Return to Transcripts main page

THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER

Trump Once Again Questions U.S. Intelligence Conclusions; Trump Blasts Admiral Who Ordered Bin Laden Raid; Crisis In California: Forecast Could Bring Mudslides and More Danger. Aired 4-4:30p ET

Aired November 19, 2018 - 16:00   ET

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


[16:00:10]

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN ANCHOR: Remember when President Obama was slammed for saluting Marines while holding Starbucks?

THE LEAD starts right now.

Commander in beef. President Trump sticks by his tradition of insulting the U.S. military, again today slamming the Navy SEAL commander who orchestrated the bin Laden raid, this after he accuses the president of stomping on the Constitution.

Despite butchering a journalist, President Trump is saying Saudi Arabia is still a spectacular ally -- why he appears to be OK with the crown prince's cover-up.

Plus, simply breathing today in San Francisco is like smoking several cigarettes, according to an environmental group. And now the wildfire misery has led to new threats of disaster.

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

The Dow closing now as we speak, you can see there, down nearly 400 points. Stocks falling sharply, dragged down by tech companies like Apple and Facebook. At one point, the market was down more than 500 points.

But we do begin today with the politics lead and a week that should be filled with gratitude and thanks and honor kicking off with the president attacking an esteemed retired military officer, not just any military leader, the Navy SEAL commander who led the Osama bin Laden raid, Admiral Bill McRaven.

And in Trump-like fashion, the president is not just going after a man who has served both Republican and Democratic leaders. He is continuing to tweet about it, insisting that the four-star admiral should have captured the 9/11 mastermind sooner, writing: "Of course we should have captured Osama bin Laden long before we did. I pointed him out in my book, just before the attack on the World Trade Center. President Clinton famously missed his shot. We paid Pakistan billions of dollars, and they never told us he was there. Fools!"

We should point out it was not McRaven's responsibility to find Osama bin Laden. It was the CIA's. And McRaven has said he believed that Trump's attacks on the media is the greatest threat to democracy, which he stood by in response to the president, saying to CNN -- quote -- "When you undermine the people's right to free press and freedom of speech and expression, then you threaten the Constitution and all for which it stands."

This is adding to the growing list of presidential attacks against admired retired and current service members, from Gold Star families to Senator John McCain. And now the Republican Party is siding with Trump, tweeting -- quote -- "Worth noting after recent comments, retired Admiral William McRaven was reportedly on Hillary Clinton's short list for vice president in 2016. He's been critical of President Trump, even dating back to the 2016 campaign. He is hardly a nonpolitical figure."

That from the Republican Party.

CNN's Barbara Starr joins me now live.

Barbara, McRaven certainly not the kind of person you would expect a commander in chief to attack. Many years in the service. Many hard years in the service. Why is Trump going after him?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, let's start with this.

There is no public indication Bill McRaven has any plans to run for public political office. President Trump likes to hit back at his critics. He likes to be the toughest guy in the room. With Bill McRaven, he might have met his match.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

STARR (voice-over): Commander in chief Donald Trump verbally assaulting retired Four-Star Admiral William McRaven, the Navy SEAL who led the dangerous mission that killed Osama bin Laden.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: OK, he's a Hillary Clinton backer and an Obama backer, and, frankly...

CHRIS WALLACE, HOST, "FOX NEWS SUNDAY": He was a Navy SEAL 37 years.

TRUMP: Wouldn't it have been nice if we got Osama Bin Laden a lot sooner? Wouldn't it have been nice?

STARR: McRaven commanding covert operations around the world, including SEAL Team Six and the Army's Delta Force, including troops who helped capture Saddam Hussein and rescue Captain Richard Phillips from Somali pilots.

McRaven is not backing down in the face of President Trump's words, telling CNN: "I stand by my comment that the president's attack on the media is the greatest threat to our democracy in my lifetime."

Trump then doubling down, tweeting: "Of course we should have captured Osama bin Laden long before we did." Trump apparently furious about an August op-ed in which McRaven defended former CIA Director John Brennan after Trump revoked Brennan's security clearance, writing: "I would consider it an honor if you would revoke my security clearance as well."

[16:05:00]

Despite the insults, the president's defenders say he always puts the military first.

KELLYANNE CONWAY, TRUMP SENIOR ADVISER: No president has shown greater respect for the military and the veterans.

STARR: But another four-star special operations commander fired by President Obama defended McRaven against Trump.

GEN. STANLEY MCCHRYSTAL (RET.), FORMER U.S. COMMANDER IN AFGHANISTAN: The president is simply wrong.

STARR: And raised the issue why the president did not visit Arlington Cemetery this past Veterans Day.

MCCHRYSTAL: Maybe that's honest, because if you really don't care, it would be a dishonest to pretend that you do.

