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THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER

Interview With Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse; Will Manafort Strike Plea Deal?. Aired 4:30-5p ET

Aired September 12, 2018 - 16:30   ET

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


[16:30:02]

JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: That's according to a new report in "The Washington Post."

Let's get right to CNN justice correspondent Jessica Schneider.

Jessica, as of now, the Manafort trial will proceed as scheduled?

JESSICA SCHNEIDER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Jake, that's the plan for now. The jury questionnaires have already been handed out. Jury selection itself is set for Monday.

And this trial is supposed to begin on September 24. But the question lingers with these latest reports of plea talks. Will Paul Manafort change course and possibly strike up a deal?

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SCHNEIDER (voice-over): With the start of Paul Manafort's second criminal trial just days away, his team is in talks with the special counsel about a possible plea deal, according to "The Washington Post."

At this point, these are ongoing conversations that might not result in a plea. But either way, it's a sudden shift in strategy for Manafort's defense team, who waived off any such talks at the start of Manafort's Virginia trial in late July.

KEVIN DOWNING, ATTORNEY FOR PAUL MANAFORT: Feeling good.

QUESTION: Any chance that he may decide to flip and cooperate?

DOWNING: No chance.

SCHNEIDER: But three weeks after saying that, Manafort was found guilty on eight of the 18 charges against him, possibly alerting Manafort's team to the uphill battle they face in the D.C. case, where Manafort is charged with money laundering and failing to file as a foreign agent.

If Manafort were to work out a plea deal, it's unclear if he would provide any information about the president, who praised his former campaign chairman after the guilty verdict.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: One of the reasons I respect Paul Manafort so much is, he went through that trial.

SCHNEIDER: Meanwhile, as the president continues his sustained attacks on the special counsel...

TRUMP: It is a rigged witch-hunt. I have said it for a long time.

SCHNEIDER: ... a new CNN poll shows Robert Mueller's approval rating for handling the Russia investigation now outpaces the approval rating for Donald Trump's handling of it by 20 points, 50 to 30 percent. That's an improvement for Mueller's team by three points since August and a dip for Donald Trump of four points for the same period.

The latest poll is the first since Manafort's partial guilty verdict and Michael Cohen's guilty plea. And it suggests the repeated renunciations of Mueller's probe...

TRUMP: I say it, I say it again. That whole situation is a rigged witch-hunt. It's a totally rigged deal.

SCHNEIDER: ... might not be working.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SCHNEIDER: President Trump did sign an executive order today that will punish foreign actors for interfering in the U.S. election. The president, of course, has been repeatedly accused of downplaying the threat.

And now, less than two months out from the midterms, he's perhaps trying to show some muscle and allow new sanctions against nations or actors who might be responsible for election meddling -- Jake.

TAPPER: OK, Jessica Schneider, thank you so much.

Let's talk about it with the panel.

So this executive order that the president signed today clearly designed to show and also convey to any foreign -- hostile foreign actors, don't interfere in the U.S. elections.

But I do want to take a listen to former Director of the National Security Agency Admiral Mike Rogers, who stepped down, and he spoke at a think tank about his thoughts about whether President Trump should have been more aggressive with President Putin of Russia about Russian election interference when they met in Helsinki. Take a listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ADM. MIKE ROGERS (RET.), FORMER NATIONAL SECURITY AGENCY DIRECTOR: I thought there was an opportunity here that we could have taken advantage of. Now, he opted to go a different direction. That is certainly his right as the president. But I wish we had taken advantage of that opportunity. I thought that could have sent a very powerful message.

(END VIDEO CLIP) TAPPER: Now Admiral Rogers is not one to criticize President Trump.

He hasn't -- he didn't do it as head of the NSA and he hasn't really done it since. But for him to say, you know, there was an opportunity that we could have taken advantage of, and I thought that could have sent a powerful message, that's strong criticism for him.

KIRSTEN POWERS, CNN COMMENTATOR: Yes.

I mean, I think that was the general take most people had, unless you're an avid Trump supporter that just basically is happy when he does anything, that that's what you would expect the president of the United States to do in a situation like that.

It's sort of unthinkable that you wouldn't use that as an opportunity to say something about something that really was such a huge thing in the United States.

