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Police: Austin Serial Bomber Kills Himself with Explosive Device; Trump Facing Legal Action, Allegations from Three Women; 'Washington Post': Trump Ignored Advice When Calling Putin. Aired 7- 7:30a ET

Aired March 21, 2018 - 07:00   ET



ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

[07:00:11] CHRIS CUOMO, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning. Welcome to your NEW DAY. Alisyn is on assignment. Erica Hill joins me. And once again, we have breaking news of a very serious variety. The serial bomber who terrorized the city of Austin for nearly three weeks is believed dead by Austin police. They confirmed the suspect killed himself using an explosive device in his car.

ERICA HILL, CNN ANCHOR: Authorities using surveillance video to identify the 24-year-old man and track him down to the location where this all ended.

We want to get straight to CNN's Ed Lavandera, who is at that scene in Round Rock, Texas. with more on those breaking details -- Ed.


Well, it's quite a scene here in the town of Round Rock, which is a suburb on the northern edge of Austin. You can see behind us here the flurry of activity where investigators say this is where the search for the serial bomber has ended here in the overnight hours.

Authorities say that over the course of the last few days, they have been able to put together information leading them to a suspect. And when they sent out teams to begin surveillance, it brought them to a hotel just up the road here from the scene. You see a number of small hotels here just off of Interstate 35 on the north side of Austin here.

The authorities say that they were waiting for tactical teams to arrive here at the scene to be able to begin the process of approaching the suspect. But before that could happen, the suspect started leaving the parking lot, driving along the service road of the interstate. And that is where the engagement came. The chief of police here in Austin picks up the story from from here as he describes how it all unfolded when the takedown ended.


CHIEF BRIAN MANLEY, AUSTIN POLICE: As members of the Austin Police Department SWAT Team approached the vehicle, the suspect detonated a bomb inside the vehicle, knocking one of our SWAT officers back, and one of our SWAT officers fired at the suspect, as well. The suspect is deceased and has significant injuries from a blast that occurred from detonating a bomb inside his vehicle.


LAVANDERA: Now Chris, one of the members of the Austin SWAT team was -- suffered minor injuries in that altercation with the serial -- the suspect, serial bomber in this case. He's expected to be OK. You know, it's amazing just how quickly things started to develop and change here over the last 24 hours. One of the key pieces of evidence, the surveillance video from a FedEx drop-off office in South Austin, where surveillance images were captured of this serial bomber, who is described as a 24-year-old white male. That he was -- appeared in that surveillance footage wearing a wig and gloves, clearly someone looking very suspicious there at that time.

But authorities urging people to still be cautious, that there could be other explosives left behind. They're still trying to nail all of that down -- Chris.

CUOMO: All right, Ed. Thank you very much.

Joining us on the phone right now is Tony Plohetski. He's an investigative reporter for the "Austin American-Statesman." He broke the story of the bomber being killed.

Tony, thank you very much for bringing us this reporting. Very important for that community and beyond. First, what do we know about the key pieces of proof and clues that led them to this man and this hotel?

TONY PLOHETSKI, INVESTIGATIVE REPORTER, "AUSTIN AMERICAN-STATESMAN" (via phone): Well, I'm told that it is really a number of things that have helped break this case wide open, really, within the past 24 hours.

But the collection of the critical evidence in this case really goes back at least a week if not more, from what I'm being told.

Authorities began getting indications after those first couple of blasts, that materials, common household materials that could be easily purchased, were being used to manufacture these explosive devices. So then what we know occurred is that agents fanned out throughout the city of Austin, going to big-box retail stores as well as locally owned stores trying to determine whether or not there were suspicious purchases. Going through receipts and going through sales records from those stores.

I'm told that that effort did prove successful to law enforcement and did, in fact, provide critical evidence that they also used to bolster their case.

I'm told that they also were able to acquire federal search warrants for this person's I.P. address and then use that information and that Google information indicated that this person had been conducting suspicious searches. So authorities, again, used that.

