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Suspect in Austin Bombings Kills Self by Detonating Bomb in Car; Analysts Examine Continuing Search for Possible Package Bombs in Austin, Texas. Aired 8-8:30a ET

Aired March 21, 2018 - 8:00   ET


[08:00:00] ED LAVANDERA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: And then at some point here in the last several hours, overnight hours, they were able to track the suspect down into a parking lot just up the road here, just off the edge of Interstate 35. We're in a suburb called Round Rock which is just north of Austin. Police say they were waiting for tactical teams to arrive to move in on that suspect but he left the parking lot and started driving away, eventually driving into a ditch. That's where we're told SWAT team members approached the car and the suspect detonated a bomb inside his car, killing himself.


CHIEF BRIAN MANLEY, AUSTIN POLICE DEPARTMENT: 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: Police say that SWAT team member suffered minor injuries but will be OK. They are also warning people across the city to remain vigilant, that they're trying to piece together the timeline of what this suspect has done over the last 24 to 48 hours, and that just because they believe the suspect is dead, that it doesn't mean that people don't need to be cautious and vigilant about what still may be out there. Chris and Erica?

CHRIS CUOMO, CNN ANCHOR: All right, Ed, thank you very much, appreciate it pal.

Joining us now on the phone is Tony Plohetski. He is an investigative reporter for the "Austin American-Statesman." He broke the story of the bomber being killed. Tony, thank you very much. What do you understand at this point about what led them to this man?

TONY PLOHETSKI, INVESTIGATIVE REPORTER, "AUSTIN AMERICAN-STATESMAN": Well, this has been the result and the culmination of investigative efforts round the clock, high level investigative efforts by local, state, and federal law enforcement that have really spanned the past few weeks in Austin. But authorities did get a major break in the case beginning about 24 to 36 hours ago after the suspect went to a FedEx store here in south Austin and apparently was captured on video, security video inside that store. Officials used that to bolster other evidence that they had in this case linking this person to these crimes.

That other evidence I'm told includes witness descriptions of the suspect as well as receipts and store records from stores where this suspect apparently has been going here in Austin in recent weeks and buying material that has been used to make the explosive devices. We have previously confirmed that authorities believe that these explosives were being manufactured and crafted from what they have described as common household items that were really available to the general public.

CUOMO: What do we know at this point about motive and continuing threat?

PLOHETSKI: Authorities this morning are still urging the citizens of Austin and surrounding areas to be vigilant and to be aware. They say they do have concerns about whether or not there are still undetonated explosive devices in Austin, and that while this is a time for relief and rejoicing here in the city of Austin, they are urging citizens to continue to be aware of their surroundings and to continue to report any suspicious devices.

As for the motivation of the suspect, authorities now are going back. They're turning back the clock to try to further understand who the suspect is, what motivations he may have had, but as it has been described by law enforcement, their primary motive in recent weeks has been to stop this person before anyone else gets injured or killed.

CUOMO: Tony, thank you very much. Obviously there are questions and concerns about whether or not this man was the only one involved and if other devices could have been planted and sitting out there waiting for people to trip them. Tony Plohetski, appreciate his reporting, Ed Lavandera as well.

Let's bring in right now CNN law enforcement analyst James Gagliano and former ATF special agent in charge Sam Rabadi. Sam, we haven't spoken to you about this yet this morning. What's your take on the situation?

SAM RABADI, FORMER ATF SPECIAL AGENT IN CHARGE: Just some tremendous work by the investigators within the last 24 to 36 hours. When you have situations like this of a potential serial bomber -- and in this case that's what you had -- you have information that you can collect from a variety of sources, and the totality of that information, when you catch those lucky breaks, provides you that one investigative lead that can either identify a vehicle, identify or have a description of the suspect, or possibly have some video evidence.

[08:05:10] And it looks like in this case that's what you had, all three of those scenarios playing out, and together combined, able to make an identification of the suspect.

