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President Biden Visits Florida Collapse Site; Trump Organization Indicted. Aired 2-2:30p ET

Aired July 1, 2021 - 14:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


[14:00:22]

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

ALISYN CAMEROTA, CNN HOST: Welcome to our viewers here in the United States and all around the world. I'm Alisyn Camerota. Victor Blackwell is off today.

And any moment, we expect indictments to be unsealed against the Trump Organization and its chief financial officer, Allen Weisselberg. These charges are related to a criminal tax investigation in connection with perks and bonuses awarded to employees.

Weisselberg surrendered to prosecutors this morning after the indictments were filed by a grand jury. There he is on your screen. He will be arraigned at this hour and is expected to plead not guilty.

The Trump Organization released a statement about this, saying Weisselberg -- quote -- "is now being used by the Manhattan district attorney as a pawn in a scorched-earth attempt to harm the former president" -- end quote.

CNN's Paula Reid joins us live outside of the courthouse in Lower Manhattan.

So, Paula, these charges could be unsealed at any moment. What will be revealed here?

PAULA REID, CNN SENIOR LEGAL AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: Well, we expect these charges will be related to alleged tax crimes stemming from allegations that employees at the Trump Organization received certain perks.

And, Alisyn, we are not talking about free coffee. The allegations are that employees were receiving things like free apartments, free cars, even free school tuition. These are the kinds of benefits that could amount to tens, if not hundreds of thousands of dollars.

So we do expect that, when these charges are unsealed, they will be connected to alleged tax crimes. Now, an attorney for Mr. Weisselberg has made it clear he is going to plead not guilty in this arraignment and he is vowing to fight these charges.

But these charges today do increase the pressure on the longtime CFO to cooperate with prosecutors against his former boss, former President Trump. Now, so far, Weisselberg's team has told prosecutors he won't flip, he's not going to cooperate.

But, sometimes, Alisyn, once you have criminal charges on the table and you have a chance to assess the strength of the evidence, that can sometimes change one's mind. So we will see what happens when these are unsealed, but at this point there is no indication that the former president or any member of his family will be charged any time soon.

Prosecutors will likely need at least one, maybe more cooperating witnesses or additional evidence before they would be able to go after the former president successfully.

CAMEROTA: OK. Paula Reid, we will come back to you as soon as there are any developments.

Meanwhile, CNN senior legal analyst and former federal prosecutor Elie Honig joins me now.

Well, Elie, we will be getting details on these indictment at any moment, as Paula just said. What are key things to look for?

ELIE HONIG, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Yes, Alisyn, we are about to get some answers finally.

Now, as a former prosecutor who has done a lot of indictments, here's the three big things I'm looking for. First of all, what is the extent of the alleged fraud? How many dollars are we talking about here, because, generally speaking, the more fraud, the more pressure there's going to be on Allen Weisselberg.

For example, if he committed over a million dollars in tax fraud, he will be looking at a maximum sentence of 25 years in jail. But if it's just a few thousand, he could be looking at a misdemeanor, which is going to bring very little pressure on him to flip.

Second of all, will other Trump Organization executives be referenced in the indictment? Now, we probably won't see proper names. But prosecutors sometimes will use generic labels to refer to other people, official one, vice president two. Of course, we all remember the infamous reference to Individual 1.

We knew that was Donald Trump. Are we going to see references like that to other officials in the Trump Org? That can give us a sense of where prosecutors are on potentially making cases down the line against other people inside the Trump Organization?

And then, third, are we going to see other crimes charged beyond the tax fraud that we already know about? We don't know yet. But I'm going to be looking to see, are there any surprise charges there? Are we going to see money laundering charges? Are we going to see state level racketeering charges?

Is there any element of obstruction of justice, witness tampering, document tampering, anything like that, beyond just the tax fraud? The more different charges they bring, the more leverage they will have here to try to pressure Allen Weisselberg to cooperate, to put pressure on the Trump Org. So, that's where I'm going to look when we get this indictment in just

a few minutes.

CAMEROTA: OK, we have just seen New York Attorney General Letitia James arriving. We have seen lawyers for Allen Weisselberg, as well as the Trump Organization.

So, Elie, from what you know thus far ,from what we have heard, from what's been leaked out, are you expecting this to be some sort of bombshell, or does this feel more like small potatoes in your world?

HONIG: This is not a bombshell on its own.

