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DOJ Official Bruce Ohr Faces Closed-Door Capitol Hill Grilling; Paul Manafort Sough Plea Deal Before Second Trial; Senator Lindsey Graham Says Trump-Sessions Relationship Beyond Repair; Trump Looms Large in Arizona, Florida, Primary Races; Aired 10-10:30a ET

Aired August 28, 2018 - 10:00   ET


[10:00:00] ERICA HILL, CNN ANCHOR: A lot of people, I will count myself among them. Glad that you did decide to pursue legal action.

Cherry Cohen, really a pleasure to speak with you today. Thank you.


HILL: The CNN original film "RBG" airs right here Monday night, September 3rd, at 9:00 Eastern. That's only on CNN.

Good morning. I'm Erica Hill in today for Poppy Harlow. And at this hour House Republicans are grilling Justice Department official Bruce Ohr behind closed doors. He arrived on Capitol Hill a little over an hour ago. And if the name sounds familiar, it should. It's the same man President -- Trump, rather, has called a creep. You may recall he also threatened to revoke Ohr's security clearance.

Well, Republicans, we're told, are planning to really dig into Ohr's connection to the ex-British spy who wrote that infamous and rather salacious dossier about the president. Meantime attorneys for the president's former campaign chairman Paul Manafort in court for a pretrial hearing. This is his second trial set to begin next month.

This as we're also learning his attorneys were in talks with Special Counsel Robert Mueller's team for a possible plea deal to avoid that second trial. But there is no plea deal right now. So what happened?

And also happening right now, Defense Secretary James Mattis and Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Joseph Dunford holding a briefing at the Pentagon. We are watching that for any developments there.

We begin this hour with Jessica Schneider who's in Washington with more on that closed-door grilling of Bruce Ohr -- Jessica.

JESSICA SCHNEIDER, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Erica, conservatives on Capitol Hill, they're saying this morning that they want, quote, "the truth from Bruce Ohr." Of course, they've been digging in on veteran DOJ official for more than a year now. And of course the president has been helping to bolster their condemnation of Bruce Ohr with his tweets and his comments.

So really, what's the issue here? Well, Bruce Ohr met multiple times with Christopher Steele. Steele of course is the former British spy who drafted that dossier with salacious but unverified details about Donald Trump during the election. And the question here is that conservatives will be digging into, why did Bruce Ohr meet with Christopher Steele even after the FBI had terminated its relationship with the former British spy?

So Republicans, they have been crying conspiracy theories for months. And now they are in this closed-door confrontation. They're trying to get more details out of Bruce Ohr, that veteran Justice Department official. So in -- on the way into the hearing this morning, we heard from Florida Republican Matt Gaetz. He said he wants to know a lot of details. Here's exactly what he wants.


REP. MATT GAETZ (R), FLORIDA: Really important for us to establish a timeline regarding Bruce Ohr's activities and Nellie Ohr's activities. There's a lot we don't know about when Bruce Ohr's learned that his wife was working with an agent of a foreign government to destabilize the presidential election and potentially a presidency.


SCHNEIDER: And Congressman Gaetz also went on to question Rod Rosenstein's leadership at the DOJ. Of course as deputy attorney general, Rosenstein has really been a frequent target of conservatives. Those conservatives also want to know when Justice Department officials became aware of Ohr's meetings with Christopher Steele because of course they want to know whether any of those meetings may have played any role in the Russia investigation.

And Erica, we also heard from the chairman of the committee, Meadows. He said that he has at least 60 questions for Bruce Ohr. So this likely to stretch long into the day. And it probably will get quite heated behind those closed doors -- Erica.

HILL: We can imagine that it will. Meantime, also just want to quickly check in on this, "The Wall Street Journal" reporting that Paul Manafort's lawyers had been talking about a possible plea deal for this second trial set to start next month. But those discussions happening before we had a conviction in this first case. Correct?

