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Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY), Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) Oppose Bipartisan January 6 Commission; New York Attorney General Announces Criminal Component to Trump Organization Probe; New York, New Jersey, Connecticut Lift Capacity Restrictions for most Businesses. Aired 1- 1:30p ET

Aired May 19, 2021 - 13:00   ET



PHIL MATTINGLY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: But the value of modeling the behavior that has a very clear effect, the worst pandemic in a century, seems to make good sense.

JOHN KING, CNN ANCHOR: Yes. If ten people did listen and she got one, it would help. Ten would help, every number helps.

Ana Cabrera picks up our coverage right now. We'll see you tomorrow.

ANA CABRERA, CNN ANCHOR: Thanks for joining us. I am Ana Cabrera in New York.

And we start with the latest twist on Capitol Hill. Republicans are suddenly opposing a bipartisan 9/11-style commission that would investigate the January 6th attack.

Now, CNN is learning right now, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Republican WHIP Steve Scalise are pressuring members to vote against the commission. And on the Senate side, where Democrats only have a tie-breaking majority, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell just announced on the floor that he also opposes this commission.

But why? Are they scared of what this commission will find? Are the answers just not important? McCarthy has argued another investigation would be redundant but that didn't seem to be a problem in the case of Benghazi? Remember, Republican leaders supported ten investigations over 2.5 years.

CNN Chief Congressional Correspondent Manu Raju is following all the latest action on the Hill for us. Manu, for days now, we have been reporting that the top Democrat and Republican on the House Homeland Security Committee had struck this deal for a commission. This was a bipartisan effort. And I understand you are learning more about why Republicans have suddenly had a change of heart.

MANU RAJU, CNN CHIEF CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes. The driving concern among Republicans and talking to senior Republican senators both publicly and privately is the concern that it could undercut the party's effort to take back control of both the House and the Senate next year.

The concern is the way that this is structured. Their worry is that the investigation could drag out through the course of this year. And according to the legislation, they are required to have a report done by the end of this year. But there are fears it would spill into next year when the control of Congress is at stake.

And what Republicans are worried about is the investigation could shine a negative light on their party. A negative light on former President Donald Trump could ensnare the House Republican leader who had spoken to Donald Trump on January 6th, had a tense conversation with him, and there are questions of whether he would have to testify and a number of House Republicans with a couple of Senate Republicans tried to overturn the electoral results of some key states during the -- even after the insurrection on January 6th.

All of that wrapped into a report that could come be an unwelcomed distraction for their party, just as they are trying to focus on the Biden agenda, on the economy and on jobs.

Now, the question will be whether or not the concerns being voiced from members of the leadership, like Senators John Thune, who worry that Democrats, in his words, could weaponize this. He said Republicans are voicing that. And what John Cornyn just told me moments ago was that he believes it would be the Democrats', quote, dream to have this going through course of the midterm season next year.

But the question will be whether or not this translates to enough Republicans to ultimately scuttle the effort to get this enacted into law. It will pass the House tonight with a bipartisan vote, but probably not more than 40 members of the House Republican Congress will vote for it. Then it will come to the Senate. And that's the key question here, Ana. Can 60 senators vote to break a filibuster, ten Republicans break ranks?

Mitch McConnell's opposition today contending that it would be duplicative, it would overlap with ongoing investigations, that concern is being echoed by a wide range of Senate Republicans. It seems very unlikely that it could get the 60 votes. But we'll see if they can make any changes, can they win any over. But at the moment, getting this enacted into law seems a long shot, at best, because it's stiffening the Republican opposition. Ana?

CABRERA: Manu, they have flip-flopped already going into this. It's never too late to go back the other direction. Manu Raju, thanks for staying on top of it.

And we are joined now by Democratic Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren of California. She is the chair of the committee on House Administration and a member of the House Judiciary Committee. Congresswoman, it's good to have you here. We know Republican leaders are applying pressure on their colleagues to vote against this bill. We also have seen a strong statement from the former president, President Trump, against this commission. Do you see this vote becoming the new litmus test for Republican loyalty to the former president?