TAPPER: So, Admiral Rogers saying, I wish we had taken advantage of that opportunity.

Do you agree?

SCOTT JENNINGS, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: I totally agree, because I think the administration actually has a pretty decent story to tell on being tough on Russia.

We have talked about it before. You know, there's been a number of sanctions imposed. Multiple parts of his administration are doing things to the Russians that the Russians hate.

He's got this executive order today. But that moment, that presidential moment, could have locked in a much, much better narrative for him, when this has obviously been one of the dominant narratives of his presidency.

So it was a missed opportunity, and maybe he will get another one in the future. But I agree with Mr. Rogers.

TAPPER: So, Mary Katharine, let's talk about what he signed today.

One of the things that's interesting about it, it was closed press, so they didn't allow photographs to be taken of the president signing this legislation.

And Marco Rubio and his Democratic counterpart, Chris Van Hollen, put out a statement about the executive order, criticizing it, saying -- quote -- "Today's announcement by the administration recognizes the threat, but does not go far enough to address it. The United States can and must do more mandatory sanctions on anyone who attacks our electoral systems, serve as the best deterrent."

[16:35:03]

That's a bipartisan rebuke.

MARY KATHARINE HAM, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Yes.

And I think Rubio is obviously extremely hawkish on this issue, remaining consistent over the years, as many have not, and continues to push the administration and should.

I do think I have the same issue as I always do, which is the automatic sanctions on board for, and I Also think it solves some of that lag time with the president maybe not enacting sanctions immediately.

So I like that. And then when it comes to the words that come out of his mouth, with Putin, not a huge fan, because enough footsie that you could come around with a left hook pretty easily and make a statement to him.

TAPPER: So I want to turn to the Russia investigation, if we can.

There's a new poll about the Russia investigation suggesting that Mueller's approval rating is up nine points since June. So this, of course -- the president's former campaign chair, Paul Manafort, was convicted and Michael Cohen took a guilty plea from federal prosecutors in New York since the previous poll.

Do you think that's why his approval rating is up nine points from June, now at 50 percent, because there has been this record of success? Or might it be other things?

HILARY ROSEN, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: You know, the Manafort trial did get quite a bit of publicity.

But I do think it's just that -- the Americans are kind of tired of not -- of feeling like we aren't being told the truth, that we don't know what's going on.

And, you know, the Russia sanctions today, when you do something important with closed press, what, so Vladimir Putin can't get, you know, embarrassed by news reports of it? There's just this constant sense, I think, of the American people that is growing and growing.

And the longer that Bob Mueller goes on looking at this investigation, the president thinks the American people are going to get tired of it. I think what we're finding is the American people are starting to assume that Bob Mueller must be finding some things, because he is a serious and thoughtful investigator.

TAPPER: So that brings us to my next question, Scott, which has to do with a CNN poll about whether or not there -- Trump, President Trump should be impeached and removed from office.

That has gone up from June, 42 percent. Now it is 47 percent. And that's jumped up 10 points among independents. President Trump is out there actually talking about this threat of impeachment, using it as a political tool, get out there to keep the Democrats from retaking the House and Senate.

JENNINGS: And for good reason, because two-thirds of the Democrats in this poll say there is cause to do impeachment proceedings.

Nearly 80 percent of Democrats say he should be impeached and removed from office. I'm telling you, if they take the House, I know what Nancy Pelosi says today, but she is not going to be able to hold back a bloodthirsty majority that got elected on the backs of people who believe, believe they are going to frog-march Donald Trump out of the White House.

So they're going to impeach him, and he's right to talk about it as a political matter.

TAPPER: If you were in Congress right now, have you seen enough facts to vote to impeach President Trump?

POWERS: I don't think so.

I don't think based on -- they're not at that point yet. And I don't think that the -- I think the Democrats recognize how much it would be overreach. The thing about this poll is, it's not totally clear people are just thinking they don't want Donald Trump to be there, if you look at the partisan breakdown. I think the independent number is the more telling, that they would go up that much.

TAPPER: Up from 38 percent in June to 48 percent.

(CROSSTALK)

TAPPER: That suggests that's not a partisan thing, that there actually is, you know, real concern about his performance. So who knows.

