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United Nations Laughing at Trump?; Trump Lashes Out at Kavanaugh Accusers; Rosenstein to Meet Trump Thursday, Fate of Russia Probe in Question. Aired 4-4:30p ET

Aired September 25, 2018 - 16:00   ET



JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: President Trump getting world leaders to LOL, but who was the punchline?

THE LEAD starts right now.

President Trump launching his strongest attack yet against the women accusing Judge Brett Kavanaugh of inappropriate sexual behavior and sexual assault, calling it a con game by Democrats, contradicting his own White House, which said it's open to another accuser testifying.

Two crises now colliding in Washington, with the man overseeing the Russia probe possibly living on borrowed time. What the White House is saying today about how President Trump is feeling about Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein.

Plus, from rocket man to, why can't we be friends? President Trump changing his tune on North Korea, setting his sights on Iran with tough talk and even a downright threat from the national security adviser.

Welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

We begin with the politics lead now, President Trump, Judge Brett Kavanaugh, and top Senate Republicans all on offense, trying to present a united front in the face of accusations of sexually inappropriate behavior by the Supreme Court nominee decades ago, with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell promising, there will be a vote on the Senate floor, regardless of what happens during Thursday's hearing.

Kavanaugh taking the unprecedented step of defending himself in a television interview on the president's favorite channel. And then today President Trump is on the attack against not just Senate Democrats, but against the two women alleging, respectively, sexual assault and sexually inappropriate behavior, Professor Christine Blasey Ford and Deborah Ramirez.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: He's never had any charges like this. I mean, charges come up from 36 years ago that are totally unsubstantiated? And now a new charge comes up, and she said, well, it might not be him, and there were gaps, and she said she was totally inebriated and she was all messed up and she doesn't know it was him, but it might have been him.

Oh, gee, let's not make him a Supreme Court judge because of that? This is a con game being played by the Democrats.


TAPPER: The president there clearly taking a turn from his relative restraint a week ago after Professor Blasey Ford first shared her story publicly, and the message from the White House at the time was that she must be heard and not insulted.

The president instead today charging both women are making -- quote -- "false accusations, the likes of which have never been seen before." Yet, despite this show of force from the president and top Republicans, Kavanaugh right now does not appear to have the votes to be confirmed in the Senate, with key Republicans remaining undecided and saying they're waiting to hear from Blasey Ford on Thursday.

One of those senators, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, is even indicating she would also like to hear from Deborah Ramirez, and she said an FBI investigation, opposed by the president and top Republicans, would help clear things up.

President Trump clearly using his bully pulpit today to set the stage for Thursday's hearing. In addition to questioning Ramirez's account because she had been drinking, and Blasey Ford's account because she didn't file charges with the police when the attack happened, allegedly in early '80s, the White House just announced that, on the eve of this hearing, tomorrow, he will hold a very rare solo press conference, no doubt an effort to get in front of the highly anticipated testimony.

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

And, Jessica, the message among Republicans seems to be get through this hearing and then get to a vote ASAP.

JESSICA SCHNEIDER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, that's exactly the resounding message from Republicans.

And we have also learned that's been the direct message from the president. Get Kavanaugh's nomination to the Senate floor for a vote, and quickly. But while the president is voicing his frustration here, some key senators are starting to say, why rush?


SCHNEIDER (voice-over): President Trump unleashing over what he says are unsubstantiated allegations against his Supreme Court nominee, Brett Kavanaugh.

TRUMP: Thirty-six years ago? Nobody ever knew about it? Nobody ever heard about it? And now a new charge comes up, and she said, well, it might not be him, and there were gaps, and she said she was totally inebriated, and she was all messed up and she doesn't know it was him, but it might have been him.

Oh, gee, let's not make him a Supreme Court judge because of that? This is a con game being played by the Democrats.

SCHNEIDER: Sources telling CNN, the president has grown impatient with the slow pace of Kavanaugh's confirmation and pushed Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell over the weekend to quickly call a vote, and that he also sees Republicans as being too accommodating to Christine Blasey Ford, the first accuser who came forward against Kavanaugh.