STARR: But the president says in the future he will go.

TRUMP: You know, in retrospect, I should have. And I did last year. And I will virtually every year.

STARR: President Trump's insults to military heroes go back to the 2016 presidential campaign, attacking John McCain, who spent more than five years as a POW in north Vietnam.

TRUMP: He's not a war hero.

QUESTION: He's a war hero.

(CROSSTALK)

TRUMP: He's a war hero because he was captured. I like people that weren't captured, OK, I hate to tell you.

STARR: And as a candidate criticizing Gold Star parents.

KHIZR KHAN, GOLD STAR PARENT: You have sacrificed nothing and no one.

STARR: Especially a mother whose son was killed in Iraq.

TRUMP: If you look at his wife, she was standing there. She had nothing to say. She probably -- maybe she wasn't allowed to have anything to say. You tell me.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

STARR: And in the last couple of minutes, the former CIA Director Leon Panetta, who led the agency during the bin Laden mission, issued a statement saying in part -- and I quote -- "President Trump owes an apology to admiral Bill McRaven and all of the special operations forces and intelligence professionals who planned and executed one of the most important counterterrorism missions in our nation's history."

And perhaps something to think about is just how hard it is to find a particular person somewhere in the world who is a so-called high-value target. President Trump's administration still has not found Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of ISIS -- Jim.

SCIUTTO: Well, it's a fair point. Barbara Starr, thanks very much.

Joined now by our panel.

Scott Jennings, if I could begin with you, you're aware of the president's frequent attacks on some of the most revered figures in the military. We saw it with Bill McRaven. I don't have to repeat his record. We saw it with John McCain. We saw it with Khizr Khan, General John Allen. You saw it with Bob Mueller, of course, who was a decorated veteran in Vietnam. And the president attacks them.

Why does the president go down this path so consistently?

SCOTT JENNINGS, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, I think the president, obviously, takes very personally when people attack him politically, as a lot of presidents do.

But I think what he needs to focus on is delineating between the political differences of opinion he has with these folks and their service. I for one as a Republican am grateful for Admiral McRaven. This man went out and put his life on the line and killed terrorists so that my children can grow up in a world that is safe for freedom and democracy.

I'm grateful for that. And he's earned his right to have a political opinion. He's earned his right to criticize the president. And if he wants to get into a political argument with the president, that's fine. I think we can actually have political disagreements with former military heroes like Admiral McRaven without getting personal and without denigrating their service.

And so what I would like to see us be able to do, as a Republican Party here, is say, look, we honor your service, we don't agree with you politically, but we can still honor your service.

(CROSSTALK)

SCIUTTO: Scott, to be fair, you're calling it political. I just want to remind our viewers what McRaven said.

McRaven said that to have a president call the media the enemy of the people, that that is an attack on the Constitution and freedom of expression. He wasn't going after the president's personal politics. He was calling out the president for what he said was a statement contrary to American values.

Mary Katharine Ham, is that a political criticism from a former member of the military?

MARY KATHARINE HAM, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: I mean, yes, I think they can have a political disagreement about that and about -- I think I would maybe disagree with McRaven about whether it's the biggest threat to democracy in our lifetimes. But that's a case you can make if you want to make the case.

He doesn't make the case. And this is about him, as it's always about him. And Trump, as too many people in our body politic believe now, think the only path to redemption is to agree with Trump, to vote for Trump and to praise Trump. And so if you cross that line, he can't take into account all of the other good that you have done as a human or as a patriot. And that is very unfortunate.

SCIUTTO: Even when you put your life on the line.

Symone, sorry. I didn't mean to cut you off.

(CROSSTALK)

SYMONE SANDERS, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: No, you're good, Jim.

Look, I think that a cornerstone of what makes America different, what makes us I think in many respects better, is that we have a peaceful transfer of power, when we have free and fair and open elections, and that we have the freedom of the press.

And so the fact that the president is attacking that is a direct affront to our democracy. But I would just like to remind folks that in the months leading up to Osama bin Laden being killed, President Trump, then citizen Trump was trafficking in a racist birther conspiracy that was resulted in former President Obama releasing his birth certificate in April of that same year, before bin Laden was killed that May.

[16:10:15]

So, look, Donald Trump, he says he cares so much about the veterans. He says he cares so much about our military. But at every single turn, he has given them the proverbial middle finger. And I just don't know how much longer he's going to get away with it.

(CROSSTALK)

JENNINGS: One thing on what Symone just said, Jim, I would just like to point out, though, he has not given them the middle finger on policy issues.

I think that is a step too far, with all due respect, Symone. They have increased military spending. They gave the troops a raise. They have given them better equipment. They have restored in many ways the military from being in a shambles in some ways under the Obama years' budget.

