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Trump Attorney General Pick: Mueller's Obstruction Inquiry "Fatally Misconceived"; Judge Emmet Sullivan Rules Trump Administration Cannot Limit Asylum Protections; Utility Company's Role In California Wildfires Under Increasing Scrutiny; Study Says Exercise May Reverse Cognitive Decline. Aired 7:30-8a ET

Aired December 20, 2017 - 07:30   ET



[07:31:55] JOHN AVLON, CNN ANCHOR: President Trump's pick for attorney general, William Barr, is facing new scrutiny. A newly- revealed memo sent to the Justice Department by Barr, in June, is highly critical of the Mueller probe and in particular, Robert Mueller's handling of the investigation into the firing of former FBI director James Comey.

And joining us now, CNN chief legal analyst, Jeffrey Toobin. Counselor, good to have you.

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN CHIEF LEGAL ANALYST, FORMER FEDERAL PROSECUTOR, STAFF WRITER, THE NEW YORKER: Think about this. William Barr, private citizen, out of the blue in June, sends a 20-page memo to the Justice Department saying what Mueller is doing is a violation of the Constitution. I think we have a much better idea now of why he's picked to be attorney general.

AVLON: It wasn't that he was an establishment-stabilizing force? It was that Donald Trump knew he was already on board.

TOOBIN: Quite the opposite --


TOOBIN: -- that he was an establishment-stabilizing force. That he knew he was getting a passionate opponent of the Mueller investigation.

ALISYN CAMEROTA, CNN ANCHOR: We'll read a portion --


CAMEROTA: -- of it for your listening pleasure.

TOOBIN: Dramatic reading.

AVLON: Yes, dramatic reading.

CAMEROTA: Dramatic reading. Here we go, as soon as they put the words into the --

AVLON: There we are.

CAMEROTA: "Securing an official transcript from the committee would be a necessary step before pursuing an indictment" -- what?

TOOBIN: Well, we know -- there we go.



CAMEROTA: It never fails, really, you know? It just never fails.

TOOBIN: Live T.V., baby.

CAMEROTA: Yes, that's what this is.

Here we go. Now, here is the William Barr memo.

"Mueller should not be able to demand that the president submit to an interrogation about alleged obstruction." And that's really his beef -- the obstruction part. "If embraced by the department, this theory would have potentially disastrous implications, not just for the presidency, but for the executive branch as a hole and the department in particular."

So he is stuck on the obstruction part. He doesn't think that that is a legit area of inquiry for Robert Mueller.

TOOBIN: Nor should the president submit to an interview on that subject. That's the specific part of the memo that's being discussed there. But it is a very expansive view of presidential power and a particularly hostile take on the Mueller investigation.


AVLON: Almost Kavanaughesque, one would say.


TOOBIN: I mean, even more explicit than Kavanaugh.

CAMEROTA: -- what does that mean for his confirmation possibilities?

TOOBIN: Probably not much. This is the advantage of having a Republican Senate. And now, it is a slightly expanded Republican majority.

I don't see this as an -- as a --something that will get Republican votes against him, but it's just a good sign of the conflict that may come if Mueller's -- as Mueller's investigation continues.

AVLON: And one question -- Laura Coates, who was on earlier, raised the possibility -- could this lead to a recusal? It seems to be clearly a political problem for him but is that kind of a legal conflict or is this simply one man's opinion?

TOOBIN: I think it's his opinion before he took office if you remember how obsessed the president was with Jeff Sessions' recusal from the Mueller investigation. I don't think the new attorney general is going to --

CAMEROTA: Coming in --

TOOBIN: -- is going to --

AVLON: Not getting a --

TOOBIN: -- run --

CAMEROTA: With recusal --

AVLON: -- is going to run into that buzz saw, yes.

CAMEROTA: OK, so what I just accidentally teased there was that Robert Mueller is looking for the transcript from Congress of when Roger Stone testified in front of them. Maybe we have that that I should read now -- no.

[07:35:12] Either way, why wouldn't Congress hand that over? Why wouldn't Congress give Robert Mueller --

Here it is. "Securing an official transcript from the committee would be a necessary step before pursuing an indictment that Stone allegedly lied to lawmakers, legal experts say."

That's why they may want it.

TOOBIN: That is why they may want it. And, you know, Mueller has been fixated on Stone for quite some time now, and why?

