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Attorney General Sessions Fires Back After Trump Attacks; Georgia County To Vote On Closing Seven Of Nine Polling Centers; Miss America Alleges Pageant CEO Bullied And Silenced Her. Aired 7:30-8a ET

Aired August 24, 2018 - 07:30   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


[07:30:00] JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: And now the attorney general has responded in a fairly extraordinary statement saying, in part, "I did take control of the Department of Justice the day I was sworn in. While I am attorney general, the actions of the Department of Justice will not be improperly influenced by political considerations."

Joining me now is someone who has sat in that office. Alberto Gonzales is the former U.S. attorney general under President George W. Bush.

General Gonzales, thanks, as always for being with us.

You see danger in the president's attacks here -- explain.

ALBERTO GONZALES, FORMER U.S. ATTORNEY GENERAL, FORMER COUNSEL TO PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH, DEAN, BELMONT UNIVERSITY COLLEGE OF LAW: Well, it's a remarkable exchange, isn't it?

What I worry about is that the president is the head of Executive Branch and he decides who serves in his cabinet. And to continue to criticize the attorney general, I think makes the president appear weak.

If, in fact, there is displeasure in his service then he has an obligation, from my perspective, to make a change.

But what I also worry about is the fact that constant attacks upon the attorney general I think weakens the authority of the attorney general. I think it damages moral within the Department of Justice.

And I think -- I think if the president is unhappy with the attorney general he should make a change. I don't say that with the intent to have Jeff Sessions fired. I say that hopefully with the intent to encourage the president not to be so public of his criticism of a cabinet official.

And every president, of course, has some time, from time to time, displeasure in the performance of a cabinet official but normally, that displeasure is communicated privately and if that displeasure continues there is a change.

BERMAN: Yes.

GONZALES: And so, again, I worry about the constant criticism of the attorney general by this president.

BERMAN: You could have a conversation face-to-face. You could have a conversation on the phone. It doesn't have to be on Twitter or Fox News.

The president is bragging that he puts the word "justice" in quotation marks because he feels that there is so much corruption there.

Is there a potential lasting impact that this has on the entire criminal justice system?

GONZALES: No question about it. I mean, we have the greatest, I think, criminal justice system in the world and I think it's envied by many people around the world. But the constant criticism and the second-guessing of decisions at the Department of Justice I think does have a lasting impact.

You know, every time a U.S. attorney appears in court on behalf of the United States of American there has to be confidence in the integrity of the words that that attorney utters in that courtroom. And when you have constant second-guessing and criticizing of a department that -- I think it damages that reputation and hurts the moral.

Now, let me be clear. Mistakes have been made --

BERMAN: Sure.

GONZALES: -- at the senior leadership of the Department of Justice and when mistakes are made there needs to be accountability and those mistakes need to be called out.

I just think there's a better way of doing it and doing it in a way that makes the president appear strong and in control and doesn't do damage to the Department of Justice.

BERMAN: So the day after -- less than a day after -- less than 24 hours after the attorney general said that the actions of the Department of Justice will not be improperly influenced by political consideration, the president, just over the last few minutes, has made new demands of the attorney general, pressing the attorney general -- and he's doing it on Twitter -- to go after some of his political opponents.

Once again, posting tweets that he wants the Justice Department to investigate all kinds of Democrats for all kinds of things.

Is this the appropriate use of influence from the President of the United States?

GONZALES: Well, I -- you know, I think I -- obviously, I think the attorney general has an obligation to look at what the president is requesting. He is, in fact, in charge of the Executive Branch.

But the attorney general should not make any decisions that are not consistent with the evidence and not consistent with his -- the good judgment that he has that, in fact, a crime may have been committed here and there needs to be an investigation, and the department needs to move forward with an investigation -- with prosecution.

Again, the president's the head of the Executive Branch. He can -- he can express views to the Department of Justice.

I would like to think it would be better done privately because to do so publicly raises allegations -- accusations that, in fact, that the president wants the Department of Justice to go after his political enemies. And I think that does further damage to the Department of Justice. So there are other ways to communicate that.

But I think Jeff Sessions has an obligation to make sure that the forces of the Department of Justice are not used for political hands as he said in his comment yesterday.

BERMAN: You've suggested that the president should stop talking about this. If he wants the attorney general to go he should just fire him.

What about Jeff Sessions? What should he do now?

