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Trump Defends Supreme Court Pick; Brett Kavanaugh Facing Sexual Assault Accusations; : McConnell: Dems "Waited Until the 11th Hour to Reveal Allegations." Aired 4-4:30p ET

Aired September 17, 2018 - 16:00   ET



JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: Could President Trump's Supreme Court nomination be crumbling to pieces?

THE LEAD starts right now.

Moments ago, President Trump weighing in on the sex assault allegations against Brett Kavanaugh, defending his Supreme Court nominee as one of the finest people he's ever known. Could Trump's own struggles with the MeToo movement impact his next move?

Today, Judge Kavanaugh went to the White House after his nomination was thrown into chaos, as key Republicans with critical votes say his accuser should be heard.

Plus, towns turned into islands, the death toll rising as the waters rapidly rise, as Florence may have saved her worst for last.

Welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

We begin with our politics lead.

President Trump's Supreme Court Brett Kavanaugh, whose confirmation was once seen as a sure bet, well, now it's in question. All 10 Democratic members of the Senate Judiciary Committee are pushing for a delay on the committee vote. But, far more significantly, four Republican senators, including one on the committee, agree, insisting that they need to hear directly from Kavanaugh's accuser, Christine Blasey Ford, before proceeding.

Just minutes ago, President Trump himself seemed open to the prospect of delay. Still, he praised Kavanaugh still and argued that the accusations should have been brought forward sooner by the Democrats who have known about it since July.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Judge Kavanaugh is one of the finest people that I have ever known. He's an outstanding intellect, an outstanding judge, respected by everybody.

Never had even a little blemish on his record. At the same time, we want to go through a process. We want to make sure everything is perfect, everything is just right.

I wish the Democrats could have done this a lot sooner.


TAPPER: Yesterday, Ford went public with accusations of attempted sexual assault against Kavanaugh to "The Washington Post." She had up until then remained anonymous, only sharing her identity with representatives in Congress.

Ford alleges that in the early 1980s, as a teenager, a drunken Kavanaugh held her down and tried to undress her at a party and that she feared for her life as he put his hand over her mouth. Ford's lawyer today said she felt the act was an attempted rape at the time.

Kavanaugh strongly denies the allegation, calling it -- quote -- "completely false" and saying -- quote -- "I have never done anything like what the accuser describes to her or to anyone. This never happened" -- unquote.

Both Ford and Kavanaugh say they're willing to testify publicly.

Let's get right to CNN's Jeff Zeleny at the White House.

And, Jeff, considering how angry we're told President Trump is behind the scenes, those were some very measured comments he just made.

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: Jake, they were measured comments and disciplined as well, almost more disciplined than anything I can recall him saying, reacting with -- on an issue with such consequences here.

But that is why the president was doing that. He knows how serious this is. The White House has been in touch with Senate Republicans all day long. Judge Kavanaugh, in fact, was here at the White House for several hours working behind the scenes with officials who now are preparing him for the possibility of another public hearing.

The only time the president showed a bit of anger today, when he was asked if Judge Kavanaugh should withdraw. He said that is a ridiculous question.


ZELENY (voice-over): President Trump standing firmly behind Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh.

TRUMP: He's an outstanding intellect, an outstanding judge, respected by everybody. Never had even a little blemish on his record.

ZELENY: He said he would be open to delaying the confirmation vote.

TRUMP: I want him to go in at the absolute highest level. And I think, to do that, you have to go through this. If it takes a little delay, it will take a little delay. It shouldn't, certainly, be very much. ZELENY: But behind the scenes, CNN has learned the president is

furious and frustrated by what he suspects is an 11th-hour attempt to smear his pick for the Supreme Court.

A California professor, Christine Blasey Ford, accusing Kavanaugh of sexual assaulting her while they were teenagers in high school. Kavanaugh calling it a completely false allegation. Yet his confirmation now hangs in the balance.

Kellyanne Conway, one of the highest ranking women in the White House, trying to set a tone of civility.

