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CNN LIVE EVENT/SPECIAL

Soon: Historic Trial for Trump's Impeachment Resumes; Source: Trump Had to Be Convinced to Tweet "Stay Peaceful" During Riot; Soon: Senators Ask Questions in Impeachment Trial; GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham Met with Trump Defense Lawyers During Break; Source: Trump Happier with Today's Defense Performance. Aired 3:30-4p ET

Aired February 12, 2021 - 15:30   ET

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


[15:30:00]

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: Welcome back to our special live coverage.

Any moment now the Trump impeachment trial will resume. They've taken a quick break. Senators will then have an opportunity to submit written questions to the House impeachment managers as well as the Trump legal team.

I want to go to CNN's chief White House correspondent Kaitlan Collins. So far, the defense team, the three lawyers representing the former president, they only spent about two and a half hours making their respective case because they had 16 hours. They didn't do three. They didn't do four. They only did, Kaitlan, two and a half hours.

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Wolf, they didn't even come close to using all of their allotted time. That was never the plan, but we should note they went even shorter than we believed they were. We thought they were going to go a little bit closer to four hours during these arguments.

But one reason, Wolf, that is factoring into all of this, is David Schoen, one of the president's lead attorneys on this defense team, has to leave because he's observing the Jewish Sabbath and so he said he will not be participating in the proceedings, of course, starting at sundown tonight. That means he would not be participating if they dragged on until tomorrow.

And so what I was told by someone familiar with what's going on with the team's thinking here is that they wanted him to be present for this question and answer session because often it can be very critical. Sometimes you hear from the Senators who are on the line about what to do here and they want to pose questions to each side, and so that's a chance for these attorneys to come up and answer these questions.

And they -- I was told they did not want Bruce Castor and some of the other attorneys to be the ones leading that response. So that's going to play a factor into what you're seeing here.

And Wolf, one thing we should note that we talked about earlier is those three Republican Senators who went into the room last night with the former president's defense team to give them advice for their rebuttal today, I'm told that at times they were frustrated because they did not feel like their advice was breaking through to the attorneys.

[15:35:00]

Because I was told the attorneys had been very defensive of their methods that they have pursued this week, of course, starting with Bruce Castor on Tuesday, that performance that was widely panned.

And a lot of that criticism came from former President Trump, their client. And you know, that's not something that if you're not used to getting that kind of criticism from former President Trump, you're not familiar with his tactics, I'm told it caught them off guard a little bit and it did play a factor into how you're seeing all of this be structured.

BLITZER: All right, stand by because we're waiting for this trial to resume, the question-and-answer session. John King, we heard from these three lawyers representing the former president, and David Schoen who spoke for about 42 minutes, he made a strong case. They all did a lot better today than they did the first time around.

JOHN KING, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: I would say the first two lawyers made a strong case, again, Democrats out there, Trump critics out there aren't going to like what they said. But they tried to press a First Amendment argument. Again the Democrats rebut that thing, First Amendment doesn't apply here, this is not a criminal court. Plus the president takes an oath to the Constitution and that supersedes it. They made that argument.

They certainly made the political argument with over and over again playing the clips of the Democrats saying fight, fight, fight leaving out the part that in none of those instances was there an attack on the United States government, on the Capitol building.

However, you know, Mr. Castor took a gamble and some even think it's an insult to the Republicans by relitigating Georgia -- the president lost Georgia. The Georgia votes were recounted or audited three times and then he called the Secretary of State trying to find his word, more votes.

That's an insult to the Republicans essentially daring them. We think we have your vote anyway. You're not going to vote to convict. So we're going to relitigate the big lie right here on the floor of the United States Senate.

It's an insult to democracy, and an insult to fact, it's an insult to truth but they did it anyway. I'm fascinated by what we're about to see. This is the form. It's hard to see on television. But this is the form the Senators fill out if they have a question for either the managers or the president's council. Now we assume coming into this that, you know, the math coming into

this was not in favor of conviction. Were any minds changed? Is there some Republican out there? Are there more than one Republican out there who now are on the fence and want to ask a question? If that's the case, we would see evidence of that when they resume.

I'm not saying that that's going to happen. But this period, it would be interesting to watch who is asking the questions? Is it the people who we're pretty sure we know how they are going to vote or is it people who could be surprise?

BLITZER: Because their goal really, these three Trump defense attorneys was I think their first goal was to please former president of the United States. Clearly, I think they did please Trump. They wanted to reassure Republican Senators who may be waffling a little bit. I think they probably did, and they wanted to reassure that Trump base out there that they knew what they were doing.