REP. ZOE LOFGREN (D-CA): well, perhaps. I mean, this is about putting our country first. Having a dispassionate, non-political analysis of what happened on January 6th when the Congress was attacked, essentially, our constitutional processes were attacked. It's important for the United States that we have a functioning government, that we don't have those that would topple that government hiding under stones. We need to shine a light on it and the way to do that is this commission, which Republicans and Democrats agreed was the way to proceed until, apparently, now, President Trump doesn't want the truth to come out.


CABRERA: And it's not just President Trump. But now, we are hearing from Kevin McCarthy and Mitch McConnell, who are saying that this commission doesn't look good to them in terms of the way it's been designed.

And we have reported, I'm thinking back to the impeachment trial, and the second impeachment specifically, and we were reporting at that time, Republicans were afraid for their lives if they voted to impeach. Do you think fear is motivating some Republicans in today's vote?

LOFGREN: I don't know the answer to that. But I will say this. Everything that the Republicans said they wanted in this commission bill was accommodated. This is a bipartisan agreement between the chair and ranking member of the Homeland Security Committees. Even numbers of Republicans and Democrats and no sitting elected official can serve as experts, hopefully, people who are recognized as elder states persons in our country to get to the truth so all of America has a common understanding of the facts.

It's important to have a common understanding of the facts in order to proceed with policy of prescriptions. But what I see happening now is an effort to try and warp what really happened. We've had members of the House and Senate say, well, it really wasn't an armed insurrection, it was like a tourists visit. Come on, I was there. These were people who tried to overturn the electoral count, who attacked the police, who invaded the Capitol, and we were lucky that we weren't killed by them.

CABRERA: Right. And, as you point out, it was Congressman Clyde who compared the insurrection to a tourists visit, said if he didn't know otherwise and we're just looking at the video that's what some would have thought. But we know some Republicans do agree that this commission should move forward, the problem solvers caucus, which includes dozens of Republicans, have come out with a statement saying they support this commission as it has been negotiated. Have you talked to any of your GOP colleagues about their concerns if they don't vote the party line?

LOFGREN: I haven't. You know, I have had Republican members tell me that they think this commission is necessary and they support it. That was before McCarthy and McConnell, and apparently former President Trump came out against it.

So we'll see how they vote. But I think those of us who want the country to survive, who are putting the United States ahead of our political party will want to support this commission. And I hope that includes large numbers of both Democrats and Republicans in the House, because we should all be patriots before we are members of a party.

CABRERA: You don't think Congressman McCarthy or Senator McConnell want this country to survive?

LOFGREN: If they are not willing to accept the truth as a basis for what happened in January as a prescription for what we need to do to preserve the institutions of our country, then that is a serious assault on our country, our Constitution and our ability to thrive as the oldest democracy -- constitutional democracy in the world. That's what is really important here, more than these petty partisan politics.

CABRERA: Quickly, if you will, because one of the arguments we are hearing from Republicans is that this investigation would be duplicative, and you are on one of the committees, obviously, that is doing its own investigation. There are seven in the House that I have counted. We know there are also investigations happening in the Senate in different committees. And then there's, of course, the Department of Justice investigation as well.

What would the bipartisan commission be able to uncover or investigate or probe that these other investigations won't be able to do?

LOFGREN: Well, obviously, you know, we have some pieces of jurisdiction in various committees, and we're having a hearing today about the Capitol Police board and how it functions and whether there should be reform. But that really doesn't really get to the gist of how did thousands of people become convinced that they were somehow helping the country by attacking the police and invading the Congress of the United States? How did that happen? I think we need to understand that if we are going to preserve our democracy.

CABRERA: Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren, I appreciate you taking the time with us. Thank you.

LOFGREN: Thank you.

CABRERA: Also developing, new legal pressure squeezing former President Trump in New York. The state attorney announcing her civil investigation into the Trump Organization now has a criminal component.

Our Chris Cillizza is here to break it down.

[13:10:00] Chris, walk us through the move from the New York A.G.

CHRIS CILLIZZA, CNN POLITICAL REPORTER: Yes. Let's start simple, Ana. Let's talk about the players and then how we got here.

