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THE SITUATION ROOM
Interview With Rep. Jimmy Gomez (D) California; Joe Biden Jokes About Physical Contact Controversy; Trump Fighting Release of Tax Returns; FBI: Man Who Falsely Claimed He Was Boy Missing Since 2011 Facing Federal Charges, Potential Prison Term; Two U.S. Citizens Among Those Arrested in Saudi Crackdown; Trump Visits Border And Declares Our Country Is Full; Fmr. Sen. Joe Biden (D) Delaware Speaks Out About Controversy Over Women's Complaints Of Unwanted Contact As He Closes In On 2020 Announcement. Aired on 6-7p ET
Aired April 5, 2019 - 18:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Not giving them up. The president makes it clear he won't release his tax returns, hiring lawyers to fight a demand by Democrats. We're told Mr. Trump is willing to go to the U.S. Supreme Court to stop Congress and the public from seeing his secret tax records.
Border back-down. After failing to close the southern border this week, as he threatened, Mr. Trump travels to the region. Tonight, he's pressing his case for a national emergency and creating more confusion about his next moves.
Partial apology. As Joe Biden says he's getting close to a 2020 announcement, he's addressing complaints about his affectionate style and slamming President Trump along the way. Did the former V.P. undermine his own defense with a seemingly lighthearted reference to the controversy?
And sick hoax. We're learning more about the man who pretended to be a youngster who has been missing for years. The charges he faces, the pain he caused, and where he got inspiration for the scam.
We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.
ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.
BLITZER: We're following breaking news on President Trump lawyering up right now to try to keep his tax records under wraps.
His new attorney just sent a letter to the Treasury Department responding to a top Democrat's demand for the IRS to hand over six years' worth of Mr. Trump's tax returns. The lawyer arguing the request amounts to presidential harassment.
A White House official says the Trump team is willing to take this fight all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. Also breaking, President Trump visits the southern border with Mexico
after days of confusing comments about whether he'd shut down traffic and trade in and out of Mexico. The border is still open tonight, after Mr. Trump backed off his threat to close it as early as this week.
I will talk to Democratic Congressman Jimmy Gomez, a member of the House Ways and Means Committee that's seeking the president's tax returns. And our correspondents and analysts are also standing by.
First, let's go to our chief White House correspondent, Jim Acosta.
Jim, the president spoke about this fight over his taxes just a little while ago while visiting the southern border.
JIM ACOSTA, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf. It doesn't sound like he's giving them up.
The president was down at the border to promote his call for a border wall, and he was using some extremely incendiary language on the issue of immigration, saying today -- quote -- "Our country is full."
But the White House is also gearing up for a battle over these Democratic demands for the president's tax returns. The president's legal team has fired off a letter stating basically no way. At the same time, one of the officials told me earlier today aides to the president are willing to take this fight all the way to the Supreme Court, a court battle they know could take years.
ACOSTA (voice-over): Touting his administration's efforts to secure the border, President Trump lobbed new rhetorical hand grenades on immigration.
DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Our country is full, our area is full, the sector is full. Can't take anymore. Sorry, can't happen. So, turn around. That's the way it is. I look at some of these asylum people, they're gang members. They're not afraid of anything.
ACOSTA: Aides to the president are building a different wall around Mr. Trump's most closely guarded secret, his tax returns. The president's lawyer sent a letter to the Treasury Department arguing he should not have to turn over those returns to Congress.
TRUMP: I have nothing to say about it. It's -- I got elected. They elected me. Now they keep going. I'm under audit. When you're under audit, you don't do it. But I'm under audit.
ACOSTA: One official said the White House is willing to take the battle over the president's tax returns all the way to the Supreme Court, telling CNN, "This is a hill, and people are willing to die on it."
The battle lines are being drawn as the president is in retreat on immigration, backing down from his threat to close the border, though that's not how Mr. Trump sees it.
TRUMP: I never changed my mind at all. I may shut it down at some point. But I would rather do tariffs.
ACOSTA: Despite declaring a national emergency at the border, the president is now giving Mexico one year to crack down on migration into the U.S., as he demands that Congress scraps much of the nation's immigration system that's been in place for decades.
TRUMP: They have to get rid of the whole asylum system, because it doesn't work. And, frankly, we should get rid of judges. You can't have a court case every time somebody steps their foot on our ground.
ACOSTA: Just before his trip to the border, the president made a sudden change to his immigration team, pulling the nomination of Ron Vitiello's as his pick to run ICE, taking aides by surprise.
CNN has learned White House domestic policy adviser and immigration hard-liner Stephen Miller lobbied the president to make the move.
TRUMP: We're going in a little different direction. Ron's a good man. But we're going in a tougher direction.