So here's the -- here's where I come out. If this is all there is, then, yes, I think you said it exactly right, small potatoes. If all you get is a corporate indictment, which is not against any human being, it's just a financial case, look, that's significant if it compromises the Trump Organization, but nobody goes to jail.

[14:05:04]

And then a charge against Allen Weisselberg for tax fraud, that's not much as a bottom line result. The question is -- and we will get some clues in a few minutes -- is this just the first step to something much bigger, much broader that hits on other people in the org?

CAMEROTA: And is that normally how it works? Do prosecutors normally start with something small and work up to something bigger? Or is it the inverse?

HONIG: So there are two approaches to this.

One approach that I have done many times is, you try to pick off somebody who you think is vulnerable and potentially valuable as a cooperator. It's like, if you pull on a thread, you hope that you catch something and you unwind the whole sweater.

The other approach is you just lead with your strongest foot. You say, here's what we got. Here's the most powerful evidence we have against the most powerful people and you start strong. That way, it looks like -- I mean, it better be for the DA and the A.G.'s sake. It better be the let's pull on a thread and see what we can get, or else this will be a bust.

CAMEROTA: Elie Honig, we need you to stand by well...

HONIG: I will.

CAMEROTA: ... for the next couple of hours as we await word here. Thank you very much for explaining all that to us.

Still ahead, I will have a live one-on-one interview with Donald Trump's former personal attorney Michael Cohen on what he thinks this means for the former president and his family.

Now to Florida. Officials in Surfside have temporarily paused search- and-rescue operations because of concerns that the rest of the condo, the tower, could come down.

President Biden and the first lady are there in Florida. And right now, they are trying to counsel the devastated families still awaiting word on their loved ones. The latest victims, 4-year-old Emma Guara and her 10-year-old sister, Lucia. Their bodies were recovered last night.

The death toll is now 18 people; 145 people are still unaccounted for.

CNN correspondent Rosa Flores and chief White House correspondent Kaitlan Collins are both with us now.

So, Rosa, first, how long are they suspending this search-and-rescue effort for?

ROSA FLORES, CNN CORRESPONDENT: I have been in contact with the public information officers on the scene, and they tell me that nothing has changed, operations have not resumed yet.

But I can tell you that all of this was triggered at 2:11 earlier this morning, when the monitors on scene went off. According to the fire chief, there were multiple portions of this site that were in motion. One column in particular was swinging six to 12 inches.

Alisyn, we have talked about the dangers that these brave men and women expose themselves to try to save lives. And this was one intense moment. Here's how the fire chief described it. Take a listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ALAN COMINSKY, MIAMI-DADE COUNTY, FLORIDA, FIRE CHIEF: Concern assessments included six to 12 inches of movement in a large column hanging from the structure that could fall and cause damage to the support columns in the south terrain garage area, slight movement in the concrete floor slabs on the south side of the structure near the north and south corner of the building that could cause additional failure of the building, movement in the debris pile immediately adjacent to the south side of the structure.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

FLORES: Now, Alisyn, it's important to note that the first people who learned about the search-and-rescue operations stopping were the families. They are the ones that always get the first news coming out of this scene -- Alisyn.

CAMEROTA: Kaitlan, to you, as we know, of course, the Bidens have had their own personal tragedies. And we know the president leans on his own personal experience when he consoles families.

So have we seen them interacting with the families yet?

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, they have been in a closed room for almost two hours now, Alisyn, with the president meeting with these families of the victims and those who are still unaccounted for. And, of course, that came just hours after Rosa was talking about them

getting that news that these rescue -- these search-and-rescue operations had been paused. And, of course, that is not news that the families want to hear, because even if they have not heard anything, they are still hopeful that any minute now they could get news about what has happened to their loved ones.

And so this is expected to be the most difficult part of the President's day today. He came down here earlier, of course. He met with local officials. But now this meeting with the families, we're told it is getting incredibly personal there in the room. Some of the families have posted accounts of what the president has been saying to them on social media, of course, invoking his own experiences with grief, something that is dated back to when he first became a senator and even when he was vice president when his son died.

And so those are moments that he is going to use to connect with these families, saying that there will be people who say, I know what you're going through. I'm so sorry. And he -- essentially, the president was saying it's really tough what they're going through, but no one knows what you're doing to -- what's going and what's happening, except you.

