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THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER

Beto's Big Numbers; Trump Blasts Late Senator John McCain; Aides Defend Trump's Mental Fitness and Deny Racism Charges. Aired 4- 4:30p ET

Aired March 18, 2019 - 16:00   ET

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


[16:00:00]

STEPHANIE ELAM, CNN CORRESPONDENT: And so this flooding could continue to get worse here in Nebraska -- Brooke.

BROOKE BALDWIN, CNN ANCHOR: Stephanie Elam, thank you so much.

And thank you for being with me.

Dana Bash is in the big chair. "THE LEAD" starts now.

DANA BASH, CNN ANCHOR: The chief of staff wonders why he keeps getting asked whether the president is a white supremacist.

THE LEAD starts right now.

Breaking news: a brand-new CNN poll giving us a snapshot of what the country thinks of President Trump as he rattles off tweets in a wild day of ranting.

And after that tweetstorm, Kellyanne Conway's husband tries to tell the nation that its president is mentally ill. How his wife is responding.

Plus, massive fund-raising haul. Beto O'Rourke raises more cash than any other Democrat on his first day of his 2020 campaign. But will big promises and big bucks translate two votes?

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

BASH: Welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Dana Bash. Jake Tapper is on assignment.

We begin with breaking news in our politics lead, a brand-new CNN poll revealing what Americans think about Donald Trump and how he's performing on key issues, with some good news for the president.

His approval rating ticked up and Americans feel better about the economy today than they have in nearly two decades.

CNN's Phil Mattingly joins me now from the magic wall.

Phil, first, how is the president faring in this new poll? PHIL MATTINGLY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Dana, better, marginally better, still underwater.

But if you take a look at the top-line approval number, the president's job approval rating is at 42 percent, disapproval 51 percent. That's the lowest share of Americans disapproving that have been polled over the course of his entire presidency.

Now, where does that actually put him historically over the course of the last couple months? You see the uptick. Two months ago in the middle of the shutdown, he was at 37 percent, last month at 40 percent, now at 42 percent.

So, as you noted, he's starting to tick up. Now, where does this put him 596 days compared to where past presidents were in the third year of their term at this moment? Well, take a look. He's at the lower end, 42 percent right now. Ronald Reagan, 1983, was at 41 percent. Bill Clinton, 1995, was at 44 percent. You will note both of those individuals won their reelection, but still at the bottom tier.

But if you want to know why the president's -- or at least one of the potential reasons why the president's approval rating could be ticking a tick up, look at this. Current economic conditions, of those polled, 71 percent say that's good. Why does that matter?

What's the context there? That is the best number since February of 2001. Obviously, everybody's been talking about the good economy. The president, the president's advisers want people to talk more about the good economy. Clearly, 71 percent of Americans that were polled saying the economy is good at this moment, reflecting that.

The big question is, will that carry over and will that lead to future upticks as well, Dana?

BASH: And, Phil, what about the president's first veto? He did it on a bipartisan attempt to block his national emergency declaration. How do Americans feel about that?

MATTINGLY: Yes, the president, obviously, central issue of his campaign, central issue of his presidency, his first veto, going against 12 Republicans in the Senate related to the national emergency declaration that border wall.

Well, broadly, Americans are opposed. Only 35 percent of those polled say that President Trump should have vetoed that congressional resolution to terminate the border wall. So, again, moving in a different direction of where the public is, but, Dana, I wouldn't note one key caveat here, and it probably reflects where a lot of Republicans were who voted with the president, 72 percent of Republicans polled were with the president on this.

So, broadly, only 35 percent supported him, but as we have seen throughout the course of his time in office, Republicans, for the most part at least, sticking with the president -- Dana.

BASH: Very interesting, Phil. And we have a lot more of this new poll coming up later in the hour.

And these polls should be welcome news to President Trump, because he's found a lot to gripe about on Twitter, firing off dozens of tweets today and over the weekend, complaining about personal grievances involving everything from a rerun of "Saturday Night Live" to Senator John McCain, who passed away seven months ago.