Ford, along with Kavanaugh, will testify Thursday.

SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY), MAJORITY LEADER: I'm glad we will be able to hear testimony from both. And then I look forward to an up- or-down vote on this nomination right here on the Senate floor.


SCHNEIDER: But at least one swing vote senator has expressed reservations about what some view as a rush. Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski seeming to side with Democrats who have called for an FBI investigation first.

QUESTION: Should there be a full FBI investigation into these allegations from Kavanaugh's past?

SEN. LISA MURKOWSKI (R), ALASKA: Well, it would sure clear up all the questions, wouldn't it?

SCHNEIDER: Several other Republican senators are also uncertainties, including Susan Collins and Jeff Flake.

Meanwhile, the White House has expressed willingness to let Kavanaugh's second accuser, Deborah Ramirez, who claims Kavanaugh exposed himself to her at a Yale dorm room party in the early 1980s, testify too.

SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: Certainly, we would be open to that. And that process could take place on Thursday. Again, the president has been clear, let them speak, but let's also let Brett Kavanaugh speak. And let's let him tell his side of the story before we allow allegations to determine his entire future.

SCHNEIDER: While Kavanaugh continues to prepare for Thursday's hearing, he's also going on the offensive, repeatedly defending his character in an unprecedented television interview.

BRETT KAVANAUGH, SUPREME COURT JUSTICE NOMINEE: I am not perfect. I know that. None of us is perfect. I'm not perfect. But I have never, never done anything like this.


SCHNEIDER: And tonight Republicans are defending their decision to hire an outside counsel to question Christine Blasey Ford on Thursday. An aide is telling CNN, this is a woman with an expertise in sex

crimes prosecution. But Senator Grassley is not disclosing her name for safety reasons. And Democrats are criticizing that move.

Meanwhile, Jake, Ford's attorney has fired back as well in a letter, saying there is no precedent for this, for an outside counsel, for the Judiciary Committee to bring this in. And they say it also shields senators from performing their duties -- Jake.

TAPPER: All right, Jessica Schneider, thanks so much.

Let's talk about it with my experts.

Kirsten, let me start with you.

Obviously, President Trump completely different strategy than he was doing a week ago. Now he is calling the accusers, saying that they're putting out false accusations. You saw him go into detail about Deborah Ramirez's story. What changed, do you think?

KIRSTEN POWERS, CNN COMMENTATOR: I don't know. Maybe he feels that he's in trouble and he needs to come out and help him, because...


TAPPER: Help Kavanaugh.

POWERS: Yes, help Kavanaugh, because I think earlier -- if you talk to Republicans earlier in the week, they were much -- I mean, earlier in the week -- it's early in the week. Last week.


POWERS: It's like bleeding together. Feels like Friday, but it's not.

Earlier in this process, they were very confident. Even when this allegation came out, they felt very sure that things were moving forward. Not getting the same kind of confidence coming from them. They do seem a little rattled.

TAPPER: Do you think that's what's going on?

AMANDA CARPENTER, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Listen, I have more questions today than I did last week.


TAPPER: For Kavanaugh or for Ramirez?

CARPENTER: Off Kavanaugh.

I feel like we have learned more about the cultures that he's grown up through to this position. We know that there was a very chauvinistic culture at his prep school, at his college. And then look at the judge that he clerked for who resigned recently among sexual accusations.

And so what I want to know, and I didn't get from his FOX interview, when have you ever stood up to this culture? Because it seems to me like his strategy to convince people that he's this perfect Catholic altar boy who never engaged in any kind of bad behavior.

But, certainly I know from what I have read he was immersed in it. And so I have questions about how he navigated that. And, you know, I think people can navigate that. But when you witness that kind of behavior, there has to be kind of a conversion moment. And I think he has to prove that, at the very at least, in the hearings on Thursday.

