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THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER

Conway vs. Conway; Republican Senator Rebukes Trump Over McCain Attacks. Aired 4-4:30p ET

Aired March 20, 2019 - 16:00   ET

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


[16:00:01]

BROOKE BALDWIN, CNN ANCHOR: Dana Bash is moderating this one live from the CNN Center in Atlanta. That is tonight at 10:00 Eastern here on CNN.

I'm Brooke Baldwin. Thanks for being with me.

"THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER" starts right now.

JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: President Trump just now suggesting he didn't get enough credit for allowing John McCain's funeral.

THE LEAD starts right now.

President Trump continuing to smear a dead war hero, the latest and maybe the most heinous attack on Senator John McCain yet just moments ago.

The president also saying today he's not nervous about the special counsel's report going public, but do his latest rants and raves and personal attacks, which seems to be getting worse, do they tell us otherwise?

Plus, some brand-new eye-opening numbers about Beto O'Rourke's record fund-raising day that may have some front-runners sweating even this early.

Welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

We begin with the breaking news. President Trump just minutes ago, he just cannot let it go. He continues to attack a dead man, war hero Senator John McCain.

Moments ago, speaking at a tank factory in Ohio, the president going off unprompted on the late Senator McCain, who passed away in August 2018, who family is still grieving, blaming McCain for Middle East wars, blaming McCain for not being strong on veterans issues, blaming McCain for the Steele dossier ending up in the hands of the FBI, attacking McCain for not voting to repeal Obamacare, and even complaining that he didn't get a thank you for allowing John McCain's funeral to go forward.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I have never liked him much. Hasn't been for me.

I have really probably never will. I endorsed him at his request, and I gave him the kind of funeral that he wanted, which, as president, I had to approve. I don't care about this. I didn't get a thank you. That's OK.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: Even before this latest attack from President Trump, some Republicans were finally saying, enough.

Republican Senator Johnny Isakson even promising to deliver a -- quote -- "whipping" of President Trump.

Let's talk about all of this with my panel.

Kevin Madden, this is going on multiple days now. McCain's been dead for seven months. Why? Who does this help? Does this continue to get the base riled up? And where are Republican leaders?

KEVIN MADDEN, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: I don't know why he's doing it. It's so gratuitous.

And to your other question, it's in service of nothing. That's why it doesn't make any sense. And I think that the Republican leaders -- more Republican leaders are going to come out, particularly as it becomes this character question for them on whether or not they're going to stand up for a deceased war hero, not just a dead man, a deceased war hero, who gave so much of his life and his service to this country.

So more and more will have to come out, because it will, I think, continue to be a question of where they stand on a -- on a key character question.

TAPPER: What we have seen is, we did see your former boss Senator Mitt Romney say he doesn't understand why the president does this.

But, generally speaking, Republicans have -- who have said anything have praised McCain, but not said anything about the president.

MADDEN: This idea that like the base, this will rally the base,no.

I mean, the base will always be there for the president for other reasons. But, look, the president right now is actually at some peak approval ratings. He's got a 42 percent approval rating, which is actually one of his highest.

TAPPER: Yes, including for the economy.

(CROSSTALK)

MADDEN: He's at 90 percent approval with Republicans. This will have an impact. It will, because I think -- and I think the larger American public, the people who are soft supporters of the president, who may not have voted for him, but they believe he's done a couple of good things, this is the type of thing that then drives them away and puts them into that position of saying, I can't stand by this.

JEN PSAKI, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: At the same time, I think that's what senators, Republican senators, are looking at, is his approval rating, which is I think the point you're making.

And they are fearful of that. I think a lot of Republican senators, if you were to talk to them behind closed doors, would be outraged by what President Trump is saying about John McCain. But even Senator Isakson, I mean, there's been a little bit of a preview about his whipping or whatever he's calling it, and it's more like a light ribbing than really being harsh on it.

He's not even calling President Trump out harshly on it. He's kind of talking around it. So this is a reflection of Republicans being fearful of Trump's base and what it means for them.

