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Former Florida Prosecutor Calls Acosta's Comments on Epstein Case "Completely Wrong"; Rep. Katherine Clark (D-MA) is Interviewed About Acosta's Comments on Epstein Case. Aired on 8-9p ET

Aired July 10, 2019 - 20:00   ET


[20:00:13] ANDERSON COOPER, CNN HOST: Good evening.

A very minor part of the news tonight in Washington is whether the president's labor secretary, Alex Acosta, will actually keep his job. The larger story is whether back when he was U.S. attorney in Miami, Acosta did all he could to put financier Jeffrey Epstein, a man he apparently believed to be a serial child molester and rapist behind bars.

And before we even listen to any of Secretary Acosta's televised public accounting this afternoon for the decision he made back then, for the deal he cut, for what he did and didn't say from the accusers, the alleged teenage victims, I want to review of what the chief Palm Beach prosecutor at the time just said about it tonight. I'm quoting: As the state attorney for Palm Beach County for 16 years, from 1993 to 2009, which included the entire period of the Epstein investigation, I can emphatically state that Mr. Acosta's recollection of this matter is completely wrong.

He went on to say: If Mr. Acosta was truly concern with the state's case and felt he had to rescue the matter, he would have moved forward with the 53-page indictment that his own office drafted. Instead, Mr. Acosta brokered a secret plea deal that resulted in a non-prosecution agreement and violation of the Crime Victims Rights Act. Mr. Acosta, he concludes, should not be allowed to rewrite history.

And here is some of the real history, it's a passive from the "Miami Herald" Prize-winning investigation when the allegation against Jeffrey Epstein, friend and neighbor at the time of Donald Trump, friend of President Clinton and Britain's Prince Andrew. And as you know, Epstein is now facing similar federal charges 11 years later in New York.

And I'm quoting now. Epstein scheme first began to unravel in March of 2005, when the parents of a 14-year-old girl told Palm Beach police that he had been molested by Epstein at his mansion. The girl reluctantly confessed that she had been brought there by two other girls and those girls pointed to two more girls who had been there.

By the time, detectives tracked down on victim, there were two and three more to find. Soon, there were dozens. Dozens of underage girls.

The Palm Beach police chief who's supervised the investigation telling "The Herald" and I quote: We didn't know where the victims would ever end. That's what the U.S. attorney's office stepped into in 2007 and 2008. So many charges, in fact, they filled 53 pages, enough to put Epstein away for the rest of his life.

Instead though, in what's being described as a highly unusual non- prosecution agreement, Epstein was put on the sex offender registry, and allowed to plead guilty to a single state prostitution charge for what he served 13 months, essentially part-time in the Palm Beach County jail. He was actually allowed to leave jail and go to his office six days a week.

Now, terms of the agreement were kept secret from the accusers until after the fact, unlawfully, according to a recent court ruling. In addition, it immunized any unnamed conspirators and essentially shut down any further federal investigation in that jurisdiction.

Well, today, Secretary Acosta went before the public. He repeatedly said that taking Epstein to trial would have been, quote, rolling the dice, end quote, even though Justice Department figures show that the U.S. attorneys brought more than 3,600 similar cases between the years 2004 and 2013.

Acosta repeatedly shifted responsibility for the decision unto career prosecutors. He repeatedly lamented the times were different back then, as if back then were 50 years ago, instead of 2008 when all this occurred.

The one thing Acosta did not do, not once, was apologize to the alleged victims or even say he'd do anything differently.


REPORTER: Secretary, a lot of people are watching this news conference, including several young women, who say they were teenagers when n Jeffrey Epstein sexually assaulted them. They say they went to you, looking for help and they didn't hear back from you until it was too late. Do you owe them an apology?

ALEXANDER ACOSTA, LABOR SECRETARY: So, you're raising the issue of victim notification and in the documents that I circulated, I've addressed the issue of victim notification as well.


COOPER: OK. So, that's not even answering the question that was asked, let alone offering any kind of apology. And no regrets here either. Listen.


REPORTER: So, standing here today, are you basically saying that you did everything you could, you've got the best deal you could get and you have no regrets?