And again, law enforcement also confirming that they have relied also upon witness interviews to help them get a sketch of this possible suspect.

[07:05:06] But, again, the main piece of evidence that really seems to have broken this case wide open is the fact that the suspect did go to that FedEx store in the southern part of the city, where he was captured on security video. And police say that they used that as the final piece to put all of this together again really within the past 24 hours.

CUOMO: And there was some kind of triangulation about the description of the vehicle that helped them find their way to that hotel parking lot. What are you hearing about motive, Tony?

PLOHETSKI: Police are still trying to understand the motive. But as it has been described to me by law enforcement officers who had been working on this case literally around the clock here for weeks now, is that their primary motivation was trying to figure out who is doing this and stop them before they continued going on this spree of setting bombs across the city of Austin.

Now begins the process of going back and trying to understand a number of different things. What were their motivations? Were they targeting someone specific? And if so why? So now investigators will turn back the clock to try to understand those important dimensions of this case, as well.

CUOMO: All right. Tony, thank you very much. Appreciate it.

PLOHETSKI: Absolutely.

CUOMO: Let's bring in CNN law enforcement analyst and retired FBI supervisory special agent James Gagliano; and CNN counterterrorism analyst Phil Mudd.

Phil, motive matters. Certainly, it would determine the classification of this investigation.

We haven't heard terrorism or terror raised, because investigators didn't have any understanding of a political motive or objective here. But why he was doing it matters in terms of their determination of continuing threat, right?

PHIL MUDD, CNN COUNTERTERRORISM ANALYST: Sure, it does. And in this case, I have a couple questions that I'm not sure we're going to answer.

Let me give you one rule of thumb. When you get one individual, if we determine that there are not other people who are involved in this, the likelihood, I think, of some sort of mental in stability is a lot higher. You get two, three, four five people you get conspiracies like I used to say -- I used to see that had some sort of political motivation. But here, clearly, he's not targeting somebody based on race,

ethnicity, et cetera, because we've got trip wire bombs and we've got packages where he doesn't know who's going to open the package or whether it might explode in the FedEx facility.

We've got different locations, so it's clearly not a part of town. It doesn't look like the targets have any -- the targets themselves -- that is the locations, whether it's a residential location or FedEx, have any sort of common thread.

So I'm looking at this saying -- wondering whether you have one single individual whose motivation will be unclear for a while, because he's got some some sort of mental instability.

HILL: Well, and also as we try to determine if this is just one person or to your point, Phil, could there have been other people involved, that questions asked twice, actually, at the press conference this morning and they were very clear that at this point, they can't say. They don't want to call him a lone wolf. They don't want to say that it was just this one person, though they do believe they -- that the man who blew himself up with this explosion this morning is, in fact, the person they were after.

CUOMO: And believe he's connected to all of them.

HILL: And who is -- he's connected to all of these. They're not at the point where they're saying it is only him.

I should point out that CNN does have some reporting. A federal law enforcement source telling us that the motive appeared to be mayhem and death. And James, when we hear a motive like that, that's broad.

JAMES GAGLIANO, CNN LAW ENFORCEMENT ANALYST: It is, Erica. And kind of -- I've heard the same thing through law enforcement channels. But think about that. If somebody wants to create anarchy, that's the purpose of creating a state of disorder.

Also, I think we need to be cognizant of the fact that in some of these instances, let's go back to the Unabomber again, since that's our -- that's a very high-profile case and one that we can try to draw some connections to.

In that instance, the Unabomber, Ted Kaczynski," purposely put things inside of the bombs to draw law enforcement's efforts away and scrutiny away from him. Little things like little hints like a small piece of metal with something stamped on it that had nothing to do with him, the area he was from or even the devices in the bomb. And we've got to be careful about that. Because this bomber was able to -- think about this, first three package bombs, East Side of Austin; fourth bomb, trip wire-activated, west side of Austin. Dropped off packages in South Austin, that FedEx distro facility.

