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Trump Administration Feuding Before Florence?; Ford Attorney: Client is Prepared to Testify Next Week if Terms Are Fair; Interview with Democratic Senator Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island. Aired 4- 4:30p ET

Aired September 20, 2018 - 16:00   ET



JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: We now have an answer from Brett Kavanaugh's accuser, Christine Blasey Ford, about whether she's willing to testify next week.

THE LEAD starts right now.

Breaking just minutes ago, Professor Ford says she will take her story to Washington about how Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh allegedly assaulted her in high school, if certain conditions are met. What are they?

Desperation move? President Trump's attorney seeming to peddle a conspiracy theory trying to say, it seems, that the president didn't say what he clearly said on tape.

Plus, there's a disaster on, guys. A new report says President Trump's two top emergency officials are at each other's throats during a hurricane recovery.

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

TAPPER: Good afternoon, everyone. Welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

We begin with breaking news in the politics lead.

Professor Christine Blasey Ford wants to testify. In an e-mail to the Senate Judiciary Committee, Ford's attorney say they want to discuss the conditions under which Ford would testify next week. Her lawyers expressing that Professor Ford -- quote -- "wishes to testify, provided that we can agree on terms that are fair and which ensure her safety," but -- quote -- "A hearing on Monday is not possible, and the committee's insistence that it occur then is arbitrary in any event."

Ford has accused Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh of sexually assaulting her in the 1980s, when they were both teenagers. Kavanaugh strongly denies the accusation. Republicans have offered options ranging from her publicly testifying, to the prospect of committee staff traveling to Ford's home state of California to privately interview her, but they have also insisted that Monday is the day. It is not immediately clear from this e-mail which option Ford prefers

or will ultimately take. In the midst of all of this, President Trump has said he wants to give this process all the time it needs, but that there should not be any doubt as to whether this happened.

But the president has also rejected the need for an FBI investigation, which has been called for by Professor Ford, her attorneys and Democrats, and the president has said it's hard for him to believe that Kavanaugh ever did such a thing.

Beyond the allegations of a traumatic sexual assault, the context of the politics of all of this are unmistakable. Democrats want to delay this vote as long as they can, so as to protect red state Democrats up for reelection and just in case they win back the Senate. Then they can push the nomination of Kavanaugh back.

Republicans, they want this vote as soon as possible, despite having held Antonin Scalia's seat open for more than a year, so that a Republican president could make the appointment.

CNN's Jeff Zeleny is at the White House now.

And, Jeff, how is the White House reacting from this new e-mail from Ford's attorney saying she's willing to testify next week?

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: Well, Jake, so far, we have not heard from the president directly on this on what his reaction to the possibility that she could be testifying next week.

We may hear from the president later this hour, when he leaves the White House and goes to Las Vegas for a campaign rally, and he, of course, could mention it tonight at the rally as well. But, Jake, it's just one reason that Judge Kavanaugh has been here at the White House for the last four days preparing for that public hearing.

We're told that he's been talking with officials here, his team of lawyers. They are going pretty aggressively at questions that could come up, all in the possibility that he does face a public hearing on Monday, asked to answer questions from his accuser.


ZELENY (voice-over): The Supreme Court confirmation battle of Brett Kavanaugh dramatically intensified today, with the woman accusing him of sexual assault now saying she's willing to tell her story to the Senate Judiciary Committee.

"She wishes to testify, providing that we can agree on terms that are fair and which ensure her safety," lawyers for Christine Blasey Ford said in a letter to top senators today.

As protests broke out on Capitol Hill...


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: If you don't want to be arrested, you need to back up.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: We still believe Anita Hill.

ZELENY: Senators will now meet to determine the next steps.

Senator Charles Grassley, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, hoped to schedule a public hearing on Monday, but Ford's lawyers said today that was too soon.

"A hearing on Monday is not possible, and the committee's insistence that it occur then is arbitrary in any event," Ford's lawyers wrote.

The Supreme Court fight is now awash in uncertainty, as demonstrators made their voices heard and were arrested today outside the offices of key Republican senators.

Kavanaugh has categorically denied Ford's claims that he pinned her to a bed and groped her at a high school party more than three decades ago.

As he prepared for a possible Monday hearing, a friend of his tells CNN he's "disappointed and frustrated, but wants to testify."