Would you ever take this kind of abuse? Look, I can't imagine President George W. Bush ever going after you like this.

GONZALES: (Laughing).

BERMAN: You're laughing. It would never happen.

[07:35:00] But in that bizarro universe where you're the attorney general of the United States and the president says these things about you, would you quit?

GONZALES: Listen, I think Jeff Sessions is not going to quit for these reasons.

I think this is the ultimate job as a lawyer. It's a tremendous responsibility, but a tremendous privilege. I think he loves his position and he rightly should.

I think also he's worried if he quits what's going to happen to the Department of Justice. I know he loves the department and as attorney general, he has a means to protect it. And so, you know -- and, of course, he wants to protect the ongoing investigations.

So I think -- I think Jeff Sessions is not going to quit. I think he will have to be removed. And for the reasons that I just outlined, I think -- you know, I think that he believes he's done a good job and has carried forth the president's law enforcement priorities and policies.

So I think if the president wants a change, I think the president's going to have to make that change on his -- by himself.

BERMAN: You spent your career in various levels of law enforcement and the law here.

When the president says that flipping should almost be illegal, what's your response to that? GONZALES: My response is why would the President of the United States, the head of the Executive Branch and, in essence, head of the Department of Justice, want to take away a valuable tool that's so important to the enforcement of justice and the enforcement of law in this country? And it is.

Without the ability to get cooperation from potential witnesses it makes it impossible -- certainly difficult if not impossible to prosecute certain kinds of crimes.

And so it's counterproductive, quite frankly, to the mission of the Department of Justice and therefore, counterproductive I think that what Donald Trump should want as President of the United States.

BERMAN: Well, it's not counterproductive if what you're trying to do is protect yourself from prosecution. I mean, why would he criticize flipping? Because it might be hurting him right now.

Former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, always enlightening to speak to you. Thank you so much, sir.

GONZALES: Thanks for having me.

BERMAN: Alisyn --

ALISYN CAMEROTA, CNN ANCHOR: OK, now to this story.

Are votes being suppressed in Georgia? Why one county may close nearly all of its polling centers.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[07:40:54] BERMAN: A small majority-black county in rural Georgia finds itself in the national spotlight over voting rights. Randolph County only has nine polling places. A plan to close seven of them could be announced this morning.

Critics are calling this a blatant attempt to suppress black vote.

CNN's Victor Blackwell live in Cuthbert, Georgia with the very latest -- Victor.

VICTOR BLACKWELL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: John, the room will be packed at the top of the hour when the 2-member Board of Elections here in Randolph County decides if they're going to close more than three- quarters of the polling places here in Randolph County.

The proponents of the plan say it's to save money and because those polling places aren't in compliance in federal law. Critics say it is bold-faced racism.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

LESTER HARMON, RANDOLPH COUNTY, GEORGIA RESIDENT: If you don't vote then you don't get no rights. BLACKWELL (voice-over): Seventy-six-year-old Lester Harmon says he votes in every election at the Benevolence fire station, less than a minute's drive from his southwest Georgia home.

HARMON: You can up the road and you can see it on your left.

BLACKWELL: But with just 2 1/2 months until the midterm election, Harmon said it could be a lot harder to vote in November.

Randolph County's Board of Elections will decide Friday morning whether to slash the polling places across this predominantly African- American county from nine locations to just two.

BLACKWELL (on camera): So just three-quarters of a mile away is where you vote now.

HARMON: Yes.

BLACKWELL: How far would you have to go to vote if the plan changes?

HARMON: Nine to 10 miles to Cuthbert.

BLACKWELL (voice-over): Election consultant Mike Malone, who was hired in April by the county commission and the county Board of Elections to help with the midterms, says Harmon's local fire station and six other polling locations do not comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

As recently as last Friday, Malone claimed that his proposal to close the seven locations has some big-name support.

MIKE MALONE, ELECTION CONSULTANT: Consolidation has become highly recommended by the Secretary of State.

BRIAN KEMP, SECRETARY OF STATE, GEORGIA: Let me thank you all so much for --

BLACKWELL: But the Secretary of State is Brian Kemp, Republican candidate for Georgia governor.

STACEY ABRAMS, DEMOCRATIC CANDIDATE FOR GOVERNOR OF GEORGIA: Good evening, Georgia.

