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Interview With Former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder. Aired 4:30-5p ET

Aired October 18, 2017 - 16:30   ET



JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: With a congresswoman and now supported by a member of the family, saying that the president was not respectful, maybe didn't even know La David Johnson's name.

However it went down, that family did not leave that encounter feeling good. What's your reaction?

ERIC HOLDER, FORMER U.S. ATTORNEY GENERAL: Those are tough calls to make.

I had to make them myself, talking to the relatives of FBI agents, other agents, federal agents who had lost their lives in the line of duty.

They're tough calls to make, but they're the kinds of things that you have to do if you want to lead, you know, certain organizations.

I'm distressed to hear that the family did not feel that they were treated appropriately. That -- those kinds of interactions, in some ways, I think, reveal you for who you are. Can you as the leader of the organization, your country, empathize with the person who has suffered, you know, the ultimate loss?

Can you reach out? Can he comfort?

That's something that I think is important in our leaders, and it bleeds over into other things. It shapes your -- it's an indication of how you view the world and underlies, I think, you know, policy decisions that you're going to make that might be unrelated to the personal interaction.

So that's distressing to hear. I don't know all the facts, but that as reported is distressing to hear.

TAPPER: This comes, of course, just a couple of days after President Trump said erroneously that President Obama didn't phone the families of troops who had been killed in action.

You tweeted directly to him that he should: "Stop the damn lying. You're the president."

You were tweeting to him directly, so I wanted to ask, if you had an audience with him, just one-on-one, what would you say to him about what he said about President Obama?

HOLDER: I would have said, Mr. President, you crossed the line there. And I understand you have got a tough job.

I generally hold my powder, but that was a line that you crossed. It was an unfair thing. President Obama, you know, spent a great deal of time dealing with those issues, interacting with people who had suffered those kinds of losses, the relatives of people who had suffered those losses.

And to imply that President Obama was not appropriately sensitive, not appropriately involved was something that I was simply not going to allow to go unaddressed.

That was not going to -- that -- that made me mad in a way that few other things have, and that's why I was as direct in that tweet as I was.

And I would tell him, you know, I would tell the president the same thing and in the same language that I used in that tweet.

TAPPER: Stop the damn lying?

HOLDER: Stop the damn lying, because it was a damn lie.

TAPPER: You worked with James Comey when he was at the FBI and you were the attorney general.

There is a newly released document suggesting that he had been working on his statement in May of 2016 before he ultimately cleared Hillary Clinton of any criminal wrongdoing later that summer.

I know you have been critical of Comey for being as outspoken as he was during that press conference, and then also the Comey letter he wrote right before the election.

President Trump tweeted that the memo that's been released, this newly released document, suggests that Comey wanted to clear Hillary Clinton -- quote -- "long before the investigation was complete."

What's your take on all of this?

HOLDER: Well, I have been critical of Jim Comey, but I have also known Jim Comey for 20, 30 years. He's an honest guy, and the determination that he made, and I think inappropriately announced, I think was based on the facts, based on his interpretation of the law, and it was nothing more than that.

It was a good-faith assessment by a person who I think has done a lot for this country.

TAPPER: What do you make of him working on this memo in May, before he had even interviewed Hillary Clinton? Some of the president's supporters and President Trump himself are suggesting, see, the fix was in, he was never going to go after her criminally. HOLDER: Well, you know, assuming the facts are as you say, you can make determinations about where an investigation is likely to go before you actually speak to the subject of that investigation.

That inquiry had been under way for an extended period of time. A lot of resources had been used. A lot of people had been spoken to. A lot of documents had been reviewed.


And so you can get to, you know, pretty close to the end of an investigation and understand where you're going to go with it before you actually talk to the subject of the investigation. And my guess is that's probably where Jim Comey was.

TAPPER: President Trump said that NFL players who take a knee should be suspended, that the league should suspend them. The NFL's declined recently to force players to stand during the national anthem, which the president this morning tweeted showed -- quote -- "total disrespect for our great country."

I believe you're a football fan and that you have an opinion on this. What do you make of this controversy, and do you understand those who are offended when players take a knee during the anthem? There are a lot of -- for instance, we were just talking about Gold Star families who feel it's offensive.

HOLDER: Yes, I mean, first, I think that people, Gold Star families should not necessarily feel offended, because the purpose of those demonstrations is not to disrespect people in the military, not to disrespect the flag.