Democratic senators said today that Ford deserves an impartial investigation and protection.

SEN. MAZIE HIRONO (D), HAWAII: She is being threatened, death threats, et cetera. This is called, I would say, intimidation of a witness. And I call upon the FBI on their own to investigate this occurrence of all of the threats that she's undergoing.


ZELENY: They accused Republicans of not taking her complaints seriously.

SEN. KIRSTEN GILLIBRAND (D), NEW YORK: They have already decided. They don't want the facts. They don't want this investigation done.

ZELENY: Republicans said Democrats were posturing and pushed back at the notion beyond of calling additional witnesses beyond Ford and Kavanaugh.

Senator John Cornyn, the number two Republican in the Senate, accused Democrats today of hijacking the process to accommodate political interests.

President Trump is standing firmly behind Kavanaugh.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: He is such an outstanding man. Very hard for me to imagine that anything happened.


ZELENY: So the president has unequivocally stood by his nominee, no question. We expect him to do that again. But, Jake, this is a very fluid situation, to put it mildly.

There had been a sense here really as the week wore along that this was moving in the direction of Kavanaugh's eventual confirmation. That could certainly still happen. But if she testifies on Monday, it could change everything.

So, again, Judge Kavanaugh still here at the White House as far as we know going through the possibility of preparing for a hearing, but the senators, the ranking Democrat and the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, will be talking this afternoon, Jake, to decide if this hearing will happen, if they can give her the conditions and guarantee she wants.

Again, Jake, we don't know much more than that -- Jake.

TAPPER: All right, Jeff Zeleny, thanks so much.

Let's talk about this all with my panel.

And, Kaitlan Collins, you have some new reporting.

Obviously, Professor Ford, we heard in the piece just there she's been getting death threats. You have some reporting about Judge Kavanaugh.


She's not the only one getting death threats as well. Judge Kavanaugh and his family are getting them, too. And what is a little bit different is that he's had protection that he's had since President Trump nominated him to the Supreme Court.

But it's not just him. It's also his family, his wife who manages -- is the town manager for the area that they live in, in Maryland, is getting these e-mails to her government e-mails that have all these graphic messages, some we can't even air because they are too graphic.

One saying: "My condolences to you for being married to a rapist, although you probably deserve it." Another saying: "F. you and your rapist husband," all kinds of things that Ashley Kavanaugh, Brett Kavanaugh's wife, is receiving.

And we're told that according to this internal report that details any of the credible threats made against someone who does have protection like what Brett Kavanaugh has right now, they say they have several threats they deem pretty credible.

Several they've had opened and closed since he was nominated in July to take this seat, but really the point of all of this is this drama we have seen play out in Washington this week, with not just this allegation, but also in these people's personal lives, how it's affecting them and their families as well, both receiving so many death threats like this.

TAPPER: That's horrific.

Go ahead. AMANDA CARPENTER, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Yes, I was going to say, on that front, Susan Collins has also been reporting threats.

And I was really disappointed to see Democratic Congressman Eric Swalwell say boo-hoo to that. Boo-hoo? Excuse me. There was a congressional baseball shooting not that long ago. Rand Paul's neighbor broke his ribs. Violence is happening.

It can happen here, and I hope to God they put this woman under some kind of protection. And to dismiss this in this environment is really sick.

TAPPER: We should say that Congressman Swalwell deleted the tweet and apologized for it.


TAPPER: But you're right. He never should have sent that to begin with.

What's your response to the news, Symone, that Professor Ford might testify next week, not Monday, she says, but if certain terms and conditions are met, if her safety is guaranteed and if in her view and her lawyer's view it's a fair hearing?

SYMONE SANDERS, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: I think what Dr. Ford is weighing is having her voice heard or not having her voice heard.

I do think the Republicans on the committee are bullying her. They have been bullying her into saying it's Monday or no day. And I think they have put -- because Dr. Ford's attorneys have not responded, I think she weighed her options and said, look, I can play ball or I cannot play ball, and I think if I play ball my voice will be important and perhaps I can help changes things.

And so if it was me, I would not testify under the terms the Republicans on the committee have currently set out, but I'm happy to see she's having her voice in the conversation. And I look forward to seeing what she has to say next week.

TAPPER: What do you say it all?