KELLYANNE CONWAY, TRUMP SENIOR ADVISER: Let me very clear on behalf of the president, with whom I have just spoken at length about this, she should not be ignored or insulted. She should be heard.

ZELENY: Sending a message to others around the president this moment is a serious one. It came after the president's son Donald Trump Jr. mocked want accuser in this Instagram post, citing Judge Kavanaugh's sexuality letter found by Dems: "Will you be my girlfriend? Yes, no? Love, Brett."

The president has been dismissive of other women who have come forward accusing him and other men of sexual misconduct, including last year with Alabama Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore.

TRUMP: He says he didn't happen. And you have to listen to him also. You're talking about he said 40 years ago this did not happen.


ZELENY: But less than two months before the midterms, where women voters and candidates are playing a critical role, the White House is treading lightly, for now at least, saying both Kavanaugh and his accuser should be heard.


ZELENY: So, of course, it's an open question how long the president remains measured.

But, of course, with the midterm elections just in the future, some 50 days away, combined with this MeToo movement, the White House taking this very seriously and trying to send a message both sides should be heard.

I think the question is will the president's allies, his own son included, keep on that same message, or are we about to see a new battle here in Washington erupt, Jake?

TAPPER: I'm guessing the battle's going to happen. But, Jeff Zeleny, we're right now not there yet.

Let's talk about there with the experts.

Symone, I want you to listen to our own Manu Raju. Just spoke to Senator Orrin Hatch, who had spoken on the phone to Judge Kavanaugh. Take a listen.



SEN. ORRIN HATCH (R), UTAH: Well, he didn't do that. And he wasn't at the party. So, you know, there's clearly -- somebody's mixed up. I think she's mistaken.


TAPPER: "He didn't do that. He wasn't at the party. Clearly, somebody's mixed up. I think she's mistaken."

Your response?

SYMONE SANDERS, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: I'm trying to figure out how Judge Kavanaugh knows he wasn't at a party Dr. Ford has not asserted she had been at.

She has been very clear that she doesn't remember which party it was, so Judge Kavanaugh seems to remember a party he wasn't at where he didn't do what he is being accused doing.

This is why we need a hearing. But also I think Judge Kavanaugh has been credibly accused. And anyone, Senator Hatch included, who asserts that she should not be believed, that she's mixed up, and that she's mistaken is really do a disservice to all women, but particularly women who make the hard decision to come forward with their stories.

TAPPER: Angela, let me ask you.

Brett Kavanaugh says he's willing to talk to the Senate Judiciary Committee -- quote -- "in any way the committee deems appropriate."

Is there anything he could say that -- I know you oppose him on policy grounds and on judicial grounds. But on this issue, having to do with this accusation, is there anything he could say that would satisfy concerns you might have?

ANGELA RYE, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, I think that the challenge is he's already said something, right? He has unequivocally denied the accusations.

And following up on Symone's point, I think it's the strongest he could possibly be on it. He has denied any wrongdoing in this way, any behavior that looks like this. I think the real challenge is, it sounds like he and his friends used to get really drunk in high school.

And so from what I understand, you get really drunk in high -- I was a real good Christian, Jake. I did not have my first drink until I was 24. That's about the only part of the good Christian I was, though.

But I would say here -- sorry, substantial digression.


RYE: I want to be honest. I believe in truth, even when it's damaging.

TAPPER: We appreciate your transparency.

RYE: But I think the reality here is, you know, he has some really big red flags to me. And this is just the latest one. This isn't the only one.

And I look forward to his testimony. It's not in any form in which the Senate Judiciary Committee deems necessary. It should be public, just like Anita Hill's was public 27 years ago.

TAPPER: So, Amanda, take a listen to Kellyanne Conway this morning trying to send a signal to everybody in the White House, maybe even her boss, about what she thinks the tenor and tone should be about this accusation and the accuser.