Roger Stone made statements during the -- during the campaign that he was in touch with WikiLeaks. That he had inside information. You know, his famous e-mail that said John Podesta's time in the barrel is coming shortly before the Podesta e-mails were released.

The question has always been did Stone, as an affiliate of the Trump campaign though not formally on the Trump campaign, have some sort of inside information, inside source --

CAMEROTA: Because he acted as if he did.

TOOBIN: He acted as if -- as if he did, and what did he say to the intelligence committees about that under oath?

He -- Mueller has not indicted Stone yet but he has acted in a way that he looks like he's about to indict Stone.

CAMEROTA: But why doesn't he just interview him, himself?

TOOBIN: Well, the custom in the Justice Department is if someone is a target about to get indicted, you don't talk to that person. That is the sort of -- and Stone has not heard from Mueller, which is -- you know, suggests that he's --

AVLON: An ominous sign, usually.

TOOBIN: And the other reason -- I mean, he has these -- sworn testimony from Stone. And if you look at Mueller's pattern, charging people with lying to investigators has been the primary way he's indicted people so far, other than the Russians.

AVLON: Speaking of that pattern, there's, of course, the case -- the payments to Stormy Daniels that created big trouble for Michael Cohen. And so far, the legal defense seems to be ignorance. The president didn't really know campaign finance law.

But there's a thing called tape and we went back in the way-back machine and found a video of Donald Trump, in 1999, talking to Larry King.

TOOBIN: Talking to our great pal, Larry King -- yes.

AVLON: Larry King, saying something quite the opposite. Let's take a listen.


DONALD TRUMP, PRE-PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I think nobody knows more about campaign finance than I do because I'm the biggest contributor.

LARRY KING, HOST, CNN "LARRY KING LIVE": Well, what about reform?

TRUMP: Well --

KING: Does it need reforming?

TRUMP: It's a very complex --

KING: You're the reform --

TRUMP: You know what, it's a very complex thing. As an example, I'm allowed to give $1,000 to every --

KING: Right.

TRUMP: -- senator, right? You know how little that is in -- this was 20 years ago -- $1,000.

Now, I love it because, you know, I'm capped out at $1,000 per senator and they all love me for it. You know, I give them a $1,000. It's great.



AVLON: Nobody knows more about campaign finance than me.

Does this create a real problem or is this just, you know, truthful hyperbole?

TOOBIN: I -- Donald Trump engaging in hyperbole? It's hard to imagine --

AVLON: Hard to imagine, I know.

TOOBIN: -- such a thing could have taken place, even in 1999.

You know, it's embarrassing.

I think it's indicative of -- you know, we often say there's a tweet for everything. He's tweeted on every subject under the sun. He's commented on every subject under the sun.

It's not dispositive. It's not going to prove anything.

But, you know, as the president claims and his supporters claim that well, he didn't know that the money to Stormy Daniels or Karen McDougal -- could it be seen as a campaign contribution. Well, it turns out he's a big expert on that.

CAMEROTA: Next, Judge Emmet Sullivan -- he's had a busy week.


TOOBIN: He has.

CAMEROTA: So we -- suddenly, he's now a household name, right?

So first, he had the Flynn sentencing, which was a shocker for lots of people in the courtroom.

And then, he ruled on this -- the asylum -- the president's asylum position, and he ruled against the administration in terms of who can seek asylum. And conservatives' heads are sort of exploding. I think that they had thought that Judge Sullivan would be on their side, but he's proving to be an independent thinker.

TOOBIN: Sullivan is a quirky, independent thinker. And this goes back all the way to the travel ban and all the president's efforts to limit immigration.

What all these judges have said, in one way or another, are you have to change the laws that Congress controls -- not just use administrative power -- if you want to change immigration procedures in a profound way. Now, that's often hard to define what's within the realm of the executive branch and what's within the realm of Congress.

But when it comes to asylum, according to Judge Sullivan, what counts as a legitimate reason for asylum, that's up to Congress. It's not just something the executive can do on his own.

CAMEROTA: There you go.

AVLON: How about that? A new kind of thinking.

CAMEROTA: Jeffrey Toobin -- yes -- thank you.

TOOBIN: Nice to see you both.

CAMEROTA: You, too.

AVLON: You, too.