(CROSSTALK)

SANDERS: The military has always been the biggest budget, if we want to be frank.

(CROSSTALK)

SANDERS: The military has always been the biggest budget. No one is skimping on the military here.

(CROSSTALK)

JENNINGS: Oh, it had fallen into great disrepair during the Obama years. And they have absolutely increased military spending and given the troops a much-needed pay raise. That's absolutely true.

SCIUTTO: OK. You can debate whether that gives the president the right to repeatedly attack service men with many decades...

(CROSSTALK)

JENNINGS: It does not give him the right to do that.

(CROSSTALK)

SCIUTTO: OK. Of course, and the president did not volunteer for service.

But, Kirsten Powers, I want to ask you a question.

The GOP today tweeted support, in effect, for the president's attack on McRaven and made this claim that McRaven is in effect political, saying that he reportedly was interested in being in Hillary Clinton's -- Hillary Clinton's vice president, which McRaven and the Clinton campaign have denied.

But why is the GOP following the president down this path?

KIRSTEN POWERS, CNN COMMENTATOR: Well, that was exactly what I was going to ask.

Basically, even if you were to allow for all sorts of contingencies here, at the end of the day, even if he is, you know, treating the military well and they believe they're being treated well, it wouldn't matter how much money a Democrat was giving to the military if they spoke about a veteran this way.

So, the question is, why are Republicans backing him up, I mean, not even seemingly angry at him about it, and then backing him up on it? This is just such a -- so far from anything that I recognize from how Republicans normally act when we're talking about people who have served the country.

I also want to say, even if he had been a Hillary Clinton supporter, it wouldn't make this OK. So, you know, he has a right to support whoever he wants to support. It so happens he says he didn't support Hillary Clinton, but even if he did, he still deserves a basic amount of respect for his service and for what he did in terms of bin Laden.

SCIUTTO: Mary Katharine, taking this in the bigger picture, because it's certainly not the first man or woman in uniform that he has attacked or formerly in uniform -- he did not go to the cemetery in France to honor the World War I soldiers on the 100th anniversary of the end of that bloody war.

He did not go to Arlington National Cemetery on Veterans Day. I just wonder, from your perspective, is all of this smart politics...

HAM: No.

SCIUTTO: ... for this president?

HAM: No.

Going to the cemeteries -- and I don't mean this in a flippant way -- is like the easy move. You go and you pay respects. It's far easier than all those who lay within those cemeteries, the things that they had to do. So I think you go and you do that.

And it's not smart to not do that. And it's not terribly respectful to not do that. And when you have an easy way to do it, you make it happen.

But like I said, I think -- and I think as far as the GOP backing him up on this, we go down a bad road as a citizenry when we start thinking about bad veteran vs. good veteran based on politics.

And we should all be able to acknowledge and appreciate the sacrifices that they and their families have given us and for our freedom and all of the fighting and pain that they go through without having to worry about that, while also acknowledging we can have political disagreements. We can do that as a people. I believe in us.

SCIUTTO: And particularly when you think in the last 15 years for the military, right, multiple deployments to a degree that the military has not been asked to do in past wars. And I don't think that can be said enough.

Listen, thanks to all of you. I know it's a difficult topic and I appreciate -- and we're going to have you back shortly.

Coming up, it is hard to imagine, but things could get much worse for the neighborhoods already reduced to ashes by those California fires. Just look at those images.

Plus, do as he says, not as he does. President Trump really setting his own example of -- quote -- "decorum."

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:18:37] SCIUTTO: In our national lead, more bad news in California. What seemed like a break for firefighters battling the state's most deadly fire could actually make conditions worse. Four to six inches of rain is predicted this week, but with so much vegetation burned, all that water could cause mudslides, creating a dangerous and unstable ground for firefighters to continue to do their job. CNN's Nick Watt is in California at a FEMA processing center. He

joins me now.

Nick, outside of those hazardous conditions, we're really starting to see the human toll this has had and really people just finding a place for safe shelter.

NICK WATT, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, listen, Jim. This used to be an old abandoned department store until FEMA came in and it's now pretty much a one-stop-shop for people affected by these fires, people coming here to get their birth certificates, marriage licenses, property deeds reprinted, to apply for new driver's licenses that they lost in the fire. Also, to get some low-interest loans, to help rebuild. There's some free child care over there, even the Mexican counsel has a booth here.

You know, you mentioned the human toll here. More than 11,000 homes were destroyed by this fire. The hurt and need are great.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

WATT (voice-over): The list of those unaccounted for still nearly 1,000 names long. The grim search goes on.

