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THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER

Joe Biden Set to Announce Presidential Bid; Jared Kushner Downplays Russian Interference in 2016 Elections. Aired 4-4:30p ET

Aired April 23, 2019 - 16:00   ET

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


[16:00:03]

BROOKE BALDWIN, CNN ANCHOR: I'm Brooke Baldwin. Thank you for being with me.

"THE LEAD" starts right now.

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN ANCHOR: So, investigating the Russians damaged the U.S. more than an online Russian invasion. Got it.

THE LEAD starts right now.

New today, Jared Kushner goes to bat for his father-in-law and Vladimir Putin, all but dismissing Russian attempts to upend the U.S. presidential election.

The former veep finally taking the leap. Breaking today, CNN learning when Joe Biden will announce his presidential bid, with 19 other Democrats and President Trump waiting to mix it up with him.

Plus, President Trump set to visit the U.K. as a guest of the queen. Now, if only...

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KEILAR: Multiple other investigations, with one key deadline next hour.

CNN's Kaitlan Collins reports what one top Democrat is now calling open defiance by the White House.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): The White House testing the power of Congress today, resisting a wave of subpoenas from House Democrats and telling a former security director not to show up for his scheduled testimony on security clearances, leaving the hallways of Capitol Hill empty.

Democrats are now threatening to hold Carl Kline in contempt. In a scathing statement, House Oversight Chairman Elijah Cummings said the White House and Kline "now stand in open defiance of a duly authorized congressional subpoena, with no assertion of any privilege of any kind by President Trump." Late Monday night, the White House told Kline to ignore the subpoena because it was unconstitutional. Democrats want to talk to him after a whistle-blower said he played a role in the White House overturning security clearances that were initially denied to some of the president's advisers, including Jared Kushner, who maintained today that he's done nothing wrong.

JARED KUSHNER, SENIOR PRESIDENTIAL ADVISER: I have adhered to every single one of the -- even one of the ethics waivers that they want me to kind of -- barriers that they want me to keep. I have done nothing that's kind of influenced any of my decisions.

COLLINS: The latest move part of the White House effort to stonewall Democrats, including filing a lawsuit against Cummings, after he tried to get the president's financial information.

As the Treasury Department is expected to miss a second deadline to hand over Trump's tax returns. The special counsel's investigation is hovering in the background of all of this, now that House Judiciary Chairman Jerry Nadler has subpoenaed former White House counsel Don McGahn.

HOGAN GIDLEY, WHITE HOUSE DEPUTY PRESS SECRETARY: I don't know what Jerry Nadler thinks he's going to get that Robert Mueller didn't.

COLLINS: Two days after the president's attorney made this claim...

RUDY GIULIANI, ATTORNEY FOR PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: There's nothing wrong with taking information from Russians.

COLLINS: ... his son-in-law and senior adviser downplayed Russian interference in the 2016 election.

KUSHNER: And you look at what Russia did, buying some Facebook ads to try to sow dissent and do it -- and it's a terrible thing -- but I think the investigations and all of the speculation that's happened for the last two years has had a much harsher impact on our democracy than a couple of Facebook ads.

COLLINS: Kushner brushing it off as just a couple of Facebook ads, but, in his report, Robert Mueller said the Russian government interfered in the 2016 presidential election in a "sweeping and systematic fashion."

(END VIDEOTAPE)

COLLINS: Now, Brianna, that deadline for the president's tax returns is approaching within the end of the hour.

But, today, the deputy press secretary, Hogan Gidley, said he does not expect the Trump administration to comply with that deadline, so get prepared for what could be a pretty lengthy court battle.

KEILAR: All right, Kaitlan Collins at the White House, thank you so much. So, Jared Kushner, he's saying that the Russia investigation was worse

for the U.S. than a couple of Facebook ads. But I just want to be clear about fact-checking what went on during the election. The Mueller report found that as many as 126 million people were reached by the Russian influence campaign on Facebook, 1.4 million people interacted with their content on Twitter.

And you had top officials like Donald Trump, then a candidate, as well as Kellyanne Conway, Donald Trump's sons and more who were sharing some of that content.

Mehdi does he get it?

MEHDI HASAN, THE INTERCEPT: Well, he gets it. He's just not being truthful about it, which is it's simple and you do a fact-check -- 126 million, which is 10 million fewer than the number of Americans who actually voted in the election.