DAVID URBAN, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, Symone, I don't know how you can say that, because nobody knows what the terms are.


SANDERS: I'm talking of the terms that were previously set out, that she would have to come on Monday.


CARPENTER: This is a negotiation.


SANDERS: Those are the terms I'm speaking of.

URBAN: But Chuck Grassley, you know, reportedly has reached out to her and said we will make this as comfortable as you would like. We will come to you. We want to hear your testimony.

So for you to say that you wouldn't testify under the terms that are laid out, we don't know all the terms that are laid out. They're trying -- the House -- excuse me -- that Judiciary Committee Republicans are going as far as they can to get her. They want to hear this. They recognize her voice is very important, and if they don't hear her -- now, listen, Symone, if they don't hear her, they are going to be painted with a very broad brush.

TAPPER: You're snickering.


SANDERS: I'm snickering because I don't think it's sincere, nor is it serious.

How could they effectively want to hear from Dr. Ford and effectively want to get answers, get to the bottom of this without hearing from Mark Judge, without hearing from...

TAPPER: Mark Judge, named by her as another guy in the room.

SANDERS: Named by her as another person in the room, without hearing by the third individual named by the person in the room, without hearing from the therapist, without doing a serious investigation under oath?


And so that's why I snicker at it, because, again, I think the audacity of these men saying to Dr. Ford, it's our way or the highway, honey.


CARPENTER: Hold on. Everyone thought she was serious because she went to the members of Congress.

SANDERS: She is serious.

CARPENTER: Yes. She took a polygraph. She talked to "The Washington Post" and then she said, I'm willing to testify.

So Republicans are perfectly within their rights to say, OK, let's make this happen in a timely manner. And given the threats in this environment, I think it becomes even more important that they reach a speedy resolution.

SANDERS: Are you saying that it is in Dr. Ford's best interest and her safety that Republicans were asking her to testify on Monday? That is a bunch of B.S.


CARPENTER: Don't speak to me like that.


CARPENTER: I'm interested in everyone's safety. Don't say I'm spewing B.S. You don't go there.


SANDERS: That is. I did go there. And I am going there because this is -- the stakes are too high.


CARPENTER: I agree. Let's get everyone on the same page.

SANDERS: The stakes are too high, but to assert that Dr. Ford is getting -- or is being treated fairly, I think, is not -- is disingenuous, because so many Republicans -- if so many Republicans...


SANDERS: If so many Republicans were not already on the record disparaging her character, saying, well, Brett Kavanaugh is going to be confirmed anyway.


CARPENTER: ... evidence that he did that.


CARPENTER: But let's not pretend this is happening one way.

SANDERS: If you are accused of attempted rape or sexual assault...

CARPENTER: There is no evidence, besides one story.


SANDERS: Are you back to saying you don't necessarily believe Dr. Ford?


CARPENTER: Don't miss interpret what I'm saying.


SANDERS: I'm confused right now.

CARPENTER: I believe something happened to her. I don't believe there's any evidence showing that it was definitively Brett Kavanaugh. Do we know that for a fact?

SANDERS: So, you're saying now something happened, but what is the something? What do you think something happened?

URBAN: Symone -- how can you be so positive, Symone?


URBAN: They are not dusting for prints.


URBAN: For one second, stop.

The two other people who are alleged to have been there have already both said categorically, we do not recall, we were not there. The Judiciary Committee can put them under oath.

SANDERS: They can.


SANDERS: And those folks are refusing not to -- are refusing to come.


TAPPER: Mark Judge has said he doesn't want to testify.

URBAN: He could be subpoenaed.


SANDERS: It's telling that Dr. Ford is voluntarily saying, I'll come speak, and other individuals are not. So all I'm saying is this.

URBAN: They said, I have nothing further to say.

SANDERS: There has been an attempt to make Brett Kavanaugh the martyr here.


CARPENTER: Everyone is willing to see this out.


SANDERS: And she has not been treated fairly. And I think there are many people across the country who feel that way. She has gotten less than Anita Hill got. And she didn't get that much.


COLLINS: I think the question is, how is the White House is going to respond to this?

Because they were actually feeling pretty confident this morning, if she didn't testify, that he would pretty easily get confirmed, because their biggest fear was her coming forward, giving a pretty credible account of what she believes happened, if she did come and testify on Monday.

