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States Lifting Mask Mandates; New York Begins Criminal Probe Into Trump Organization; McConnell Rejects Bipartisan Insurrection Commission. Aired 2-2:30p ET

Aired May 19, 2021 - 14:00   ET



ALISYN CAMEROTA, CNN HOST: Hello, everyone. Welcome to NEWSROOM. I'm Alisyn Camerota.

VICTOR BLACKWELL, CNN HOST: I'm Victor Blackwell. Good to be with you.

Once again, top Republicans are pushing aside the seeking of truth, instead to side with former President Donald Trump. In about two hours, members of the House are expected to vote on a bill that would create an independent commission to investigate the January 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.

The debate is happening in the House right now. And this plan is facing major pushback. Republican Senate Leader Mitch McConnell, he just announced his opposition to the commission.


SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY): After careful consideration, I have made the decision to oppose the House Democrats' slanted and unbalanced proposal for another commission to study the events of January the 6th.

As everybody surely knows, I repeatedly made my views about the events of January the 6th very clear. I spoke clearly and left no doubt about my conclusions.


CAMEROTA: Senator McConnell's position is as stunning as it is unsurprising for a party willing to sacrifice their own personal safety to protect Donald Trump.

It was just a few months ago that McConnell, as he points out, stood on the Senate floor and said that former President Trump was responsible for inciting the events of January 6 and anyone beyond -- beyond that role in inciting the Capitol riots.

Former President Trump is also facing mounting legal challenges today. The New York attorney general has announced she is expanding her civil probe by adding a criminal investigation into Trump's family business. So, we will tell you what all of that means.

BLACKWELL: Yes, but let's start with the fate of this commission.

CNN special correspondent Jamie Gangel go and CNN congressional correspondent Ryan Nobles are with us.

So, Ryan, debate is happening right now. Kind of talk us through what's happening and where things stand now.

RYAN NOBLES, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, we're pretty confident at this point, Victor and Alisyn, that this bill will pass the House of Representatives, and it will do so with a significant amount of Republican support, perhaps not a majority of Republican House members.

But somewhere in the range of 30 to 50 Republican members will likely vote for this legislation, making it a bipartisan passage. The next question, though, happens when it gets over to the Senate side. And, of course, there is a different standard on the Senate side. It would require at least 10 Republicans to support the bill.

And this move this morning by Mitch McConnell, the Senate minority leader, to make it clear that he does not support the bill in its current form is a big blow to the bill's future. He has an iron grip on his conference, and it's likely that many of his members will follow his lead.

I think the big question right now, though, is will the Senate attempt to shape this bill a little bit? They have the opportunity to change it in some way, shape or form to have -- bring some Republicans over. That remains a possibility at this point.

But, right now, it's pretty clear that Republican leadership, the House minority leader, Kevin McCarthy, and McConnell, are very much opposed to it, which makes it very difficult for it to get the widespread bipartisan support that its authors were hoping when they struck a deal on this just about a week ago.

CAMEROTA: Jamie, what are your Republican sources telling you about how this has all played out so far?

JAMIE GANGEL, CNN SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT: So, I think we can call this anatomy of how Donald Trump still has a grip on Kevin McCarthy and Mitch McConnell.

Yesterday, last night, I was told that the Republicans who were in favor of the commission were getting excited. They thought the numbers were growing. One member said to me, it's going to be a jailbreak.

So, I'm guessing that two people heard about that. One was Mitch McConnell. The other was Donald Trump, who, at 9:09 last night, put out a statement opposing the commission that ended with the words: "Hopefully, Mitch McConnell and Kevin McCarthy are listening." And then, of course, what did you see this morning before the House even votes? Mitch McConnell came out and made that statement. The Republican sources in the House that I have spoken to are furious with him, because they feel it is suppressing the vote even before it's taken.

BLACKWELL: Ryan, there's a statement from the family of the Capitol Police officer who died by suicide after the events of January 6.


What are they saying?

NOBLES: Yes, that is the family of Howie Liebengood. He is a Capitol Police officer who took his own life after the events of January 6.

And his family has been very clear that they believe what he experienced during the insurrection was at least part of what led to him taking his own life. And they put out a statement through their member of Congress, Jennifer Wexton of Virginia, where they believe that it is necessary for this independent bipartisan commission to look into the events of January 6, to firmly conclude exactly what happened, in part so that they can learn what led to the death of their loved one.

And there are a number of people in and around that experience on January 6 that are echoing the calls of the Liebengood family, that want this independent body that is not made up of elected leaders to look into this.

And I listened to a conference call this morning with members of the 9/11 Commission, these -- who are imploring the members of Congress to enact this legislation. Zach Wamp, who's a former member of Congress who sat on the 9/11 Commission, he's from Tennessee. He describes himself as a conservative Republican.

