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Strzok's Attorney: FBI had the Power but not the Right to Fire Him; Today: Crucial Primaries being Held in Five States; Trump Administration: Silent on Airstrike that Killed 40 Children; Judge says Defendants not a Threat, Sets Bond. Aired 10:30-11a ET

Aired August 14, 2018 - 10:30   ET



SUSAN HENNESSEY, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY AND LEGAL ANALYST: -- attorney general who is not removed from the Russia investigation, in order to have an attorney general who can shut down the Russia investigation. So, I don't want to say obstruction of justice in a legal sense, necessarily. But It is yet another effort, part of this really broad course of conduct of the president trying to protect himself and people close to him from, you know, a lawful scrutiny.

POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: Susan, let me also get you on this. We learned yesterday afternoon that Peter -- late morning yesterday right after this show -- that Peter Strzok, who sent those anti-Trump text messages while he was working on the Trump/Russia probe and the Clinton e-mail probe, was fired, was fired by the FBI. His attorney came on CNN last night, spoke with my colleague Chris Cuomo and said, look, the FBI had the, quote, "power but not the right to fire Strzok." That they had an agreement with the FBI on the penalty here and that the firing him went way too far. What's your read on this?

HENNESSEY: Director Wray - Director Christopher Wray had said, you know, that they were going to play this by the book. A lot of people believed that what that meant was that the FBI was going to abide by the recommendations of what's called the Office of Professional Responsibility. That's the same office that suggested that former Deputy Director Andy McCabe should be fired. You know, the problem here is that OPR actually made a recommendation that Strzok not be fired.

HARLOW: Right.

HENNESSEY: They said that he deserved a demotion, a 60-day suspension. But that he shouldn't be fired and the FBI deputy director came in and overruled that in order to actually --

HARLOW: So, why, right? The question becomes why. We know the president has called for this, right?


HARLOW: But you would hope that the president wouldn't have any role in something like this. But -- HENNESSEY: Also, I do think that it raises sort of the specter of there being some sort of political consideration here. Now, the FBI Deputy Director David Bowdich is very well respected. That you know, highly though have been. So, I think nobody should suggest here that the deputy director made this decision in order to politically retaliate against Peter Strzok.

Whenever you look at sort of the landscape here, the criticism coming from the administration, the criticism coming from Congress, I do think of the deputy director may have decided that the best thing to protect the FBI from future political attacks was to fire Strzok. And even though that isn't political retaliation sort of in a direct sense, it is using political considerations to decide, you know, the professional status and the termination of a career employee.

HARLOW: All right, Susan Hennessey on those important stories this morning, thank you for being with me.

Another critical pit stop on the road to the midterms for voters in five states today. We take a look at the high stakes races.


[10:37:10] HARLOW: We are now 83 days away from the midterm elections. Who is counting? We are. And today, primaries are being held in Connecticut, Minnesota, Vermont, Wisconsin and South Dakota. Today's results will set up some of the most crucial races come November.

Harry Enten our senior political writer and analyst is back with me. To Wisconsin we go, my friend, cheese country, a state that I love, a big Senate battle. You've got two folks that want to go up against the Democratic incumbent Tammy Baldwin in November, Leah Vukmir and also a former Democrat Kevin Nicholson. Leah Vukmir was fascinating because it wasn't long ago that she said about then-candidate Trump, he is offensive to everyone. And now she's walking on campaigning with a Trump pin on. Which way does this thing go?

HARRY ENTEN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL WRITER AND ANALYST: Right now, Vukmir is clearly the favorite in that primary. But even if she wins the nomination, if you look at the general election polling, Tammy Baldwin is clearly ahead of either of the two candidates. And this is a consistent story, if we'll talk about in the upper Midwest where Republicans are struggling in states that Donald Trump -

HARLOW: Right.

ENTEN: pretty well in.

HARLOW: I mean, this gets to the issue of Democratic enthusiasm in Wisconsin, in Minnesota. What should we look at after we see the results come in tonight about, you know, what indications it has for the midterms on the enthusiasm issue?

ENTEN: Well, I would say that both states have open primaries, which essentially means that we can look and see how many people voted in the Democratic primary versus the Republican primary. And I should point out, there was a state Supreme Court battle in Wisconsin earlier this year in which the Democratic candidate unofficially it is non- partisan, did very, very well in that race.

HARLOW: Looking at the issue in Wisconsin when it comes to Harley- Davidson, a huge employer in Milwaukee. Scott Walker, the Republican governor there is being trounced on by Democrats who are saying he is not standing up for the workers. He is backing the president at any cost in this ongoing tariff feud. He tweeted about it yesterday and said, "I want Harley-Davidson to prosper in the state of Wisconsin - so of course I don't want to boycott." But then he went on to say, so do what is best with the president has called for and that is no tariffs as soon as possible. Could this all backfire on the Republican Party?