TAPPER: What I wonder is, as an attorney, when you go after an accuser the way that President Trump is going after an accuser, obviously you can score some points, undermine her creditability. But there is also a risk, isn't there? And it's a risk.

And if you look at the Senate as a jury -- in a way they are -- there's a risk of alienating people like Lisa Murkowski and Susan Collins, who don't want to hear these arguments that we have heard in the past. Oh, she was drunk. How much can you believe her, et cetera?

A. SCOTT BOLDEN, FORMER D.C. DEMOCRATIC PARTY CHAIRMAN: I have got to tell you, it's a white man strategy that is politically dumb, in my opinion.

He needs these votes, that being Donald Trump. The senators need the votes of each other, and including women. And it just makes no sense. It has all been put through a political prism. And yet the humanity of these women, whether you vote for Kavanaugh or not, giving them a hearing, not a meeting, where you hear both sides, like you're in the principal's office, but a real hearing, with corroborating witness asks what have you.

They will flub this up on Thursday, which is why they're calling a female attorney to do the direct and even cross of these witnesses and stuff, because they still need the women vote, the independents, the suburbanites.

And that need isn't going anywhere, given the numbers, what the Democrats and Republicans and the midterms coming up. It's just a bad strategy, I think.

TAPPER: Do you think that it helps or hurts to get Kavanaugh confirmed for President Trump to pick away at Deborah Ramirez and Christine Blasey Ford, the way he's going after their allegations?


JOSH HOLMES, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: It's not the strategy I would have chosen.

But I think what he's reacting to, and I think there's a lot of frustration on the Republican side at this point, that there is seemingly this outward strategy, as dictated by Brian Fallon this morning in "The New York Times," who is running the opposition to the Kavanaugh appointment, who says, basically, look, this is a two-part strategy.

We have to destroy Kavanaugh, get him to step down, win the Senate, and then hold the seat open for two years. And, look, if you're that transparent in what you're trying to accomplish, and this guy is just sort of, you know, caught in a crossfire, I think that makes people really, really angry.

And if we keep this focus basically to the veracity of the claims in Thursday's hearing, and the importance of that gathering, I think Republicans are going to be in a lot better spot. But I don't at all -- I mean, I understand the frustration that they have had at this point.

TAPPER: It's interesting that you heard Lisa Murkowski, who is one of the swing votes on Kavanaugh, even before any of these allegations, concerned as she is about his position on issues having to do with Native Americans, reproductive rights, et cetera, Lisa Murkowski saying it would sure clear up questions if there was a full FBI investigation into these charges, because that's something that Senate Republicans and the White House have resisted.


I think if you're fair-minded and you look at this -- and I certainly have tried to be fair-minded. It doesn't mean that I am being, but I am trying. And you look at this in the beginning, and you say you have an accusation from one woman who seems very credible, not the kind of person -- she has a lot to lose, right? And you have this other person who says it doesn't happen.

I think the sort of fair-minded thing to say is, let's investigate it, right? It sounds like a credible allegation, but we're not just going to throw him under the bus just because someone said this. Let's do an investigation.

The fact that the Republicans have steadfastly refused to have the FBI put people who are alleged witnesses under oath is to me -- is what has tipped me into thinking something is really going on here, because there's something that they know, especially when you have Mark Judge's ex-girlfriend -- this is the person who was supposedly in the room -- telling "The New Yorker," reluctantly, she says, that he's lying about the culture at Georgetown Prep, that the way they have presented what was going on there, the way -- even now you have Judge Kavanaugh last night in the interview, this whole I was just a choir boy going to church kind of thing doesn't really add up with what people know about what was going on at that school.

HOLMES: Yes, so the FBI thing is a red herring. And I will tell you why, because on six different occasions, they have had a full background investigation of Brett Kavanaugh.

And for the Democrats to assert that somehow that there is now a pattern of sexual abuse over a period of years, you would have to believe that the FBI is absolutely incompetent of doing their job on six different occasions.


