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Did Republican Congressman Turn Blind Eye to Sexual Abuse?; Cave Rescue Ongoing in Thailand; Is Pruitt the Most Corrupt Cabinet- Level Official? Aired 4-4:30p ET

Aired July 3, 2018 - 16:00   ET


JIM SCIUTTO, CNN ANCHOR: A powerful congressman facing just appalling accusations.


THE LEAD starts right now.

The breaking news, conservative Republican Jim Jordan accused of turning a blind eye to sexual abuse. The political fallout from the White House to the Capitol and his response ahead.

Also, President Trump issues a new threat to the most critical alliance in the West, and it plays right into the hands of Vladimir Putin.

Plus, how to get them out -- that team of kids and their coach trapped a full mile into a treacherous cave now facing one of the most risky rescue operations in recent memory -- why some may have to dive to survive, even if they don't know how to swim.

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

SCIUTTO: And welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jim Sciutto, in today for Jake Tapper.

And we begin this afternoon with breaking news in our national lead.

A top Republican congressman and supporter of President Trump, Jim Jordan, now accused of ignoring sexual abuse and molestation allegations while serving as an assistant wrestling coach at Ohio State University.

Former members of the wrestling team there accuse Congressman Jordan of being aware that a doctor who worked at the school regularly showered with and inappropriately touched student athletes, and that then coach Jordan did nothing about it.

I want to bring in CNN's Jason Carroll right away. He's been following the story.

So, tell us the details. These are just shocking allegations.

JASON CARROLL, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Absolutely. And, sadly, we have heard these types of allegations before, officials turning a blind eye to reports of sexual abuse at a school. Just this past April, Ohio State announced it was investigating abuse allegations against a man by the name of Dr. Richard Strauss for allegedly abusing students from the mid-1970s to the mid-late 1990s.

One former wrestler telling CNN Dr. Strauss touched him inappropriately starting when he was a teenager. He says Strauss sexually molested some of his other teammates as well. That wrestler, Michael DiSabato, says it was common knowledge among team members about this doctor and about what he would allegedly do during examinations.

DiSabato says he and other wrestlers spoke openly about it, openly about inappropriate touching. And he says staff, including Jim Jordan, who was a wrestling coach at the time, he says, knew about what the doctor was allegedly doing.

Now, this wrestler spoke to CNN. He says: "Dr. Strauss was more prolific in his abuse and operated. Over a 20-year period, he was able to systematically abuse at Ohio State University in over 15 sports, and no one did anything."

It should be noted that the Republican Congressman Jim Jordan strongly denies he ignored allegations of abuse. His office released a statement about the allegations, which says -- quote -- "Congressman Jordan never saw any abuse, never heard about any abuse, and never had -- and never had any abuse reported to him during his time as coach at Ohio State. He has not been contacted by investigators about the matter, but will assist them in any way they ask, because if what is alleged is true the victims deserve a full investigation."

Congressman Jordan is a staunch ally of President Donald Trump and has been frequently mentioned as a possible replacement for speaker of the House. Ohio State says the university now has received reports of sexual misconduct allegedly committed by Strauss from former athletes involved in 14 sports at the school, including football, cheerleading, gymnastics, and ice hockey.

It should be noticed that Strauss died in 2005. The university called the allegations deeply troubling and says they are fully committed to getting to the bottom of it -- Jim.

SCIUTTO: Well, appalling allegations against that doctor there, but, we should note, as you read there, just a very comprehensive denial from Congressman Jim Jordan.

I want to bring in now CNN legal analyst Joey Jackson, as well as CNN politics reporter and editor at large Chris Cillizza.

So, Joey, clearly, the clear crime here committed by the former doctor who has now passed away. But as far as Jim Jordan's role in this, he as an assistant coach at the time. He's being accused of, in effect, a sin of omission here, failing to protect these student athletes from abuse.

Is that failure a crime?

JOEY JACKSON, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Well, it could be. So let's parse that out here.

It's not only an issue in terms of what he knew. It's about what he either believed or reasonably suspected as well. If you look at the statute, it speaks to the issue of mandatory reporting. And so what does that mean?