Okay. First of all, you know that guy, Donald Trump. This is Letitia James, New York State Attorney General, Democrat, Cy Vance, Cyrus Vance, retiring but the Manhattan District Attorney currently.

All right, now, last night, this is why this is important, we get a statement from the spokesman for Letitia James saying, we are now actively investigating the Trump Organization in a criminal capacity. That's in addition to the civil investigation that's been going on since 2019.

Now, let me just quickly note here, because for some context, Donald Trump has put out a statement from his desk of Donald Trump website, in which he dismisses this as the kind of a thing a third world country does.

We didn't put it in the wall because I don't think it's particularly relevant, it's just political pap in a lot of ways, just him talking. But he has put out a statement in which everything you say about this, witch hunt, et cetera, et cetera, has been said, that doesn't change the fact that we now have a criminal element to the investigation that Letitia James is conducting. And now it's being conducted in accordance with the Manhattan district attorney, that guy I showed you before, is Cy Vance.

CABRERA: Right. And this is just another step, the next step in the investigation of the Trump Organization that's been going since 2019. So how did we get here?

CILLIZZA: Yes. So I think it's part of a broader series of investigations. Obviously, the two most closely linked of these two, the New York Attorney General, Letitia James' investigation, and the one that Cy Vance's is looking into.

Let's start how we got here. I feel like all roads lead back to Michael Cohen, and in some ways, this relates to Donald Trump. You know Michael Cohen, former fixer, lawyer of Donald Trump, has turned on Donald Trump.

Now, this is important. This is under oath in front of Congress what I'm going to read here. So, remember, perjury in front of Congress is a federal offense. It was my experience that Mr. Trump inflated his total assets when it served his purposes, such as trying to be listed amongst the wealthiest at Forbes and deflated his assets to reduce his real estate taxes.

So what is being alleged and what the James probe in particular is looking at, Ana, is did Donald Trump sort of fudge the values of his properties. Did he say, this one is worth a lot so that I can make that Forbes list of wealthiest people, this one not worth so much so I can't pay taxes? Obviously, that is illegal. Now, let me just go through who we know the James probe has talked to because this also important. Remember, it has been going on since 2019. The criminal piece of it is new, but this has been going on. Okay, deposed Eric Trump, obviously, when Donald Trump becomes president, his elder son, Donald Trump Jr., and his younger son, Eric Trump, run the Trump Organization business. Eric Trump has already been deposed on this, as has Allen Weisselberg.

Now, this guy -- let me see. Did they give me this (INAUDIBLE)? Oh, yes, nothing better than circling it with green. Now I really feel like I've made it. I am a regular John King and Phil Mattingly.

Allen Weisselberg is the CFO of the Trump Organization. This is the guy who knows where all the money is put. He was with the Trump Organization when Donald Trump's dad was in charge of it. This guy is the guy to really watch.

Now, the other person that they have talked to that we know about is Sheri Dillon, a Trump tax attorney, although she apparently refused to talk to -- she was deposed but didn't talk.

So these three are -- again, look, this is the big one. Allen Weisselberg in both the James probe and that Manhattan district attorney probe, Ana, with Cy Vance, he is the guy. Because the money guy knows where everything is, right? He knows where everything was put and where it went. He's the guy, really, when you're reading the coverage here to keep an eye on.

CABRERA: Chris, I love that moment with you right then, the simple pleasures. I appreciate that so much.

CILLIZZA: It's been 16 months, Ana. I've got to be happy with being able to do a green arrow around things. I feel like I made it. See, mom, I told you I didn't need to go to law school.

CABRERA: You have new toys. It's like Christmas. Yes, exactly. Chris Cillizza, good to see you, my friend.

CILLIZZA: Thanks, Ana.

CABRERA: Okay, back to serious business here. Let's bring in CNN Senior Legal Analyst and former Federal Prosecutor Laura Coates.

Laura, just to recap here, the New York Attorney General's Office now says they are investigating the Trump Organization in a criminal capacity, not just civil, but no reason for this change was given. Read between the lines for us. What does all this tell you?

