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Biden Meets with EU Leaders; Trump Pressured AG; Democrats Probe DOJ Surveillance of Lawmakers; McConnell Comments on Supreme Court; Aired 9-9:30a ET

Aired June 15, 2021 - 09:00   ET




POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning, everyone. We're so glad you're with us today. I'm Poppy Harlow.

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN ANCHOR: And I'm Jim Sciutto, live in Geneva, Switzerland, where the weather is sunny. Sunny weather for what's going to be a difficult, highly anticipated summit between President Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin. That is set to take place here in less than 24 hours. President Biden will arrive here in the next hour.

There is no shortage of issues the two sides will need to address, including Russia's continuing cyberattacks on the U.S., its detainment of several Americans in Russia, its continuing interference in U.S. elections. So many issues. President Biden promising to challenge Putin on those issues directly, Poppy.

HARLOW: Ahead of his trip to Geneva, Biden was in Brussels where he reaffirmed the United States commitment to strong transatlantic ties at the EU/U.S. summit.

Our team is following all of these crucial angles and sit-downs.

Let's start in Brussels. Our Arlette Saenz is there.

Arlette, President Biden spent the morning working with EU leaders. Do we know their focus?

ARLETTE SAENZ, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: (INAUDIBLE) that President Biden had this morning really caps off his tour of assuring allies that the United States is back and will continue to support them.

This coming, of course, after those four years of President Trump really testing and putting a strain on many of the United States' relationships with allies. And in a series of meetings this morning that the president had with EU leaders, the president has really left Brussels with really two big deliverables. One of those being the formation of a new trade and tech counsel between the United States and Europe to really try to counter a rising China.

And then also the U.S. has ended, settled, a 17-year trade dispute over subsidies related to Airbus and Boeing. President Biden -- or President Trump had really upped the ante in that dispute, slapping billions of dollars in tariffs in Europe, responding in kind. But President Biden, his overarching message over the past week here in Europe is that the United States has its allies' back.

Take a listen.


JOE BIDEN, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Americans, we are (INAUDIBLE) never fully left, but we are reasserting the fact that it's overwhelming in the interest of the United States of America to have a great relationship with NATO and with the EU. I have a very different view than my predecessor.


SAENZ: So President Biden once again stressing the importance of those transatlantic ties. But looming large over the past week of events has been that upcoming face-to-face meeting with Russia's President Vladimir Putin. At each of the president's stops, from the G7 summit, even to Windsor Castle with the queen, and yesterday at NATO, the president spoke with allies about that upcoming meeting and what he is hoping to relay to the Russian president when it comes to cyberattacks and also treatment of opposition leaders.

But now the president is about to head over -- he boarded Air Force One a short while ago. He is about to head over to Geneva for that face-to-face sit-down with the Russian president.

HARLOW: Hugely important.

Arlette, thank you for that reporting from Brussels for us this weekend -- this morning.


SCIUTTO: Joining me in Geneva this morning, CNN's Natasha Bertrand and Frederik Pleitgen.

Natasha, President Biden, very unlike President Trump, who would proudly say, no need to prepare for this stuff. You know, our personal relationship is strong. I can handle it on my own. Biden, on the other hand, he's been preparing very aggressively for this.

NATASHA BERTRAND, CNN WHITE HOUSE REPORTER: Very intensively, Jim. He's been having meetings with his advisers basically every day. When he doesn't have these meetings with the G7 leaders or with the EU leaders, he's been spending his mornings with Antony Blinken, with Jake Sullivan, his national security adviser, getting ready for this summit. But then another really important aspect of his preparation, of

course, has been consulting with foreign leaders about what he's going to be saying to Putin, about what he anticipates is going to be on the agenda. And that is so that the foreign leaders can feel really involved in the process because Joe Biden has a lot of foreign policy experience, right? I mean this is not something -- he's met Vladimir Putin before.

This is not something necessarily that he's brand-new to. But he and his advisers really want to feel like the foreign leaders are involved in this, that they can emphasize that America is back as a leader and that they are incorporating all of their allies into this big, consequential meeting with Vladimir Putin because, of course, the stakes could not really be higher at this point.


SCIUTTO: That, of course, another contrast to President Trump, who had this go it alone strategy, denigrated an alliance like NATO. Biden said -- in fact, when he was running for president said, I'm going to approach this differently. I'm going to bring my allies together. And that show of force both in Brussels and at the G7 to indicate that.

One of the issues on the table, and interestingly it sounds like they will speak about this, are Americans detained in Russia, in prison, Russia says for crimes, the U.S. calls these trials absurd. Joke trials, in effect.


SCIUTTO: Do we expect progress on that issue?

PLEITGEN: I think there could really very well be progress. And one of the things that you just pointed out is absolutely correct, the Russians are now saying that they do believe that this is going to be a big topic here.