CAMEROTA: All right. A power company in California being blamed for more than a dozen wildfires, but did they break the law? We have a CNN investigation for you, next.


[07:43:41] CAMEROTA: Investigators are looking into whether California's largest public utility, PG&E, is responsible for the catastrophic Camp Fire, the deadliest fire in state history. They have already found that PG&E's equipment caused 17 fires in October of last year.

CNN's Drew Griffin explains.



DREW GRIFFIN, CNN SENIOR INVESTIGATIVE CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): This is all Norma Quintana has left of the home she lived in for 30 years, a macabre reminder of the day her physical world turned to ashes.

QUINTANA: The fire was behind us.

GRIFFIN: She and her family had five minutes to escape the Atlas Fire in fall of 2017. When they returned, it was all gone.

QUINTANA: I couldn't negotiate the loss. I couldn't negotiate the loss of a home -- couldn't.

GRIFFIN: Across Northern California, the fires in October of 2017 fueled by high winds and drought would kill 44, burn 8,900 homes and other buildings.

As the burning ended, the burning question began. How did this happen?

JAMES ENGEL, CHIEF WILDFIRE INVESTIGATOR, CALIFORNIA DEPARTMENT OF FORESTRY AND FIRE PROTECTION: We had a number of fires that were the result of some type of ignition from power lines.

GRIFFIN: CAL FIRE investigators concluded that 17 of the 18 fires in October of 2017 were caused by equipment from Pacific Gas and Electric, the multibillion-dollar power company. In 11 of those claims, investigators found evidence PG&E violated state law.

[07:45:15] James Engel oversees fire investigations for CAL FIRE. GRIFFIN (on camera): Is PG&E doing enough, in your mind?

ENGEL: Well, that's not my call to make to win. In the case of those particular fires, they were -- they were referred to the district attorney if there's violations of law.

GRIFFIN (voice-over): It's actually been going on now for years -- 1994, '99, 2004. The Whiskey Fire in 2008. The deadly Butte Fire in 2015.

Fire after fire that investigators found were caused by a power company failing to follow state regulations to trim trees or maintain equipment.

JOHN FISKE, ATTORNEY, BARON & BUDD, P.C.: You see a pattern and practice that PG&E is not willing to step up to the plate and do what it needs to do to prevent these utility-caused wildfires.

GRIFFIN: Attorney John Fiske has built a practice suing power companies and specifically, PG&E, for causing fires that are destroying Californian's lives. He's doing it, he says, because the state of California won't.

FISKE: And if you had a company that was out in the Atlantic and it kept starting hurricanes and the government just kind of continued to let it start hurricanes, again, you'd consider that behavior to be almost sociopathic because people's lives are absolutely devastated.

GRIFFIN: PG&E was convicted of six felonies because of a gas pipeline explosion in 2010.

And just last month, the president of California Public Utilities Commission announced a new review of PG&E, telling "The Wall Street Journal" he was very concerned they (PG&E) still don't have accountability in place.

GRIFFIN (on camera): Is PG&E getting the message, do you think?

ENGEL: I think you're going to have to ask them.

GRIFFIN (voice-over): We tried, but the company declined and instead, sent a lengthy statement saying it expanded its Community Wildfire Safety Program, improving real-time monitoring, enhancing vegetation management efforts, conducting accelerated safety inspections, installing stronger and more resilient poles.

Critics point to the way PG&E has spent its money, awarding its CEO salary and stock work $8.5 million in 2017, and spending another $8 million lobbying lawmakers in Sacramento to get a law passed that allows PG&E to pass some of the cost of the fires on to customers.

Now, PG&E is dealing with this. Last month's Camp Fire in Northern California killed 86 and destroyed the town of Paradise. Equipment from PG&E is being investigated as a possible cause.

Attorney John Fiske says it has to stop. FISKE: You know, in these wildfires, oftentimes the most vulnerable members of our community are affected because they're immobile and they cannot get out. That's how devastating these wildfires are. That's why it's so important that these companies change their practices. It's a matter of life and death.

GRIFFIN (on camera): Asked specifically about the state investigative reports that found the company violated state law in 11 of those deadly fires last year, PG&E would only say it's looking forward to reviewing those reports. Prosecutors are reviewing them, too, and deciding if they will, again, pursue criminal charges against the massive power company.