ACOSTA: The president continues to mislead Americans over what's happening at the border, tweeting: "Heading to the southern border, show a section of the new wall being built."
But so far, only repairs and replacements of border barriers have taken place, as a legal fight looms over the president's plans to divert taxpayer money to build portions of Mr. Trump's wall.
While the Department of Homeland Security mounted this plaque down on the border last year, it's attached to a section of replacement fencing. Just before leaving for his trip, the president defended his needling of Joe Biden over accusations the vice president has engaged in unwanted touching.
TRUMP: I think I'm a good messenger, and people got a kick out of it.
ACOSTA: Sounding more like a contender, Biden fired right back.
JOSEPH BIDEN, FORMER VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Well, it doesn't surprise me. He doesn't have time to do his job. But, look, it's -- everybody knows who Donald Trump is.
ACOSTA: Claiming he doesn't see Biden as a threat, the president is selling his performance on the economy and pointing to the latest unemployment numbers. It finds nearly 200,000 jobs were created last month.
TRUMP: Our country's doing unbelievably well economically. Most of you don't report that, because it doesn't sound good from your perspective. But the country's doing really, really well.
ACOSTA: Both the White House and the president's outside legal team are pushing back on this request from House Democrats for Mr. Trump's tax returns.
The president's attorneys essentially argue this would set a bad legal precedent for future occupants of the Oval Office. As one senior administration official put it to me earlier today, if Democrats can go after the president's tax returns, Republicans can go after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's tax returns.
And in that letter from the Trump legal team, they accuse House Democrats of trying to harass the president. No word yet in terms on how Democrats are responding to all that at this point -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Jim Acosta at the White House, thanks so much.
Let's talk a little bit more about this battle over the president's tax returns.
We're joined by our national security and legal analyst, Susan Hennessey.
Susan, you have had a chance to read this four-page letter, single- spaced. I have read it. Let me read a couple sentences from what the president's lawyer is now arguing before the Treasury Department.
"Even when Ways and Means can identify some legitimate committee purpose, it cannot request tax returns and return information to punish taxpayers for their speech or politics."
It goes on: "Chairman Neal's request is especially inappropriate because, as noted above, he is asking for tax returns, administrative files, and other information regarding an ongoing IRS investigation."
You have gone through the letter. How strong is the argument that the president's lawyers are making?
SUSAN HENNESSEY, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Well, I don't think it's especially strong.
That said, the quote you just read really does get to the crux of the issue. And that's what the president's lawyers, and it's his personal lawyers, not government lawyers in this case, are saying Congress does not only have inherent investigative authority -- they mean constitutional authority -- to investigate, but whenever it's related to a valid legislative purpose.
So what they're saying is, look, just because they're putting out this rationale that they want potentially to pass legislation related to the IRS handling of presidential tax returns, that's not really what they're after. What they're actually trying to do is get the president's tax returns in order to harass him.
And so they're saying that's not a valid purpose, that's outside the scope of their authority. The problem is that Congress is not citing to its inherent authority at all. It's actually pointing to a specific statute that's really quite clear on the matter. Upon request, the IRS is required by federal law to hand these tax returns over.
BLITZER: There's a law. And the law specifically states that if the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee or the Joint Committee on Taxation or the Finance Committee in the Senate asks for the tax returns of anyone, the secretary of the treasury shall furnish such committee with any return or return information specified in such request.
So, that's a statute that Congress has passed itself. And it's actually anticipated some of the very issues that the president's attorneys are claiming now. They have identified the three committees of Congress that they think have jurisdiction over these issues, that actually do have a valid reason to see tax returns.
And then, as to the privacy concerns, there's -- the law does prohibit the IRS from publicly disclosing any individual's tax returns, including the president. What this provisional law allows is for Congress to examine specific tax returns in a closed session.
BLITZER: Tell us why the president's lawyers are now sending all this legal argument they are making to the general counsel at the U.S. Department of the Treasury.
HENNESSEY: It is notable that this is an argument that is coming from the president's lawyers, as opposed to government attorneys. It actually does point a little bit to the weakness of the argument.
But this really isn't a legal argument that's designed to survive in court. I think really what it is about is about giving the IRS some sort of reason for not turning over these returns, some reason to actually refuse to produce them in order to force that lengthy court battle.
And I think ultimately what this ends up being is a stall tactic, a hope that this litigation process is going to drag this out past the point where -- essentially where there's elections. And so the president will essentially be able to prevent the American people and prevent Congress from having ever seen his tax returns before his final election.
BLITZER: Because the first argument -- and I carefully read this letter several times -- the first argument they make, the president's lawyers, is that all legislative investigations -- quote -- "must be related to and in furtherance of a legitimate task of the Congress."
