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Interview With Florida Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman-Schultz; Florida Recounts; White House Braces for Democratic-Lead Investigations. Aired 4-4:30p ET

Aired November 12, 2018 - 16:00   ET


JIM SCIUTTO, CNN ANCHOR: A critical recount is now under way.

THE LEAD starts right now.

One side is screaming fraud, the other yelling dictator. Must be election season in Florida, as President Trump makes new dangerous claims about the vote there.

And without a single fact to back it up, the president claims that Democrats are costing you big by trying to investigate him. What's he so afraid of as Democrats prepare to take the House?




UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Heavenly father, please help us.


SCIUTTO: Cars literally melting, as people desperately try to escape the wildfire hell in California, the flames destroying thousands of homes, killing dozens of people. The worst is yet to come.

Welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jim Sciutto, in today for Jake.

And we begin with the politics lead.

Florida recount 2.0. This time, it is three elections, including the all-important Senate and governor's races, as well as the agriculture commissioner there.

Right now in every county in Florida, an effort is under way to recount millions of ballots, as is required by law, since the margin between the candidates, all those candidates, is just a half-a- percentage point or less. Volunteers have until this Thursday at 8:00 p.m. Eastern time to finish the job.

Already, one county official is warning that they might not be done in time. President Trump is suggesting they shouldn't even try. The president tweeting today -- quote -- "The Florida election should be called in favor of Rick Scott and Ron DeSantis, in that large numbers of new ballots showed up out of nowhere, and many ballots are missing or forged. An honest vote count is no longer possible. Ballots massively infected. Must go with election night."

President Trump and Republicans, including Senator Rick Scott -- Governor, rather, Rick Scott, have alleged, without evidence, that Democrats are conspiring to overturn the initial results and attempt to commit fraud.

But, to be clear, the Florida Department of State, run by a Republican, I might mention, affirmed to me again today that they stand by their statement over the weekend, stating in no uncertain terms -- quote -- "Our staff has not seen any evidence of criminal activity in Broward County at this time."

Couldn't be clearer than that.

CNN's Ryan Nobles is in Tallahassee, Florida, inside the room where they are recounting the ballots for Leon County. It's happening as we speak.

Ryan, are officials there confident in their ability to finish the recount before that Thursday deadline?


In fact, here in Leon County, which is the home county to Tallahassee, the state capital, they believe their count will be done as soon as tomorrow. But Leon County was never the problem. There were other counties across Florida where there was a bit of concern that they may not be able to hit that Thursday deadline.

Today, though, election officials say that everything is going smooth and everyone hopes that the new count will be ready by 3:00 p.m. on Thursday.


NOBLES (voice-over): The recount is under way, a huge undertaking, 8.5 million ballots spread over 67 counties individually run through thousands of machines, with a goal of checking the results first released on Saturday afternoon.

As the machines churn, the politicians are playing a public relations game, attempting to convince their supporters they will be victorious.

GOV. RICK SCOTT (R), FLORIDA: What Bill Nelson needs to do now is what he would be asking me to do if I had lost the election, is say, look, you know, the election happened. Let's go forward. But he's not.

NOBLES: Governor Rick Scott, who is leading by just about 12,000 votes, believes he has won. A senior campaign official says he will travel to Washington this week and play the role of senator-elect, attending a photo-op on Capitol Hill and participating in leadership elections. He's filed several lawsuits and as governor has called on law

enforcement and Attorney General Pam Bondi to keep watch on the recount. Bondi, the state's top law enforcement officer and a Republican, sending a letter to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and secretary of state saying she was -- quote -- "deeply troubled" the two agencies don't see evidence to warrant a criminal investigation.

Scott's opponent, Bill Nelson, believes Scott, the governor, should not be involved in an election where Scott, the candidate, is running.

SEN. BILL NELSON (D), FLORIDA: Given his efforts to undermine the votes of Floridians, this is the only way that we can ensure the people's votes are protected.

NOBLES: Meanwhile, the recount moves along. In massive Miami-Dade County, election workers must work 24 hours a day to get done on time. In Palm Beach County, a spot of concern, the supervisor of elections once thought they might not be done on time. Today, she changed her tune, confident at least the Senate race would be done.