Jim Acosta is right near Mar-a-Lago. He's at West Palm Beach, Florida for us. Jim, you've been talking with some former White House aides to the then president. What are they telling you?

JIM ACOSTA, CNN CHIEF DOMESTIC CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, I'm talking to some former White House officials, and keep in mind obviously there are some staffers who are with Trump to the very end, no matter what he does, no matter what he says. But obviously there were some White House officials at the time who were upset with what Trump did, and they are still sickened to this day by his actions, and disappointed.

I will tell you, in the defense mounted by his impeachment team, I talked to one of those aides, a former senior White House official earlier today, Wolf, who said that the president's lawyers were making a mistake in trying to relitigate and explain away Trump's actions on January 6th. In the words of this official they lose when they are relitigating the tragedy of January 6th.

I talked to another former top White House official who said that this person said she was so sickened by how Trump treated Vice President Mike Pence on that day. This former official said he wanted someone to blame and Pence became the fall guy.

This official said about how Trump was trying to blame Mike Pence at the time for failing to overturn the election results. And in the words of this former official, quote, infuriating, end quote, is how this official described Trump's behavior that day.

Still, Wolf, I did talk to a former are adviser to the president who still talks to him from time to time, who said that this impeachment team likely did enough, even though it was a Super Bowl of what-about- ism, that there were false claims made throughout the afternoon. They even aired video clips with Madonna, and so on, sort of a papa don't impeach defense.

But this Trump adviser said that the impeachment team likely did enough to get an acquittal for the former president. That has been the mission all along. They didn't need to change hearts and minds on the Republican side all that much. They knew at the end of the day this Republican Party is not going to convict this president -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Important point. By the way, we just saw Lindsey Graham, the Republican Senator from South Carolina, very strong supporter of the then president, of former President Trump, go into that room where the Trump legal team has been convening.

There you can see they are walking in -- into that room adjacent to the Senator floor where this trial is going to be resuming in the next few moments.

[15:40:00]

Pamela Brown is watching all of this unfold for us. You have some insight, I understand, Pamela, into one of the lines of defense that was laid out by the Trump attorneys.

PAMELA BROWN, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Right. One of the lines of defense was that President Trump at the time was all about law and order, that he did not support the violent mob overtaking the Capitol building that day.

But what I know from what went on behind the scenes on January 6th at the White House, is that after Trump sent that initial tweet about Pence, attacking Pence, White House aides, including the White House press secretary and other top aides, tried to convince Trump to send out a more forceful tweet.

In fact, I'm told by sources that there is a general consensus behind the scenes of this is a really real bad situation. We've got do something about this, and so they tried to convince Trump to send something else out to encourage people to be peaceful, and he did. He did about 14 minutes later when he said please support our Capitol Police and law enforcement. They are truly on the side of our country. Stay peaceful.

The defense pointed to that tweet, but here's the thing, Wolf. I'm told by sources behind the scenes, Trump did not want to add stay peaceful at end of that tweet. He was very resistant to it. The aides tried to convince him to do so. They were telling him how bad the situation was, how we needed to intervene. And so he reluctantly, begrudgingly added the stay peaceful at end of that tweet. But he did not initially want to.

And so it's worth raising as his attorneys there on the floor tried to lay out the argument that he was trying to intervene and trying to create calm in the midst of the violence -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Important point, indeed. Manu Raju is up on Capitol Hill, our chief Congressional correspondent. Manu, the goal -- the clear goal of these Trump lawyers was to make sure that the former president is not convicted. You need 17 Republican Senators -- assuming all 50 Democratic Senators vote to convict. You need 17 to convict, you need a two-thirds majority. Their goal seems to have been achieved.

MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, it does seem that way. There's no real sign of a groundswell of Republicans suddenly flipping to vote to convict Donald Trump, and that was clear even after the last two days of Democratic presentations.

The Democratic managers have -- their presentation was actually well received by Republican Senators, but even so most were signaling that they were going to acquit Donald Trump over the process concerns about having a trial with a former president at stake here. Indicating that he's all but certain to be acquitted as soon as tomorrow afternoon.

Now Wolf, I just tried to ask Lindsey Graham, the Senator from South Carolina, a question as he was leaving a meeting just now with Trump's defense attorneys during the break. He did not answer my questions. He walked into the chamber.

Similarly last night when he also met with two other Republican Senators, Senators Ted Cruz and Mike Lee. Also wouldn't answer questions.