ENTEN: What a balancing act that they're trying -- they don't want to alienate the Trump base while recognizing that swing voters are almost certainly on the side of Harley-Davidson. And Scott Walker certainly has, in my opinion, the toughest re-election campaign ahead of him so far. He is in the worst polling position he has been since he was first elected --


ENTEN: I think number one, Trump is unpopular, which I think is a big play. Running for a third term generally speaking is very, very difficult. And I think it's all just coming together for Scott Walker in a way with Democratic enthusiasm that he could be gone come November.

HARLOW: In the great state of Minnesota, if I do say so myself. You've got quite an evening lined up. I mean, you've got an open governor seat. You've got both Senate seats up for grabs. You've got a handful of competitive House seats. And people are looking at Minnesota and saying, this is really important when it comes to midterms and the Speaker Gavel being up for grabs.

ENTEN: Absolutely. There are four competitive House seats, two Democratic, two Republican. It gives Republican their best shot to really pick up a House seat and both the first in the 8th District where Democratic incumbents are retiring.

[10:40:04] Democrats are looking in the second and the third district and then obviously, in the Senate races, though I should point out again if you look at the polling, it generally points the Democrats doing well in those two Senate races in the fall.

HARLOW: History in the making in Vermont?

ENTEN: It could be with Christine Hallquist running to be the first ever transgender governor in the nation. Phil Scott, the incumbent, has seen his approval ratings drop a little bit. But he is still certainly favored come in fall.

HARLOW: What else are you keeping your eye on for tonight?

ENTEN: Keith Ellison is running to the attorney general spot in Minnesota. Obviously, he is second command in the DNC. And he could go down to defeat this evening. And if he doesn't, he could go down in the general election. And to me, if he loses here, then he's pretty much out of national politics. It will be very difficult for him to recover.

HARLOW: Right. And he is dealing with these allegations about a supposed tape that he says doesn't exist, all coming up in the final days.

ENTEN: Exactly. I mean, this is politics hardball.

HARLOW: Thank you. Good to have you here, a big night ahead tonight.

The U.S. is sending a top investigator general, a top general a three- star general to investigate that airstrike in Yemen that killed 40 children on the school bus. President Trump and his diplomats still mum on it, the latest on the tragedy ahead.


[10:45:38] HARLOW: All right, back to the breaking news this morning out of Italy. Look at those images. A huge section of a bridge there has collapsed in the Port City of Genoa. 22 people are now confirmed dead, the rescue operations still very much underway.

Let's go to our senior international correspondent Nic Robertson who joins me on the phone. Nic, what can you tell us?

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (VIA TELEPHONE): Well, Poppy, in the last few minutes, I just saw another rescue helicopter come in, land and then take off. There's another helicopter parked on the ground, static at the moment, waiting right by the bridge. I could see rescue teams working in amongst the rubble, various tents set up by the rescue right at the site of the rubble. A huge slap of this highway is sitting with the white stripe down the middle of the -- that's 45 degrees, buried in the canal under what would have been - about - beneath the bridge, bits of debris hanging off the end of the bridge. As they look at the bridge, there's a truck, one lucky driver on that has come to a stop just yards from where the bridge collapsed. But this rescue effort very much underway, fire trucks, ambulances, police cars. I have seen what appears to be a rescue dog being taken into the scene, a very, very intense effort still underway here, Poppy.

HARLOW: Nic, unbelievable to see these images. This is such a main highway through Italy right there along the water. It's stunning to see this collapse. And we are watching these first responders doing the best they can. Please keep us posted. Thank you, Nic.

We are also continuing to follow the killing of 40 children on a school bus in Yemen. Funerals were held yesterday for those children, most of them between the age of 10 and 13 years old. As reports emerge detailing the tragic incident, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and the White House have largely remained mum and have not assigned blame in the Saudi-led air strike. Just yesterday, the Secretary of State Mike Pompeo spoke on the phone with Saudi's Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman. But according to State Department readout of that conversation, Pompeo made no mention of the deadly airstrike.

Now, Yemen has been in the midst of this civil war for years, thousands of people have been killed, mostly civilians since Houthi rebels took over northern Yemen in 2015 and the fight between the Houthi rebels who are backed by Iran and the Yemeni government has brought on a humanitarian crisis where innocent children just like these and families have been caught in the middle on the line of fire daily.

Let's go back to our Nima Elbagir who continues to follow this story for us. The fact that the Secretary of State had this phone call with the Saudi Crown Prince Salman and this did not come up once -- according to the State Department. What should we take from that?

NIMA ELBAGIR, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, it's incredibly telling that what they did discuss was Iraq and Syria and all the various ways in which Saudi interests and U.S. interests overlap and fuse together. And in fact, the Secretary of State was thanking the crown prince for the financial support, the extensive monetary support that the Saudi Arabians have been able to put on the ground there in the stabilization efforts in Syria.

But of course, it's not just that. It's also about money. It's about the State Department sanctioned military contracts that allowed Saudi Arabia to buy millions of dollars of weaponry. What we saw in Yemen that is a result of the use of that weaponry. It's very difficult for the U.S. State Department putting to one side General Mattis sending in that three star general and even then he said that it was to preclude from other such incidents happening in the future. They have not been able to come out and pointblank sanction Saudi Arabia for this. And I think that has been very disheartening for many people in Yemen to watch unfold. Poppy?