CONWAY: should not be insulted. She should not be ignored. She should testify under oath and she do it on Capitol Hill. But that's up the Senate Judiciary Committee. They need to decide.


TAPPER: "She should not be insulted. She should not be ignored. If she wants to testify, she should."

Is that the right tone?

AMANDA CARPENTER, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: That is the right tone. That is right messaging.

But it is not going to help Judge Kavanaugh. Why? Because everyone that defended locker room talk from President Trump is not going to have credibility before the American people. Yes, he does have to defend himself on this. And he has a significant disadvantage because he can't have the White House behind him, because they are compromised on this issue.

And so I think he can make it through. I think he can be confirmed if no other evidence comes up. But if there is one witness that comes out, one more story, a picture, anything, given the categorical denials that he has given, he has no wiggle room.

TAPPER: You were at the White House during the Clarence Thomas hearings, right? You were in the Bush White House. You worked for the vice president, Dan Quayle. Does this remind you at all of that?

BILL KRISTOL, EDITOR, "THE WEEKLY STANDARD": I was actually very involved in the Thomas fight, working with the team supporting Clarence Thomas, and I never thought I would see anything like that again.

And here we are.

TAPPER: This allegation is more serious than the one...

KRISTOL: It is more serious.

They're quite different in many ways.

TAPPER: Right.

KRISTOL: But I just think we need to have the testimony from both of them, and then see what other contemporaneous evidence or observers or witnesses there are on either side seed and make a sober judgment.

It doesn't do any good at this point to speculate and it's not fair to either person at this point, to impugn either because you think Brett Kavanaugh drank too much or because other people think that professor Ford should have come forward earlier. It's irrelevant at this point.

Either it's true. One, professor Ford says something happened. Judge Kavanaugh says it didn't. Let's do our best to find out the truth.


SANDERS: Jake, I want to be clear that for me there is no debate. I believe professor Ford.

Judge Kavanaugh has lied multiple times under oath


KRISTOL: Oh, come on, that's ridiculous. That's ridiculous.


SANDERS: But I'm just saying that I believe her.


KRISTOL: You think there's no chance? You are convinced by one allegation about something that happened 35 years ago?


SANDERS: This is why I'm convinced.

I'm convinced, Jake, because -- I tweeted about this the other day, but when I was in college, I was intoxicated, and a man who I had previously rebuffed his advances multiple times took advantage of the fact that I could not consent one night.

And the next day, he denied raping me. But that's exactly what he did. And if he ever came -- came up for a Supreme Court nomination, president of the United States, or congressman or whatever, I don't care, it's been 20 years, 50 years, I would come forward, because I don't think anyone that has ever done that, whether it was once in their life or 50 times, deserves to sit at the highest...


KRISTOL: I totally agree with that. But you have no knowledge whether Brett Kavanaugh did that...


SANDERS: It doesn't matter. I believe Christine Ford because -- no, because, when you -- to come forward, she has no -- there's no enticements for her to come forward and to have her life destroyed, to have folks sit on panels such as these and even others, and have the Senate, the leader in the Senate basically tear down her character and assert that she's a liar.

So there's no incentive for her to come forward, except to tell the truth, except to do her due diligence. And so this isn't a criminal proceeding.


CARPENTER: I think something happened to her.


CARPENTER: But I think there's a ton of potential for gray area in this kind of scenario.

If he was stumbling drunk, well, why did it stop? Did she say stop and then maybe he stopped?


KRISTOL: I hate even this speculation. It's just wrong.


CARPENTER: This is why this is such a difficult situation. And if you are going to stop this confirmation, we need more information.


SANDERS: ... because we don't see consent as the issue.

TAPPER: I think what she said in her letter or what she said and her lawyer has conveyed is that Kavanaugh allegedly was on top of her, and then this other guy, this friend of Brett Kavanaugh's, Mark Judge, jumped on them and knocked him off, and then she was able to get out.

I think that's how it happened.


CARPENTER: ... drunken situation where a lot of things could go wrong.


