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THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER

Trump Stonewalls Congress Over Tax Returns; Trump Ignoring Continued Russian Threat to Elections?. Aired 4-4:30p ET

Aired April 24, 2019 - 16:00   ET

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


[16:00:04]

BROOKE BALDWIN, CNN ANCHOR: Live look at the Dow before the closing bell.

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

"THE LEAD" starts right now.

JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: You know, he still seems pretty agitated for a guy claiming at the beginning of the week he's never been happier or more content.

THE LEAD starts right now.

Don't tell the president about the Russian invasion. Today, new CNN reporting about how it's like -- quote -- "pulling teeth" to try to get the White House to pay attention to further Russian election interference

Quote: "We're fighting all the subpoenas" -- President Trump today going to battle with House Democrats, saying he's the most transparent president in history, as he stonewalls their requests.

And two peas in an all-powerful pod. With Kim Jong-un and Vladimir Putin about to meet in Russia, is President Trump dealing with the ultimate fear of missing out?

Welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

We begin with the politics lead.

A U.S. government official telling me today that it's -- quote -- "like pulling teeth" to get the White House to focus on the very real ongoing threat of continued Russian election interference.

Quote: "In general, senior White House staff felt it wasn't a good idea to bring up issues related to Russia in front of the president," the official told me.

You might recall senior White House officials told special counsel Robert Mueller and his team that President Trump worries that Russia's 2016 interference undermines the legitimacy of his electoral win. Now, this government official told me that the Department of Homeland

Security tried repeatedly over the last year or so to set up more Cabinet-level meetings on the subject leading up to the midterms and after the midterms, but that department -- quote -- "kept getting the Heisman" from National Security Adviser John Bolton and others in the White House.

Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats shared these concerns, the official tells me, and felt that the Trump administration -- quote -- "was not being forward-leaning enough in notifying Congress and the American people."

Critics say this is a stunning example of a president paying insufficient attention to a tremendous national security threat. Senior officials tell me it's an ongoing threat, one that has not waned since 2016, when Russia had that massive operation during the Obama years to undermine the U.S. electoral system, launching an influence campaign and even hacking state boards of election and county governments.

In one state, Russian military intelligence was even able to steal information about millions of registered voters. Said a separate senior administration official to me today -- quote -- "There was a real frustration because several administration officials wanted a more strategic approach out of the National Security Council. And what we got instead was a few policy documents" -- unquote.

And while the official noted that agencies such as DHS and FBI and the NSA continue to work to combat the problem -- quote -- "Ultimately, it would have been a good thing for the president to make a strong public statement on the security efforts around the 2018 election, but it wasn't going to happen."

Said a spokesman for the NSC today: "Any suggestion that this administration is giving less than a full-throated effort to secure America's elections is patently false."

But that's not really the question. Obviously, many administration officials are working hard to combat this. The questions are, why haven't there been more than a couple senior-levels principals meeting to coordinate this response government-wide, and why is President Trump so willing to use his bully pulpit to attack cable news anchors or "Saturday Night Live" comedians?

Why is he so unwilling to do so on this issue related to his job, related to national security?

CNN's Kaitlan Collins now explains, there's not even an agreement about this within the White House.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Today, the White House is on defense, after "The New York Times" reported Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney warned former Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen not to bring up concerns about Russian interference in the upcoming election with President Trump because it "wasn't a great subject."

Mulvaney disputing that account today, but not denying it, adding that "The Trump administration will not tolerate foreign interference in our elections."

Sources tell CNN officials often go out of their way to not talk about Russia with Trump, because he sees any talk about Russia's interference as an attack on his presidency. While top intelligence officials have warned election meddling is an ongoing problem, the president's allies and top advisers are downplaying it.

JARED KUSHNER, SENIOR PRESIDENTIAL ADVISER: 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: While the president may not want to talk about election meddling, he is welcoming another fight.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Oh, we're fighting all the subpoenas. Look, these aren't like impartial people. The Democrats are trying to win 2020.

