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THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER

Whitaker's Prosecution of Iowa Dem Raises Alarms; Emergency Hearing in Lawsuit Involving Florida Senate Race; Trump Jokes About Russian Interference In Midterm Races; Controversy In Three Florida Races With Razor-Thin Margins; Michelle Obama: Trump's Birther Lie Put Family In Danger. Aired 4:30-5p ET

Aired November 9, 2018 - 16:30   ET

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


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[16:30:54] DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Matt Whitaker is a highly respected man, but I didn't know Matt Whitaker. But he's a highly respected man, because he was a really distinguished U.S. attorney in Iowa. And he was approved by everybody, because to be U.S. attorney, that's top of the line.

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JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: A highly respected man, approved by everybody, according to President Trump? Not everyone seems to agree with that statement about the acting attorney general, especially if you talk to those who know him from those days in Iowa.

CNN's Drew Griffin is in Des Moines uncovering some questionable cases from Whitaker's past.

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DREW GRIFFIN, CNN SENIOR INVESTIGATIVE CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): When fired Attorney General Jeff Sessions walked out of Department of Justice and shook hands with the man who would take over at least temporarily, this Iowa state senator was aghast.

MATT MCCOY (D), IOWA STATE SENATOR: Well, I initially thought, I can't think of a more ill-qualified person to assume that role, based upon my experience with him.

GRIFFIN: Matt McCoy has a history with President Trump's new acting attorney general, Matt Whitaker. And it is not a good one.

In 2007, McCoy was a young, gay, rising star in Iowa's Democratic Party. Matt Whitaker was the young, conservative Republican U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Iowa.

(on camera): At the time you were indicted, you were openly gay, the only openly gay?

MCCOY: Yes. GRIFFIN: Legislator in the state of Iowa. You were a Democrat. You

were considered a rising star.

Do you think that's why you were targeted?

MCCOY: I absolutely believe that's why I was targeted.

GRIFFIN (voice-over): The federal indictment was brief. The U.S. attorney was accusing McCoy of attempted extortion by a public official. McCoy says it was a $2,000 business dispute with a private consulting client who wouldn't pay a bill.

Those facts didn't matter to Whitaker, he says, who brought the full weight of the federal government against him.

MCCOY: I believe it was a political prosecution. There's no doubt in my mind. I'm 100 percent certain that it was.

GRIFFIN: Here is all you need to know about the case. The U.S. attorney's office, under Whitaker's direction, spent more than two years going after McCoy using the FBI, a paid informant, secret recordings, a special prosecutor. And after two years, it took a jury mere minutes to reach its verdict. Not guilty.

MCCOY: That's correct. I was acquitted within really 20 minutes.

GRIFFIN: Whitaker was criticized heavily in Iowa's press. Reporters asking, why was McCoy prosecuted? Legendary "Des Moines Register" editor Gil Cranberg asked, if the U.S. attorney's case was misplaced zeal or partisan politicking.

(on camera): This for most U.S. attorneys' decision in court would have been embarrassing.

MCCOY: Yes.

GRIFFIN: Did it appear embarrassing? Did he apologize to you in any way, shape or form?

MCCOY: No, he never reached out to me.

MATTHEW WHITAKER, ACTING ATTORNEY GENERAL: My name is Matt Whitaker. I applied to be on Supreme Court.

GRIFFIN (voice-over): Whitaker's career sputtered after he left the U.S. attorney's office in 2009. He tried and failed to become an Iowa Supreme Court justice, tried and failed in a run for Senate. He seemed to have limited success in private practice.

Then in 2014, using the legal system as a political weapon, he found an entirely new career. Backed by conservative Republican donors, Whitaker became director of the Foundation for Accountability and Civic Trust, FACT. The nonprofit claims it is dedicated to promoting accountability, ethics and transparency in government by demanding the truth. Under Whitaker's leadership, critics say it became a tool to attack Democrats through the legal system. FACT went after dozens of Democrats, Democrat organizations, and especially Hillary Clinton, filing ethics complaints, Federal Election Commission complaints, anything it could do to legally hamstring Democrats.

