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Trump Gives Tacit Approval to Roy Moore in Senate Race; Report: Conyers Settled Complaint Involving Sexual Misconduct. Aired 4-4:30p ET

Aired November 21, 2017 - 16:00   ET



JIM SCIUTTO, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jim Sciutto, in today for Jake.

Breaking news in our politics lead. President Trump is finally speaking out about embattled Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore, and his comments really just remarkable.

Just moments ago, the president gave the man accused of sexually abusing a 14-year-old girl his support in the Alabama Senate race. And, by backing Moore, the president is bucking most of his party's leadership, who have called for Moore to withdraw from the race after at least eight women, that's right, eight women came forward to accuse him of sexual misconduct when they were just teenagers.

CNN Washington correspondent Ryan Nobles joins me now live from the White House. Ryan was there.

Ryan, the president in effect here endorsing Roy Moore for the Senate?

RYAN NOBLES, CNN CORRESPONDENT: I think that's a pretty safe assessment of what just happened here at the White House, Jim.

And just a few weeks ago, the president himself called the allegations against Roy Moore troubling. And one of his top advisers, Kellyanne Conway, said that no Senate seat was worth a child.

Well, a bit of a difference of opinion today from the president when he was asked about Roy Moore and that race in Alabama. Take a listen to what the president had to say.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We don't need a liberal person in there, a Democrat, Jones. I have looked at his record. It's terrible on crime. It's terrible on the border. It's terrible in the military. I can tell you for a fact we do not need somebody that's going to be bad on crime, bad on borders, bad with the military, bad for the Second Amendment.

QUESTION: Mr. President, is an accused child molester better than a Democrat?


TRUMP: Well, he denies it. Look, he denies it. If you look at what is really going on and you look at all of the things that have happened over the last 48 hours, he totally denies it.

He says it didn't happen? And, you know, you have to listen to him also. You're talking about -- he said, 40 years ago, this did not happen so, you know...

QUESTION: Mr. President?

TRUMP: I will be letting you know next week, but I can tell you, you don't need somebody who is soft on crime like Jones.

QUESTION: So, do you not believe the accusers?


NOBLES: And this is a change for the president and the White House. For the last several weeks, the line from the administration has been that they want the voters of Alabama to decide who their next senator should be and they refused to weigh in on the allegations and whether or not they believe the accusers.

Well, today, the president taking matters into his own hands, Jim, effectively telling the people of Alabama that he prefers the Republican over the Democrat, despite the accusations that he abused children around the age of 14 -- Jim.

SCIUTTO: You might say more than effectively, directly telling the people of Alabama that.

Ryan, the president went even further in this embrace of Moore, saying that he might campaign for him.

NOBLES: That's right. He certainly left open the possibility of that happening, Jim, and you remember back during the Senate primary there in Alabama, the president's preferred candidate, Luther Strange, lost pretty badly to Roy Moore, but during that campaign the president said that he planned to come back and campaign like hell for whoever won that Senate race, and that would include Roy Moore.

When asked today if that's a possibility, he said he would have to let us know next week. It's important to point out that right now, the Democrat in that race, Doug Jones, is running an ad that quotes the president's daughter, Ivanka Trump, saying that there is a special place in hell for people who prey on children, talking about the Roy Moore -- Roy Moore as a candidate and the allegations.

It would be quite the juxtaposition if the president were to stand side by side by Roy Moore in Alabama with that ad featuring his daughter currently running on the airwaves there -- Jim.

SCIUTTO: Ryan Nobles at the White House, thanks very much.

My panel here with me now. Listen, I want to shake my head, but these are the times we live in.

This is the current political environment we live in.

Mary Katharine, if I could start with you, your reaction to the president endorsing someone not accused by one woman, but by eight women, of making sexual advances to them while they were teenagers?

MARY KATHARINE HAM, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Yes, it's remarkable, and it's remarkable the knots people are tying themselves into going to bat for this person who has all of these accusations against him which have all of these marks of credibility, people putting their names on them, contemporaneous reports.

Some of the facts line up about where the restaurant was or the courthouse was or where he was at the time. It is remarkable to me that people will go to these lengths. But keep in mind, this wasn't even Trump's guy, by the way. He could have one of his favorite moments, which is an I told you so moment, about Luther Strange, but he's chosen not to do that, instead to go to bat for this guy.

And we have a watershed moment for people speaking out about these things, but we also have increased political tribalism at the same time. And we will see which one wins out in this race. And I'm afraid it's probably going to be political tribalism.