ACOSTA: We believe that we proceeded appropriately.


COOPER: A federal judge says otherwise. The new indictment, in fact, suggests otherwise as well, the fact that dozens of accusers sad to say in the deal, well, that certainly says something, just not to the labor secretary.


[20:05:02] REPORTER: Do you really have nothing else to say to these victims beyond you should come forward that places a lot of burden on children? What else do you have to say that you avoid addressing these people directly? Why is that?

ACOSTA: So, to be clear, that is not how I see it. You know, I think that if I recall and I obviously don't have a transcript here. But what I have said previously is that I have seen these interviews and I can't -- I genuinely can't begin to fathom what these victims have been through. I don't think that anyone who has not been in this situation can begin to fathom.

The closest like I can come is to think what would I feel like if one of my girls was going through this.


COOPER: Well, keeping them honest, no one doubts what a father would do to protect the child. The question tonight is what did a public servant, that public servant, who is now serving in the cabinet of the Trump administration do or not do to protect everyone's children?

Jim Acosta, we're going to talk to him shortly. Joining us right now is the "Miami Herald's" Julie Brown who has done the definitive reporting on the Epstein deal and is largely responsible for the new spotlight on this entire episode.

Julie, thank you so much for joining us.

Secretary Acosta seemed to argue that this plea deal he struck with Epstein was the best that he could do. Is that true?

JULIE BROWN, INVESTIGATIVE REPORTER, MIAMI HERALD: Well, that's his belief. There are certainly people in his office that I agree with him, but I think a lot of enforcement people have been on here all day, on CNN all day, explaining that there were other options.

First of all, if he felt like he didn't have enough evidence, or did something of which the evidence that he had was remarkable in my opinion and other experts opinions. But even if he felt that this was a little shaky and he couldn't get a conviction, he should have followed what is FBI wanted which they were already finding evidence that this went beyond Palm Beach. The FBI files show that they were traveling to New York and Mexico to interview witnesses.

Now, the reason why they are doing that is they were understanding that this kind of crime, kind of sex pyramid scheme involving young girls isn't something that he probably would just do at Palm Beach when he traveled so regularly. It would be natural for the FBI to want to examine whether he was doing it elsewhere. And so, had they stuck with the case and not done this plea agreement, perhaps they would've realized that this was a much bigger operation.

COOPER: And just in terms of operation, how big was this? How long does this go on for? Is that -- I mean, how far were you able to trace this back in terms of what he was doing?

BROWN: It seems like he was starting to do it at least in Florida since like 1998. He -- there were a couple of girls that came forward that were in his circle, let's say, since that time. It continued all the way up to the agreement when -- practically until the agreement was signed.

COOPER: And he would -- one girl, a teenager, to then try to recruit others as well. Is that right?

BROWN: Right. He would get his foothold in somehow with -- he had recruiters and schedulers and they would go to spas, for example, around Palm Beach, and find these young spas attendance and talk to them about recruiting new to this wealthy man who wants you to give him massages. That was the code words really that they always used.

And so, the girl would come and she's very young, she goes to high school, he would say, what's your life like? He would especially pry on girls who were unfortunate circumstances, very poor or even on the verge of homelessness. He would say, look, I'll pay you for a massage, he would molest them, and if they felt uncomfortable he would switch, they frequently did.

He said, well, that's fine, I pay you for every girl you bring me. So when the Palm Beach police were investigating this, it was like, you know, Leslie was hearing that she was brought by Mindy and Amanda, and, then you go to Mindy and Amanda, and they said, well, you know, these two other girls brought me and these other girls brought me. And it was -- you know, he was doing this to, three or, four times a day. Girls were coming in and out of his mansion.

COOPER: Two or three or four times a day, different girls?

BROWN: Yes, yes.

COOPER: And Secretary Acosta's office, I understand -- I mean, they had drafted an indictment against Epstein. It was never filed, why was that? Do you know?

BROWN: Well, you know, he hired the best lawyers that someone of his means can hire. And he was very shrewd about it. He hired lawyers that were politically connected.

