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AT THIS HOUR

Trump Aires Litany of Grievances in Stunning Tweet Rant; White House Dismisses Criticism of Trump's Rhetoric as Mulvaney, Conway Say Trump Not White Supremacist; Graham Defends McCain But Refuses to Criticize Trump; Meghan McCain Responds to Trump on Tweets Against Father; New Zealand P.M. Says New Guns Laws on Books in Matter of Days Follow Mosque Attacks; Beto O'Rourke Raises $6.1 million in First 24 Hours After Announcing 2020 Run; Biden Slip of Tongue Indicates a 2020 Run. Aired 11-11:30a ET

Aired March 18, 2019 - 11:00   ET

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


[11:00:00] POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: Here's what we know right now. At least three people have died across Nebraska and Iowa. And 290 have been rescued so far. Right now, at least 22 shelters are open. We will keep a very close eye on that.

Thank you for being with me today. I'll see you back here tomorrow morning.

"AT THIS HOUR" starts right now.

RYAN NOBLES, CNN ANCHOR: Hello. I'm Ryan Nobles, in today for Kate Bolduan.

It wasn't your usual tweet storm. It was more like an angry tweet quake with an epicenter deep inside 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue and the aftershocks have many political watchers stunned this morning. President Trump ripping into everything, from the auto unions and the Russia investigation to FOX News and a rerun of "Saturday Night Live." He can't even let John McCain rest in peace. The president accusing the late Senator and war hero of working with Democrats to spread the controversial Russia dossier and ripping his vote against repealing Obamacare. Trump even falsely stated that McCain was last in his class at Annapolis.

Meghan McCain responding with, "No one will ever love you the way they love my father. I wish I was given more Saturdays with him. Maybe spend more with your family instead of on Twitter obsessing over mine?"

But zero outrage was directed at the rabid white nationalism that apparently drove the New Zealand mosque massacre.

CNN's Sarah Westwood is at the White House for us.

Sarah, what are you learning about the president's tweet storm from over the weekend?

SARAH WESTWOOD, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Ryan, President Trump clearly had a lot on his mind this weekend emerging from a week where 12 Republican Senators rebuked his efforts to build the wall. In particular, he raised eyebrows with the attacks on the late Senator John McCain seven months after his death, going after McCain not just for his role in spreading the dossier during the 2016 election but also for McCain's vote against Republican health care repeal attempts in 2017.

Kellyanne Conway, atop advisor to President Trump, came out this morning and defended the president's comments on a number of fronts. She also defended McCain's record of service in the military. But said what President Trump was trying to do was draw attention to new developments related to the Steele dossier. Conway pointed out that Trump has tweeted on other topics since then, including about the General Motors plant in Ohio. She said that the president will continue to use social media in this way. It's a positive thing for him in the White House's eyes, saying this is the way the president communicates directly with his supporters -- Ryan?

NOBLES: Sarah, the White House also dismissing criticism that the president's rhetoric helped inspire the terror attack in New Zealand. What are officials saying about this?

WESTWOOD: The White House is dismissing any criticism of the president's rhetoric, his attempts from his political opponents to try to blame him for this attack. President Trump said last week that he does not view white nationalism as a rising threat around the globe despite statistics that suggest that it is a growing threat around the world.

Acting chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, stressed on Sunday that the president is not a white supremacist. Take a listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MICK MULVANEY, ACTING CHIEF OF STAFF: You've seen the president stand up for religious liberties, individual liberties. The president is not a white supremacist. I'm not sure how many times we have to say that.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

WESTWOOD: Kellyanne Conway echoed the same sentiment pointing to the president's record of fighting for religious liberty as a defense and saying that the president's rhetoric, again, has been helpful to him and he is not going to change it anytime soon -- Ryan?

NOBLES: Sarah Westwood starting off from the White House. Sarah, thank you.

Joining me now, CNN political analyst and "New York Times" correspondent, Alex Burns, and CNN political analyst, April Ryan, the White House correspondent for the American Urban Radio Networks.