It was quite interesting because one of the things that, you know, has been talked about in the run-up to all of this is a possible exchange for Paul Whelan, who, obviously, the U.S. says is unjustly imprisoned on -- and convicted already of espionage, a very long jail sentence, apparently not doing very well in jail anyway, for Victor Bout, the well-known arms dealer, known as the merchant of death and --

SCIUTTO: Yes. Not exactly a Boy Scout they're talking about exchanging for him.

PLEITGEN: Not exactly a Boy Scout at all, but, at the same time, even the judge who convicted Bout back then said maybe it is time for a prisoner exchange. Maybe that's not such a bad idea. Obviously that doesn't necessarily have much bearing on what goes on here at the summit.

However, the Russians came out today and they said that talks about prisoner exchanges have been going on for a while. There's an international mechanism for this. But the Russians did say, this is in the form of the deputy foreign minister, that the issue of Paul Whelan was specifically excluded from those talks that had been going on for a very long time.

However, earlier today, the spokesman for Vladimir Putin, Dmitry Peskov, he said, look, no one should speculate about a possible exchange of Victor Bout for Paul Whelan. That's something for the presidents to talk about and then to possibly decide.


PLEITGEN: So it looks like it's one of those issues where there could be tangible process -- progress if the two presidents do really talk about it, which is does seem as though --

SCIUTTO: Well, it's interesting for the president -- the president -- the Russian president's spokesman even to articulate that exchanges, an idea, because it puts it out there in a way that I suppose makes it more real.

PLEITGEN: Yes, absolutely.

SCIUTTO: There are lots of differences between the U.S. and Russia. I cited a few of them, cyberattacks, the occupation of Ukraine. But there are issues where there's agreement. By the way, in Geneva, you know, a deal negotiated in Geneva, Russia and the U.S. were in the Iran nuclear deal.

PLEITGEN: They were, yes.

SCIUTTO: The Biden administration attempting, at least, to resurrect this. Do they expect to talk about this, make progress on that and other issues where they agree?

PLEITGEN: It's -- yes, it certainly does seem to be one of those areas where they are going to talk about -- about that issue. The Iran nuclear agreement is also one of those issues where both sides really have the same interest. The Russians want the U.S. back in that agreement. The U.S., obviously, wants to get back into the agreement. It's really just a matter of talking that through with the Iranians and getting everybody on board with that.

Afghanistan is another one of those issues that -- where certainly both sides do not -- with the U.S. leaving Afghanistan -- don't want to see Afghanistan descend into some sort of lawlessness.


PLEITGEN: A big, big issue for the Russians as well. And they --

SCIUTTO: Yes, they have some experience there.

PLEITGEN: They certainly do. They do. They have a lot of experience. They have a lot of experience with what happens in Afghanistan when things go devastatingly wrong.

SCIUTTO: Yes. PLEITGEN: So they carry that with them.

And then arms control. Arms control is also one of those issues where Vladimir Putin has said that he does value the new professionalism that is there in Washington with the Biden administration now where they have managed to at least extend the New START Treaty. And the Russians, certainly, they do seem to -- to want to build on that as well. Of course, there's a lot of side issues also involved with the Russians then also wanting to talk about, for instance, missile defense systems, which they don't like in Europe.

SCIUTTO: Yes, no question.

PLEITGEN: But there are certainly some issues where I think that progress can be made.

The cyber issue, I think, is really the one to watch, though, because that's where there are considerable differences but both sides do want to talk about it.

SCIUTTO: No question. Well, some history in Geneva with arms control going back to Reagan and Gorbachev in the mid-1980s.

Natasha, I remember covering the Trump/Kim summits. And, of course, the criticism of many on both sides of the aisle was having a summit without preconditions, without sort of deliverables agreed to in advance. Here we have President Biden, in somewhat of a similar situation with Putin. Nothing agreed to in advance saying that, you know, this is a chance to deliver a message.

How does the White House answer that criticism that they're coming here, meeting Putin, giving him a platform without any guarantees of something in return?

BERTRAND: It's a great question, Jim. And this is actually causing a lot of anxiety even within Biden's own administration. Last week -- or the week before last week, the U.S. -- sitting U.S. ambassador to Russia gave a briefing to senators, warning them that the Biden administration could be repeating the mistakes of its predecessors by going into a summit with no preconditions, by making concessions, such as waiving sanctions on the Nord Stream II gas pipeline. And so that just kind of conveys the anxiety surrounding a summit like this which some people see as a reward to Vladimir Putin for his bad behavior.

So the White House is saying repeatedly, we are meeting with Vladimir Putin because of our differences, not in spite of them, or in spite of our differences, not because of them. I'm not sure which way that goes.


BERTRAND: But, basically, the bottom line being, they want to work this out directly with the Russian president. They want to establish that line of communication so that they can avoid misunderstandings.