[16:05:05]

So, downplaying the involvement is helpful not just to himself and the White House that is under siege now in the post-Mueller world.

But also what's also really irresponsible is, it amplifies, it legitimatizes a Russian propaganda campaign, which says, we really didn't do much. And then you have a senior White House adviser who also happens to be a family member of the president who says, yes, they didn't actually do much.

And that's been part of a pattern, because whatever we can argue about collusion, conspiracies, all of that stuff, the reality is that Mueller came out said there was a sweeping and systematic interference in the election campaign.

And we have heard nothing from the president of the United States or the White House condemning it. I have heard Trump attack Democrats, "The New York Times," CNN, the Mueller team. He has called them traitors.

I have heard him angry at lots of people over the last week or so. Haven't heard him say a word about a Russian attack on U.S. democracy. Weird, that.

DAVID URBAN, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: So just to be fair here, I didn't hear the Jared quote exactly, but...

KEILAR: He said -- he likened it to a couple of Facebook ads. And he said the investigation was worse for the country.

(CROSSTALK)

URBAN: So what I think -- to just kind of take umbrage with that point, I don't think he's downplaying what the Russians did. I don't think he said it didn't have any impact. I didn't hear Jared say that.

What I heard him say was...

(LAUGHTER)

KEILAR: But you didn't hear...

(CROSSTALK)

URBAN: No, listen.

(CROSSTALK)

URBAN: No, no, look, I didn't hear -- but what I think he's trying to say is that two years of the investigation has done more -- the Russians have been more successful at sowing discord throughout the investigation.

They have been more effective at making Americans doubt democracy because -- because of the ongoing investigation. They think it amplified it much broader and much louder than it normally would have been.

KAREN FINNEY, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: I think Donald Trump has done a much better job of sowing discord by talking about building a wall and scapegoating LGBTQ people.

URBAN: No, no.

(CROSSTALK)

FINNEY: No, no, because...

(CROSSTALK)

URBAN: I'm talking about the Russians.

(CROSSTALK)

FINNEY: But the whole point -- but the point of what the Russians were trying to do was to -- and what they're very good at, what intelligence tells us is, they are very good at exploiting existing fractures.

They're not particularly good at creating new ones. This is what they did in the 1960s during the civil rights movement. So, this president has done a very good job of also further exploiting and dividing those fractures.

URBAN: Well...

FINNEY: However, to the point...

(CROSSTALK)

FINNEY: Hold on.

To the point about Jared, obviously, he's part of the propaganda, lying campaign coming out of the White House.

What I find very disturbing, though, is that we know that Mueller had FBI agents embedded in the investigation to farm out additional intel about additional concerns with our national security, ongoing, right now.

So Jared is basically saying, eh, that's nothing. If they take down our light grid or our energy grid, no big deal. It's just Facebook. That's what it makes it sound like.

URBAN: Yes, but I don't think that's what he...

(CROSSTALK)

KEILAR: What does it mean, though...

FINNEY: Because you didn't hear the quote, you don't know.

URBAN: OK.

KEILAR: ... when Jared Kushner is downplaying it, like, he looks ridiculous, because we know that's -- understandably, if he's going to throw his father-in-law a bone and emphasize what was -- what Bill Barr's decision was on obstruction, what was not certainly found by the Mueller investigation, but he could acknowledge the reality of what was found.

It's not a couple Facebook ads.

MARY KATHARINE HAM, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Yes, that's the thing.

He should rely on the Mueller report on the parts that reflect well on the president, because the facts of the non-collaboration matter. He should talk about that in public.

He should not downplay what Russians attempted to do, because it is a big deal, and it's something we should fix for future elections. And he -- but, of course, nobody in the White House listens to me about strategy of communications.

But I do think he's not right about the investigation being worse. He does have a point about speculation. People speculated to the point of one of the heads of our -- former heads of our intelligence agencies calling him a traitor. That's a pretty big deal. And it actually is pretty damaging to democracy.

HASAN: His boss has called the Mueller investigation traitors, too. So, I mean...

(CROSSTALK)

HAM: So, tit for tat. That's fine.

(CROSSTALK)

HASAN: Well, the president of the United States vs. a retired intelligence chief.