TAPPER: But here's what Senator Johnny Isakson from Georgia said -- quote -- "The country deserves better. The McCain family deserves better. I don't care if he's president of the United States, owns all the real estate in New York, or is building the greatest immigration system in the world. Nothing is more important than the integrity of the country and those who fought and risked their lives for all of us."

And still he continues to do this. He's still -- I mean, I think he -- Isakson issued that statement before Trump went off again.

KRISTEN SOLTIS ANDERSON, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: Yes, I mean, there's -- I think Kevin is right.

[16:05:00]

There's no strategic reason why the president's doing this. I don't think he's doing it because it's a politically calculated move to rally his base. I think, deep down inside, he covets the way that people in America think about and talk about John McCain, that he's revered as someone who did enormous good for his country.

And I think that Trump wishes people would say those sorts of things about him. And I think he just doesn't understand why he doesn't get that kind of credit and praise and just, as you said, can't let it go.

TIFFANY CROSS, THE BEAT D.C.: But the scary thing is, it's not just his rhetoric. It's also his policy.

I mean, he's weakened military lending practices at the CFPB. He continuously says these asinine, ridiculous things. And, personally, I feel like every time he says this, it's a challenge to his base.

Isakson said the country deserves better than this. The country deserves better than the Republican Party right now. They continue to let this president destroy core democratic principles of the country, and yet nobody says anything. And to your point, all of these comments that have come out, they

absolutely don't directly criticize the president. It's all just like -- the president doesn't mince words, but the Republican Party is. And they don't work for the president of the United States. They work for their constituents.

So I think they can't fear them. They have to serve them and do the business of the American people. And the president's policies frequently run contrary to that.

TAPPER: A combat veteran I know texted me just out of the blue, saying that the comments that the president makes about McCain hurt his soul. Where is the Republican leadership?

Here's the Republican leadership. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell tweeted today: "Today and every day, I miss my good friend John McCain. It was a blessing to serve alongside a rare patriot and genuine American hero in the Senate. His memory continues to remind me every day that our nation is sustained by the sacrifices of heroes."

If it was your dad, would that be enough for you, Kevin? I will say it wouldn't be enough for me, if I were Meghan McCain. I understand why Meghan McCain is so upset about Republicans not speaking.

MADDEN: Yes, and, I mean, the very idea that you have to issue a statement like that is, again, another challenge to the norms that we're used to.

But also just the polarization of the memory of Senator McCain is just so tawdry. He ought to be always remembered for what he gave to this country, Republicans and Democrats. It went beyond party. It went -- it was about service of country and greater ideals of the country and that he stood for.

And that's what we should all be remembering, not watching this litigated on -- campaign rally -- on the stage at a campaign rally, and even having to have this conversation.

TAPPER: Yes.

And Kellyanne Conway always says whenever asked to respond to criticism that President Trump is doling out, including to her husband -- we will get to that later in the show -- always says, well, he's a great counterpuncher. He's a great counterpuncher.

McCain has been dead since August. This isn't a counterpunch. McCain is not throwing any punches.

PSAKI: And I have, among many people, huge admiration for how Meghan McCain has handled this, and that she has said, if her dad were alive today, he'd be laughing about the fact that he is driving Twitter today and he is -- people are defending his memory.

I think one of the things that President Trump just said from the event he's that is pretty telling, which is where he's talking about McCain giving the dossier to the FBI. And then, as we have -- I think there isn't political strategy here, but this is in his gut, and he's angry about anyone who had a role in the Mueller investigation, which he knows is coming to a conclusion at some point.

And it could -- it is already reflecting very poorly on his presidency.

TAPPER: So John McCain is not here to defend himself. Here's Meghan McCain, who does a pretty good job.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MEGHAN MCCAIN, DAUGHTER OF JOHN MCCAIN: I think, if I had told my dad, seven months after you're dead, you're going to be dominating the news and all over Twitter, he would think it was hilarious that our president was so jealous of him, that he was dominating the news cycle in death as well.

