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THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER

Trump Speaks Out on Kavanaugh Sexual Assault Allegation; Will Kavanaugh Accuser Testify?; Interview with Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont. Aired 4-4:30p ET

Aired September 18, 2018 - 16:00   ET

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


[16:00:15]

JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: Will Professor Ford, who claims Judge Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her, accept the Senate's invitation to testify on Monday?

THE LEAD starts right now.

Her testimony could change the course of history, but now the hearing into allegations of sexual assault at the hands of Brett Kavanaugh is in limbo, as President Trump goes after the Democrats for sitting on the accusation until the 11th hour.

Putin's hit list? Another one of Putin's political opponents is hospitalized after an alleged poisoning. How many people need to collapse before the ex-KGB colonel will be held accountable?

Plus, the dirt. CNN has a copy of Stormy Daniels' new book with intimate, frankly, TMI accounts of her alleged affair with the future president, Mr. Trump. Could these details help prove that the president is lying?

Welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

We begin with the politics leads.

And President Trump minutes ago weighing in on the allegations by Professor Christine Blasey Ford that in the early 1980s at a high school party, now Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her, a charge that Kavanaugh strongly denies ever happened.

The president this afternoon expressed deep sympathy for Kavanaugh.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Honestly, I feel terribly for him, for his wife, who is an incredible, lovely woman, and for his beautiful young daughters. I feel terribly for them.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: Though Mr. Trump did not mention Professor Ford by name, he did refer to the Senate Judiciary Committee's invitation for her to testify on Monday. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TRUMP: Hopefully, the woman will come forward, state her case. He will state his case before representatives of the United States Senate.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: We still do not know if Professor Ford is going to testify. Senator Mitch McConnell, the leader of the Senate, announced this afternoon the Republicans are willing to have Ford tell her story publicly or privately.

Democrats have attacked the way this hearing is being held and suggesting that there needs to be more than two witnesses and calling for an FBI investigation to be completed before any hearing takes place.

To this, President Trump said today the FBI should not be involved.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

QUESTION: Will you ask the FBI to open its file?

TRUMP: I don't think the FBI really should be involved because they don't want to be involved. If they wanted to be, I would certainly do that. But, as you know, they say this is not really their thing.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: This is an interesting moment of restraint for President Trump, given his normal propensity to have the FBI and Justice Department get involved all the time, whether they want to or not, calling for them in the past to investigate Hillary Clinton and her private e-mail server again, Clinton and the Uranium One deal, the Clinton campaign for alleged Russia collusion, the Clinton Foundation for alleged corruption, the Obama administration for what President Trump called without evidence illegal surveillance of his campaign.

Former FBI Director James Comey, former Deputy FBI Director Andrew McCabe, former FBI officials Peter Strzok and Lisa Page, "The New York Times" anonymous op-ed author, special counsel Robert Mueller for what the president says are conflicts of interest, and on and on.

I could continue, of course. It's only an hour show.

His concerns for the parameters and propriety of what the FBI should be investigating, that seems rather new.

CNN's Jeff Zeleny is at the White House for us.

And, Jeff, President Trump still not attacking the accuser, Christine Blasey Ford, directly, but he made it pretty clear today he does not believe the accusation.

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: Jake, he did. And the president also inched closer and closer toward diminishing these allegations, saying that they should have brought them forward a long time ago. He also said it seems to be a pattern of Democratic obstruction and resistance, and he added "a campaign against me," but the president also said the accuser should tell her story in a public hearing.

The question now is whether she will.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

TRUMP: I feel so badly for him that he's going through this, to be honest with you. I feel so badly for him. This is not a man that deserves this.

ZELENY (voice-over): With the Supreme Court confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh hanging in the balance, President Trump expressing empathy for Kavanaugh and silence toward his accuser. The president forcefully defending his nominee amid new uncertainty over a public hearing at the Senate Judiciary Committee, even as the president's pointing a finger at Democrats.

TRUMP: That's the name of their campaign against me. They just resist and they just obstruct. I don't want to play into their hands. Hopefully, the woman will come forward, state her case. He will state his case before representatives of the United States Senate. And then they will vote. We will see what happens.