SCHNEIDER: That's exactly right. And apparently those plea deal talks, they stalled after Special Counsel Robert Mueller raised certain issues to Manafort's defense team. "The Wall Street Journal" didn't have detail on what exactly those issues were. But really, it's significant that those talks were even happening since Paul Manafort has long held that he is innocent and has long held that he won't work on a deal with prosecutors.

But really, maybe the reality is starting to come into clear focus for Paul Manafort. He has one conviction on eight counts in Virginia. That happened one week ago. And the D.C. trial is coming up in just a few weeks. That is set to be a longer, more difficult trial. Prosecutors say they have three times the evidence.

So really, Erica, the pressure could be on Paul Manafort to possibly strike a deal. And right now, a pretrial hearing is happening in that D.C. case. Manafort, though, isn't attending. He's opted to stay in jail in Alexandria for all of these pretrial hearings. We won't see him likely until this trial at the end of September -- Erica.

HILL: Jessica Schneider with the latest, thank you.

Joining me now CNN legal analyst Shan Wu. He is a former federal prosecutor, defense attorney, and a former defense attorney for Rick Gates, Paul Manafort's ex-deputy.

Shan, always good to have you with us on this. Let's pick up there where Jessica left off in terms of what "The Wall Street Journal" is reporting about a possible plea deal for Paul Manafort and why this may have broken off.

[10:05:06] What stands out to you? What do you think some of those issues could have been for the special counsel?

SHAN WU, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: It's really hard to say what they might have been. It could have been that the special counsel had specific admissions they wanted from him. On the other hand it could be something a little bit more pedestrian like forfeiture issues.

I think what's important, though, is that when these negotiations were occurring, it's while the jury is out. Both sides had reason to be a little bit nervous with that note about reasonable doubt. And it's basically a moment where the roulette wheel is still spinning. Neither side knows who's going to come out ahead. So it's a smart time for Manafort's team to push for a bargain.

But it's also a very tight time window for the prosecutors to feel confident that they could give him any kind of a good deal. They would normally want to have a lot of due diligence, sit down with him, debrief him, talk to his lawyers. That sort of in the hallway backroom kind of negotiation while the jury is out, pretty tight timeline. So I'm not surprised it broke down.

HILL: Do you think it could -- the talks could resume there?

WU: I think the talks could resume. The pressure is enormous on Manafort. I mean, the mindset for someone in his position, it kind of starts with denial, how dare they accuse me of this. And then it slowly starts to morph as time goes on and the pressure increases. He actually now faces potentially three trials. Right? He already had his first one. And then there's the second one coming up. And they could decide to retry him on those hung counts. So the pressure is just enormous on him right now.

HILL: When we look at -- there's also some new reporting, Rudy Giuliani saying, look, we still haven't heard from Mueller's team about an interview. We sent our letter. It was only five or six pages. They say they're still reviewing it. Anything to read into that in terms of timing?

WU: I think the timing is important as you're saying, because they're getting near the elections. I think it's funny he thinks a five or six-page letter is relatively short. It seems like it's a pretty dense letter for them to go through. They may have reached the point where they're going to essentially call his bluff, meaning they're either going to simply let them know, we're going to write the report without the president sitting down, or they'll issue a subpoena. And that's mostly what they're mulling over. I don't think they would just go ahead and start writing that without given Giuliani an answer however.

HILL: So you're giving me two scenarios there. That you think it's either we're going to do the report without the interview or we issue a subpoena, not necessarily that we're going on the demands and the -- I'm trying -- the parameters, I suppose, potentially laid out by Rudy Giuliani in that letter. Does that seem like it's an option to you?

WU: I don't think so. Although I have to say, it could be an option for the special counsel to simply say, OK, fine, you can have these parameters, sit down with us. We're going to ask our questions anyway, and you can just say well, we're not answering that question, and basically get a bunch of I refuse to answer on these particular issues.

HILL: Shan Wu, this will not be the last time we talk about that letter and what's going to happen. Thank you, my friend.

WU: Good to see you.