SARAH TURBERVILLE, PROJECT ON GOVERNMENT OVERSIGHT: I think when you're looking at an organization that is focused almost exclusively on investigating individuals of one party and one political persuasion, and that the head of that organization is now going to be installed as the attorney general of the entire United States, that sets off a number of alarm bells.

[16:35:10] GRIFFIN: Matt McCoy doesn't need an alarm bell. He is frightened by the prospect of Matt Whitaker in a position of power.

MCCOY: It's very frightening, because I know how pliable he is.

GRIFFIN (on camera): You mean an attorney general who will do whatever the boss wants.

MCCOY: Absolutely. Without question.

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GRIFFIN: And, Jake, that is Matt McCoy's biggest fear, that Matt Whitaker will do what his boss asks him to do, the president, regardless of the Constitution or the law -- Jake.

TAPPER: All right. Drew Griffin in Des Moines, Iowa, thank you so much for that report.

Great. Another subpar remake. This time the Florida recount 2018, this time it's personal. Now with President Trump making unproven fraud claims. And minutes ago, a key court decision in this fight. That story, next.

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[16:40:22] TAPPER: By tomorrow, we should know if not one, not two, but three races in Florida will need an official recount. Right now, only mere tenths of a point separate candidates in Florida's race for the U.S. Senate and the race for governor and the contest for agriculture commissioner. And as the lawsuits start rolling in, it all brings back, of course, nightmares and memories of hanging chad and butterfly ballots.

Let's go to CNN's Ryan Nobles, live in the state capital of Tallahassee.

And, Ryan, we have some breaking news and a lawsuit filed to make sure all accounts are counted, especially in south Florida. What's the news?

RYAN NOBLES, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, that's right, Jake. A pair of lawsuits filed by Rick Scott against the supervisors of elections in Palm Beach County and Broward County were ruled on earlier today. Scott did win both of those cases. The judge ruling that the supervisors of elections down there did violate the public records laws here, and they need to release all the information that they have about this vote tabulation.

But the big question is, does this have any real impact on the overall vote counting? Because that information is required to be into the secretary of state by noon tomorrow. And that's what could trigger this big and potentially historic recount.

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NOBLES (voice-over): Forgive the people of Florida if they're having flashbacks.

Eighteen years after a historic and controversial recount of the 2000 presidential election, Floridians and their boards of election are back in the spotlight. And already the accusations are flying.

GOV. RICK SCOTT (R), FLORIDA SENATE CANDIDAE: Every Floridian should be concerned there may be a rampant fraud happening in Palm Beach and Broward Counties.

SEN. BILL NELSON (D), FLORIDA: The governor has decided to abandon the most fundamental of all rights, because he fears that he will lose the election if all the votes are counted.

NOBLES: Three statewide races in Florida are so close that a massive recount of the vote will likely be necessary. At stake, a U.S. Senate seat and the governor's mansion.

But before the recount can take place, the vote needs to wrap-up, and every couple of hours, the margins change.

SCOTT: By Wednesday morning, that lead dropped to 38,000 votes. By Wednesday evening, it was around 30,000 votes. This morning, it was around 21,000. Now, it is 15,000.

NOBLES: The margin between Republican Rick Scott and Democrat Bill Nelson has tightened by more than 40,000 votes since election night, a dramatic shift that has Democrats encouraged and has Republicans sounding the alarm.

TRUMP: There's bad things going on in Broward County. Really bad things. I say this. He easily won. But every hour it seems to be going down. I think that people have to look at it very, very cautiously.

NOBLES: The president later mocked the process on twitter and seemed to joke that the Russians may be at fault.

To be clear, there is no concrete evidence of fraud or manipulation. But there are serious questions about the collection and counting of votes in two major counties, Palm Beach and Broward.