Also Ted Cruz is in with the Trump's defense team now. He just was spotted by our colleague Ted Barrett walking into that room. They've gotten some criticism because, of course, they are jurors in this trial, supposed to be impartial.

But of course, this is also an impeachment trial, different than a criminal trial. So they are pushing back and saying this is not totally unusual. But the optics have gotten -- prompted some pushback from Democrats in particular.

But nevertheless what we're seeing, Wolf, is a trial that's close to wrapping up. We expect the question and answer period to happen just in a matter of minutes. We expect it to be done potentially around dinnertime tonight.

Tomorrow we're expecting them to reconvene and begin the closing arguments on each side and then heading into that crucial vote in the afternoon -- tomorrow I'm hearing -- that will determine whether or not Donald Trump will be convicted. 67 votes are needed at the moment. That 67 votes are just not there.

BLITZER: This question and answer written session, they could go as long as four hours, is that right, Manu?

RAJU: Yes, that's right. And actually I have the card right here. This is the card in which Senators are actually will be writing their names as Senator's -- has the Senator's name on there and it says counsel or managers, determining on who they want to direct it to. They will write the question. They'll be given to Patrick Leahy who is presiding over the proceedings. He'll read aloud the question then there will be answers. About four hours long.

We do not expect it to go the full four hours. Although we don't know for sure because any Senator can ask any question. But at the moment the leadership on both sides are trying to limit those questions as they race to get these proceedings done -- Wolf.

BLITZER: So they will just do the Q&A in the next hour or two or three or four, whatever it is and then they will resume tomorrow morning.

RAJU: Yes, it's exactly what I'm hearing from sources on both sides of the aisle that they expect to resume the closing arguments tomorrow.

They have not officially said whether they would seek witnesses in this trial, the Democratic impeachment managers, but all indications are that they will not. They believe they have made their case. The Democrats don't see any witnesses who could add anything more and certainly both sides are ready to move on.

[15:45:00]

And Wolf, there is a recess next week, a Congressional recess in the Senate. Don't discount incentive for members of Congress to be done with these proceedings, get home and enjoy their week-long recess. One reason why we're seeing these proceedings moving pretty quickly to get done by tomorrow afternoon.

BLITZER: I suspect these Senators are happy. The Trump lawyers only spent about two and a half hours making their respective case. Jake, over to you.

JAKE TAPER, CNN HOST: Thanks, Wolf, and I just want to highlight there was a tweet just now from an election official in Georgia, a Republican, Gabriel Sterling who you might remember in early December was warning Trump and Trump supporters to stop lying about the election because someone was going to get hurt. Someone was going to get killed.

Obviously, Mr. Sterling's prediction, unfortunately, became true. He was responding to the fact that Trump's attorney Bruce Castor suggested that there was an inexplicable drop in the mail ballot rejection rate in Georgia. Sterling popped up on Twitter and said some of us are working. I hear we were talked about, what's going on.

And he just said, quote, the initial absentee rejection rate for signature issue was about double in 2020 as in 2018, so the exact opposite, actually more ballots were rejected in 2020 than in 2018.

The exact opposite of what the president's attorney Mr. Castor said, and then Gabriel Sterling writes, shocking the disinformation continues.

And let's just put not too fine a point on this, Abby and Dana, but the disinformation is coming from the president's attorneys on the floor of the U.S. Senate. They are telling lies. Some of the lies are factual like they can just be proven to be lies as what Mr. Sterling, again, a Republican election official in Georgia just tweeted.

Some of them are just common sense lies. We know Trump does not hate mobs. He just hates liberal mobs. Trump's -- people who stormed the Capitol that day said that they were incited that day by the words the president made.

Bruce Castor even argued, quote, clearly there was no insurrection. Mitch McConnell has called it an insurrection. So I agree with what John King said. They could have gone out there and said, look, it's a bad precedent to set to impeach somebody who is no longer president or look, constitutionally this is up in the air and we don't think it's constitutional.

They are not doing that. They are lying. They are telling lies. They are misrepresenting the facts, and the truth is that I don't think a lot of those Republican Senators care, frankly. They have made up their mind. Maybe some of them believe the lies. Maybe some of them say, well Democrats lie too. Whatever it is, it's kind of shocking.

DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, it isn't if you know how people around Donald Trump act and react to him.

TAPPER: I didn't say it was surprising. I said it was shocking.

BASH: No, no. Let me put a little bit more meat on that bone. You heard Kaitlan talk about the fact that our reporting is that Trump laid into Castor because he did so poorly the first day of his opening arguments. So the way that he seems to have reacted and changed his presentation today was to speak Trumpian.