CNN's Abby Phillip has more on Trump's tear on Twitter and the questions it's raising.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ABBY PHILLIP, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST (voice-over): President Trump raging against just about everything, firing off more than 50 tweets since Saturday, airing his grievances with everyone from "Saturday Night Live" to General Motors and even FOX News.

The president trampling over norms of respect for war heroes and the dead by renewing his attacks on the late Senator John McCain.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: He is not a war hero.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He's a war hero.

(CROSSTALK)

TRUMP: He's a war because he was captured.

PHILLIP: Trump claiming McCain was last in this class at the Naval Academy in Annapolis and accusing him of working with Democrats to spread the "fake and totally discredited dossier."

Senator Lindsey Graham, who in the past has scorched Trump when he's attacked McCain, instead addressing the president's insults with kid gloves, tweeting that: "Nothing about McCain service will ever be changed or diminished," but refusing to address the president directly, leaving it to McCain's daughter, Meghan McCain, to take the gloves off.

[16:05:08]

MEGHAN MCCAIN, DAUGHTER OF JOHN MCCAIN: Listen, he spends his weekend obsessing over great men because he knows it and I know it and all of you know it. He will never be a great man.

And so my father was his Kryptonite in life. He's his Kryptonite in death.

PHILLIP: The president's Twitter feed maybe a window into his psyche, but George Conway argued they are a window into psychology too. Conway, whose wife, Kellyanne, is counselor to Trump, tweeting: "All Americans should be thinking seriously now about Trump's mental condition and psychological state," adding: "His condition is getting worse."

Kellyanne Conway forced to respond. KELLYANNE CONWAY, TRUMP SENIOR ADVISER: No, I don't share those concerns. And I was getting -- I have four kids, and I was getting them out of the house this morning before I got here, so I could talk to the president about substance. So I may not be up to speed on all of them.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

PHILLIP: And President Trump himself has responded to George Conway in the past.

But we have asked the White House this afternoon for any response to those tweets and the allegations in them. So far, they have had none. But I should know, Dana, it is Monday. And we are all back to work, including the president.

So, at least for now, the pace of his tweets, at the very least, have slowed -- Dana.

BASH: Thank you for that. Abby, appreciate that.

We are now here with our panel.

And, Congresswoman Love, I want to start with you, because, as far as I know, you're the only member, now former member of Congress who has been on the receiving end of the president's wrath.

(LAUGHTER)

BASH: What's your view on what you saw on his Twitter feed this weekend?

MIA LOVE, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: OK.

So, first of all, Henry Ford said it best. He said, don't find fault, find solutions. And I think that that's one of the problems that Republicans have with the president, is that when you're willing to throw your own people, your own party under the bus, I mean, these -- you never know what Twitter is going to attack.

It doesn't inspire confidence. And it kind of makes you feel like, hey, I have defended you, I have done these other things, but it's not -- it's not reciprocated, it's not coming back. So this is one of the reasons why I always say, if we're going to preserve the Republican Party, you have to hold the president accountable.

Please do not go and defend him at all costs, because that's going to end up hurting the party.

KAREN FINNEY, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: But I think we have seen them defend him pretty much at all costs.

Even Lindsey Graham, I thought was fairly shameful how he barely, I mean, barely tapped back, given that -- his relationship with John McCain over the years. It was pretty stunning to me. And I think -- you know, at this moment, I guess I sort of feel like

we can't expect moral leadership from the president. We know that. He reminded us of that again. If you can't even say white nationalism is a bad thing, then we're really at the lowest of the low.

So my question is, where are the Republican members of Congress? Where is the Republican Party stepping up to show some real leadership?

BASH: There is one Republican who is stepping out in a big way. And his name is George Conway or, as the president calls him, Mr. Kellyanne Conway.

(CROSSTALK)

BASH: His tweets have been about the medical definition of narcissistic personality disorder, saying he has an antisocial personality disorder.