BLACKWELL: He's running against Democrat Stacey Abrams who, if elected, would be the country's first black woman governor.

The race and the proposed poll closures have thrust this county of roughly 7,000 into national headlines.

REV. EZEKIEL HOLLEY, BRANCH PRESIDENT, LOCAL NAACP: This was straight racism.

BLACKWELL: Reverend Ezekiel Holly is the local NAACP branch president.

HOLLEY: We fought very hard to have the opportunity to vote and now the time has come so they can vote and their rights are being taken away.

MALONE: There is absolutely nothing farther from the fact.

There's no disenfranchisement. There's no disenfranchisement for the African-Americans. There's no disenfranchisement for the Caucasian community.

BLACKWELL: The Kemp and Abram campaigns have called on Randolph County to reject the plan.

Abram's camp is now fundraising off the proposal, writing in an e-mail to supporters, "Voter suppression is alive and well in Georgia and it's being pushed by a Kemp associate."

The Secretary of State's office tells CNN, "Our office did not recommend Mr. Malone to county officials to propose consolidation." And as backlash against the plan mounted, Kemp's office says Malone retracted his claim this week that the closures are highly recommended by the Kemp's office.

CNN's calls to Malone were not returned.

HOLLEY: If this will go forth and they're able to close these precincts then it will send a message to other counties that they can do the same thing.

BLACKWELL (on camera): What would you tell the people who make the decision on Friday about whether or not to cut the polling places?

HARMON: Just keep it as is.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BLACKWELL: So is there any truth to this claim that Malone is a Brian Kemp associate?

Well, the Secretary of State's office tells CNN that early this year, Randolph County officials asked for some recommendations for help with the November elections. Malone was one of several recommendations and the county chose him.

Now, in a sternly-worded letter late yesterday, the Secretary of State suggested that this county abandon the plan. And the county gave a check to Mr. Malone paying out the rest of his contract and asked him not to speak or to do anything further on their behalf.

[07:45:06] We'll find out if this plan to cut three-quarters of polling places will be enacted in just a few moments at the top of the hour.

Back to you.

CAMEROTA: OK, Victor. Please keep us posted. We will look very forward to hearing your update on that.

Thank you for all of the reporting. I want to tell you about a CNN special report that I have airing tomorrow night. We look at the dangers of fraternity hazing, specifically, the gruesome death of 19-year-old Penn State University student Timothy Piazza and the alleged cover-up that followed.

Here's a preview.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

CAMEROTA: Can you just describe what the gauntlet is?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Well basically, you just run through the house and there was like stations of alcohol and you're supposed to drink it as fast as you can. And people are yelling at you --

CAMEROTA: Encouraging you to drink.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: -- encouraging you to drink as fast as you can.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It begins with a handle of vodka. The brothers are made to stand in a line and pass it between each other until it's empty.

CAMEROTA: Next, the pledges run through stations manned by the brothers, shotgun a beer, run upstairs, chug from a wine bag, then back downstairs for beer pong.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: The house is supposed to be alcohol-free. Tim Piazza goes from zero to 18 drinks in 82 minutes. His blood alcohol was nearly five times the legal limit to drive in Pennsylvania.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

CAMEROTA: So John, when you watch this tomorrow night you will just hear the most hideous, just revolting details of what goes on behind the scenes at some of these hazing rituals. It's something that all parents need to hear.

BERMAN: Right now with kids going back to school.

CAMEROTA: Kids are going back to school. I didn't know the level of things that are asked for or demanded during some of these hazing rituals. There's all sorts of dynamics at play as you can imagine -- peer pressure, threats.

So you will hear all about it and just obviously, how this has affected the entire Piazza family.

BERMAN: How far, sometimes, kids get in before they know what they're being pressured to do.

CAMEROTA: That's exactly what happened.

So be sure to watch the CNN special report "A DEADLY HAZE: INSIDE THE FRATERNITY CRISIS" tomorrow at 8:00 eastern only on CNN. BERMAN: So, Miss America taking on the organization's new leadership. She joins us with why she's speaking out and how her criticisms are being received. That's next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[07:51:35] CAMEROTA: There is a lot of drama behind the scenes at the Miss America pageant. The current Miss America, Cara Mund, claims that she was bullied by the pageant's top officials, including chairwoman Gretchen Carlson.