COLLINS: The White House is now challenging congressional Democrats on nearly every front, including missing a deadline to hand over Trump's tax returns, instructing officials not to show up for scheduled testimony, and now trying to block a subpoena for former White House counsel Don McGahn.

[16:05:05]

Trump comparing Democrats' attempts at oversight to the special counsel's investigation.

TRUMP: I thought, after two years, we'd be finished with it. No. Now the House goes and starts subpoenaing. They want to know every deal I have ever done.

COLLINS: But Democrats don't seem worried about his promise to fight.

REP. RO KHANNA (D-CA): We will go to court. The courts will rule for us. But the Trump administration is just engaged in a delay tactic to kick the can down the road.

COLLINS: On Twitter today, the president claimed: "If the partisan Dems ever tried to impeach, I would first head to the U.S. Supreme Court."

But it's Congress that is responsible for initiating, overseeing and executing the impeachment process, not the courts.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

COLLINS: Now, Jake, back to that interaction between Nielsen and Mulvaney, a White House official pointed out today that that occurred at a time when the president was hyperfocused on the border, and it shouldn't be read as this implication that the president is not taking election security seriously.

But, on that note, we should note that it's been almost nine months to the day since it's been publicly disclosed that the president was holding a meeting with Cabinet-level officials on election interference, Jake.

TAPPER: All right, Kaitlan Collins at the White House.

Let's chew into this.

Amanda, we have two different competing versions of why the president and the White House have not been as engaged in the issue of cybersecurity and Russian election interference as former Secretary Nielsen and others in the administration have wanted them to be.

One is what you just heard there the White House officials saying, at the time, the president was much more focused on the border. But then we also have what's in the Mueller report -- quote -- "The president expressed concerns to advisers that reports of Russia's election interference might lead the public to question the legitimacy of his election."

It could be both reasons. But what do you think? Get into his head, if you can.

AMANDA CARPENTER, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, I hate to be really cynical, but I think we should be.

Anyone that reads the Mueller report knows that there were many attempts to collude with Russians, if there was not outright collusion. There were many examples of the Trump campaign championing the Russian hacks to help win the election.

So why would anything change? They haven't paid a price for using that information. And it did nothing but help them. And so I don't see any way that they're going to change going into 2020. They're not sorry. There's been no member of the Trump campaign that said, you know what, we shouldn't have talked about WikiLeaks so much, we shouldn't have called for Russia to obtain her e-mails.

They made it a campaign issue. And if you observe Trump, you know that he fights dirty. They do not believe in fighting fair. And there's nothing that will change about that.

TAPPER: Just as a side note, as a journalist, I don't think there's been a real discussion among journalists either...

CARPENTER: Yes.

TAPPER: ... about the fact that we reprinted and I on the show reported what was in those WikiLeaks. And probably we should have a discussion about that also. I don't want to let us off the hook, while we're talking about...

CARPENTER: Sure. But it was a big story.

TAPPER: Yes, absolutely.

CARPENTER: The Russians played everybody.

TAPPER: Right. No, absolutely.

But back to President Trump, and we will leave the journalistic part of this to Brian Stelter and "Reliable Sources."

What do you think about the president? I mean, if national security officials are on the case, if people at Homeland Security and the FBI and the NSA and the ODNI and all these people are doing their jobs and are patriotic, and the only issue is whether or not there is a government-wide response, is this a scandal, or is this just something that could be better than it is?

TIFFANY CROSS, THE BEAT D.C.: Well, I would first take issue with the first part of that question, because we don't know that for sure.

I haven't really began to trust this administration at any level, at the agencies or at the White House. And we have seen consistently throughout this administration this president laud praise on Vladimir Putin and deny that there was ever any attempt to -- or impact our elections.

So I don't have the confidence that even at the agency level it's being addressed. Listen, I think when you hear the secretary of all the things, Jared Kushner, talk about how, oh, it was just a couple of e-mails and no big deal, well, that's not true.