Democrats, you never know ultimately what they will do. But it seems pretty clear that they recognize -- they saw what happened the last time this happened.

(CROSSTALK)

JENNINGS: The rank and file is going to demand it. They will not stand for anything less.

ROSEN: Well, you know, Kirsten is exactly right. The news here really is that Donald Trump has lost independents in terms of approval and voracity.

I think Nancy Pelosi and the leadership are across the board I think smart about this. There aren't facts right now. They need more facts. And that's what Pelosi has pledged to do. That's what the American people want.

TAPPER: All right.

Everyone, stick around. We're moments away from the next Hurricane Florence update.

Just how long will this massive storm sit over the coast of the Carolinas? Stay with us. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:43:27]

TAPPER: And we're back with our politics lead.

Candidate Donald Trump promised to drain the swamp. Has he? Good government groups say actually the Trump administration has too often been bogged down by ethics concerns.

And now one Republican senator and frequent critic of the president, Ben Sasse of Nebraska, is introducing an ethics reform bill tomorrow, which would include requiring presidential candidates to release their tax returns -- hello, Donald Trump -- banning Cabinet officials from soliciting foreign donations -- hello, Clinton Foundation -- creating a database of H.R. settlements for members of Congress -- hello, too many to name -- and banning members of Congress from making money as lobbyists when they leave office. Again, hello too many to name.

Here with me is Senator Ben Sasse.

Thanks so much for joining us.

I want to get to your bill in one second, but I do want to ask about Hurricane Florence, because, obviously, it's on everyone's mind. We're all concerned about people in the path of the storm.

President Trump saying that the response to Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, that it was an incredible unsung success, a lot of people upset about that, especially Democrats, but also people in Puerto Rico, since the death toll is estimated to be almost 3,000.

You have talked a lot about President Trump and his ability to rise to moments like this or not. What do you make of this?

SEN. BEN SASSE (R), NEBRASKA: I didn't see him make those comments.

But, obviously, the Congress needs to do a better job of doing oversight of FEMA across time to see how we respond to these kinds of disasters. And, obviously, our thoughts are with a lot of the hardworking folks in FEMA and in governor's offices across the coastal states that are worried right now.

But I don't think Puerto Rico was some great success. But I think we need to do more oversight to look at how FEMA can get better over time, and, hopefully, they will perform this weekend.

TAPPER: OK.

Let's talk to your ethics -- but one of the things it would do is, it would be that presidential and vice presidential candidates release their tax returns.

That, presumably, if this were to pass and be signed by President Trump, would affect President Trump in 2020.

Do you think that that will prevent it from becoming law, that provision even though I certainly understand why it put it in there?

SEN. BEN SASSE (R), NEBRASKA: I would say that you know, in five different bills I'm going to introduce tomorrow, and I think a lot of them are going to make everybody mad. There were going to be a lot of (INAUDIBLE) here because frankly every election cycle people talk a lot about draining the swamp and then nobody ever does it. It's a campaign issue and in a governance issue, nobody's making progress and the American people have more and more distrust to the city.

So I think there are things about the tax returns provision that has been a norm of American politics for decades. It wasn't followed --

TAPPER: Yes since Ford or something.

SASSE: Yes, it's never been a law but everybody has always done it. This is the first time it hasn't happened. The President said he would release them once he got to the election -- they got the nomination. And then once he got elected and then he said the people have lost interest. I think there's a lot of distrust. We should release them. But on the other side of the aisle, there have been a bunch of Democrats probably frustrated as well but Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State had lots of public trust responsibilities since she has family members out there making speeches for six figures and enriching the Clinton Foundation at the same time.

There's just a lot we need to do to drain this swamp and to tackle the culture of corruption that's in Washington D.C. because public distrust is only going to get worse in an era of more and more not just Russia but Chinese information operations against Washington D.C. and against public trust in America.

TAPPER: So one of the things that that you point out in the bill, one of the things you would put on the bill is that members of Congress didn't -- could not -- could become lobbyists, to be frank, what member of Congress is going to -- I mean other than you, what a member of Congress is going to vote for that? They want to be able to preserve that they'll be able to have some cushy job when they leave the Senate or the House on their own terms or not.