In a letter to past Miss America's, Mund writes, "Our chair and CEO have systematically silenced me, reduced me, marginalized me, and essentially erased me in my role as Miss America. I am not comfortable with any of us being controlled, manipulated, silenced or bullied."

Gretchen Carlson has denied these allegations in full disclosure.

I know Gretchen Carlson. I worked with her for many years at Fox.

NEW DAY reached out to the Miss American Organization to invite Gretchen Carlson on the program but we've not yet received a response.

So joining us now is Miss America 2018, Cara Mund. Cara, great to have you here.

CARA MUND, MISS AMERICA 2018: Great, thank you for having me.

CAMEROTA: How did it get to this point that you are publicly feuding with the chair, Gretchen Carlson, about what your year has been like?

MUND: Yes. You know, I never intended for this to go public by any means, and I started voicing concerns back in January. I went to staff members. It just continuously seemed to have gotten worse.

CAMEROTA: What were your concerns? What exactly has been happening with you?

MUND: Yes, like stated in the letter where I felt like I was being silenced. I wasn't being considered a member of the staff. There was a lot of times where I felt like I wasn't being valued.

And it just continuously had gotten worse to the point where they didn't even know my name. They announced me as a totally different person --

CAMEROTA: Is that right?

MUND: -- at orientation.

CAMEROTA: And was that just a mistake?

MUND: You know, it could be, but it was just thing after thing after thing.

CAMEROTA: How did you feel you were being bullied? I mean, that word obviously gets a lot of attention.

MUND: Yes. You know, it's -- the letter I wrote to my sisters -- which that was kind of the last resort at that point -- details instance after instance.

Being not allowed to have a Q&A with the contestants and the E.D.s. When I did finally get to have a Q&A, having staff in there that was videoing it and watching at all times to make sure that everything I said was what they wanted. So not being that open and transparent that I was allowed to be.

At the same time, when I did start voicing concerns I went to then- members of the board and I was told that all concerns has to be kept within the family.

And so --

CAMEROTA: What did that mean -- that you could never go public? Is that -- is that how I'm to interpret that -- that you could never go public or what does it mean -- keep it in the family?

MUND: It meant that I wasn't supposed to go to the board anymore.

CAMEROTA: Oh.

MUND: And so I'd gotten to the point -- we had five staff resignations. We had two members of the board resign. We had two members asked to step down from the board.

I went to staff, I went to board members. Eventually, I went to my sisters and then that letter ended up going public.

CAMEROTA: Gretchen Carlson says that she has tried to resolve things with you. She put her own statement on Facebook. I'll read you a portion.

"Since her letter was posted -- meaning yours -- I have reached out to Cara via phone, text, and e-mail to try to speak, as I have felt this is the best way to air grievances and find resolution. Unfortunately, Cara's response has been that she only wants to communicate via e-mail but I remain hopeful that we can speak on the phone or in person soon."

Did you refuse her request to speak on the phone?

MUND: So what happened -- when this letter went public I was so nervous that I'd be called a liar and that's exactly what happened. A statement was released from the organization pretty much saying it's not true.

Gretchen went and did a "People" exclusive interview before reaching out to me. A statement went out from the organization and I still didn't get reached out to.

I finally got a call at midnight between Friday and Saturday. At that point, I had an event the next day and it's midnight. [07:55:03] CAMEROTA: So you got a voicemail or you actually answered the phone?

MUND: No, just a call at that point.

And then there was a meeting scheduled with the former Miss Americas that I wasn't invited to be on where they discussed concerns and they discussed the letter. And again, I didn't have that opportunity.

And then it got to the point that a statement went up on Twitter.

And so, again, kind of this irony of they said it had to be handled privately but then they got to go on the outside and do it publicly.

CAMEROTA: Are you willing to sit down and talk to her on the phone or in person?

MUND: It's -- as long as there's a witness there. I have said with the miscommunication and after being called a liar publicly now twice, and to my former Miss Americas, I want everything in written form just to make sure that there's no miscommunication.

CAMEROTA: But you would sit down with her if you had other people present?

MUND: Oh yes, of course. And I -- you know, the Miss America Organization, I'm a product of it and I'm very grateful for that and I want to see Miss America live on for another 100 years after this.

And so, to air those concerns I think is really important. But at the same time, I think making sure that we're open and transparent in how we do it.

