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McGahn Talks with Mueller; Trump Compares Probe to McCarthyism; Colorado Man to be Charged with Killing Family; Trump Administration and ACLU Asylum Plan. Aired 8:30-9a ET

Aired August 20, 2018 - 08:30   ET



[08:33:12] JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: "The New York Times" reports that White House Counsel Don McGahn is extensively cooperating with Special Counsel Robert Mueller's Russia investigation, but a source tells CNN that the White House does not know what McGahn told Mueller's team.

Joining me now is former Watergate special prosecutor Richard Ben- Veniste. He is also a CNN legal analyst.

Counselor, thanks so much for being with us.


BERMAN: When you read the headlines over this weekend, I'm sure there was a moment of deja vu going back, you know, some 40 years. But what is the significance to you that the White House counsel isn't just answering questions but 30 hours' worth of questioning from the special counsel?

BEN-VENISTE: Well, what he says reportedly is that when asked to cooperate and to give testimony, he's done so truthfully. And I think that has caught the Trump administration by surprise. Here's an area where Mr. Trump apparently made the decision to let him go forward. Something that is quite unusual. And it's something to the extent that it's a boneheaded idea that he can't blame his designated whipping boy, the Attorney General Jeff sessions for. This is on Trump.

BERMAN: Yes, this was not a decision made by the attorney general or even the special counsel here. This was Ty Cobb and John Dowd, who were running the legal operation for the president, letting this happen.

Now, I will say, the controversy here happens to be over transparency, which is usually something we welcome here. So I don't think it's controversial per se that Don McGahn answered question. I think what's being reported is, it's unusual that it was done so without a fight over executive privilege and unusual that the president's current legal team and the political operation is not still, or at least as of Saturday, aware of how much Don McGahn said.

[08:35:08] BEN-VENISTE: Yes, apparently there was no complete debriefing, which would -- was an option for the president. And I think less than attorney-client privilege because McGahn doesn't represent Donald Trump individually, would be a question of executive privilege that could have been asserted.

However, what this highlights is, if you don't tell the truth to your legal representatives, there can be huge ramifications down the road in terms of that coming back to haunt you. And that appears to be one of the problems -- one of the many problems that Mr. Trump has. And they're all of his own making this week.

Another is the extraordinary lengths to which he's gone to try to put his thumb on the scale while the jury is deliberating the fate of his former campaign manager.

BERMAN: You don't like that. You're talking about the Paul Manafort situation. The jury has done two full days of deliberations and the president has made public comments criticizing the trial basically.

BEN-VENISTE: Unprecedented, John. Never in the history of at least modern times has a president so blatantly tried to intervene in the deliberations of a jury and the conduct of a trial, talking about how sad it is that this man, who is accused of hiding $60 million in income for which he paid no taxes and violated a bunch of other laws regarding disclosure, how sad is that? I mean does it shine a light on the fact that President Trump has yet to disclose his own tax returns? And the list goes on and on. I mean --

BERMAN: Richard, let me ask you this, because one other thing that's happened -- and, remember, President Trump is a guy who fired James Comey. He's the guy who's been attacking Robert Mueller. He's the guy who moved the security clearance of John Brennan. And the list goes on and on. He's now saying, I know you are but what am I by accusing Robert Mueller of McCarthyism.

BEN-VENISTE: Oh, my God, that is your most --

BERMAN: You call that charge hilarious (ph).

BEN-VENISTE: That is the most ironic -- does he have no sense of history whatsoever? His idol was Roy Cohn. His mentor, Roy Cohn, the handmaiden of Joe McCarthy, who is complicit in all of the dirty business that McCarthy did forever besmirching Cohn's name in history.

And now he invokes McCarthyism. He's famous for saying in the White House, where is my Roy Cohn? I mean I can hear the echo of Roy Cohn saying, (INAUDIBLE)), McCarthy was my guy. Enough already with McCarthy.

BERMAN: You know, you're laughing. You think it's funny. But is there something unsettling about this or that should bother the American people when the president's talking about an investigation and an investigator in Robert Mueller who, let me remind people, we really haven't heard from in more than a year. Joe McCarthy was never quiet for a week let alone a year.

BEN-VENISTE: Yes. There's everything unsettling about it, John, including Rudy Giuliani's undocumented attack on Mueller for leaking. They have not leaked at the special counsel's office. They have been absolutely careful about their responsibility not to leak information. This is a textbook case of projection where somebody takes their own misgivings and bad acts and projects them on someone else.

