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Van Plows into Muslim Worshippers Near Mosque in U.K.; Lawyer: Trump Not Under Investigation Despite Tweet. Aired 9-9:30a ET

Aired June 19, 2017 - 09:00   ET


[09:00:00] JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: The British Prime Minister, Theresa May, was just at this site minutes ago. We have video of that. We'll bring it to you as soon as we turn it around.

One man was killed in this apparent attack. Another eight people injured. Witnesses say survivors pulled the 48-year-old driver from the vehicle and held him for police as he hurled anti-Muslim insults.

The case is now being investigated as terrorism and as the tensions of a nation already on edge. CNN's Frederik Pleitgen in London on the scene with the very latest.

Fred, what can you tell us?

FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Hi, good morning, John. Yes, this attack unfolded in the very late night from Sunday into Monday. It was actually around 12:20 in the morning that this truck plowed through a group of worshippers as they came from prayers. It is, of course, right now, the holy month of Ramadan for Muslims and this is a heavily-Muslim area here in London.

So this truck plowed through that area, apparently went on to the sidewalk, and ran people over. There's some eyewitnesses who were saying that it was apparently going as fast as 50 miles an hour, ran into several people, then at some point stopped.

Then what happened was, several of the worshippers then managed to drag the driver from the truck. He tried to fight them off, was apparently saying those anti-Muslim slurs. However, they were able to restrain him.

And one of the interesting things that happened is that, apparently, the local imam came and actually protected the driver to make sure that he wouldn't get, you know, hit by the people who, of course, were very angry at that point in time.

I just want to take a moment to listen to one eyewitness whose testimony we got about this.


SAEED HASHI, EYEWITNESS: But suddenly, he turned right to the mosque. So I was -- that's it then, I was shocked and we were screaming.

And he hit first a woman, old Somalia woman, was in her 60s, and then another two Moroccan or Nigerian guy. Then he drove over by us, he hit another three, four, five, six, seven.

And suddenly, the car stopped. So we ran after him. We managed to get him out of the car.


PLEITGEN: And, of course, John, this is an event that has shaken the Muslim community here in the city but, of course, has shaken the city as a whole. As I'm talking to you right now, the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, is actually speaking to the media at this point in time.

He, of course, came out very early and said this appears to be an attack against a certain religious group here in the city, but he considers this an attack against all Londoners, John.

BERMAN: Interesting statements from the Mayor of London. Frederik Pleitgen, at the scene, thank you so much.

Joining us to discuss, Dr. Alexander Meleagrou-Hitchens. He's the research director of the Program on Extremism at George Washington University.

Professor, thanks so much for being with us. This reeks of retaliation, the type of thing that we see after a terrorist attack by Muslims extremists in countries. We have seen world leaders ward against this type of thing. Is this what they have feared?

DR. ALEXANDER MELEAGROU-HITCHENS, RESEARCH DIRECTOR OF THE PROGRAM ON EXTREMISM, GEORGE WASHINGTON UNIVERSITY: Yes. I think even calling it a revenge attack or retaliation would be unfair to the victims. Of course, they had nothing to do with the attack that this may have been seen as a revenge attack.

The attacker himself will have seen this as a revenge attack. He will have probably seen all Muslims in the United Kingdom as potential threats and as responsible for the wave of terrorist attacks that have taken place in the U.K.

But, yes, I mean, I think, you know, it's important to understand that this isn't really a revenge attack.

BERMAN: That's a very good point. And as the Mayor of London said himself, he said, this is an attack on all of us, on all citizens of London and England.

And in fact, Professor, isn't this exactly the kind of resentment that jihadists, Islamic jihadists, hope to stir up?

MELEAGROU-HITCHENS: Yes. I mean, this is being celebrated already by Islamic state supporters online, some of whom were actually either celebrating it or actually saying that those Muslims who died deserved it because they haven't left the United Kingdom, yes.

And this refers to a term that they've come up with in their propaganda, the Islamic state that is, which they refer to as the gray zone. This is an area which they say is a sort of theoretical area where Western Muslims are currently residing, where they haven't yet chosen sides.