In the meantime, the homeowners, like Norma Quintana in our report, who lost her home, are suing PG&E.

Drew Griffin, CNN, Atlanta.


CAMEROTA: People have lost so much there, they deserve answers.

AVLON: There needs to be accountability and answers.

CAMEROTA: Yes. Drew Griffin's investigations are so helpful for those.

AVLON: Good stuff, all right.

Well, now, here's a thought -- exercise -- that it's good for your brain. A new study could have you making a new resolution for 2019.

CAMEROTA: Wait, does it involve running?

AVLON: It involves reversing the effects of a foggy brain.

CAMEROTA: I like that, but do I have to run?

AVLON: Maybe.


AVLON: We'll tell you more later.


[07:53:11] CAMEROTA: OK, there's a new study that we have to tell you about because it has a potential way to reverse brain function decline. I can't wait to hear what the answer to this is. It finds that a certain amount of exercise --

AVLON: True.

CAMEROTA: -- oh, no -- will help your thinking skills.

CNN's Sanjay Gupta is live from Atlanta with more. Sanjay, before we get into how much exercise -- you're going to break it to us --

DR. SANJAY GUPTA, CNN CHIEF MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: I think you're going to like this answer, by the way.

CAMEROTA: OK, good, good, good.

So why is this particular study getting so much attention from the medical community?

GUPTA: All right -- OK, there's been, I think, a lot of wisdom out there for some time that exercise is good for you, right? I think people have known this.

CAMEROTA: Blah, blah.

GUPTA: Blah, blah, blah, right? But the idea that it could actually this significant impact on your brain health. Again, people have sort of intuitively known this but it hadn't been studied quite like this before, and I think that's why it's getting attention.

They essentially took people -- there was 160 people, average age around 65, and they split them into four groups. One group was primarily doing aerobic exercise, another group primarily doing diet, another group doing both, and a fourth group who was really doing none of this at all.

And what they found was that, as you might expect, diet and exercise had the most significant impact. But exercise, much more so than diet, really seemed to have an impact on your overall brain health -- what they call your functional brain age. So these people were actually able to reduce their functional brain age by nine years -- that's a good thing -- after six months of exercise.

So I think the reason it gets attention is because first of all, it proves something that we've known but haven't really proven, and it showed just the significant impact that exercise can have on the brain, and much more so than diet alone.

AVLON: That's really cool.

CAMEROTA: OK, now break it to us. How much exercise?

GUPTA: Yes. So, no -- it was -- it was not bad. So, six months but it was 10 minutes of warm-up and then about 30 to 35 minutes of either a stationary bike or sort of fast walking. It wasn't sprinting -- it wasn't even weight training that seemed to make the difference.

[07:55:06] CAMEROTA: I can do that.


GUPTA: So it was truly aerobic exercise, but more moderate intensity aerobic exercise -- certainly not extreme.

CAMEROTA: OK, that is good news.


CAMEROTA: I really could do that.

GUPTA: You can do that. Everybody could do that, right?

AVLON: I mean, it's just -- it's just fascinating that that actually can help your brain --


AVLON: -- in addition to everything else.

CAMEROTA: By nine years.

AVLON: Yes, that's a big deal. Six months of exercise, nine years of improvement over, you know, debasing your brain.


AVLON: That's pretty good.

GUPTA: There appears to be all these various mechanisms by which this occurs. It could be increased blood flow to the brain.

But there's these different what are called neurotrophic factors. Basically, these building factors in the brain. We have a lot of those when we're young. The brain is growing, it's building, it's developing.

As we get older, these neurotrophic factors, if we don't exercise or do something to keep them stimulated, they start to go down.

This idea that your brain just naturally declines over time is not necessarily true. You can have a very well-functioning brain, you know, in late -- into the last days of your life if you maintain these neurotrophic factors.

So that's part of, I think again, what this study is really proving out.

CAMEROTA: See, Sanjay, what's really interesting is that OK, everyone knows I don't love exercise. I think we've established that on the show. But I am very good about my diet. I mean, I'm generally --


CAMEROTA: -- healthful. And so you're saying that that doesn't matter, really, as much.

GUPTA: Look, hey, I've got to be really clear on this. I think diet definitely matters for so many things.

And by the way, the reason a lot of people are watching and thinking about this is probably thinking about weight loss more than they think about brain health. When it comes to weight loss, for example, I think diet is far and away superior.