ERICA HILL, CNN ANCHOR: And we note, too, your point about working together and being able to put all these tips together. The sheer volume of officials and authorities who were working on this, hundreds of federal agents there working in concert with local authorities as well. One of the numbers that really stood out here, as we're looking at how they were tracking this down, more than 1,200 reports of suspicious packages investigated just since 9:00 a.m. on March 12th. James, when you think about that and the fact that they are saying in Austin, look, we still need you to be vigilant out there. We don't know what's happened in the last, as we heard from Ed, 24-plus hours with this guy. Those suspicious package reports, those are really important and key too as they track those down.

JAMES GAGLIANO, CNN LAW ENFORCEMENT ANALYST: Absolutely. The ability to communicate, for law enforcement to communicate with the citizenry and for folks to be able to phone in or to use anonymous tip lines online to communicate to law enforcement in this era is a blessing for law enforcement.

And Erica, Chris always yells at me and tells me to put my professor hat on. To put this into context, during the 1970s, that decade -- and we don't think about it, but that really was the golden age of terrorism and bombing attacks in the United States -- 184 people killed, 600 injured. We look at this, the fear, the terror, the trepidation that this inspires because you just don't know where the next device is going to go off, eerily reminiscent of the 70s. But let's put it into context and say it is a small block when you compare it to what it was like in the United States in the '70s.

CUOMO: First of all, I'd never yell at anybody your size and disposition. We all know that. That's a simple fact.

GAGLIANO: Friendly disposition, Chris.

CUOMO: On the outside, but I know the real Jim. Let me ask you something else. There's a point of confusion for people. People look at this fact pattern and say this is terrorism. That's what it is. Why aren't you calling it that? And it's time for a refresher. That's a term of art for investigators. If they can't identify a specific motive that forwards a political message or agenda, they will not call it terrorism. True?

GAGLIANO: You want to be so careful because law enforcement doesn't want to go ahead and prejudge something because it might force investigators to go into a different direction. You want to keep all options open. The reason why we always treat things as terrorism at the outset until it's proven otherwise is because that is a very real threat to us right now in the 21st century.

There are a number of things you could have chalked this up to. We looked at it first and we thought it was racially motivated because of the three original package bombs on the east side of Austin. But then you had the trip wire victim activated device that was on the west side that injured two Caucasians. You want to be careful, Chris. Terrorism is violence or intimidation in the pursuit of political or social goals, very distinct and narrow definition.

This could have also been a hate crime. Somebody could have hated a particularly ethnicity or creed or religion or something like that. It also could have been somebody that was simply an anarchist. An anarchist likes to create disorder, and doing something, as police have used the term, creating mayhem by setting these bombs. Very distinct differences, helps us get into the mindset so we can try to foresee the next person like this that's going to come on the line.

HILL: In terms of that mayhem, too, that you bring up, sources telling us at CNN, law enforcement officials, that the motive really was mayhem and death which feels broad. But if that's what you're trying to sow is mayhem, Sam, as we look at the progression of the devices here, packages are dropped off, then there's a tripwire, then packages are sent. As we see that progression, what does that tell you?

RABADI: What that told me initially is that he's probably been paying attention to the media, also probably did some research on prior cases because often with these serial bomber cases, there are many similarities, not just in the construction of the devices but how those attacks are carried out. It seems like the construction of some of these devices, especially with the tripwire device, may have been a little bit different than the others, and as well as the mode of delivery. Some were hand delivered, some were using FedEx, so almost as if trying to cover his tracks, probably based on previous research and not wanting to get caught.

CUOMO: So where does this leave us in terms of our concern -- Sam, I'll stay with you -- going forward on this? They said, look, there could be other packages. OK, we get that. That's a matter of fact and known. But in terms of why he did this and who else could have done this with him, where do they look for answers?