In the event that you're working with young man, and you're a part of the administration or staff, you have a duty and an obligation should there something be amiss of a criminal variety to say something about it.

Now, ordinarily, in a standard circumstance, we don't have any duty to be good samaritans. But when you're put in that special relationship of trust, then you do. And so therefore the issue becomes not only whether they would be criminal exposure, but there's also the issue of civil liability and responsibility, what if any there would be as well.


And so it becomes problematic. Last point, Jim, and that is this. In the event there is an investigation and you move forward, and you are spoken to, and you are under oath or some such thing, and you make a misstatement, that becomes problematic as well.

So it's not only about these issues here, which are significant, but about the investigation moving forward, in the event that the congressman says something that could be disproven and it's false. Now you have a perjury and oath potential issue.


And, Chris, we should note that in the statement Congressman Jim Jordan first of all denied any knowledge of this, and he also said that he would offer to cooperate as the investigation goes forward.

But looking at this from a political lens, this is a big year for Republicans. Of course, you have midterm elections coming up in four months' time. How much of a problem for him individually Congressman Jordan, but also for the party?


Well, for him, individually, at a minimum, a large-scale distraction. Obviously, Ohio State conducting its own investigation, and a lot of what happens going forward will be determined by that investigation.

Jordan on the record denying it. This is someone -- and Jason mentioned it in talking you, Jim -- this is someone in Jim Jordan who's a very high-profile member of the House Republicans.

He was a former chairman of the House Freedom Caucus. This is sort of the most conservative element of House Republicans. He is a regular presence on our airwaves, as well as other cable TV. He is a voice of sort of unapologetic conservatism.

And he is someone who is seen as a potential replacement in the long run either Paul Ryan, who's retiring as speaker, or whoever comes next. This someone who's in the top sort of 10 people who are seen as potential leaders within the Republican Party.

Regardless of anything that comes after it, it's certainly a major distraction for a party that is trying to rally behind the message of economy, the Democrats being loose on borders, those sorts of things.

SCIUTTO: No question.

Listen, a lot more to find out here, as we know. We do know that in the past, though, a whiff of controversy like this has often had political consequences, particularly for leadership positions.

Stand by, Chris.

I want to turn now to our politics lead.

President Trump is expected to meet with more candidates for the Supreme Court. He has already sat down with four candidates who he has described as -- quote -- "very impressive people," but President Trump meanwhile is, as he often does, firing off a series of tweets on other subjects, everything from the state of the U.S. economy to former President Obama and Harley-Davidson.

He's also been finding a new opening to attack Democrats on immigration.

CNN's Jeff Zeleny, he is picking up our coverage now from the White House.


JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): President Trump working to finalize his pick for the Supreme Court, as the White House is trying to keep the decision and names of the leading contenders under wraps.

SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: We're not going to comment on the names, but I can tell you that he's got a great list.

ZELENY: White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders said the president is still on track for announcement next Monday evening, after he interviewed four candidates yesterday and spoke to another potential contender, Utah Senator Mike Lee, by telephone.

HUCKABEE SANDERS: He's looking for somebody with tremendous intellect. He'd like somebody with the right judicial temperament, and he wants somebody who is going to be focused on upholding the Constitution.

ZELENY: While the president is hoping to persuade a handful of Democrats to support his nominee, that's hardly stopping him from exploiting a rift among Democrats over immigration. The president again today seizing on a call for some liberals to abolish Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE.

He's blasting Democrats on Twitter, saying: "When we have an infestation of MS-13 gangs in certain parts of our country, who do we send to them get them out? ICE."

It's the third straight day he's injected himself squarely in the middle of a debate brewing inside the Democratic Party, with some in the party's left wing calling for the elimination of ICE, while others are warning of the political consequences of doing so.

The president taking a broad stroke, saying: "Many Democrats are deeply concerned about the fact that their leadership wants to denounce and abandon the great men and women of ICE, thereby declaring war on law and order."