Is he going too far with this?

PAUL BEGALA, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: George is a lawyer than I am, but neither us are psychiatrists, OK?

So I -- there's talk, and he seems to hint at like a 25th Amendment solutions, by which the vice president, the Cabinet and the Congress remove our president. And I take a backseat to know in my dislike for Donald Trump, OK? I'm like a professional Trump disliker.

The 25th Amendment just doesn't apply. I looked it up again today. It's Section 4, which talks about removing the president, if he is unable to discharge the powers and duties, unable, not if he's just a big pain in the neck or he's rude or he's racist or misogynist or a white supremacist, any of that.

George is a smarter lawyer than me. I don't know what's going on here. But he's clearly getting under the president's skin. And that, I do admire.

BASH: And he's putting his wife, the counselor to the president, in a in a tough position once again having to answer to whether she agrees with the fact that he is saying that the president, for whom she works, has mental illness.

Listen to what Kellyanne said, Kellyanne Conway said.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

CONWAY: No, I don't share those concerns. And I was getting -- I have four kids, and I was getting them out of the house this morning before I got here, so I could talk to the president about substance. So I may not be up to speed on all of them.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BASH: Now, we're moms. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to see what she's saying there.

And people who know probably also know what she's saying, which is, I'm trying to take care of our school-age kids here, and I'm not worried about what my husband is tweeting about.

MARY KATHARINE HAM, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Right.

BASH: Well, how did you read that?

HAM: Yes, they're both putting each other and tough positions often.

I agree about the 25th Amendment. The facts on the ground, the facts of the Constitution and our system remain the same. You impeach him or you beat him. Those are your two options.

[16:10:03]

BEGALA: Amen.

HAM: A lot of people want to live in a different world where they can just sort of scuttle him because they don't like him. And that's not how this works. You have to appeal to the American people.

You have to make the argument. And I think beating him in the presidential race is the quickest remedy for that, if that's what you're into.

But he does have -- like, this is part of the package. We have always known this is part of package. I, like you, from the very beginning, have thought that this is bad part of the package. But he has this cushion, partly because people accept that as part of who he is.

And it was always part of the deal. And the economy numbers that were you just talking about.

(CROSSTALK)

BASH: OK, so let's go back with that. So let's -- it's not just cushion. It's also now he has some new numbers to talk about, but it's not a new notion for the economy to be really, really good.

Paul Begala, it's so great that you are at this table, because you coined the economy, stupid, phrase.

BEGALA: Yes, I give Carville more credit than me.

(CROSSTALK)

BASH: OK. So, you and Carville.

(CROSSTALK)

HAM: That's very un-D.C. of you.

BASH: But this is a big deal. I just want to put up this poll again, this brand-new poll, about the

economy. This is just about the economy. Current economic conditions -- OK, this is about as approval, 42 percent, which is not great, but not horrible. But there it is -- 71 percent, the best economic news since before 9/11.

Why isn't he talking about this nonstop and not bothering with Judge Jeanine and John McCain and other things that people don't vote on?

BEGALA: Because, at the end of the day, the economy is 320 million of us and Donald Trump's world is just one person. And it's Donald Trump.

The disconnect -- usually, over time, the president's job approval tracks approval of the economy, for better or for worse, fairly or not. If the economy's doing well, we like our presidents. You showed earlier, Phil did, the data from Presidents Reagan and Clinton, who cruised to easy reelections, even though they were about the same place that Trump is today.

But that's because they were on the upswing. They had come in, in terrible recessions, and then they were starting to boom out. Right now, we seem to be at the end of a long recovery that hasn't been as spectacular maybe as some people would like.

And that disconnect, you have a 29-point differential? So the economy's been his water wings, just keeping him from drowning. He's never had a day in office over 50 percent, not a single day where the majority of Americans approve of their president, despite this strong economy.

For him, God forbid, when we go into a recession, I don't know what happens. But it'll be interesting to see.