[20:10:05] You know, Mr. Acosta was an alumnus of the Kirkland and Ellis law firm. Jay Lefkowitz, he was Epstein's attorney, is with that law firm. Kenneth Starr was with that law firm, some of the other lawyers he hired had been former U.S. prosecutors, in the Miami office, so they knew who -- you know, they knew Acosta, so who was sort of like this, you know, for the most part, a boys club of lawyers.

COOPER: Julie, if you could stay with us.

I just want to bring in Kia Roberts, the former senior assistant district attorney in Kings County, that's Brooklyn -- in Brooklyn, New York.

Also, CNN legal analyst Paul Callan, who served as a prosecutor in that very same office.

Paul, the one thing that struck me about what Acosta said today was the question he didn't really answer, which was why he didn't just keep investigating, if he had all these victims identified and he needs more evidence, why not push ahead as Julie said? You know, the FBI was going farther in the field?

PAUL CALLAN, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Yes, you're absolutely right, Anderson. I mean, he was according really traffic ticket treatment to a crime that could wind up at 45 years of exposure, prison exposure.

Now -- and all you have to do is look at the indictment that was handed down and unsealed in New York on Monday. That indictment actually reaches back to the year 2002, to Palm Beach, to Epstein's mansion in Palm Beach and includes the incidents that were very much under Acosta's jurisdiction at that time.

So, that means that over a decade later, New York prosecutors were able to put together a case against him, when Acosta claims that no case was possible at that time.

There are lots of federal crimes that were possible here, because telephones were used, computers were used, airplanes and boats were used, with respect to the commission of the crime. All of this would have generated federal jurisdiction and yet, he walked away and really give a sweetheart deal.

In negotiations by the way, with Ken Starr who was the lawyer who recruited here to come to Kirkland and Ellis when Acosta was working as the attorney in private practice. So, just a lot of strange looking things at went on in this case.

COOPER: And, Kia, is there ever any kind of time limit put on an investigation like this?

KIA ROBERTS, FORMER BROOKLYN SENIOR ASSISTANT DISTRICT ATTORNEY: Absolutely not. So, there's a lot of things that make the situation strange. We could really go on and on it for hours.

So, what I'll say is this -- there does exist this statute of limitations for certain crimes, but in this particular instance, the investigation had already reached kind one of its apex. He had been charged, once it happens as Julie put so well, that one victim turns into two, two turns into 12, 12 turns to 24, you have to collect the evidence, do a full and thorough investigation, and see where it goes and where it puts you. And I cannot imagine a judge in the world that were these serious

facts would not have allowed you to fully and thoroughly investigate the case and take it to a logical conclusion.

COOPER: Julie, Secretary Acosta put a lot on the career prosecutors in his office for decisions if were made in this case. To be clear, he was the boss. I mean, at the end of the day, he had final say on what happened here, right?

BROWN: Right. And we made a lot of this meeting which I focused on my story. How he met privately with Lefkowitz, Epstein's attorney, far from his office in Miami and at the Marriott in October. And he made much of the fact that there is nothing to that meeting, because the deal was signed in September before that meeting ever happened.

If you look at the record, yes there, was some paper signed in September. But they were hotly negotiating that agreement all the way up to the reason he appeared in court in June of 2008. There was a lot of stuff happening.

And there is also a letter that Jay Lefkowitz wrote back to Acosta after that October meeting saying, thank you very much, I'm glad we discuss this and just a reminder here, that you are not -- you agree not to tell any of the victims about this deal.

So, it was at that meeting we suspect, that he arranged for the secrecy aspect of it, which, you know, that's biggest question here, why if it was such a good deal, did he seal the deal so that nobody could find out what it was?

COOPER: That's incredible. I mean, he's blaming prosecutors but he's going to the secret meeting out of town. I mean, that just seems highly unusual. Doesn't it? I mean, Paul, is that normal?

CALLAN: No, it's not an all normal. As a matter of fact, virtually all meetings where pleas are being negotiated takes place at the prosecutor's office.

[20:15:02] It's very rare that a prosecutor would even go to the defense attorney's office. But in this case, he went to a hotel for a breakfast meeting. So, it was clearly intended to keep the negotiations a secret.