Senator Elizabeth Warren is among the Democrats leading the charge.

SEN. ELIZABETH WARREN (D), MASSACHUSETTS: The president's deeply immoral actions have made it obvious we need to rebuild our immigration system from top to bottom, starting by replacing ICE with something that reflects our morality.


ZELENY: It's becoming a refrain among the party's most liberal voices.

SEN. KIRSTEN GILLIBRAND (D), NEW YORK: I believe that it has become a deportation force, and I think you should separate it, the criminal justice from the immigration issues.

ZELENY: The official White House Twitter page maintained by employees of the federal government also aggressively attacking leading Democratic senators like Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren and others by name, breaking the practice of previous administrations.



ZELENY: Now, not only is that breaking the practice of previous administrations by the official White House Twitter page, going directly after multiple members of Congress in the other party.

We should point out, Jim, town hall attacks simply are not accurate. Calling out Senator Kamala Harris for supporting the animals, in the words of the White House, of MS-13 does not live up to the facts.

Of course, she is a former attorney general of California, who actually had a fairly tough record on gangs.

But, separately, Jim, what this is pointing out, the tweets are being sent out I'm told with the president's blessing and it goes directly into the issue of immigration, which he politically speaking is exploiting for the benefit of Republicans here, and perhaps doing a wise job politically of that, because Democrats are indeed facing an identity crisis inside their party.

But again one more reminder immigration front and center in the midterm elections, of course, as is that big Supreme Court pick -- Jim.

SCIUTTO: Wouldn't be the first time a tweet came from the president that was not based on facts.

Jeff Zeleny at the White House, thanks very much.

Kirsten, it is not a majority of Democrats who are going down this let's dismantle ICE path. Small number. But there are very public voices here, Kamala Harris, possible presidential candidate.

Is this a case of the -- not the fringe, but the extreme left of the Democratic Party pulling it too far left to their political disadvantage on this issue?

KIRSTEN POWERS, CNN COMMENTATOR: On the facts, I think that they're right.

ICE is a cruel, inhumane, rogue agency. You need to understand it's absolutely rogue and it's been that way for a long time. It was this way under Obama. I wrote a lot about immigration in the Obama years. And they have been rebuked by the Supreme Court multiple times for overcharging people, so they can deport them.

And they have been slapped down repeatedly and told to stop doing this. And so they are completely out of control.

But as a political issue, I'm not sure that it works great for Democrats because I think most swing voters if you look at them are more in line with the Democrats' traditional position, which is a more moderate position.

But like I said, I think they're absolutely right on the facts. It's just a question of whether or not...


AMANDA CARPENTER, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Can I just say, I don't think these Democratic senators are even serious about it. I think they found a good slogan.

But when I listen to Kirsten Gillibrand talk, Elizabeth Warren talk, saying, oh, we just have to reimagine, like this is some kind of art assign.

You are U.S. senators. Go write a bill and actually say how you would reimagine it, because you are actually talking about abolishing a law enforcement agency that may be flawed, but they have tools in the Senate to hold hearings, write letters. You to jump on the slogan because somebody won a state race -- won a race in New York seems awfully shortsighted. (CROSSTALK)

SCIUTTO: We should handicap the idea of passing any sort of immigration-related bill through Congress.


CILLIZZA: We can handicap it quickly. It is not happening.

I do think that what you have seen -- and this is not just as it relates to abolishing ICE and it's not just Kirsten Gillibrand, Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders. In the wake of the 2016 election, Bernie Sanders came out with this radical single-payer.

I remember the days when...


SYMONE SANDERS, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: I worked there. I remember when folks told me it was ruining the republic.


CILLIZZA: Hillary Clinton was deathly afraid of it.

And now what did you see happen in 2017? Kirsten Gillibrand, Kamala Harris, Cory Booker, Elizabeth Warren, and, yes, Bernie Sanders, whose idea -- who pushed it, that was a radical idea. I do think Amanda is right.

There's a level of -- I don't put Bernie Sanders in this category, because, candidly, you can go back and watch YouTube clips of Bernie Sanders in 1987 talking about the similar stuff he is talking about now.