April, let's start with you.

Let's just take a moment to mark the fact that the White House chief of staff just had to clarify once again that the president is not a white supremacist. That's a problem that even the White House must have to acknowledge.

APRIL RYAN, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: This whole racial, bigoted perception of the president is an albatross around his neck and this administration's neck. But they have to come out and say it on their own, especially after the most recent incident with the massacre in Christchurch. The manifesto by the gunman talked about the -- identifying the white identity issue. I've covered presidents, the last four presidents, including this president. Every time there's an issue of race that the nation is gripped in and talking about, they come out to dispel any perception or to make it clear who they are. It is not about Mick Mulvaney or Kellyanne Conway or Sarah Sanders, when and if she gives a briefing. It is about the president of the United States who must come out on his own clearly saying what he is and what he is not, condemning what is wrong and praising what is right.

[11:05:15] NOBLES: Alex, to April's point, the president not specifically talking about white supremacism as it relates to New Zealand. Talking about a lot of other things on Twitter this weekend, specifically John McCain. On a list of people I envision the president attacking this weekend, a late United States Senator would not have been on the list. With McCain, why is it that the president cannot let this go?

ALEX BURNS, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Even when Senator McCain was alive, even when he was gravely, gravely ill, President Trump wouldn't go after him by name, but do everything but go after him by name. He would go to rallies during the midterm election, and say we remember the Senator who had the thumbs-down moment, the one guy on health care. It seems like at this point whatever self-restraint existed is kind of gone. That's was like the theme this weekend on Twitter, right, that this was a recitation of grievances, perceived slights by the media, by Democrats in Congress, even by members of his own party, and by FOX News. The sense that the president is totally unplugged at this point. I know several senior Republicans in Washington who have sort of been along for the ride with President Trump for a while who were rattled by the experience of the last few days.

NOBLES: Many of them not saying that publicly right now --

BURNS: That's right.

NOBLES: -- as we've seen in the past.

April, after this weekend of nonstop tweeting for the president, I want to talk about George Conway, who is the conservative attorney and husband of White House counsel, Kellyanne Conway. He is prolific on Twitter and critical of the president often. He tweeted this, he said, quote, "His condition is getting worse." This was after he tweeted a definition having related to mental illness. His wife is now in a position where she has to explain what her husband is talking about on Twitter. This is what Kellyanne Conway had to say this morning. Take a listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

KELLYANNE CONWAY, SENIOR ADVISOR TO PRESIDENT TRUMP: No, I don't share those concerns. I have four kids and I was getting out of the house this morning before I got here and talked to the president about substance. I may not be up to speed on all of them.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

NOBLES: April, it sounds like Kellyanne Conway does not want to talk about her husband when it relates to this?

RYAN: No, she doesn't. Would you want to talk about somebody in your own home going up against your boss? That's quite an issue in that household. At the end of the day, in that cold briefing that we had on the northwest driveway, Kellyanne Conway did say this, she said, look, people elected this president knowing that he is not the politician, the traditional politician in Washington. He is different. She used that word different. How different is different for this president? This weekend was not presidential. That's what George Conway picked up. I asked Kellyanne this morning, is it normal. She harkened back again to who he is. He tweets about so many different things and it's not just about McCain, the late Senator McCain, or "Saturday Night Live" or other issues. Those were the ones that stood out, particularly Kellyanne Conway's husband because of the close proximity his wife has to the president of the United States. Maybe he knows something that we don't know. Nonetheless, it is not presidential to do what the president did, traditional presidential, as we know it, for the president to go on a rampage over the weekend in this fashion on Twitter.

NOBLES: Alex, you mentioned these Republicans that you are talking to, uncomfortable with the president. In that group, we have to imagine where Lindsey Graham is. He, of course, is very close to the late John McCain. Here's what he said in response to what the president said. We assume it is in response to what the president said. He doesn't specifically mention that. He did say, quote, "As to Senator John McCain and his devotion to his country, he stepped forward to risk his life for this country, served honorably under difficult circumstances, and was one of the most consequential Senators in the history of the body." He followed it up with a second tweet, saying, "Nothing about his service will ever be changed or diminished."