KORY HONEA, BUTTE COUNTY SHERIFF CORONER: The number weighs heavily upon me. I have chosen not to speculate as to how high that number might be.

[16:20:08] WATT: One environmental group claiming a day of breathing this air is equivalent to smoking several cigarettes. And heavy rain now forecast, fueling fears of mudslides like those we saw in Montecito, California, in January after a wildfire, then rain.

Amid the heartache, heroes. School bus driver Kevin McKay (ph) is one.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We started getting fire on both sides of the bus.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: There were fires left and right, everywhere you look.

WATT: McKay drove five hours through the flames, 22 kids and two teaches on board his smoke-filled bus.

ABBIE DAVIS, TEACHER: Kevin, without even thinking about it, took his shirt off and tore it into little pieces to make filters for these kids to breathe.

WATT: In southern California, the fire around Malibu and Calabasas that burned nearly 100,000 acres and took three lives is now 91 percent contained.

President Trump visited California's fire zone Saturday, pressing his much maligned belief that forest management is the primary problem here. DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I was with the

president of Finland and he said we have a much different -- we're a forest nation. He called it a forest nation. And they spend a lot of time on raking and cleaning and doing things and they don't have any problem.

WATT: Finland's president saying Sunday he can't ever recall mentioning raking to the president. Online, Finns widely mocking Trump.

The Camp Fire has burned 11 days now. Officials now saying it's only halfway done. It will burn another 11 days before it's final extinguished.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

WATT: Now, many of the people made homeless by this fire are still in these kind of makeshift camp sites in places like the Walmart parking lot across the street from where we are. Authorities are now trying to move them into regular shelters, but, you know, one Red Cross worker we spoke to this morning said the Red Cross shelters, they're life rafts. They're not cruise ships. These are temporary solutions.

You know, Jim, it's going to take years for these communities to really recover.

SCIUTTO: Yes, that number is just incredible, 11,700 homes. Think of how many families are affected.

Nick Watt, thanks so much.

President Trump is getting into the holiday spirit in his only public event of the day. But behind the scenes, it is not exactly a Christmas story.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

[16:27:16] TRUMP: Decorum. Decorum. You have to practice decorum.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SCIUTTO: That was the president calling on Friday for decorum at the White House. Two days later, President Trump firing off a vulgar tweet, insulting a sitting congressman and likely next chair of the House Intelligence Committee, Adam Schiff.

It's just one of the many signs that the president, after the blue wave washed over the House, does not seem to be reassessing his brash political style. Instead, embracing it.

CNN's Pamela Brown is at the White House.

Pamela, I mean, what was it, days, hours, minutes ago that the president said he wanted to have a softer tone? PAMELA BROWN, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Yes, well, if

anything, Jim, he's adopted an even more combative tone in some areas, even as he insists that everything is running smoothly here at the White House.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BROWN (voice-over): President Trump getting into the holiday spirit in front of the cameras today as the White House Christmas tree arrived.

REPORTER: Mr. President!

BROWN: But behind the scenes, Trump is continuing his combative attitude. Lashing out at critics as the Mueller investigation is nearing a final report.

TRUMP: It's a scam.

BROWN: The president saying while he has prepared written answers for his legal team, there will not likely be a sit-down interview.

TRUMP: We have wasted enough time on this witch-hunt. And the answer is probably. We're finished.

BROWN: And he blasted Congressman Adam Schiff, misspelling the name of the likely incoming House intelligence chair. After Schiff raised questions about acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker overseeing the special counsel investigation.

He claimed in his tweet, Bob Mueller is highly conflicted and was not approved by the Senate. But Mueller was confirmed by the Senate for FBI director, and didn't need Senate confirmation for his role as special counsel.

Still, Trump telling Fox, the fate of the Mueller probe is ultimately in Whitaker's hands.

TRUMP: It's going to be up to him. I think he's very well aware politically. I really believe he's going to do what's right.

CHRIS WALLACE, FOX NEWS HOST: But you won't overrule him if he decides to curtail --

TRUMP: I would not get involved.

BROWN: Trump also claiming, he didn't know about Whitaker's past statements critical of the Mueller probe. Despite sources telling CNN, that's what drew him to Trump in the first place.

TRUMP: I did not know he took views on the Mueller investigation as such.

You look at what's marching up, that's an invasion.

BROWN: The president also reviving his midterm talking point about the migrant caravan as it approaches the U.S. border, tweeting, the U.S. is ill-prepared for this invasion and will not stand for it. Go home.

This coming as Trump appears frustrated with Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen.

TRUMP: I like her very much. I respect her very much. I would like her to be much tougher on the border. Much tougher, period.

BROWN: And he didn't exactly give a ringing endorsement of his chief of staff, General Kelly, who he claimed months ago will be staying on through 2020.