These are players expressing their -- using their First Amendment rights to express views about the interaction between people in law enforcement and communities of color. That's what the stated purpose of the protest is.

And having said that, they certainly have that right, but people certainly also have the right to react to the way in which they perceive, you know, these protests.

I think that these protests really really offer us an opportunity for some dialogue to talk about the underlying issue that the players were trying to raise, you know?

Let's talk about the way in which law enforcement interacts with certain communities in our country. If we do that, I think something positive can come out of this controversy.

And I think, unfortunately, what the president's done here is to try to politicize something. He's trying to create a social wedge issue where there is really not the need.

You know, I think he could really be -- do something positive with the controversy, and I think what he's chosen to do is to do something political. (END VIDEOTAPE)

TAPPER: We're going to have much more of may conversation with former Attorney General Eric Holder when we come back, including why he thinks the Trump administration's Justice Department is not being run well.

Stick around.



TAPPER: And we're back with more of my interview with former Obama Attorney General Eric Holder.

I asked Mr. Holder about moves by the Trump administration to walk back criminal justice reform and whether efforts to lessen penalties for some nonviolent offenders is effectively dead.


HOLDER: I hope that's not the case. I hope that people will -- in law enforcement and people at the Justice Department will look at the statistics, will listen to the police professionals, who all say that, you know, criminal justice reform is a -- is a good thing.

And, you know, it wasn't too long ago where this issue was supported by Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives. The opportunity was there, certainly in Congress, to pass some meaningful legislation in that regard.

The comments -- many of the comments made by the attorney general and by the president are simply inconsistent with the facts. You know, the notion that there is a crime wave out there that we are dealing -- we're in a period of American carnage, again, inconsistent with the facts. We have crime rates that are at 40-year lows.

TAPPER: Overall, but in some cities, they have gone up.

HOLDER: Yes, they have gone up certainly in the last couple of years.

And every city, we want to make sure that we have measures in place to try to deal with those issues.

But I lived through a time when I was the United States attorney in Washington, D.C., when this city was called the murder capital of the country. And we're in a fundamentally different place now than we were in the early '90s.

It doesn't mean that we shouldn't, you know, focus attention on those places where crime, violent crime in particular, is a concern, but I think we have to be careful in the language that we use and base policies on the evidence as it exists.

TAPPER: What do you say to voters out there who hear you and others talking about criminal justice reform and they think you just want to be soft on crime, you just don't want people who commit drug offenses to go to prison, but they're killing people in different ways just as much as somebody with a gun?

HOLDER: Well, criminal justice reform is not soft on crime. And what I would tell people, first off, that any time you hear somebody say soft on crime, hold on to your wallet. That's a political slogan and really has little or nothing to do with good law enforcement.

Criminal justice reform is about using the limited resources that exist in the law enforcement community in the most effective way to protect the greatest number of people. And it means putting violent offenders in jail for extended periods of time.

It means looking at people who are doing things in a nonviolent way and trying to understand, what is it that we can do to hold them accountable, but at the same time to make sure that they do not become repeat offenders?

TAPPER: I want to ask you about the federal court judge that has just blocked the third version of President Trump's travel ban, calling it discriminatory.

Some legal analysts think that this version, 3.0, because it includes some non-Muslim majority countries, Venezuela and North Korea, might actually pass constitutional muster. What do you think? Is it discriminatory on its face?

HOLDER: You know, I have not really examined the new version of this.

But, you know, the reason for it is something that I find pretty disturbing. I think this was something that is more politically driven than driven by a concern about the national security.

And if one looks at, you know, the initial iteration of this and the need to have it in place quickly, that was months ago, and it's hard for me to understand why there is this, you know, continuing -- there's this continuing need.

TAPPER: You had very strong views as an attorney general. You were deferential to the president, as was most of the Cabinet, when it came to not getting out ahead of him. But I know you a little bit, and you're a very passionate progressive.

Yes, it is difficult to do what I thought was good work, work that made the nation better, more fair, more just, and to see those policies being you know, taken apart is something that has been hard to watch. At the same time, I've tried to be respectful and only when certain lines have been crossed have I raised my voice. But, yes, it's been a difficult thing to watch and it means that I think I have to be a part of the resistance. And if you try to save as much of the great work I think that we did as is possible and to try to ensure that we put in place leadership in 2018, in 2020 that will be supportive of the positive things that we did.