So how can I trust what this administration is saying? The IRA had a specific intent to sideline black voters. We will never know the exact impact that had on the elections. But we do know that the black vote dropped significantly in 2016.

Where was, you know, all the concern after in the -- or when Trump -- the Trump administration took control? So I have concerns about even the first part.

TAPPER: So let me play devil's advocate and try to defend what Jared Kushner said yesterday, which is that it was only roughly a few hundred thousand dollars worth of ads, as compared to $70 million worth of ads by the Trump campaign on Facebook, and that his belief that, inarguably, the meetings that you're talking about, et cetera, those ads, and the attempts by the Russians, apparently unsuccessful, to collude with the Trump campaign, are not as divisive as the last two years of investigations, rhetoric, what you hear on cable news, et cetera.

That, I think, is the case he was making.

STEPHANIE CUTTER, FORMER OBAMA DEPUTY CAMPAIGN MANAGER: It is.

(LAUGHTER)

TAPPER: You disagree with that?

CUTTER: I do disagree, as do, I think, most Americans.

[16:10:00]

What the Russians did was historic and despicable, to try to disrupt our democracy. And they did disrupt it. People stayed home because of those ads. It...

TAPPER: We don't know that for a fact.

CUTTER: Well, we don't know that for a fact.

TAPPER: Right.

CUTTER: But I think that, given the sophistication and what we learned in the Mueller report about all the things that they did, we can assume that it had some impact.

And when Hillary Clinton is not president largely because of 70,000 votes in three states, then we should assume it had an impact.

Even if it didn't have an impact, the fact that we have a president of the United States who is not appalled by what Russia did and a White House and a senior adviser not appalled by what Russia did to this country, to our democracy, is just baffling, and, frankly, just disgusting.

TAPPER: What if an Earth 2 President Donald Trump said, you know what, there was no collusion, but the Russians obviously did things that were horrible, and I'm going to do everything I can to make sure this doesn't happen again?

That's on Earth 2, because, on Earth 1, we have Rudy Giuliani saying there's nothing wrong with getting information from the Russians and people belittling what the Russians did.

And I know that you're not belittling it personally, but...

ANTONIA FERRIER, FORMER STAFF DIRECTOR, SENATE REPUBLICAN COMMUNICATIONS CENTER: No.

Let me just say I -- maybe I'm trying to take some hope from some of the Cabinet-level officials. Like, I do trust the DNI. I do think Dan Coats is an honorable man who is trying to work very hard.

And there was a briefing across the administration that was done from the White House on this topic several months ago. But, look, let me just be very clear here. Russia is our enemy. Russia has always been our enemy. It has probably tried to influence our elections many times before.

We know, in 2012 -- one of my colleagues was Mitt Romney's campaign manager -- China tried to influence the 2012 elections. We should writ large as a country try to understand that America's enemies are always going to try and influence, and we need to guard against that.

Specifically to Russia, Russia is always going to try and do that. This is what Putin's game is. We need to call him on this game and say no to it. And I think it would really help the administration if senior officials within the White House, most notably the president of the United States, were to say, no, enough is enough.

CARPENTER: I agree with all that. But it makes me feel bad as an American that we spend so much time saying, oh, we might be being manipulated by Russia or China.

They are trying. But the fact this happened is on Americans. It's on members of the Trump campaign who retweeted bots that were Russian- controlled bots and never apologized for it once, because they were so desperate to find people that say favorable things about them, that they didn't care who the source was.

TAPPER: Yes.

CUTTER: It's no secret that they were encouraging this type of behavior.

CARPENTER: Yes.

CUTTER: When Donald Trump campaigns about let Russia find her e- mails, five hours later, she was hacked.

So I was on 2012 also, and I know your colleague Matt probably did the same thing that we did when we were hacked by the Chinese and probably hacked by the Russians too. We alerted authorities.

TAPPER: Right.

(CROSSTALK)

CARPENTER: It ain't hard.

