Return to Transcripts main page


FaceBook Board Decides whether to Reinstate Trump; Judge Orders DOJ Memo Released. Aired 9-9:30a ET

Aired May 5, 2021 - 09:00   ET



JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: What could possibly go wrong there?

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN ANCHOR: How fun is that? That guy makes it look easy. I bet it's not that easy. I'd be like, right into the water.

BERMAN: Yes, it's fun until you slam into a plane at 10,000 feet in the air.

KEILAR: Yes. True.

BERMAN: Not so fun then.

CNN's coverage continues right now.

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN ANCHOR: A very good Wednesday morning to you. Lots of breaking news this morning. I'm Jim Sciutto.

POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: And I'm Poppy Harlow. We're so glad you're with us.

As Jim said, we are standing by, actually, for breaking news this hour. At any moment we will learn if former President Trump will be allowed back onto FaceBook. Facebook's oversight board is publishing its decision any moment. We'll bring that to you as soon as we have it.

SCIUTTO: It's an interesting make-up on this board. You've got a former prime minister of Denmark, former editor in chief of "The Guardian." former Nobel Peace Prize laureate from Yemen. A combination of voices there. We'll see where they come down.

No matter the decision, it will have significant social and political consequences. Remember the former president was suspended the day after the January 6th insurrection. This over a post that many felt incited the deadly violence. Certainly refused to call them off. Will he now be banned forever? The controversy over FaceBook's power growing.

Hours ago, Trump launched a message board of his own. The platform boasting to be a place for him to, quote, speak freely and safely and perhaps raise money freely.

We have a team of journalists and analysts covering this momentous decision. We begin with CNN chief media correspondent Brian Stelter.

Brian, you know, I don't want to get you to make a bet on where this decision will go, but perhaps you can tell us the significance of it.

BRIAN STELTER, CNN CHIEF MEDIA CORRESPONDENT: This is about what's acceptable on online platforms that are privately controlled and who decides. And, Jim, as you were coming to me, we do have the decision. I can read you the first sentence.


STELTER: It says the board has upheld FaceBook's decision to restrict then-President Donald Trump's access to posting content. So, in other words, Trump remains banned from FaceBook. He will not be allowed back on the site. This is a remarkable example of a private platform, run by Mark Zuckerberg, making a choice about a world leader, now a former world leader, and this is going to have ramifications for other world leaders and for other cases in the future.



SCIUTTO: That is notable, Poppy!

HARLOW: This is --

SCIUTTO: We were talking about this yesterday. A lot of the scuttlebutt was this might go the other way. That's big news this morning.

HARLOW: Let's bring in our colleague -- also, Brian, thank you for that headline -- Donie O'Sullivan.

Donie, your reaction?

DONIE O'SULLIVAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: What's interesting here is they are saying this oversight board, which has been described as the supreme court for FaceBook, is saying that it is upholding FaceBook's decision on January 7th to suspend Trump, but -- and there is a very, very big but here. It is saying that within six months of the suspension, so within six months of January 7th, which is in, I guess, the next month or two, FaceBook must re-examine the penalty that it imposed on Trump.

So this is kind of worst case scenario for FaceBook and Zuckerberg here because FaceBook has created this board, this supposedly independent board, because it wanted this board to make the hard decisions for them.


O'SULLIVAN: But what this board is now saying is, you were right to suspend him at the time, but maybe you shouldn't suspend him forever.


O'SULLIVAN: So this turns it all back on Zuckerberg.



HARLOW: So -- OK. So -- and people should know how much power Mark Zuckerberg wields at FaceBook, even outside of this decision. He can veto anything. He owns -- you know, he owns 58 percent of the shares. He has total control really of the company.

So you're saying, Donie, that this board basically punted for six months. They're not going to decide. Mark Zuckerberg's going to decide?

O'SULLIVAN: That's correct. It's saying, within six months. So what is six months from January 7th? I can't do my math this morning, in June or July we'll get --


SCIUTTO: That's only two months --


SCIUTTO: That's only two months from today.

O'SULLIVAN: And it is saying, if FaceBook decides to restore Mr. Trump's account -- so it is saying FaceBook, you have the ability to restore his accounts, the company should apply rules to this decision, including any changes made in response to the board's policy recommendations.