HAM: But you heart Clapper and you don't like Trump.

(CROSSTALK)

HASAN: I can assure you I don't heart Clapper.

HAM: Both are actually bad behavior, is what I'm saying. And if we could just acknowledge that, that would be great.

(CROSSTALK)

HAM: Both are bad behavior.

(CROSSTALK)

HASAN: Both are bad behavior, but not the same, right? Speculating about what the president did, speculating about the president and what the president did is not the same as the president of the United States basically having no problem with a foreign government involving...

(CROSSTALK)

HASAN: ... where Trump has condemned Russian election involvement since the Mueller report came out? It's a simple question. Can you point to me?

(CROSSTALK)

URBAN: Let's go back to the Clapper point.

If you don't think that the former director of the U.S. intelligence calling the president a traitor and an active asset for the Russians is a big deal, then you're not even on this planet. You're not on the planet.

(CROSSTALK)

HASAN: So, what planet should I be on where the president of the United States says nothing about a special counsel investigation that says that -- that says he benefited from a Russian involvement campaign? Has Trump condemned it? It's a very simple question, David.

(CROSSTALK)

FINNEY: Part of what makes the president's behavior so egregious is, it's not just the ongoing -- and it was a collaboration. They were more than welcome to have the...

(CROSSTALK)

[16:10:01]

FINNEY: Let me finish my point. (CROSSTALK)

FINNEY: They were more than willing to have the information from the Russians.

(CROSSTALK)

FINNEY: They sought the information that had been stolen, while the president had ongoing business relationships and multiple contacts.

I know Giuliani doesn't think that's a big deal.

(CROSSTALK)

HASAN: The Giuliani comments are much worse than the Jared Kushner...

(CROSSTALK)

FINNEY: Yes, there were. We know that for a fact from Michael Cohen that there was agreements signed. President Trump signed an agreement. Are you saying he didn't sign it?

(CROSSTALK)

KEILAR: Let's listen to Jared Kushner also talking about his reaction to that infamous Trump Tower meeting.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

KUSHNER: Lindsey Graham told me, I have had the best text message in the history of text messages when I was in that crazy meeting in Trump Tower, and I said, get me the hell out of here, basically.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(LAUGHTER)

FINNEY: Does anyone expect Jared to be telling the truth, though, at this point? Come on.

URBAN: I mean, it's a contemporaneous e-mail. It's a contemporaneous text.

KEILAR: Why is he bragging? Why is he taking that tone?

URBAN: I don't know. I don't -- I didn't hear the question. I don't...

KEILAR: OK, you're not hearing...

(CROSSTALK)

URBAN: No, no.

(CROSSTALK) URBAN: I didn't hear the question that was asked of him. I can only assume that, listen, it was a meeting Jared didn't want to be in, didn't think it was any big deal, and so he said, get me out of here.

(CROSSTALK)

FINNEY: But why not after that meeting say, you know what, there's nothing not right about this, we should probably tell somebody; we should tell the FBI or the CIA that the Russians are trying to help sway an election?

(CROSSTALK)

URBAN: Because they were naive. That's why.

(CROSSTALK)

KEILAR: My question is here about...

URBAN: They had never done this before.

(CROSSTALK)

KEILAR: Looking back, obviously, you can litigate all of these things, but this is the interview that Jared Kushner gave today.

This is the tone that he took. Why is he talking about something so serious in -- what do you think the effect of him discussing it that way is?

HAM: I think, if you were to be charitable to him, which I'm not sure that I am in this case, that you would guess that he's emphasizing, oh, gosh, I got in this room and I want to get out.

He's doing it in a flippant way, which I don't think is helpful to their message, once again. But they never listen to me.

(LAUGHTER)

KEILAR: All right, you guys, stand by.

Someone who helped the Trump transition now says that he should be impeached. We are going to talk to him next.

Plus, now we know where and when Joe Biden is going to unveil the worst kept secret in the 2020 race.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:15:42] KEILAR: Sticking with our politics lead, Democrats divided over impeachment and it's all spilling out on the campaign trail. Some 2020 presidential candidates ramping up their calls for impeachment, while others warn it will only benefit the president's re-election.

As CNN's Manu Raju reports, it comes as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi also is urging caution.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): As Speaker Nancy Pelosi tamps down talk of impeachment, she's getting pressure from some Democrats running for president.