And then, he ultimately negotiated a deal where victims or not going to be notified about anything. He gets a very nice "thank you" letter from Kirkland and Ellis, the defense firm. So, it's very, very unusual.

COOPER: Kia, why wouldn't the victims be notified? I get why the defense wouldn't want the victims be notified.


COOPER: But why -- I mean, the prosecutors are working for the people.

ROBERTS: Absolutely. It's shocking, it's inexplicable, and it's completely unprecedented.

You know, when I was a homicide prosecutor in Brooklyn, one of the most unique and meaningful parts of the trial would conclude with the victim's family in a homicide situation, or the victim itself when a victim was still alive, and they were allowed to do something called a victim impact statement. And that was them talking to the judge, and looking at the defendant in the eye and saying this is what you did, this is how it affected me and my family.

That was a hugely important and cathartic and therapeutic process for victims, and the fact that this was denied to the 30-plus young women who had the courage and fortitude to assist with the investigation is really heartbreaking and cruel.

COOPER: Yes. Kia and Paul, I want to thank you.

Julie Brown, you know, in this age where reporters are, you know, under the gun and being called all sorts of things, your reporting is critical in exposing this story and, really, nobody would be here -- you know, it would not -- the victims would not have a voice to this point if it not for you. Thank you very much.

BROWN: Thanks so much.

COOPER: Coming up, the latest from the White House on all of this, including a reaction to Secretary Acosta's performance.

And later, new reporting on the bogus conspiracy theory that was apparently too juicy for right wing media and even the Trump administration to actually check. The death of a DNC staffer, the claim he was gunned down by assassins working for Hillary Clinton and the alternative explanation it appear to offer in the Russian investigation. Again, this was a phony story and tonight, we now know where it originated. Investigative reporter Michael Isikoff has the real story. He joins us shortly.


[20:21:38] COOPER: The breaking news tonight, fallout from Labor Secretary Acosta's explanation of his actions as U.S. attorney 11 years ago, to give alleged serial child molester and rapist Jeffrey Epstein, what we've all now heard described as a sweetheart deal.

The latest development, a brutal statement from the Palm Beach County state attorney at the time, accusing Secretary Acosta today of rewriting history.

CNN's Jim Acosta joins us now.

So, what do the White House -- do we know what they thought of Acosta's performance today?

JIM ACOSTA, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Anderson, so far, they feel that Secretary Acosta handled himself pretty well earlier today. They felt, and I talked to an official earlier this evening who said he offered some information to his defenders out there who are trying to counter this criticism that he was too lenient, the vice president came forward late in the day and said that they were glad to see Secretary Acosta step forward.

But much of this is driven by the president, Anderson, who does not appear to be, at this point in the mood to unload the labor secretary, from what I understand, talking to a senior administration official, he wanted Secretary Acosta to go out there fighting for his job and the president wanted to fight against these calls for his resignation coming from Democrats up on Capitol Hill. In the words of the senior administration official, the presidents attitude about his detractors was, quote, screw 'em.

COOPER: Well, in terms of his job security, should Acosta be breathing a sigh of relief tonight? Because obviously a lot of reviews of things he has said, there were a lot of things he just left unsaid or refused to answer or apparently answered incorrectly or was rewriting history, according to the official.

ACOSTA: That's right. That's what that state prosecutor, former state prosecutor is saying down in Florida, that Secretary Acosta has his recollection of events completely wrong.

But I will tell you, Anderson, we have seen this White House and we have seen this president say in the past about previous officials that he would like to see various cabinet members stay on board when they have come under some pretty intense scrutiny, but I talked to one senior administration official who said, he cautioned against thinking that Secretary Acosta will remain in that position forever, saying that one day you work for President Trump, the next day you don't. And that is a very candid assessment of how things go inside this administration, Anderson. As you, know you are useful until you are disposable -- Anderson.

COOPER: Yes, and then you never worked there, initially to begin with, that's like on day three, they like you, they fire you and then they don't even know who you are.

Jim Acosta, thanks very much.

Joining us now as Democratic Congresswoman Katherine Clark, who helps oversee funding for the Labor Department. She tweeted today and I quote: Somehow Secretary Acosta managed 53 minutes of victim blaming, but he couldn't manage to say the two words we need to hear: I resign.