SUSAN BUCHER, PALM BEACH COUNTY SUPERVISOR OF ELECTIONS: We're fairly confident that we're going to meet the -- at least the machine recount by Thursday.

NOBLES: The Senate race has the best chance of flipping in a recount. But, if it happened, it would be unprecedented. The governor's race, while in a recount, is very unlikely to change, with a 33,000-vote margin.

And, as a result, the candidates are acting much different. Andrew Gillum, the Democratic nominee, not promising a new result, but vowing to make sure every vote is counted and perhaps auditioning for his next act.

ANDREW GILLUM (D), FLORIDA GUBERNATORIAL CANDIDATE: I'm simply here to say that, for the votes that have been cast, they ought to be counted, every last single one of them.


NOBLES: And the Republican candidate, Ron DeSantis, casting himself as governor-elect, staying above the fray, making only one taped public statement and not appearing in public since election night.



NOBLES: And about all these new ballots that Republicans claim were found in Broward County between election night and that final vote count on Saturday, Rick Scott, the governor, who is, of course, the candidate for Senate, posting on his Facebook page, alluding to the fact those votes were coming out of nowhere.

Now, that is because Broward County couldn't give a definitive number of votes that existed on election night. But as the counting process went along, they did give a final number to the election board and the secretary of state by the appointed deadline of noon on Saturday.

And, Jim, there is no question there was a degree of a lack of transparency with both of the Broward and Palm Beach County boards of elections and their supervisors there. But we must reiterate the point. There is simply no evidence of fraud and no evidence of criminal activity in this vote count and tabulation as we move forward to eventually figuring out who the next senator and governor in the state of Florida will end up being.

SCIUTTO: It's a wide gap between the charges there, including those repeated by the president, and the actual facts.

Ryan Nobles, keeping track of the facts on the ground there, thanks very much.

Joining us is Florida Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz. She's newly reelected, no recount required in her race.

Congresswoman, thanks for taking the time today.


SCIUTTO: I know you're familiar with it, but I want to reference the president's tweet from this morning again, particularly the final line. "Many ballots are missing or forged. An honest vote count is no longer possible. Ballots massively infected." Not clear what he means by that. "Must go with election night."

What is your response to what the president is alleging there?

WASSERMAN SCHULTZ: Well, let's remember that the president said after his own election that there were three million votes in California that were illegally cast without any evidence whatsoever.

And so here we go again. It's grossly irresponsible and completely inaccurate, absolutely untrue. And the only thing that happened is actual votes that were cast were counted and the process under Florida law was followed. Every supervisor of elections in the state, Jim, has until noon on Saturday after the election to get their vote counts in from their canvassing process.

And that's exactly what happened. And so, you know, it is not only unhelpful, but it also is really undermining our democracy to suggest that anything other than making sure that every legal vote cast is -- should be counted. It's what every one of our elected officials should advocate for.

SCIUTTO: Let me ask you this just as a practical element here. No one would dispute that votes should be counted and all votes cast should be counted.

From a practical standpoint, though, let's look at the Senate race here, still divided by more than 12,000 votes. The nonpartisan group FairVote showed that in statewide elections like this, really, you're not likely to overturn a margin of any more than 282 votes, right?

So the math appears to be against not only the Senate candidate there, but it's even an wider margin for governor, Andrew Gillum, vs. Ron DeSantis. From a practical standpoint, what do the Democrats have to gain here?

WASSERMAN SCHULTZ: Well, what Americans have to gain, what Floridians have to gain is making sure that Florida law is followed.

You know, we have already been through a chaotic, nightmarish recount process 18 years ago. And we didn't have a uniform process then. Now, after that experience, we changed the law, and so that we have all 67 counties that, when there is a half-a-percent or less margin between candidates, we have a machine recount, and that's the process we're in now.

And then we have a manual recount if it gets to below a quarter- percent. And that is so that we can make sure that the most important thing occurs, that voters who cast ballots lawfully have the confidence that their vote was counted.