The world, as far as ISIS is concerned, is black and white. Western Muslims who are living in the West and not fighting against westerners are in this gray zone. They want to push Western Muslim out of that gray zone towards ISIS. And any action that encourages them to become angry at their society, at non-Muslims in their society, would be celebrate by ISIS.

BERMAN: And, of course, this follows attacks on London Bridge, in Manchester, on the bridge on Westminster as well. How dangerous would you assess the situation to be in England right now?

MELEAGROU-HITCHENS: I mean, relatively, it's not that dangerous. You know, we've had, in the United Kingdom, much more sustained terrorist campaigns from the IRA throughout the '60s, '70s, '80s. The '90s --

BERMAN: Professor, if I can break in one second here, let's listen to the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan.


[09:04:57] MAYOR SADIQ KHAN, LONDON, UNITED KINGDOM: One person died on this scene. Eight people were seriously injured, so they've gone to the hospital. Three others were treated on the pavement.

My thoughts and prayers, as I'm sure the thoughts and prayers of all of London and the country, are with all those affected by the attack last night, particularly the family of the man who tragically died last night at the scene.

I've been in close contact with the Commissioner since the attack last night and with senior officers. I attended the COBRA meeting this morning. I want to pay tribute to the tacit response from the police and emergency services but also from the local community.

The local worshippers apprehended the man in the van who mowed down the pedestrians. I've heard stories from the imam, who stopped local residents from, understandably, taking out their anger on this terrorist.

And I pay tribute to the Muslim Welfare House, the local council, Jeremy Corbyn and Emily Thornberry, for the good work they do as a community hub for the entire community.

This attack behind me on Seven Sisters, the attack in Manchester, the attack on London Bridge, the attack on Westminster Bridge, are all an attack on our shared values, our shared values of tolerance and freedom and respect. And we will not allow these terrorists to succeed.

And I want to thank the Commissioner for ensuring that, during the course of today and the next few days, that Londoners will see an increased number of visible police officers, particularly at and around mosques and places of worship as we approach the holy day of eve and the last few days of Ramadan. And as the Commissioner said, there will be a zero tolerance towards

hate crime. And my message to anyone who is the victim of hate crime is, please report it to the police.

Don't think it's too trivial. Don't think the police won't take action. They will.

But can I just end by saying this? These have been a terrible few weeks for London. Unprecedented in recent times.

We've seen the horror of the fire at Grenfell Tower. We've seen the attack on London Bridge, and before that, Westminster Bridge. And we saw last night the terrorist attack here in Seven Sisters.

We will stay a strong city. We will ensure that we aren't cowed by terrorism and we will not be defeated. We are united today and we're going to carry on being a united city. Thank you very much.


BERMAN: All right. That's the Mayor of London, Sadiq khan, himself, by the way, the first Muslim mayor of London. But in a sense, irrelevant, if you listen to what he said because what he was saying was that the victims of the attack overnight at the mosque, the victims of the attacks on London Bridge and in Manchester and in Westminster Bridge, he said these are all attacks on the shared values of the people of England, the shared values of freedom and respect.

We are all in this together, was his message. He also tried to send the message that those who do these attacks, they will not succeed.

One other key point. He did say that people in England will see an increased law enforcement presence, especially around mosques toward the end of Ramadan. This increased law enforcement presence, something Londoners have grown accustomed to over the last few weeks after the London Bridge attack.

I'm joined, again, by Dr. Alexander Meleagrou-Hitchens. He is with me.

That message that the Mayor was sending, exactly what you were pointing to before, that this is a terror attack, pure and simple, no matter what the people who carried it out think it was.

MELEAGROU-HITCHENS: Yes. And I think we have to see how premeditated it was. It looks like it was. It looks like he knew the area was predominantly Muslim.

I saw reports last night that the van was rented from Wales, 200 miles west of London. You know, this was something that was planned in the long term. That makes it even more worrying.

We'll be interested to see what connections this attacker had, perhaps, to some extremist anti-Muslim movements, maybe even to some far-right political parties, which he thought maybe weren't going far enough and wanted to sort of take their rhetoric a step further. It will be interesting to see where that all leads the investigation.

BERMAN: It's just the first moments of the investigation we are in right now. Dr. Alexander Meleagrou-Hitchens, thanks much for being with us. Appreciate it.