ZELENY: So far, he's been uncharacteristically silent, not tweeting or talking about the accuser, Christine Blasey Ford, who says she was sexually assaulted by Kavanaugh more than three decades ago in high school.

[16:05:07]

But privately, officials tell CNN, the president is frustrated that his star pick to the Supreme Court now could be in jeopardy.

When we asked him about it today, the president but his tongue, for now at least.

QUESTION: Is this all politics?

TRUMP: I don't want to say that. Maybe I will say that in a couple of days, but not now.

ZELENY: But 50 days before the midterm elections, Kavanaugh's confirmation battle is awash in politics, amid a deeply serious discussion about sexual assault allegations launched against a federal judge with a lifetime appointment to the Supreme Court.

It's unfolding as Washington's biggest moment of the MeToo era, a wave Trump has often diminished or dismissed. Yet that's not the approach he is taking to accusations concerning one of his most important nominees. TRUMP: A delay is certainly acceptable. We want to get to the bottom

of everything. We want everybody to be able to speak up and to speak out.

ZELENY: As Democrats call for the FBI to investigate the allegations, Republicans along with the president disagreed.

TRUMP: I don't think the FBI really should be involved because they don't want to be involved. If they wanted to be, I would certainly do that. But, as you know, they say this is not really their thing.

ZELENY: For the second straight day, Kavanaugh was hunkered down inside the White House preparing for a public hearing on Monday where officials say he wants to defend his integrity.

TRUMP: So, specifically, I thought it would be a good thing not to. He can handle himself better than anybody.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ZELENY: So Judge Kavanaugh is still here at the White House, and I'm told he's working with his confirmation team to prepare for that public hearing on Monday, also calling Republican senators and putting together a list of supporters here who are pushing back publicly against these allegations.

But, Jake, in the Oval Office earlier today with the visiting president of Poland, I asked the president, again, why haven't you spoken with him? And he said specifically he didn't think it would be appropriate under the circumstance, and he also kept talking about a process, they want to let the process go through.

But it's clear that process, at least in the president's mind, includes politics now as well. The question now is, will that hearing happen on Monday? We don't know the answer to that question, Jake.

TAPPER: All right, Jeff Zeleny the White House for us.

Let's talk about it with our experts.

What do you make of President Trump today coming out saying he feels horribly for Judge Kavanaugh, for his wife, for their daughters, not saying anything about the accuser, Professor Ford? Some people obviously have said that was the wrong message to send.

MARY KATHARINE HAM, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, yes, I mean, look, I think he has a pattern of siding with the man when such situations are put before him.

That being said, I think it's fair for him to stand up for his nominee, who has to our knowledge led an exemplary public life in 1,000 different ways. And that's understandable to me that he would do that.

I also like the fact and sort of mildly surprised that he has followed Kellyanne Conway's lead and said, hearing from the professor is part of the process and is important. I kind of expected him to possibly backtrack on that.

TAPPER: Or attack her.

(CROSSTALK)

HAM: Right. But the fact that he has not, I think that is part of the process.

TAPPER: What do you make of it all? What was your reaction when he said he felt horribly for Judge Kavanaugh?

ANGELA RYE, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: So I feel horribly for the professor.

And it would be unfortunate, especially if the accusations were not true. But I would love to see the day when Donald Trump can put himself in the shoes of someone who has to have the courage to come forward and say that these things happened to them. And, of course, we know that he probably struggles with that for at least 20 reasons that we have been told about in the press.

I also thought it was interesting that he said that Kavanaugh doesn't deserve to face accusations and/or allegations. And I think, to me, I would say to that, what about the person that experienced this in a certain way? Donald Trump.

TAPPER: So, we don't know what -- we don't know what's going to happen on Monday, because as of now Professor Ford has not gotten back to the Republicans in the Senate, the Judiciary Committee, and said, I'm going to testify.

Is this in your view kind of a game of chicken? I mean, I know the Democrats want there to be a delay. Republicans say, let's hold the hearing, here's the date. Come up. We want you to testify. What happens if she doesn't show up? Do Republicans hold the hearing anyway?

JOSH HOLMES, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: Yes, I mean, this is this is an unfortunate trajectory of this entire episode that was totally unavoidable.

