Return to Transcripts main page


DC on Lockdown Hours Ahead of Joe Biden's Inauguration; Prosecutors: Members of Extremist Group Planned Attack; DNI Nominee Says She'll Keep Politics Out of Intel Analysis; World Watches as Biden to be Sworn in as 46th President; Pence to Skip Trump Sendoff, Attend Biden Inauguration. Aired 4:30-5a ET

Aired January 20, 2021 - 04:30   ET



DONIE O'SULLIVAN CNN REPORTER: Conspiracy theories that helps flame those insurrection -- that insurrection we saw just two weeks ago on the Capitol behind us. All of that, of course encouraged by President Trump and amplified through online social media platforms like Facebook.

POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: Donie, federal prosecutors we've learned are giving some new details now on three members of a far-right militant group. They're accused of conspiring to storm the Capitol earlier this month. What can you tell us and is there a connection to what happened on the 6th of January?

O'SULLIVAN: Yes, some really, really chilling stuff that we're learning about the insurrection on January 6th. As you mentioned three members of the "oath keepers" which is a militia, militant group. Those charges include alleged -- having alleged instructions on how to make explosives, as well as evidence that the three members were receiving text messages and exchanging Facebook messages and text messages about locations of where lawmakers were in the Capitol during the insurrection.

So, you know, we had heard from federal officials here that, you know, the details, as they emerge more, about what happened on the 6th would be scary. And certainly, that is what we are -- as we learn more details, that certainly seems to be the case. So, just I guess it highlights how close things came to be even worse than what we saw two weeks ago.

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN ANCHOR: Yes, they were talking about making, quote/unquote citizens' arrests of lawmakers, not unlike the plot in Michigan, right, to kidnap the governor there. It's alarming stuff. Donie O'Sullivan, thanks very much.

HARLOW: Donie thank you for the great reporting. Joining us now to talk all of this, out legal and national security analyst, Asha Rangappa. She's also a former FBI special agent. Good morning to you. I think, Asha, one of the scariest parts of it all is to me is that that these folks, you know, a lot them and the beliefs of people don't go away at noon today. They don't go away when the president who fed them these is out of office. And maybe they're more emboldened. What do you do? What is FBI job number one?

ASHA RANGAPPA, CNN LEGAL AND NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: You know, we do what we did after 9/11. We make this a priority. There are challenges for the FBI when it comes to investigating domestic terrorism.

When you're facing externally, you know, a foreign threat, you know, you have first of all, additional agencies that can help, for example, the CIA, NSA, they can collect abroad. You have screening mechanisms for people, you know, coming into the country. And then you have legal tools in the United States, things like FISA, the Foreign Information Surveillance Act.

Those things are not available when dealing with a domestic terrorism threat. And so the challenge is going to be how do you act preemptively with organizations when you're still in the planning stages. Because obviously if you are reacted, if you waited until the event has occurred, you're too late. But that's going to be the challenge for the FBI.

SCIUTTO: You know, when you look at the scale of the domestic terror threat, that's what it is, it's terrorism. What they have that international terrorists in this country never have -- I mean, just in terms of numbers, there are more of them, right? Endless supply of weapons, highly armed in this country. But they also have defenders, right? They have defenders. I mean, if you imagine, you know, pro- terror rhetoric, you know, with Islamist terrorism that you have from certain media outlets in this country. Sitting lawmakers, et cetera. I mean, that's part of the issue here, right? I mean in many ways a bigger challenge than that faced with international terrorism.

RANGAPPA: Absolutely, Jim. They now have a cause. I mean, you know, they kind of -- they've had a cause for a while. But this latest election lie -- this lie that Trump won the election, kind of helps wrap it up in a bow. And what's really insidious about it, Jim, is that it allows a lot of the nefarious motives, the bigotry, the distrust of government, to hide behind a claim of defending democracy. And this is what allows it to then be defended by members of Congress.

You know, under the guise that they are in fact, you know, somehow upholding civic virtue. And so you're absolutely right. It's dangerous, we basically have a domestic terror group that has representation in Congress. And that makes it doubly hard to investigate. Because then the FBI is seen potentially as investigating political activity or being politically biased and won't go down that road.


HARLOW: What -- I'm just speechless hearing you put it that way, but you're absolutely right. What was -- like, what is the key thing, Asha, that was missed that can't be missed again. Because all the reports said this, you know. And it's like Jim's expertise. I mean he's been saying this for over a year, you've got to watch out for these folks. And I mean, what was missed that we shouldn't miss again, so it doesn't happen again. RANGAPPA: Yes, I think that there's going to have to be political

will. This is a very tricky area. Because you can imagine that let's say the FBI had been, you know, really surveilling all of these people coming to the rally. And then nothing happened. And then it came out that they were doing that, just imagine the fallout that would have happened. I mean, you know, Jim Jordan would have had a field day, right, in Congress.

So you know, there has to be a political will that this is OK. And then I do think we need certain tools that allow for some kind of -- you know, we do have the criminal laws. But some way for law enforcement to step in at a slightly earlier stage. And that gets really into a balancing of national security and civil liberties. So you have to be careful.