BERMAN: All right. This morning, a new White House effort to explain what the President said or explain what he meant despite what he said.

Over the weekend, a member of President Trump's legal team insisted multiple times that the President is not under investigation, despite the President's own words that he is. Here is what the President's lawyer said moments ago on CNN.


JAY SEKULOW, MEMBER OF PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP'S LEGAL TEAM: As I said all weekend, there's been no notification to any of us that the President is under any investigation. And, as I said, James Comey has said on three separate occasions that the President was not under investigation.

[09:10:00] So here is where this was manufactured, if you want to call it manufactured. It was manufactured from "The Washington Post." All the President did was respond to "The Washington Post" through a social media platform.


BERMAN: Over the weekend, the President's lawyer tried to explain this statement from the President. He blamed any confusion on the so- called limitations of Twitter. Although, the White House has told us repeatedly, these tweets speak for themselves, and we should assume the President means what he says.

Let's bring in CNN's Senior Washington Correspondent Joe Johns at the White House.

The President's lawyers, Joe, still explaining up until minutes ago.

JOE JOHNS, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: That's absolutely right, John. And I think one of the big takeaways from that interview on CNN, at least, is the position of the President's lawyers, that the President essentially has unchecked power to fire the FBI Director if he sees fit.

Also, reiterating the point we've heard before, even from the President, that Mr. Trump had recommendations from, among others, the Attorney General as well as the Deputy Attorney General, Rod Rosenstein, to fire Jim Comey. Another reason why, in Mr. Sekulow's view, there is no case for obstruction of justice.

However, there are questions out there about whether Rod Rosenstein, for example, might actually have to recuse himself in the event this case moves toward looking more closely into the issues of obstruction of justice and it the President was involved in that.

Rosenstein might have to recuse simply because he could become a witness, having written a memo recommending the firing of James Comey. That, of course, would be a conflict of interest.

All of these just points to the bigger issue that there's a lot to go in this case as the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee has said.


REP. ADAM SCHIFF (D), RANKING MEMBER, UNITED STATES HOUSE PERMANENT SELECT COMMITTEE ON INTELLIGENCE: I think there is evidence. I'm not prepared to say that there's proof you could take to a jury, but I can say that there is enough that we ought to be investigating.


JOHNS: Another tantalizing question out there is the question of whether there are tapes or recordings of the President having conversations with the fired FBI Director, James Comey. Jay Sekulow, the President's lawyer, saying on T.V. over the weekend that the President may address that sometime this week. John, back to you.

BERMAN: He could have addressed it a month ago. A simple yes or no would explain everything on that front. Joe Johns, at the White House, thanks so much.

Also, in Washington, we're on the verge of what could be a face-off on the Senate floor. Republicans scrambling for health care votes, Democrats, though, saying they will not go down without a fight.

And we're just hours away from a high-stakes referendum on the President, what would be the most special or what could be the most special special election in a generation.

And breaking this hour, Russia says it will no longer cooperate with American efforts in Syria. Why it says it will now treat U.S.-led coalition planes as targets. Stay with us.



JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: All right, new this morning, President Trump's lawyer is denying that his client is under investigation. Of course, the problem with that is that the president says otherwise.

This is what he wrote, "I'm being investigated for firing the FBI director by the man who told me to fire the FBI director. Witch hunt."

Let's discuss with Caitlin Huey-Burns, national political reporter for "Real Clear Politics," Alex Burns, CNN political analyst, and national political reporter for "New York Times," and Page Pate, CNN's legal analyst and criminal defense attorney. Page Pate, I want to start with you. We just heard from Jay Sekulow moments ago on "NEW DAY." Is this the kind of situation that a lawyer wants to be in saying your client did not say what he said or did not mean what he said?

PAGE PATE, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: John, absolutely not. That's the last thing you want to be dealing with as a lawyer in a situation like this. You want to remain focused on the investigation. What I found very interesting about what Jay Sekulow said this morning is he's kind of walked back what he was saying over the weekend.

You know, initially he was adamant. The president is not under investigation. Now he's basically saying we haven't been told we're under investigation. Of course, you cannot be told you're under investigation and still be under investigation.

