well. There are still questions, despite this decision to appoint a special counsel, about the independence Robert Mueller will have. Now, anybody who has worked with Robert Mueller in the past says he wouldn't take any interference from any White House or any Trump administration's Justice Department if it was brought his way. But the fact that it would still be under the auspice of the Justice Department, even though he should have autonomy, I've heard some Democrats raise those concerns as well. I'm told they will be seeking commitments that that autonomy will be honored, that he will be left alone to have his investigation to himself.

So those are a lot of the questions that will be answered, or at least asked. The question is, whether they will get those answers. And I think more notably from our perspective is, what will senators be allowed to say when they come out of this briefing? Obviously it's in a classified setting.


MATTINGLY: Democrats want to talk about what they hear. How much will they be able to say? We'll have to wait and see on that one, Brooke.

BALDWIN: You will see. We'll see if they make any news coming out.

Phil Mattingly, stand by for that. Thank you.

So far, Rosenstein's decision to appoint Robert Mueller as the special prosecutor has been widely praised from both sides of the aisle, which appears to put the president and his scornful tweet on an island. So, again, calling this the single greatest witch hunt in American history.

Dana Bash, CNN chief political correspondent.

I mean, you know, there had been all this silence. We were talking this morning about the crickets from the White House which senior staff was probably thrilled to see. Perhaps he's lawyered up. And then, boom, these two tweets. What does that indicate to you as far as whether or not he complies with Mueller?

DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, whether or not he complies will - will be dictated by the process and by the law. I mean, frankly. He's going to get to a point, if it gets to that point where he is needed for documents for testimony, for anything, he's not going to have a choice.

BALDWIN: He's not happy about it, though, based upon -

BASH: Exactly. But doing what he did this morning, sending that tweet, calling it a witch hunt, I mean, if there is a playbook for - not just politics, but basic - the basic way you respond and you react when you are part of a legal investigation, that would be like in flashing neon lights the number one thing in the do not do list.

BALDWIN: Right. Right.

BASH: And he did it to antagonize the special prosecutor, to suggest that it's not legitimate. Didn't say that, but that's basically what a witch hunt means. That's the definition of the term.

So, look, I think it's very clear that this is a president who does not - and we've seen this time and time again and this is, frankly, in many ways how he's gotten into some of these messes, he doesn't like to be challenged. He doesn't like to be questioned. And the fact that this is kind of the ultimate when it comes to a presidency in being questioned and challenged and investigated in as much as there's a special prosecutor, even he couldn't, I would say, hold his tongue or hold his thumb.

BALDWIN: Clearly he couldn't this morning.

BASH: Yes.

BALDWIN: What about the vice president? Because we know that news came out today that, in fact, the transition - the Trump transition team knew that Flynn was under federal investigation for making money as a lobbyist working for Turkey. And we know that the vice president was the head of the Trump transition team. And he said in March, and he's saying now, that he's still standing by his statement that he had no idea that he was under investigation. Where -

BASH: He - right. So - so -

BALDWIN: Where is he on this?

BASH: I believe we have the sound bite from what he said in March. Correct me if I'm wrong.

BALDWIN: Yes, we'll play that.

BASH: OK, let's play it.

[14:10:02] (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn has filed with the Department of Justice as a foreign agent for making more than $500,000 as a lobbyist, essentially, for Turkey. Your reaction to that?

MIKE PENCE (R), VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Let me say, hearing that story today was the first I've heard of it. And I fully support the decision that President Trump made to ask for General Flynn's resignation.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You're disappointed by the story?

PENCE: The first I heard of it and I think it is a - it is an affirmation of the president's decision to ask General Flynn to resign.


BALDWIN: He says he had no idea.

BASH: Right. And so an aide to Vice President Pence told me today that he stands by those comments that you just heard, that he had first heard the news in that interview about General Flynn and his ties to Turkey. So that begs the question - so he's basically claiming ignorance.


BASH: Which, you know, if he were a normal vice president, that would be, OK, so he didn't know about it. But he was the head of the transition. And the report out of "The New York Times" is that -

BALDWIN: They knew.

BASH: General Flynn informed the transition. Now, the report says he informed the counsel, who is now the White House counsel, but the counsel to the transition, Don McGahn. So the open question now is, if that happened, did Don McGahn just sit on it? And, if so, why? Why would he do that? Because the whole idea, the whole reason why these kinds of ties are inappropriate and are verboten is because any decision that the president makes with regard to the country in question, in this case it's Turkey, is viewed rightly or wrongly, fair or unfair, through the prism of the fact that the national security adviser was getting $500,000 from -

BALDWIN: File that under the bright lights not to do as well.