He believes that the reason there's Republican resistance is because they're just worried about how this could impact their 2022 midterm chances, and that they're nervous that dredging up everything that happened on that day could make it a lot more difficult for them to sell their agenda.

We're hearing that from Republican members as well, that this isn't so much about getting to the truth of what happened on that day, but it's a lot more about their electoral prospects in the midterms.

CAMEROTA: Jamie, it's just incredible to hear you're reporting on how fast this flipped from 9:00 p.m. last night to this morning.

And so do you have a sense from any of the Republicans that you're talking to on whether they will buck Mitch McConnell and his position and still vote in favor of this commission?

GANGEL: I think it's -- we will find out this evening. But I do think it's interesting. We're also reporting that Kevin McCarthy went over to the Senate

today, and he was lobbying Republican senators against it. I want to read you two quotes from two Republican members of the House who were so upset that McConnell came out against it.

And they said -- quote -- "McConnell must have been fearing a jailbreak. He knows the more House Republican votes it gets, the harder it is for him to defeat in the Senate," and then went on to say -- quote -- "What Mitch has done is the worst cynical political move I have seen in a long time."

So, look, these people won't go on the record. They're not going on camera yet. But what you're seeing is, in real time, the tension within the Republican Conference, people who are trying to break away from Donald Trump, people who want the commission to get to the truth, and the Republican leadership is having none of it.

CAMEROTA: Jamie Gangel, Ryan Nobles, thank you both very much for all of your reporting.

So, Donald Trump is now responding to a new criminal investigation of him. Last night, the New York attorney general said in a statement -- quote -- "We have informed the Trump Organization that our investigation into the organization is no longer purely civil in nature. We are now actively investigating the Trump Organization in a criminal capacity, along with the Manhattan DA."

BLACKWELL: Now, remember, it's the office of the Manhattan DA, Cy Vance, that has the millions of pages of Trump's tax records.

Attorney General James has been looking into whether some of the former president's assets have been inflated in value to get better loans or insurance.

CNN's Kara Scannell helped break this story.

Kara, President Trump, former President Trump has just issued this long and meandering statement on his blog. He's using some familiar terms, witch-hunt, hoax. What's he saying?

KARA SCANNELL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, good afternoon, Victor Alisyn.

Witch-hunts and an investigation in search of a crime are some of the phrases in that lengthy statement that the former president has issued. I mean, he's saying that this is all very much politically motivated.

He writes: "The attorney general of New York literally campaigned on prosecuting Donald Trump even before she knew anything about me. She said that, if elected, she would use her office to look into every aspect of my real estate dealings."

So, this is in response to that news last night that the attorney general's office is joining forces with the Manhattan district attorney's office and working with them on this criminal investigation that has been ongoing for several years into the Trump Organization and looking into various aspects of its finances, whether they had misled banks, whether they filed false business records with the state, and whether they paid the appropriate taxes.

This investigation has been ongoing, both a civil matter and a criminal matter. And what we learned is that James' civil investigation will continue.


But a person familiar with the investigation says that a couple of attorneys at James' office who have been deeply involved in the investigation are in a sense crossing over and working with Cy Vance's office on the criminal investigation.

So, they're able to share information, share some of the evidence that the A.G.'s office has collected with the criminal investigation. And this is really going to add additional heft, both in terms of knowledge that these people have, as well as potential evidence that has been collected -- Victor, Alisyn.

CAMEROTA: Kara Scannell, thank you very much for all of your breaking news.

Joining us now is Tim O'Brien. He's the author of the book "TrumpNation." And Donald Trump, you will remember, sued Tim after Tim reported that Trump was not a billionaire.

Tim, great to have you with us.

What does all of this mean for Donald Trump?

TIM O'BRIEN, AUTHOR, "TRUMPNATION": Alisyn, it means that the legal vise around Donald Trump, the Trump Organization, his children, and some of his senior employees is tightening significantly, that it's a -- this is a very significant development.

Although Tish James may be continuing with a civil suit, prosecutors on a civil side of a probe generally step aside to let a criminal probe take precedent. And the fact that she's decided to convert part of her investigation into a criminal probe matters, because it speaks to the kind of evidence she has

The standard in a criminal investigation, if you want to successfully prosecute someone, is you have to show intent. You have to show they had knowledge of a specific crime. And I don't think -- we don't -- we haven't seen all of her evidence. We only know some of the broad parameters of this case.

But I don't think she would take a step of converting some of this into a criminal probe unless she believed she had evidence that showed knowledge of criminal wrongdoing. The stakes in this are too high.

