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Fate of January 6 Commission Uncertain in Senate after Passing House; Trump Allies Seek to Import Arizona's Election Audit to Georgia. Aired 10-10:30a ET

Aired May 20, 2021 - 10:00   ET




JIM SCIUTTO, CNN NEWSROOM: A very good Thursday morning to you. I'm Jim Sciutto.


Follow the facts or follow former President Trump, the major question that is facing Republican senators this morning as the January 6th commission bill passes the House and now is in the hands of the other chamber. The bipartisan bill looking increasingly like it won't have the 60 votes needed to break a Republican filibuster, that's despite 35 Republicans in the House breaking with their leadership. And if this fails, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is warning Democrats may go it alone.

SCIUTTO: Yes. She strongly is signaling she will approve a Democrat- led House select committee if the Senate kills the bipartisan commission. Though I spoke to a Democratic congressman last hour who said they're still hoping for bipartisan agreement in the Senate.

Still no commissions may mean we will never know important details of what led up to and what happened during the insurrection. Crucially, what did former President Trump say to Kevin McCarthy during that phone call and what exactly was the president, the former president, doing as violence unfolded at the Capitol?

Let's begin with CNN's Manu Raju. He is on Capitol Hill. I mean, Manu, the big question here is, are there changes that Democrats can make to the Senate version of this bill to get ten Republican votes? I mean, is that a possibility at this point?

MANU RAJU, CNN CHIEF CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: It seems highly, highly unlikely. This is almost certain to face death in the Senate as soon as next week, just simply because of the raw politics of this and the belief among top Republican leaders that doing so, going forward with an investigation, that would be essentially politically damaging for their party come 2022 and control of the Senate is at stake.

It's something they're saying openly, as well as privately, concerned that this would keep this issue about January 6th in the headlines, bring a focus on to not just former President Donald Trump but also some Republicans on Capitol Hill, like Republican leader in the House, Kevin McCarthy, his discussions that he had with Donald Trump. Of course, there are questions about whether or not McCarthy would have to testify before any such commission about those conversations from January 6th.

The belief among Republicans is they would rather take this hit now, shelve this commission, defeat this bill and avoid the ramifications come time for the midterms, assuming that voters are not holding them accountable for this.

Now, there are -- the hope among the Democrats and the proponents of this bill is that there will be ten Republicans who would break ranks in the 50/50 Senate. There just are not those ten Republicans yet, even some who voted to convict Donald Trump, such as Susan Collins of Maine. She has expressed concerns. She wants changes to the proposal. It is doubtful that those changes would be enough to satisfy a wide number of Republicans who may break ranks.

So then, ultimately, the question will be, where do the Democrats go from here, guys. And it just sounds like the Democrats are increasingly talking about trying to go it alone, trying to move forward on a select committee or some sort of committee on the House side that can investigate. It would be a Democratic-led investigation.

But that's what concerns some Democrats, why they want to go it alone, do it in an outside commission because that would be free of politics, per se. But doing inside the House, Republicans would accuse them of mounting a partisan investigation. So that's how things may end up here at the end of the day, guys.

SCIUTTO: We've heard it all before. Manu Raju on the Hill, thanks very much.

Joining us now to discuss, CNN Political Director David Chalian. And I wonder, David, does this finally expose, and maybe should be surprise, the lack of real desire for bipartisanship from Republicans, right? Because, I mean, this was not, for instance, the COVID relief plan put together by Democrats and didn't get any Republican votes.

This was negotiated by Democrats and Republicans at the behest of the GOP majority leader who, in effect, gave his Republican representative in those negotiations a list of things, and as Don Bacon, the Republican who voted for this commission said last night, Republicans got basically all they asked for. So if you can't get support for this bipartisan agreement, what are you going to get support for?

DAVID CHALIAN, CNN POLITICAL DIRECTOR: Yes. I don't know, Jim. I don't know that this is about bipartisanship and trying to prevent bipartisanship at all costs. I think, as you just heard in Manu's reporting, this is much more about Republicans making the calculation that this is terrain that they don't want to be in as the midterm elections next year approach.

[10:05:02] So, Mitch McConnell can sort of explain to his conference, imagine what every day is going to be like when the next person comes to testify and all the focus is on former President Trump and his actions, and the lead-up to January 6th. Is that what you want to be talking about? I think that's the calculation more than we don't want bipartisanship.