SCIUTTO: Yes, I mean, intelligence-gathering, right, domestically, that idea, too. Asha Rangappa, so good to have you on. I'm sure you'll be back soon to talk about this sadly soon.

RANGAPPA: Thank you.

SCIUTTO: Coming up confirmation hearings begin for some of the President-elect Biden's key cabinet picks, particularly on national security. How will their new policies impact the U.S. on the world stage?


HARLOW: Well, something else never -- that has never happened before is happening today. Joe Biden is entering the White House without a single confirmed member of his cabinet.


One day before his inauguration four of his top picks face the Senate for the start of their confirmation process. And they each promise a turnaround from the Trump administration's approach on the world stage. Just how big of an impact can they have if confirmed?

Joining me to discuss CNN political analyst and columnist for "Washington Post", Josh Rogin. Josh, really good to have you. Thanks for getting up so early on a very big day. The through line that I saw yesterday in the Senate confirmation hearings that were held is a promise from each of the nominees, we will depoliticize what has been politicized over the last four years. That's so important, isn't it?

JOSH ROGIN, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, yes, Poppy, you're exactly right. What we've seen over the last four years is the Trump administration's determined and largely successful effort, to take all of these national security agencies and really to really corrupt them towards the political agenda of the Trump administration and President Trump himself.

And that had effects both negative and troubling in many ways. And it will be a very tough job for the Biden team to go into all of these agencies and redirect them towards the actual mission of protecting our national security. And what we can see from the list of nominees is that they're qualified to do that.

These are technocrats. These are professionals. These are people who know government. But they face a situation where the United States has less credibility, less power, less influence around the world after four years of really eroding these organizations by the Trump administration.

HARLOW: Also, we heard from the top intelligence pick, Avril Haines to be DNI, a promise, under oath to give the public -- to release the government's report -- what the U.S. government believes who was responsible for the death or the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. I say that it's so important because it's even bigger than his murder, that everyone deserves to know the truth about. It's about transparency. It's about, you know, the Trump administration knows right now, and they promised that they would release it and she's saying we will. I mean if that speaks to the broader administration that is significant as well.

ROGIN: Of course. This is actually personal for us at " The Washington Post."

HARLOW: Of course.

ROGIN: Because Jamal Khashoggi was a contributing columnist who was murdered, brutally and dismembers inside of the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. And the Trump Administration covered it up and helped the Saudi government cover it up. Very egregiously ignoring the law while do so.

So if the Biden administration brings light to that, that will bring comfort and justice to the family of Jamal Khashoggi. But in a larger sense it will end an era where the U.S. administration was actually aiding and abetting the murder of a U.S. resident journalist for short-term, political and arms sales gains. And that would be a new day, although it won't be sufficient to reverse all of the damage done.

HARLOW: That's true. But it will be a new day for sure. Josh, you wrote about in your column yesterday I think it's really important and it was way under covered given the other events going on. And that is the declaration right here at the State Department at the end of the Trump administration calling what China is doing to the Uighur Muslim population crimes against humanity and genocide. The question now becomes -- you've got Tony Blinken in his confirmation hearing, agreeing with Mike Pompeo on that. The question become, what does the Biden administration do with it now?

ROGIN: Exactly. Well on the one hand it seems like there's going to be of continuity in U.S. China policy because both the Biden administration and the Trump administration have now acknowledged what there is mounting evidence of, which is that the Chinese government is perpetrating a genocide and crimes against humanity against millions of people, millions of their own citizens, which is a tough thing to ignore.

Their challenge will be that their -- they're also pledging to fix the Trump administration's very flawed China policy, and that is a tough thing to do even without a genocide. So how will Joe Biden, in the middle of a pandemic and considering all of the economic and diplomatic struggle ahead of the United States, be able to work with China, a huge county which we have a complex relationship with, while they're committing a genocide. That is no easy task. The first step is admitting that the genocide is happening. The second step is doing something about it.

HARLOW: For sure. Josh Rogin, good to have you. Thank you so much for all of that. Jim.

SCIUTTO: Well the president of the European Commission says that President-elect Joe Biden's inauguration marks a new dawn in America. And that the European Parliament has a friend in the White House after four long years. CNN's reporters are covering the reactions of leaders around the world.


FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: I'm Fred Pleitgen in Moscow as the Kremlin fears that the U.S. could take a tougher line towards Russia, under the incoming Biden administration.


And while Vladimir Putin in the past has said that he's willing to work together with any U.S. president, it took him weeks to congratulate Joe Biden after his election victory, even after most other international leaders had already done so. Now, there's also some politicians here in Russia who have called the pro-Trump rioters who stormed the Capitol and were subsequently arrested political prisoners in the United States.