Mueller is a complete Boy Scout as far as conducting an honest and fair investigation is concerned. There's no evidence whatsoever that they are violating their responsibility not to leak.

BERMAN: Richard Ben-Veniste --

BEN-VENISTE: Trump, on the other hand, and Giuliani leak all the time.

BERMAN: Richard Ben-Veniste, thanks so much for being with us. Appreciate your insight on this, sir.

BEN-VENISTE: Thank you.

BERMAN: Alisyn.

CAMEROTA: OK, John, now to an update on a crime story. We could learn why Colorado prosecutors believe that Chris Watts, who you see there, killed his pregnant wife and daughters when he is formally charged with the crime today. We have a live report for you, next.


[08:43:41] BERMAN: A Colorado man suspected of killing his pregnant wife and two daughters is set to be formally charged. Authorities are expected to release his arrest affidavit explaining why investigators believe he did it.

Our Kaylee Hartung live in Fredrick, Colorado, with the very latest here.


KAYLEE HARTUNG, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, John, as this tragedy has unfolded over the course of the past week, that biggest question looming has been why. It was last Monday that Shanann Watts and her two daughters, Bella and Celeste, seemingly vanished from their home. Tuesday, Chris Watts gave an interview to many local media outlets that some characterized as unemotional when he pled for them to return home.

Wednesday, he was arrested. Thursday the three victims' bodies found on the property of a petroleum company where Chris Watts worked.

Now, over the course of the investigation to this point, authorities have shared very few details with us, in part because a judge has sealed court documents related to the case, including the arrest affidavit. But with Chris Watts we expect formally charged later today by the Well (ph) County district attorney, many more of these shocking details are expected to come to light.

Alisyn, Shanann Watts shared so much of her family's life on social media. But as is the case for all of us, social media did not paint a complete picture of life in the Watts' household.

CAMEROTA: Oh, my gosh, Kaylee, this story is insane. We'll come to you for more details as soon as you have them. Thank you very much for that reporting.

[08:45:03] OK, next to an update for you, what's happening with those parents who were separated from their children at the border? The ACLU gives us a status report on their effort to reunite kids.


CAMEROTA: A federal judge has urged the Trump administration and the ACLU to work together to reunite those immigrant parents and children who were separated at the border.

Lee Gelernt is the lead attorney for the ACLU and is representing the separated families.

Mr. Gelernt, thank you very much for being here.

Can you give us a status report this morning of how many parents are still separated from their children?

LEE GELERNT, DEPUTY DIRECTOR, ACLU IMMIGRANTS' RIGHTS PROJECT: Yes, over 500. We believe about 560 are still separated. Some of the parents are in the U.S. We haven't been able to find those parents. The bulk of them are overseas. We are frantically trying to reach them.

We've gotten phone numbers for many of them. Some of the phone numbers are not working. Some of the parents appear to be in hiding. We'll continue doing everything we can do.

[08:50:06] But one of the fundamental disagreements we have with the government is, they're refusing to allow any of these parents to come back to the U.S. to help their children in asylum hearings. We also believe that some of these parents may have been misled or coerced into accepting removal thinking that was the only way to see their children. So that's an issue that may have to go back to the judge, whether some of these parents can come back to the U.S.

CAMEROTA: I want to ask you about that because we've had various surrogates from the administration on who have suggested that same thing, that these parents voluntarily gave up their parental rights and left the country and left their children behind. Do you have evidence that that was not the case and that these parents were misled into signing whatever they had to sign?

GELERNT: We have talked to a number of parents who were either confused or misled into signing forms. And so we hope that if we present that evidence to the government, they will allow these parents to come back.

But the other issue is that these children are here and they're very young and they're going to now have to go through asylum proceedings by themselves. That's not the way it's supposed to work. A parent is supposed to assist the child going through asylum proceedings. So for all those reasons, we think it's clear that the parents need to be brought back here if they want to.

CAMEROTA: Has the White House washed their hands of this responsibility? Is this now solely in your lap?

GELERNT: I don't think so because -- only because the federal judge said they can't wash their hands of it. I think there was a period about a week or two ago where they were trying to wash their hands of it and say, look, let the ACLU deal with this. And the judge said, absolutely not, it's your mess, you separated the children, you enacted this brutal and unconstitutional policy, you better help the ACLU find these parents.