We haven't got to go through the entire ruling from the board yet, but we understand that they are going to make some recommendations, I think, that if Trump were to come back or if a world leader was to be in another situation like this, that there are some recommendations there.

But, I mean, FaceBook went to great lengths to set this board up.


O'SULLIVAN: And, look, I mean, you -- people can be very cynical about this board and rightly so skeptical of us in that, you know, it was trying -- people see it as a way for Zuckerberg to be left off the hook.


O'SULLIVAN: But also, you know, many people will say, well, it's better to have this board of experts and human rights lawyers and others making these decisions than Zuckerberg himself. But in this case, it's back to FaceBook. So this is going to be a very, very interesting over the next few weeks how it plays out between the Trump camp and FaceBook.



SCIUTTO: That's right, FaceBook describes this board as independent. And it is. And we described some of the members of it, former prime minister of Denmark, a Nobel Peace Prize laurate, promoter of nonviolent change in Yemen. I mean this is quite a mix. That said, critics say, well, the board is also paid by FaceBook, selected by FaceBook.


SCIUTTO: Donie, before I go to a big picture question to Jackie Kucinich, who's also joining us, just to be clear, do I have the math right here. It says reassess after six months from his original suspension, which was January, we're four months since then. So in another two months, come July, they've got to look at this again?

O'SULLIVAN: That is correct. That is -- that is -- that is saying, I mean this is what the board is telling FaceBook. So this is going to just --

SCIUTTO: OK. Understood. OK. So that's a -- that's a two-month --


SCIUTTO: A two month punt.

O'SULLIVAN: Again, it's going to set off a --

STELTER: And there's a certain amount of logic --


STELTER: There's a certain amount of logic to the idea that let's take Donald Trump out of this conversation because, obviously, he makes everything complicated. If you are a high-profile FaceBook user and you are banned for something, isn't there some way to come back some day, right? It's almost like, again, not talking about Donald Trump. If you're a prisoner and you do your time and you get out of prison and you're back to normal population, that's the kind of thing we're talking about here in this digital realm.


STELTER: FaceBook can put you in jail indefinitely and this oversight board today is saying, OK, you did the right thing after the riot with Donald Trump, but this isn't the right thing forever.


HARLOW: That's -- SCIUTTO: Jackie, how impactful for -- I'm curious -- for Trump, because a lot was riding on this in terms of him getting his message out, but also, crucially, this should not be forgotten, raising money. FaceBook works for raising money for him and other political candidates and figures.

JACKIE KUCINICH, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: I just want to continue the metaphor a little bit about the prisoner that Brian used. The thing is about, when you get out of jail, you serve your time and, you know, you, in theory, go on with your life.

Former President Trump has not. We're seeing the same messaging he had, you know, before the riot continuing while he is at Mar-a-Lago. He's still saying that the election was stolen as recently as, I think, yesterday in response -- or maybe Monday, in response to Liz Cheney talking about, you know, the big lie has to do with the 2020 stolen election or something.

So there hasn't been a change of a heart and a mind there and perhaps, and we'll find out later maybe, that went into this decision. And I know that was a concern on the left that this would perhaps continue to inflame tensions.

But going back to your question about the money, yes, the Trump campaign, in 2020, and in 2016, spent quite a bit of money advertising on FaceBook and fundraising on FaceBook. And for 2024, even though I can't -- I can't say 2024 without wanting to break out in hives at this point still. I'm just not ready. But, you know, with former President Trump eyeing perhaps a comeback in 2024, FaceBook would be a critical part of that small donor fundraising strategy for his team.

Now you're not going to hear them say this publicly, but I think the 2024 aspirance (ph), the Republicans that want to run that are not named former President Donald Trump, have to be relieved because it keeps him out of the picture just a little bit longer.

And, in terms of messaging from Republicans, congressional Republicans, having him be a little quieter has allowed them to forge their own message and to stay on one topic for -- if they're attacking Democrats. So there has -- there was a bit of a sigh of relief there, too, by this muzzling by FaceBook and other tech companies.

HARLOW: Hey, Brian, let's take a step back just to remind people who aren't as entrenched in this as all of you guys on the screen are.