TAPPER: You're a member of the resistance? HOLDER: Yes, yes, I am. There is no question about that. You know, I'm a progressive Democrat committed to the ideals of my party and proud of the work that I did as Attorney General.


TAPPER: And our thanks to former Attorney General Holder. Be sure to tune in tonight for a special live CNN debate, Senators Bernie Sanders, and Ted Cruz will debate the Republican tax plan. I'll moderate along with my CNN colleague Dana Bash, it all starts at 9:00 p.m. Eastern tonight only on CNN.

Coming up, millions of people still without drinking water, hundreds of thousands more without electricity and this is the situation on the ground in Puerto Rico one full month after the Hurricane Maria devastated the island. So what will the Governor of Puerto Rico tell President Trump when he visits the White House tomorrow? Stay with us.


[16:50:00] TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD." In our "NATIONAL LEAD" today, we're going to take a look at Puerto Rico one month after Hurricane Maria devastated the island. The U.S. Commonwealth, of course, remains in shambles. 80 percent of the island is without power, one-third of the island remains without clean water or plumbing and the death toll continues to climb. Every death for weeks now has been called a preventable death as the health crisis looms over the 3.4 million American citizens there. A doctor on the ground described the current state as, "post-apocalyptic." Joining me now is CNN's Leyla Santiago. And Leyla, the White House just announced that the Governor of Puerto Rico is coming to Washington D.C. tomorrow to meet with the President to discuss the hurricane response and relief. One month after the storm, from what you see on the ground, has the response, has the relief effort improved at all?

LEYLA SANTIAGO, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, listen, you'll see more helicopters in the sky, you'll see more trucks on the ground moving supplies, but day-to-day, daily life for many Puerto Ricans now includes no power, no water, no cell service. It's like a new normal here.



SANTIAGO: He's been cleaning for a month. Not much seems to have changed.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: So it's like -- it's like it was yesterday.

SANTIAGO: Angel (INAUDIBLE) lives in Humacao the eastern coast of the island where the sea rushed in and Maria left little behind.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We're suffering because we don't have electricity. SANTIAGO: One month later, there are still people gathered the at the

church hoping to get supplies that come in here in this area, and their lives are on display on the sidewalks. You can see furniture, you can see paintings, even a Christmas stand down here. This home doesn't have part of its roof. There is no cell service here. Nobody has power and food and water are limited.

A month we've been here, we've seen and felt Maria's terrifying force, and in the aftermath, dramatic rescues, desperation on the ground and through the mud, we've been the first to reach communities out cut off by the storm. Despite President Donald Trump's visit and his own rave reviews of the recovery, more than 80 percent still don't have power, about 40 percent of the cell towers remain down, and roughly a third no running water. Banks that are open have lines that can be hours long. Within 100 bridges damages, 18 closed until further notice, cutting off entire communities. Rebecca Rodriguez tells us her family's bakery has been here for decades.

Wow, this is how high the water came which is at least four feet.

The only light here comes from our camera.

What once smelled of fresh bread is really now -- it smells like something is rotting in here and she's upset because none of this will be covered, according to her insurance.

Every day brings uncertainty.

Of all the things you had in here, this is --

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is what I've been able to save because the mattress, I'd throw it out, the bed, I'll throw it out, the chairs --

SANTIAGO: This isn't much.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: No, but what can we do?

SANTIAGO: As time passes --


SANTIAGO: These are all your watches.


SANTIAGO: Disaster has become a way of life.


SANTIAGO: As if Maria never left.



SANTIAGO: And when you talk to people about the recovery, people are no longer saying this will be a matter of months, many now saying this will be a matter of years in recovery efforts. And, Jake, one more update, a few days ago we told you the story about the U.S. Comfort. It is a navy hospital out at sea just off the coast of Puerto Rico. When we brought you that story, we told you 33 of the 250 beds on that ship were being used to treat patients from Puerto Rico, that number has gone down. Today that number stands at 29. Only 29 of the 250 beds on the U.S. Navy's Comfort is being used despite the fact that small community clinics are still in need of medication and more treatment for their patients.

[16:55:43] TAPPER: Unbelievable. Leyla Santiago in San Juan, Puerto Rico for us, that's it -- thank you so much. That's it for THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper. Next in "THE SITUATION ROOM," Wolf Blitzer will talk to Senator Chris Coons who questioned Attorney General Jeff Sessions today. I'll see you later tonight for the Cruz versus Sanders debate on tax reform. Stay with us.