While the rest of the state has wrapped up its count of all but provisional ballots, new votes from both places continue to trickle in, and it's not clear just how many total votes were cast. The confusion has led to protests outside the Broward supervisor of elections office. PROTESTERS: Lock her up! Lock her up! Lock her up!

NOBLES: Democrats feel bullish about their chance to make up ground in the Senate race.

NELSON: We believe when every legal ballot is counted, we'll win this election.

NOBLES: The governor's race is more of a climb, but Democrat Andrew Gillum, who conceded on election night, is now promising he would make sure every vote is counted.

MAYOR ANDREW GILLUM (D), FLORIDA GUBERNATORIA CANDIDATE: We're hopeful that every single vote will be counted in this race. And that way all of us can walk away feeling extremely confident about what each and every one of us did.

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NOBLES: And about those allegations of fraud by both president Trump and Governor Scott, today the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, which was requested by Governor Scott to look into this issue, said they had a conversation with the secretary of state here in Florida, who, by the way, is appointed by Rick Scott. And the secretary of state said there are no allegations of criminal activity as it relates to the vote count.

Now, that could change over the next couple of days. But, Jake, even though Republicans are charging that there could be something afoot here, there is simply no evidence. And at this point, it's just about making sure that is every single vote gets counted -- Jake.

TAPPER: All right. Ryan, thank you so much.

And President Trump has been tweeting, you know -- I guess this was a conspiracy theory joke. You mean they are just now finding votes in Florida and Georgia, but the election was Tuesday. Let's blame the Russians and demand an apology from President Putin, ha ha.

[16:45:00] But more importantly, Rick Scott said that Liberal Democrats are coming in to steal the election. I mean. there's no evidence of wrongdoing but there are allegations being made by some pretty powerful politicians.

SUSAN PAGE, WASHINGTON BUREAU CHIEF, USA TODAY: That's right. So what's going on is a count. You know, this is a slow count. You can accuse officials in these two Florida counties of being incompetent in designing a ballot and in counting the ballots that were cast, but there is no evidence that there's any fraud involved. And you see the President actually raising questions not only about the legitimacy of the vote in Florida but also in Arizona. He tweeted that in the Arizona Senate race which now looks like the Democrat may well win, maybe they should have another vote.

TARA SETMAYER, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Here's a couple things about this, A, it's irresponsible for the President to be weighing in on this. What's happening in Florida, I lived there for a couple years, and this is you know, it's it happens all the time down there, particularly in Broward County. This election supervisor was put in place in 2003 after the one prior to that was removed by Governor Jeb Bush at the time because of incompetence, and now Brenda Snipes has continually been incompetent. That part is a legitimate criticism, but for the president to come in and try to inject all these other things is just inappropriate.

However, the irony of him bringing up the Russians involved, there was actually the evidence that there were Russian hackers that tried to get into the voting equipment in Broward County during one of the elections recently. So that actually has happened. Also down there, I mean, this -- Marco Rubio has been criticized for tweeting about what's been going on there and I think unfairly. They're not accusing fraud, what they're -- no one is saying not to count, but what's happening is that Brenda Snipes, she's been accused and court found it that they destroyed ballots, they had -- they opened up secret mail ballot --

TAPPER: Not in this election or --

SETMAYER: Not in this election --

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SETMAYER: There's a history of problematic behavior in this county so the scrutiny is absolutely warranted and the Miami Herald and other -- the Tampa Bay Times, they've all documented this so Brenda Snipes is a problem and it needs to be watched.

TAPPER: I don't think anyone who's been alive for the last 20 years would doubt that there's incompetence in Florida elections. The question is as Rick Scott said that "unethical liberals are trying to steal this election." That seems like a rather strong charge.

AMANDA CARPENTER, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: But here's my take. There's plenty of proof that there were problems in Broward County as Tara pointed out with Brenda Snipes. They were ballots destroyed in the 2016 primary for Debbie Wasserman-Schultz race. She has been sued in court for making confusing ballots. That was known.