SCIUTTO: I get that, David, but that timeline, that election date didn't just come up yesterday. It's been there November 2022 forever. So that means the negotiations were all -- I mean, were they all B.S. to this point?

CHALIAN: Yes. That's what I think it exposes. I think it exposes that something that should be outside the realm of politics for the majority leader -- sorry for the minority leader in the Senate and Republican leader in the House that it is politics that is paramount here, not trying to get an actual bipartisan, independent, authoritative accounting of this attack on our democracy.

HARLOW: You know, David, something that I think says so much is this moment and what has happened subsequently. So let's play, guys, the people chanting, hang Mike Pence.


CROWD: Hang Mike Pence. Hang Mike Pence. Hang Mike Pence. Hang Mike Pence. Hang Mike Pence.


HARLOW: So, David, that happened on January 6th, right? Remember we have that video now, they had to rush the vice president out of the chamber and down the stairs, showing how close he was to danger. Well, guess what, his brother, who is a congressman, voted against this in the House, right?

And I'm not asking you specifically about his vote but I'm asking you about what that says, big picture.

CHALIAN: Well, you just referenced the video of Mike Pence being hustled out of the chamber. You know who was with him? Greg Pence, his brother.

HARLOW: That's right.

CHALIAN: The congressman was actually with him in that grouping being hustled out of the Senate chamber on that day. And yet you're right, Poppy, he still voted not to get to the bottom of this with an independent, bipartisan commission, removed from current members of Congress that can offer history, an authoritative accounting not just for the sake of history, of course, but to prevent this from happening again.

I mean, that is what is so shocking to me. I know the Republicans have pointed to, this is duplicative, there are committees working on this, but there is no committee that outside the halls of Congress that is totally bipartisan in nature that can give that kind of independent review. That doesn't exist in the work that's going on in Congress.

SCIUTTO: And the pill the Republicans willing to swallow on this, pretty remarkable. I spoke to people in Pence's camp in the days afterwards who talked about his deep upset and disappointment that the president wasn't -- didn't seem to be interested in his safety that day. And that's suddenly forgotten?

CHALIAN: Yes. I don't know that it's forgotten, because, you are right, we all heard that at that time that there is a real disconnect going on between the vice president and the president at that time and I think some of that relationship has suffered permanently because of that, there's no doubt. But I think what you're seeing here is that that's not paramount in the consideration.

And what is so alarming is if the very sort of fundamentals of our democracy cannot be paramount to partisan politics, it raises the question, I think, Poppy, that you were getting at earlier, which is, what does that say about our current state of politics in America? How does progress on anything get made?

SCIUTTO: Yes. And, by the way, there are real legal changes being made so that you can have partisan decisions overrule the results of elections now. I mean, it's part of the election law. It's real. David Chalian, thanks very much.


HARLOW: Thank you, David.

Turning now to the former president, the New York Attorney General's Office it has announced it has opened a criminal investigation involving Trump Organization's chief financial officer, Allen Weisselberg. Sources tell CNN, prosecutors are trying to find leverage that they could use to sway Weisselberg to cooperate with authorities and maybe help them build a case against people higher up in the organization.

Let's bring in our Legal Analyst Paul Callan with more. Good morning, Paul.

PAUL CALLAN, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Good morning. How are you, Poppy?

HARLOW: I'm good. It's so nice to have you. It's been a while.

So this is classic, right? Like get someone pretty high up to get someone higher high up?

CALLAN: Oh, absolutely. And I've got to say, business organizations live in terror that the firm accountant is going to be cooperating with prosecutors, because at least in theory, he would know where all the bodies are buried, all the financial records and everything that could damage the organization. So this is a scary moment for Donald Trump and the Trump Organization.

SCIUTTO: Now, Weisselberg already cooperated with investigators in the investigation of Michael Cohen, the prosecution of Michael Cohen, who, by the way, ended up in jail. And those circumstances, not accused of a crime.


If in these circumstances, prosecutors are hinting at that, based on your experience as a lawyer, does that make his cooperation more likely?