TAPPER: Yes.

BASH: And to try to please the client as much as possible, much more than the others did, and some said that they didn't. I mean to me the most telling example of that is when he said that Trump is the most anti-mob violence leader.

TAPPER: Yes.

BASH: I don't remember, you know, him saying until it was too late, stop doing this. It took him three tries, and, I don't know, what two or three days.

TAPPER: He praised the mob.

(CROSSTALK)

BASH: But that is such a Trumpian statement. You can hear Donald Trump saying something like that. He's using his parlance.

ABBY PHILLIP, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, and you know, I described it as gratuitous earlier because I do think some of it is just about making Trump feel better about his own defense, less so about actually convincing anyone in that room one way or the other.

Some of the stuff that was said today was clearly about just conveying to Trump that his lawyers are putting forward an argument that he is comfortable with. So it's not -- you know, I don't think it was particularly smart. I don't know that it's helpful to them, but that's the objective.

But I do think that when we get into this Q&A section which is coming up, they're going to get a lot of questions to your point, Dana, about Trump's inaction. But his other comments, I mean, how do they explain the I love you tweets, go home in peace. You're patriots.

TAPPER: You'll remember this day forever.

PHILLIP: You'll remember this day forever.

TAPPER: This is what happens when people are denied, you know, when an election is stolen.

PHILLIP: Exactly, I mean this is effectively going to be the cross- examination here. But the president's lawyers are going to have to explain why did Trump attack Mike Pence at 2:24 in the afternoon in the middle of the riot? Why did he do that?

[15:50:00]

Why did he send out tweets praising the rioters? They didn't explain, they omitted all of those things in their presentation. But now comes the time perhaps when they will need to answer.

TAPPER: And the corruption of the term "cancel culture" is incredible. I mean a conversation, a thorough conversation about whether or not people should be canceled if you say something stupid or you tweeted something dumb ten years ago, and whether or not your entire -- I mean that is a conversation and a debate society should have.

Inciting an insurrection is not about -- that's not what cancel culture refers to. Let's go to CNN chief domestic correspondent Jim Acosta, he's near Mar-a-Lago. And Jim, you have some reporting on Mr. Trump's reaction to what we all saw this afternoon.

ACOSTA: Yes, Jake. Not surprisingly, the former president is happier with today's performance versus the performance that was widely panned earlier this week.

Just talked to a source on the defense team who confirmed this just a few moments ago. And why not? Why would the president not like what he saw today? I mean it was an homage to his, you know, grievances that he's talked about for many years.

I mean these were defense lawyers who talked about Charlottesville. They were pedaling the election lies, that the election was stolen from the president. They were showing clips of celebrities going after Donald Trump. It was filled with all his grievances, it seemed, throughout the afternoon.

And so it's not surprising, given that what we saw earlier this week where Bruce Castor one of the impeachment attorneys was sort of stammering and hemming and hawing throughout his entire presentation, today was a lot more focused.

They were emphasizing that as we were talking to them yesterday. In fact Bruce Castor told me that they were streamlining and cutting down this presentation today for the sake of getting in and out of there quickly.

I talked to a source close to the president who has been consulted from time to time on legal issues who said, you know, this defense team should just sit down and get it over with.

And so I think that it's not surprising that the former president is reacting more positively today to what we saw. Because you know, essentially what we saw today was an episode of Trump TV. I mean, this is exactly what the president likes to see when he watches Fox News or conservative television.

He wants to see talking heads, peddling his grievances, peddling his lies, trying to explain away things that he's done with what-about-ism and so on, and that's essentially what we got all afternoon long.

TAPPER: All right, Jim Acosta in West Palm Beach, Florida, thank you so much.

I mean and you know, that's the truth, I'm sure Donald Trump is happier. First of all, it would be hard to have a worse presentation than the one the Trump defense lawyers did a few days ago.

And second of all, you know, I said this a few days ago, too, that those guys could stand up there and recite jabberwocky and there still not going to be able to find enough Republican Senators willing to convict. It doesn't matter. That said, why not at least put on the show that the base will love, especially the client? And they did.

BASH: Yes, of course they did. But I am very interested to see how they're going to answer the obvious questions that Democrats have. I mean Republicans are going to get questions for House managers, too, and that will be interesting as well.