SASSE: If what I'm talking about here is really that strange in Washington D.C. then Washington D.C. is even further removed from the public than a lot of the things.

TAPPER: Well, it is. I'm not saying you're wrong, I'm just saying they're not going to vote that way.

SASSE: Because the Founders envision the world -- the Founders envision the world where the kinds of people who represent the American people in Washington D.C. do it as a public service for a time, not as a business proposition for how they can cash out afterwards. People are supposed to want to go back to their Mount Vernon afterwards. And if they don't want to do that, they shouldn't do these jobs. These are jobs of public trust. You should prefer to be from where you're from, come here and serve for a while and go back home. TAPPER: Well, let me ask you a question because I can already

anticipate critics saying, OK you have a bill that that would have impacted Hillary Clinton when she was Secretary of State, what about Ryan Zenki, Scott Pruitt, Tom Price, cabinet officials of President Trump two of whom resigned under a cloud of ethics complaints, one of whom who is still their Zinke, all three of whom you voted for, what about doing -- passing laws that would make it so they didn't have all these ethical concerns?

SASSE: Yes, there should probably be lots more. I mean, in general, I'm a small government guy who doesn't think we need always to be passing more laws, but at the level of ethics, we need a lot more. So I'm starting out with five provisions tomorrow, but my guess is there are 20 or 30 more good ideas people should add do this. Let's build a big package and try to restore some public trust.

TAPPER: But you voted for all of them and there were -- for some of them at least especially for Pruitt and Tom Price, there were ethical concerns about them raised ahead of time.

SASSE: I would say in the case of Pruitt which is by far the most scandalous of all these. Almost all of it is stuff that happened once he was in office and happily, people decided that shouldn't be and so he was removed from office. But again if there are more things we should do to tighten the screws on members of Congress and cabinet officials and presidents on vice presidential candidates, let's hear it.

TAPPER: So let's talk about tightening the screws on members of Congress because President Trump tweeted earlier this month about Republican Congressman Chris Collins and Republican Congressman Duncan Hunter, both of whom have been indicted writing "To long-running Obama era investigations of two very popular Republican Congressman were brought to a well-publicized charge just ahead of the midterms by the Jeff Sessions Justice Department. Two easy wins now in doubt because there's not enough time. Good job, Jeff."

Now, I could spend an hour fact-checking that. Obviously one of these things happened while Trump was president not during the Obama. You criticize President Trump for that when he said that. How can you keep him in check? He -- I mean, what he's saying there, he's involving himself at least publicly with two law enforcement investigation.

SASSE: Yes. I mean, it's obviously a terrible sentiment the President expressed there. But the core problem is saying something like the Jeff Sessions Justice Department. No, it's actually the people's Justice Department. It's the United States Department of Justice and it's populated by lots of career officials that are there as public servants and we want justice to be blind. We don't want one set of rules for a majority party and one set of rules for a minority party, and then elections flipped that now we got different sets of rules.

We want dispassionate justice. We want Lady Liberty to be advanced for the American people without regard to what color jersey public officials are wearing. But when you look at the 2016 election and the dumpster fire it was, most of the people who were voting in that election, there's lots of polling that shows people were more voting against someone than for someone And so when you talk about the problems of politicizing justice in the Trump tweet like that or in some Democratic sentiments that we sometimes hear on similar issues, the response for most of the public is what's wrong with all these people? We shouldn't talk like that. We should want colorblind justice.

[16:50:09] TAPPER: All right. Well, best of luck with your legislation, your ethics bill. We really appreciate it. We appreciate anybody in Congress trying to clean up the swamp. It doesn't happen very often.

SASSE: I'm sure you have lots of friends and influence for you people. We'll see what we can do.

TAPPER: Well, you always have a seat here at this table. Thanks so much. I appreciate it.

SASSE: Thanks for having me.

TAPPER: I want to get to breaking news in the "NATIONAL LEAD" now.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is CNN breaking news.

TAPPER: A new update just came in from the National Hurricane Center on Hurricane Florence. Let's go back to Meteorologist Jennifer Gray in the CNN Severe Weather Center. Jennifer, what's changed?