CAMEROTA: And, Tim, to -- just to be clear, it's not converting, I think -- you correct me if I'm wrong -- the civil into a criminal. It's expanding it, in other words, adding a criminal to the civil investigation. Right or wrong?

O'BRIEN: That's right.

I mean, I think -- I think, in effect, it's the same thing. It's -- she's adding a much more serious dimension to the nature of the investigation. And the consequences of that -- a civil investigation, if you are found guilty, indicted and then found guilty, carries financial penalties and other similar kinds of penalties.

A criminal investigation, if you get indicted and found guilty, you go to jail. It carries prison charges. So, it's just -- it's enormously significant that this is happening. It's also significant that the Manhattan DA's office in the New York A.G.'s office are collaborating on this.

That's also very unusual. And it suggests that both of them have useful information the other side needs to make better cases. And it's almost unprecedented.


I mean, there could have been two parallel investigations from the A.G.'s office and the Manhattan DA, but now the crossover, that we heard the reporting from Kara Scannell there.

What's this mean for the family? We know that Eric Trump and Donald Trump Jr. and their roles at the Trump Organization. What's their exposure here?

O'BRIEN: Well, we have had bits and pieces about the children's various involvements.

Eric Trump was deposed by the New York attorney general last year. I think that related specifically to valuations of properties like Seven Springs, the Trump estate in Westchester County. You know, Ivanka Trump's compensation has come up in these investigations.

They all were involved with making senior decisions within the Trump Organization. And we also know, obviously, there's tons of pressure being brought to bear on Allen Weisselberg, the company's longtime chief financial officer. He's been with the Trump Organization since the 1970s.

He knows where all the financial bodies are buried. He has been very loyal to Trump through the years. But loyalty in Donald Trump's world is usually a one-way street. And if push comes to shove in this, and they really begin to squeeze his accountant, you could see Allen Weisselberg flip.

And I think that that is a significant avenue that investigators in this seem to be pursuing.

CAMEROTA: Tim, you knew about this, but I think that the first time that the general public heard about that there could be these vast inflated assets, or at least Donald Trump was fudging the assets, sometimes deflating them, sometimes inflating them, was when Michael Cohen testified in front of that congressional hearing, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez just zeroed right in on that.

So, let me remind everyone.


REP. ALEXANDRIA OCASIO-CORTEZ (D-NY): To your knowledge, did the president ever provide inflated assets to an insurance company?


OCASIO-CORTEZ: Who else knows that the president did this?


COHEN: Allen Weisselberg, Ron Lieberman, and Matthew Calamari.

OCASIO-CORTEZ: And where would the committee find more information on this?

Do you think we need to review his financial statements and his tax returns in order to compare them?

COHEN: Yes. And you would find it at the Trump Org.


CAMEROTA: Is that the heart of the matter right there, Tim?

O'BRIEN: Well, the heart of the matter is whether Donald Trump committed tax fraud or members of his organization committed tax fraud, banking fraud, insurance fraud.

There could be possible money laundering coming out of some of these investigations. So, it is the heart of the matter. It is, well, did he break the law? Did people around him break the law? Can it be proven that they had knowledge of that when they participated and if they participated in it?

That's the standard. And they have to attach that directly to Trump himself, if Trump winds up being ensnared in this. And it's not clear yet that they have met that bar. But that is the heart of it, Alisyn.

BLACKWELL: All right, another investigation now with, as the A.G. says, criminal capacity.

Tim O'Brien, thanks so much.

CAMEROTA: Thanks, Tim.

O'BRIEN: Thanks, Victor.

CAMEROTA: OK, as more Americans are starting to live life beyond masks, Dr. Fauci says many are misinterpreting the new guidance. BLACKWELL: Plus, look at the screen, this dramatic video of an 11-

year-old girl fighting off a man who came after her with a knife. Her courageous escape, you will see the full video, still ahead.



CAMEROTA: There is still no consensus on who should wear masks and where almost a week after the CDC announced new guidelines.

So, in Texas, the governor just issued a ban on masks, basically a ban on mask mandates on schools and local governments.

BLACKWELL: Also, today, New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, they're lifting capacity restrictions for most businesses.

And in New York, it's the first day that fully vaccinated people do not have to wear a mask indoors.

CNN's Alexandra Field is at a transportation hub in Manhattan.

So, I can see from your face there that that's one of the places where masks are still required.

ALEXANDRA FIELD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Exactly. You have to wear a mask here, because it is a transportation hub, and masks are required, whether you're fully vaccinated or not, on all forms of public transportation.

But, Victor, even beyond this train station, I think you can still expect to see a lot of masks on these streets of the city of New York. Look, this is a city that has, frankly, embraced mask-wearing. There has been high compliance over the course of the pandemic.