And the fact that they are grieving in such a public manner is also another layer of grief added to this. And so that is what's happening behind closed doors right now. We are expecting this meeting to go on for at least three hours, potentially even longer, according to the White House, and then we will hear from the president after this.

[14:10:05]

CAMEROTA: OK.

Kaitlan Collins, Rosa Flores, thank you very much for the update from Florida.

OK, our breaking news coverage continues. We are watching for developments any minute out of the Manhattan district attorney's office, and the charges about to be revealed against the Trump Organization. We will bring you those the second they happen.

Plus, a major announcement from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi: Republican Liz Cheney will serve on the committee to investigate the January 6 insurrection. What Republicans have to say about that.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

CAMEROTA: We are following breaking news out of New York, where the CFO the Trump Organization just entered court.

[14:15:03]

He is expected to be arraigned in moments. And the indictments against him and the Trump Organization will be unsealed for the first time for all of us to see.

There is Allen Weisselberg somewhere in this crowd, I believe. Well, I will -- there he is walking in.

Let's discuss all of this with our CNN senior legal analyst Laura Coates, CNN senior legal analyst Elie Honig, former assistant U.S. attorney in the Southern District of New York. We also have CNN senior political correspondent Abby Phillip, and CNN legal analyst Jennifer Rodgers.

Thank you all for being here.

Laura, let me start with you.

As a former federal prosecutor, what do you think we are going to see in moments?

LAURA COATES, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: Well, we're going to see the result of what two different offices within New York have come together to do.

Remember, we're talking about Letitia James, who is the A.G. in New York, followed by a Manhattan DA Cy Vance. So, they collaborated, and it was quite a rare combination of efforts here. Now, the question is, will it be in like a lion and out like a lamb? Certainly, tax charges can be quite significant.

We know this. It's a violation of the law not to pay your taxes. Only thing that's certain is death and taxes. They have got to be paid. But in the endgame here, if the goal was somehow to implicate somebody whose namesake was on the building, we have yet to see that actually unfold.

But, remember, are talking about the complementary of the tax law and the penal system in New York combining. The corporation would not be going to prison. That's not a result. Allen Weisselberg, as an individual, could actually face very serious charges here if the charges are around his personal conduct.

But at the end of the day, it's not only rare to have had these two offices combined. It'd be rare to charge a company based on fringe benefits that are given out, even if it is a violation of tax law. So, we're all eager to see what actually comes about this very important day.

CAMEROTA: And, Jennifer, do you think that we will see the name of Donald Trump or someone in Donald Trump's family? Or will this be one of these situations where we see Individual A or Executive A, something like that?

JENNIFER RODGERS, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Well, Alisyn, prosecutors don't use the names of people who aren't being charged. So, if they are referenced at all, it will be with some sort of synonym, like you mentioned, Individual 1.

But I'm not sure that we will see that at all if the charges are as limited as are being reported, namely related to these fringe benefits that have been fraudulently given to employees, including Allen Weisselberg. We may not see that at all. That may come if we do see additional charges with respect to the inflating and deflating of assets, that sort of thing. Those names may have to wait until later.

CAMEROTA: Elie, I was interested to see Allen Weisselberg there. I guess I didn't expect to see him in handcuffs. He was wearing a mask. And he was accompanied, you could see, by, it looked like, guards of the court of some kind.

That -- is that unusual?

HONIG: No, that's how it works.

And, Alisyn, we have been talking a lot over the last few days about how seeing your name on an indictment makes it real, makes it tangible, makes it visceral. And we are seeing this clip now of Allen Weisselberg, about to turn 74 years old -- the man's never been arrested in his life -- handcuffed, right, his liberty restrained, being led through court by marshals, by security.

I mean, talking about making it real. There's very few things that are more tangible than a pair of steel handcuffs on your wrist. And we talk about how he said he's not going to flip, he's not going to flip. OK, maybe.

But when you actually get arrested ,when you get indicted, handcuffed, marched in front of a judge, that can change things for people.

CAMEROTA: Yes, I mean, I guess I'm just -- Elie, one more beat on this. Even for white-collar crimes, even for tax crimes, you're handcuffed and marched into court?

HONIG: It's real. People go to jail for this stuff, Alisyn. And that's why it's important that we see how much fraud we're talking about, because that's going to tell us how much jail time Weisselberg is looking at.