It was Trump with that video on the day of the insurrection saying to those rioters who ended up killing people and 140 injured, we love you, you're very special, that prompted Mark Zuckerberg the next day to say, we believe the risks of allowing the president to continue to use our service during this period are simply too great.

Given the statement Trump put out Monday --


HARLOW: Perpetuating the big lie that Jackie just brought up, is there anything that says that risk is not just as great today?

STELTER: The risk does continue.


And that is what is such an extraordinary set of situation -- facts in front of us. This is about whether the former president is a threat to the users of FaceBook.

O'SULLIVAN: Yes, we -- yes, I think it's fair to say that within two months --

STELTER: And a threat to the public. And that is what this is all coming back down to. Nothing here seems final.

And if you look at what the ruling is here, kicking the can down the road, it just goes to show, as much as we compare this to a Supreme Court, as much as FaceBook say it's trying to put in institutional rules for the future, they are figuring it out as they go along. And so is this board. And partly that's because Trump is such a unique and complicated figure.

I think in some ways this entire conversation may redound to his benefit because one of his narratives is, is about Trump versus big tech.


It's what Josh Hawley is doing now with his book tour.


STELTER: Trump versus big tech. Well, here's big tech, FaceBook, although it's an oversight board, but it's FaceBook, keeping him off the platform. So it continues that narrative. But, of course, the narrative is there for a good reason. There was a deadly insurrection that the right wing is trying to cover up, and that threat does remain today.

SCIUTTO: Good point, Brian.

Let me play devil's advocate for a moment on that. Narrative is one thing. But without the platform FaceBook and Instagram, we should note FaceBook of course owns Instagram, for many people that's the more impactful platform, he's also off of Twitter.

And we've seen the change in the volume and reach of his voice since Trump has been removed from those platforms. In the last four months, you don't have his reaction 12 times a day to Biden decisions or particular attacks on Republican lawmakers who go cross with him. You know what I'm saying? So I get how it feeds the narrative. But the impact on the reach of his voice is still notable, is it not?

STELTER: Yes, that's true. Look, I was talking with a FaceBook executive last night and this person said to me, so, 2024, is he going to run again? And, obviously, that's the subtext for all of that. That's what Jackie was just saying.

The subtext of, is he going to run again, will he be as prominent in 2024, will his voice still be as loud as it was four months ago because Trump's -- Trump has been fading. He's in a retirement home. We see YouTube videos come out showing him talking with fans once in a while but he's mostly just calling into radio shows and Fox and mostly in hibernation, mostly in retirement.

Will that change? Can he restore, you know, his image without these platforms? Can he, you know, rally the base without these platforms I think remains an open question, Jim.

HARLOW: Donie, jump in here. I think there's something you want to clarify for the viewer.

O'SULLIVAN: Yes. So just going back over this decision and how it is worded. It says in terms of when FaceBook must make the decision on whether to let trump back or not, the board is actually saying, within six months of this decision.


O'SULLIVAN: So it appears to be today's decision.


O'SULLIVAN: So I think they might have six months rather than two months.


O'SULLIVAN: At the same time, this is not a situation that FaceBook wants to find itself in.

And just to -- just to underline, you know, what's at stake here is, you know, for many, many people it is very concerning to have a private company to be able to shut down who was then the president of the United States.

HARLOW: That's --

O'SULLIVAN: But at the other side -- end of things is by putting him back on, what message does that send to other world leaders, to dictators, of saying, you know, if you inspire a deadly insurrection using our platform, you're not going to be banned forever.


HARLOW: Donie, you make such an important point. And, you know, it's one that the ACLU has made, frankly, saying there's big danger in tech companies wielding this much power to make these decisions that now Zuckerberg is going to have to make again in six months. But that's what they built, Donie. They built it. They created it. People came. And with great power and billions of dollars, you have great responsibility. O'SULLIVAN: You know, this -- I don't think Zuckerberg envisioned all

of this in his college dorm when he initially built this tool. But, look, I think what FaceBook really wants to do here, and they've been saying it publicly, is they want some guidance from Congress. They want some guidance from the government. Just as they tried to put this on this oversight board, they want some framework to work in -- to work within, when it comes to what they should do on their own platform.