So we'll see how much work the government actually does in light of that court order. We will go back to the judge if we don't think we're getting proper cooperation from the government. But right now we're hoping that the judge's order sticks with the government and that it makes it clear to them they need to help us.

CAMEROTA: Can you just help us understand the needle in a haystack quality challenge that you're dealing with. What information do you have to try to reunite parents who may not speak English and children who may be too young to know an address?

GELERNT: Right, it's extremely difficult. Fortunately, we've now gotten phone numbers from many of the people from the government. It's come very late. I mean we think that those phone numbers should have been turned over months ago so this process could have started.

But the problem is that some of the phone numbers appear to be inoperative. Some of the parents are not answering. Their phones may have been old numbers. They may be in hiding. So we will need more people on the ground and that's what we're doing, getting more NGOs in Central America to just try and track parents down

It's going to be extremely difficult. Some of the parents only speak in indigenous language. It's not easy to get translators. This is a difficult task, but I remain hopeful, you know, as I've told you before, that we will get it done.

CAMEROTA: Yes, and we appreciate your optimism and all of the work that the ACLU is doing to do this. What are you asking for from the Trump administration? What would help you? What do you need today?

GELERNT: I think updated phone numbers, anything they may have, addresses, what language they speak, what region they speak, what -- anything about their relatives. As much information as possible. We also hope that the administration will try to track these parents down. We've asked them to do PSAs, other types of actions in country. We'll see. I think it's just going to be sort of basic detective work, but we -- the phone numbers are obviously the best because we don't want to send people into various areas of Honduras and Guatemala, possibly dangerous areas, driving around for hours and hours looking for people. If we can get phone numbers, e-mail addresses, that's what we want. But we will do whatever we have to do and we have people on the ground in Central America who are ready to go all over those countries looking for the parents.

CAMEROTA: Lee Gelernt, thank you very much for the update. We will have you back to give us yet another update as you try to perform this herculean task. Thank you for being here.

GELERNT: Thanks, Alisyn.

BERMAN: All right, speaking of updates, we have this big one ahead about one of the stranger stories of the day. A woman falls overboard, treads water for ten hours and somehow survives. What went on here? That's next.


[08:58:18] BERMAN: A speechwriter for President Trump who spoke at a 2016 conference attended by white nationalists, well, he's left the White House.

CNN's K-File reached out to the administration last week about Darren Beattie. The White House asked us to hold off on reporting the story for several days last week. By Saturday, Beattie's e-mail address at the White House was no longer active. Beattie has confirmed to CNN that he did speak at this conference, but he says his speech was not objectionable.

CAMEROTA: Oh, brother.

Moving on.

Italian officials releasing new video of that moment when a bridge collapsed in Genoa last week. It's terrifying. You can see cars driving before a cloud of dust and falling concrete consumed the screen. Forty-three people died in this collapse. Authorities are still searching for missing people. No cause yet released.

BERMAN: All right, a remarkable rescue at sea. A British woman fell off a cruise ship and had to tread water for ten hours in the Adriatic Sea before she was saved by the Croatian Coast Guard. The 46-year-old woman who went overboard from the Region Star cruise liner as it traveled to Venice on Saturday, she was rescued and apparently what you're seeing is the moments just after the rescue about 60 miles from shore. She told reporters eloquently, she is very lucky to be alive.

CAMEROTA: OK, I thought you were going to give me an update on this story. I already knew all of that.

BERMAN: Well, she's still alive. The update is, she's still alive and she still fell in.

CAMEROTA: No, the update is the pictures.

First of all, how could she -- she was climbing clearly of her own sort of accord up that -- I would think there was like an airlift or there was something -- look at that. All they -- all she had there was a little like life preserver thrown to her. Where's the life raft?

BERMAN: She's clearly fairly -- she's clearly fit. I mean she can tread water for 10 hours, so a ladder is nothing.

CAMEROTA: She is clearly fit. What did she look like before those ten hours? She -- that is so remarkable. I'm going to follow this every day of how she survived.

[09:00:02] BERMAN: With bad balance apparently.

CAMEROTA: That -- OK, we're going to find out why she fell overboard as well.

Time now for CNN "NEWSROOM" with Poppy Harlow.

See you tomorrow.