BASH: Bright lights, right, from this country.


BASH: So and also if you kind of take a step back and even look more broadly at it. So the vice president has now gotten caught in so many different webs of Donald Trump and the - and the White House is making that are incredibly uncomfortable and unfortunate. Now, it doesn't seem as though in this particular case, if we take them at their word, that he really did not know, and he was at fault. And, you know, you would think, if he were really running the transition, maybe he should have known about it. We don't know who's to blame for that.

But this also comes on the heels of last week when the vice president, who was - at least informed ahead of time certainly about the fact that the president was going to fire James Comey, took it upon himself to do something he rarely does, which is speak to cameras on Capitol Hill in order to help defend the president -

BALDWIN: That's right.

BASH: And say that the reason that Comey was fired is because Rod Rosenstein recommended it and then he was - and others were undercut by the president himself saying that's not what happened, it was my decision.

BALDWIN: Talking to Lester Holt (INAUDIBLE).

BASH: So this is now a pattern of putting the vice president in a very uncomfortable position.

BALDWIN: Is your head spinning at all? Spinning a little bit.

BASH: I mean it hasn't stopped. Has yours?

BALDWIN: No, not at all. Not at all.

OK, thank you so much, Dana Bash.

BASH: Thank you.

BALDWIN: We're going to walk through all of Dana's points here with a panel coming up on the other side of the break. Also, we're watching and waiting there on Capitol Hill for the deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein, to testify in front of the entire Senate. So, stand by for that. We'll walk you through everything you need to know on this very busy Thursday after this break.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) [14:17:32] BALDWIN: Rod Rosenstein has arrived. He is there in the building in the Capitol, as he will be testifying behind closed doors in front of the entire U.S. Senate momentarily. Keep in mind, this is the man who ultimately wrote the letter last week despite what the president later said as far as suggesting the firing of the FBI Director James Comey and is now the person who has appointed the former FBI director, Robert Mueller, to be in charge of this independent investigation as special counsel. So keep that in mind. That's happening in a couple of minutes. These questions coming from members of the Senate.

Let me bring in former U.S. attorney Michael Moore and Peter Zeidenberg, he's a former federal prosecutor who has worked for a previous special counsel.

So, gentlemen, great timing to have both of you with me.

And if I may, Peter, just first, your reaction to, you know, the president's tweet first thing this morning calling this whole process a political witch hunt. Do you think he will cooperate with Mr. Mueller?

PETER ZEIDENBERG, FORMER FEDERAL PROSECUTOR WHO'S WORKED FOR A SPECIAL COUNSEL: Well, not happily. You know, I have my - I have my - my doubts about that, actually. I know Dana was saying earlier that he has no choice. But this isn't someone who operates the way most people do. So testimony, I don't know, that's far down the road anyway. But who could predict? I certainly wouldn't.

BALDWIN: Michael, same question to you.

MICHAEL MOORE, FORMER U.S. ATTORNEY, MIDDLE DISTRICT OF GEORGIA: You know, I don't disagree with that, but I think there is some mechanisms maybe in place that will move him forward. Bob Mueller is fiercely independent. He was the director of the FBI when I was the U.S. attorney and he's known for protecting that independence and I think he'll move forward. I mean that's part of the beauty of having a trained prosecutor who has an idea about how to look at the investigation, how to see the thing as a whole as opposed to separate pieces. And I think he'll figure out a way to get the information he needs, whether he gets it directly from the president or whether he gets it through - from other sources perhaps that have maintained e- mails. Now, they may, you know, try to claim some privilege and this type of thing, but as I say, Bob is a professional and he knows how to get the job done.

BALDWIN: You know, Michael, we were talking - I was working the morning show. A lot of people are bringing up Whitewater today, right, how Whitewater started as this investigation into, you know, an Arkansas land purchase and evolved into the Monica Lewinsky scandal, how it just sort of mushroomed. Might that be one of the reasons that the president is tweeting the way he is?