RABADI: Well, there are a number of areas. This is where the exhaustive investigation, as far as I'm concerned, really starts now is, number one, obviously trying to make sure that there are no other devices out there. They're going to do an exhaustive research of several areas to include -- you have a car, so they're going to do an exhaustive look at license plate reader information that may be out there to track where the car was.

[08:10:04] Cell phone, they're going to be looking at where that cell phone has been, who he was calling, was he communicating with others. And then obviously search warrants for where he was living or staying and try to get in there and retrieve possibly the computers that he may have been using. There will be a lot of information that they're going to have to sift through. But number one priority is to ensure that there are no other devices that are sitting out there somewhere, as well as trying to get into motive.

HILL: And also figuring out, to your point, Sam, and James, I'll throw this one to you, determining whether there are any other potential actors, helpers, who are out there as well, because that's one thing they were very clear. They would not say specifically in this press conference, because, as you point out, Sam, the investigation now really begins and gets intense, they would not say whether he was acting alone, they would not classify him as a lone wolf.

RABADI: Exactly. You're going to wait quite a while before you're able to make a final decision on that. The individual is dead, but he's left behind a tremendous amount of electronic evidence, electronic footprint if you will, through the cell phone, his vehicle, as well as stuff that they may recover through the computer, because you do want to ensure that, hey, he was not conspiring with others or more than one person or at the behest of a group somewhere out there.

CUOMO: Final point, Jim.

GAGLIANO: Final point is this. There's two things law enforcement has to do. The most important one is the tactical resolution, making sure they interdict, stop the people from committing these crimes. The second part is the consequence management piece which involves the investigation, gathering the evidence, making sure you put together a lock-solid case. This individual appears to be dead. We still have to make sure there aren't any other co-conspirators out there.

CUOMO: Jimmy, thank you very much. Sam, good to have you this morning, appreciate it.

President Trump tweeting about the Russia investigation again, calling out Bob Mueller by name. What he's saying and what it could mean, next.


[08:15:39] CHRIS CUOMO, CNN ANCHOR: President Trump cannot stop tweeting. Full stop. But a specific part of the contagion is his feelings about Robert Mueller and the Russia investigation.

His latest tweet just a short time ago is a paraphrasing of an article written by esteemed law professor, Alan Dershowitz.

Special counsel, now he means c-o-u-n-s-e-l, is told to find crimes, whether a crime exists or not. Yes, whether is misspelled, but that's not the point. The president was obviously being hasty here.

I was opposed -- he's talking about Dershowitz here -- to the selection of Mueller to be special counsel. I am still opposed to it. I think President Trump was right when he said there should -- never should have been a special counsel appointed because there was no probably cause for believing that there was any crime, collusion or otherwise, or obstruction of justice, OK?

Let's discuss this now with CNN politics reporter Chris Cillizza, and CNN counterterrorism analyst Phil Mudd.

Phil Mudd, if we look back and remember why there is a special counsel, OK, Rod Rosenstein, a nominee of President Trump made a determination that after the firing of Jim Comey, key fact, this could not be investigated in-house. There was too many conflicts. Sessions needed to recuse himself. It needed to be done independently.

Now, Dershowitz would say two things that I think are fair points. One is we have a tendency these days to prosecute our political opponents. True enough. The president has played that card as a threat. He also said, all right, if you're going to do that, Rosenstein, it should have been delivered to an independent commission.

OK, fair argument to have. But that's not what Rosenstein did. The premise of why he picked this special counsel. Do you think it was the right move by Rosenstein?

PHIL MUDD, CNN COUNTERTERRORISM ANALYST: Sure. I mean, prosecuting political opponents, Rosenstein was appointed by the president. He's not a political opponent.

CUOMO: Right.

MUDD: Nor is Director Mueller who was selected by a Republican president, that's George Bush, to be his FBI director.