LOVE: I have to jump in here for a second because one of the frustrations I have is the president taking a lot of the credit for the economy.

And, remember, I was in the House of Representatives, where we passed a lot of bills that he was able to sign into law. So I think some of the some of the credit for the economy could be -- I would love for him to say, I would like to thank the House of Representatives for sending me some of these bills.

(CROSSTALK)

LOVE: But, again, yes, I think it's important, because we -- I don't believe that we are on the downside of the economy.

I think the economy is going to continue to do well. I voted for tax reform. I believe in tax reform in my district. A family -- an average family of four saved $2,300. So it was good in my district. And it was -- and I believe it's something that's actually helped the economy.

BASH: If he were thanking Congress, then he would be talking about the economy at least.

LOVE: Right.

BASH: And that is something that he is not doing. And presidents -- look, that's the way it is. They take credit. And that's just how it works.

FINNEY: But he's very undisciplined.

I mean, there have been other days where they actually had good news to tout, and it couldn't last for an hour before he had to tweet something.

And the other thing I would say is, I'm sorry, but if you're a black American, if you are a Muslim American, if you're a Latino in this country, your president does not have your back. You don't feel it.

So I don't care what the economy numbers are, but for a lot of us in this country, we don't feel like our president sees us, understands the challenges we face, cares about the challenges we face.

So that's part of why the economy can be up here, but that 42 percent is not going to get much higher, because he's all about himself, not about the rest of us.

BASH: Which is, ironically, how he got elected, by talking about the forgotten man and woman.

(CROSSTALK)

FINNEY: And scapegoating the people I just mentioned.

BASH: Stand by.

We have a lot more to talk about, including why Senator Lindsey Graham appeared to be holding back in calling out the president on attacking his good friend John McCain.

And a rare move from Senator Bernie Sanders. His e-mail today shows that he may see Beto O'Rourke as more than just friendly competition.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

[16:18:30] MEGHAN MCCAIN, DAUGHTER OF SEN. JOHN MCCAIN: He spends his weekend obsessing over great man because he knows it and I know it and all of you know it, he will never be a great man.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BASH: That was Meghan McCain, daughter of late Senator John McCain, firing back at President Trump who attacked the hero on Twitter over the weekend for his role in the Russia investigation and for voting to keep Obamacare. Also coming to McCain's defense-ish, McCain's best friend in the Senate-turned-close-ally of President Trump, Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, who tweeted the following. He said: As to Senator John McCain and his devotion to his country, he stepped forward to risk his life for his country, served honorably under difficult circumstances and was one of the most consequential senators in the history of the body. Nothing about his service will ever be changed or diminished.

Let's discuss.

I mean, talk about being in a rock and a hard place. You know you served with Lindsey Graham. You saw the tension. What's your reaction to this?

LOVE: Well, I remember Senator McCain actually coming to Utah and helping me in the first -- in the first election, and he was a gracious, gracious man. I don't see how anybody can actually go and criticize someone who served their country. You could disagree with them on policy. You can get -- you know, you can do whatever you want to.

But to continue to attack Senator McCain, it's just -- it's -- it doesn't make any sense to me.

[16:20:01] And again, this is the mistrust. There are people that are trying to figure out when am I going to be next? If I disagree with this president, how was he going to throw me under the bus? What is he going to do?

And so, I think that this is the time where you say, I am going to stick with my principles at least that will not fail me.

BASH: And this -- look, Donald Trump and John McCain had a feud that lasted literally until John McCain's funeral, which was very tense and the fact that he was specifically asked not to come and that was made public and so forth. So, you combine that with the fact that anything related to Russia is a trigger for Donald Trump and he saw a report over the weekend that he took to suggest that John McCain was somehow involved with Democrats with regard to this dossier when we know when we have reporting that somebody gave John McCain, somebody from the McCain Institute we now know, gave him the dossier, he didn't know what to do, he gave it to the FBI, and it turned out the FBI had it already.