TAPPER: Snipes was sued, not Wasserman-Schultz, yes.

CARPENTER: But Governor Scott should have dismissed her. This was known. He had the power to dismiss her. And so now he's throwing around charges of fraud with no evidence when this was all in his court to begin with. So I think he should be asking questions why he didn't take action sooner.

TAPPER: Take -- let's -- we've talked a lot about Brenda Snipes. Let's hear her side of it. Here is she -- here she is responding to Rick Scott, the governor, calling for the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, FDLE, to investigate voter fraud claims. Take a listen.

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UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Rick Scott would like the FDLE involved, he says. That's what he's asking for.

BRENDA SNIPES, SUPERVISOR OF ELECTIONS, BROWARD COUNTY: He owns the FDLE.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Can you come talk to us about it.

SNIPES: I'm not prepared to have the conversation.

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TAPPER: He basically says he's in charge of the FDLE and she's not --

KIRSTEN POWERS, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: She owns it.

TAPPER: She owns it is the term, yes. But it's interesting because a story I read in the Miami Herald says that candidate Rick Scott made this request but Florida Governor Rick Scott has not actually in writing made an official demand or instruction for the FDLE to do this.

POWERS: Because I think this is more of a P.R. stunt than an actual -- than they're actually concerned about fraud going on because there's nothing fraudulent has happened. They can't even point to anything fraudulent to this happened.

TAPPER: They say it's fishy that somebody found in the closet a box that contained --

SETMAYER: Elementary school, yes.

CARPENTER: So (INAUDIBLE) see what they are.

TAPPER: -- provision ballots.

POWERS: Fine. But the other thing that complained -- some Republicans are complaining about is that they're counting ballots that have come in after Election Day but that's how the law works. It just has to be postmarked by Election Day and so they're trying to make that out as being some sort of fishy behavior. And I just think -- this is what Republicans do too much as they make these accusations of fraud where there is no fraud, and then when you have actual voter suppression problems going on like we had in Georgia, they do nothing and they say nothing. So we're --

PAGE: One thing we know from the 2000 experience with the previous recount in Florida is that P.R. matters. You know, the-- which the Republicans understood much more than the Gore Democratic forces did in 2000. And they found that even that the -- having Bob Dole said at recount stations when they were looking at chads, thank God we don't have chads anymore, that they got a higher rate of findings for Republicans just by doing that. So that's one reason I think we see people coming out, Republicans coming out. And Nelson, Senator Nelson also, of course, filing lawsuit because they know that it's not irrelevant to make a fuss about it.

[16:50:13] TAPPER: No. The P.R. campaign is a huge part of it. SETMAYER: Right and also what would happen with the court hearing

today, it was really about transparency. To Kirsten's point, you know, yes, there are -- there's more counting going on but the problem was they weren't reporting them the way they're supposed to.

TAPPER: Yes, they were very opaque. They were not revealing where these votes were coming from.

SETMAYER: Right. And Florida election law is very clear about that. You're supposed to report every 45 minutes. They haven't reported in almost a day. So this way they can say look if there aren't -- if there is anything fishy going on great, but they have nothing to compare it to because they're not properly reporting so it was a transparency issue. Also with transparency, in Palm Beach County you have another right now, a court hearing going on where the Palm Beach -- in Palm Beach the election supervisors are saying no cameras are allowed in while we're looking and inspecting these ballots because there's signatures involved. So is that really the reason or they just don't want the level of scrutiny. So there's -- they've got a lot of problems down there. They just need to get --

CARPENTER: And I think as you're pointing out, long before Florida started, there was a big narrative battle between Republicans, Democrats of fraud versus voter suppression. That's what's going to play out here.

TAPPER: All right, thanks one and all. Next, President Trump taking on former first lady Michelle Obama. His pushback today to her, unforgiving words. Stay with us.