Of course, you know, politicians, Congress is very, very slow, and rightly slow -- and rightly so to get into anything about the moderation of speech given, of course, the First Amendment. But that is what FaceBook wants. FaceBook is basically doing this oversight board as an experiment to show people this is how we should be talking about these big, complicated decisions because, to be fair to FaceBook, these are tough decisions. They are unprecedented decisions. It is a company that makes billions and billions of dollars, but there isn't necessarily right answers here.

SCIUTTO: Donie, forgive me for playing devil's advocate again here.

I wonder, though, Trump is a private citizen now. If you or I or Jackie or Brian or Poppy repeatedly posted false information, whether it be about COVID or the election, or made personal attacks, et cetera, we might face the same consequences, would we not?

I mean you look at Anthony Scaramucci was -- was suspended for Twitter for 12 hours for making a personal attack on Trump about his weight. I mean, private citizen as well. Are -- is this -- I know the argument is, this is left wing dominated tech media stifling conservative voices, but there are rules here, are there not, and would you and I be subject to the same rules if we behaved in the same way?

O'SULLIVAN: No, we wouldn't. We'd probably be thrown off the platform a long time ago, especially when you think about what Trump said last year during the George Floyd protest about looting will lead to shooting, et cetera.



O'SULLIVAN: But the position that these platforms have taken and, look, there is merit, I think, to the argument is that world leaders, that politicians are different. That, you know, even though they might say ugly things, the world should see that because that -- they can then be held accountable.

That is the sort of libertarian argument almost in Silicon Valley that, you know, we should be able to see this and to call it out. But, of course, on the flip side of that, by posting this sort of stuff, and it goes viral, and it goes everywhere, it can be corrosive to public discourse.

SCIUTTO: Yes. O'SULLIVAN: So it's -- I mean, I really think what we're seeing here is the start of a discussion about this sort of overlapping and meeting of the worlds of technology and politics that's going to be with us for decades throughout the 21st century figuring out how does this all work together?


O'SULLIVAN: How do private companies with all this power come up against the most powerful elected leaders in the world?

HARLOW: Yes. Well, because, as the Supreme Court just reaffirmed a few years ago, they're not -- they are not responsible for upholding the free speech part of the First Amendment, Jackie, the way that -- the way the government is, right? So they do have a choice and they have a lot of power and they have a choice.

And, Jackie, I guess, just to button it up, this goes way beyond the U.S. This is now about every world leader.

KUCINICH: Yes. Yes. And there is some resentment among, you know, very close allies. Germany, about the idea of a U.S. company limiting speech, of world leaders. So this is a global issue for them. And, you know, the fact that they want congressional guidance, that's fine. But this goes well beyond the borders of the United States. And I have to say, if there's anyone that's good at kicking the can down the road, it's Congress. So, we'll --

SCIUTTO: That's the --

KUCINICH: So, you know, the idea that they're going to come together in any sort of timely fashion on an issue as fraught as this one, I'm skeptical.

HARLOW: Thank you all very much.


HARLOW: That is not easy to do. Donie, Brian, all of you, break the news, analyze it, bring it to us. It's 35 pages. So go read it all, come back with more. Thank you very much.

Still to come, a federal judge has ordered that a previously secret Department of Justice memo deciding not to charge President Trump at the end of the Mueller investigation actually now has to be released. That's a big deal. What does it mean, ahead.

And, though Congresswoman Liz Cheney says she has no plans to step down, some Republicans are already eyeing her replacement. That's ahead.

SCIUTTO: And a challenge now for doctors in this country, getting the vaccine to those who need it most, including folks refusing to get it. We're going to speak to a community doctor on his efforts. They are essential. That's coming up.



HARLOW: This week, a federal judge rejected the Justice Department's attempts to keep secret a memo from former Attorney General Bill Barr.

SCIUTTO: The memo, specifically about the decision not to charge former President Trump with obstruction of justice of the Mueller investigation was, the judge says, misleading.

CNN's senior legal affairs correspondent Paula Jones -- Paula Reid joins us now with the latest.

So, Paula, you know, reading this, there's a little legalese in this. Tell us exactly what it alleges Barr did here and why it's significant.

PAULA REID, CNN SENIOR LEGAL AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: So this is significant because it's so rare for a federal judge to accuse a former attorney general and the Justice Department of misleading the court. And she comes pretty close to accusing them of a cover-up.