And now she does sound like she is going to testify under whatever conditions they are going to request of the Judiciary Committee, I think it presents a whole new set of problems for the White House that have been feeling pretty good about this.

And though the president has been pretty restrained, aides say that could change at any minute. And it may change if she does come forward and he does see her on camera making these allegations.


URBAN: It could be incredibly compelling. Right?


URBAN: You're exactly right, Kaitlan.

If you have Professor Ford up there giving a completely compelling case and making her case up there to the American public and to these senators, everything is a jump ball at that point.

TAPPER: And I think it's fair to say that three of the Republicans that were vacillating on Kavanaugh, Flake, Collins and Murkowski, all three of them came out and said, I really need to hear from this woman.

And so it seemed like it was going, if she wasn't going to testify, it was going towards Kavanaugh is going to be confirmed. Now that she is going to testify, it seems perhaps next week, but not Monday, it depends, then who knows what's going to happen.

Everyone, stick around. We got a lot more to talk about.

If Brett Kavanaugh is confirmed, these allegations may not go away. The unprecedented move you will see first on THE LEAD that Democrats are considering.

And then a feud simmering inside the Trump administration. What reportedly almost caused the head of FEMA to quit hours before Hurricane Florence hit?

Stay with us.


[16:18:25] TAPPER: We have some breaking news on Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh. We're getting new negotiating terms from the attorney for Professor Christine Blasey Ford. That's the woman accusing rather Kavanaugh of sexual assault. Her lawyer says that she is, Professor Ford, willing to testify, but not on Monday and only if the terms are fair and her safety can be guaranteed. She still strongly prefers an investigation before her testimony.

The big question, of course, what happens if those conditions she's requesting are not met and, what happens if therefore she does not come forward?

Democratic Senator Sheldon Whitehouse now joins me from his home state of Rhode Island. He's on the Senate Judiciary Committee. He's also a former federal prosecutor.

Senator, thanks for joining us.

Professor Ford's lawyer went on TV a few days ago. She demanded her client get to testify before the Senate to tell them about her allegations. Backed into a corner, Senate Republicans rescheduled the vote on Kavanaugh, which was supposed to be today. They arranged for a hearing where Professor Ford could tell her story, and now we're told she might not tell her story.

What's the plan if she does not come forward?

SEN. SHELDON WHITEHOUSE (D-RI), JUDICIARY COMMITTEE: Well, I think she's entitled to require the Senate to do whatever is very basic due diligence in any matter like this, and that's to do some modicum of investigation to look for either corroborating or exculpatory evidence.

In addition to being the U.S. attorney, I was also the attorney general in my state. I had a whole domestic violence unit. We did cases with victims who allege sexual assault all the time, and it's really, really important that you not just throw them into a hearing without having given them the courtesy of any investigation or corroboration effort at all.

[16:20:11] A prosecutor who did that in my office would have been fired and I think that's true in most offices around the country. So there's real, really bad practice going on in the Senate right now, and I think she and her lawyer are both very entitled to call that out and to maybe even decide not to come because it's a rigged proceeding in which basic modicum of sincere investigation has not been attempted.

TAPPER: OK. But you're talking about when you were attorney general and U.S. attorney, you're talking about bringing criminal charges against somebody. The statute of limitations --

WHITEHOUSE: Yes, but it doesn't matter. If this -- no, if this were a civil case --


WHITEHOUSE: -- if that were a criminal case, the fact that it's a Senate hearing, none of that matters. This is about how you treat a witness. Somebody who claims that they have been assaulted and you do not throw them into any forum without having given them the courtesy of investigation to find corroborating or exculpatory evidence.

And it's particularly preposterous in this case when you have an FBI background investigation, this is part of this guy's background and they suddenly decided they are going to halt the background investigation. It makes no sense and it's appalling practice from a victim witness point of view.

TAPPER: OK. But the FBI has put her letter in their file and they have said that there's no federal crime for them to investigate. The White House, of course, as happened during the Clarence Thomas hearings --

WHITEHOUSE: Yes, but that doesn't matter.

TAPPER: -- the White House could tell the FBI we want you to look into this as you are calling for, as other Democrats on the Senate are calling for, but the White House has made it clear that's not going to happen, and I don't see any Republican senators joining --

WHITEHOUSE: That's wrong and they should be held accountable.

