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New Member Democratic Priorities; Russia Says Dialogue isn't Working; Second Trump-Kim Meeting; House Race under Scrutiny; Fentanyl Classified as Controlled Substance. Aired 9:30-10a ET

Aired December 4, 2018 - 09:30   ET

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


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[09:30:27] POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: All right, 30 days to go until Democrats officially take control of the House. They're taking on their top priorities and now dozens of freshman newcomers are telling party leaders exactly what their priorities should be.

Joining me now is one of those leaders, Democratic Congressman, chief deputy whip, Peter Welch of Vermont.

Good morning. Good to have you.

: Good morning.

HARLOW: So you're the one who said, and I quote, before the midterms, if we get the majority, we have to have some humility. So let me read you part of this letter that 46 incoming freshman Democrats wrote. Quote, while we have a duty to exercise oversight of the executive branch, we must prioritize action on topics such as the cost of health care, infrastructure, immigration, gun safety, the environment, criminal justice reform. We have a mandate to debate, draft and work across the aisle to pass legislation.

That does not sound like an incoming class totally focused solely on investigating the president. Are you encouraged?

REP. PETER WELCH (D), VERMONT: I am really encouraged. I think they nailed it. You know, this election, every two years, the American people have a chance to send a message to the president that they want a mid-course correction. And I think that's fundamentally what the verdict was. But now that we are in the majority, we've earned the opportunity to gain the trust of the American people by what we do. And that letter signed by 46 new members focuses on getting things done, like lowering the cost of prescription drugs, like infrastructure, building up broad band in rural America. Essentially doing things that would be good, not just for blue states, but for red states as well.

HARLOW: They -- they also have some demands in here, as you know, including monthly meetings between Pelosi top leaders, like yourself and the freshmen, and then also new member representation on powerful committees, like appropriations, ways and means, energy and commerce, finance. Do you support those two things? WELCH: Well, I do support their overall effort to play a major role.

And if they start --

HARLOW: But what about these specifically these two things?

WELCH: No, specially I'd be fine with that.

HARLOW: All right.

WELCH: The committee assignments are always a tug of war. But the bottom line here is that this new class brings a lot of energy. And when they're focusing on getting attention on issues, as opposed to just investigations, they're doing the right thing.

The second point is that they want a Congress, as I'm hearing it, where our committees have power. What's happened in the past eight years is that the power has been totally concentrated in the speakers offices. And you saw that with the tax bill where there was not a single hearing. You saw it with the repeal of health care, where there was not a single hearing. I mean that's pretty astonishing.

HARLOW: Yes.

WELCH: And what I'm hearing from the new members is, look, let's have strong committees. We want representation on all those committees, but we want the committees to be out in the open in public and doing this legislation.

HARLOW: Yes.

WELCH: As a Democratic member of Congress, I'm interested in your reaction to what your Democratic colleague, Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown, had to say this week about why he thinks that Democrats in rural areas have been underperforming Republican candidates. Listen to this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. SHERROD BROWN(D), OHIO: If you love your country, you fight for the people that make it work, whether they punch a clock or swipe a badge or work for a salary or work for tips, or whether they're raising children or whether they're caring for an aging parent. And I don't think Democrats speak to workers enough about the dignity of work and about the respect we should have for workers.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

HARLOW: Is he right in that criticism of Democratic candidates?

WELCH: He's 100 percent right. He really is.

You know, we have a crisis in rural America. I mean just think about it, we don't have broadband out there.

HARLOW: Yes. WELCH: The opioid crisis is worse there than ever. It's been hallowed out with the loss of manufacturing job. And we have to reach out to the aspirations of folks in rural America. In fact, I think perhaps Sherrod's got it right, that if we do well in rural America or better where we're not particularly trusted, we're going to do well everywhere. So I do think that we have to have empathy and actions to help re-build and revitalize rural America.

HARLOW: He, of course, he has been talked about as a much-discussed sort of dark horse candidate in 2020. We'll see.