JENNIFER GRAY, CNN METEOROLOGIST: Well, if there's any takeaway it is that this track is narrowing down. It is very, very consistent and I think the confidence is getting higher as to where exactly this is going to go. Because yet again this has the storm making landfall right there anywhere between say extreme northeastern portions of South Carolina and Central North Carolina coast as a major hurricane Category Three at 120 miles per hour with gusts of 150. Still showing this track to walk at a snail's pace just crawl along the coast shredding that shoreline for South Carolina and North Carolina and then still a Category One storm on Saturday afternoon. Well, inland possibly in western South Carolina or even eastern Georgia. So this storm is just narrowing down because it's about 24 to 36 hours away. We'll be feeling the impacts tomorrow. Category Three, 120 miles per hour winds, Jake.

TAPPER: All right Jennifer Gray, thank you so much. The big question now, are these strong and slow storms the new normal? CNN's Tom Foreman is in our virtual studio. Tom?

TOM FOREMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Jake, that is the question that some researchers are asking, and they may not have the definitive proof yet, but they see a correlation between warmer water and bigger, more dangerous super-charged storms. We'll talk about that in a moment.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:55:00] UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is CNN breaking news.

TAPPER: We have this breaking news for you now. CNN has learned that Cardinal Donald Wuerl of the Washington, D.C., Archdiocese will ask Pope Francis to accept his resignation when he meets with the Pope which should be soon. This is according to Wuerl's spokesperson who did not specify when this meeting would happen. Wuerl, the Archbishop of Washington has been under scrutiny for what he may have known about abuse allegations about his predecessor in Washington, Cardinal Theodore McCarrick and how he handled abusive priests when he was the head of the Diocese of Pittsburgh. His name was mentioned more than 150 times in the Pennsylvania grand jury report about predator priests in Pennsylvania, and those in the Catholic Church who helped cover up their crimes.

We also have some breaking news on Hurricane Florence. The Category Three hurricane is an enormous storm, as you can see in this new photo of it from space captured by satellite. And as Florence approaches the East Coast, it's expected to linger, to take its time, which increases the potential of catastrophic rain and flooding as the storm essentially just sits over the same area. Some scientific study say there's a reason for this and it's at least partly because of climate change. Warmer water in the ocean and rising sea levels causing hurricanes such as Florence to be stronger and slower and more destructive.

CNN's Tom Foreman is in the virtual studio for us. Tom, scientists have been trying to figure out if there is a connection to this in recent years.

FOREMAN: Yes. And they're still working on that connection. But look at this. Hurricane Harvey dumped 27 trillion gallons of water on the Texas Coast. It submerged about a third of Houston, around 90 people died, more than 200,000 homes destroyed, hundreds of thousands of cars, as well. And this study from the National Center for Atmospheric Research says there's a reason. Because global warming is making storms more intense, bigger, longer-lasting and greatly increasing their flooding rains. In other words, this study says it is supercharging storms out there.

Well, how would that work? We know that hurricanes are built on warm water. And we know from this study that the water in the Gulf of Mexico was at one of the hottest levels ever recorded right before Harvey formed, 86 degrees off some parts of the Texas Coast. That made the storm big, that made it powerful, but it also pumped an awful lot of warm water vapor up into it, completely saturating the storm. And then as it moved over land, it started releasing it all in that devastating rain. Could you have had a big storm, a destructive storm, without global warming? Absolutely. But what this study is saying is, as you noted, global warming may have made it worse. Jake?

TAPPER: That's interesting. It could have made them -- the charge -- the storms worse super-charging them. Is this trend in climate change, according to scientists, also potentially causing more tropical storms?

FOREMAN: That's a great question that they're trying to sort out there. They know that decade to decade, sometimes there are a lot of other natural events that make more storms or fewer storms, but a researcher at MIT has noticed that since the 1970s, the most destructive storms have been more powerful and whether it's causation, there is a correlation. That's the same period of time that they have been watching this increase in global sea surface temperatures. So all of that suggests, Jake, that there are some similarities between Florence and Harvey that may prove that they are the super-charged storms that scientists have been warning about. Jake?

TAPPER: All right, Tom Foreman, thank you so much. I appreciate it. Follow me on Facebook and Twitter @JAKETAPPER, you can tweet the show @THELEADCNN. Our coverage on CNN continues right now. Thanks for watching.