BOLDEN: It can be both.


POWERS: That's actually Donald Trump's argument.


POWERS: It's not a red herring.


HOLMES: What you're saying right now is that they are not under any obligation, and if the statements of all of the people that the accuser has pointed out was at the party, that those, in fact, are somehow not accountable.

POWERS: They have not questioned.


POWERS: Hold on. He was just talking about what I just said.


POWERS: They have not been asked under oath about that incident.

So why are they so willing to speak publicly about it, but not talk to the FBI about it? That is...


POWERS: Let me finish, that they will speak, and then Republicans will use them as character witnesses to him, saying, Mark Judge said this, and the other people said this. But they're not saying it to the FBI.


CARPENTER: Here's what I think is plausible.

I think an FBI investigation with a timeline makes sense. But I think it is plausible that people do not want an FBI investigation because it would expose people like Brett Kavanaugh's friends to potential criminal behavior. And that gets to my problem.

Is Brett Kavanaugh protecting his friends? Did he enable this? I mean, we saw the things that his friend Mark Judge has owned up to. I don't want to accuse anybody of anything. But I think there's lots of questionable things that went on.


CARPENTER: I think there's a lot of people who would be interested in protecting graduates of Georgetown Prep.


BOLDEN: There is no plausible reason why there shouldn't be an FBI investigation. You talk about...


CARPENTER: Well, I'm not saying you would agree with it.


BOLDEN: Right.

But you talk about, why have an FBI investigation? They have done a background check on him. That didn't come up. But they didn't know the women.

You have two women now who have come forward. And I think they're credible, because they don't say they have the dates, times and places, right? There's nothing -- why wouldn't the Republicans want an investigation?


BOLDEN: It's a lifetime appointment to the Supreme Court. And there are two people that allege that one exposed himself or he attempted to rape them, why would you, as a human being, in this society not want that investigated?


BOLDEN: Other than a political prism, and that you don't care, because that's the message you're sending.

TAPPER: OK. Let him answer the question. Let him answer the question.

HOLMES: Look, what you're doing is making a political argument.

BOLDEN: No, I'm making a human argument.

HOLMES: There is a process.

No, I can tell you the way this works. There is a process in place in the Senate to deal with this.

[16:15:02] It happens months before you get to a hearing. It's called closed session. Something that Senator Feinstein skipped and didn't tell anybody anything about.

POWERS: She was asked to.

HOLMES: She not only skipped that hearing --

BOLDEN: She's protecting the identity as asked by the -- HOLMES: She protected so well, so well that, in fact, she leaked it

the week after the hearing.

POWERS: We don't have --

TAPPER: We don't know how leaked that.


HOLMES: The Democrats side was the only side that knew, Jake.


TAPPER: What I was saying, we don't know that Dianne Feinstein leaked it.

HOLMES: Sure. But somebody did. But the point of the matter is, if you want to get to the bottom of it, you take sworn statements from everybody that the accuser has said was in the room. They have done that under penalty of felony. Those all exist in our part of the record.

TAPPER: Those statements handed in are under penalty of felony.

POWERS: The statement is not the same thing as being questioned, and you know that.

And the other thing is, you know, George Bush thought -- believed -- even though there had been a background check on Clarence Thomas, that when the accusations came against him, that there should be an FBI investigation. So the idea that because of background check has been done that you can't reopen anything is not true.

TAPPER: All right. Everybody, stay right there. We've got a lot more to talk about.

With his job on the line now, calls for Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein to go to Congress this week to testify, what are the chances of that? Stay with us.


[16:20:26]T APPER: Welcome back.

Do not assume that Rod Rosenstein is going to be kicked to the curb. That's the line coming from the White House as the deputy attorney general is set to meet face-to-face with President Trump on Thursday, with the fate of the Russia investigation possibly also on the line.

CNN's Laura Jarrett is at the Justice Department.

And, Laura, there are reports there was a Rosenstein exit letter already drafted?