The guidance has changed now that fully vaccinated people can take off those masks, certainly outdoors, and in a lot of scenarios indoors. But we're hearing from people who are somewhat reluctant to do that.

The city's very own health commissioner saying that he will still choose to keep his mask on in many scenarios indoors. The mayor of the city of New York saying that it's reasonable for people to assess the situation and, when in doubt, wear a mask.

We spoke to some people here at the train station this morning. They say they see the new guidelines as a tremendous sign of progress for the city, even if they aren't ready to personally embrace all those guidelines themselves.

Listen to this.


BRENDA JONES, NEW YORK RESIDENT: I don't think everybody's ready to have their mask off yet. I think it's too soon to realize a mask mandate. The COVID is still going on. It's not done yet. Maybe another year?

I'm going to wear a mask for as long as I can.

JOHN CHESNOCK, NEW YORK RESIDENT: So, when I go out to eat, I go out to a restaurant, as soon as I'm seated, I take the mask off. When I'm walking through the restaurant, right, I observe the rules. I keep the mask on. That is the right thing to do. You protect me. I will protect you.


FIELD: You can understand some of the hesitation in a city that was hit so hard by the COVID crisis, particularly during the early months of the pandemic.

We want to be really clear on the guidance here. Taking off the mask, that applies to fully vaccinated people, so no one who is unvaccinated, no one who is under the age of 12.

And everyone, regardless of vaccination status, does have to wear the mask on public transportation, also in places like schools and other congregate settings like nursing homes and jails.

And as for businesses, well, it's up to them to determine -- Victor, Alisyn.

BLACKWELL: You need a little note card to keep track of everything.

Alexandra Field for us there, thanks so much.


BLACKWELL: So, speaking of masks, there is a bit of a resistance movement among House Republicans as it relates to wearing them.

Several GOP lawmakers are defying House rules that require masks on the floor, going so far as posting this picture and others on Twitter.

CAMEROTA: And they are trying to claim, Victor, that a mask mandate is not in keeping with the new CDC guidelines. So, they either don't understand the new guidelines or they're actively flouting them.

Dr. Fauci clarified that the guidelines are for fully vaccinated people.

Let's bring in CNN's Jessica Dean on Capitol Hill.

So, Jessica, these maskless lawmakers have actually been fined. So, it's -- but, I mean, part of it is that we don't know if that group that were proudly smiling maskless, whether they have been vaccinated, because they haven't told CNN what their status is.


And you really hit the nail on the head. The mask guidance is for fully vaccinated people. And what we know, based on our CNN survey, is that 100 percent of House Democrats are vaccinated.

But when it comes to the House Republicans, only 44.8 percent -- or 45.9 -- there's an even better updated number there -- 45.9 percent of House Republicans are vaccinated. So that leaves a large swathe of House Republicans who are not vaccinated on the House floor.

So, what has happened since yesterday? Well, now Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy has filed a resolution to unwind this mask guidance, which requires a mask on the House floor.


They are expected to bring that to a vote tonight and decide whether to table that resolution, which is what is likely to happen, because Democrats control the House, or to move forward with it. Again, it is likely to be tabled.

But the fact is that McCarthy is arguing that it is -- that mask guidance is out of line with the CDC guidelines, that it is out of line with the science.

Now, we just heard from Speaker Pelosi's spokesperson who said, no, in fact -- no, in fact, it is in very much in line with the CDC guidance and that, in fact, a CDC panel has looked at what they have decided to do to keep the masks on, on the House floor and said that is the way they should proceed.

Speaker Pelosi herself has said that the guidance will not be reversed until everyone is fully vaccinated, her spokespersons saying that, if they want to take the masks off, that House Republican leadership should get to vaccinating their members and that that is the way forward on this.

But it continues to be a flash point. They are voting as we speak. There continues to be skirmishes about this. And, as you said, those lawmakers continue to take those masks off and flaunt that, even though they're getting fined hundreds of dollars every time they're doing it -- Victor and Alisyn.

CAMEROTA: I mean, it's really interesting, Jessica, because maybe Marjorie Taylor Greene and her posse there have been vaccinated, but, in that case, why keep it a secret?

DEAN: Right. We don't know.

CAMEROTA: Why don't they want to let anybody know that?

DEAN: And we did ask. We have asked multiple times. They haven't answered.

Marjorie Taylor Greene will often say that that's a HIPAA violation and then not answer the question. So, that's what we know.

CAMEROTA: Jessica Dean, thank you very much for all the reporting.

BLACKWELL: There are more concerns about the humanitarian crisis in Gaza. The death toll, the number of people dying there rises.

The latest on international pressure for a cease-fire -- next.