Well, congressional oversight is a legitimate task of the Congress.
HENNESSEY: Right. And the Ways and Means Committee has been very, very careful. They
aren't saying, hey, we want to say the president's tax returns because we think it's important to general oversight. They are saying, we are considering passing specific pieces of legislation. We don't know the way the IRS handles the president's tax returns, presidents' tax returns in general.
We don't know what audits are performed. So what they're saying is, we need to understand what exactly that procedure looks like, and whether or not it's sufficient. In order to understand whether or not it's sufficient, we need the president's underlying tax returns as well. That way, we can see if everything that we believe should be looked into has been looked into.
So that is a legislative purpose, right? The idea here is Congress needs information in order to determine for itself whether or not new laws are need to be passed, in order to essentially further their interests of their constituents.
BLITZER: You think this is going to make its way all the way through the courts up to the U.S. Supreme Court?
HENNESSEY: It's possible that this might go all the way up to the Supreme Court, in part because the president has such control of the legislative branch.
That said, this is going to be a really dramatic shift in the political optics for the president. In the past, he's been able to sort of sit back, passively just ignore calls for him to release his tax returns, especially whenever he had a Republican-controlled Congress.
Now, in divided government, he's actually going to proactively have to litigate this issue. I think the harder that the President Trump fights to keep these returns private and secret, the stronger the suspicion's going to be among the American public that there's something in there that he wants to hide.
BLITZER: Susan, good analysis, as usual. Thank you very, very much.
Joining us now, Democratic Congressman Jimmy Gomez, a member of the Ways and Means Committee that's requesting the president's tax returns. He's also a member of the House Oversight Committee.
Congressman, thanks so much for joining us. Let's discuss this a little bit more. As you heard, lawyers retained by President Trump. They have responded to your committee chairman's request for six years of the president's tax returns from 2013 to 2018.
They say the president's lawyers -- this is a quote -- "a transparent effort by one political party to harass an official from the other party because they dislike his politics and speech."
How do you respond?
REP. JIMMY GOMEZ (D), CALIFORNIA: First, it's just nonsense. We're doing our oversight responsibility. We're doing -- we're an
independent, co-equal branch of government. And that's what we're doing, is, we're seeing if the laws are working and if the audits are taking place of this president's tax returns. Nothing more.
Whatever comes out of it, so be it. But this is not presidential harassment. This is just a check and balance that should have been there for the last two years.
BLITZER: They also say, the president's lawyers, the request has no legitimate legislative purpose.
What exactly is your legislative purpose?
GOMEZ: The main purpose, as the letter from Chairman Neal said, is that we want to ensure that this is actually being carried out effectively, the review and the audits, to determine if we need to codify that into law.
But that is the main purpose. I personally, I believe that the American people also want to know, what is really in the tax returns of this president. That's not associated with the Ways and Means Committee request.
But, you know, for the past 40 years, 40 years, Republicans and Democrats alike have released their tax returns. Not this president.
BLITZER: As you heard, CNN has learned the president is prepared to fight this all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, if necessary. Do you think you or the president will prevail?
GOMEZ: I believe that the law is very clear; 6103 -- I'm going to nerd out a little bit -- says any chairman of the House Ways and Means must be responded to, and it shall be responded to. It doesn't say could, may. It says shall.
And I believe that's what the courts are going to look at.
BLITZER: You think the administration's going to try to drag this out past the 2020 election? Clearly, the president doesn't want us to see his tax returns.
GOMEZ: Yes, you know, this is one of the least transparent administrations in the history of our government.
I have actually questioned Steve Mnuchin, Wilbur Ross, Secretary Nielsen. They have one thing in common. They dodge, delay, and they lie to protect this president. So, I know that they're going to fight all the way to the Supreme Court. I have no doubt.
BLITZER: The president keeps saying he's still under audit; as a result, he can't release his tax returns.
But I want to remind our viewers what Michael Cohen, his former lawyer and fixer, told you on this issue when he testified before the House Oversight Committee, your committee. Watch this. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
GOMEZ: Can you give us any insight into what the real reason is that the president has refused to release his tax returns?
MICHAEL COHEN, FORMER ATTORNEY/FIXER FOR DONALD TRUMP: Statements that he had said to me is that what he didn't want was to have an entire group of think tanks that are tax experts run through his tax return and start ripping it to pieces, and then he will end up in an audit, until ultimately have taxable consequences, penalties and so on.
GOMEZ: So that's an interesting point, that basically he said he didn't want to release his tax returns because he might end up in an audit.
So, could you presume, from that statement, that he wasn't under audit?