SCIUTTO: Rebecca and Neera, I want to give you both a chance to respond.


REBECCA BERG, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, I have to say I am a little less shocked to see the president come out and endorse Roy Moore today. It wasn't a full-throated endorsement. He's not yet on the campaign trail for Roy Moore.


SCIUTTO: Well, 75 percent throated endorsement.

BERG: But I think you have to consider a few things here, first of all, Donald Trump has never cast himself as sort of a moral leader on issues like this. He is a pragmatist.


BERG: He cares about himself personally, politically. He's not someone who is going to stick out his neck out on an issue like this if there is any sort of risk to him personally or politically.

The other thing that I think is important to consider is that President Trump has been in Roy Moore's shoes before as a candidate accused by women of sexual misconduct. And he denied it. He said the women were lying. The White House today still, that is their official position, that those women were lying. Certainly there is also sort of a personal relation that Donald Trump

has for Roy Moore right now. You can certainly imagine he sympathizes to some extent with the situation he's in.


TANDEN: Can I just step out of politics for one minute to just acknowledge that the president of the United States is endorsing a person accused of pedophilia, and we're all trying to explain it?

That is insane. I'm a mother of a daughter who is 15 years old. The message the president is sending to young women, to teenage girls is to never speak out when you're abused because the president of the United States will not hear you, will not believe you.

That is disgusting. I don't think anyone, no single human being, no single woman, no single man, should justify this -- 51 seats, 52 seats, who cares? When you are in office, you are in office to protect children. The idea that he's talking about Doug Jones not -- being soft on crime, he's not accused of pedophilia. The guy he's endorsing is.

That's soft on crime. I am sorry, but this whole experience is enraging, as a parent, as a person. I don't know why -- like, it's crazy.

SCIUTTO: Don't be sorry. My daughter's only 2, so she's 12 years away from apparently being a target there.

But we talked about the president effectively endorsing Roy Moore. He explicitly endorses Roy Moore's denial over the accounts of the women, right? The president -- you heard the president say repeatedly he denies it, and then he said he totally denies it, as if to qualify it with greater credibility, because he totally denies.

But that's the president saying, I accept Roy Moore's account over eight or nine women.

TANDEN: I don't believe the women.

BERG: Again, you have to think back to how Donald Trump handled this as a candidate and certainly that is informing how he views this race unfolding...


TANDEN: And it's unacceptable. It's unacceptable.

BERG: He gave himself the benefit of the doubt. He wanted voters to give him the benefit of the doubt. He's giving Roy Moore the benefit of the doubt here as well.

HAM: Yes, I share your rage, Neera. I do not share the surprise, because politics is a disgusting business and it's been full of disgusting people for a long time. And I have been enraged by the Clintons and I have been enraged by Bill Clinton in particular and accusations against him.

I have been enraged by Ted Kennedy, who has one of the worst records with women, and John Kennedy as well for that matter. And the point is, we need to learn to distribute our rage equally.


TANDEN: One is president right now and one is basically sanctioning a pedophile, I mean, or a person accused of pedophilia


HAM: The equivocation there makes me a little bit ragey as well.

TANDEN: Let's talk about everyone...


HAM: Like applying the rage equally is actually what's good for women.

TANDEN: OK. But then saying -- then say -- and we should all say it's terrible what the president did. What he did was wrong in endorsing...

HAM: Agreed.

TANDEN: Yes, I agree.

But I'm also saying to you I don't understand how you can say it's understandable that he took this position. He took a position where he is saying, I believe Roy Moore over the eight women, one who is 14 years old at the time, with a lot of specificity.

His own daughter believed the women. I don't understand why we don't just say it's wrong, because it's wrong.


SCIUTTO: Not to mention the Senate majority leader.

TANDEN: Yes, Senate majority leader, Republican after Republican. It's just wrong.


SCIUTTO: I want to play another comment that the president said just moments ago when he was asked about this watershed moment in the country now regarding sexual harassment and allegations.

Have a listen.


QUESTION: ... in our nation's history? TRUMP: Women are very special. I think it's a very special time

because a lot of things are coming out, and I think that's good for our society, and I think it's very, very good for women. And I'm very happy a lot of these things are coming out.

QUESTION: Do you believe the accusers?

TRUMP: I'm very happy it's being exposed.


SCIUTTO: How does preside the president, how does the White House reconcile those comments with what the president said just seconds before?

HAM: They don't, because he constantly says things that -- he contradicts himself.


