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THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER
Trump Backs Down Over Threat to Close Border; Did Barr Mischaracterize Mueller Report in Letter?; Trump Now Says He'll Give Mexico a Year Before Closing Border. Aired 4-4:30p ET
Aired April 4, 2019 - 16:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
BROOKE BALDWIN, CNN ANCHOR: Final episode of "THE BUSH YEARS" Sunday night at 10:00.
THE LEAD starts now.
JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: Are members of Robert Mueller's team suddenly getting chatty?
THE LEAD starts right now.
Breaking today, the Justice Department responding after members of Robert Mueller's team reportedly expressed frustration that the attorney general's summary, in their view, may have given President Trump too much of a pass.
Man vs. machine. We now have the first report, and we're finding out what it was like in those final moments before that Boeing jet went down, as CNN learns of a potential fatal oversight in the flight testing of this jet.
Plus, we're going to need a bigger stage, more new blood entering the 2020 Democratic race, one from a place the president needs to win another term, another a candidate who has been a big surprise in the race so far who now plans to make a major splash.
ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.
TAPPER: Welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.
We begin with some breaking news in our politics lead.
Just moments ago, the Democratic chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Jerry Nadler, demanded that the Justice Department turn over all communications between special counsel Robert Mueller's office and Attorney General Barr's office regarding the Mueller report.
This move coming as sources tell CNN that investigators from the special counsel's team are complaining that Attorney General Barr's four-page summary of the Mueller report, which the president has heralded as a complete exoneration, underplays the reality of the 400- plus page report and what they say is damaging and derogatory information they compiled, particularly when it comes to allegations against the president of obstruction of justice.
According to a source familiar with the investigation, members of the Mueller team have also voiced frustration they cannot publicly address what they see as discrepancies between Barr's summary and Mueller's actual findings.
CNN's Sara Murray kicks off our coverage.
SARA MURRAY, CNN NATIONAL POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Few have seen the Mueller report, but some on the special counsel team are frustrated with how the attorney general summarized the findings in his four-page letter to Congress.
Sources tell CNN that several investigators on Robert Mueller's team are telling people outside the special counsel's office that William Barr failed to adequately describe how the investigation of potential obstruction of justice included derogatory information about President Trump's actions.
One source said Mueller's team wrote summaries of their findings and expected more of that to be used. Public perception so far has largely been shaped by Barr's letter summing up the main conclusions of the investigation. It referred only to evidence on both sides of the obstruction issue.
And ultimately, Barr, not Mueller, decided that evidence did not amount to an obstruction of justice offense.
REP. NANCY PELOSI (D-CA), SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE: In the public domain, there are comments that people on the Mueller team think that there's a mischaracterization by the attorney general. I don't know. There's an easy answer to this. Release the Mueller report as soon as possible.
MURRAY: The fight to frame the report carrying on even though almost no one knows what's in it, including the FBI director.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Have you had an occasion to read the Mueller report?
CHRISTOPHER WRAY, FBI DIRECTOR: I have not.
MURRAY: The Justice Department today defended how the attorney general has been releasing information, saying in a statement: "The attorney general decided to release the report's bottom-line findings and his conclusions immediately, without attempting to summarize the report," adding that Barr does not want to release the report in serial or piecemeal fashion and still working on redactions.
As the White House prepares for battle over the report's findings...
SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: The people that have been involved in this process, they have wasted two years of their life and they need to find a way to validate it. They lost in 2016. They lost on the collusion battle. And now they're looking for any and everything they can to continue to attack this president because they have no message.
MURRAY: Democrats are making it increasingly clear that whatever Barr is preparing won't be enough. They want to hear directly from the special counsel.
REP. JERROLD NADLER (D), NEW YORK: I think it's inevitable that Mr. Mueller is going to testify at some point.
MURRAY: Now, in this new letter this afternoon from Chairman Nadler to Bill Barr, Nadler sort of calls out the Justice Department's nondenial-denial, saying, we notice you did not deny that these summaries the Mueller team wrote exist. If, in fact, these summaries do exist, you should release them to the American people as quickly as possible -- Jake.
TAPPER: All right, Sara Murray, thanks so much.
Let's dive into this with my group of experts.
Kirsten, let me start with you.