CUTTER: We let them know that we were being hacked, that somebody was trying to get into our systems, so that they could do something about it.

The opposite happened with Donald Trump.

TAPPER: Everyone, stick around. We got a lot more to talk about.

If Democrats follow through on impeachment threats, today, President Trump is preemptively pushing back, waging a new counterattack of his own.

And hold up, Mayor Pete. He just compared Senator Bernie Sanders to President Trump. See if you agree with his reasoning -- Mr. Buttigieg coming up.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

[16:17:01] DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We're fighting all the subpoenas. Look, these aren't like impartial people. The only way they can luck out is by constantly going after me on nonsense. But they should be really focused on legislation.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: President Trump declaring he will defy any subpoenas coming from House Democratic committees investigating his actions.

Let's discuss.

Antonia, you're a former hill rat, right?

FERRIER: I am.

TAPPER: You have a lot of respect for separation of powers.

FERRIER: Of course, co-equal branches of government.

TAPPER: What do you think of him saying they're just going to refuse every subpoena?

FERRIER: Well, I'm of two minds, to be honest with you, because I do think it is ultimately political, but this is a political town and everything ultimately is political. I think the president is a pugilist and he's going to fight it and he's made it pretty clear he's going to fight it. This will end up in the courts and we'll have to see it's going to be a real roll of the dice here on how the D.C. Circuit rules.

But as a constitutionalist and as a congressional supporter, I think a little more working with the House Democrats would be in his favor. Also, he does have some priorities he would like passed through the House, most notably NAFTA 2.0, USMCA, whatever you want to call it, this isn't exactly a great way to induce the speaker of the house to take up his signature trade deal with Mexico and Canada.

CROSS: Is it political, though, to protect our democracy? I don't see how that applies in this situation? Yes, there's partisan politics in D.C. and throughout the country. When it comes to a foreign adversary who is clearly our enemy, like you said in the last segment, and you have members of Congress who want to get to the bottom of it.

Listen, I don't expect most American people to read 400-plus pages in the Mueller report. but when you look at some of the things that happened, when you find out Don McGahn said, look, I can't do this because the president is asking me to do crazy, sugar honey iced tea, that is a deal you have to look into. I want to know what else he asked him to do other than get Mueller fired. That's not partisan politics.

CUTTER: I agree, especially because Bob Mueller laid out a road map for Congress to actually do that.

TAPPER: On obstruction, not on conspiracy.

CUTTER: On obstruction.

TAPPER: Yes.

CUTTER: But I also think Congress has an oversight role and I've been in the White House and have been the subject of that oversight role. I've been on the White House and I've been a subject of that oversight, I know what it's like. But we never disrespected the role of Congress. And that's what the president is trying to do.

TAPPER: Well, Eric Holder refused one. So, he got subpoenaed, held in contempt to Congress.

CUTTER: Right, on an investigation that was proven --

TAPPER: Fast and Furious, I believe.

CUTTER: Fast and Furious, right.

TAPPER: But I will say -- can I say something I remember both Trey Gowdy and Mike Rogers, two former Republican members of Congress, but when they were in Congress held hearings on Benghazi and I thought both produced important reports. And I know people in the Obama White House and Hillary Clinton's team thought it was the same thing, but ultimately I thought both reports were fairly respectful and important.

CARPENTER: Here is where the difference is. I think Republicans had a better idea of where they were going with Benghazi and what they were looking for.

In the case of the Democrats, they really just have too many choices and I think they're still trying to figure that out.

[16:20:05] OK. So, you want to subpoena members of the Trump administration? You know, my question is what are you seeking?

I think there's a lot of things they could go after. Obviously, obstruction of justice. Obviously , security clearance with Jared Kushner. Obviously, the way that Trump has possibly inflated his assets and lied about his assets on tax forms for tax benefits, as Michael Cohen has said.