But the omissions that you were talking about earlier, Abby, the obvious ones about, you know, Mike Pence, why didn't he do anything about it? Why did he continue to tweet? I don't know. Did he know not just from watching coverage, but because he was president of the United States and he is defended by and kept safe by Secret Service. The same people who were ushering Mike Pence into safety and to a secure location. How could he not know about that?

And then, of course, the larger, most important question is, does the president still believe that the election was stolen, that the election was rigged, the lie that led to all of this?

PHILLIP: Well, of course. I mean --

TAPPER: He does.

PHILLIP: Not only --

BASH: Are they going to answer that?

PHILLIP: Not only does he, but you know again, the idea that the lawyer, Bruce Castor, repeated the election lies on the Senate floor is really astounding. I mean, he was lying about what happened in Georgia -- as you explained, based on the fact check from Gabriel Sterling's tweet.

And I think that that cuts against their argument that they were making a few days ago, that Trump lost the election. And that the voters kicked him out and that this whole thing doesn't even need to happen because the voters already spoke. TAPPER: Yes.

PHILLIP: Trump still doesn't believe that. So they're mixing up their argument today because it will make the boss happy. But it's undercutting them. Again, none of this may matter because Republican Senators are looking for anything to hold on to. But if you care about facts and the truth, I mean it should bother you that they're going back and forth on that very simple point.

[15:55:00]

TAPPER: We care about facts and the truth, and presumably our viewers do. I don't know about everybody in that room. Let's go to Jeff Zeleny on Capitol Hill. And Jeff, you have insight into what Senators were doing during these arguments.

JEFF ZELENY: Right, well, Jake, one thing is they are thinking about the questions that they are about to ask in the next session here. And we know that most Republicans are not going to ask simply anything at all. They're going to move on very quickly here.

TAPPER: I'm sorry to interrupt. We're going to go back to the Senate chamber.

SEN. PATRICK LEAHY (D-VT) PRESIDING OFFICER IN TRUMP IMPEACHMENT TRIAL: The Senate has provided up to four hours during which Senators may submit questions in writing directed either to the managers on the part of the House of Representatives or counsel for the former president. Majority leader.

SEN. CHARLES SCHUMER (D-NY) MAJORITY LEADER: President, I ask unanimous consent that the answers within the four-hour question period be limited to five minutes each. And if the questions are directed to both parties the times be equally divided. Furthermore, that questions alternate sides for posing questions for as long as both sides have questions.

LEAHY: Without objection, it's so ordered.

SCHUMER: Mr. President I have a question for the desk.

LEAHY: The Senator will submit it.

The question from Senator Schumer and Senator Feinstein is directed to the House managers. The clerk will read it.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Isn't it the case that the violent attack and siege on the Capitol on January 6th would not have happened if not for the conduct of President Trump?

LEAHY: Up to five minutes.

REP. JOAQUIN CASTRO (D-TX) IMPEACHMENT MANAGER: To answer your question very directly, Donald Trump summoned the mob. He assembled the mob, and he lit the flame. Everything that followed was because of his doing and although he could have immediately and forcefully intervened to stop the violence, he never did. In other words, this violent, bloody insurrection that occurred on January 6th would not have occurred but for President Trump.

The evidence we presented at trial makes this absolutely clear. This attack, as we said, didn't come from one random speech, and it didn't happen by accident. And that mob didn't come out of thin air.

Before the election, Donald Trump spread lie after lie about potential fraud in an election, remember, that hadn't even happened yet. Months before the election took place, he was saying it was rigged, that it was going to be stolen. All to make his supporters believe that the only way he was going to lose is if the election was stolen if the election was rigged.

And when he did lose, he spent week after week inciting his supporters to believe that their votes had been stolen and that the election was fraudulent and that it was their patriotic duty to fight like hell to stop the steal and take their country back.

And remember, this is in the United States where our vote is our voice. You tell somebody that an election victory is being stolen from them, that's a combustible situation. And he gave them clear direction on how to deal with that.

For example, on December 19th, 18 days prior to January 6th, President Trump told them how and where to fight for it. He first issued his call to action for January 6th. This was a save the date sent 18 days before the event on January 6th, and it wasn't just a casual one-off reference or a singular invitation. For the next 18 days he had directed all the rage he had incited to January 6th and that was for him, what he saw as his last chance to stop the transfer of power, to stop from losing the presidency.

And he said things like, quote, fight to the death and January 6th will be a, quote, wild and, quote, historic day and this was working. They got the message.

In the days leading to the attack, report after report, social media post after social media post confirmed that these insurgents were planning armed violence. But they were planning it because he had been priming them, because he had been amping them up.

That's why they were planning it.