Let's talk about another 2020 potential candidate. And listen -- you just have to listen to him. If you missed it last night, let me quote former Vice President Joe Biden to applause at the University of Montana. Quote, I'll be as straight with you as I can. I think I'm the most qualified person in the country to be president.

What do you think? Would you vote for a candidate Biden?

WELCH: If he's our nominee I would. And he's great. He has an immense amount of affection within the Democratic Party. In fact, he's leading in the polls. I don't think that means an awful lot at this stage. You know, it's so early that who's going to emerge is a long way from any of us knowing. But Biden is very, very popular. And he does speak, in fact, to rural America and to working America and to the dignity of work, just like Sherrod Brown does.

[09:35:18] HARLOW: That's true. He does. Kamala Harris, another much talked about name, says she's going to make the decision over the holidays. If you put the two of them side-by-side, is Joe Biden still the most qualified to be president right now in your party?

WELCH: You know the one that we want is the one who can win. And, frankly, it's a little bit early because all of these candidates, whatever their resumes, and even a Vice President Biden, who's widely popular, how are they going to do, how are they going to connect and how are they connect across America? We just don't know. You know, when Barack Obama became president, when he was a candidate, people dismissed him. Bill Clinton, the same thing. So it's very possible and perhaps likely --

HARLOW: Yes.

WELCH: That somebody who's being mentioned now or even not mentioned is going to emerge and make that connection.

HARLOW: President Trump, right, same thing happened there.

WELCH: That's right.

HARLOW: All right. Thank you very much, Congressman Peter Welch. Nice to have you.

WELCH: Thank you.

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN ANCHOR: Fascinating. Fascinating. It's going to be an interesting Congress, differences within the party.

HARLOW: For sure.

SCIUTTO: In other news, Russia is ratcheting up the tough talk this morning after President Trump ditched a planned meeting with President Vladimir Putin. Have U.S. relations with Moscow reached another low, or is it temporary?

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[09:40:32] HARLOW: All right, so another chilling in relations this morning between Russia and the United States. According to the Kremlin, their view, the dialogue with the U.S., quote, not really working out, despite key issues that need to be discussed.

SCIUTTO: It comes after President Trump canceled a planned meeting with President Putin on the sidelines of the G-20 Summit. CNN's senior diplomatic correspondent, Michelle Kosinski, is at the State Department with the very latest.

It's interesting about that meeting because it was on again, off again, and then what really seemed to be the catalyst for the president canceling were the revelations from Michael Cohen, as opposed to other things, including Russian aggression in Ukraine.

MICHELLE KOSINSKI, CNN SENIOR DIPLOMATIC CORRESPONDENT: Right, and the White House keeps denying that that had anything to do with it. I mean when you raised that suggestion over the weekend, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told Wolf Blitzer that that was ludicrous to imagine that he canceled it for that reason. But it's interesting now to see Russia just harping on this cancellation, obviously annoyed by it. They're using language to that effect.

And when you see Russian media right now just hammering President Trump over this latest development and the bad relationship between the U.S. and Russia, saying that he shouldn't be trusted, that he's a rock around Russia's neck, such a difference between this and the celebration we saw in the Russian press after the Helsinki summit between Trump and Vladimir Putin that Russia saw as a big victory for them.

HARLOW: And, Michelle, before you go, on Kim Jong-un and on, you know, summit number two. Another thing that Wolf asked Secretary of State Mike Pompeo about. We're learning a little bit more from John Bolton this morning, right, talking about sort of we've opened the door. Now it's up to them to walk-through it.

KOSINSKI: Right.

HARLOW: When might that walk-through happen?

KOSINSKI: Yes, well, they're still saying -- I mean this is the latest word from the administration now coming from National Security Adviser Bolton, saying that, you know, shortly after the first of the year. Sometime early in 2019 they are expecting to this have summit. But he's making it clear, maybe more clear than we've heard from others lately, that North Korea has not kept up its commitment, as if anyone didn't know that. I mean it's obvious. We had a canceled meeting between the North Koreans and the secretary of state. We have obvious lack of progress in that. But, remember, North Korea committed to work towards complete denuclearization. Now we have Bolton again coming out and saying, nope, they're not living up to their end of the bargain, and until they do, the U.S. is in no way going to lift sanctions on North Korea.