HILL: This morning, a key GOP senator, an ally of President Trump, says Attorney General Jeff Sessions does need to go. But the special counsel has to stay.

Take a listen to Lindsey Graham earlier today on the "Today" show.


SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: The president has lost confidence in Jeff Sessions. And I'm telling you what everybody in the country knows. This is a dysfunctional relationship. We need a better one. Is there somebody who is highly qualified that has the confidence of the president, will also understand their job is to protect Mueller? Yes, I think we can find that person after the election, if that's what the president wants.


HILL: Joining us now, Marc Short, CNN political commentator, former director of Legislative Affairs for President Trump.

Marc, good to have you with us. What do you make of Lindsey Graham's comments this morning?

MARC SHORT, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, I think that the challenge would be confirming a new attorney general in this climate right now. I think it would be quite a challenge. So I think if there was any conversation, I think it's probably appropriate to look at it after the midterm. But I do think it's also that the president should have a Cabinet he has faith and trust in. And I know there's been a lot of commentary about the independence of the Department of Justice.

The Department of Justice is filled with political appointees. And this suggests that Eric holder's Department of Justice was an independent one would be kind of laughable. So I think that the president should have a Cabinet he has confidence and faith in.

HILL: There's also the question of what confidence really means to this president. Is it confidence in them doing the job well, which we saw Attorney General Jeff Sessions really hit back in that statement yesterday saying, I'm doing exactly what I was brought on to do? Or is it a different kind of confidence? Is it this loyalty that we hear so much about that for the president is a blind loyalty?

SHORT: Well, I think that the president has complimented Jeff Sessions on several elements specifically around sanctuary cities and policies that the president has been encouraged to see him pursue.

[10:10:02] I think the frustration goes back, as you have reported many times, the president feeling that if Jeff Sessions was going to recuse himself from this investigation, that he should have told the president that ahead of time because he feels that it's been a very politically motivated investigation.

And there was a time, Erica, when conservatives and civil libertarians had great concerns about the power of special prosecutors, independent prosecutors who decide unfortunately often that they find a target and then they want to investigate every part of that target. What was supposed to be an investigation about Russian interference in our election is now about prosecuting people for tax evasion and for challenges of not registering as a foreign lobbyist.

And those are legitimate crimes that should be prosecuted. The question is, do you need independent counsels and special counsels to do that?

HILL: Well, we know -- we do know from the director that he was given -- what he is allowed to do. I want to stay on this question, though, of what a next attorney general could look like. Because, you know, as we're talking about what's important to the president, we heard from Lindsey Graham that whoever would be replacing Attorney General Jeff Sessions would have to be someone who would also promise that they would protect Robert Mueller.

Do you think that that would be a deal breaker, though, for the president?

SHORT: I don't know. You know, I think that the president has expressed his frustration with that. But there's also been, I think, perhaps opportunities for the White House to be less cooperative. The White House has turned over millions of pages of documents to the special counsel. So I'm not sure that that's really a deal breaker. I'm not sure I agree with Senator Graham on that point.

HILL: The president has been -- you know, this has been brought up a number of times. And even Lindsey Graham was asked about it this morning. The president says continually, no collusion, nothing to see here, rigged witch hunt. I mean, I'll ask you again. I know you've had the question before. Would it be more beneficial for the president, who contends there is nothing to see here, to just let this investigation finish out, get the report, see what it says and then pass his judgment?

SHORT: Erica, let's keep in mind a couple of things. The investigation has been going on for two years now at tens of millions of dollars of expense. There's been independent House investigations --


HILL: Far from the longest investigation ever by a special counsel. Let's also be clear here.

SHORT: Well --

HILL: I don't have a graph in front of me. But we've looked at that a number of times on this network. It's not like we're looking at 20 years here.

SHORT: Well, is that the measurement? Is it supposed to be whatever is the longest investigation ever? Is that how we're going to measure whether it's successful or not?

HILL: Shouldn't the measurement be when the investigation is done?