Congresswoman Clark, what's your reaction to the reporting that we just, heard that White House officials think Acosta handled himself well today?

REP. KATHERINE CLARK (D-MA): Well, it certainly not surprising coming from this administration that they continue to side just as Secretary Acosta did, with the powerful, with the wealthy and not with the vulnerable in the children. We have an outrageous case here where Secretary Acosta, when he was the U.S. attorney, sided with Jeffrey Epstein and his lawyers who he apparently knew from legal circles, and decided to settle this case in secret from the victims, giving very unusual settlement agreements like providing blanket immunity for unnamed coconspirators.

[20:25:13] And yet there's no apology, today there is nothing that says I regret this. We've just heard blame shifting and evasion, and we need to hear those words that there will be responsibility and accountability.

COOPER: Do you think if he had come forward and said, you know, I regret the deal looking back on it, I wish I had pushed harder, that that would, that would reflect well on him? It certainly not something, obviously, the president of the United States like to hear people apologizing for something. But would that have worked for Acosta better than what he did today?

CLARK: Well, it certainly wouldn't have been a start, that's showing he has some basic human decency. But really what this comes down to is that if we cannot trust Secretary Acosta when he is looking at a draft of a 53-page indictment showing a sexual ring that involved minor girls, these were young girls with coconspirators and Jeffrey Epstein at the very center, if he chose them and made this very unusual deal that resulted in the most incredibly luxurious sentence I have ever heard of, where you go to state jail for 13 months and you get a work release six days a week.

And the fact that he is now our secretary of labor, he is in charge of making sure that children are not exploited in the labor market, that they are not trafficked, he is in charge of equal pay, making sure that workers can be whistleblowers and talk about conditions on the job, and he continues to choose the very powerful over victims. So how can we possibly trust him to be a secretary of labor and choose American workers?

COOPER: Do you find it ironic that Acosta said that his message to any other of Epstein's victims is that they need to come forward, given the fact that he worked for a president who routinely attacks and derides victims when they do come forth with allegations of sexual assault and even when it's rape against him?

CLARK: Yes, ironic --

COOPER: This doesn't seem like a case where there has been a lack of people coming forward. It seems like there's actually huge numbers of people.

CLARK: There are huge numbers of people coming forward. There are huge numbers of victims that Secretary Acosta knew about at the time he made the secret a sweetheart deal for Jeffrey Epstein, and it's beyond ironic. It is really disgusting and it is frightening to think that he thinks it is appropriate to look into a camera and tell victims to come forward, when we have his actions and we have the actions of a president that when faced with his own rape allegations just several weeks ago, his defense, was that woman is not my type.

This is the administration that we are dealing with. This is the actions of this particular secretary. Unfortunately, this is a continuation of how this administration expresses misogyny, doesn't believe victims of sexual assault and continues to choose the very wealthy and rigged the system for them to the exclusion of everyone else.

COOPER: Katherine -- Congresswoman Katherine Clark, I appreciate your time. Thank you very much.

CLARK: Thank you, Anderson.

COOPER: We have more breaking news straight ahead. Tonight, more provocation in the Persian Gulf by Iran. What U.S. officials are revealing tonight about what's going on.

We'll be right back.


[20:33:09] ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: There's breaking news tonight from the Persian Gulf. U.S. officials tell CNN that five armed boats operated by the Iran's Revolutionary Guard tried unsuccessfully to seize a British oil tanker as it was crossing to the Strait of Hormuz.

And according to these officials, the Iranians ordered the tanker to change course and stop in Iran territorial waters. A British Navy frigate escorting the tanker trained its deck guns on the Iranians and warned them to back off. They did. U.S. officials say U.S. aircraft was overhead and recorded video of the incident but nothing so far has been released.

CNN's Fareed Zakaria, host of "Fareed Zakaria GPS," joins me right now. So what do you think is going on here, Fareed? What is Iran's game in this trying to accomplish with these aggressive moves?