And then was finally corralled by police and ended up being killed up in the northern part of Austin. Looks like he blanketed the entire city. CUOMO: Hey, Phil, does it matter that he was so itinerant? That they caught him in a hotel, basically, that he wasn't a local? That he didn't live there. He was just moving around. How does that matter?

MUDD: It wouldn't matter to me yet. The first question I have has to do with this unanswered concern that there might be other people. I'm not suggesting there are, but you can't rule that out. It looks like he's just traveling around as a lone wolf, but you've got three questions here: physical, digital interviews. That is going into his apartment, looking at fingerprints. Are there fingerprints in the apartment that don't match his fingerprints? Looking digitally, looking on his phone, looking on his e-mail, is he talking to people about this?

[07:10:03] And then the more time-consuming piece: interviewing friends, family, et cetera. Not only what happened to this guy, but did somebody know? Did somebody see something on the kitchen table?

I don't know what he was doing traveling around, but my first question within the first 24, 48 hours is in those three categories of digital, physical interviews, did somebody know something?

HILL: And the other question, too, is because they are being so tight-lipped. The only information we're being given about the suspect is that it is a 24-year-old white male. They would not confirm anything in terms of where he was from. They would not confirm whether he had any sort of familiarity with the area. But that's going to come into play, too, because if there is a familiarity, right? If he did know some of these different areas of the city, that first neighborhood, very residential. Right?

We were talking about where is the surveillance video? We're asking people in their homes if they have any, because there are not cameras blanketing these neighborhoods. All of that still being worked out, coming into play.

And what's your main question, James, in terms of we're looking at that. What do you want to know about this guy that we're not getting an answer on this morning?

GAGLIANO: Blessedly, there are no perfect crimes. And criminals are like all of us. They, generally speaking, take the path of least resistance. They go where they're comfortable, and they do things generally in their back yards.

The most difficult part of this is going to be, because it's a bombing investigation, the post-blast analytics. And I've stood over many a crater from an IED in Afghanistan and watched in austere conditions some of the bomb techs try to put together the -- basically, the pieces that you need to find out what the signature of the bombmaker was and then track that back and all the forensic evidence in that harvesting.

We're blessed now in the 21st Century. Latent fingerprints can be pulled from next to nothing. We're blessed that we have DNA analysis. They'll be able to track things off of some of these bomb parts. Plus the fact that we have unexploded devices. That's going to be a treasure trove of information.

CUOMO: And the biggest blessing is the one that we figured out in the last hour, which is we have incredibly dedicated men and women who do this kind of stuff.

Phil, this ain't easy, what they just did down there. This guy wasn't leaving them any really good indication of where they were coming from. We know there was an army down there, a term used by the mayor in thanking them. How hard was it for law enforcement to figure out who this was and relatively quickly, if you think about it?

MUDD: It depends on whether he made mistakes. When you're listening to what Jim was saying, you know, people -- when you have this volume of activity and you have this kind of digital trail, which I want to get into in a second, the guy is going to make mistakes. He's moving too quickly. He goes into a store. He's leaving a credit card record. How did he pay for that package when you've got surveillance video? Again, is there a credit card record? Are there license plate readers going out of that FedEx facility that could identify after you saw that photo what the vehicle was?

They said that they had the option, the warrant to go into his Google searches. Again, another digital trail. This guy, moving so quickly, is going to leave traces of activity all around. But the problem with that is it's going to take 500 people to sort through those traces like the store invoices looking at whether he bought those household materials for the bomb to get to the bottom of the case, Chris.

HILL: That part of it is remarkable, though, to me, too. That they figured out, right, with these household -- we're not talking about, "Oh, I ordered something online or I got a large quantity of fertilizer," for example, which would have been the focus years ago. But the fact that these are household items. And they're going around to different stores and looking at receipts and trying to figure out, based on that, who bought what when. And then --

CUOMO: And then he's never there when the bomb goes off.