We have signature issues, we have undervote issues, and so even if the vote doesn't result in a different outcome from the initial reporting, we have to make sure that our process is followed.


SCIUTTO: Listen -- and that's fair.

WASSERMAN SCHULTZ: This is the third largest state in the country

SCIUTTO: Right. Exactly. And God knows, it's a state that is often crucial.

WASSERMAN SCHULTZ: Millions of votes, eight million votes cast.

SCIUTTO: And a state that's often crucial to the makeup -- to the presidency, to the balance of power in the Senate, et cetera.


SCIUTTO: So I get you on that. You talk about changes made after 2000. I covered it, many of my colleagues covered that recount there.


SCIUTTO: And the thought in the wake of that was, OK, let's see Florida get their system together.

But the fact is, here we are in 2018, and you have instances -- and I don't mean to focus too much attention on the Broward County election supervisor, Brenda Snipes, who has become sort of a favorite target of folks on the right.

But the fact is, she has had missteps in recent elections, and yet still has that position here and appears to have missed some deadlines, et cetera.


Why hasn't the process been corrected to remove people like that and get people get people into those key positions who can do the job, do the job, as required?

WASSERMAN SCHULTZ: Well, number one, she's followed the process as Florida law prescribes.

And there has been absolutely nothing amiss that has been found by Rick Scott's only Department of State election monitors, who have been in her office since the spring, and through Florida Department of Law Enforcement, which has also said there has been nothing alleged and no evidence of anything that has gone wrong.

The process is simply working. The deadlines have been met. And you have to ask Rick Scott about, you know -- who is the one that made a decision whether or not to suspend her or not. But she's a duly elected officeholder.

She actually is one of the top two vote-getters countywide in Broward County. You don't just indiscriminately dismiss someone simply because you, you know, don't like the outcome of an election.

We -- or like the outcome of an election. At the end of the day, Jim, even if my candidates that I favored don't win at the end of this process, that's not the goal here. The goal of all of us that are responsible should be that everybody who cast a vote lawfully should have it counted, period. That's what we all should be for.

SCIUTTO: Including those overseas, deployed military, whose ballots might not have been tabulated yet. Only fair to them.

WASSERMAN SCHULTZ: Yes. Yes. And mail-in ballots that were stuck in a post office because of the bomber that we had here. And I'm sure that's going to be litigated as well, because those votes were sent in, in time, likely. And we're going to have to determine whether they should be counted.

SCIUTTO: Fair point.

Congresswoman Wasserman Schultz, thanks very much for taking the time.

WASSERMAN SCHULTZ: Thank you. My pleasure.

SCIUTTO: When it comes to President Trump, Democrats do agree on one thing.

Then one mother tells CNN a rare polio-like illness killed her child. So, why is the CDC saying there are no deaths associated with the illness this year?


[16:16:14] SCIUTTO: Welcome back. President Trump today making yet another baseless claim. The

Democrats tanked Wall Street today, he claims, tweeting, the prospect of presidential harassment by the Dems is causing the stock market big headaches, exclamation point. We've got no evidence that is making investors nervous, in fact, causing stocks to fall. But Democrats are taking control of the House. The likely new heads of three major house committees, Judiciary, Intelligence and Oversight, all revealing this weekend their plans to investigate the Trump administration and, if necessary, use subpoenas to do so.

CNN's Pam Brown is live at the White House.

Pam, do we know how President Trump has responded to this new era, these new threats from Congress?

PAMELA BROWN, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Jim, he is responding by resorting to a familiar tactic. As you pointed out, tweeting and putting blame elsewhere. But I can tell you, in talking to White House officials, there is certainly a sense of anxiousness in the West Wing about what is to come now that House Democrats are starting to make their intentions known.


BROWN (voice-over): As the country spent the day honoring veterans, President Trump stayed in the White House with nothing on his public schedule but with his phone in hand. President tweeting about a number of topics, including what his future could hold under a Democrat-controlled House. The prospect of presidential harassment by the Dems is causing the stock market big headaches. Giving no proof the markets are being affected by Democrats by using the same term Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell used just last week.

SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY), MAJORITY LEADER: The Democrats in the House will have to decide just how much presidential harassment they think is good strategy. I'm not so sure it will work for them.