[09:10:02] The goal is not a major breakthrough, it is just incremental progress.

SCIUTTO: Yes, Jen Psaki saying that this is how diplomacy is supposed to work, to meet with your adversaries, as well as your allies.

Natasha Bertrand, Fred Pleitgen, thanks very much.

We're going to have a lot more to discuss in the coming days as we watch this play out.

Poppy, I mean, there's a lot at stake here in Geneva and we'll see where it ends up.

HARLOW: So much at stake. I'm so glad you're there and we're less than 24 hours away from the beginning of that Putin/Biden meeting. A lot to come from it.

New emails, meantime, show former President Trump again tried to use the Justice Department for his own gain, this time in pursuit of the big lie. We'll explain.

Plus, new president, same tactics. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell threatens to block another Supreme Court seat if Republicans win back the Senate. We'll discuss.

SCIUTTO: And the Justice Department set to unveil a plan to combat domestic terrorism. This comes after a new FBI warning that QAnon backers may carry out more violent acts.

And as we go to break, here are live pictures from Geneva, Switzerland, as we wait for the arrival of President Biden. We are preparing for this historic summit between Biden and Putin. We're going to be covering it these next few days. Please do stay with us.



HARLOW: This morning, new emails just released by Democrats on the House Oversight Committee shine a light on how former President Trump and his allies pressure the Justice Department to challenge the results of the 2020 election.

Let's bring in our colleague Whitney Wild. She joins us now.

This is explosive new reporting when you actually dig into, as you did, these emails showing how many people pressured investigations of the 2020 election all based on a lie. I mean all based on fraud. Trump allies trying to push then acting Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen to join this legal effort to challenge the results.

WHITNEY WILD, CNN LAW ENFORCEMENT CORRESPONDENT: There are -- you know, this -- a several week period within -- between December and early January, just a couple of days before the riot, that shows the White House seeming to grow sort of more and more hysterical, trying to pressure the Department of Justice to take these election fraud claims to the finish line, take it to the Supreme Court, and ultimately overturn the election.

Here are just a couple days to highlight that.

December 14th was a highly consequential day, Poppy. It was the same day that the state certified the Electoral College votes. That day, the president, through, you know, through a proxy, sent election fraud claims to top DOJ officials. That was before, Poppy, Bill Barr had even resigned. We know he had resigned in part because he was like, look, I'm not doing this election fraud -- you know, this election fraud circus. I don't believe in it. So he quit.

It seems like the White House had zeroed in on his number two, Jeffrey Rosen. Perhaps they thought that he would be more open to these election fraud claims and that they could manipulate him into actually carrying out possibly overturning the election through the Department of Justice. So that all happening on December 14th.

A couple of weeks later, the White House again pressures DOJ to file a Supreme Court lawsuit to nullify the 2020 election. So this happens, Poppy, through a White House assistant, as well as a private attorney who reaches out to DOJ and says, I've got this draft lawsuit.

You could just file this with the Supreme Court and we'd be all set. And, you know what, the president asked me to send this to you. So he was trying to use the president's power through this, you know, to try to convince the people he was talking to, to actually carry out the president's wishes.

This happened multiple times, Poppy. December 31st, the president meets with Jeffrey Rosen and other DOJ officials. On January 1st, Chief of Staff Mark Meadows emails then Acting Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen three times to try to convince him to look into these election fraud claims. It went on and on and on, Poppy.

Eventually culminating in this January 3rd meeting where Acting Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen and another man named Jeffrey Clark go to the White House and they basically both have this apprentice-style meeting where they're trying to pitch themselves as the attorney -- the -- as acting attorney general.

This man, Jeffrey Clark, Poppy, goes into the president and basically says, I can take the election fraud claims to the finish line. Make me acting attorney general and I'm going to do this. And then, you know, Jeffrey Rosen argues the other side, which is, DOJ can't do this election fraud. You know, they can't get behind these baseless claims.

And, in the end, there was a sigh of relief within the Department of Justice because Jeffrey Rosen won. And that, at least for a moment, gave the Department of Justice some calm, again, just three days before the riot.

So it really shows how hysterical the White House was getting until the very end.

HARLOW: Yes. And how close it went to the very end.

Whitney, thank you for that important reporting.

Let's talk about this and digest it all. CNN's senior legal analyst Elie Honig is here. He's a former federal and state prosecutor.

So much to unpack and you've also got Jeffrey Rosen, you know, as Whitney laid out, saying he refused to speak to the president's personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, about all of this. I guess twofold question, what should the DOJ do about this now and is all of it legal? I suppose, right, to make the request. What do you think of it?

ELIE HONIG, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: So, Poppy, it's not necessarily a crime --

HARLOW: Right.