[14:20:04] MOORE: Absolutely. Absolutely. I think at this point Bob could ask for tax returns, he could ask for e-mails, he could ask for business information, he could ask for different financials, but I'll tell you, the investigation has a chance to go another way and that is this whole deal with Mike Pence claiming he didn't know anything about Mike Flynn. And clearly today we've got a story out saying that the transition was told about Mike Flynn's investigation. We have the vice president, or soon to be vice president at the time, who was in charge of the transition. And either we've got to believe that Mike Pence was just totally in the dark or we're left to believe that he will now say anything to support this administration's position.

BALDWIN: That's the question. That's the question.

MOORE: And I think that's - you may see the investigation starting to move over there. Remember, Mike Flynn now is at a posture where he can appeal for some help and he can be asking, you know, please don't prosecute me if I give you this information, like he did with the panel. But now he's got a non-political appointee and a non-political process to go through, that is with Bob Mueller, and he can say here's (INAUDIBLE). I'll give you this information that I've got about contacts with Russia and what the administration and members of the administration knew. So all of this could mushroom. And I think that's probably why you're seeing the president panic on Twitter.

BALDWIN: Peter, you - we wanted to talk to you also because you worked for a previous special counsel. I mean just explain what the experience was like and why you call Bob Mueller an inspired choice.

ZEIDENBERG: Well, I - I call Mueller an inspired choice because he is a-political. He's very experienced. And he's no-nonsense. And I think he is - the reaction to his appointment has shown he's got bipartisan support. So I think he's an ideal choice.

As far as the experience itself, you know, I was a prosecutor at the time. I was working in the public integrity section at the Department of Justice. So my life didn't change. You know, I was a prosecutor and I was still a prosecutor. It just - the only thing that changed for me was that I had one case and I worked for - you know, worked on that exclusively. So for the people working on the team, I don't think it's much different, you know, than as a typical prosecutor. What is nice about having a - the Mueller appointment is that they're protected, they're insulated and they're - there's not going to be any pressure put on them that they're going to feel to come out one way or the other in the investigation.

BALDWIN: So let me ask you, just because we're staring at live pictures from Capitol Hill, and, you know, people are aware that there are these multiple congressional investigations, right, and now you have this special counsel. Why do you need all of them? What's the big difference?

MOORE: Are you talking about why you need a special counsel?

BALDWIN: In addition to, you know, Senate Intel, House Intel, oversight.

ZEIDENBERG: Oh, OK. Well. Right. Right. So it's very important and I'm glad you asked that question. The special counsel is, in my view, a necessary but not sufficient way to go. Special counsel has got one mission and that's to investigate criminal conduct. And if they find sufficient evidence that they think could persuade a jury beyond a reasonable doubt, then they bring a case. If not, they pack their bags, they go home. They are not going to be making a public announcement. They are not going to be making a public report. So we have to have a congressional investigation so the public can be informed as to what is going on.

BALDWIN: Thank you so much for answering that. I just - I think a lot of people at home are wondering, well, why the heck do we have all these different, you know, threads and probes and that's the perfect explanation.

Peter Zeidenberg, thank you so much. Michael Moore, great to see you again.

Let's move on because we've got more news involving, you know, now fired National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, including word that he rejected a military move that opposed by the country who paid him as a foreign agent. We'll discuss that.

We're also following just a tragic accident this afternoon in the heart of Times Square here in Manhattan. At least one person has died, a dozen more injured after a car just plowed into a crowd of people. We'll take you to Times Square, live.


[14:28:48] BALDWIN: Breaking news today from the heart of New York City's Times Square. We have some video just coming in to the newsroom. You can see the care at the center of this major crash on fire. A source says the driver was speeding right before the car plowed into a street corner packed with people. At least one person has been killed, 22 others injured.

Let's go to Brynn Gingras who is there live in Times Square.

How did this happen?

BRYNN GINGRAS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Brooke, it's unclear what happened before this car jumped the sidewalk. But I want to make it clear to your viewers that this isn't any New York City sidewalk. A few years ago, the city actually turned a section of the avenue that goes through Times Square into a pedestrian walkway.

At the height of lunch hour, that walkway, as you can imagine, was packed in Times Square. This car drove the opposite way up that pedestrian walkway, we know, hitting 22 people. Four people were critically injured, brought to the hospital and we know that an 18- year-old woman was killed. We also know her sister was injured. Just a tragic series of events.

[14:29:54] As for the driver of that car, we know that that person is 26 years old from the Bronx here in New York, has a history, according to police, of DWI, and right now is in the custody of police after witnesses say he tried to run away. Abut he is in police custody and we do know he's not only being questions, but also being tested to see if he was under the influence when all of this happened.