Up until this new news cycle, Republicans had been saying, Democrats, you're overplaying your hand. Just let Attorney General Barr do his work. He deserves the benefit of the doubt. Even FBI Director -- ex- FBI Director James Comey said Barr deserves the benefit of the doubt.
It seems Democrats are not listening to that.
KIRSTEN POWERS, CNN COMMENTATOR: Yes.
Well, there was also division sort of, I think, among the Democratic Party about how to respond to this. And there was a pretty loud part of the party that was saying, hold on, something smells here, like, something doesn't seem right based on just the publicly available information.
How would you come to this conclusion on obstruction of justice? And some people would say even on collusion. I would say on obstruction of justice. And so I think that this is actually not that surprising to me.
When Barr was doing his hearings and we were discussing it, I was saying, like, look, this is the guy that Donald Trump chose. There's a reason. So I think this is a good example of what Donald Trump probably expected him to do, was to not release very much of the report, which he didn't -- he, you know, during his hearings said he wasn't obliged really to do -- to release anything.
He didn't release very much it, and there's a lot of things that I think the American people have a right to see that he should release. TAPPER: David, you're shaking your head.
DAVID URBAN, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Right, because no matter what gets released, no matter what point -- this beginning, when this began, I said and others said Bob Mueller is a man of integrity. He's going to do an incredibly thorough job.
He's a great American patriot. I sat here and said that.
TAPPER: You said that for -- since he was appointed, absolutely.
URBAN: From day one.
And I said let's just see -- let the chips fall where they may. Democrats said that. Now that Barr has come out and now that Bob Mueller has come out and said, you know what, at least on the collusion part, right, there's no collusion, not one American has been charged, no one on the campaign has been charged of collusion, no one has been indicted.
No, it's not happened. Don't laugh, Symone. This is a real thing here.
SYMONE SANDERS, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, I'm guess I'm laughing because we don't know what Bob Mueller said because we haven't seen the report.
URBAN: Stop. Stop. Stop. My turn.
SANDERS: So, he's said nothing.
URBAN: Stop. So, my -- so he comes out and says all of this, right?
As to obstruction, he says, I'm going to present the facts on both sides. I'm not going to make any determination. I'm going to let that go.
So, for Kirsten and for others to say, well, there's something there, clearly, based upon what?
POWERS: You know, you just set up a total straw man, first of all.
URBAN: No, I didn't.
POWERS: Hold on.
URBAN: These are the facts.
POWERS: No, it's a total straw man because what you said is every Democrat said that they would trust Bob Mueller.
But we haven't seen the Mueller report. What happened was...
POWERS: Hold on. Hold on.
During Watergate, what happened was that report, because the laws were different, that report went directly to -- it went to a judge and then it went to Congress. It wasn't sent to the attorney general to make a determination.
And we don't have -- we don't even know for sure that Mueller wanted him to make a determination. So, people are being consistent in saying, let's see what Bob Mueller said.
URBAN: Because the laws were different, small, but important fact.
TAPPER: It is important.
Symone, go ahead.
SANDERS: Yes, small, but important fact. The laws were different.
But my only qualm here is, look, everybody keeps saying Bob Mueller has asked and answered the question. And we don't know what Bob Mueller says because we have not seen the Mueller report.
And so I think, frankly, there are a lot of people, Republicans, Democrats, but, I mean, also folks in the media that have to be -- we have to be intentional with our words. We don't know what the Mueller report says.
URBAN: Sure we do. Sure we do.
SANDERS: We know what Bob Barr says the Mueller report says.
And I don't know about a -- as my friend Stacey Abrams said, I only know about a report card and a summary -- or a summary of a report that the attorney general has given on what Bob Mueller...
URBAN: We know conclusively that Bob Mueller said there is no collusion. SANDERS: Did you read the report?
URBAN: It was excerpted in quotes.
SANDERS: Oh. I would like to note, Jake, there is not one full sentence from Mueller's report appears...
URBAN: So, you think the attorney general is lying? Misrepresenting it?
SANDERS: I'm just not going to take the attorney general's word for it. I want to see the Mueller report.
URBAN: You say he's lying.
TAPPER: Mary Katharine?
MARY KATHARINE HAM, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Yes, I do have some questions about what I'm asked to believe here.