CAMEROTA: Do you worry that you're going to lose your crown before the next person wins?

MUND: I mean, it's always a possibility. My contract says I can be fired at any time and without cause. And so --

CAMEROTA: Have you felt that that's going to happen?

MUND: Not necessarily. A statement from the organization came out yesterday saying that they won't --

CAMEROTA: You're not obviously -- "No, of course, we're not firing Cara Mund and anything to the contrary is patently false. The hope is for a peaceful resolution and a steadfast conclusion as attention is laser-focused on the show in Atlantic City next month."

That's sounds -- that's pretty forceful.

MUND: Yes.

And at the same time, you know, there was concerns before my letter even went public. There was 22 states asking for a resignation. When the letter came out that's now up to 32. There's 21,000 people who-- CAMEROTA: A resignation of who?

MUND: Of the leadership.

CAMEROTA: You're -- are you calling on Gretchen Carlson to resign?

MUND: Not necessarily. But instead, I serve as a voice of the organization. We have the locals, we have the state, we have the nationals. I wouldn't be Miss America if it wasn't for those volunteers.

And the fact that we have 44 states saying that they have a vote of no confidence is really concerning.

And as Miss America, I have a duty to also represent them and to also serve as that voice for them so that they're heard.

CAMEROTA: She also -- I want to read a little bit more of Gretchen's statement.

She says, "I also want to be clear that I've never bullied or silenced you. In fact, I have acknowledged to you and your parents many times that the organization understands the frustrations of serving during such a change-filled and stressful year. It surely was not what you had expected.

We've acknowledged your grievances and taken many steps to make your experience a good one."

Your response to that?

MUND: You know, I have contacted a few former Miss Americas and for a while, I kept thinking oh, we're in transition and maybe other Miss Americas have had some of these same issues, and that hasn't been the case.

At the same time, I tried to remove myself from the organization and I say OK, if this was a different business would this be appropriate?

At the same time, I am an employee and I do need to respond to my boss. I understand that. I understand it's a job. But at the same time, there's standards of how you can treat employees.

CAMEROTA: How is this going to be resolved?

MUND: I'm not sure. I think that's a really good question. You know, having open and transparent communication is going to be the first step.

CAMEROTA: And so, again today, as you sit here, are you -- what are you calling for? Are you asking Gretchen Carlson to sit down with you with other people? I mean, is that what the next step would be here?

MUND: Yes. You know, I've continuously written -- I mentioned to her I would like it in written communication. If we do meet, I want former Miss Americas there. I think that's really important as well so we can get both sides of the story.

At the same time, 44 states -- state organizations saying they have a vote of no confidence. I think there's going to have to be some changes made to make sure that Miss America lives on for years later.

CAMEROTA: Cara Mund, Miss America 2018. Thank you very much for sharing your side of the story with us today.

MUND: Thank you.

CAMEROTA: We're following a lot of news so let's get right to it.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: This was a magazine that, frankly, should be very respected.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Cohen was the bigger fish here. Their willing to give Pecker immunity sort of corroborates the tale.

RUDY GIULIANI, ATTORNEY FOR PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: You could only impeach him for political reasons and the American people would revolt.

SEN. JEFF FLAKE (R), ARIZONA: It's just not a good week for us to pass it off as Republicans as no big deal. That's just not right.

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: After the election, I think there will be some serious discussions about a new attorney general.

SEN. JOHN CORNYN (R), TEXAS: I think it would be a mistake. I don't think it would be good for the country.

KELLYANNE CONWAY, COUNSELOR TO PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Many of us are frustrated that we've never had an investigation of the other side.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The president just does not seem to understand that everyone's function is not just to look out and protect him from his own behavior and his own wrongdoing.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

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

CAMEROTA: And good morning, everyone. Welcome to your NEW DAY -- over here. It's Friday, August 24th.

I'm going to learn these cameras by next Monday.

BERMAN: Wherever we're looking it's still NEW DAY.

CAMEROTA: That's right.

BERMAN: Just a new direction for NEW DAY.

CAMEROTA: Inquiring minds want to know what secrets were locked in the safe. The "Associated Press" reports that the "National Enquirer" kept an actual safe of damaging documents on hush money payments that led Michael Cohen to plead guilty this week.

Michael Cohen testified under oath that he, Donald Trump, and the tabloid were involved in buying the silence of women who say they had affairs --