SEN. ELIZABETH WARREN (D-MA), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: There is no political inconvenience exception to the United States Constitution. If any other human being in this country had done what's documented in the Mueller report, they would be arrested and put in jail.

SEN. KAMALA HARRIS (D-CA), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I believe Congress should take the steps towards impeachment.

MAYOR PETE BUTTIGIEG (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I think he's made it pretty clear that he deserves impeachment.

RAJU: But Democrats on the campaign trail are just as divided as they are in the House. With some worried that impeachment could actually benefit the president politically.

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS (I-VT), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: If -- and this is an if, if for the next year, year and a half, going right into the heart of the election, all that the Congress is talking about is impeaching Trump and Trump, Trump, Trump, and Mueller, Mueller, Mueller, what I worry about is that works to Trump's advantage.

RAJU: Others sidestepped the question.

SEN. AMY KLOBUCHAR (D-MN), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: If the House brings the impeachment proceedings before us, we will deal with them.

RAJU: In a private call with House Democrats, Pelosi said: Whether it's articles of impeachment or investigations, it's the same obtaining of facts. We don't have to go to articles of impeachment to obtain facts.

But sources on the call told CNN that some members expressed concerns, including Congresswoman Val Demings, who said Democrats are struggling why they are not launching impeachment proceedings.

Later on the call, Pelosi said, I'm not struggling, and said praising the Democratic approach that includes a subpoena the House Judiciary Committee sent to former White House counsel Don McGahn, in what could be a blockbuster month of hearings as part of that committee's probe into potential obstruction of justice.

Yet as Democrats seek to keep up the pressure on Trump, the GOP-led Senate is eager to move on.

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R-SC): I'm done with the Mueller report. We'll have Barr come in and tell us about what he found. I made sure that Mueller was able to do his job without interference. The Mueller report's over for me.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

RAJU: Now, Graham's committee will be the first to actually hear testimony from the attorney general, Bill Barr, next week. But as Congress has been in recess for the past two weeks, most Senate Republicans have been mostly silent about the Mueller report and its findings, particularly Republicans who are running for re-election in 2020.

I spoke to one of them, Joni Ernst, yesterday, and I asked her about President Trump's behavior as outlined in the Mueller report and whether she was alarmed in any way. And she said, I think we all know who the president is. He has a brash demeanor -- Brianna.

KEILAR: Manu Raju on the Hill, thank you.

And joining me to discuss is J.W. Verret, former Trump transition official who just today has decided to call for impeachment, and Joe Lockhart, former White House press secretary under President Clinton, who is advocating against impeachment. And yes, I did say that correctly. The Republican former Trump transition official for impeachment, Joe Lockhart, Democrat, against it.

So, J.W., you were a stalwart Republican. You worked on the transition. You've certainly had your differences with the president. But you've said you wanted to serve the country.

Tell us why you're calling for impeachment now.

J.W. VERRET, FORMER TRUMP TRANSITION OFFICIAL: The Mueller report is, without question, a referral to Congress to begin impeachment proceedings. I mean, I read it twice. That was my impression the first ten pages in and I think we have to take it seriously.

As Democrats make what I think is basically a political calculation about what to call the hearings that are coming, use the title impeachment or not, that's not something that really concerns me. To me, there's enough here for the impeachment process to begin.

KEILAR: And Mueller did not draw that conclusion, right? He -- on obstruction, Bill Barr drew that conclusion. What is it specifically, as you read the report, or in its totality, what was it where you said, this is grounds for impeachment. Whether or not it's Congress that now would take up that mantle, what was it?

[16:20:01] VERRET: It's a long checklist. For me, it's the principle obstruction issues that Mueller highlights, depending on how you count, 10 to 12 separate counts of potential obstruction of justice. Remember, those have been raised before. That was a part of the Clinton impeachment.

But for me, really, remember, I think we all need -- America needs to remember there's basic civics. Impeachment is the start of the process, it's not the end. I think most of us think, generally, impeachment, oh, that means a finding that you're no longer president. No, no, no, it's the beginning of a process. It's like a grand jury investigation. That's the best analogy. And

there's more than enough here. This is the most extensive grand jury referral I've ever seen.

KEILAR : Joe, you have been through this drill before at the Clinton White House. Explain why you think impeachment is not the right move for Democrats right now.