HAM: And this is who he is. It's on full display right there.


SCIUTTO: I just -- what's beyond the pale, right?

We ask this question repeatedly. And I'm not talking specifically about the president. He's not accused here. It's an Alabama Senate candidate.

But what is -- you talked earlier, and this is true -- this is a tribal, politically tribal moment country in this moment. A ham sandwich could beat a Democrat. People will vote for anything for -- many people will vote for any candidate of their party against anything else, right, anybody, it seems. But is there nothing beyond the pale then?

TANDEN: I guess what I would say is that I actually think why the president is taking this action is probably the White House has seen polling itself in which Roy Moore, like the good people of Alabama, enough people are saying enough.

So that's what they're fighting, right? They're trying to invoke the tribalism against the decency of people who say pedophilia is too much for me. That's what's particularly disgusting about this whole situation, because I'm sure he's taking action that he was not taking for the last couple of weeks hoping that Roy Moore would ride it out.

And he sees that he won't without his help, so he's throwing a lifeline to this person. And, ordinarily, Roy Moore was probably losing, and -- but Donald Trump may make the difference.

But I hope the people of Alabama and the women of Alabama will look at what's happening and say, you know, here is the line of decency and I'm not crossing it. SCIUTTO: Who do you think made this decision, Rebecca, Mary

Katharine? Was this the president's decision, because there was reporting in advance of this he was being counseled by whether it was Kellyanne or Steve Bannon that he shouldn't explicitly criticize Roy Moore. What are you hearing? Was this the president's own choice?

BERG: Well, what I will say is that the president is certainly aware, Jim, that his base, his political base is still largely with Roy Moore in Alabama.

That might not be consistent across all states, but he does have to consider in this case or he is considering in this case what is good for him politically. And I reported earlier or last week, rather, that Steve Bannon has been still engaging with influential people on the conservative side, including Sean Hannity, trying to at least tone down the criticism on the right of Roy Moore in the public sphere, trying to, as you said, throw him that lifeline.

And I think the president is listening to that as well, recognizing that there is conservative support for Roy Moore, and he doesn't want to shoot himself in the foot politically when his approval ratings are already so low and he's already suffering so much.

TANDEN: He endorsed Luther Strange. That's what's also weird about this. Can I just say in the primary he endorsed Luther Strange, the person he backed? You were right. He could just say, like, I have nothing to do with this because I endorsed the other guy.

In fact, when he endorsed Luther Strange, he said, I'm endorsing Luther Strange because I think Roy Moore could lose.


TANDEN: Roy Moore could lose without him doing anything.

SCIUTTO: I want to go to our Kaitlan Collins, who is in Alabama, because, earlier, as the president -- before the president was speaking, Roy Moore's campaign was waging a new fight against the media and his accusers, his attorney, his spokesman.

Kaitlan, they were alleging sort of a bizarre conspiracy, in effect, between, if I'm quoting correctly here, Roy Moore's accusers, the liberal media, as they described it and the GOP establishment. So the idea being that those three are in cahoots here against Roy Moore?


It felt very similar to seeing the Trump campaign last year before he won the election where they were saying that they were against the media and the Republican establishment. That's really what we heard from several of Roy Moore's allies here in Montgomery, Alabama, just a short while ago while the president was coming out on the South Lawn making these comments about Roy Moore almost at the exact same time, right as they were wrapping up here. But it seemed as if Roy Moore's campaign already felt they had the

White House's support behind them, because they cited an interview from counselor Kellyanne Conway on FOX News yesterday where she said that a vote for Doug Jones was a vote against tax reform and basically stopped short, Jim, of endorsing Roy Moore on television.

They cited that specific interview here just now. So it's no surprise that the president came out and made those comments on the South Lawn because we know that Kellyanne Conway spoke with President Trump before she went on FOX News to give that interview and they were speaking about the state of the Alabama Senate race.

But we can guarantee you pretty much now, Jim, that since they have the White House's backing behind them, there is almost no chance that Roy Moore will drop out of this race now.

SCIUTTO: Oh, no. It was interesting, there was a lot of parsing of Kellyanne Conway's words yesterday as to what she meant, was it actually an endorsement, et cetera?

But we heard, as you said, from the Moore campaign. They certainly took that as an endorsement. And now moments later, you had it from the president himself.

But tell us more about the aggressive defense put forward, because, Kaitlan, as I listened to that news conference, they were going after some of the specific details that some of these accusers have brought up as well.