BROWN: Some Democratic leaders have hinted at beginning investigations, or issuing subpoenas for the president's tax returns while others, like minority leader and front runner for house speaker, Nancy Pelosi, have said Democrats must be judicious with their new powers.

But one thing all Democrats agree on, that Matthew Whitaker, President Trump's pick to serve as acting attorney general, should recuse himself from the Mueller investigation based on his previous statements denouncing the probe.

REP. NANCY PELOSI (D-CA), MINORITY LEADER: There's bipartisan editorializing about this that he should never have been appointed and that it does violence to the Constitution.

REP. JERROLD NADLER (D) JUDICIARY COMMITTEE RANKING MEMBER: Our very first witness after January 3, we will subpoena Mr. -- or we will summon if necessary subpoena Mr. Whitaker.

JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: And what will you ask Mr. Whitaker?

NADLER: Well, the questions we will ask him will be about his expressed hostility to the investigation, how he can possibly supervise it.

BROWN: President Trump, meanwhile, while on an international trip to Paris to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I, kept his attention on important events, taking to twitter to spread false or unsubstantiated claims. Trump made wild accusations of election fraud and theft without evidence, saying the state of Florida should abandon its legally mandated recount and just go with the incomplete results of election night, and Trump incorrectly claiming the catastrophic California wildfires are caused by poor forest management, angering some firefighter groups who called Trump's tweet reckless and insulting.


BROWN: Now, as for why President Trump isn't participating in the events on this federal holiday, Veterans Day, unusual for a sitting president, the White House is pointing to the president's participation honoring veterans in Paris yesterday and the fact that veterans' events happened at Arlington Cemetery yesterday, as well. But, Jim, as you know, this is a president who talks often about veterans, so of course, he could have done something today to honor the vets and he made a decision not to -- Jim.

SCIUTTO: And he missed a couple this weekend in Europe, as well. Pamela Brown at the White House, thanks very much.

Joined now by our panel.

I want to start, if I can, with you, Doug Heye. Democratic Congressman Adam Schiff, soon to be chairman, expected of the House Intelligence Committee, he just released an op-ed published in the "Washington Post" and aimed specifically at the new acting attorney general, Matthew Whitaker. I want to quote and get your response.

He says, should Whitaker fail to recuse himself, all indications are that he plans not to. And seems to obstruct the investigation, serve as a back channel to the president or his legal team or interfere in the investigations in any way, he will be called to answer. His actions will be exposed.

It's quite a direct message. How do you take that threat? I don't know if threat is the right word. But that promise, perhaps.

DOUG HEYE, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, it's certainly a promise that could be the beginning of threats. Democrats have been very clear that they're going to investigate this president as much and as deeply as they can and not just the president himself, but the entire administration. Every committee in the House is an oversight agency or is an oversight committee. They're going to go full board in here.

Where I would caution Democrats is to not do what Republicans did in the late '90s where it's easy to become over-enthused with your own investigations. What Republicans did to Bill Clinton in the late '90s actually helped Bill Clinton electorally. And if Democrats go too far, and it's hard to resist your urges when you're being urged from the outside as well, from activists who want to go further and see you fight more, and we hear a lot of Democrats using that word, "fight," it's hard to resist that. And lord knows, they could make Donald Trump a sympathetic figure to some people.

SCIUTTO: Karine, I want your view on that to see if that's fair advice. But in that vein, I want to quote from Nancy Pelosi, expects to be the House speaker, although there are some challenges to her leadership, because it sounds like she might be taking Doug's advice, or at least advice along that line. Here's what she had to say.

We have great opportunity and therefore great responsibility to get results for the American people. In the next few weeks, we need to be unified, find common ground with Republicans in our legislative engagements, but stand our ground when we must. Of course, she's not shying away there, it seems, Karine, from a battle, if necessary. But she also seems to be calling her members to task and saying we also have to deliver something for voters.