There is among those people who are thinking about running for president, they understand the energy is on the left. No debate about that. And they will immediately hew to that view because they don't want to be...


SANDERS: Because I have talked to Senator Gillibrand and Senator Warren and Senator Kamala Harris, for that matter, and to be frank Senator Gillibrand, when she's talking about abolishing ICE, her argument is that ICE is not accomplishing its core mission anymore and we need to separate the drug criminal activity, law enforcement protocols and the positioning that ICE has from the immigration responsibilities that ICE has, which she believes...


SANDERS: I just want to caution that these senators are just merely popping just out there for what's best for the base, when in all actuality I think there's some thoughtful conversation around this.

Now, is this...


SANDERS: ... run on in 2018? I don't know.

SCIUTTO: It would be nice to have a thoughtful conversation about immigration, wouldn't it?

The fact is, it is a hot-button issue. You could look at the numbers. Quinnipiac poll respondents said that immigration the most important issue in deciding how they're going to vote this coming November.

But Quinnipiac also found that 58 percent of respondents disapprove of President Trump's handling of immigration. I just wonder. Clearly, it works for Trump's base, but if immigration is going to be central issue in the midterms, who does that advantage?


SCIUTTO: Which party does that advantage?


Just quickly, Kirsten, I think, hit on it, which is -- and Symone makes a fair point, which is, on the merits, it's absolutely a discussion worth having. Here's the problem: what was the immigration debate broadly to a person who only follows politics sort of a little bit? Two weeks ago. Family separation at the border.



CILLIZZA: Which is a stone cold loser for every Republican --

SCIUTTO: And look what we're talking about now. No question.

CILLIZZA: And now, we are talking about -- Kirsten knows way more about ICE than the average person, myself included. So, she understands the nuance there. The average person says, that's a law enforcement agency. Why are we --


CILLIZZA: And Donald Trump beats that drum and says, they want open borders.


SCIUTTO: Democrats open -- Donald Trump --

CILLIZZA: Advantageous.

SCIUTTO: Trump didn't start the abolish ICE idea. Democrats did. So, are you saying in effect Democrats gave him a way to turn the page? CARPENTER: Yes, they're throwing it away with abolish ICE. But on

the 58 percent disapproval rating on Trump's immigration handling, I think that cuts into Republicans, too, because if you're a Republican who voted for Trump, you are seeing chaos on the border, no one likes the pictures that are coming out of there, family separation, and you still don't have the wall. You still don't have a solution on DACA and there's nothing -- not getting anything done. So that's the loser, too, on the Republican side.

SCIUTTO: So, you're saying that folks who disapprove of Trump aren't -- not just because of family separation, because they haven't gotten the toughness that they wanted.


CARPENTER: -- that are losing steam.

SYMONE SANDERS, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, and also to that point, I think it's important to note that while immigration has crept up as one of the top issues if you will that folks talk about, overwhelmingly, people still care about the economy and health care and overwhelmingly Republicans are bad on the economy, health care and no one can forget these photos of children at the border that Donald Trump wants us to think that are --


SANDERS: Well , that bill's not popular. The tax bill --

CARPENTER: The economy's doing great. Unemployment is down. People are getting --

SANDERS: I don't think so. That's why you're not running on it.

SCIUTTO: Bill is one thing. Economic numbers are another.

CILLIZZA: It's not complicated. The family separation issue, if that's the --


CILLIZZA: When people think of immigration, if that's what they think about, it is absolutely a political disaster for Republicans. If it's a fight over, is ICE a good agency --

SCIUTTO: That's a loser for Democrats.

CILLIZZA: I don't think it's a loser but a way better --


SCIUTTO: There were Republicans who were saying to me privately at the time of family separation was it's peak, that this is a Katrina for Trump. But, again, as you said, we are talking about something else right now. We're going to have more time to talk about this and other issues.