FAREED ZAKARIA, CNN HOST, FAREED ZAKARIA GPS: The Iranians were trying to retaliate for a similar British move that took place awhile ago. But the real story here, Anderson, is that you have a ratcheting up of tensions on almost every front ever since the Trump administration has really tightened the noose on Iran that is essentially made it impossible for Iran to sell its oil on international markets.

The Iranians have been backed into a corner and are trying to explore how they can use the leverage they have access through the Persian Gulf, their interests in Lebanon or Yemen or close to Saudi Arabia and they've been putting kind of turning up the heat as much as they can.

The Trump administration seems to want this, seems to want to add to the pressure but it's not clear to what end. There is no negotiating strategy laid out. There is no diplomatic solution they have put forward. So the danger here is an atmosphere of high tension with both sides not wanting to back down.

You could easily see some kind of miscalculation and it could lead to some of the situation that I don't think the Trump administration wants, which is war. The administration has a lot of pressure on Iran, but it's not clear what its strategies, what is the goal.

[20:35:04] COOPER: I also want to ask you about the resignation of the British ambassador to the United States today that happened. The cable -- some cables he'd written were leaked in which he call the President "insecure" and the administration inept and "dysfunctional."

I mean, the thing about all of this is -- I mean, this is basically what ambassadors do, they -- and U.S. ambassadors do it about leaders of countries they are based in. They send the unvarnished opinions on the country and leadership in which they are serving. That is their job, isn't it? I mean --

ZAKARIA: Of course. And, you know, do you think it -- even to Donald Trump, was it any news that people think that he's somewhat insecure or thin skin narcissistic and takes things personally? I mean if that's the case, then Donald Trump obviously is not reading newspapers or watching television.

Look, the important thing is that the British ambassador was actually saying it in a very constructive way. He was trying to help ministers his government figure out how to deal with Trump. And if you read the, you know, the more detailed version of the leaks, he is saying to them, therefore, couch everything in personalistic terms toward Trump, make it about him, begin by praising him, begin by praising some recent accomplishment he's made.

And if you look at the ambassador's own dealings, his tweets, his statements, they all follow that. He lavishly praised Trump. So this is a guy doing exactly what his job should be. He was describing his own internal character assessment of Trump as you say exactly as ambassadors should do.

And, you know, if Trump were not as thin skin -- I mean, the way he is reacted to this it's more like some kind of act of vengeance that a mafia boss wants to take rather than, you know, the President who should surely know this is the game of international diplomacy.

We don't know what the British -- what the American ambassador from London is telling Trump about Theresa May. You know, this is how the international game works. Don't take it personally. Get over it.

COOPER: Yes. I mean, it's just -- it's embarrassing -- the President is clearly just embarrassed by it and therefore -- you know, doesn't like to be embarrassed and is therefore just lashing out even though this is something, you know -- I guess what's kind of gotten lost in all this drama are the words, the actual words that the ambassador used, it's something that our closest allies uses the words inept and dysfunctional in describing this White House. I mean, it's not unusual.

ZAKARIA: What's extraordinary, of course, is the reaction of the Trump administration and Donald Trump has completely confirmed everything the ambassador said about the President and the administration.

COOPER: Yes. Yes. Fareed, appreciate it. Fareed Zakaria, thanks very much.

Up next, I'm going to talk with the reporter who unmasked the culprit behind the Seth Rich conspiracy, the most widely circulated and widely debunked theory about Russian interference in the election.


[20:41:41] COOPER: Well, just a week before Robert Mueller testifies before Congress, a new report has named the culprit of a widely discredited conspiracy theory about who hacked the DNC during the 2016 election.

Now, the original theory, which is peddled by the far right, said it wasn't Russia at all, rather a DNC staffer name Seth Rich had leaked the e-mails and that assassins working for Hillary Clinton had murdered him.

Rich was killed three years ago tonight in what was most likely a robbery. The facts didn't prevent personalities on Fox News, even the President's current lawyer, Jay Sekulow, from pushing the theory. Here is Sekulow back in 2017.


JAY SEKULOW, ATTORNEY FOR PRES. TRUMP: It sure doesn't look like a robbery, it looks like a murder. And, you know, I haven't seen the files, you haven't seen the files, but there is one thing this undercuts I think is this --


SEKULOW: -- I think this whole Russia argument, Sean, is such a self refuse for reality.