JOE LOCKHART, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Because I think, first off, the public -- I agree with J.W., the public doesn't understand this. They think if the president is impeached, he's removed. In fact, that has to go to the Senate.

And my biggest concern is that the Democrats could move impeachment. It would go to the Senate and no Republicans, maybe one or two, would vote, and the country would get the impression that the president was innocent. And I think we need to avoid that at all costs.

I think the Constitution -- the framers of the Constitution wanted these decisions made by the congressmen, politicians. So politics, of course, are at play here.

And I think the Democrats, as Nancy Pelosi was saying last night on the call, can do an investigation. They can bring all of these people up, but as soon as you open an impeachment process, and the president isn't removed, the president will go on rally after rally, saying that Congress found me innocent.

We can get this done, it's not a binary choice. I would suggest that we do hearings for the next five or six months, bring everything out, and then the House puts a censure motion on the floor. The best thing for Democrats, though, and I make this point in "The New York Times" op-ed, is I think Trump is rotting the Republican Party out from the inside. And, you know, you find no Republican will go in front of a camera this week. Well, imagine them trying to go to their voters in 2020, with Trump at the top of the ticket. I think that's the opportunity for Democrats, beat them at the ballot box. Don't go down the road of impeachment, where you know you can't win.

KEILAR: What do you say to them, that this would actually help the president, if he is impeached, because it's going to be such a split vote?

VERRET: Well, I think if you want to take a few months to do more hearings, that's fine, educate the public. That was an important part of the Nixon impeachment that made it ultimately force his resignation. But I think you have ultimately have to take that step, because it is an appropriate step.

I think if you don't draw the line here, I fear for the president going forward. And on the political calculation, frankly, I think a lot of Democrats are making the wrong political calculation. I supported the idea of the Clinton impeachment, I did. I thought there were some serious obstruction issues there.

But it's not nearly as serious as what's going on here. It's a different man with different approval ratings. He's not a comeback guy when it comes to approvals. He's been a net negative since a couple of months after taking office.

Different man, different facts. The American people are going to listen and I think they're smart enough to know what's going on.

KEILAR: Joe, you've been listening these candidates on the trail, these 2020 Dems, and they have, a lot of them, have been saying, essentially, that they defer to the House of representatives, unlike Senators Warren and Harris. But if Democrats are deferring to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on this, what would it take, do you think, for her to get away from this wait-and-see approach and move forward with impeachment?

LOCKHART: Listen, I think these hearings are not show hearings. We may find out some information from Don McGahn or maybe even Donald Trump Jr. will be forced to come up and testify, and we may find some stuff that isn't in the report or is in the redacted section.

But I think -- look at what Nancy Pelosi's job is. People running for president's job is to appeal to enough voters to get the nomination. Nancy Pelosi's job is to keep the caucus together and to keep the most vulnerable Democrats and protect them in the next election. And the most vulnerable Democrats are the ones who just won their first term.

And by and large, 75 to 80 percent of those are moderate Democrats in very purple districts. They want the conversation to be about health care, infrastructure, taxes, immigration, and I -- if we go down the impeachment road, it will be irresistible for the press to cover that exclusively at the expense of what won the Democrats the election in 2018.

So, she's protecting the caucus here, and I think -- I think, all the savvy members of the caucus will understand that. People are allowed to go out and dissent and say, I think we should do this. But I don't see, I don't think you'll see any sort of revolt within the caucus.

KEILAR: Joe Lockhart, J.W. Verret, thank you, gentlemen, for quite a role reversal. We appreciate it.

VERRET: Thank you.

KEILAR: So, he's about to officially get in the race, but can Joe Biden really prove he's different than all the other 19 other Democrats?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:29:37] KEILAR: Mark your calendars. Sources tell CNN, Vice President Joe Biden will officially enter the presidential race on Thursday, changing dramatically what's already a crowded field. Five candidates last night facing questions about their policy positions at a series of CNN town halls.

And as CNN's Jeff Zeleny reports, one made comments on which Republicans are already seizing. (BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

JOSEPH BIDEN, FORMER VICE PRESIDENT: Thank you, thank you, thank you.

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): And now he is. Sources telling CNN that Joe Biden intends to finally throw his hat into the 2020 presidential race on Thursday.

[16:30:00]