Turning to one Trump administration member who seems to attract a scandal a day.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I just wanted to urge you to resign because of what you're doing to the environment --


SCIUTTO: That's right. A woman holding her own baby calling out Scott Pruitt as a new scandal for the EPA administrator surfaces.


[16:21:51] SCIUTTO: Welcome back.

And we are back now with our political panel, continuing the conversation.

Teeing off with Scott Pruitt, the embattled EPA administrator, you might have heard a scandal or two related to him. But we've got a couple of new ones.

Former aide says that he directed her to help his wife land a $200,000 job, or a six-figure job, and then he kept a secret calendar to keep some meetings under wraps, including a meeting with Cardinal Pell, who's accused of sexual abuse, a coal CEO. Might be interesting to know if the EPA administrator is meeting with the coal CEO.

Why does the president stick with Scott Pruitt?

POWERS: I'd love to know. I mean, the only, the thing -- we can go through all of these various scandals, all the way back to, remember the trip to Morocco, which costs $100,000 for four days with eight staffers. It makes no sense why he needs to do that.

You know, all through all the other scandals and only thing to think of is this is the swampiest swamp creature that you have ever seen, right? This is exactly what Donald Trump said he was going to get rid of. And it's just an endless -- maybe, Amanda, you can help us understand this. It's really astonishing, like, does he have something on Donald Trump?

SCIUTTO: Or just doing what Donald Trump wants? Environmental --

POWERS: He can find another person to do that.

CARPENTER: Scott Pruitt is a walking, talking ethics violation. But if you talk to Republicans who are sticking by him, they just say, he's getting the job done, which is crazy to me. It's like there's no one else you can pick? You can pick a random staffer from Jim Inhofe's office and you get the same result.

POWERS: Right. CARPENTER: So, I would bet the Democrats take the House he resigns.


CARPENTER: Because guess what happens then? Hearings, hearings, hearings.

SCIUTTO: Does the president dig in sometimes on staffers like this just for the sake of digging?

CILLIZZA: So, I think that's one theory and that he sees in Pruitt a kindred spirit of some sort.

CARPENTER: A fighter.

CILLIZZA: He believes Pruitt to be sort of being bashed unfairly. I also as an avid "Simpsons" watcher, just stick with me.


CILLIZZA: I think there's a Montgomery Burns element to this. Montgomery Burns, the old tycoon, goes to the doctor. And the doctors comes -- he has a physical. The doctor says, you're surprisingly healthy, Mr. Burns. He'd say, oh, that's great. And he says, well, can I go? He says, what it is is you have every disease known to man but they're all blocking one another from getting out, so you're weirdly healthy.

I don't know if there's so much on Scott Pruitt that now at this point, it's all sort of gets balled up into -- believe that you could be -- I believe this. People including Trump don't believe that you could do this many things that are at best ethically questionable.

SCIUTTO: Symone? Symone?

SANDERS: He has actually done them.


SANDERS: Documented, on the record. And we still don't have even, so much as a hearing from the Republicans in Congress who are, in fact, in control --

SCIUTTO: Yes, oversight committee, please?

SANDERS: Yes, where's the oversight? So, I also think for folks that are upset about the abuses and the insider things that are happening in Washington, they need to hold these Republicans accountable in 2018 at the midterms because they have yet to do anything and --


SANDERS: The last thing to know, like, the young person that he made put the hotel on the card, fire me, OK?

[16:25:01] As a former young staffer, I don't play those games. CILLIZZA: The idea that the means justify the ends is a dangerous

road to go down. Well, he's doing the job, so therefore however you get from point A to point B is meaningless.

SCIUTTO: Well, I mean, it's not the first time that's happened in Washington.

CILLIZZA: Donald Trump operates like that. If the end is what he wants, it doesn't matter how he got to the end. And I would argue it does matter, particularly if you're the head of a political party.

SCIUTTO: Standards matter, norms matter. Those rules are in place for a reason.

Thanks very much, my panel.

Trapped a mile deep into a cave, why a group of children, some who have never swam at all may need to learn how to scuba dive just to survive.

Plus, President Trump issues a new threat to our most critical military allies. Pay up or else.