COOPER: Well, the reality was that the theory flourished. The conspiracy theory flourished. Here is a man holding a sign peddling the conspiracy at a rally for President Trump in Tampa, Florida in July of last year. And until now we didn't know where the conspiracy theory actually originated, now we do thanks to Yahoo News in a new six-part podcast series.

With me is Michael Isikoff, Chief Investigative Correspondent for Yahoo News who broke the story. So, Michael, this is fascinating reporting on your part. Just explain to us how this whole conspiracy theory actually started.

MICHAEL ISIKOFF, CHIEF INVESTIGATIVE CORRESPONDENT, YAHOO NEWS: Yes, it is a fascinating story. It's sort of an archeological dig into these conspiracy theories, which got so much traction in 2016, '17 and, you know, even until today.

And what it turns out is that Seth Rich was killed on July 10th, 2016. He was walking home in the early hours of Sunday morning after a night drinking at a local bar and what the cops concluded is -- very early on that this looked like a botched robbery.

There had been a string of robberies in that -- in the neighborhood where he lived in the weeks before his death and Seth Rich resisted his assailants. They apparently panicked and shot him in the back.

Three days later on an obscure website called, they report that in fact Seth Rich was on his way to talk to the FBI to reveal corruption about the Clintons when he was gunned down by a squad of assassins working for Hillary Clinton.

The prosecutor in charge of the case at the time, Deborah Sines, talked to us for the first time for this podcast and she talked about how frustrated she was about these wild conspiracy theories relating to her case so she asked the U.S. intelligence community to help her figure it out, where are these theories coming from.

And what she -- what she got back, she says floored her. It turned out that the Russian SVR that -- their version of the CIA, their Foreign Intelligence Service, had circulated a bulletin disguise to read as a real intelligence report making those exact same claims about Seth Rich that was in that story about the squad of assassins working for Hillary Clinton and from there it took off.

[20:45:03] It migrated into these alt-right sites and chat rooms on alt -- and read it in 4chan and within a few weeks, Roger Stone, the President's long-time political advisor, picked it up, tweeted a picture of Seth Rich and said another dead body in the Clinton's wake.

COOPER: And picked up, you know, by Fox News, folks on Fox News --

ISIKOFF: Yes. And from there --

COOPER: -- you know, on their pundits.

ISIKOFF: Exactly. The same day that Roger Stone tweeted that Julian Assange gave an interview to a Dutch television reporter in which he hinted that Seth Rich was his source for this -- for the DNC e-mails.

He posted -- WikiLeaks announced the $20,000 reward for information about Seth Rich's murder. And eventually this made it all the way up to the Trump White House in the podcast.

We reveal text messages from Steve Bannon, then White House senior counselor, encouraging a CBS "60 Minutes" producer to go chase the story calling it a huge story. It was a contract kill, obviously. That was in March 2017 and then in May of 2017 just as the Russia story is blowing up Fox News picks it up and shouts it to the rooftops.

COOPER: Yes. I mean, it's incredible. I mean, what you're describing really is a classic disinformation campaign out of, you know, what was, you know, formally the KGB's textbook.

ISIKOFF: Exactly.

COOPER: And the fact that it got such widespread amplification through, you know, the U.S. folks in America and alt right stuff and Fox News, that's incredible. ISIKOFF: Absolutely. Look, there is -- there's a phrase for what the Soviets used to do in the Cold War active measures. It's a disinformation operation in which you plant phony stories or conspiracy memes into foreign media and then hope that they will migrate and take off. That's exactly what this was. This was a clear Russian disinformation operation.

And I should point out that it wasn't just those SVR bulletins as we reveal. The internet research agency, that troll farm in St. Petersburg that was central to the Russian meddling -- interference manipulation of social media during the 2016 election picked up the Seth Rich case.

They tweeted and retweeted about it more than 2,000 times under phony accounts, disguised as Americans such as, you know, 10_gop, like -- pretending to be the Tennessee Republican Party and that it was constantly tweeting about Seth Rich, you know, keeping the story alive in the social media bloodstream.