COHEN: I presume that he's not under audit.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: But even if the president is under audit, would that prevent the IRS from complying with your committee request?
GOMEZ: No, it wouldn't.
Actually, there's nothing that prohibits anybody from releasing their taxes if they're under audit. So this is, I believe, just another excuse. This president doesn't want his taxes released for some particular reason. We don't know what that is.
But I know that doesn't deal with the request of the Ways and Means Committee. But I know that that is something that's in the back of the minds of not only my constituents, but the American people.
BLITZER: What does it tell you, Congressman, according to "The New York Times," the president had his IRS commissioner nomination, the general counsel over at the IRS, fast-tracked this year?
GOMEZ: It says a lot.
It says that they were preparing for a fight, that they were preparing to make sure that these taxes and his returns were not ever released, and that he was going to use not only the IRS, but his personal attorneys to block it.
That should be concerning to the American people, I believe. You know, this statute is very clear. And why is the president, his attorneys interfering with the function that the IRS should be doing on their own, not what the president tells them to do?
BLITZER: Some of your Republican colleagues have argued this is overreach on the part of the Democrats, that the American people are sick and tired of all these investigations.
Why is it so important in your view to see these tax returns and to see them now?
GOMEZ: My personal reasons is that I believe, like I mentioned before, each candidate for both parties have released their tax reasons for 40 years.
And they do that in order for -- to give the American people confidence that there's nothing in those tax returns that says that they can be leveraged by an individual or by a foreign government, and that their decisions will be based on the interests of the American people and not their own financial interests.
And that's why they want to release the returns.
BLITZER: Congressman Jimmy Gomez, thanks so much for joining us.
GOMEZ: Thank you so much.
BLITZER: Just ahead, we're getting some new details about that cruel hoax by a man who falsely claimed he was a boy who had disappeared nearly eight years ago.
BLITZER: The breaking news tonight, President Trump is complaining that Democrats demanding his tax returns are after him.
A legal firm hired by the president is pushing back at the Democrats' request tonight in a letter sent to the Treasury Department's top attorney.
Let's bring in our analysts.
And, Gloria Borger, what do you make of the case by the president's private lawyers, not the White House counsel, the private lawyers, making the case why the tax returns should not be released to Congress?
GLORIA BORGER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Wolf, you know, I'm not a lawyer. But I can tell you about the politics of this.
And what was disturbing to me was, throughout this letter, they kept talking about taxpayer privacy. Number one, the president is not just another taxpayer who Congress is saying we have got to make your tax returns public. He's the president of the United States, who, like -- unlike anybody else who has run for the presidency, decided not to release his tax returns.
Then they talk about how this sets a dangerous precedent. Well, one might argue the dangerous precedent is somebody who occupies the Oval Office or who runs as a party's candidate for the Oval Office not releasing his tax returns, so the American public can see whether there are any conflicts of interest that they might need to be concerned about, for example.
So the dangerous precedent here, to me, is that Donald Trump has done something that nobody else has done. And I would also add that most of the American public, a majority of the American public, believes that the president ought to voluntarily release his tax returns, which has not happened.
BLITZER: You know, Nia, the president clearly doesn't want anyone to see his tax returns.
NIA-MALIKA HENDERSON, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Right.
BLITZER: And he's now, according to our sources, willing to take the fight all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. This could go on and on and on.
HENDERSON: Yes, and it's in some ways what we expected, because this is a president that likes to fight. This is a president that likes to frame Democrats as always on some sort of fishing expedition, as out to get him.
He calls it presidential harassment. I think, to his supporters, they will certainly see it that way. They will see it as a fishing expedition, and Democrats sort of going too far.
But, listen, I think a lot of Americans do wonder, why is this president so willing to go to the mat over his tax returns? What is he hiding? Why is this a red line that he's often talked about or revealing things about his finances? Is it some conflict of interest? Is it something else?
And, listen, I think this will be a fight. It will go to the courts. We sort of expected this. Who knows. I'm not a lawyer. Laura Jarrett is a lawyer. I know Laura Jarrett.
SAMANTHA VINOGRAD, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: She's a good lawyer.
HENDERSON: She's a good lawyer. And she can speak to...
LAURA JARRETT, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Thanks, guys.
BLITZER: Is there a precedent that we see unfolding in this drama? Going back to the Nixon administration, many decades, every U.S. president has always released his tax returns.
JARRETT: It's interesting.
So, there's a little-known provision in the IRS code that allows the chairman to get any taxpayer's information. And they use it quite frequently, confidentially. What doesn't happen frequently is it for it to go after the president of the United States. There isn't any precedent for that.