COLLINS: Yes, that's right. They took two of these main allegations against Roy Moore from Leigh Corfman and Beverly Nelson and were rebutting specific aspects of them, saying that they were false, clearly false, because they had looked into court documents and whatnot.

[16:15:05] We actually heard from one new face, Ben DuPre who is a chief of staff for the Judge Roy Moore and now, he was here speaking, vouching for his character and attempting to discredit these accusers, specifically Leigh Corfman who we know made her first television appearance yesterday on the "Today" show where she went into a very detailed account of what happened when she met Roy Moore. She says she was only 14 years old when she met him outside of a courthouse in Gadsden, Alabama, where he is from.

Let's listen to what the Moore campaign has to say about her allegation.


BEN DUPRE, FORMER CHIEF OF STAFF FOR JUDGE ROY MOORE: One of the linchpins of her story is that Moore talked to her on, quote, her phone in her bedroom. Within days of the story coming out, her own mother told "Breitbart News" that there was no phone in her bedroom. According to public records that the media has not bothered to look at, we've been able to find that Corfman's supposed pickup place was almost a mile away from her mother's house and would have been across a major thoroughfare.


COLLINS: So, you see they're getting into the details there with Beverly Nelson. They repeated that the yearbook that she says is from Roy Moore, that signature in her yearbook, they said that it was fake. And they also said to her account where she says she was a 15-year-old waitress who met Roy Moore when she was waitressing at the Old Hickory House, a restaurant in Gadsden. And they discredited her account by saying the dumpsters were not in the back of the restaurant, they were on the side of the restaurant. She said it had been very dark when Roy Moore drove her around the restaurant. They said it was a well- lit restaurant.

So, we really see them getting into the specific details there, Jim, trying to discredit these accusers who they believe are threatening to derail their campaign. But although this was a press conference, they did not take any questions from reporters and say that they feel Roy Moore has sufficiently answered everyone's questions on these allegations, Jim.

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN HOST: They sounded like defense lawyers to me.

Kaitlan Collins, thanks very much.

Back to the panel. Mary Katharine, you know, this argument that it's the accusers, it's the liberal media, it's the GOP establishment, that resonates, does it not with -- not just Republican -- well, Republican voters in the country but possibly many in Alabama?

MARY KATHARINE HAM, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Yes, it does. I mean, that's what I'm speaking to, the political tribalism. It also resonates when people hear -- the media has been untrustworthy on some sexual harassment cases in the recent past, the "Rolling Stone" story, the Duke lacrosse case. Just recently NBC passing on the Weinstein stuff even though it was well reported.

SCIUTTO: Well, to be fair -- the media has aggressively covered these stories. Yes.

HAM: I'm just explaining to you why people will look at that and go, yes, they've really messed this up before. And to the point about them going through the details, we should check -- the press should check details that are checkable of these stories. They have. "The WaPo" piece was very well-reported.

Roy Moore's wife, it must be said, has led the charge in posting on Facebook about some of these details and claiming for instance that the restaurant in question was not open at the time that the victim alleged. It, in fact, was if you go back and check these things. And so -- she also put out a letter saying a bunch of pastors were behind him and they later said we weren't really behind that.

So, I would argue that we should check their checking of the details as well.

SCIUTTO: No question. That's something we're certainly pursuing aggressively on that story, as are many other media outlets.

Before we go. Rebecca, it's been awhile since there has been a poll there. I think it was a Fox News poll that put Doug Jones ahead, 50- 42. But, you know, freshness of polls doesn't last that long these days. I mean, when you talk to folks involved in the campaign, what are they telling you about where they think this race stands?

REBECCA BERG, CNN POLITICAL REPORTER: Well, it's a big question and it's an unanswered question at this point, Jim. Both sides, Republican and Democrat, what is the electorate going to look like in the face of a major scandal like this? So, usually in Alabama, you would expect a reliably Republican white electorate, especially in a special election -- not a presidential election that we're talking about here -- but now because of this, this has scrambled the entire conventional wisdom.

No one really knows what the turnout will look like. And so, Doug Jones, if he can get around 30 percent of the white vote, if he can turn out African-American voters, if he can get to that 50 percent overall with those people behind him, I mean, it's really -- he could win this race.

But those are the big questions. Can he reach those metrics? And no one really knows on Election Day if Democrats are going to be able to turn out their voters.

SCIUTTO: Neera, before we go.