LAURA COATES, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: Well, this tells me, of course, why now? That's the big question. What has been learned over the course of these months and why was this announcement made? We don't know whether or not it was made immediately to the Trump Organization at the same time as it relates to the public, I would doubt that it was.

So what has changed to have these two independent, autonomous jurisdictional entities decide to join forces? In part, it's what Chris Cillizza was explaining on his now magical wall. The idea of saying, well, what has already been done not to have duplicative efforts.

And given your conversation with Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren about the idea of concerns about reinventing the wheel or doing something more than once, that's not what's happening here when we're talking about this probe in New York. They are building off of what has been naturally a symbiotic relationship.


Why, Ana? Because it has overlapping facts, it's about where the money has gone, about the depreciation of assets, the deflation and the inflation. To get these all and overlapped, it makes sense to have them come together.

But now adding a criminal element here, Ana, is very, very important to talk about, because it talks about the range of behavior, the egregiousness of the conduct to go from civil liability to criminal liability, still could be underlying wrongs. But you are talking about a criminal probe. I am wondering what was learned to now up the ante in terms of a criminal investigation.

CABRERA: What does it mean in terms of the scope of this investigation and potential criminal charges?

COATES: It's very wide at this point in time. I mean, this has been months -- in fact, years in the making. It began, as Chris was talking about, the idea of Michael Cohen speaking about this idea of trying to have it both ways, on the one hand, trying to depreciate your assets to have the tax benefits and trying to inflate it to have the bank loan benefits.

But now, it's gone all this time, and part of the delay, of course, has been they had to go at least with Cy Vance category up to the Supreme Court to get the tax documents. And that's important here because you've got a limited -- limitations period, that's still an issue here, and, of course, the impending retirement of Cy Vance. And you're having these competing notions here and factors that may have dragged this out longer than it otherwise would have been.

But now combining forces says to me that they are trying to capitalize on the time they have not to try to duplicate efforts and use what the A.G.'s office has already had in terms of interviews, depositions, documents and the like, and the reverse is also true. And so they are trying to capitalize and make sure the scope fits inside the time they have left if they decide to bring charges.

CABRERA: You mentioned the taxes. It was back in February after the former president was out of office. How big of a factor is it that he's no longer able to use the power of the presidency to shield himself from investigators?

COATES: Really, it's everything. It's been really the ultimate hurdle. Now, of course, federal prosecution is what the president of the United States is normally able to control in terms of having that immunity and whatnot as a sitting president, it's at the state level. But it all comes down to the taxation.

The underlying current in all of this is what has been in the taxes. He has been one of the first American presidents in modern history to not disclose information. There was a fight to get the data, which is probably why the idea of joining forces here to not have to try and have to get it again makes sense.

But having this information, having the documents over, it actually conform and build the foundation if they decide to bring charges or decide that there are not charges that need to be brought based on what has been said.

Remember, we have heard from Michael Cohen, and, of course, he has served time on a separate related matter, but the idea here is they have to have corroboration. The investigation is intended to do a wide swath, a cross-section, and the foundational documents they need in order to tell whether somebody has violated the tax code, how they are paying, how they are identifying assets, how they are identifying and income, or not identifying it, it's through our tax documents. This is huge.

CABRERA: Okay. Laura Coates, you're on it for us, thanks for being with us.

And we're following some major headlines on the pandemic today as well. It's a big day here in the northeast as three states lift restrictions. We have those details.

In the south, Texas making it clear to local governments and even schools, if you require people to mask up, we'll make you pay up.

Plus, an epic reversal in the so-called audit of Arizona's 2020 election results. The firm hired to look into fraud now says they were wrong when they made explosive claims about a key database.



CABRERA: A major milestone for the northeast today. Three states, New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, will all lift capacity restrictions in most cases. New York and Connecticut also dropping mask and social distancing requirements in most settings for fully vaccinated people with a few exceptions like in schools and on public transit. But in New Jersey, mask still need be to be worn inside even for those who are fully vaccinated.

CNN's Alexandra Field is live in New York. Alex, what are you hearing from New Yorkers about this big move?