I have one other dispute with Dershowitz, and that is he's talking about there's no probable cause. How the heck does he know what the case is based on? For example, if there are intercepted communications by -- of the Russians by American intelligence that suggest the Russians have an inappropriate relationship with politicians or members of a political campaign in this country, how the heck would Dershowitz know?

CUOMO: He would say we haven't heard yet and it's been so long.


MUDD: Well, excuse me. How much have you heard Mueller leak?

One of the most remarkable things about the investigation is the lack of leaks from it. We don't know what's happened, for example, after Michael Flynn flipped. Do you know what he said? I don't have a clue. I don't have a clue whether he's talking about cooperation with the Russians, whether he's talking about what he heard from the president or other advisers, or whether he said the reverse.

I didn't see anything that indicates any conclusion. So, I think Dershowitz is out there saying things. And I'd say I'd love if I were investigated to cherry-pick a lawyer who says, I don't know anything about the facts of the case but I don't think you ought to be prosecuted. It sounds good to me if I'm the president, but it doesn't make any sense.

ERICA HILL, CNN ANCHOR: You know, Chris, in your question, you bring up a good point, of why is this still going on? And that's what we're hearing again and again from the president. As the president is now using Robert Mueller's name in his tweet, that is coming back. And we're hearing why is this taking so long? And the simple answer is there is no timeline because the investigation is ongoing.

But as that narrative is coming back, Chris, how is this starting to impact, how is it bleeding into just daily life in the White House and what is and isn't done? We can't ignore that fact of it, the distraction.

CHRIS CILLIZZA, CNN POLITICS REPORTER AND EDITOR-AT-LARGE: No. Yes, I mean, I think that's the key piece of it outside the Mueller investigation, which is sort of a closed box for us. I mean, to Phil's point, we don't get a lot there.

I think the distraction not just on this stuff but for whatever you think of the allegations by Stormy Daniels, by Katherine McDougal, by Summer Zervos, "The Apprentice" contestant, those are a distraction, too. And what do we know about Donald Trump? He is notoriously thin- skinned, he gets frustrated, he fumes, he rages.

All of that is something that will impact the decisions. It would have to, think of it in your own life, of the person who is the leader of the United States and one of the most powerful people in the world. Add on to that, now, we know from our reporting, Trump I think somewhat rightly is annoyed at the leaking of this phone call with Putin yesterday.

[08:20:08] So I think you have a lot of -- you have to think of him as a person. Don't just think of him as a head you see on television. As a person, he's got a number of distractions, personal distractions. All of that impacts what he does.

CUOMO: Well, look, it's also about what he decides to pay attention to. This is a different time we're living through, Phil Mudd, than back in the '90s with Bill Clinton. And, yes, Bill Clinton, his situation was really specific to him. It didn't start out that way. It started out with Whitewater and there was a whole bunch of names in play.

But it wound up once it got into the affairs that it was about him. And it was a distinct set of facts he was talking about. And he ignored it as much as he could. He had his people with this conservative -- you know, what was it called, the right wing conspiracy and Hillary Clinton was out there doing that, and other people were attacking it as well.

But the president this time around has made this a preoccupation of his. He talks about this every chance he can. So, in effect, he's making it relevant in a way it wouldn't be otherwise.

MUDD: Sure, and I think there's a couple other characteristics that had blown this up. The first is the contrast between being in a fish bowl of New York City, you get covered by the "New York Post," you don't get covered by a bunch of people in the White House briefing room every day who will never let anything go and have a lot more access to information.

The second is, I think one of the things that's happening with the investigation that frustrates him, the length of time of the investigation, as the Mueller team acquires things like financial records, they're finding more and more stuff like the connections with Ukraine, the financial connections that took down Paul Manafort. So, even as Trump's lawyers tell him, hey, this might be over by the first of the year, by spring. On the other side, the investigators who have no responsibility to tell the White House when this will shut down, keep finding stuff every time they turn over a rock that means this investigation will continue, and the president is ticked off.