KRISTOL: The letter is compelling, in the sense that it doesn't look like something that was made up and because, in fact, she puts in details that could or could not be corroborated.

Was Mark Judge in that room? They can probably try to find out if there was such a party and so forth. So, I am not in any way questioning her motives or at this point saying that I know who's telling the truth. But this is -- we should really need to have the hearing, really need to investigate this.

RYE: There are a couple of observations I have.

The first is there were 65 women who signed onto a letter, you know, attesting to the great moral character of Brett Kavanaugh...

TAPPER: Yes, women who knew him back in the high school era.

RYE: Yes, in high school.

And Chuck Grassley, who we know of course heads up the Judiciary Committee, released this letter without telling these women why they were signing on to this letter.

Now, after those 65 women have signed on to it, they found out what happened. Two of them have spoken up.

And so, Bill, I would say to you, someone who I enjoy being on panels with all the time, even watching your response to Symone right now, kind of this overbearing, overtalking of -- with women, is exactly the reason why Anita Hill had the kind of hearing she had when you were helping Clarence Thomas, and the reason why a lot of women refuse to speak up, because not only I think -- I do believe in the criminal justice system.

But this is not a criminal justice situation.

KRISTOL: I agree, and I'm not criticizing her for speaking up. I just think we need to suspend judgment until we learn more.


SANDERS: ... believe her?

KRISTOL: I'm saying I don't know who to believe. That's correct.

RYE: And I think -- and you know what that is?


KRISTOL: I have tried very carefully to say that. I don't -- I'm saying I don't know who to believe.


RYE: I think that's OK. The reason for your -- even that doubt, that is exactly why this

hearing, this investigation, everything about their testimony needs to be in a public format.


KRISTOL: I agree with that. I agree with that.

TAPPER: But can we also say, like, it's very brave that you came out, and I saw you did it on Twitter also, and told your and shared your story.

RYE: Yes, absolutely.

TAPPER: We all know you. I believe you. I'm sure everybody here believes you. I don't know professor Ford.

And so I think there are a lot of people who might just be, I want to hear what she has to say. I'm not saying she didn't do it.


RYE: Well, she's got a polygraph, Jake. She's got therapist notes from 2012 and 2013.

And some folks would say, why did it take her to 2012 and 2013? I have a cousin who just told us that she was molested, and she's older now.

Just -- I don't know what the timing is. Thank God. I am privileged. I have never been subject to molestation or sexual assault. I don't know what that burden is like.

But I would like for us to at least give these folks the grace to be able to come forward whenever they do.


KRISTOL: I agree with that.


CARPENTER: ... one positive so far that has come out of this. And I'm very serious.

The initial reaction when this came out, a lot of conservative men that I follow on Twitter were like, that was 17 years ago, he was a kid, it doesn't matter.


TAPPER: More than 17 -- 35 years ago, yes.

CARPENTER: Yes, deleted their tweets and after they saw the blowback and people explained, what happens to 15-year-old girls can impact them the rest of their life. And they said, you know what? You changed my mind.

And so I think there's been greater understanding. Even though we know don't what happened for sure, the context, where this party took place, who could have seen it, there is more understanding of the situation.


TAPPER: And we all -- we all -- we're going to take a quick break and then come back and talk more. And I will come to you first.

I think we all agree, we want to hear more. She deserves her day in court.


TAPPER: Will Republicans delay the Kavanaugh vote? That's the big question right now. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell weighing in just moments ago.

Plus, the worst is yet to come. That's the warning

[16:15:00] That's the warning from one city's mayor in North Carolina where water is rapidly rising. Entire neighborhoods are now islands with people trapped on them.

Stay with us.



SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY), SENATE MAJORITY LEADER: After Democrats spent weeks and weeks searching for any possible reason that the nomination should be delayed, now, now they choose to introduce this allegation. Not through the standard bipartisan process, not by advising the Judiciary Committee colleagues and committee staff through proper channels. Oh, but by leaking it to the press.