CALLAN: Well, some of the reports are interesting here, Jim. There are reports that his daughter-in-law, Jennifer, who has divorced from his son, Barry, is cooperating with prosecutors, has turned over records of the couple. And the reports are that they lived in a Trump Organization apartment, possibly rent free. And there are also reports that maybe their tuition, the tuition of their children was paid by Weisselberg as sort of a perk of his job.

Now, depending upon how that was reported to tax authorities, that could be a serious tax violation and it could be a violation of various statutes under New York law, felony statutes.

HARLOW: Because he was supposed to pay taxes on the exit considering some sort of compensation.

CALLAN: That's right. A lot of people forget that. When the grandparents come in and they pay the kid's tuition --

HARLOW: Don't forget it.

CALLAN: -- that can be a taxable offense and taxable event. And in New York, sending your kids to elementary school can cost $30,000 a year, $40,000 a year. So, we're talking substantial figures here.

HARLOW: The fact that the New York A.G. and Manhattan D.A. were carrying these out as parallel investigations and have now merged, I think one of our legal experts said yesterday that's really rare. Is it? I mean, is it rare to -- and then what does it tell you?

CALLAN: It's very rare, Poppy. I was a New York prosecutor myself and there's a tremendous amount of competition between the state attorney general's office and the local attorney -- district attorneys. And the local D.A. doesn't want state attorney general getting involved in their investigations.

Now here, Letitia James, who is the attorney general, has, in fact, sent two of her assistant attorney generals to work with Cyrus Vance, the New York County district attorney, to assist in that investigation. So this is a very cooperative endeavor by two powerful prosecutorial agencies, and it's extremely unusual in New York.

SCIUTTO: We'll be watching where it leads. Paul Callan, thanks very much.

CALLAN: Thank you, Jim.

SCIUTTO: Allies of former President Trump are looking to spread Arizona's so-called audit to other swing states. Up next, we're going to speak to someone who witnessed what is happening in Arizona and says, it's actually worse than you think.

HARLOW: Plus, Dr. Anthony Fauci says it is highly likely that vaccinated Americans will need a COVID booster shot maybe in a little less than a year, details on that.

And House Speaker Nancy Pelosi will speak this hour after the House approves the bill to create a bipartisan commission on the Capitol riot. We'll hear from her live.



SCIUTTO: Despite there being no evidence whatsoever of widespread voter fraud in the 2020 election, fact, it has been dismissed in multiple court cases and by Republican state election officials repeatedly, former President Trump's allies are making a push to bring the Arizona-style so-called audit to other swing states, in effect, perpetuating the big lie, a day after Trump said, Georgia should follow Arizona's lead.

Former Georgia State Representative Vernon Jones, who happens to be challenging the state's incumbent Republican governor in next year's primary, proposed exactly that.

HARLOW: That's right. We want to show you the website. This is the website of the firm leading this so-called audit. It's the Cyber Ninjas. And it's worth taking a moment to explore for yourself. And this is who is leading it, the firm's chief executive is someone named Doug Logan, someone who repeated the false claim that the election had been rigged against Trump, meaning he pushed the big lie.

SCIUTTO: Jennifer Morrell was one of the people who was allowed in the room while the audit was happening there. In a recent Washington Post op-ed, she says it was, quote, worse than you think, Morrell also a partner in The Elections Group, which works with state and local election officials implementing new programs or improving processes for voters and stakeholders. Jennifer, thanks so much for coming here.

A lot of folks have been watching this from the outside and saying, it's just a side show, forget about it, but you witnessed it. Tell us why you believe it's worse than we think.

JENNIFER MORRELL, PARTNER, THE ELECTIONS GROUP: Yes. Well, it's actually worse than that. It's in no way, shape or form does, resembles what I would call an election audit, what we would see happen or being carried out in most of the jurisdictions across the country.

It's really bizarre, actually. What you see are ballots being placed on these turntables and being spun around while folks try to tally or write down what they see. They're allowing for variants in the tally, meaning the numbers can be off by a couple of votes and they're okay with that.

And then there's this just really strange sort of idea that fraudulent ballots can be found by looking at things like folds and stains and fibers in the paper, completely disregarding all the guardrails that are in place to prevent fraud from happening. So it's just a really strange endeavor. Not a lot of -- nothing that would resemble what we would call an audit.