HILL: Also, apparently there's at least one person, John Kelly, ticked off in the White House this morning because of -- and you touched on this, Chris.


HILL: But this call with Vladimir Putin, which there is reporting that the president was told very clearly by his national security team in all capital letters, do not congratulate. He did congratulate Vladimir Putin.

And the reporting we have out this morning that, yes, John Kelly is furious that this information was leaked. Another source saying this could be an attempt to embarrass the president or -- and I think this stands out here -- or H.R. McMaster.

CILLIZZA: I think that's the bigger, more important story going forward, is this leak.

Look, it's already become an internet meme, the whole "do not congratulate" in capital letters.

HILL: Right.

CILLIZZA: Much like when Donald Trump looked up at the eclipse. Remember that one?

HILL: Yes.

CILLIZZA: But the point is there's not a huge group of people who have this information who not only are privy to what he said on the call, but also know that the briefing paper said do not congratulate and recommended he bring up the poisoning of the ex-Russian spy. You're talking about a small group of people. That was either meant to embarrass him or H.R. McMaster who we know is embattled or -- and I think this may get to the dysfunction of the White House, that it was meant to communicate something that folks did not think a private conversation with the president would communicate, that they know he consumes what is on television, what is in the media, that he takes that more to heart publicly being embarrassed as opposed to, hey, Mr. President, can we have an aside here, I understand why you went in this direction, I want to explain our thinking.

That's concerning of a dysfunction that exists in the White House as to how you communicate with the president of the United States.

CUOMO: All right, fine. There will be pushback on this point, Phil Mudd. They'll say we're very tough on Russia, we passed these sanction. We put them into effect. We're giving the Ukraine resistance, fighting for their country. We're giving them weapons that Obama wouldn't. We bombed in Syria. We know Russia is playing there. Obama wouldn't.

So, we're very tough on Russia. You guys are giving us a bad deal.

MUDD: Oh, give me a break. We have our closest alliance post-World War II, in this case embodied by Theresa May, the British prime minister, you've got to call her up and say -- I want to use an appropriate phrase -- we kissed the bottom of the Russian president for winning a flawed election and we couldn't mention that he tried to murder somebody on the soil of our closest ally?

We have the representatives of U.S. intelligence agencies in an unprecedented move, not only talk about interference in the last election but say it's continuing now as we go into midterms. And somebody is going to sit in front of me and pretend like we're tough on the Russians. You got to be kidding. That's ridiculous.

CILLIZZA: And just to add to Phil's point, I do think it is important context because the Trump administration as Sarah Sanders did yesterday, will say, we sanctioned Russia for the election meddling, which they did. But look at the timeline. They were forced into it.

This was something every single Republican and Democratic leader, but Republican leader in Congress said, we need to do this, we need to do this, we need to do this.

[08:25:05] It was delayed and delayed and delayed.

It doesn't mean that the sanctions don't get put in place. They do. But the idea that they were leading from the front, to borrow a phrase, on this is just not accurate.

HILL: All right. We're going to leave it there.

CILLIZZA: Speechless, Cuomo, speechless.

HILL: We'll right down the time, the date.

CUOMO: Mudd (INAUDIBLE) my heels, but I'm not 100 percent.

HILL: Phil, Chris, thank you both.

Three women waging legal challenges against President Trump. Could one of these cases lead to the president being deposed? We'll discuss that, next.


HILL: A porn star, a playmate and an "Apprentice" contestant all fighting to break their silence about alleged affairs and sexual harassment involving President Trump.

So, could one of these cases lead to the president being deposed?

Attorney Nancy Erika Smith who represents Gretchen Carlson joins me now to discuss. And these involved NDAs, which I now, you love to talk about.


HILL: As we look at all this, it's fascinating to me because for a lot of people, there's this question of why, right? So, why is it so important for you to tell your story and why do you want to tell it now? And part of that came up last night on our air with Stormy Daniels' attorney, Michael Avenatti.