HILL: No. And all this is happening in a short period of time. That part, to me, is remarkable, that they got a hit that quickly.

GAGLIANO: The frequency and the rapidity of attacks. Remember the Unabomber, 16 devices, 17 years.

CUOMO: Right.

GAGLIANO: We're now talking about 19 days, five somewhat confirmed, possibly seven devices. I talked to a number of bomb technicians. They said he was bound to make a mistake. A successful bombmaker walks away from building his bomb with ten fingers. This guy was going to make a mistake. These were rudimentary devices.

CUOMO: But still, no easy task. And boy, is there a community that is very thankful for this massive engagement of law enforcement on their behalf.

Jim, thank you very much.

Phil, as always. Appreciate it.

So President Trump, he's got a lot of legal challenges facing him. Specifically, there are three women all in the same kind of universe of -- of fact. They want to tell their stories of alleged affairs and sexual harassment. And they are all claiming one way or another that the president has tried to silence them.

He's also facing scrutiny this morning of a much higher caliber of politics, which is his call with Russian President Vladimir Putin and what he insisted on saying during that call that he was advised not to.

CNN's Abby Phillip live from the White House with more. Things written in all caps on note cards were ignored. Of course, that assumes the president ever looked at the card.

ABBY PHILLIP, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That's right. The president is dealing with Russia on several fronts this morning. And even as he's preparing for the special counsel interview that might be coming up in the coming weeks, he's also dealing with these new and growing legal challenges in his personal life.


PHILLIP (voice-over): Accusations about President Trump's alleged past sexual exploits now developing on three different fronts. The lawyer for adult film star Stormy Daniels releasing this photograph and the results of a 2011 polygraph test about her alleged affair with Mr. Trump.

[17:15:15] The results indicate that Daniels was being honest when she said she had unprotected sex with the president in 2006. Mr. Trump has denied the affair. Polygraphs are generally inadmissible in court, but Daniels's lawyer paid $25,000 for the rights to the footage.

MICHAEL AVENATTI, LAWYER FOR STORMY DANIELS: We want the public to know the facts, to know my client's story. I'm confident that after they view that interview and after they view this evidence, they are going to conclude that what they've been told by Mr. Cohen, and the denials, if you can call them denials, from the White House are simply baseless and false.

PHILLIP: President Trump's legal woes don't stop there. On Tuesday, a New York judge denied a motion by the president's lawyers to dismiss a defamation lawsuit from former "Apprentice" contestant Summer Zervos. Weeks before the 2016 election, Zervos accused Mr. Trump of sexually assaulting her in 2007.

SUMMER ZERVOS, FORMER CONTESTANT, "THE APPRENTICE": He came to me and started kissing me open-mouthed as he was pulling me towards him. He put me in an embrace, and I tried to push him away. I pushed his chest, put space between us, and I said, "Come on, man, get real." He repeated my words back to me, "Get real," as he began thrusting his genitals.

PHILLIP: The president denied her claims, saying, "I never met her at a hotel or greeted her inappropriately a decade ago."

Zervos's lawsuit claims Trump damaged her reputation by essentially calling her a liar.

Then there's former "Playboy" model Karen McDougal, who claimed she had an affair with the president in 2006. McDougal is suing a media company to be released from a 2016 legal agreement preventing her from discussing the alleged relationship with Trump.

These lawsuits come as sources tell CNN that Special Counsel Robert Mueller's Russia investigation continues to agitate the president. President Trump facing scrutiny over his reluctant to confront Russian President Vladimir Putin.

DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I had a call with President Putin and congratulated him on the victory, his electoral victory.

PHILLIP: "The Washington Post" reports that President Trump ignored warnings from his national security advisers, including a note in his briefing materials that read in capital letters, "DO NOT CONGRATULATE."

A White House official tells CNN that President Trump did not read the notes from his advisors before speaking with Putin, whose sweeping reelection has been widely condemned as a sham.

SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: We don't get to dictate how other countries operate. What we do know is that Putin has been elected in their country, and that's not something we can dictate to them how they operate.

PHILLIP: "The Post" reports that Mr. Trump also overruled guidance to condemn the nerve agent poisoning of a former Russian spy and his daughter in the U.K. Instead, the White House emphasizing that the purpose of the call was to discuss shared interests with Russia on Iran and North Korea.

TRUMP: We had a very good call. And I suspect that we'll probably be meeting in the not too distant future.


PHILLIP: Well, President Trump also did not bring up the Russian meddling in the election or the recent sanctions that his administration just imposed on Russia.

And this morning he's been tweeting about the special counsel again. This time quoting what appears to be some comments made by Harvard Law Professor Alan Dershowitz, who's been a frequent defender of the president and also has appeared on television quite a bit. He says, quoting Dershowitz, that "the special counsel is told to find crimes whether or not they exist." He thinks that the president is right that there should not have been a special counsel appointed at all, because there was no probable cause for a crime. You can also note there are some misspellings in there. It appears the president was transcribing these comments in one way or another.

But clearly this morning, Russia still on the president's mind. The special counsel still front of mind for him as he goes more aggressively in his own defense on social media for the first time since this whole thing has begun. He's talking about Mueller directly and naming him on Twitter -- Erica.

HILL: Abby with the latest there for us. Abby, thank you.

So will the president's Twitter attacks turn into action against Robert Mueller? We'll discuss, next.


[07:23:19] CUOMO: The president is tweeting about the Mueller probe again this morning. He said this: "Special council" -- he meant C-O- U-N-S-E-L, but he spelled it differently -- "is told to find crimes wether" -- another typo -- "crimes exist or not. I was opposed" -- whatever. He was opposed to the selection of Mueller to be special counsel. He's talking about Alan Dershowitz here, OK? He is quoting a piece that Alan Dershowitz, the esteemed professor from Harvard, who wrote for "The Hill." But this is an argument Alan Dershowitz is making for a long time.

And the point is pretty simple. You don't have to read this mangled tweet to get it. Which is Alan Dershowitz believes there was no probable cause of a crime having been committed, so there was no need for a special counsel. And the president is now echoing that in his own continued attacking of the fact that there's a special counsel. And he is trying to quote Professor Dershowitz in making that case.

Here was the advice of Republican Trey Gowdy to one of the lawyers for the president on Sunday.


REP. TREY GOWDY (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: To suggest that Mueller should shut down and that all he is looking at is collusion, if you have an innocent client, Mr. Dowd, act like it.

Russia attacked our country. Let Special Counsel Mueller figure that out. And if you believe, as we found, there's no evidence of collusion, you should want Special Counsel Mueller to take all the time and have all the independence he needs to do his job.

And when you are innocent, if the allegation is collusion with Russia and there is no evidence of that, and you're innocent of that, act like it.


CUOMO: Now, decorum points aside, Gowdy makes a very excellent point there. Which is nobody should want this probe to continue and conclude and then have a finding where, look, there were no crimes that relate to the president or people close around him, than the president. That's the only way these questions will go away. And the more he attacks the process, the more it looks like he has something to hide.

[07:25:10] Let's discuss this now with CNN Politics reporter and editor at large, Chris Cillizza; and let's bring back Phil Mudd.

Now, Dershowitz is in the news. I know the professor very well. I've consulted with him about this a lot. He has one fundamental theory, which is you should not take political fights into the legal arena.

HILL: Right.

CUOMO: You should not prosecute political opponents. Point taken. Good point. Smart point. But we also have to look at why there's a special counsel here, Chris Cillizza.


CUOMO: Rod Rosenstein, OK, Trump's choice at the DOJ, made this determination after the firing of Comey, because he came to the conclusion that this could not be investigated in the normal challenges. With Sessions everything was compromised. They needed an independent.