[16:20:02] TAPPER: Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell attacking Democrats for keeping the misconduct allegations.

Now, let's listen to Senator Susan Collins of Maine.


SEN. SUSAN COLLINS (R), MAINE: That's why it's important that there'd be a very thorough interview and that we see both individuals respond to the allegations. There are awful of questions, inconsistencies, gaps. And that's why to be fair to both, we need -- we need to know what's happened. It's my understanding that the staff is doing interviews or has proposed to do interviews, and then that, I assume, would be the prelude to some sort of hearing. REPORTER: Do you believe Dr. Ford?

COLLINS: I don't know enough about Dr. Ford and her allegations yet to reach that kind of judgment. That's why having the opportunity to observe her being questioned, read a transcript or a deposition and make that kind of assessment is so important. Obviously, if Judge Kavanaugh has lied about what happened, that would be disqualifying.


REPORTER: You spoke to him on the phone the other day, what but say --

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Thank you. I'm sorry. I'm sorry.

COLLINS: I want to answer this one last question.



COLLINS: Last week, the Judiciary Committee staff informed me of this letter. I read the letter. At that point, we had no idea who had sent it, and I noticed the date of the letter and wondered why the information had not been released long ago. I asked Judge Kavanaugh when I had my final hour-long telephone call with him on Friday about the letter and the allegations that it contained. He emphatically denied that the allegations were true. He said that he had never acted that way, not only with this unnamed accuser but with any woman. He was absolutely emphatic about that.


REPORTER: If this turns into a he said/she said, how do you make the decision?

COLLINS: That's why it's important that we have testimony under oath with a lot of questions asked of both of them.

REPORTER: Should the FBI play a role here?



TAPPER: Senator Susan Collins, Republican of Maine, and one of the key swing votes in the Senate when it comes to the Kavanaugh Supreme Court nomination saying that both the accuser of Kavanaugh and Kavanaugh need to testify under oath about this incident that the accuser alleges took place in around 1982.

My panel is with me.

Susan Collins seems to have an open mind. Wants to know what she says, wants what he says. Your reaction? SANDERS: Susan Collins is a champion of women's rights, a defender of

women. I can tell you that a number of folks have been disappointed in the way that she has handled the Kavanaugh nomination, particularly some of her constituents. I think this is something that her constituents would like -- are happy to hear from her, but they'll be watching her. It's not enough to make grand statements and gestures if you are not going to back it up with action. What else does Susan Collins need to hear?

And I just -- on this point that Mitch McConnell made about regular bipartisan order and process, I'd like to remind everyone that after Judge Scalia's death, Mitch McConnell kept the seat open, the Supreme Court seat that was President Obama's to fill for 422 days to fill. It's been 46 days since Justice Kennedy retired. Why are we rushing this?

CARPENTER: But I just think she said something important in that clip. She says if he's lying, that's disqualifying. If there's any wiggle room in the storm, she's going to vote against him. That's what she said in this clip. And I think that's important.

What I do not want to hear, Republican senators go on and on about is the timing. It's up to the woman who makes this accusation to determine the timing that goes public. That said, they should instead say if anyone else has information that needs to go public, we need to get it now. We're going to delay this for a week. We want to gather as much information as we can because if someone else has information that could possibly change votes, come to us now. And then shut up and listen.

TAPPER: And just to be clear, I'll come to you, but the timing is that in July, Dr. Ford, the professor, told both her congresswoman, Ann Eshoo, and her senator, Dianne Feinstein, and also told the "Washington Post" about what had happened to her, but was not prepared at that point to come forward.

[16:25:06] And, in fact, was not prepared until yesterday afternoon. And that's when the "Washington Post" broke the story.

KRISTOL: I'm with Susan Collins. I think Mitch McConnell does a disservice to turn this into a partisan fight. Whatever's -- whether Senator Feinstein could have acted differently in terms of sharing the letter with others, or trying to persuade Dr. Ford to come forward is now totally irrelevant. And I think Susan Collins' attitude is the right one. And Republicans from the White House through the Senate, senators, in my opinion, should stop playing partisan games and say let's try to find out the truth.