Am I asked to believe that Barr, a longtime professional in this -- even in this particular role, is engaged in a cover-up of his longtime colleague and I think someone who he's friendly with, Bob Mueller's two-year investigation?
TAPPER: Yes, I think they're good friends. That's how he's characterized it.
HAM: Right, and that he would put this forward in the -- for the purpose of setting a narrative, which then the media two weeks later would allow to sit, if the report were substantively different than what Barr had put out?
Like, that's -- that seems unreal to me. If, indeed, the Mueller report is very different...
SANDERS: I just want to be clear that that's not what I'm saying.
HAM: ... is very different from what Barr has said...
TAPPER: We all agree it should be released, right?
SANDERS: And also that we don't know what it says.
That's what I'm saying. All I'm saying and a number of people out there are saying is, we don't actually know what the report says.
HAM: But the conclusion does matter.
SANDERS: We know what Barr says it says. And now we know that there are people in the special counsel's office that reportedly, allegedly...
URBAN: Hold on. People.
SANDERS: OK, people. The president likes to quote people all the time, so come on now.
SANDERS: People that worked on the special counsel's office that are telling us, oh, there were summaries that we prepared -- there were summaries that we prepared that we thought would be released.
SANDERS: So we don't know. There's too many questions in the air.
So, for folks to say that we know what the Mueller report says...
HAM: We did a lot of knowing for two years before we knew nothing.
POWERS: No, I would say, just to directly answer your question, I think it's entirely possible that a political appointee would put out a narrative that is best for their boss.
I think it happens all the time, knowing that the -- that the story that gets out first is the story that sticks. And even if now later more information comes up, people are going to be less receptive to hearing it. So I think it's more likely that he's -- look, why wasn't he quoting more directly from the report?
POWERS: I think that's a fair question.
Why are there -- they say they gave a summary. Supposedly, some of the stuff needs to be redacted. But why can't it just be shared?
URBAN: I think it's a binary thing. I think it's binary.
HAM: Because, if they share some of it, it's a crime.
URBAN: Is the attorney general telling the truth or is he not telling the truth?
URBAN: You choose the answer.
POWERS: ... not telling the truth?
URBAN: The attorney general -- I think the attorney general says -- I think, is he telling the truth or not telling the truth? I believe he's telling the truth.
Symone and you seem to indicate he's not telling the truth.
SANDERS: I seem to indicate that I have not seen the Mueller report, so I cannot make an informed decision about something I have not seen and that no one at this table has seen.
POWERS: Yes, I don't know what's so outrageous about suggesting that a political appointee would ever maybe not be completely forthcoming.
URBAN: I want to make sure everybody understands what you're saying, that the attorney general is not being truthful.
POWERS: I don't know if he's being truthful.
TAPPER: I think there's just -- there's a lot of skepticism over here.
SANDERS: Yes. I'm real skeptical.
POWERS: I would like to be -- just see the facts.
HAM: We should have been a little more skeptical for two years.
TAPPER: Well, and that's fair too.
Everyone, stick around. We have got a lot more to talk about.
It appears that there's a new trend at the White House, President Trump throwing out an idea, there's a mad scramble, and then he punts it for a year. The latest example coming up next.
Plus, a new CNN investigation into the suspected cause of the recent Ethiopian Air crash, which killed 157 people and what Boeing did not do when it flight-tested that plane, the 737 MAX. You will see it first on THE LEAD.
Stay with us.
[16:15:34] JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: On our politics lead, Democrats want to know what it is that President Trump doesn't want America to see. A key House Democrat, the chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, has just formally requested that the IRS hand over the last six years President Trump's tax returns. The returns have been under lock and key after candidate Trump chose not to release them as has been tradition for modern presidential candidates dating back to 1976.
Now, this move is likely to spur a major legal battle and bring the issue of the president's finances back to the forefront just in time for 2020. What a coincidence.
Meanwhile, at the White House, the president just made a major decision regarding his threat to close the southern border.
CNN's Abby Philip has the story.
ABBY PHILLIP, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): President Trump retreating today on his threat to close the border with Mexico.
DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We're going to give them a one-year warning, and if the drugs don't stop or largely stop, we're going to put tariffs on Mexico.
PHILLIP: Specifically, the president targeting the auto industry which experts claim would be severely hurt by a border shutdown.