In fact, I would expect that's exactly what's happening right now, but they don't want to ask that question because they don't want to hear the answer.

BERMAN: He doesn't know. We don't know, but we certainly don't know that he's not under investigation. You know, Caitlyn, that's the legal reality. What's the political reality here? The primary representative of the president right now speaking out loud on his behalf is this combative lawyer, is this a good look?

CAITLIN HUEY-BURNS, NATIONAL POLITICAL REPORTER, "REALCLEARPOLITICS": Well, Trump seems to like this kind of thing, right? What's interesting is that Trump has several lawyers for a probe that he's not being investigated in apparently. The other important thing is that this stems from these shifting stories that were coming from the White House versus Donald Trump.

You saw those discrepancies in the explanation from this attorney over the series of interviews over the weekend and this morning, saying that even if he were under investigation, he was going against -- he was going to the advice of the attorney general and now the DOJ is investigating him.

Well, Donald Trump himself said that he was the one that made the determination to fire Comey and so these shifting stories here are kind about the heart of this.

BERMAN: Alex, it strikes me we're on day three of sort of analysis and repercussions from 140 characters or less of the president saying I am under investigation right here. To what extent, though, counterintuitively, does it tell us that the president can control how this is played, to an extent, going forward?

ALEX BURNS, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: I think as far as how much we're talking about the Russia investigation and the president's legal exposure, it tells us a lot. If the president wants us to be having a daily national conversation about whether he is under a federal criminal investigation, it is absolutely in his power to ensure that we have that conversation.

BERMAN: And we are and he is.

BURNS: And here we are. What it doesn't tell us is that he is capable of actually managing that conversation, right? He can intensify it. He can raise the volume. But the conversation that his lawyer has been having the last few days with a number of folks on television has not been, I think, by any measure, a political success for the president.

[09:20:06]And by the way, while we're having this extended conversation about an investigation, if there is one of the president, we're not talking about anything else his administration is doing. There is no larger political message that they are getting across about their goals and achievements.

BERMAN: Infrastructure week, technology meeting at the White House today (inaudible) apprenticeship last week. Page, you know, another legal question here, Rod Rosenstein, one of the big issues over the last several days, what's his future? Might he need to recuse himself from this case?

Politics aside here, won't this come down to a very simple legal decision if he might be a witness in this case? And if he is called to testify about what the president was discussing about firing James Comey, he will have to recuse himself from oversight of this case, won't he?

PATE: I don't think so, John. I know people have been taken the position that if it's possible he may be a witness in that part of the investigation, he needs to step aside. But remember, he's already effectively recused himself from the investigation.

He's not the guy interviewing witnesses or the person that ultimately will make a report or issue a report deciding whether there's a crime here or not. He does have oversight responsibility for the special counsel.

But he has already testified before Congress that he's not going to remove the special counsel without good cause. So unless we suspect Rosenstein of being involved in some sort of active cover-up -- and we haven't seen evidence of that yet -- I think he's fine in his position and will do a good job.

BERMAN: But it could come down to -- I guess, what I was saying it could come down to a legal decision for him, you don't think the law will force him to. Others say it might, but probably or wouldn't be the politics that some people are ascribing to it.

Caitlyn, a lot of us are looking at Republicans in Congress to get a sense of where this will go, how firmly will they stand behind the president? Will their resolve be shaken at all?

Over the weekend, we heard from Jason Chaffetz, the outgoing chairman of the House Oversight Committee. He was doing an interview. He was talking about the relative transparency between the Trump White House and the Obama White House. The way he grade them was really interesting. Listen to this. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REPRESENTATIVE JASON CHAFFETZ (R-UT), CHAIRMAN, OVERSIGHT COMMITTEE: I don't see much difference between the Trump administration and the Obama administration. In many ways it's almost worse because we're getting nothing and that's terribly frustrating.

With all due respect the attorney general has not changed at all. I find him to be worse than what I saw with Loretta Lynch in terms of releasing documents and making things available. That's my experience and that's not what I expected.

BERMAN: Very interesting to hear that from the outgoing chairman who some, you know, liberal analysts will note wasn't particularly hard on the president while he wielded the gavel in that committee. Nevertheless, if this is what Republicans are saying, it could be problematic.