SHORT: The measurement -- the measurement right now is that it's been going on for over two years. You've also had independent House investigations, independent Senate investigations that have not concluded that there was any Russian interference -- I'm sorry, any Russian collusion. Of course there is Russian interference but not collusion with the campaign. And that's what this investigation was supposed to be about. So naturally there's a lot of frustration on the president's part about that -- Erica.

HILL: We are out of time. Marc Short, always appreciate you joining us. Thank you.

SHORT: Thank you.

HILL: Moments ago, Defense Secretary James Mattis speaking about John McCain. Here are his words.


JAMES MATTIS, DEFENSE SECRETARY: I cannot thank Congress without expressing my respect for Senator McCain for his steadfast courage and his service. And my deepest condolences to his family for the loss of a man who represented all the ideals America stands for.

Senator John McCain was a man who served his country honorably as a naval officer, as a defiant prisoner of war, standing with his brothers in arms until all returned home together, and as a leader in Congress, including the chairman of the Senate Armed Service Committee. In all he did, Senator McCain never lost sight of our shared purpose

in defense of freedom. For in his words, and I quote, "A shared purpose does not claim our identity, it enlarges on the contrary, it enlarges your sense of self."

So our nation has lost a great patriot and our military has lost one of our most ardent supporters.


HILL: We will continue to monitor that for any further comments. Again just hearing from Secretary Mattis there.

Still to come this hour, voters head to the polls in Arizona and Florida today. Polls open of course in both states at this hour. The president playing a major role in races in those states. Just ahead, how they will be critical to the balance of power come November.

Plus, a toddler dies weeks after being released by ICE. A law firm now alleging that child received neglectful medical care while in the agency's custody. We are on that story.

And the Pennsylvania attorney general says he has evidence now the Vatican knew about the attempt to cover up claims of sexual abuse. The Vatican now responding.


[10:19:17] HILL: Primary voters head to the polls in Florida and Arizona today. GOP candidates for their part have mostly embraced the president. It's certainly a way to help drum up the GOP base. Is that a winning equation, though, come midterms in November?

Joining me now to discuss, CNN senior political analyst Ron Brownstein and political analyst Molly Ball.

Good to have both of you with us. So, I mean, Ron, let's just start there. We know that this can work well at this point in the game. Can it help you -- I'm terrible at a sports analogy but I'm going with it. Can it help you carry the ball down the field for the rest of the season? Didn't work at all, did it?

RON BROWNSTEIN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Erica, these are two of the perfect places to test this because, look, I mean, there are red states on the ballot in November where Democrats are defending Senate seats in places where Donald Trump is popular.

[10:20:03] And in those places, Republican candidates can embrace him without too much fear. But Arizona and Florida are more indicative of the general election environment. I mean, there are places where the support for the president is equivocal or even slightly underwater in both cases. And you have in the -- particularly the Arizona Senate race with Martha McSally who started this somewhat more of a center right Republicans who supported immigration reform but has moved significantly to the right during the primary in part because of Trump's popularity, in part to fend off opponents to her right. And then in Florida where you have the governor candidate, Ron

DeSantis, who has completely embraced Donald Trump. And I think in both of these places, it is a much dicer proposition. Yes, Republicans are hoping enhanced turnout among the base allows them to avoid the usual midterm losses. But the reality is that the president is facing significant headwinds in both of those states and it will be a gamble come November.

HILL: It will be interesting to see, too -- and I just want to pick up on Kelli Ward here for a minute because we know there was that Facebook post over the weekend questioning the timing of Senator McCain's family's announcement about him ending treatment, that coming out just a couple of hours before the senator passed. There was a little backtracking.

Jeff Flake weighed in. And I just want to play what he had to say.


SEN. JEFF FLAKE (R), ARIZONA: I think most Arizonians recognize that that was a horrible statement. It's not the first. And I'd be surprised if she was rewarded for those kind of statements at the ballot box today.