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[16:55:00] TAPPER: In politics, former First Lady Michelle Obama not holding back when it comes to criticizing her husband's successor. The Washington Post reports today in her new memoir Mrs. Obama says, she will never forgive Donald Trump for his role in pushing the birther lie, questioning whether the first African-American president was actually born in Africa which he was not. She claims that he, Trump, put her family in danger by spreading these conspiracies. CNN's Kate Bennett joins me now. Kate, President Trump has now responded by not surprisingly punching back.

KATE BENNETT, CNN WHITE HOUSE REPORTER: This is what he's known for. This is what he does and certainly it's not holding back against Michelle Obama. He's not one to let an opportunity to cut down go by. But with her new book, Michelle Obama seems to be up for the challenge.

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BENNETT: Former First Lady Michelle Obama, gracious with the Trump's on inauguration morning is done with niceties. Now revealing her husband's successor has made her quote body buzz with fury. She recently warned that her new book Becoming, out next week was --

MICHELLE OBAMA, FORMER FIRST LADY, UNITED STATES: Candid, it's honest, it is totally and utterly me.

BENNETT: And she is utterly unforgiving. In new excerpts published by The Washington Post, Obama says she will never forgive Trump for questioning whether her husband, the nation's first black president was born in America.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: There's something on that birth certificate that he doesn't like.

BENNETT: Its underlying bigotry and xenophobia hardly concealed but it was also dangerous, she writes. What if someone with an unstable mind loaded a gun and drove to Washington? What if that person went looking for our girls? Donald Trump with his loud and reckless innuendos was putting my family's safety at risk. The President today responding from the South Lawn.

TRUMP: She got paid a lot of money to write a book and they always insist that you come up with controversial. Well, I'll give you a little controversy back. I'll never forgive him for what he did to our United States military.

M. OBAMA: When they go low, we go high.

BENNETT: The Obamas have pushed back on Trump before. President Obama upping the intensity ahead of the Midterms.

BARACK OBAMA, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: When people can just lie with abandon, democracy can't work.

BENNETT: Trump quick to rile up his own crowds --

TRUMP: Barack H. Obama.

BENNETT: But Michelle Obama's feelings towards Trump are not necessarily partisan. After all, she warmly embraces Republican President George W. Bush.

M. OBAMA: He is my partner in crime at every major thing were all the formers gathered. So we're together all the time and I love him to death.

BENNETT: And when his mother Barbara Bush passed away earlier this year, the Obama sat with First Lady Melania Trump at the funeral where she arrived without the President.

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BENNETT: It is sort of an unspoken rule that former presidents avoid directly criticizing sitting presidents but it appears that role does not apply to former First Ladies, Jake.

TAPPER: Or former presidents, really for that matter anymore. Kate Bennett, thanks so much. Finally from us, today we finally know the names of all the people who were killed in that horrifying shooting in Thousand Oaks, California Wednesday night. Dan Manrique was a Marine Corps veteran, Noel Sparks, friends will remember her selfless servitude, Alaina Housley was a student at Pepperdine University, Mark Meza Jr. was lovingly called Marky by his family, Sean Adler who was the bouncer the night of the shooting, Justin Meek was a recent graduate of Cal Lutheran, Cody Coffman, we heard from his dad.

Cody Kaufman's friends said that he was the reason she survived the shooting. Telemachus Orfanos was a veteran of the U.S. Navy. Blake Dingman will be greatly, greatly missed by his brother, he said. We lost Jacob Dunham who was incredibly close with Dingman. Kristina Morisette, she was just 20, and of course, Ventura County Sheriff Sergeant Ron Helus who rushed into the bar by himself to try to save so many lives. May their memories be a blessing.

Join me Sunday for "STATE OF THE UNION." We'll have an exclusive interview with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer at Sunday morning at 9:00 and again at noon only here on CNN. Our coverage on CNN continues right now. Have a great weekend.