What I really hate is that we have to feel bad for one side or the other here, because both sides are inextricably changed by the way that this process has played out.

And the fact that we didn't have an investigation that was conducted in private to surface these kind of things before you get into a political arena means that, on the epitaph of Judge Kavanaugh, maybe Justice Kavanaugh, on the epitaph of Dr. Ford, this episode will, in fact, be the case.

And I think that is one of the most regrettable things that I can personally kind of wrap my head around, as we process where we go from here.

As to whether she shows, yesterday, her lawyer was on every morning show in America saying that she wanted to testify and her voice be heard. I can understand why a victim might be reluctant to do that. And so if she wanted to do that in private, certainly, I don't think anybody would blame her.

[16:10:11]

How she wants to conduct that, I have heard some suggest there should be some negotiation. I think people should be wide open to that, because how she wants to tell her story is fine, as long as that story is told.

And everybody seems, including the president, to be on board with that.

TAPPER: And Leader McConnell has said it's OK if she wants to testify privately.

If the hearing does happen, Paul, I want to ask you about this, the reality is all 11 Republican members of the Senate Judiciary Committee are our men. Of the 10 Democrats, four of them are women. I know that there is concern among some Republican circles that no matter what, those are bad optics if there is a public hearing.

PAUL BEGALA, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Terrible optics.

If you just think as a political strategist, which is what I am, the key vote in this upcoming election is suburban women, college-educated white women, which have been a Republican bastion for decades. But now they're crumbling away and moving to the Democratic Party.

This is exactly the kind of folks who are going to be most upset if, in fact, Dr. Ford is treated badly by these Republicans. John Cornyn, the number two Republican in the Senate, already beginning to tee it up. Well, there's gaps in her story. He's going to be, I think, the bad cop. Maybe there will be 11 bad cops, but it's really risky.

I think Josh exactly right. They should -- the Republicans control this entirely. They should professionalize it, not politicize it. They should give it to the FBI. Anita Hill today has suggested maybe some independent body. We have an independent body. It's the FBI.

HOLMES: Paul, can I kind pause you on the FBI thing? Because that that's where I get confused about all this, in that the FBI's role typically is to provide a background check.

(CROSSTALK)

HAM: They have done several times.

(CROSSTALK)

HOLMES: Six different occasions.

And, in fact, when they were referred by Senator Feinstein this case, they made a note for the file and included it and said, with all due respect, our work is done here. There's not a federal crime to be responsive to. I don't understand how we're injecting the FBI.

BEGALA: Because it's their job to do the background check.

Josh, there's no federal crime alleged in all the rest of Kavanaugh's background that we know of, right? It's their job.

(CROSSTALK)

HOLMES: But I think they've done it, is their point.

BEGALA: No, they haven't.

There were other people at the party. There are their contemporaneous notes that they should examine.

(CROSSTALK)

BEGALA: Years-ago notes from long before this current controversy they can examine. Let's see if those are real.

There can be a search for corroboration. And the FBI is better to do that than a bunch of politicians.

TAPPER: Mary Katharine, I want to get your reaction to something that Carrie Severino, who is chief counsel and policy director for the Judicial Crisis Network, which is the main group backing Kavanaugh, something she said on CNN when talking about what this event might have been.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

CARRIE SEVERINO, CHIEF COUNSEL AND POLICY DIRECTOR, JUDICIAL CRISIS NETWORK: Her allegations cover a whole range of conduct, from boorishness and to rough horseplay, to actual attempted rape.

I'm saying that just the behavior she described could be interpreted -- could describe a whole range of things. I know her perception of it was one way. I'm just saying I think -- I think we have to get all of the facts.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: Now, again, Kavanaugh denies all of it. So he's not saying, oh, this was, as he said, rough horseplay. He's saying none of this ever happened.

But what did you make of that discussion?

HAM: What I'm just saying is that she should not say that, because you should treat the allegation seriously.

I will say conceded that optically, Republicans, they're damned if do they have a hearing and they're damned if they don't have a hearing, which is really not on the accuser, but on the part of those who brought forth this information.

It's part of the timing and part of the situation they're supposed to be in at this point. I will say that as a woman who deeply understands the pain of somebody who might have been through this, more than I would like to, I'm also somebody who would like to vet the facts.