And I think that's one of the reasons you see the president's private attorney, Mr. Consovoy, calling on the IRS to consult with the Justice Department and the Office of Legal Counsel to hopefully get a favorable opinion that, oh, there's unusual circumstances that somehow marshal in favor of protection.
But as everyone's pointed out, the American people think that the president should turn over his tax returns. So, at the end of the day, it's not as much a legal argument as this is -- this really kind of comes down to common sense, I think.
BLITZER: Because, in this letter, you know, Samantha, the lawyer for the president is saying, you know, that if they're serious about looking at tax returns and audits of presidents, why aren't they asking for the tax returns and audits of previous presidents?
But we know the answer to that.
VINOGRAD: Because they don't have to. Previous presidents...
BLITZER: That's why I was so surprised to see this in this letter. The previous presidents have released their tax returns.
VINOGRAD: Well, based upon Michael Cohen and this letter, it's pretty clear the president might need some better lawyers going forward.
But the reason that they don't have to ask for these records is because previous presidents have and probably will make this information available.
And I just have to comment on the precedent argument here. President Trump cites precedent as a safe word whenever he's feeling cornered and under pressure. He didn't stop to consider the precedent of, say, abusing power and declaring a national emergency when it suited a political interest, of levying tariffs and citing national security because he was angry at Canada or China or perhaps Mexico.
The precedent argument here is really null and void. And the president is just doing this to try and throw water, I think, at the folks that are trying to get these tax returns. It is not viable based upon his previous actions.
BLITZER: You're our legal expert, Laura. If this one is really serious, this whole fight right now, why does the president hire a personal attorney to represent him in this fight with Congress, as opposed to the White House counsel?
JARRETT: Well, he needs a personal attorney. The code is actually going after him as an individual taxpayer.
BLITZER: But he's now the president of the United States.
JARRETT: Exactly. But he's still -- just as in the case of the emoluments lawsuits that he's also being represented by Will Consovoy, those are going after him both in his personal capacity and his official capacity as president.
In his personal capacity, he has Mr. Consovoy because it's about his business interest, as Mr. Trump still has this interest in the Trump Hotel, and he is getting money from that. And so it has nothing to do with him as president.
BLITZER: But they want the tax returns from 2017 to 2018, while he was president of the United States.
JARRETT: Right. Right.
And so there you go. But he still needs his personal attorney, instead of a Justice Department lawyer. But when this does go to court, it will be interesting to see how that plays out and whether the Justice Department does have to get involved.
BLITZER: Gloria, you saw "The New York Times"' report saying that earlier the president put pressure on the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, to fast-track his pick for the IRS commissioner, the general counsel over at the IRS. What questions does that raise?
BORGER: Well, hmm, I wonder why he did that?
BORGER: Because -- because they have known for months, the Democrats have made it, you know, no secret, that they intended to get the president's tax returns.
And they found a way, as contrived as it may seem to the president's attorneys, to do that, and I think the president, you know, was preparing for this. And he was so eager to have someone he knew and trusted who had worked with the Trump Organization in the past in that job, that he said, OK, wait, you know, let's do this first, before we even get a new attorney general confirmed.
So, you know, you put one and one together sometimes and you get two.
BLITZER: You know, Nia, let's go to another story that we're following right now, the president's trip.
He's out in California along the border with Mexico right now. Watch and listen to what he said today about people coming into the United States. Listen to this.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
TRUMP: It's a colossal surge, and it's overwhelming our immigration system. And we can't let that happen.
So, as I say -- and this is our new statement -- the system is full. Can't take you anymore. Whether it's asylum, whether it's anything you want, it's illegal immigration, can't take you anymore. We can't take you. Our country is full. Our area's full. The sector is full. Can't take you anymore. I'm sorry.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: Country is full right now.
I mean, it isn't a surprise coming from this president, I mean, if you think about all of his rhetoric about immigrants, particularly immigrants from the southern border, the idea that they are bringing violence, that they are bringing drugs.
So there you have him essentially saying this country is closed to those kinds of people, people who are, for instance, seeking asylum. And it's been tradition of this nation to be welcoming to be welcoming to people who are seeking asylum, these folks are from Central American fleeing basically corrupt governments and gangs and drug wars in those countries.
Listen, I think this will be helpful to his base. We always talk about the President's special connection with his base. But, listen, this is sort of anti-American, this sentiment that this country is full and has no more room for immigrants.
WOLF BLITZER, CNN THE SITUATION ROOM: That was a pretty stark statement.
You know, Samantha, one of the -- one person who was supposed to be with the President today on this visit to the border with Mexico was his nominee to become the director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, better known as I.C.E. But, abruptly, the President pulled that nomination. You're doing some reporting on this. What are you hearing?