LAURA JARRETT, CNN JUSTICE REPORTER: Jake, that's right. Officials over here at the Justice Department were all geared up, ready to go, believing that his departure was imminent. But, of course, it never happened. And then he returned to the Justice Department yesterday afternoon, carried on with his day as if nothing happened.

But, of course, his longer-term status here as the number two in command still very much in limbo.


JARRETT (voice-over): The future of Russia probe leader Rod Rosenstein may still be in peril, with lawmakers now pressing for the Justice Department's number two to testify on Capitol Hill. The president in New York today trying to redirect attention to the work at the U.N.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I'm meeting with Rod Rosenstein on Thursday. Today I'm doing other things.

JARRETT: White House officials caution Rosenstein may not be out of the job, as White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders added to the ambiguity.

SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: Obviously, the president has been disappointed by a number of actions that have taken place at the Department of Justice. And he wants some answers to some of the questions that he has. Some of them have to do with Rod Rosenstein, some of them have nothing to do with him.

JARRETT: The Justice Department prepared a statement Monday, ahead of what they thought was Rosenstein's last day, according to sources. The statement, obtained by "Axios", read in part, quote, Rod Rosenstein has served Department of Justice with skill for 28 years. His contributions are many and significant. We all appreciate his service and sincerely wish him well.

Officials were also ready to name Matt Whitaker, Attorney General Jeff Sessions' current chief of staff, as Rosenstein's replacement. Whitaker, a former CNN legal contributor, urged Rosenstein last year to order special counsel Robert Mueller to limit the scope of his investigation. But if Rosenstein leaves, Whitaker won't oversee the Russia probe. That will fall to Solicitor General Noel Francisco.

Meanwhile, on Capitol Hill, Republicans are calling for the deputy A.G. to be subpoenaed over the story that started it all. Reports that Rosenstein discussed secretly taping the president and invoking the 25th Amendment to remove him from office.

One source in the room dismissed to CNN as sarcasm, but Republican Congressman Mark Meadows isn't laughing, tweeting, you can't have the number two official at the Department of Justice making comments about wiring the president and not address it. Rod Rosenstein must come before Congress this week, under oath, and tell the truth about his alleged statements.

And Republican Congressman Matt Gaetz says the story could be career- ending. REP. MATT GAETZ (R), FLORIDA: I don't think it's appropriate to joke

about taking an action against the institution of the presidency while you're overseeing an investigation.


GAETZ: Probably.


JARRETT: Others on Capitol Hill, however, raising very different concerns. Republican senator of Maine, Susan Collins, who I should mention is a key swing vote for the president on his embattled nominee, Brett Kavanaugh, saying to reporters just a short time ago, Jake, that forcing Rosenstein out would be, quote, a huge red line and very problematic -- Jake.

TAPPER: All right. Laura Jarrett, thank you so much. Appreciate it.

Let's discuss with our experts Phil Mudd, former FBI official, is here with me.

I want to play the sound again from Sarah Sanders, talking about Rod Rosenstein and the Justice Department, because it's really stark. I know we've all gotten accustomed to this. But this is the White House press secretary talking about her own Justice Department.


SANDERS: The president has been disappointed by a number of actions that have taken place at the Department of Justice. Some of them have to do with Rod Rosenstein. Some of them have nothing to do with him. But it is Department of Justice. And it should work to actually fix and hold up law and order, not complicate or undermine law and order.


TAPPER: Again, that is the White House press secretary, saying that the Justice Department under her own president undermines law and order.

PHIL MUDD, CNN COUNTERTERRORISM ANALYST: Well, if you ask the American citizens if they have a gang problem, if they have a drug problem, if you go back to Enron, if they have a white collar crime problem, who the heck are you going to call? I think 98 percent of the American population would say not only would I call the FBI, but I would trust them.

[16:25:04] Guys, I went over there. I wore like different colored socks some days and the FBI guys would be like, what's wrong with you? These guys are arrow-straight.