HUEY-BURNS: Right, exactly. You know, to Alex's point, Republicans are trying to kind of get what they can get done on health care and other things but having the Russia investigation loom over them.

Also they're trying to, in these committee hearings, thread a line of defense for Donald Trump, that becomes -- and defending him saying, you know, he's new at this. Maybe he didn't know about the legality of these conversations he was having.

That defense becomes more difficult as this probe expands. Also to Chaffetz's point, I'm kind of looking at whether we'll see more retirements coming from Republicans. This is kind of that season.

BERMAN: There is one thing that could help determine that, which is a congressional race in Georgia tomorrow. Alex, you've been down there covering Georgia. The investigation surrounding the president, how is it playing there?

BURNS: You know, it's something the Democrat doesn't talk about a whole lot. He has tried to keep the race focused on very broad, popular themes. The district that voted barely for Donald Trump. Significantly more Republican than Democrat.

I do think in the big picture, the Republicans have come to see the president's unpopularity regardless of the specifics of the investigation as a huge anchor in that race. If they do lose, you'll hear more people doing exactly what we heard Chaffetz just did.

BERMAN: Good point from the Burns twins up here on the note. It will be interesting to see what happens in the election. Page Pate, our thanks to you as well.

This is a critical week for Republicans in the Senate to get their health care bill done. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell wants a vote before the July 4th recess. There's still major questions about what's in the bill, questions some Republicans can't even answer because leaders are holding talks behind closed doors. Democrats, they are demanding to be let into the process, good luck with that. Some are saying they'll slow down or stop Senate business altogether until they are included.

Joining us now, CNN national correspondent, Suzanne Malveaux, what's the status, Suzanne?

SUZANNE MALVEAUX, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, the status so far is that this is really a self-imposed deadline to create a sense of urgency to get Senate Republicans on board and get them past some of the things that they are stuck on at the moment.

The working group, a small group of them have been meeting behind closed doors and that strategy is to try to hammer out the things that they have not come to the agreement on without the public scrutiny of conservative groups or Democrats or lobbyists, those kinds of things.

So what you're going to see today is that the Senate will be back in session this afternoon and the leadership is really trying to put pressure on a handful, small handful of them who are on the fence.

[09:25:10]And this is over issues regarding the extent of the Medicaid expansion, also repeals of Obamacare, the regulations and to what extent that would move forward. At same time, what you have here is really a very delicate dance on the Democratic side.

We saw last week calls for unity after that terrible shooting specifically on the House side. Senate Democrats say, look, they want a seat at the table. They want to be part of the debate. They want them to open up this process.

We've heard from Senator Chuck Schumer, who said we want an all senators call meeting in session to deal with this. Otherwise, this is what they are planning on doing is going to the floor and trying to slow down the government's business.

Whether it's the president's nominations or just procedural moves or processes that they will be doing. They plan on doing that well into the evening unless they open up this process. Senator Bernie Sanders, who is an independent who caucuses with the Democrats, he believes that this is really a good idea.


SENATOR BERNIE SANDERS (I), VERMONT: Jake, I think that the Democrats of the Congress should do everything possible, A, to defeat that legislation, which is again, to my mind it's unspeakable. How do you throw 23 million people off health insurance? At the same piece of legislation give tax breaks to the wealthiest folks in this country?

JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR, "STATE OF THE UNION": You're in favor of Senate Democrats bringing the chamber's business to a halt (inaudible)?

SANDERS: I am in favor of the American people and members of Congress doing everything that we can to defeat that horrific piece of legislation that will hurt tens and tens of millions of people in our country.


MALVEAUX: So, John, the Democrats really don't have much say in this or much power. So this is one of the few things that they actually can do. In the meantime, we do expect that McConnell, in the next couple of days, will say look, this is an end to negotiations here. It is time for people to move forward.

We also expect too that there will a score from the Congressional Budget Office in the next coming days about how much all of this is estimated to cost -- John.

BERMAN: All this information crucial to the discussion going forward. We just don't know what's inside right now. Suzanne Malveaux, thanks so much. Appreciate it.

Breaking news, Russia says it will treat U.S.-backed planes as air targets in Syria. What does this mean? We'll discuss after the break.