It sounds like he is defending Senator McCain against the president's attacks. He doesn't mention the president by name. And Lindsey Graham has attempted to find a way to saddle up next to the president, especially because he has a reelection coming up next year.

BURNS: Ryan, I think that's what is called a subtweet.

(LAUGHTER)

It's very clear what he is referring to. He doesn't quite say what he is referring to. This is different from Lindsey Graham that we would have seen two years ago or a year ago who is willing to confront the president directly. I will say the element of this weekend that has unnerved Republicans the most, as far as I can tell, is not McCain, it's not "Saturday Night Live," it's not FOX News. It's the president's persistent inability or unwillingness to rise to the moment in these positions of real tragedy.

NOBLES: Speaking of Senator McCain, his daughter, of course, one of the co-hosts of "The View," just responded to the president's tweets over the weekend. Let's take a listen to that.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

[11:10:05] MEGHAN MCCAIN, DAUGHTER OF JOHN MCCAIN & CO-HOST, THE VIEW: He spends his weekend obsessing over great men because he knows it and I know it and all of you know, he will never be a great man.

(CROSSTALK)

(APPLAUSE)

MCCAIN: So my father was his kryptonite in life and is his kryptonite in death. On a personal level, I agree with you. All of us have love and families. When my father was alive, until adulthood, we would spend our time together cooking, hiking, fishing, really celebrating life. I think it's because he almost died. I thought your life is spent on your weekends not with your family, not with your friends, but obsessing, obsessing over great men you could never live up to.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

NOBLES: April, I want to bring in you and get your response to that. This is one of the things that drives President Trump nuts that he is compared to John McCain in some respects and not thought to be at the same level of John McCain. That's essentially what Meghan McCain is responding to from the president's tweets over the weekend.

RYAN: Meghan McCain, a staunch Republican, Meghan McCain, the daughter of John McCain. So when the president tweets like this, you wonder -- this is human and it's real. You wonder, what does he do on the weekends? What does he have to do? He is the president of the United States. He is spending time tweeting and watching reruns of "Saturday Night Live" and waiting for his friend on FOX News. Megan McCain hit the nail. Senator John McCain, the late Senator John McCain was a hero for this nation. The president wants to pull him down. The president did not serve in the military because of bone spurs. Not only did John McCain serve, he was a prisoner of war. He could have been released, but he chose to stay. He was bloodied and broken for us as a nation. We talk about patriotism and we talk about the Constitution and we talk about freedoms, he was a person who truly personified freedom. Not only Senator McCain but his whole family, service to this nation. She has a right, as a daughter, to speak out in defense of her father, but also as someone who knows the history of a man who served this nation and cared about this nation. And the only reason why he went after Senator McCain in death, he is haunted by what his staffer did about Russia. That's not presidential what happened this weekend, anyway you look at it. We have never seen this before. Granted, Twitter wasn't around during George Washington's time or Abraham Lincoln's time or John Kennedy. But would they have done something like this? I think the answer is no.

NOBLES: Alex Burns, April Ryan, thank you both for being here. We appreciate it.

RYAN: Thank you.

NOBLES: Now, let's move to the developments in New Zealand. That's where the government there promising swift action after the historic act of hatred and terror there that left 50 people dead at two mosques. The prime minister says new gun laws could be on the books in a matter of days.

CNN's Martin Savidge is in Christchurch, New Zealand, with the latest.

Martin, what could the new gun laws look like?

MARTIN SAVIDGE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: We still haven't heard from the prime minister on specifics, but it is interesting because, of course, in the United States, after mass shootings like this, there has been a call for changes to gun laws. They usually haven't gone anywhere. Here, it has moved very quickly. And as you heard, the prime minister is suggesting within 10 days there could be something on the books. It is likely to focus on the number of weapons perhaps that an individual can own and the type. They would single out the assault- style weapons and semi-automatic weapons used in this kind of attack.