Look, Dershowitz says it should have been an independent committee of politicians and legal thinkers. You should have taken it out all the way. You shouldn't have gone this route. OK. That's an argument to be had. But this is the route that Rosenstein decided to go. That's why there's a special counsel.

CILLIZZA: Yes. I mean, look, I think Professor Dershowitz is making a theoretical argument against special counsels without probable cause. OK. Let's put that there. But let's deal with where we are and sort of what Trump is using Alan Dershowitz's argument for, which I don't think is exactly what --

CUOMO: The professor intends it to be.

CILLIZZA: -- the professor intends it to be. Correct. Not just Rod Rosenstein, who is a Trump appointee, but then the appointed person is Bob Mueller, a Republican, who was George W. Bush's pick for FBI director.

CUOMO: And was sitting across from Trump in the Oval Office.

CILLIZZA: As a potential FBI -- so, again, that's the problem here, is that if you -- if you scrape the surface, and you don't have to scrape a lot, the idea that this is some sort of partisan witch-hunt that should never have been started and was started because Democrats can't deal with the fact that Donald Trump won, it just doesn't hold water.

I'm with you, by the way, Chris. I make this case to anyone who asks. If you are, per Trey Gowdy, if you are a Donald Trump, your only chance at full and total exoneration from any wrongdoing as it relates to collusion with Russia and Russia's efforts to impede the election is Bob Mueller. Because Mueller, whatever Donald Trump may think of him, Mueller is still widely respected. He's not all that well-known, according to polling. But he's widely respected among those who do know him. And his voice and his report will be, by not everybody, certainly, but by a large percentage of the country, taken as fact.

So why work to undermine that unless -- dot, dot, dot. And I don't know what that means. Right? So smart people on Twitter say, "Well, you know why he's doing it." I don't know. I don't think we can conclude that at this point. I don't think it would be responsible to conclude that. But I do think it -- it does not follow logic, if you're Donald Trump, if you believe you're innocent, if you know you're innocent, why spend all of this time calling it a hoax, a witch-hunt? Everything else he --

CUOMO: Well, they're hedging against a bad result. That's why you do it. But I just don't know why he's doing that when he might wind up frustrating his own efforts.

HILL: Well, absolutely, and that is a great question. And that's why we hear things like what we heard from Trey Gowdy and from Chris Cillizza. Even if, you know, Gowdy was aiming at the president's attorneys, these are also the attorneys, some of the attorneys who promised the president that this was going to be over before the end of the year.

So part of it may be, too, that the president has these, as we know, unrealistic expectations of a timeline and is now frustrated that that has not come to fruition.

CILLIZZA: Real quickly, I think that that is at least part of what we've seen over the last five, six days. The hiring of Joe diGenova. The going after this morning -- other example, going after Mueller by name.

The frustration with the expectations that were set that "This is all going to be over soon, boss. No problems here." And then it just continues on.

HILL: And then there's also -- I want to move forward, too. We're also learning more about this reporting from "The Washington Post" this morning about the call that the president had with Vladimir Putin.

And he was given very strict -- he was given very important information and strict instructions from his team in all capital letters, "DO NOT CONGRATULATE." Do not congratulate Vladimir Putin on his, quote, "win" in the recent election there in Russia. Ignoring that advice.

Also, not talking about -- what we have seen. Not talking about meddling. Not talking about the poisoning of the spy in the U.K. Phil Mudd, the broader implication of that, it's not surprising in a number of ways for people that this is how the phone call went. And yet, there is concern. MUDD: There is. I don't think he ignored the advice. Let me make it

even simpler. Let me couple this with the conversation he had about trade with the Canadian prime minister, Justin Trudeau, where it was clear that the president didn't have a knowledge of what the trade relationship was with the Canadians, because he told us he made it up.

I served in the National Security Council. When you have a meeting or a phone call with the -- between the president of the United States and a foreign official, the president gets background, for example, about Canadian trade or about what happened during the Russian elections, including ballot box stuffing. And he gets what we call talking points.