TRUMP: The only thing, frankly better but less drastic than closing the border is to tariff the cars come in. And I will do it. You know I will do it. I don't play games.
PHILLIP: A total 180 from what President Trump warned would happen just a couple days ago.
TRUMP: The border is going to be closed, 100 percent.
PHILLIP: And as Trump moves to defuse that controversy of his own making, House Democrats now heading straight for Trump's bottom line as they make their first move to obtain six years of the president's personal and business tax returns.
TRUMP: We're under audit despite what people said. Until such time as I'm not under audit, I would not be inclined to do that, thank you. PHILLIP: But in a carefully crafted move, House Ways and Means
Committee Chairman Richard Neal is not giving Trump the option to decide. Democrats are citing a part of the IRS code that gives concern congressional committees the right to request an individual's tax returns, potentially forcing a court battle with the administration.
REP. NANCY PELOSI (D-CA), SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE: Ways and Means request under 6103 have never been denied. So, let us -- let's rise to a level of presidential in all of this. Show us the Mueller report. Show us the tax returns.
PHILLIP: On Capitol Hill, Republicans warning the Democrats are trying to politicize the IRS.
SEN. CHUCK GRASSLEY (R), CHAIR, FINANCE COMMITTEE: I see political reasons for asking this, and I think that's wrong.
PHILLIP: But a recent poll shows 64 percent of Americans want Trump's returns released, a sentiment this Republican lawmaker shares.
REP. JAMES COMER (R), OVERSIGHT COMMITTEE: Well, I think that every high-level politician should disclose their tax returns.
PHILLIP: So in response to this brewing battle over President Trump's taxes, White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders is pointing to the financial disclosure forms that President Trump has filed. But that doesn't show us a lot of information about what's going on with the president's taxes, including whether he paid any taxes to foreign governments who those foreign governments are. And if he paid any taxes at all, Jake.
TAPPER: All right. Abby Phillip at the White House, thanks so much.
So, Symone, let me start with you. Chairman Neal, chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, in his letter to IRS described his justification for seeking six years worth of President Trump's taxes this way. Quote: The committee is considering legislative proposals and conducting oversight related to our federal tax laws including the extent to which the IRS audits and enforces the federal tax laws against a president.
Does that sound legit to you? I mean, I understand this is -- what President Trump has done has broken with precedent dating back to when I was 7 years old. I understand a lot of people are skeptical he's been under audit for the last however many years. But when Republicans say this is just a fishing expedition, do they not have a point?
SYMONE SANDERS, FORMER NATIONAL PRESS SECRETARY, BERNIE 2016: I don't think they have a point. He put his justification on the paper. If the chairman says that is why they need to see the president's tax returns, then I have full confidence in the chairman. Look, I will also say this, that my memory is not that short, Jake. I
remember when Michael Cohen said some very damning things about the president of the United States and his taxes or the lack thereof when he was before Congress. And I think that also could give legislatures some reason to seek the tax returns.
And I'll just say Donald Trump told us on the campaign trail he's going to release them. Keep your campaign promise, Mr. President.
TAPPER: David, do you believe the president has been under audit since 2015, whenever he started --
[16:20:01] DAVID URBAN, FORMER TRUMP CAMPAIGN SENIOR ADVISER: I have no way, but, you know, there's obviously -- if you look right here, what Mr. Neal is asking, there's a bunch of organizations which I'm sure no one has ever heard of. Lexington Farm Club LLC, LFB Acquisitions, I mean, I don't how --
TAPPER: What is that?
URBAN: These are all Trump Organization companies, right?
URBAN: I'm not sure how many he has and what's being audited and what's not. The president could have hundreds of companies. Maybe some are being audited or not --
TAPPER: So you believe it?
URBAN: I don't know. I take the president at face value. If Symone is willing to take Congressman Neal at face value that he's looking at legislative reform of this -- of 6103, I'm willing to take the president --
SANDERS: Well, Congressman Neal is --
URBAN: I'm just saying --
TAPPER: Kirsten, as Symone points out, late last year, there are questions about the president's taxes. Late last year, "The New York Times" published an investigation reporting President Trump engaged in dubious tax schemes in the '90s, including fraud. Michael Cohen said the president inflated and deflated his assets when it helped him. This is how Ryan Lizza, our political analyst, put it.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
RYAN LIZZA, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: I think he probably just cheated on his taxes. I mean, let's be honest. He cheats at golf. He lies on a daily basis. What are the chances that Donald Trump over the last six years did not cheat on his taxes?