HARLOW: I mean, not just strange, Jennifer. You write about hearing auditors -- so-called auditors talking about Cheeto stains on audits and bamboo in them before we knew about this, you know, bamboo conspiracy theory. I mean, that's like what they were so worried about.

MORRELL: Yes. So it was really interesting. I wasn't allowed to talk to any of the individuals that were working. So, these are simply things I overheard as I was observing. And, yes, it clearly indicates that the firm that's conducting this, that coordinated it in the training really has no understanding of how elections work. They don't have experience. Anybody that's worked in elections would know these sort of human idiosyncrasies, as I call them, are pretty normal. Folks folding ballots where they shouldn't be folded and certainly coming into the polling location, unfortunately, food stains on their fingers.

SCIUTTO: This would be a side show except that a process is now in place in some states to allow a legislature to overrule elections officials and say, you know, we're just not going to -- we're not going to certify this election. And you could imagine circumstances under which they would use a false audit like this as justification to do so.

I mean, based on your experience, how concerned should folks be at home that I've got to watch this. because next time around, this could turn an election?

MORRELL: Yes. I think this is really bad. This is bad for election security. It's bad for voters. It's bad for democracy. We have state and local election officials not only with years of knowledge and experience to conduct the election, to conduct an audit, to conduct a recount, but officials who have taken an oath to uphold not some made- up process, like Cyber Ninjas is doing, but to uphold the laws of their state and to uphold federal laws in the way that they carry out those procedures. So I think it's a really dangerous precedent.


HARLOW: Finally, briefly, you were asked to do some bizarre things while you were in there. Like what?

MORRELL: I was. They were just so paranoid. Obviously, I was there as an observer of the secretary of state. They were constantly kind of harassing me. They had folks assigned to follow me. Once I was asked to empty my -- show what was in pockets, the pen they had given me and my glasses, repeatedly, both myself and other observers were asked to hand over our pens so that they could test to ensure it was really red ink inside the red pen and somehow we hadn't nefariously switched it out for black or blue. So, it's really bizarre.

HARLOW: Well, Jennifer Morrell, thanks for taking us inside of what's going on. And as Jim rightly points out, some of this stuff sounds funny or bizarre because it's weird but it's real implications. And we did try to get the Cyber Ninjas. CNN reached out to the Cyber Ninjas, the Arizona state senate president's office to comment on your piece specifically, and they did not respond. But thank you for coming on.

MORRELL: Thanks for having me.

HARLOW: Well, prospects looking dim in the Senate for the bipartisan January 6th commission. But House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is signaling she may have a plan B. We'll talk about it next.



HARLOW: Right now, the fate of an independent 9/11-style commission investigating the deadly January 6th riot rests on Senate Republicans. At least ten Senate Republicans are needed to pass the bill that just passed in the House. But are there ten willing to now go against their Republican leadership in that chamber?

With me now is Democratic Congresswoman Chrissy Houlahan of Pennsylvania, also a veteran of the U.S. Airf Force. Congresswoman, it's good to have you.

You did have 35 Republicans defy their leadership in the House but 83 percent still voted against this. What is your response to those 175 Republican colleagues who said no?

REP. CHRISSY HOULAHAN (D-PA): Yes, it's a great disappointment, to be honest. I was heartened by 35 people crossing the aisle but, frankly, it should have been a unanimous vote. This should have been a very clear message that was sent to all of our enemies, foreign and domestic, that if you mess with the United States and our democracy, we're going to come after you. And that's indeed what happened on January 6th. It was a terrorist attack, full stop. And we need to make sure that we get to the bottom, get some answers of how that happened and how we can make sure we never allow that to happen again.

HARLOW: There are, though -- I mean, McConnell is against it, blunt. But CNN is doing its own count sort of whip count, if you will, our Manu Raju and his team on the Hill. And they do have at least five Republicans who may vote yes on this. So it's not dead on arrival yet. Do you --

HOULAHAN: That's good.

HARLOW: Are you optimistic it gets to the Senate?

HOULAHAN: I don't know that optimism would be the word that I would necessarily use but I would really encourage the American people and the American public to use their voices, give a call to their senators and let them know that this is not a partisan issue. This was an attack on all of us on January 6th, that it was an attack on the democracy itself.


It's not a coincidence that it happened at around 1:00 on January 6th when we were beginning.