And it can't just be that you're a bad cop if you ask, OK, well, what are the facts here? Like, in the past, unfortunately, in this new era, we are all called upon to publicly examine years-old or decades- old accusations, which means you have to have respect for both the accuser and the accused.

And it's a very tough position to be in. And as we have gone through all these news cycles, I have, like, come up with some criteria of like, one, do we have a named accuser? We have a named accuser on the record. That's important and credible.

Two, contemporaneous reports. We do not have those in this case. It's nice to have those so you can have verifiable facts like the location or time or anything about this party that you can then corroborate. It's all very unclear.

And then, lastly, also not necessary, but like an M.O. that someone repeat this behavior. In the case of Roy Moore, in the case of Harvey Weinstein, I felt very comfortable saying all of these are met in the public sphere. In this case, we have one of these things thus far.

And I hope that the process will elucidate more things that make me feel more comfortable accusing him. But I'm not sure.

TAPPER: Everyone, stick around. We're going to talk about this more.

On Capitol Hill, demands for a delay, demands for more witnesses, demands for the FBI to investigate. Will Monday's hearing actually even happen?

Plus, shocking and salacious, Stormy Daniels telling all, perhaps even too much, about her illicit encounter with President Trump in her new book. Yes, too much, I will say that right now.

Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

TAPPER: Plus, shocking and salacious. Stormy Daniels telling all, perhaps even too much, about her illicit encounter with President Trump in her new book.

[16:15:02] Yes, too much. I'll say that right now.

Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

TAPPER: On Monday, Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh will testify under oath and we're told deny the allegation that he sexually assaulted a girl in high school. As of now, it's unclear if his accuser, Professor Christine Blasey Ford, will be there. Committee sources tell CNN that neither Ford nor her attorney have responded to repeated requests to testify privately or publicly.

CNN's Phil Mattingly joins me now with the latest.

Phil, will Republicans hold this hearing if Professor Ford does not attend?

PHIL MATTINGLY, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Jake, at this moment, it's genuinely an open question. Republican leaders have made clear, this is the venue, this is the opportunity for Christine Blasey Ford to lay out her allegations. Monday is the day.

But Democrats have made clear in return, given the significance of this nomination, given the seriousness of these allegations, there should be no deadline. There should be no rush.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

[16:20:00] MATTINGLY (voice-over): The public hearing on assault allegations against President Trump's Supreme Court nominee may not happen after all.

SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY), MAJORITY LEADER: She could do it privately if she prefers or publicly if she prefers. Monday is her opportunity.

SEN. PATTY MURRAY (D), WASHINGTON: This is a test for the United States Senate on how we handle accusations of sexual harassment and assault. I am hoping this Senate passes it.

MATTINGLY: And if it does take place, questions about who will testify.

SEN. CHUCK SCHUMER (D-NY), MINORITY LEADER: Chairman Grassley said there would be two witnesses. That's simply inadequate, unfair, wrong and a desire not to get at the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

MATTINGLY: Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley telling radio host Hugh Hewitt the hearing would only include two witnesses -- Judge Brett Kavanaugh and Professor Christine Blasey Ford and that Ford had still not responded to the committee's request for a follow- up phone call or its hearing invitation.

SEN. CHUCK GRASSLEY (D-IA), CHAIRMAN, JUDICIARY COMMITTEE: We have reached out to her in the last 36 hours. Three or four times by e- mail and we have not heard from them. So it kind of raises the question, do they want to -- do they want to come to the public hearing or not?

MATTINGLY: While all ten Democrats on the judiciary committee called for the hearing to include more witnesses, including Kavanaugh's former classmate Mark Judge seen here in a Georgetown Prep yearbook and Ford identified as being in the room when the alleged assault occurred, yet the GOP continued to stand behind firmly behind Kavanaugh.

MCCONNELL: An accusation which he has unequivocally denied.

MATTINGLY: And two key Republicans, Senator Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski, making clear Ford not testifying would be a missed opportunity.

SEN. SUSAN COLLINS (R), MAINE: And I really hope that she doesn't pass up that opportunity.