CAMEROTA: Abby, on the political side of this, Politico was reporting earlier that ,when Donald Trump heard the news that Allen Weisselberg had been indicted, he was I think the quote was excited, that somehow he thought he was going to be able to use this to his advantage, that somehow for his potential 2024 presidential run, he was going to be able to frame this as a witch-hunt.

I know it's unknowable. But that was an interesting response.

ABBY PHILLIP, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, I mean, I don't know that -- I don't know that, even for Donald Trump, the prospect that his -- that federal investigators are scrutinizing decades of the financial dealings of his corporation, even for former President Trump, I don't think that would be something that is exciting to him.

But I think that underlying what's happening here is that this is a president who uses these kinds of investigations to rally his base, rally his supporters, to claim that there is a witch-hunt against him. For the four years that he was president, there was a sort of de facto sense that in some ways the presidency itself was protecting him from a real deep dive into what was going on with his companies and his financial dealings, protecting him from debt repayment obligations, potentially.

[14:20:10]

He doesn't have that anymore. And that's a real problem for him. But at the same time, this is also someone who is saying that he's going to run for president again. And so everything that is happening here is also being put into that political frame, where, as a prospective candidate, even for 2024, you have Trump wanting to use things like this to raise money, to rally his supporters, and to get them to believe that there is a grand conspiracy against him.

That is all part of how he keeps his supporters into the fold.

CAMEROTA: Laura, Elie and I were talking earlier about prosecutor strategy. Do you lead with your big, flashy charges, or do pull, as I think Elie said, one thread and kind of work up to unraveling the whole thing?

What do you think their strategy is today?

COATES: Well, the strategy has always -- always has to be that you bring a charge that you can prove beyond a reasonable doubt. And your charges can evolve.

Remember, you're talking about prospects of cooperation, prospects of more information, evidence coming in. That can be amended over the course of time, so you're not particularly confined to what you first bring, but trying to downgrade your charges can be very problematic and could signal to a very public case like this some problem with your evidentiary burden or ability to prove your case.

But, ultimately, there's a lot of talk that's made by my colleagues and our and all of us here about the notion of trying to lean on a particular person to have them become a cooperator to get a so-called bigger fish.

It must be said, the Trump Organization is, in and of itself, a very big fish, Allen Weisselberg also a very big fish. So the idea that he would only be useful to try to bring somebody else in or implicate somebody else is what I think is very much so dismissive of what the severity of the charges may very well be.

Now, it's true. Obviously, the prospect of facing federal incarceration for anyone is very problematic, but it might be that he has outlived his usefulness as a cooperator. It may be that they're able to corroborate or substantiate the types of things they needed him for any prospective bigger fish already.

And so a lot of this is the balancing act of prosecutors about trying to get things to substantiate their case, corroboration, but people outlive their usefulness. And one key way to know that is an indictment against them.

CAMEROTA: And then what happens after they have outlived their usefulness? They're indicted, and then the prosecutors don't need them anymore? In other words, then they can go to jail, and prosecutors don't care?

COATES: I mean, it could be that they, in terms of usefulness, that they are no longer someone who will get the lenience or the benefit of a plea bargain.

In other words, prosecutors don't spend all their days trying to kick the can down the road. They don't just leverage the prospect of criminal charges. Once they decided to bring them, there has probably been already -- as we know, the attorneys for the Trump Organization has met with the prosecutors trying to evade and -- trying to prevent this very thing from happening.

But once those conversations break down, and it is evident that the charges are imminent, well, then you have a different strategy. Now it's about, well, we can continue with the trial, if you would like to actually have these charges stick, or you can cooperate in another context.

But the idea of just now starting over and saying, we were threatening charges before, do you want to cooperate, now the charges have been made. He has a very different inquiry.

And just finally on this point, the idea of usefulness here, if prosecutors are able to corroborate their cases independent of somebody who they might have on the hook, they no longer need that person's cooperation in order to prove their case. It might be -- and we don't know if Weisselberg is in that position as we speak.

CAMEROTA: Just to update everyone, we hear that the judge has just entered the courtroom.

So, obviously, things will be proceeding apace now. And we will keep everyone posted as to when we find out anything of this indictment being opened and being -- its contents being revealed. Court is under way. We're being told.

So, at any moment, we will have more information.

Jen, there's something that critics of, I would say, the former president feel, which is that he has been able to skirt accountability for various crimes, alleged crimes, accusations. So, people around him have gone to jail and have been convicted, but he has not.