And, of course, Kim Jong-un would love to see some U.S. movement. They want to see the U.S. take a big step, like the lifting of sanctions or like declaring peace on the Korean peninsula. But so far it's a stalemate really. The U.S. wants to see North Korea take that kind of a big step.

HARLOW: OK, Michelle Kosinski, thank you on both fronts. Appreciate it.

A small North Carolina county at the center of a growing and very important investigation into possible election fraud. Allegations that absentee ballots may have been tampered with to favor the Republican candidate who won the election. Someone very close to him being pointed to as the mastermind of this. And this could mean an entire new election. This is very significant. Ahead.

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[09:48:18] SCIUTTO: Allegations of possible election fraud in North Carolina, in a congressional race there, has thrown a closely watched race into chaos that centers around the 9th Congress District. Right now Republican Mark Harris leading by a little more than 900 votes. Look at how tight the margin is there. But the state election board, a bipartisan board, has now delayed certifying those results as election officials look into credible allegations that absentee ballots were tampered with to the benefit of the Republican candidate in this case.

CNN has looked at 161 ballots and discovered the same nine people signed at least ten ballots each. Three witnesses signed more than 40 ballots each. Another signed 30. In North Carolina, only the voter or near relative can hand in an absentee ballot.

Joining me now is CNN's senior political writer and analyst Harry Enten.

Harry, the details of this are remarkable and alarming here. They're talking about the word harvesting has been used, that operatives were sent around to take empty absentee ballots from really impoverished areas and then sign them, in effect, for the Republican candidate. Is that's what's alleged here?

HARRY ENTEN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL WRITER AND ANALYST: Well, I think that there are a few things. Number one, as you pointed out, ballot harvesting, which is the mere idea that someone who isn't an immediate family member or the person themselves is signing the ballot and sending it in via mail is illegal, regardless of whether or not they tampered with the ballot. But, in fact, that there are some pretty credible affidavits that are out there that suggest that, in fact, it's more than that. That, in fact, you took these ballots that were only filled in a few positions and then they weren't actually sealed and then that leads to the possibility of what could have occurred was that they then tampered with the ballots themselves and then sent them in. and indeed one of the people who is in charge of this effort, supposedly, is a gentleman who was, in fact, a consultant with Mark Harris, the Republican candidates, campaign, who obviously is ahead right now, but only by about 900 vote.

[09:50:10] And this indeed goes all the way back to the primary. Remember, Robert Pettinger (ph), who was the incumbent Republican, got defeated in the primary by Mark Harris and there are credible allegations there that in fact there might have been some tampering. Of course, right now, we're just talking about the general election.

SCIUTTO: Incredible. Now, to be clear, invariably with a story like this, you will have partisan claims that, well, this is one party, you know, trying to skew the facts here.

ENTEN: Sure.

SCIUTTO: But the fact is, the election board here, it's a bipartisan board, and it voted 7-2 not to certify these results as a result of these allegations.

What evidence led them to do so? And, crucially, does this mean the only solution here is a new election?

ENTEN: I believe it may very well be heading in that direction. What you can do is you can look at the absentee by mail and you can compare it across the different counties that are in this district. And in almost all of the counties what you saw was the absentee by mail was more favorable towards the Democrat than the rest of the vote was in that particular county.

But, in fact, what you saw in Bladen County, which is the county where a lot of this alleged fraud may have taken place, is, in fact, it was more favorable to the Republican compared to everything else. And so you start putting these different pieces of evidence together, right? You look at that. You see that the people who voted via this method were much more Democratic than compared to what the vote totals ended up being in the district for absentee by mail. And then you, you know, then these affidavits, this, that, and the other, and you're basically able to build this case.

You know it's a lot -- it's somewhat circumstantial, but it's also somewhat direct, but it's all of this that's sort of coming together. And to me, when you have all this circumstantial evidence, that makes a much stronger case than one thing or another.