Do not feel bad for me and my family. We are blessed. We are a family of privilege. Feel bad for people out there who are being bullied that don't have support, that don't have women of "The View" to come out and support their family.

There are kids committing suicide because of cyber-bullying online. There are people going through rough times. They're veterans who come back. We have 20 veterans a day committing suicide. Focus on these issues.

These are the issues I beg the White House to pay attention to.

I'm just surprised because I do think this is a new bizarre low. I will say, attacking someone who isn't here is a bizarre low.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: She's putting a brave face on, but let's be honest, this is very difficult for their family, including for their sons, who I believe are in harm's way. They're both in the military.

CROSS: Yes. And she's saying that her dad would find it hilarious.

Unfortunately, the rest of the country doesn't. When you have people in the Republican Party who stand by and don't call out this behavior for what it is, that's not a political party. That's a cult. And people have to start addressing the real issue, which is this president.

It's not just his rhetoric. It's his actual policies that go along with it. And when you have people who are willing to stand by and let this happen and not address the real issue at hand, I think you will continue to see this kind of rhetoric, because the scary thing isn't what he says. It's how his base responds. They applaud this.

They cheer this on. They laugh about it. And that's not what our country stands for. It's not what it should be.

TAPPER: And we should note that this is not the first Gold Star family that President Trump has attacked.

[16:10:03]

Remember the Khans, who came out and spoke against him in the Democratic National Convention in 2016. Their son -- I believe his name was Khizr Khan.

PSAKI: Yes.

TAPPER: Was killed in Iraq.

Senator McCain, in fact, spoke at that time in 2016: "It's time for Donald Trump to set the example for our country and the future of the Republican Party. While our party has bestowed upon him the nomination, it is not accompanied by unfettered license to defame those who are the best among us."

SOLTIS ANDERSON: Yes.

I mean, this is who Donald Trump is, right? This is his style. This is how he approaches politics. This is how he approaches public life. And I actually think that that's part of the reason why you're not seeing more Republicans put out statements, because I think within the Republican Party among those who behind closed doors go, I can't believe this is happening again, there's a sense that one more press release and one more, Mr. President, I wish you wouldn't say that, is just not going to change who he is or how he presents himself to the American people.

He's got a formula. He is who he is. He thinks that it's a winning formula. And he -- I think most Republicans who wish that he would change course are sort of resigned to the idea that there is no press release, there is no conversation they can have with him that is going to get him to stop being the man that he is.

TAPPER: I want to correct myself. Khizr Khan was the father in the Gold Star family. I'm sorry. I was going by my faulty old memory.

I will say one thing just about this before we take a quick break.

And that is, I totally understand that. But Kevin and I are old enough to know that we're here. Presidents come. They're here for four years or eight years. Then they leave. We're still here. You guys will be there too. Members of Congress are still here.

So long after the indecent remarks of Donald Trump, these politicians are likely going to still have to be here, and we're all paying attention. We're all paying attention as to who is saying things and who isn't saying things. And some of us can sleep at night and some of us can't.

President Trump making a stunning claim about what he wants to happen with the Mueller report, but was he just being flip, or did he mean it?

We will talk about that next. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:16:00] TAPPER: We're back with the national lead.

President Trump today declaring he doesn't mind if the public sees the Mueller report, saying that he told members of Congress, quote, let them see it. President's professed transparency on this issue is, of course, of questionable sincerity. He had also said he was willing to sit for an interview with the special counsel, but ultimately refused to do so.

The president also said today that he like the rest of us does not know when the report will come out. This uncertainty perhaps is what's feeding into the president's agitation, which is evident all over his Twitter feed and speeches.

CNN's Pamela Brown now has more from the White House.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: No collusion, no collusion.

PAMELA BROWN, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): For the first time, President Trump today claiming he wants the world to see special counsel Robert Mueller's impending report.

TRUMP: Let it come out. Let people see it. That's up to the attorney general.

BROWN: That coming right before he returned to his usual litany of complaints about the investigation. First, suggesting Mueller's report is coming as a surprise.