NEERA TANDEN, PRESIDENT, CENTER FOR AMERICAN PROGRESS: The really quick thing I would say is that there was a gigantic gender gap in Virginia and I think the president's actions today on this case -- well, obviously, we're talking about Alabama. That there is 2018 and there is every house Republican is up. And a lot of Republicans in the Senate are up.

And what the president is saying today to women is that your voice doesn't count in this situation. And I think that gender gap is going to grow larger and larger.

[16:20:01] Whether it's enough in Alabama, I don't know. But it strikes me that if I were a suburban Republican or representing suburban folks, I would be deeply worried about what the president has done and that's why I think Mitch McConnell took a different tact.

SCIUTTO: It's a good point. You saw that in some of the key swing districts in Virginia during the governor's race.

Neera, Rebecca, Mary Katharine, please stay around. We're going to come back.

Lots more to talk about, including reaction to explosive allegations of sexual harassment against the longest serving member of the House, a Democrat. That's ahead.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) SCIUTTO: We are continuing to follow the breaking news. President Trump in effect giving approval to embattled Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore, who has been accused, we should remind of you sexually abusing a 14-year-old girl.

But first we turn more allegations of sexual misconduct. Both CBS and PBS are cutting ties with Charlie Rose following the "Washington Post" report just yesterday detailing extensive allegations against the veteran newsman. CBS terminated Rose's contract just today, and just this afternoon, PBS says it has cancelled distribution of his programs.

[16:25:06] While here in Washington, the longest serving member of the House of Representatives is now denying allegations of sexual misconduct. "BuzzFeed" reported that Democratic Congressman John Conyers of Michigan settled a wrongful dismissal complaint two years ago. This after the former employee said that she was fired because she would, quote, not succumb to his sexual advances. We must warn you some of these accounts are graphic.

CNN's Sunlen Serfaty is with me here now.

Sunlen, I should note that the congressman released a rather forceful statement pushing back against these allegations.

SUNLEN SERFATY, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: He did. And the congressman strongly denies any allegations of sexual misconduct here, but he does admit that his office made the settlement payment to the accuser out of his own office's budget.

Now, this is significant because that was done outside the process where settlement would be paid out by the fund set up by the Treasury Department for these kinds of cases. And it certainly gives us some new insight into how sexual harassment allegations are handled and kept secret on Capitol Hill.


REP. JOHN CONYERS (D), MICHIGAN: Top of the morning --

SERFATY (voice-over): Explosive new allegations against Congressman John Conyers, the longest serving member of the House.

Confidential documents obtained by "BuzzFeed" show a series of accusations and complaints filed in 2014 against the Michigan Democrat by former unnamed women on his staff, alleging the congressman repeatedly asked for sexual favors and once asked her to work from his hotel room one evening where she alleged he told her he needed to touch his private parts. In another incident, she alleges the congressman asked her to stay in his hotel room, to just cuddle up with me and caress me before you go.

The complaint leading to a wrongful firing settlement in 2015 to one woman who alleges she was fired for refusing the congressman's advances. A $27,000 settlement paid out directly to her from the congressman's office. Using taxpayer money but not from the funds used to handle settlements inside the U.S. Treasury.

CNN has not independently confirmed the allegations or seeing the documents involved. Conyers today expressly and vehemently denied the allegations of sexual misconduct, but acknowledged a payment was made by his office to the accuser. Quote: My office resolved the allegations with an express denial of liability, Conyers says, in order to save all involved from the rigors of protracted litigation.

Calls on Capitol Hill today from members of his own party, including House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi for an ethics investigation.

SEN. BEN CARDIN (D), MARYLAND: I just heard about Congressman Conyers' issue. These allegations are extremely serious and must be dealt with in a serious manner.

SERFATY: This as pressure continues to mount on Senator Al Franken, who has been laying low since his own accusations of sexual misconduct have surfaced, while Democrats are struggling to answer questions if he should resign.

SEN. ELIZABETH WARREN (D), MASSACHUSETTS: These allegations are serious and women have a right to be heard and listened to on this. Al is going to be subjected to a hearing in the United States Senate, an investigation.


SERFATY: And back on the Conyers allegations, amidst all of these calls today for an ethics investigation to be launched, we do have some movement on this. Just into CNN in the last moment, Jim, the ethics committee will start an investigation, look into Conyers.

SCIUTTO: Sunlen Serfaty, thanks very much.

Critical call. President Trump speaks to Russian Leader Vladimir Putin for more than an hour today with the Syrian slaughter and North Korea's nuclear program on the agenda. But is Putin still getting a pass for meddling in the 2016 election?