KARINE JEAN-PIERRE, SENIOR ADVISER, MOVEON.ORG: And I think that's right. I think they have to both deliver, but also be an oversight, which is their constitutional duty as members in Congress to this president. It is an equal branch of government. And that's one of the reasons they got elected. I'm sorry, some of them got re-elected and elected into Congress, is to be a check on this administration.

So, we have to be really clear on that. And they have to be. And they understand and are clear on that, as well. And what we're seeing is one of the most, if not the most corrupt administration in our history, certainly in my lifetime, where you have a president that's making money off the presidency. You have cabinet officials who are awash in conflict of interest.

And so, we're living in different times. And let's not forget the policies. We have separation of families, a policy that needs to be investigated. We have 3,000 people, Americans, who died in Puerto Rico because of the lackluster response by this government, by the administration. So, we have to look into all of that.

But yes, they also need to be proactive in legislation. Their first bill that I'm reading about that, the House is thinking about doing is on voter registration, is on automatic voter registration. And also, reinvigorating Voting Rights Act, which is actually a very important thing to do with all of the voter suppression we have seen across the country in this election.

SCIUTTO: That's an issue, Amanda Carpenter. I don't imagine you'll get a lot of Republican votes.

But when Nancy Pelosi talks about finding common ground with Republicans, are there realistically areas of potential agreement? I mean, we heard this in 2016. Oh, what about an infrastructure bill.



SCIUTTO: DACA for the wall perhaps. Yes, so let's run that through the reality check wringer here. What comes out on the other end?

CARPENTER: Listen, you're always going to have a constituency for spending money. And if Donald Trump wants to go down on infrastructure tour, it would essentially be like a stimulus. He'll always have Democratic votes for that if he wants to go build some bridges and things like that.

But he's out there tweeting about the stock market today. He should be most concerned about his own finances. There's lots of worthy investigations to look into.

But what Adam Schiff laid out last month in October, where he intended to go as an intelligence chairman, I think is fraught with the most peril. He came out and said there are credible allegations that the Russians have financial leverage over Donald Trump, and he was willing to look into possible money laundering as a national security issue.

In terms of how the Democrats wrap-up all of the sort of tangled threads that might be worthy to the public, I think he's getting into the sweet spot. And so he's going to take that over. Congressman Nadler can take over, you know, any oversight of the Department of Justice with pardon power, and Whitaker. And I think you're going to see Elijah Cummings that clean up with oversight for things like family detention.

[16:25:04] So, they could divvy it up like that and then Nancy Pelosi can go build some bridges if she wants. Theoretically, her (INAUDIBLE).

SCIUTTO: Right. We'll see. I mean, it will all be -- you know. I'll be impressed.

Abby Phillip, who always asks smart questions, by the way -- Abby Phillip, where do Democrats stand on the impeachment question? I thought it was interesting, Nadler this weekend, he had some comments saying, listen, you know, this is a divisive path to take. You've got to make sure you have more of the country than just Democrats on board for that. But is it your read from covering the politics in Washington that Democrats are shying away from going that path?

ABBY PHILLIP, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Absolutely, at least the Democrats in Washington. They understand that that is so fraught for them that even while impeachment is sort of like something hanging over the heads of their base, enticing them, that it could be -- pretty poisonous for Democrats in the long term.

I mean, just look at a couple of months ago, just before the Kavanaugh hearings. The argument we were hearing from Republicans, from President Trump, was if Democrats take office, they're going to try to impeach me. Republicans think impeachment is a great argument for them. They thought it was a good argument for them going into the midterms. And chances are President Trump will use it as a good argument for him as he goes into his re-election.

So I think Democrats are cognizant of that. They understand how in '90s when President Clinton faced impeachment, how his approval ratings actually rose during that time period. There is a risk of lionizing President Trump at a time when they actually want to most weaken him going into his reelection.

So I think you're going to see Democrats tiptoeing around this. But the question is how much is the base going to allow them to do that. I'm not sure that they have a good handle on where the base is on that issue and where some of these newer members who are maybe more progressive are going to be on that issue, as well.

SCIUTTO: And listen, it will be quite a question when the Mueller report comes out. If there is something surprising in there, listen, we don't know. That will be the real test, how Democrats proceed with that.

Listen, thanks to all of you, as always.

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