SAMANTHA VINOGRAD, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: Well, Steven Miller strikes again. Ironically, this is one of President Trump's nominees that actually made it to the Senate confirmation process. I'm old enough to remember people like Ronny Jackson or even Heather Nauert that were nominated, never made it to the actual confirmation.
But aside from the fact that Steven Miller really is exerting unprecedented pressure on the President, this really belies the kind of person that President Trump wants in the I.C.E. job or any other job. He wants a yes man. If the nominee for I.C.E. does not think that closing the southern border is warranted, that should tell us something about whether we should close the southern border. And if he is then removed from that nomination process, it's clear that the President just wants people in these positions that deal with quantitative data that just tell him what he wants to hear.
BLITZER: The President said earlier today that this guy is a very good guy, got a lot of respect for him, but he wasn't tough enough on this issue.
Everybody stick around. There's more news we're following. The former Vice President Joe Biden speaking out at his first public appearance since women complained that his shows of affection made them feel uncomfortable. Did he help or hurt his case?
BLITZER: Tonight, a new attempt by former Vice President Joe Biden to defuse the controversy over women's complaints about his affectionate style. Biden sounding even more like a 2020 presidential candidate as he took shots at President Trump. But lighthearted remarks about a couple of hugs he gave during the event may have worked against him.
Our Political Reporter, Arlette Saenz, is joining us here in The Situation Room. Arlette, this was the first time that he made some public comments, meeting with reporters and discussing all of this.
ARLETTE SAENZ, CNN POLITICAL REPORTER: That's right. It was one week ago today when that first allegation came out, and Biden was delivering a speech that sounded a lot like a campaign rally as he went after President Trump and talked about restoring the middle class. But then he brought the attention right back to the controversy.
SAENZ: Tonight, a partial apology from Joe Biden.
FMR. SEN. JOE BIDEN (D-DL): I'm sorry I didn't understand. I'm not sorry for any of my intentions. I'm not sorry for anything that I have ever done. I never have been disrespectful intentionally to a man or a woman.
SAENZ: The former Vice President still grappling with how to respond to claims he made women feel uncomfortable in their interactions and acknowledging more people could come forward.
BIDEN: I wouldn't be surprised. But I've had hundreds and hundreds of people contact me and -- who I don't know, and, you know, say the exact opposite.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Joe Biden.
SAENZ: As he took the stage at his first public appearance since the allegations, Biden gave out a hug and made this joke.
BIDEN: I had permission to hug Lonnie [ph].
SAENZ: And then did it a second time after calling a group of children up to the stage.
BIDEN: By the way, he gave me permission to touch them.
SAENZ: Shortly after, Biden scrambled into cleanup mode, telling reporters he wasn't making light of people's feelings.
BIDEN: I hope it wasn't taken that way.
SAENZ: Biden appearing to inch closer to that 2020 bid, hinting it's not a matter of if but when.
BIDEN: I'm told by the lawyers that I've got to be careful what I say so that I don't start a clock ticking and change my status.
Everybody else today, then I get a shot and then off to the races.
SAENZ: With a large and historically diverse field of candidates taking shape, Biden shared how he would brand himself.
BIDEN: I'm an Obama-Biden democrat, man. And I'm proud of it.
SAENZ: Biden has already drawn the attention of President Trump.
DONALD TRUMP, U.S. PRESIDENT: No, I don't see Joe Biden as a threat, no. I don't see him as a threat. I think he's only a threat to himself.
SAENZ: He is hitting back.
BIDEN: He hasn't had time to do his job. But, look, it's -- everybody knows who Donald Trump is.
SAENZ: With his White House run just around the corner, Biden says, these allegations make it clear something has to be different.
BIDEN: I think it's going to have to change some of how I campaign. It's not a bad thing. It's a new thing. It's important.
SAENZ: Lucy Flores, the woman who first made the accusation that Biden made her feel uncomfortable last week, she said that these comments show that Biden has not reflected enough. It's unclear right now, Wolf, if Biden is going to respond any further.
BLITZER: Yes. She said in her Tweet. She said, to make light of something as serious as consent degrades the conversation women everywhere are courageously trying to have.
Gloria, is it okay for the Vice President to be making some jokes about this?
GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: No, it doesn't help. I mean, this is a conversation, as Arlette points out, that we've been having for a week now. They were trying to put it to bed. He goes out there, and he jokes about it. And it's just inappropriate for him to do that. I think when he came out and he said, you know, I'm not going to apologize for my intentions, I mean, we understand that. Joe Biden has not been charged with any kind of sexual harassment. He's just a tactile politician who a lot of women believe is a little too handsy and, you know, and inappropriate at times.