HARLOW: And some of the images that we are showing, as you have seen all of it, Nima. This does not even portray the true devastation of these 40 children who were killed, dozens more injured, bloodied in the hospital, rescuers try to save them. And now you have, as you said, Mattis sending in this three-star general to investigate.

But the UAE has come out overnight and said essentially, it doesn't trust the U.S. to help lead an independent investigation on this. And that it will investigate. What do you know about that and why?

[10:50:06] ELBAGIR: Well, what the UAE is saying is that we will not be held -- we, the Saudi-led coalition will not be held to different standards than the United States is willing to hold itself to. So they are saying the United States would not allow for an independent investigator in Afghanistan. They would not allow independent investigators in Iraq. So it is this issue of who really has the moral high ground here, and again, coming back to the fact that this is a U.S.-backed coalition.

And it's clear that while these images have shaken us and they have shaken the world, they clearly have not quite shaken the bedrock of that U.S. support for this coalition and the UAE statement for Foreign Affairs came out very confidently there, Poppy. The reality is this investigation is going through an internal mechanism. There's no metric for transparency. There's no metric for follow-up. And all the reporting that we have done and human rights organizations has done has found no evidence of even any of what has been called for by this internal -- by previous internal investigations, things like reparations for civilians who lost family members. None of that has actually been followed through on. And it is - again, we come back to what we are hearing from the parents who've lost their children. They are incredibly disheartened and they don't feel that the reality on the ground is going to change, Poppy.

HARLOW: And again, it's very difficult for journalists to get the proper visas, et cetera, to be on the ground reporting this out as well. Nima, thank you for being on it.

Britain's prime minister, other British leaders meeting this morning to discuss what police are calling a terrorist attack this morning outside of the House of Parliament in London. Police say a man drove -- in his 20s drove a Ford Fiesta through a group of cyclists and pedestrians before slamming into security barriers. You see it -- the spotlight on it there. The driver was arrested at the scene. He was alone. Police say they did not recover any weapons. Investigators say that it does appear to be a deliberate attack. Two people were taken to the hospital with non-life-threatening injuries.

Authorities say a 3-year-old boy found dead in Rural New Mexico died during a religious ritual to cast out demonic spirits. We're going to bring you the latest on that compound ahead.


[10:56:47] HARLOW: So, a judge has ruled that five adults charged with 11 counts of child abuse in Rural New Mexico will not be held in jail until their court date. The judge set their bail at $20,000 each. This is after prosecutors argued that the 3-year-old missing child whose body was found on their compound died during a religious ritual meant to cast out demons.

Let me go to our Scott McLean. He's still in New Mexico covering this story for us this morning. Scott, what else do we know?

SCOTT MCLEAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Poppy, we heard some pretty scary allegations in the courtroom yesterday. The judge called them troubling. We heard testimony from an FBI agent who'd actually interviewed two of the older kids on that compound, 13 and 15 years old. And he testified that they told him that there were Islamic rituals performed on that compound by Siraj Wahhaj, one of the adults who has been arrested on this child abuse charges, where he was trying to cast out demonic spirits from his 3-year-old disabled son. Those kids also said that Abdul-Ghani, this 3-year-old disabled boy actually died during that ritual. But they were told that he would be resurrected as Jesus and then tell the people on the compound which so-called corrupt institutions they need to get rid of. We are talking about the military or law enforcement or banks or the education system. The defense though, they downplayed this. Listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) THOMAS CLARK, SIRAJ WAHHAJ'S ATTORNEY: If these people were white and Christian. Nobody would bat an eye at the idea of faith healing or praying over a body or touching a body and quoting scripture. But when black Muslims do it, there seems to be something nefarious, there seems to be something evil.


MCLEAN: But remember, Poppy, there was a body that was found on that compound. It was actually found at the bottom of a tunnel that was dug out about 100 feet down. It was wrapped in a white cloth and is yet to be identified. Prosecutors also presented a letter that was delivered by Lucas Morton, one of the suspects, to the brother of Siraj Wahhaj in Georgia, and in this letter called for him to drain his bank account, to bring his guns to New Mexico. It also said, I will quote here, "Allah says he will protect you always. So follow until he makes you die as a martyr as you wanted. The only way is by joining in the righteous and that means us." But, Poppy, even after hearing all that the judge allowed four out of the five to be released. The last one still has an outstanding warrant, Siraj Wahhaj in Georgia for child abduction charges.

HARLOW: Think about all of those children, a 3-year-old dead, 11 kids on that compound. Scott, thank you for being there and for the reporting this morning.

Also this morning, the queen of soul, Aretha Franklin, is receiving hospice care we have learned at her home in Detroit. We are told she's surrounded by her loved ones. The 76-year-old's career has spanned six decades, including 44 Grammy nominations. And you can never forget those countless chart toppers "Chain of Fools," "Natural Woman" and, of course, "Respect." A remarkable career. Our thoughts are with her and her family and her well wishes for all of them right now.

Thank you so much for being with me today. I'll see you here tomorrow morning. I'm Poppy Harlow in New York. "At This Hour" with Kate Bolduan starts now.