TRUMP: It's sort of interesting that a man out of the blue just writes a report. I got 63 million votes and now somebody just writes a report? I think it's ridiculous, but I want to see the report.

BROWN: Then attacking Mueller himself, claiming Mueller was denied a job at the FBI the day before his appointment as special counsel.

TRUMP: I told him he wouldn't be working at the FBI, and then the following day, they get him for this. I don't this so. I don't think people get it.

BROWN: Mueller not his only target. Trump also launching attacks against Kellyanne Conway's husband, conservative attorney George Conway, after he questioned Trump's mental fitness and claimed the president had personality disorders.

TRUMP: He's a whack job, there's no question about it. But I really don't know him. He -- I think he's doing a tremendous disservice to a wonderful wife. Kellyanne is a wonderful woman.

BROWN: Trump going further on Twitter. George Conway often referred to as Mr. Kellyanne Conway by those who know him is very jealous of his wife's success and angry that I with her help didn't give him the job he so desperately wanted.

George Conway's response? The president is extremely juvenile and boorish.

For her part, Kellyanne Conway taking the president's side, telling "Politico" today: You think he shouldn't respond when somebody, a non- medical professional, accuses him of having a mental disorder? You think he should just take that sitting down?

Speaking to "The Washington Post" Tuesday, her husband says his stinging criticisms of the president on Twitter are therapeutic.

The mendacity, the incompetence, it's just maddening to watch. The tweeting is just the way they get it out of the way so I can get it off my chest so I don't end up screaming at her about it.

In an interview last month with CNN's Dana Bash, well before the latest dust-up, Kellyanne Conway pointed out that her husband was once a fervent Trump supporter.

KELLYANNE CONWAY, COUNSELOR TO THE PRESIDENT: George was so excited, literally crying with joy in his MAGA hat -- black not red -- with his MAGA hat on election night. And so, in that way, he's changed. He's changed his opinion on I guess matters or the president, the presidency. But I haven't and Donald Trump hasn't.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BROWN: And here at the White House, officials are on high alert for the Mueller report to be delivered any day now. Sources tell me that White House lawyers expect to preview whatever the attorney general gives to Congress, so that they have the opportunity to assert executive privilege.

Democratic Congressman Nadler who chairs the House Judiciary Committee is already pushing back, saying the White House has waived executive privilege by agreeing to cooperate with Mueller. The White House contends Mueller is within the executive branch, so it didn't need to assert it before.

So, this is just a preview, Jake, of the political battle to come.

TAPPER: All right. Pamela Brown at the White House, thanks so much.

Kevin, you hear the president's language there. Let's let the public see it. Let's see if it's fair to me. What's the strategy here? Do you think he actually means it or is he just putting on a face playing the game as I think he said in a tweet?

KEVIN MADDEN, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: I think he's playing the game. I think his posture is that he's unafraid of whatever the Mueller report offers, because he's going to have his own spin on it.

[16:20:07] His own spin is going to be the one that he's been deploying for the last two years. That it's a witch hunt, that it's a hoax, that there was no collusion. So, I think he feels pretty confident, no matter what the substance says in that report, they've already go their strategy and they're going to deploy it from the very get-go.

(CROSSTALK)

PSAKI: I was going to say -- but the devil is hugely in the details here --

TAPPER: Right.

PSAKI: -- because the statute makes it clear that the special counsel will give the full report to Barr who has a ton of discretion on what will go to Congress. And so, is the president referring to whatever Barr, whatever slimmed-down thing Barr initially gives to Congress? That could be minimal and couldn't even give the public much of a sense of what's in there at all.

So, we don't even know exactly what he means by what he says. He left himself some wiggle room there, too.

TAPPER: And what do you -- I want to play this. Listen to how President Trump described the appointment of Mueller.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TRUMP: Sort of an amazing thing that when you have a great victory, somebody comes in and does a report out of nowhere, tell me how that makes sense? Who never got a vote.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: Not really what happened. He fired Comey.

SOLTIS ANDERSON: There are a lot of steps missing there.