So I think that while his staff may have been trying to put this to bed, as I was saying, he had to rush out there and do a little bit of damage control and, you know, he let the story play out. So it wasn't -- it wasn't appropriate for him to do it and it didn't help his campaign either.
BLITZER: Nia, you've been watching this closely. What do you think?
HENDERSON: Yes, I think that's right. If you flash back to Wednesday, it felt like he was in a good space with this when he basically said this is important to people, people's personal space is important. And that he would learn a different lesson and interact with people differently. He was basically parroting Nancy Pelosi. And so to come out today, I think, really undoes a lot of the work he was able to do in putting this story to bed, I think from a P.R. perspective, but also from a political perspective as well.
We don't know how this is going to play for Joe Biden. We do know that he's going to get more questions about it, that he hasn't quite turned the corner on this. And I think his behavior should he announce for president is going to be scrutinized when he's out on the campaign trail.
BLITZER: You were there at the Washington Hilton Hotel when he walked out after that event. He went out, met with reporters. We told that the Vice President was coming out. He was going to be answering questions. He hasn't done that with journalists in a while.
VINOGRAD: No, he really hasn't. It was a complete surprise. We were kind of standing there hoping that maybe he would come take some questions for us. I believe the last time that he took questions from a gaggle of reporters was on election day. And then I've had the chance to catch up with him a few times out on the road. But this is really his first face-to-face interaction with reporters in almost six months. And that's something that they're also going to have to figure out going forward.
Biden has been pretty friendly with the press. He likes to go out there and answer questions. Lately, he hasn't been doing that. What is it going to be like when he it out on the campaign trail and facing questions not only about this, but there's other issues in his record that are going to be coming up soon.
BLITZER: It's interesting, Gloria, no one is saying that what the former Vice President has done comes close to the allegations that were leveled against the current President of the United States. But that certainly hasn't stopped President Trump from making fun and going after Joe Biden.
BORGER: Yes. I mean, it hasn't stopped him. And if I were working for Joe Biden right now or being Joe Biden, I would say, well, bring it on. Because if you want to talk to me, I was the author the Violence Against Women Act. And maybe I shouldn't have kissed a woman on her head or hugged somebody or massaged their shoulders, but I'm not accused of sexual harassment. I didn't have my attorney pay off a couple of women that we know about on my behalf. If that's an argument that Donald Trump wants to have, if I were Joe Biden, I'd have it.
The one thing though that Donald Trump said today that has a ring of truth to it is he said, the only, you know, threat to Joe Biden is himself. And I believe that's probably accurate given what we saw today.
HENDERSON: Yes. And the truth is that Joe Biden hasn't run a competitive race since 1972. That was his first race. He won that race. He was very young. I think he was like 30 years old when he entered the Senate. And since then, he hasn't really had to deal certainly with the kind of MeToo culture that exists now particularly in the Democratic Party. He was basically, you know, sort of the sidekick of Barack Obama. You heard him today basically talk about himself as an Obama-Biden democrat. Listen, for some voters, that will be great, that he was Obama's sidekick. For other voters, particularly in the general election, should he get that far, that might not be such a great thing.
BLITZER: Yes. He was President Obama's Vice President for eight years. Arlette, you heard him. You were there. He said, I'm an Obama-Biden democrat, which he is trying to paint as some sort of, I guess, moderate.
BORGER: But what else can he run as? I mean --
BLITZER: He's running as that.
BORGER: I mean, he has no choice. He is an Obama-Biden democrat.
BLITZER: Let's see when he makes the official announcement. Everybody stick around. There's more news we're following ahead.
A man who falsely claimed he was the boy who disappeared nearly eight years ago now facing federal charges for his cruel and heartbreaking hoax.
[18:49:35] WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: Tonight, the former inmate behind a shocking hoax may wind up back in prison. Authorities say the man is facing federal criminal charges for falsely claiming to be a boy who disappeared back in 2011.
Our national correspondent Athena Jones is in Newport, Kentucky, for us, where the man surfaced this week.
Athena, this case has gotten a lot of national attention. What's the latest?
ATHENA JONES, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Hi, Wolf.
Well, this alleged crime wasn't just crushing for Timmothy Pitzen's family, it was also a huge drain on resources -- a multi-state, multi- agency effort involving some 50 or more law enforcement and health officials, two FBI offices dropping everything to investigate.
[18:50:15]Law enforcement officials say they became skeptical early on because he refused to be fingerprinted.
JONES (voice-over): Tonight, Brian Michael Rini, the man who pretended to be 14-year-old Timmothy Pitzen is facing a federal charge of facing false statements to feral agents and could be facing eight years in prison. An affidavit filed in support of the criminal complaint says he repeatedly claimed to be Pitzen.