Not just that, John McCain himself wrote about this in his final book with Mark Salter, and here's what he said: I had an obligation to bring to the attention of appropriate officials unproven accusations I could not assess myself, and which, were any of them true, would create a vulnerability to the designs of a hostile foreign power. I discharge that obligation and I would do it again. Anyone who doesn't like it can go to hell.

FINNEY: You would think the president of the United States of America had other things to be doing over this weekend than obsessing about a dead hero to this country who he's already shamefully attacked many times, and I don't know if not that. Maybe out of care for his family because, you know, Meghan is the one we've seen most publicly who are still grieving, but he might have other things to worry about.

You know, there's some things going on in this country, like maybe getting to the bottom of what was happening with Boeing and the airplanes or maybe, you know, say something nice about, you know, my brothers and sisters in the Muslim American community or -- I mean, I can think of any number of things I would rather my president be doing than attacking a dead American hero.

LOVE: I remember Meghan McCain actually being on "The View" defending the president when -- I think she got into it with Joy Behar because she brought up the president and he was like, wait, wait, we're not talking about this. I'm not going to spend every waking moment bashing the president. So, I thought that that was really interesting that she actually was trying to keep him out of this conversation, to see the conversation. So --

BASH: And let's switch gears to another topic and you mentioned this. Of course, what happened late last week in New Zealand and the Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney was really pressed about Donald Trump's words over the weekend. He was confronted with evidence like candidates Trump's call for a Muslim ban and a comment on the fact that Islam hates us.

Here is Mulvaney's response on two different Sunday shows.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MICK MULVANEY, ACTING WHITE HOUSE CHIEF OF STAFF: I hear what folk says, oh, Donald Trump said this during the campaign. Look at what we've done while we've been here. I don't think anybody could say that the president is anti-Muslim.

The president is not a white supremacist. I'm not sure how many times we have to say that.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BASH: How many times does he have to say that, MK?

HAM: Look, I think the attempt, the president's language is often bad. His rhetoric is often bad. I've spoken out against it from the beginning. In fact, I very sadly was wrong when the first time he went after Senator McCain, I was like, well, that should do that campaign in. It did not.

(LAUGHTER)

HAM: But I do think the attempt to connect it to violent acts of other individuals can be a reach, and I'm wary about doing that with anyone any violent extremists actions because I think it can endanger speech. But like -- like all these things, like separating Senator McCain's actions from the person and his duty to America and the great things he did, it's easy to just say the right thing, right? If you know what the right thing is, but he does not. I think that's the answer.

BEGALA: I still think the six most disgraceful words of all the disgraceful words President Trump's ever uttered are: very fine people on both sides, after Nazis marched in America, the home of Thomas Jefferson, in Charlottesville, and said, Jews will not replace us, and then one of them murdered, Heather Heyer, a young woman who was standing for peace and reconciliation and justice.

And that broke America's heart and it's why today, when the president doesn't speak out against white supremacist attack in New Zealand half a world away which is not his fault at all, but we do look for some sort of moral leadership and he doesn't show that leadership.

I think that's why Mick Mulvaney, he was not asked, is the president a white supremacist? He sort of volunteers that and I think he sort of gives up the game when he says, oh, no, not a white supremacist. Oh, really?

BASH: And he, the president, is in such a place that if he would have said, oh, I saw this manifesto and I completely denounce it -- that would have taken him miles and miles and miles more than it would, you know -- probably for anybody else because he hasn't done even close to that.

[16:25:04] All right. Every --

FINNEY: This issue for a long time -- from the beginning with the appointment of Steve Bannon. So --

BASH: Everybody, stand by.

Maybe he doesn't need policy specifics, the big boost for Beto O'Rourke's campaign, but did Senator Bernie Sanders just try to steal his spotlight?

Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BASH: We're back with our 2020 lead and bragging rights for Beto O'Rourke. The former Texas congressman announced that he raised more than $6 million.

[16:30:00]