MELISSA BELL, CNN PARIS CORRESPONDENT: I'm Melissa Bell in Paris. Never will an American presidential inauguration have been as closely watches from European shores as were Wednesday's. Not only because the incoming Biden administration is made up of a source of experienced people that many senior diplomatic leaders here in Europe know and respect and believe they can work with on so many of the global issues, climate change, to name just one. But also because more profoundly for Europe, that Wednesday will mark the return of an ally of a partner in multilateralism. And a champion of the sort of rule- based liberal order that goes to the heart of what Europe is.

BEN WEDEMAN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: I'm Ben Wedeman in beirut. Vice President Mike Pence recently rightly pointed out that the Trump administration didn't start any new wars, although it came dangerously close to war with Iran, just a year ago.

Starting with the Muslim ban, President Trump pursued a regional policy often broadcast via Twitter that careened all over the map, coddling dictators, downplaying human rights and slapping sanctions, willy-nilly. With a few exceptions, the end the Trump era is being greeted with relief in the Middle East.

PATRICK OPPMANN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: I'm Patrick Oppmann in Havana where the Cubans are anxiously awaits to see if incoming President Joe Biden will return to the Obama era policy of engagement with communists, one island. The Trump administration put into place some of the toughest sanctions on Cuba in years. But now Cuban officials say they're cautiously optimistic that the six decades' old embargo on the island can finally be lifted.


HARLOW: Our thanks to the reporters around the world. Coming up while the president has been out of the public eye for the final days in office, Vice President Mike Pence has steps in. But as some move to purge Trump from the party, what will it mean for Pence's political future?



SCIUTTO: Well, this morning, sources tell CNN that Vice President Pence is not expected to attend President Trump's farewell ceremony at Joint Base Andrews saying it would be difficult, logistically for Pence to be there and to attend Joe Biden's inauguration.

HARLOW: Actions speak louder than words. Joining us now is Julian Zelizer, historian and professor at Princeton University. And good morning, thanks so much for the early waking up, Julian to be with us.


HARLOW: I think that says a lot, right? He's not going to his own president's farewell and he's going to Biden's inaugural. What do you think?

ZELIZER: Well, it does. I think Vice President Pence has shown how shaken he is from the last few weeks. He was literally under threat as a result of the insurrection. And the last few days, he's taken many steps to try to separate himself from the president and not sharing what is often a celebration of outgoing president as well.

SCIUTTO: You have the Senate majority leader attending church with President-elect Biden, rather than going to the celebration as well. I wonder, you know, you're a historian, you're a professor. What is the lasting damage of the absence of that peaceful transition, right? That has so mattered in this country, but that this country has preached to the world to respect for decades as well. It's not happening. The president won't even say Biden's name. Won't even say it. What's the damage from that?

ZELIZER: There's been an immense amount of damage done as a result of the last month. There's the practical damage that the transition hasn't been as smooth as it should be. We're certain that the Biden administration doesn't have all of the resources ordinarily it would have at this moment right before the inauguration. And in the long term, it's undermined the strength of our institutions. It's exposed the weaknesses of our institutions. And it has lowered the bar as to what an outgoing president can do. So there's a lot of rebuilding that has to be done after everything. The campaign to overturn the election, the insurrection and more.

HARLOW: Can you give us a historical comparison to the division that this is in? I mean, we've been in horrible places as a Republic, and we have come through them -- taken civil wars, we've come through them. So, how does this measure up.

ZELIZER: Sure. It joins the worse list. Obviously, the civil war period is the worst era division that we've had as the Republic literally broke apart into war. The 1960s is another period where the decade ends with Americans in deep divisions over the war in Vietnam, over race divisions. And today we're in a similar place.

I would say that division extends into almost everything in 2021, and that's what makes it so difficult. It's not even about one issue or another, it's about the way I which we view the world. So there's a lot of institution rebuilding that has to take place, not just good leadership, if we're ever going to have a more united nation.

SCIUTTO: Well, we should note, the country rejected it, right? He lost, he loss by a sizable margin and even members of his own party now. I mean ten, not a huge number, but ten voted to impeach him and there maybe Senators who vote to convict him. Looking at Biden what is the word or phrase, or more importantly I suppose, promise you want to hear from him today that would make the biggest difference, right, in turning a page on all of this?


ZELIZER: Governance. I think what we need from the new president is not even a bold vision, and it's not necessarily another new deal. It's the ability to return to a White House that caring about governing, that cares about working through the processes that we have. This has been Biden's promise in addition to unity. And he's even put together a cabinet team with experience to emphasize that value. If we can do that in the next four years, if we can have some kind of normalization to the presidency, it will be a huge step forward.

HARLOW: Julian Zelizer, thank you, important perspective, we appreciate it very much this morning on a big day ahead.

Coming up the nation's capital on lockdown this morning. A country uniquely divided and a remarkable and historic trend, transition of power just hours away. How will President-elect Biden begin to heal the nation when he does take the oath of office. That's all ahead. Our special live coverage continues. Thank you so much for being with us bright and early this morning. I'm Poppy Harlow.

SCIUTTO: Yes, thank you for helping us kick off this day, so much more to witness. I'm Jim Sciutto. "NEW DAY" with John Berman and Alisyn Camerota will continue our coverage right after a short break.