Now, this whole issue arose in a lawsuit by a government transparency group that says it doesn't fully trust the official story that came out of the Barr Justice Department during the Mueller investigation and they want certain documents, including this memo that was actually finalized on the same day that the former attorney general briefed Congress on the Mueller investigation.

The Justice Department has said that this memo is protected. They say it's legal reasoning that helped the attorney general with his decision. It should not be made public. But this judge, Judge Amy Berman Jackson, she knows the Mueller investigation and related cases quite well.

She oversaw the case of Trump ally Roger Stone. And one of the cases of former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort. She says that the decision not to pursue charges against former President Trump in the Mueller investigation was a foregone conclusion. She said Barr had already made that decision before he received this memo. She said, this memo was strategic and, therefore, it should be made public.

Now she also said that she believed that this obfuscation was part of a pattern by Barr and the Justice Department to mislead the public and Congress.

Pretty extraordinary words from a federal judge.


SCIUTTO: No question. Very direct. Paula Reid, thanks so much.

Joining now to discuss, former federal prosecutor and CNN legal analyst Jennifer Rodgers.

Jennifer, you've been involved in a lot of cases, including with the Justice Department. As you read this, and you look at the evidence here, do you see the former attorney general as having put his thumb on the legal scale, as it were, with this?

JENNIFER RODGERS, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Oh, absolutely, Jim. I mean, frankly, that isn't new news for any of us who have been following the Mueller investigation and report. He did that way back when he made his misleading summary of the Mueller report a couple of years ago.

But this is just another instance of the Justice Department under Bill Barr hiding things from the public because they understood at some level that what they were doing was not consistent with the law and the facts.

HARLOW: The words that Paula described so well as just stunning from a federal judge include her writing, the agency, meaning the Department of Justice's redactions and incomplete explanations obfuscate the true purpose of the memorandum.


What -- what -- what might the public see in this letter? Can you explain why it matters now after the fact?

RODGERS: Well, what they're doing now is litigating over the release of the memo. So this memo was created at the time. It was -- what the judge is saying it was effectively a strategy document, not a legal document, and that means that it doesn't fall under the portions of the Freedom of Information Act that allow government to exclude it.

So at the Justice Department at the time they had decided that they were not going to charge President Trump, and then they had to come up with the best way to relay that so that the public would accept it and that it wouldn't cause a big furor, which, of course, it did anyway. And now, you know, all these years after the fact, the judge is saying, well, you know, this wasn't part of the decision-making process, this was just this strategy that you were trying to kind of put things in the best light for the public, so that's why it has to go over.

I think it's important for the historical record. I mean a lot of people know what happened here, but there's still a lot who don't.


RODGERS: So when we get the memo, I think people will understand more.

SCIUTTO: Well, the parallel you make to the way Barr misleading described the Mueller report as it came out, right, you know, ascribing definitiveness there from Mueller's findings that weren't, frankly, there. And, you know, that stuck to some degree for many Americans.

I want to ask you this. Beyond for the historical record, are there any legal, potential legal consequences for Bill Barr? I mean he was a -- he was a lawyer. Disbarment? Anything like that or is this just about reputation? RODGERS: Well, it depends. I mean certainly the Barrs of -- I believe

Bill Barr is barred in Washington, D.C. You know, they could start a grievance committee procedure to disbar him if they decide to do that, if they get a complaint.

I suspect, though, that nothing will happen. He was fairly careful in his testimony. You know, even the judge talks about him being disingenuous instead of saying making false statements. So the notion of trying to prove that there were actual lies here, I think, would be a tough one.

HARLOW: Jennifer Rodgers, thank you very much for us.

SCIUTTO: Still ahead this hour, the bitter battle between the truth and the big lie. Could House Republicans be closer to forcing out and replacing Liz Cheney from her number three position in the House Republican caucus after her repeated willingness to say the president is lying. We're going to be live on the Capitol Hill -- on Capitol Hill, next.

HARLOW: Also, taking a look at futures here just before the market opens on Wall Street, all pointing higher this morning, looking to rebound from the sell-off yesterday. Obviously, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen's comments on inflation really freaked out the markets. Investors just got their hands on a private payroll report from ADP. And the Labor Department's jobs survey aren't always correlated. It can be a good indicator, though, about what the jobs report will show on Friday.