My point is, the president of the United States in this 1 percent -- probably less than 1 percent of the FBI resources. That is the investigations that Rod Rosenstein has been involved in, the Russia investigation, has persuaded the American people that 99 percent of the world, you trust them. And in this one area, where people, including judges, have said these cases are not only predicated, but have led to guilty pleas, this you shouldn't trust him.

I don't get it. I trusted the FBI. I saw them for four and a half years and I think most Americans still would, unless it's Russia.

TAPPER: So it seems as though the most likely bet is that Rod Rosenstein has a judge, at least through the mid terms. There's a lot of pushback going on.

BOLDEN: At least politically.

TAPPER: Yes. Well, the reporting is that Chief of Staff Kelly and others want him to have -- they don't want this issue before the midterms.

BOLDEN: Well politic -- I'm sorry, good right ahead.

TAPPER: As a political issue. But do you think that that means that Mueller and Rosenstein should think about the fact that their days might be numbered?

BOLDEN: I think Rosenstein needs to think about what's next. But I think the GOP in the House, Senate and White House need to think about what's next. Because if you take Rosenstein out, you're taking out someone that has many respects been the glue between the chaos, between Mueller, between the public and the House and the Senate, because he's got a lot of credibility.

Secondly, there will always be that concern that he was removed because of the president's dislike of him or of the Russia investigation. That's the constitutional crisis that the House and Senate don't want to get into.

But who takes over for him? And what do they do? They'll feel the same pressure that Rosenstein feels. That's not going to change. And even if they are big Trump backers, even Trump and whoever the next one will be will feel that, remember, this is a Republican-led investigation endorsed by all the Republican powers.

It's got to see an end, because we're talking about our democracy, our voting rights, our systems. Not just about whether Trump colluded with Russia. That's a part of it, but it's really super-important to the American people.

TAPPER: And yet you have these House Republicans who have been really pushing against Rosenstein for a long time. We saw them in the -- in the piece just there, Laura Jarrett's piece. You have Matt Gaetz, Mark Meadows, they have not liked Rosenstein. They have been talking about impeaching Rosenstein.

POWERS: Right. Well, I think --

TAPPER: Before this "New York Times" story.

POWERS: I think the question has always been not if he's going to get fired, but when he's going to get fired. It's been pretty clear that they've -- that that's what a lot of people who support Trump and I think Donald Trump probably wants this reporting about the 25th Amendment and allegedly wanting to wiretap him, which, of course, Rosenstein has denied, gives Donald Trump the excuse.

And so, I guess he could argue, you know, I didn't do it before the election, because that would have been bad. And then after the election, he decides he's really upset about it. But they're having this meeting on Thursday. So, it feels like this would be the opportunity for him to do it in a way where most people would say, yes, most presidents would be pretty mad about that if that happened.

TAPPER: Certainly. But I can't imagine -- I mean, Mark Meadows and the Freedom Caucus, they really love President Trump. And I can't imagine a hearing like that would actually happen without President Trump's tacit approval. One demanding that Rosenstein answer under oath what he did or did not do as reported in the "New York Times."

HOLMES: I mean, I don't know. I think House Republicans have run a number through the Intel Committee, through the Reform Committee, a number of different hearings that, you know, if I were running communications in the White House, would probably not be my first choice of things to do.

But their frustration is real. And I think the president's frustration is real, because the reality is, the moment he decided to fire Comey, he was boxed in on Rosenstein and Sessions, period. And the cavalcade -- the sort of dominoes that fell afterwards put him in a place where just optically, it's impossible.

No matter how much he feels like they're not doing their job or they're not responsive to his administration's agenda, all of that kind of doesn't matter, because of the optical box that he's now in, vis-a-vis the Russia investigation.

TAPPER: Yes. Everyone, stick around.

Coming up next, Cruz confronted. The tense moments for the Texas senator and his wife at a D.C. restaurant. What these activists wanted him to hear as President Trump sends his own message to voters ahead of the midterm.

Stay with us.