The Newport, Kentucky police chief telling CNN when officers encountered Rini, he was clean shaven, acting like child-like, and speaking in a childish voice. The 23-year-old Rini who also told investigators he was a child sex trafficking victim complained of abdominal pain and was examined by doctors at Cincinnati Children's Hospital. And he was also interviewed by a forensic psychologist.
Rini refused to be fingerprinted and was only properly identified after he agreed to submit to DNA testing. When confronted with his true identity, Rini admitted that he was not Pitzen and said he had seen a story about the boy on a TV program. He said he wanted to get away from his family, allegedly stating, quote, he wished he had a father like Timmothy's.
The affidavit says Rini has a history of falsely portraying himself as a juvenile sex trafficking victim.
BENJAMIN GLASSMAN, U.S. ATTORNEY FOR THE SOUTHERN DISTRICT OF OHIO: Rini had actually on two prior occasions claimed to be a victim of juvenile sex trafficking.
JONES: On both cases, he was only identified after being fingerprinted. Rini also has a history of ru-ins with the law. Last year, he was sentenced to a year and a half on burglary and vandalism charges, and he was just released from prison on March 7th.
Rini's brother Jonathon saying he hasn't seen or spoken to his brother in years. He used expletives to describe him and said Brian even impersonated him when he was stopped for a traffic violation two years ago.
Jonathon telling CNN affiliate WEWS --
JONATHON RINI, SUSPECT'S BROTHER: He's been doing stupid stuff not this serious, but he's been doing stupid stuff for as long as I can remember. I tell the family that I'm sorry for what he's done. But for him, I wouldn't even speak to him. I'd tell him he is going down a dark road.
JONES: When Rini showed up on this Kentucky street Wednesday morning claiming to be Pitzen, missing since 2011, Pitzen's family was hopeful it was really Timmothy. ALANA ANDERSON, GRANDMOTHER: Cautiously hopeful. And as it turns out to be him, we'll be thrilled.
JONES: Those hopes soon dashed. Pitzen's aunt telling reporters it was like reliving the disappearance all over again.
KARA JACOBS, TIMMOTHY'S AUNT: Unfortunately, this child is not our beloved Timmothy. We know that you are out there somewhere, Tim. And we will never stop looking for you, praying for you, and loving you.
JONES: Now, Rini had his initial court appearance today and he was held without bond. He has a detention hearing on Tuesday.
Meanwhile, law enforcement officials stressed that the investigation into Rini remains open and they're asking the public for any information they may have including his about his whereabouts in the days leading up to Wednesday morning -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Athena Jones, what a heartbreaking story that is. Thank you very much.
Just ahead, two U.S. citizens, dual nationals, are arrested in Saudi Arabia in a new crackdown on dissent.
[18:58:12] BLITZER: Tonight, two U.S. citizens are in custody in Saudi Arabia, arrested as part of a new crackdown on human rights and dissent.
Our senior diplomatic correspondent Michelle Kosinski is joining us right now.
Michelle, this comes, what, six months after the murder of Jamal Khashoggi? What are you learning?
MICHELLE KOSINSKI, CNN SENIOR DIPLOMATIC CORRESPONDENT: Right, this is October when "Washington Post" journalist was murdered by Saudi officials. And it seemed at the least that the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, who, of course, was implicated in the planning of that murder by the U.S. intelligence community would be on his best behavior at least for a time.
Well, now, this shows it didn't last long. Sources to CNN say that seven activists in Saudi Arabia were arrested yesterday. And the State Department now confirms two of them are Americans. They have dual citizenship. One of them is a journalist Salah al-Haidar, and the other a physician, Badr al-Ibrahim.
But all of those arrested, these seven people have been writing and blogging about social reforms in Saudi Arabia, especially women's rights, including a woman who's in the late stage of pregnancy. The State Department says they have engaged the Saudis on this issue. The Saudis have been silent, though, on these arrests. But remember, the Saudi crown prince has been trying to portray
himself as the great reformer for Saudi's society, this champion of women's rights. Well, this shows it appears to be back to business as usual in Saudi Arabia, cracking down on dissent, despite the global condemnation they got over the murder of Khashoggi. And the Trump administration will say that it has been tough on the Saudis, it has sanctioned seven individuals after the Khashoggi murder, but it has stopped well short of criticizing or even calling into question the possibility that the crown prince was involved in that.
This, again, shows that the crown prince is willing to hurt the U.S.- Saudi relationship six months after the murder of Jamal Khashoggi -- Wolf.
BLITZER: We'll watch this together with you, Michelle. Thanks very much.
"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.