SCIUTTO: So just to be clear there, because there's also political data that's indicative there, right, beyond the affidavits, what people are testifying to, this harvesting of ballots, you're saying that this is typically a Democratic leaning district for those absentee ballots, but it's an outlier here in how it went Republican, and that's part of the evidence that they're considering, right? ENTEN: That's exactly -- at least as far as I'm concerned, yes, it is

part of the evidence that we're sort of considering in trying to build this case to understand whether or not this just happened by accident or whether this is part of a systemic problem that's occurring. And to me, as I look at it, in all honesty, it's part of a systemic problem. And, obviously, that state board, which has members from across the political aisle on it, they thought it was worthy enough of an investigation. And I wouldn't be surprised if, in fact, there is a new election.

SCIUTTO: Wow, that's remarkable. There have been a lot of allegations unfounded about voter fraud, including by the president. Didn't pan out. This one seems to be some hard evidence here.

ENTEN: And this is election fraud, it's not voters, it's an election --

SCIUTTO: Exactly. No, good point. It's not voter fraud. It's election fraud. It's about moving an election, not voters voting illegally.

HARLOW: Yes.

SCIUTTO: But moving an election here.

Harry Enten, thanks very much for looking into it for us.

ENTEN: Thank you.

HARLOW: It's a great point. It's such an important story. And it begs the question, will an election fraud commission be set up, be important to the president on this front, right?

SCIUTTO: Good question.

HARLOW: All right, any moment now, Robert Mueller's office will share some new details on the Russia probe. Will it signal where his investigation is going next?

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[09:57:44] HARLOW: All right, so this week something major happened. Hopefully major. President Trump has touted it as a potential game changer in the opioid crisis. China has agreed, according to the White House, to label fentanyl as a controlled substance.

SCIUTTO: To put into perspective just how big of a problem fentanyl is in this country, new CDC numbers show that last year alone 29,000 people died because of overdoses of fentanyl, which is far more powerful than heroin. It often finds its way into heroin doses. Trump has repeatedly said that China is the main source of synthetic fentanyl in the U.S.

Christine Romans with us now.

So, China's a big producer.

CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN CHIEF BUSINESS CORRESPONDENT: Yes.

SCIUTTO: This has been a big part of the problem here. They're going to call it a controlled substance. Does this stop the production of it in China and then the selling of it across the ocean to here in the U.S.?

ROMANS: The White House hopes that just recognizing that it's a controlled substance so that now it has to undergo -- has to follow different rules in China will be a game changer.

The president has complained that, look, you can get this stuff, you know, through the mail. It comes off of airplanes in bags. You know, is a real problem. It's called "China white" or "China girl." And he says that, you know, the manufacturing of this in China is a huge problem.

And on the sidelines of that G-20 meeting, at that dinner, they were able to get the Chinese to agree to label this as a controlled substance. Just that step is something we haven't seen before. And it's something the commerce secretary earlier today said was a really important sign about this relationship.

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WILBUR ROSS, COMMERCE SECRETARY: Fentanyl has become a huge problem for our society, and they have pledged to really crack down on it. That would be an important and highly visible breakthrough just in and of itself.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ROMANS: And this administration, as you know, said so many times that they see China as a source of this. This could be one of those goodwill gesture --

HARLOW: Sure.

ROMANS: The Chinese could do to show that it means to change its behavior.

HARLOW: Just to put it in perspective. Fentanyl overdose deaths in this country are 60 percent of total opioid overdose deaths.

ROMANS: Yes, the fastest growing part too.

HARLOW: And 60 percent. But some of the concern I was reading this morning is that even if China curbs this, that this will just go on to India as a major producer of this, Mexico.

ROMANS: And (INAUDIBLE) demand part of this equation as well, let's be honest here.

HARLOW: Yes.

[09:59:58] ROMANS: You've been to Ohio. I've been to the Berkshires where we've done these stories about opioid addition. There's other things that we need to address in terms of beds and treatment and the like.