ALEXANDRA FIELD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes. Look, everyone is acknowledging to us that this is a remarkable step forward when you consider where this city was a year ago. They are crediting, of course, the effectiveness of getting so many people vaccinated, of lowering the positivity rate throughout the city and throughout the state, a promotion of the effectiveness of vaccines. Well, people think it sounds like generally good advice, though we're hearing a lot of hesitancy from New Yorkers don't necessarily expect the city to look entirely different overnight.

Here at this train station in Lower Manhattan, you are required to keep your mask on because, as you pointed out, you do have to still wear a mask on public transportation, in schools, in other communal settings that have been specified by the state, if you are fully vaccinated. Those who are not fully vaccinated, of course, must wear the mask, still the mandates have not been lifted for them.

But we do hear from plenty of people who say they still feel a little bit safer with the mask on. They aren't quite certain that they can trust yet, that everyone who has taken the mask off is, in fact, fully vaccinated. So get used to seeing a little more of these, Ana.

CABRERA: All right. Well, and I guess we are just going to be gradually getting used to a new way forward. Thank you, Alexandra, for that update.

To Texas now, where that state's Republican governor is taking a very different approach.


He is banning local government officials and even public schools from requiring masks, and anyone who does faces fines.

Dr. Richina Bicette is in Houston. She is a board certified emergency medicine physician. She's also a medical director at Baylor College of Medicine.

Doctor, first, your reaction to this news out of Texas.

DR. RICHINA BICETTE, BOARD-CERTIFIED EMERGENCY MEDICINE PHYSICIAN: And, you know, I find it quite odd, almost in a power-tripping kind of way, but since the very beginning of this pandemic, Governor Abbott has made interesting decisions that have at times bewildered and sometimes angered the medical community.

We were the first state to lift our statewide mask mandate. We ended our stay-at-home orders quite early, and there was rapid reopening of businesses and lifting of capacity restrictions before the summer surge. So this kind of falls in line with what has been taking place for the last year.

CABRERA: As a parent myself who has kids who aren't eligible for the vaccine because they are too young, to think they are not even allowing schools to require masks starting next month, does the governor's order put children at risk?

BICETTE: I think does put children at risk when you actually look at the data and look at the numbers. We have quite a large proportion of adults in the United States who have gotten at least one shot and are fully vaccinated. 60 percent of adults over the age of 18 have gotten at least one shot. And because of that, children are now starting to become a more vulnerable population.

As a matter of fact in the month of April, the American Academy of Pediatrics released interesting data that showed that the proportion of children being diagnosed with COVID actually significantly increased in the month of April. It went from 13 percent of cases in pediatrics to 22 percent of cases in pediatrics, and that's because children aren't protected.

CABRERA: A new CNN analysis, the data shows states with higher vaccination rates generally had lower COVID case rates. The CDC shows only about 33 percent of people in the state of Texas are fully vaccinated right now. Is this just more reason to keep some mask mandates in place? What do you take away from that?

BICETTE: Absolutely. Again, the amazing leadership skills of our leaders here in Texas is what has caused this state to continuously fair so poorly during the pandemic. Texas was the first state to amass over 1 million cases. We're consistently ranking in the top three states in numbers of daily cases, number hospitalizations and number of deaths. But on the flip side, we are ranking in the bottom third of states when it comes to vaccinations.

If we are going to lift mitigation strategies and tell people that they can't wear masks and ban local governments from issuing mask mandates, then at least we need to do something to increase our vaccination efforts.

CABRERA: Dr. Fauci said today he thinks people are just misinterpreting the new mask new guidance, thinking it means we can all just stop wearing masks. Do you think that's what's going on, that it's just a big misunderstanding?

BICETTE: No, Ana, I don't think there's anything to misunderstand. The CDC has very clearly stated that vaccinated people do not need to wear masks, but if you are unvaccinated, you are still at risks and actually potentially at higher risks now since the people around you are likely protected if they are vaccinated. I don't think there's anything to misunderstand here.

CABRERA: Agreed. Dr. Richina Bicette, good to see you, thank you for being with us.

BICETTE: Thank you, Ana.

CABRERA: The intense battle between Arizona Republicans over an election audit just got even messier. Now, auditors who said a key database was deleted say it's actually all intact.