TAPPER: The deputy attorney general appointed a special counsel, Sessions had recused himself -- I mean, there was a whole legal process.

SOLTIS ANDERSON: Yes, but to Kevin's point, this is just part of the strategy of continuing to sort of dismiss the importance of this and the legitimacy of this. I hope both for the public's sake and in some ways for -- I think the president should in some ways hope that an awful lot of this is released by the attorney general because anything that is not put out, anything that remains redacted or withheld is just going to continue to fuel months and months and months of more conspiracy theorizing on all sides about whether this is a witch hunt or who flew to Prague or all -- I mean, like there are so many layers of intrigue and conspiracy around this, and the less the Barr puts out there, the more that that will continue on both sides.

And so, I think for the president, if he wants this to go away, if there are more pieces of this that help get held back in a way, it just drags it out longer. CROSS: Yes, so I think a lot of these questions actually have been answered and I think this is something that we have to keep talking about. These filings already showed that the president was compromised by a foreign adversary during the election. He lied about that repeatedly to the American people.

This is why he lauded praise Vladimir Putin before he was in office and after he was in office.

TAPPER: Because of the Trump Tower project?

CROSS: Because of the Trump Tower. He had a multi-million dollar reason to and there's still a lot that we don't know in the Mueller report. We haven't gotten to the digital operation of the Trump campaign. The secret meeting in the Seychelles, the infamous meeting at Trump Tower with Donald Trump Jr.

So there's a lot we don't know there may be a fantasy that people have that he's going to be carted off, you know, the White House lawn, like eating the bucket of, you know, KFC chicken or whatever in handcuffs. I don't think that's going to happen, but I do think there -- that the details that you're bringing up, I think a lot of those things we already know.

TAPPER: But just to be clear, you're not saying that the president colluded with Russia to have them interfere with the election? You're saying that he colluded with Russia to have a Trump Tower Moscow project?

CROSS: I don't know his reasoning behind whatever he had going on with Russia. I'm simply saying that the filings already showed there is a clear compromise between what he was doing on the campaign trail and after the campaign, and he lied to the American people about his financial dealings with Russia.

TAPPER: So, take a listen to what the president said, trying to attack Robert Mueller's credibility.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TRUMP: I know that he's conflicted and I know that his best friend is Comey. But I had a nasty business transaction with him and other things. For the day before he was retained to become special counsel, I told him he wouldn't be working at the FBI, and then the following day, they get him for this. I don't think so.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: I mean, there's so much in there that isn't true, and starting with that Comey's best friend. But -- I mean, is this working?

SOLTIS ANDERSON: I mean, look, when you looked at say like, let's take the most recent data point that is pretty prominent was from the 2018 exit polls. In those exit polls of folks who voted in the midterm, in an election that was really bad for Republicans, you nonetheless had a pretty sizable portion of the electorate, a majority, that didn't really approve of the job Bob Mueller was doing.

I mean, the president's message that this is a witch hunt and that the people involved in it are personally coming after him has been working. It doesn't mean that it's right, but there is the -- it has been getting through to the people that the president wants to get through to.

What's a shame is that if you talk to folks in Washington on both sides of the aisle, you will -- to a person -- hear folks say that Bob Mueller is a man of credibility, he's a man of honor.

TAPPER: Yes.

SOLTIS: That he's -- you will not hear anyone who has a actual criticism of him as an individual in work he's done. But, of course, in the sort of soap opera that the president has presented around all of this. He needs the villain, Bob Mueller is the villain.

TAPPER: Everyone, stick around.

Joe Biden, Beto O'Rourke, Bernie Sanders soaking up much of the buzz so far. Should they be? Is this sexism?

[16:25:01] That's next. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

TAPPER: In our 2020 lead today, new details on Beto O'Rourke's record-breaking day one fund raising as he campaigns across the early state of New Hampshire today. And we're still waiting to hear when former Vice President Joe Biden could jump into the race.

As CNN's Jessica Dean reports, all signs point to a Biden candidacy as he begins to shore up support from major backers.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BETO O'ROURKE (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: How is everybody doing today?