One thing I would add, I'm not sure we won't learn -- I mean, they'll both testify under oath. They'll be pushed on various details. But there are others, this is -- you know, this other man --

TAPPER: Mark Judge, who denies it. He it says didn't happen.

KRISTOL: OK. Let's see him testify. Let's see him talk about that. And there may be others who have contemporaneous evidence that would

at least shed some light. So, let's have a serious proceeding. I think Susan Collins' tone was right.

I think Mitch McConnell did a disservice to Judge Kavanaugh who I'm told urged the White House to take the they took with Kellyanne Conway. To say, look, we cannot -- this is not true. Kavanaugh says to his friends, this is absolutely false, I never behave this way, but we need to treat this respectfully and have -- and let the hearing go forward.

TAPPER: There's a possibility, Angela, I want to say, that we had don't ever find out more beyond the testimony of these two individuals, both of whom may prove to be completely credibly saying what they think is the truth. And it's possible that there is no contemporaneous individual who remember her because Professor Ford has already said she didn't tell anybody until I think six years ago in marital therapy. She finally said this, that she went decades without telling anybody, as you know. That's not so uncommon with survivors of sexual assault.

We might be in the exact same place in a week or two with two individuals and basically I hate to say the cliche but basically he said/she said.

RYE: Yes. And one legal standard at least in criminal -- in criminal cases is standard of reasonable doubt. And right now, there's reasonable doubt at least against Judge Kavanaugh and a reason he should not go forward.

The other thing we should continue to press for are the red state Democrats to speak up, to be brave for what they know is right, if partisanship was not at an all-time high and if we weren't having these turf wars, I think people would say, you know, there's enough that's happened in Kavanaugh's proceedings for me to be uncomfortable. Again, this is the tip of the iceberg where we can not just ram this vote down the American people's throats.

I think that the final point I would make is this is a midterm election. It's already very hot. I wish they would --

TAPPER: You wish they would what?

RYE: I wish they would continue down the same road knowing that this man is this potentially compromised. It is very, very bad. It's in bad form. It's in poor taste. A reason we might need the supermajority --

CARPENTER: Yes, what if you game that out and say, he withdraws and they nominate Amy Coney Barrett, who is beloved by conservative and not becomes a midterm election issue and then we're in this spot. I mean, - I can see a scenario where Republicans decide to abandon him and say, we're going to bet big on judges again it paid off for Republicans in the 2016 election. Let's go for it.

KRISTOL: You've got to be kidding. Does it help Republicans to have nominated someone who has to be withdrawn --

CARPENTE: If he's toxic --


KRISTOL: Look, if he's not telling the truth, he's not telling the truth, he will be abandoned, and he should be abandoned by Republican senators.


KRISTOL: If he's telling the truth and it becomes -- the evidence is on his side, he should be supported. If, as you suggest, it really remains a genuine uncertainty and dilemma, then people have to make up their own minds.

SANDERS: I think folks have to think about and I hate to put this in political terms, but we might as well, this midterm election will be decided by women, suburban white women, and black women, Latino women all over this country. If I was a GOP strategist, I would not be encouraging folks to put all their bets in the basket of someone that has been credibly accused at this point. Regardless --

CARPENTER: I would start over.

SANDERS: Regardless of whether, you know, folks can have that conversation I guess about they want to see more facts, but if I am a woman sitting in, you know, the suburb of Georgia or in Ohio or Omaha, Nebraska, district two where Kara Eastman is running to unseat Don Bacon, I am looking at this seriously saying in this day and age, is this the treatment women deserve? Is this who we have put -- I want to send somebody else to Congress to have my back.

TAPPER: All right. Everyone, stick around.

How a memo that Brett Kavanaugh wrote in 1998 might play into the acquisitions that he's facing today.

Stick with us.