Also, the FBI is now part of this investigation. We don't know exactly why but, let's face it, the FBI has a lot of experience investigating mass shootings and also those that were motivated by hate. It's possible there could have been a dual-citizen American among the victims we haven't heard of yet or maybe some connection somehow to groups in the U.S. That is still being investigated.

But lastly, what New Zealanders want to know, is they know the gunman acted alone, but did he have any help in the setup or financing of his actions. Were there red flags missed -- Ryan?

NOBLES: Martin Savidge with the update from New Zealand. Martin, thank you for that report.

[11:15:17] Coming up, eye-popping numbers from Beto O'Rourke. The 2020 candidate raising more money in his first 24 hours than anyone else in the Democratic field. The amount and how it compares to the rest of the pack, ahead.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

NOBLES: Some big money news in the 2020 race. Democratic candidate, Beto O'Rourke, smashing records right out of the gate. The former Texas congressman raising $6.1 million in the first 24 hours of entering the race. The announcement this morning from this campaign marks the largest first-day haul of any 2020 Democratic contender so far.

CNN's M.J. Lee joins us from Jackson, Mississippi, with the details. M.J., those of us covering the 2020 campaign have been anxiously

awaiting these fundraising figures. How does it compare to the first- day fundraising totals of some of the other candidates?

M.J. LEE, CNN POLITICAL REPORTER: That's right, Ryan. No doubt about it, this is a huge number for Beto O'Rourke, $6.1 million, in just the first 24 hours of him announcing his presidential campaign. And he says that this is proof that a presidential campaign can be based on a grass-roots small-dollar model.

Just to give you a sense of how big this haul is, as you know very well, Bernie Sanders, his campaign announced in the first 24 hours he raised $5.9 million. Kamala Harris' campaign announced she had raised 1.5. Beto O'Rourke far surpassing other candidates and very close to Bernie Sanders' massive haul, as well. And Beto O'Rourke says he is going to be running a campaign based on these small-dollar donations. You can bet the other candidates, the other Democratic candidates in the field, are going to be watching this number and wondering, can they possibly compete with this kind of massive fundraising.

[11:20:25] I should note, he has had a very busy couple of days. He has been campaigning across the state in Iowa and also in Wisconsin. This coming week, he is going to travel to states like New Hampshire, Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania. So what we are going to find out in the coming days is whether he can maintain this kind of momentum in the weeks to come or whether this will be sort of the fresh start he is getting. Can he actually maintain that? Obviously, the question of whether he can sort of translate what he would be able to accomplish in the Senate election when he was competing against Ted Cruz on a nationwide national campaign and a presidential campaign, that's going to be a big question. We are about to find out some of the answers to those questions -- Ryan?

NOBLES: There was certainly some skepticism that he would be able to keep up this type of fundraising level when he wasn't drawing from people that wanted to see him beat Ted Cruz. So far, he's proving those doubters wrong.

M.J. Lee, live from Jackson, Mississippi. M.J., thank you for that.

The biggest hint yet that Joe Biden plans to enter the race came over the weekend when the former vice president made this intentional or maybe unintentional slip of the tongue. Take a listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JOE BIDEN, FORMER VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Told by the new left, I'm have most progressive record of anybody running for -- anybody who would run --

(CHEERS)

(APPLAUSE)

BIDEN: Anybody who would run.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

NOBLES: Anybody who would run. Let's take that for what it is.

CNN political reporter, Arlette Saenz, and CNN politics reporter and editor-at-large, Chris Cillizza.

Arlette, let's go to you first. Nobody spends more time with Joe Biden than you.

What are you learning? I understand you guys have new reporting about the vice president's plans.

ARLETTE SAENZ, CNN POLITICAL REPORTER: Ryan, Joe Biden has been dropping hints and clues about what he is going to do about 2020 all along the way. The former vice president and his team are really focused on making sure that he is in a position where he can seize command of the field once he enters. We have learned that they are working on lining up major endorsements, including from black lawmakers, who could be key to a Biden candidacy, their support, as he gets beyond states like Iowa and New Hampshire. They have also started gaming through scenarios for what a launch could look like. They have been discussing several possible locations for a launch or kickoff rally, including Wilmington, back in his home state, and Scranton, Pennsylvania, where Biden was born and is really part of his narrative as he tells of embracing and promoting the values of the middle class.