Think about it. All your calories in just come in through diet. Calories burn.

You can only burn about 10 to 20 percent of those calories through exercise, so even if you exercise all the time you're not going to burn the calories that you're putting in. So with weight loss, diet far superior.

But with regard to brain health, for whatever reason -- maybe some of the reasons I just mentioned in terms of why -- but for whatever reason, exercise seems to be far superior to diet when it comes to slowing down the cognitive decline that we associate with aging.

So -- and again, it wasn't intense exercise. Thirty-35 minutes, six months, you gain nine years in cognitive health. That's pretty significant.

AVLON: It's huge. I mean, you are saying --

CAMEROTA: All right.

AVLON: -- that the all-barbecue --

CAMEROTA: I'll do it.

AVLON: -- cardio diet, not a good mix. You've got to -- you know, a little bit of moderation. But then, keep this in and you'll actually maybe even get smarter. That's pretty good stuff.

GUPTA: Don't scrap the diet, though. You're right.

CAMEROTA: OK, but hold on. One last thing.


CAMEROTA: You know, we talk about Ruth Bader --

GUPTA: I haven't convinced her yet.

CAMEROTA: I've been talking about Ruth Bader Ginsburg so much --


CAMEROTA: -- and about how she is just, you know, so on it.

She's just, you know, a great thinker. Her response time is like that. And we always see her badass exercise routine. Is it connected?

GUPTA: She was -- she was in the gym, I think, just soon after she broke a rib. I mean, I broke ribs. I was in bed for a week after that happened. I mean, it was really impressive.

I think it certainly -- it certainly helps. And again, people have known -- OK, we exercise -- good for the heart. It must be good for the brain. They've thought this for a while.

But the idea, especially the time when you have a lot of schools -- you know, public schools, especially, cutting out physical activity time -- to really be able to have a study certainly that shows the impact of physical activity on brain health, I think a lot of people should pay attention to that.

I think there's no question it's helped someone like Ruth Bader Ginsburg. It's certainly helped a lot of people of advanced age to maintain that mental sharpness -- that mental acuity.

CAMEROTA: All right, Sanjay, you win.

GUPTA: All right.

CAMEROTA: You win.

GUPTA: That's my Christmas present to you.

CAMEROTA: We'll go for a walk at some point this week.

GUPTA: Make it brisk.

CAMEROTA: OK. Thank you.

AVLON: Very cool.

CAMEROTA: Thanks, Sanjay.

GUPTA: You got it.

CAMEROTA: All right.

So, the president defending his plan to pull U.S. troops out of Syria. NEW DAY continues right now.


TRUMP: We have won against ISIS. Now it's time for our troops to come back home.

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: To say they're defeated is an overstatement and is fake news.

SEN. JOHN KENNEDY (R), LOUSIANA: I don't like spending a penny more than we have to in the Middle East.

REP. MARK MEADOWS (R-NC), CHAIRMAN, HOUSE FREEDOM CAUCUS: Mr. President, we're going to back you up if you veto this bill.

SEN. CHUCK SCHUMER (D-NY), SENATE MINORITY LEADER: Shutting down the government over Christmas is a terrible idea.

REP. JIM JORDAN (R), OHIO: I'm sick of the games. Most importantly, the American people are sick of the games.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Give me your arms.




ERICA HILL, CNN ANCHOR, NEW DAY: Two sheriff's deputies in Texas pulling off an incredible rescue.


ANNOUNCER: This is NEW DAY with Alisyn Camerota and John Berman.

CAMEROTA: Good morning, everyone. Welcome to your NEW DAY. It is Thursday, December 20th, 8:00 in the east.

John Berman is off. John Avlon joins me. Great to have you here.

AVLON: Always fun.

CAMEROTA: Are you done with your Christmas shopping?


CAMEROTA: OK, fantastic. So let's -- we'll wrap this up over the next hour and you can head out.

AVLON: And then it will be the emotional support chicken, then Christmas shopping.

CAMEROTA: I love when you make the joke from 6:00 a.m.

AVLON: It's important.

CAMEROTA: As of this hour, President Trump is standing by his controversial decision to pull U.S. troops out of Syria despite bipartisan outrage over this plan.

Several senators have sent a letter to the president asking him to reconsider.