SEN. LISA MURKOWSKI (R), ALASKA: If she is not going to be part of the hearing, I think that that would be a very interesting and unfortunate turn of events.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

TAPPER: And our thanks to Phil Mattingly for that report.

Joining me now to talk about this is Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont who's on the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Senator, thanks so much for joining us.

Has Professor Ford responded to the committee's requests that she testify and what's going on there?

SEN. PATRICK LEAHY (D), VERMONT: I've not heard she has but I think that there's been a very -- a lot of concern of how the committee's doing this. They're kind of rushing it forward.

In the past, under both Republican and Democratic leadership, if you had an allegation like this, you would turn it over to the professionals, the FBI or other investigators, and say, here, do a background on this. Report back to us. Tell us what you have. Nonpartisan professionals and then we'll set up the witnesses for a hearing.

Instead, they're rushing this through. Makes you wonder what are they trying to hide? I'd like to have the doctor speak. I'd like to have Mr. Judge who apparently was there, have him speak. But they're rushing this through as though they don't want -- as though they want to look like they're doing something and not do anything.

TAPPER: Well, my understanding is the department of justice issued a statement saying there's no federal crime at issue here so that's why the FBI does not want to get anymore involved other than what they already did which was put the letter in his FBI file and move on.

What would your response be to that?

LEAHY: Well, when the FBI does a background investigation, they're not looking for a crime either. I was chairman of that committee for a number of years. If we -- if the chairman called the FBI and said, we have this question about a nominee, would you look into it.

Of course, they do. You don't call up and say, hey, there's a crime here. Go get the bank robber.

That's not the case. We ask, find out. We have some conflicting testimony here. Go and get us the facts. Do it impartial, nonpartisan way. If the Republican chairman asked for it, it would be done.

TAPPER: Listen to President Trump earlier today.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: When Senator Feinstein sat with Judge Kavanaugh for a long period of time, a long, long meeting, she had this letter. Why didn't she bring it up? Why didn't she bring it up then? Why didn't the Democrats bring it up then? Because they obstruct and because they resist.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: Now, I understand Feinstein says that she was trying to protect Ford's confidentiality. Ford at the time had not yet said she was willing to come forward and be named. But do you think Feinstein should have at least told other committee members about the allegation or maybe told the FBI about the allegation?

LEAHY: I had heard that earlier what President Trump said. I don't know if he purposely mispronounced Senator Feinstein's name or not, but the thing I would say is that we have the facts now.

[16:25:07] Let's do what we have done certainly in the 40-some odd years I have been here is that ask for impartial, professional investigation and then once you have that back and it's available to the Republicans and the Democrats then have the hearing and ask the person the questions under oath. I want to ask Dr. Ford the question. I'd want to ask Mr. Judge who apparently was there the questions, under oath, and, of course, Judge Kavanaugh under oath.

TAPPER: But we know that Judge Kavanaugh denies that it happened. We know that Mr. Judge denies that it happened and we know that Professor Ford says that it happened. We also know from Ford's attorney that she never spoke about this publicly or privately even until six years ago. There are apparently therapist's notes of six years, though they don't mention Kavanaugh by name.

I -- what do you think a hearing is going to accomplish given that there doesn't seem to be any clear way to prove this, at least based on what we have heard from Professor Ford's letter and from Professor Ford's attorney?

LEAHY: Don't you think it would be helpful to hear Mr. Judge under oath and not get second hand from the White House? The same White House that within minutes after this became public, had suddenly had to have a letter signed by 65 people to Judge Kavanaugh's character, they apparently knew the allegation was coming forward. Who do they know it from?

I mean, the thing is there's -- I was a prosecutor for eight years. If I saw something like this, I'd say there's so many questions. Why don't we get the professionals in? Why don't we have them investigated? Bring the report back and then we'll ask people the questions under oath.

TAPPER: Senator Patrick Leahy, Democrat of Vermont, member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, thank you so much for your time, sir. We appreciate it.

LEAHY: Thank you, Jake.

TAPPER: He's the only other person who was allegedly in the room when Professor Christine Blasey Ford says Brett Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her. So, you just heard Senator Leahy refer to him. Who is Mark Judge? What does he know?

Stay with us.

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