There have also been discussions about him potentially selecting a running mate early on in the process. This could generate excitement among Democrats but also try to keep the focus on what he wants to be the primary focus, is the fight against President Trump. And the president is someone who is watching Biden very closely. Earlier this morning, he tweeted about that little slip up that Biden had over the weekend. He said, "Joe Biden got tongue tied over the weekend when he was unable to properly deliver a simple line about his decision to run for president. Get used to it, another low-I.Q. individual."

Friends of Biden have said that he is bracing for what he expects to be attacks from President Trump. One of Biden's friend, Senator Chris Coons, told me over the weekend that Biden is under no illusions of what politics is like and it is a full-body contact sport.

NOBLES: No doubt about that. Maybe a little different from Biden's past that this full-contact sport has maybe changed a little bit.

Chris, here Biden, and your part of this waiting game, you watch Beto O'Rourke raise $6.1 million in 24 hours. Bernie Sanders raised more than $10 million since he announced. There has to be a part of the Biden camp that worries maybe he is waiting too long.

CHRIS CILLIZZA, CNN POLITICAL REPORTER & CNN EDITOR-AT-LARGE: Yes. Two things on that, Ryan. I think, one, what the Biden people are going to try to do is present him as the capital "F" front runner. He's the guy in the lead. He is the leader in the polls, former vice president, spent four decades in the Senate. The idea of announcing a V.P. is trying to make this an inevitability case that he's going to be the nominee. He's going to be the guy. The problem -- there are a few but the problem you raise as it relates to money -- Joe Biden's fundraising operation is built on what, until three years ago, was seen as the only way you build the funding operation. You find wealthy people. You have them bundle money. This is the George W. Bush money. Bundle a bunch of checks from other wealthy friends. And that's how you get to these big dollars. Sanders, O'Rourke, they have already in place national small-dollar online fundraising operations that Biden does not have. The big difference between those two, to raise money online costs this much money for you, the candidate, or something close to it in that you have to set up a Web site and make sure you can take credit cards. Biden has to hold events. It costs money. It's time for the candidate to spend where he is not campaigning. I think that's a real concern for him, one of, I think, several he has.

[11:25:54] NOBLES: We talk about that all the time, covering Bernie Sanders, how he has to spend no time fundraising. His time is talking to voters, talking about policy.

Arlette, from your perspective, in Biden world, is there thought that he is waiting too long or is this calculated on their part? Do they have a strategy in place?

SAENZ: Those around Biden and his supporters and allies say that it's OK that he has waited this long. He has the name recognition and the stature. He is polling high currently. They also argue that his standing among Democratic voters isn't really moving right now at this point. But waiting until potentially April to make his announcement also gives him a little bit of time to put all of the pieces of his puzzle into place. His friends say that he is very aware of the maturity involved in the process of running for president and how much attention is going to be paid when it comes to how much he can raise, what volunteers look like, what his rally is going to look like. So they want to make sure that they have all of their ducks in a row as he gets closer and closer to that announcement.

NOBLES: And perhaps that's not what Beto O'Rourke took into account when he jumped in. Seemed to be shooting from the hip a little bit. A little bit different calculation.

Arlette Saenz, Chris Cillizza, thank you both for being here. We appreciate it.

CILLIZZA: Thanks, Ryan.

NOBLES: And don't forget to watch tonight, a special CNN town hall with 2020 candidate, Elizabeth Warren. CNN's Jake Tapper will moderate from Jackson, Mississippi. That airs tonight, right here at CNN, 9:00 p.m. Eastern.

And coming up, the White House issues a stunning defense of the president after he refuses to call out white nationalism following the New Zealand mosque attacks. Does the president's language play a role? We'll ask a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)