And do you think that there is a scenario by which Allen Weisselberg is held accountable for somehow these perks or fringe benefits that the company was giving, allegedly, but Donald Trump could say he knew nothing about it?

[14:25:05]

RODGERS: Yes, absolutely.

I mean, it's in a lot of ways like the drug kingpin. You insulate yourself with the people below you taking the hits, because you make it very hard for law enforcement to get all the way up to where you are and to prove the intent that you have to show in order to make criminal charges stick.

So, if Allen Weisselberg does not cooperate, and if authorities are unable to find other evidence that Donald Trump himself participated in this scheme or any of the other schemes that are being investigated -- and, remember, this fringe benefits tax scheme is only one of the things that are under investigation -- then they will not be able to charge him.

They have to charge him as an individual having to do with his own personal liability. So, similarly, Michael Cohen went to prison in part for the hush money scheme, the payment to Stormy Daniels.

Individual 1 was mentioned in that SDNY indictment. Ultimately, he wasn't charged. So there is this pattern here. The criminal law is what it is. If prosecutors can't get to him with the proof, they can't charge him. But that, of course, is what they have been working on for a couple of years now. So we will have to see.

CAMEROTA: Elie, as you know, Michael Cohen has said nothing happened at the Trump Organization that Donald Trump didn't know about. He has basically testified to that.

But you have made the point you have to be able to actually connect the dots.

HONIG: Yes.

As a prosecutor, Alisyn, you cannot stand up in front of a jury and say, come on, folks, he must have known, he had to know. That's what the burden of proof is about. That's what proving the case beyond a reasonable doubt is about. That's not enough. You need specific proof.

You need a document. You need a witness who can say he knew about this, he was part of it. Also, speaking of Michael Cohen, Alisyn, I think it's an appropriate occasion, in thinking about Donald Trump's sort of lack of accountability, to think of all the people around Donald Trump who have been criminally charged, in some cases convicted, gone to prison.

I mean, we have Michael Cohen, Paul Manafort, Roger Stone, Michael Flynn, Steve Bannon, on down the line. And now you add Allen Weisselberg to that list. It's really remarkable to see how many people around Donald Trump have taken falls, yet he has not yet.

CAMEROTA: I mean, Abby, that's why people think that Donald Trump has been Teflon. He has somehow been able to insulate himself.

How closely do you think that people on Capitol Hill are watching what's going on right now in this courtroom in New York?

PHILLIP: Well, first of all, I think on the Democratic side, there's been a longstanding interest in Trump's tax returns, in understanding where his money is coming from, who he owes debts to.

They -- Democrats are particularly interested in that. On the Republican side, though, I do have to wonder, Alisyn, like, how many of them really care about any of this? I think that they have really turned a blind eye to all of the controversies surrounding Trump, including anything that has to do with his businesses.

I have a lot of questions about whether most die-hard Republicans, which, in the House, is probably more than two-thirds of them, in the Senate, is probably a similar number, whether they care at all how this case proceeds. I think many of them are where the GOP base is, which is in a place where they believe that all of these investigations are politically motivated.

They believe that there is -- as Trump likes to say, a witch-hunt against Trump. And they don't want to hear about it. So, there is, from a political perspective, I think, a limit to the degree to which this will erode Trump's support, at least among Republicans.

CAMEROTA: Let's bring in now Tristan Snell, the former assistant attorney general for New York state. He sued Trump University in that capacity.

Tristan, great to have you here.

What's your take, as you wait and watch with us of what's happening inside that courtroom?

TRISTAN SNELL, FORMER NEW YORK ASSISTANT ATTORNEY GENERAL: Well, I think that it's going to be interesting to see how all of this unfolds.

We're going to be seeing the unsealed indictments and devouring all of those coming up here. I think one of the main things I keep focusing on is that we're -- this is like -- this is not the main event. A lot of people are getting really thinking -- and not to minimize it, but this is not the main event.

We're not going to see a whole lot of things about Donald Trump today, I think as a number of other folks have said. I don't think that that's going to be what we hear about. I don't think that's what we're going to be reading about.

I think that we're going to be hearing about the very limited allegations against these folks with regard to taxable benefits. It's going to be possibly somewhat dry. I think a lot of people are going to come out of this being like, is this all they have got?

The answer is, it's definitely not all they have got. This is not even -- this is not the main event. It's not the opening act to the main event. It's the opener to the opener.

CAMEROTA: But, Tristan, what is the main event?

[14:30:00]