HONIG: But I do want to be clear, this is utter madness. I mean I just looked at these emails. They made me think of sort of the worst, craziest emails that you'll get, those junk emails that go into your spam box of your personal folder, only these are coming from the White House to the U.S. Department of Justice.


And this is really sort of the inevitable end result of four years of politicization of weaponization of the Justice Department by the White House. Of course, Donald Trump is primarily to blame for that, but these emails show you he was not alone. He had his enablers, Mark Meadows, other high-ranking people around him in the White House. It is their fault.

It's also the fault, frankly, of Jeff Sessions and Rod Rosenstein and Matt Whitaker and Bill Barr, all of whom facilitated this over the four years and encouraged this idea that DOJ can and should be used for political purposes.

Now, is it a crime? I don't think so. Is it a massive abuse of power? Absolutely. What can a new DOJ do, Poppy, to your second question?


HONIG: Well, Merrick Garland, first of all, needs to make clear, we do not interact with the White House. He's done a good job of that so far. They need to adopt specific internal guidance, which is not yet on the books at DOJ saying we do not interact with the White House except through very specified, narrow channels.

HARLOW: Pivoting here to another huge story over the last few days, and that is the fact that the Justice Department, under President Trump, seized records from Apple of metadata of Democrats, specifically on the House Intelligence Committee, and their family members and, oh, by the way, a minor.

Now not surprising, Mitch McConnell is saying, look, you've got the IG, the inspector general looking at this. No need for any other committees to do so. I.e., Senate Judiciary. But Nadler has announced the House Judiciary Committee is going to investigate this. Just listen to McConnell's reasoning.


SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY): The department's inspector general is fully equipped to determine whether these procedures were followed in this case. So I'm confident that the existing inquiry will uncover the truth. There's no need for a partisan circus here in the Congress.


HARLOW: Except Congress has power that the IG doesn't, namely subpoena power, especially for former employees, especially for people like Bill Barr, for Jeff Sessions, right, there's a huge difference, no?

HONIG: Exactly. That is a cop out by Mitch McConnell right there because he knows full well that the Justice Department inspector general cannot force, cannot compel people to testify, meaning, they will likely not get testimony from the people I mentioned before, Jeff Sessions, Rod Rosenstein, Bill Barr. Congress needs to pick this up. Congress has a job to do here.

Now, it's trickier in the Senate because Senate rules say that you need bipartisan support for a subpoena. You would need a Republican to go along with this. I will note Senator Ben Sasse is part of the Senate Judiciary Committee. If he flips over and joins with Democrats, they can get it done.

But, really, I'm looking at the House here because the House does not have that requirement. They don't need any Republican support.

Jerry Nadler was ineffective, however, in following up on the Mueller report.


HONIG: He got almost nothing done. Took way, way too long. So, Nadler has to play hard ball here. He has to serve subpoenas. And if Barr or Sessions defy them, he needs to go to court immediately.

HARLOW: Elie, let me just switch gears once again and just ask you, there is a growing momentum among some Democrats who would like to see Justice Stephen Breyer retire at the end of this term, so in a few weeks. He's 82 years old and they want to ensure, given what Mitch McConnell said in the last 24 hours about not -- the Senate not moving, if they retake the Senate, to have a confirmation hearing for Biden's next pick. They want to ensure against that.

What are your thoughts on that this morning?

HONIG: Generally speaking, Poppy, I don't like it when politicians of either party, Democrats or Republicans treat and view members of the Supreme Court as members of their team. It's not supposed to be that way. Stephen Breyer is not part of the Democratic team.

He's not supposed to be. However, the reality is, if Democrats want to get their nominee through, take Mitch McConnell at his word. He will not put somebody through if he controls the Senate in the year 2024. So if Democrats want to replace that spot, they better hope that Justice Breyer retires soon.

HARLOW: Elie Honig, thank you. Good to have you.


SCIUTTO: Thanks, Poppy.

SCIUTTO: We are live from Geneva where, in just minutes, President Biden will arrive for his crucial summit with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin. We're going to be on top of it as it happens.

And we are moments away from the opening bell on Wall Street. U.S. futures flat this morning. All of this ahead of a key Federal Reserve meeting. The S&P and Nasdaq both closed at record highs. Tech stocks were among the strongest performers. We're going to monitor all of it. Please stay with us.



SCIUTTO: Just moments ago, President Biden departed Brussels, where he attended a NATO summit, to arrive here in Geneva in the next hour. This for his much-anticipated summit, face-to-face meeting, the first at commander in chief, with Vladimir Putin tomorrow.

Joining me now, Evelyn Farkas. She's a former deputy assistant secretary of defense for Russia, Ukraine and Eurasia. She's also senior fellow at the Atlantic Council.

Evelyn, good to have you on this morning.

Lots of expectations management, deliberately, by the Biden administration in advance of this.


They are not telegraphing any enormous compromises here.