COOPER: I mean, you would think, you know, for the person holding up that sign that we saw in Tampa or the people doing this on T.V., if they had decency they would apologize -- I mean, for essentially doing the bidding of Russian intelligence by pushing this theory which had no evidence at all.

ISIKOFF: No evidence, whatsoever.

COOPER: I mean, if they were doing the work Russian intelligence.

ISIKOFF: No evidence, whatsoever. There was nothing -- you know, the claims were that there was -- the FBI had -- on Seth Rich's laptop had found communications with WikiLeaks, complete nonsense. There was nothing to back that up.

But, you know, the real emotional core of this story is just what a gut -- how gut wrenching this was for the Rich family to see their sons, you know, reputation being solely suggesting he was a leaker and a thief who betrayed his DNC colleagues.

Mary Rich, the mother of Seth Rich, one of those we interviewed for this podcast, talks about it and says at one point, "This was like losing my son all over again."

COOPER: And any progress on the investigation into what they believe was a robbery?

ISIKOFF: Well, what we've learned is that, A, it has been transferred to the major case/cold case squad with a new detective and a new prosecutor who is now in charge Of the case. We have not seen any sign of progress in the last three years. No suspects have been identified, no arrests have been made.

Deborah Sines, the former prosecutor, says the cops and she were always convinced this were related to this string of robberies, armed robberies in the neighborhood, much of it length to drug dealing activity in a nearby housing project. Joel Rich says that he's talked to the detective and prosecutor recently and they've told him that they are still actively investigating. They talk about the case every day.

[20:50:04] COOPER: Yes.

ISIKOFF: And so, you know, we will see whether they can make that breakthrough.

COOPER: Yeah. Michael Isikoff, Yahoo News, that's where -- you can find the podcast on Yahoo News, right, Michael?

ISIKOFF: Yes, or on Apple podcast. It's called "Conspiracyland." You can download it anywhere, wherever you get your podcasts.

COOPER: All right, Michael Isikoff, thanks very much.

Just ahead, a serious storm hitting New Orleans could become a hurricane. Flash flooding has already hit some neighborhoods. We'll have details on that, the very latest as we continue.


COOPER: In a moment, they'll have the latest on flooding in New Orleans, but first, Chris joins us to see what is coming up on "Cuomo Prime Time." Chris, what do you got?

CHRIS CUOMO, CNN ANCHOR: So here are the names I have tonight. I have Klobuchar, I have Cuccinelli, I have Rangappa, I have Yuger (ph), and I have Urban (ph).

[20:55:01] And if you look at them the way I listed them, those are waves of immigrants that came into this country and I'm going to be talking to all of them tonight about the ways of immigrants we're dealing with now and still doing it poorly. What is each perspective?

Klobuchar wants to be our President, what would she do? Cuccinelli is in charge of caring for this people now for this administration, what is he see? We're going to do all of that and we're going to do the next layer on Epstein.

The way I'm looking at it tonight, Coop, is you've got to see this story as a human trafficking story, not just about the rich and the powerful because human trafficking, I did a documentary on it here for our sister network, HLN, it's a bigger problem than we even understand and that's why it shouldn't be ignored in this case.

COOPER: All right. Chris, I look forward to it, just couple minutes from now. I'll see you then.

We'll be right back with the latest details from New Orleans on the storm that is approaching, the water is rising, could get quite a bit worse. We'll have the full details ahead.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) COOPER: Well, New Orleans is on alert tonight. The first tropical system to slam the U.S. is expected to hit the city as it moves into the Gulf of Mexico. The mayor has already declared a state of emergency. There's already flooding from the storm.

According to the National Hurricane Center, it could make landfall as a category two hurricane by Saturday evening. Linger, dumping steady rain in an area that's already seen some serious flash flooding as you can tell.

Louisiana's governor has declared a statewide emergency that says that 10 to 15 inches of rain could fall within 24 hours. We'll continue to watch that carefully.

News continues right now. I want to hand it over to Chris for "Cuomo Prime Time." Chris?

CUOMO: All right, Coop, thank you very much. I am Chris Cuomo, welcome --