HILL: And so, Molly, those are the comments, Molly, from Jeff Flake. But Ward also tweeted yesterday, "Political correctness is like a cancer." I mean, we know that has played well. I mean, is Jeff Flake right here? Is Kelli Ward right here?

MOLLY BALL, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, we'll find out tonight. That's what elections are former.

HILL: True.

BALL: But, look, I mean, Kelly Ward is someone who, you know, in previous primaries, including against Senator McCain, was viewed as something of a crackpot or a gadfly and the fact that she has put such a squeeze on the establishment's favorite candidate Martha McSally tells you about the changed dynamic of the Republican Party in the Trump era as well as the presence of Trump's buddy Joe Arpaio in the race that he doesn't seem to be getting a lot of traction.

But Republicans in Washington have had to pour a lot of money into this race to prop up McSally. And as Ron mentioned, she has had to totally reverse herself on her support for the president. This is someone who skipped the Republican convention in 2016 because of her distaste for Trump. And now has turned around and tried to cast herself as his best ally in the U.S. Senate.

And that, you know, as Ron was saying, in a pinkish purple state, that is a gamble in the general election. It will be interesting to see whether there's some kind of pivot that has to take place when and if she does win the primary. She is favored to win. And I don't -- and I do think those comments damaged Kelli Ward because there has been an outpouring of support for Senator McCain and his family. But, you know, we'll see.

HILL: Ron, in terms of that outpouring and even just -- you know, the nonstop discussion about Senator McCain and what his contributions were over the last 60 years of service to this country and particularly to the state of Arizona, how much do you think that may be coming into play more now? I mean, you know, some of it we'll know obviously after voters weigh in. After casting their ballot. But it is interesting that all of these things are coming to a head at the exact same time. And now there's going to be a decision that has to be made about who the governor will appoint to replace Senator McCain, Ron.

BROWNSTEIN: Right. And whether he appoints someone in the McCain mold who has an independent voice and obviously critical -- probably the leader of the critics of Donald Trump, certainly one who has been much more willing than the others in the Senate, Corker, Flake and Sasse to actually impose consequences as a result of his criticism. You know, his vote against repealing the Affordable Care Act, not because he supported the law but because he opposed the process, the hyper partisan, secretive process by which repeal had advanced, that I think set a standard that none of the other Trump critics inside the GOP have been willing to reach, which is to actually impose consequences with the behavior you say you object to.

Inside the Arizona primary, I mean, I think it's more going to be a reflection of how much the party has moved away towards this kind of racially infused nationalism that Trump has -- don't forget it was the Trump-McCain feud, you know, dates back to McCain's criticism of Trump precisely on those grounds. And the best thing that Martha McSally, the establishment, more center-right candidate who has been pulled away to the right, has going for her is that both Arpaio and Ward are in the race and are kind of dividing up that vote that would be more drawn to the Trump message.

I do think that this is a moment where you do get the magnitude of the change in the Republican Party that we have watched over the past 20 years, with the passing of John McCain exactly as this primary is unfolding.

HILL: What are you watching most, Molly, in Florida? I mean, what do you want to see after we get the results tonight? What will you be keying on?

BALL: Frankly, I'm watching the Democratic primary the most closely in Florida just because that's the one that seems the most up in the air.

[10:25:03] You have a really interesting dynamic between a more moderate presumed frontrunner with high name recognition and some progressive challengers who have -- seem to get a lot of traction in recent weeks.

You know, in the Republican primaries, the -- both the gubernatorial and Senate primaries seem like something of a foregone conclusion with a very similar dynamic that we're observing in Arizona and in other Republican primaries across the country, where buddying up with Trump is the best way to gain the favor of the Republican base. And so I think we pretty much know how those are going to turn out. But this Democratic primary is really interesting. And that's what I'm going to get the most information from tomorrow morning.

HILL: Molly Ball, Ron Brownstein, appreciate it as always. Thank you.

An investigation is now under way after allegations that ICE provided neglectful medical care for a toddler who became ill while in its custody. That same toddler died weeks after being released. We have an update next.