TAPPER: I don't see any Republican senators joining you and asking for that. What we've heard from people like Jeff Flake and Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski, the people who said they want to hear from Professor Ford, they said she needs to show up on Monday.

WHITEHOUSE: Look, any prosecutor worth their salt knows you don't just throw your witness or your victim up on to the stand. You do investigation first. The FBI knows that perfectly well.

If the FBI had a candidate for an FBI position who had a background check and at the last minute a new allegation like this was brought up, automatic pilot, the FBI goes back and completes the background investigation as to the new allegation, every single time. The fact that they are not doing it this time is a very bad practice, and it's a measure of how far they will go to try to stampede this nominee on to the court.

TAPPER: How far the FBI will go?

WHITEHOUSE: How far the Republicans will go, that they have should down the FBI investigation and aren't insisting that this victim get treated with the most basic respect?

TAPPER: What do you mean they have shut down the FBI investigation? The FBI has said that they did what they needed to. They put the letter in the folder. The FBI has given the statement.


TAPPER: There's nothing for them to investigate. There's no federal crime.

WHITEHOUSE: Of course, there is. No, they're not doing a federal criminal investigation. They are doing a background investigation, and in a background investigation, you look into these allegations, and they are very clear things they should be doing.

They should be looking at an interview under oath with the other person allegedly in the room, trying to find who the kids were downstairs in the house, see if people can corroborate her story that the two boys did go upstairs with her. All of this is basic. This is investigative 101. There's nothing complicated about this except for the fact that they so badly want to ram Kavanaugh on to the court that they are not doing elementary --


TAPPER: Here's where I don't follow what you're saying, Senator, because the FBI is saying that they have done what is standard procedure, that they have done it. Are you accusing the FBI of being politicized?


TAPPER: Then how do you explain the fact that the FBI says, our job here is done, there's nothing else for us to do here?

WHITEHOUSE: They have not done what is standard procedure. That simply isn't true. There's no way that anybody who is getting a background investigation for a security clearance and this issue came up at the last minute that you wouldn't go back and say finish up your B.I. Look at this last fact and get it done.

Even John Yoo recognized that that's the case and recognized so publicly. So, you really can't say that an investigation that never took place, that interviewed witnesses, that never looked for corroboration, that never looked for evidence, was an investigation.

And they are doing a background investigation of this guy and it is in his background. That's a really lame excuse on their part, Jake. Really lame.

TAPPER: So, Senator, "The New York Times" is reporting lawyers for Kavanaugh's accuser, Professor Ford, said in an e-mail to the Senate panel that testimony on Monday is not possible. What do Democrats do if she does not show up? What happens then?

It seems pretty clear that Republicans say if she doesn't show up, we're going to have a vote on Kavanaugh perhaps as soon as Wednesday.

[16:25:00] WHITEHOUSE: Well, first of all, there's a factual dispute here which she said that young Kavanaugh molested and assaulted her, and he says that he didn't. There was a witness in the room who has never been subjected to a proper investigative effort of any kind. He has not been interviewed. He's never said anything under oath. There were supposedly other boys.

There's a whole investigative process that can and should take place, and you know what? This is such bad practice that even if they were to ram this guy through, as soon as Democrats get gavels, we're going to want to get to the bottom of this. You can't ignore a crime victim's claim that something happen, refuse to investigate, throw her up into the stand without the least bit of support for her, without the least bit of effort to corroborate what she says and then walk away from that as if you've behaved at all properly.

TAPPER: So, you just --

WHITEHOUSE: There isn't a prosecutor or a victim advocate in the country who would tolerate that.

TAPPER: We're out of time, but I want to make sure you understand what you just said. If the Democrats win back the House and/or the Senate, Democrats will investigate what happened, the charges that Professor Ford is laying out fine that means investigating a Supreme Court justice at the time?

WHITEHOUSE: I am confident of that, and I think we'll also be investigating why the FBI stood down its background investigation when this came up in this particular background.

TAPPER: Democratic Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, thank you so much.

He's the lawyer who once said he would take a bullet for President Trump. Now there are now reports that Michael Cohen has been doing a lot of talking, and it seems no topic is off limits. Stay with us.