(END VIDEO CLIP) TAPPER: A recent Pew poll, 64 percent say the president should just release his returns.
KIRSTEN POWERS, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Yes, he should release his returns. And I think that's the only justification here, frankly, for what the Democrats are doing.
This is typically what people do, and if he doesn't want them to do this, he could just release the tax returns, right, and let everybody see them and draw their own judgments. I do think there's plenty of evidence in the past if you read that "New York Times" story that this kind of inflating and deflating behavior, depending on who he was dealing with in terms of his income, you know, is something he's done in the past. You have Michael Cohen saying it as well.
They also -- you want to be sure the president doesn't have any conflicts of interest. I mean, that's really one of the prime reasons that candidates release their tax returns. So you can see what's going on.
There's legitimate reason to want to see the president's tax returns?
MARY KATHARINE HAM, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Yes, I've said they should be out since the campaign. He should release them. I'm also interested in how much power the House has to do this.
And I wouldn't mind a legal battle over this. So we have clear lines about how much they're capable of doing, but I think there is a scenario where it's not Trump where this does lead to worse outcomes.
TAPPER: Let's also talk about the fact that President Trump just all of a sudden took away this big threat he was going to close the southern border. People in his own administration were saying please don't do this, please don't do this. This is going to be bad for our economy.
Just last Friday, the president said this --
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
TRUMP: Mexico is going to have to do something, otherwise I'm closing the border. I'll just close the border. This is a very good likelihood that I'll be closing the border next week. That will be just fine with my.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
TAPPER: He took the out today with, I'm going to give Mexico a year and if not, I'll do tariffs. Closing the border is off. I imagine you were relieved.
URBAN: Closing is a bad idea. Closing the border is a bad idea. Too much commerce. There's a lot of ways you can effectuate securing the border. It doesn't necessitate closing the border. I think the president came around to that and is a much better outcome for the economy.
TAPPER: Mary Katharine, this is what we've talked about, the reality TV nature of this presidency. He throws out a wild idea and then everybody in the staff tries to figure out, how do we make this happen? How do we talk him out of it?
And usually, he takes an off ramp. The one exception that I can think of is the government shutdown where he went through with it.
HAM: Right. I don't think it's helpful to his staff or respectful to the people around him who are trying to do the backup work on this. I understand that's part of his -- I'm going to use the word strategy, loosely, such that it is, but he does pop off and that keeps people like off guard and that's part of who he is.
But I don't think it works on a policy level, but I do want to mea culpa and say last week I told my children, no TV for a week, and I lied. I straight-up lied. Had to back off that.
SANDERS: I would just say, this doesn't give the American people security. As we're talking about it, in the midst of a Democratic presidential primary, the general election is around the corner and members of the Senate that are up for re-election. Not to mention state legislative seats.
I would venture to say, if I am a -- if I'm an independent swing voter and I'm already -- I already have questions about the president, this doesn't sit well with me.
The president is playing games with people's lives. He's playing games with our commerce. He's playing games with the working people of this country. He purports to champions. And he doesn't have a strategy.
TAPPER: She said loosely.
URBAN: I would say one of the president's main objectives is the ratification of the USMCA. And I think closing the border would have gone a far way in undermining that.
TAPPER: That's the new NAFTA, replacement for NAFTA?
URBAN: It's getting some momentum, some traction with Democrats in the House. But it's moving somewhat forward and to blow that up would have been a tragedy.
TAPPER: Kirsten, he threatens to shut down the border, and today is like, nah, never mind.
[16:25:03] POWERS: I don't -- I mean, I don't understand the long- term plan here, right? You can see it in the short term. This is an issue that gets his base riled up and he hasn't been able to deliver on some of his promises. And so let's talk about how we're going to do this. If you aren't actually going to do it, I can't get into his head and begin to understand why you would do this unless he actually thought he was going to do it and then got talked out of it?
Everyone, stick around.
How much is too much? That's the question some Democrats may be asking themselves. We'll explain.