(CROSSTALK)

CARPENTER: But there are so many and I have not heard a leading Democrat say this is what we're going to do, this is what we're after. And Trump sort of demands that clarity. Otherwise, he wins this argument.

CROSS: He doesn't have that right. Why do they have to choose one? I mean, we have to --

CARPENTER: For clarity for the American public to follow.

CUTTER: I agree with Amanda is saying in that, you know, there is a danger of Democrats looking to do this just for political purpose and for them to overreach what they're trying to do.

The problem is there is so much.

TAPPER: There is -- yes.

CUTTER: This is the Trump administration keeps offering up --

TAPPER: I thought they had conspiracies.

CUTTER: And this president was just transparent as he came into office, let's start with his tax returns, like every other president has done. If we could see his tax returns it might clear a lot of this up.

TAPPER: So, there is one thing I want to say though I was not here yesterday. I need to clarify something that was said on the show that was incorrect during a conversation about a Russian election interference. A couple of our panelists misspoke, they had said that the former director of national intelligence, General James Clapper, had called president Trump a traitor.

Clapper never said that. They had the wrong guy. They meant to be talking about former CIA Director John Brennan. John Brennan did call the President Trump's press conference with Vladimir Putin, quote, nothing short of treasonous, unquote.

And on behalf of those panelists, we apologize to General Clapper.

Joe Biden is now hours away from announcing his 2020 plans. Gird your loins. It was supposed to be today. But now we know what led to the delay and it's interesting.

Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

[16:26:33] SEN. KAMALA HARRIS (D-CA), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Come on in, the water is warm, Joe.

(LAUGHTER)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: California Senator Kamala Harris welcoming the former vice president, Joe Biden, into the race. He is going to make it official tomorrow. Sources tell CNN part of Biden's strategy is to get major endorsements to highlight how important it is to pick a candidate who can beat President Trump.

This is happening as CNN senior national correspondent Kyung Lah reports, as other candidates begin to court the vote of minority women.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

KYUNG LAH, CNN SENIOR NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): With the Democratic base shaping up to be more female and more diverse than ever, 2020 presidential candidates head to Houston, courting voters of color. The She the People Forum, eight of eight of the 2020 candidates will speak, addressing women of color issues, a signal of this voting bloc's power in the Democratic nomination.

Among the speakers, the only black woman running for president this cycle, Kamala Harris.

At the CNN town hall, she weighed in on felons voting, a group disproportionately made up of people of color.

DON LEMON, CNN HOST: People who are convicted, in prison, like the Boston marathon bomber, on death row, people who are convicted of sexual assault, they should be able to vote?

HARRIS: I think we should have the conversation.

LAH: The next day, Harris seeking to clarify her response.

HARRIS: Do I think that people who commit murder, people are terrorists should be deprived of their rights? Yes, I do. I'm a prosecutor. I believe that in terms of there has to be serious consequence for the most extreme types of crimes.

LAH: The issues and the entire Democratic race will be a brand-new primary game tomorrow, when former Vice President Joe Biden makes his long-awaited campaign official. His political action committee teased what CNN reports will be a video announcement on Thursday while building up an email and fund-raising list, writing: There has been a lot of chatter about what Joe Biden plans to do. We want you to be the first to know.

After the announcement, sources tell CNN, Biden will hold his first campaign event in Pittsburgh. Then hit the road to the early voting states of Iowa, South Carolina, and New Hampshire.

JOSEPH BIDEN, FORMER VICE PRESIDENT: Give everybody else their day, then I get a shot, and then we're off to the races.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

LAH: Now, this Women of Color Forum is still ongoing. While all of this is happening, two sources here tell me that they were reached out -- they had spoken to the former Vice President Joe Biden's campaign and the question posed to them is whether or not today would be a bad day to release his campaign video announcing his official run for the presidency. They advised the campaign that the optics of doing that and overshadowing all of this would be, quote, a bad idea -- Jake.

TAPPER: All right. Kyung Lah, thank you so much.

So the Biden juggernaut begins tomorrow. You worked with him at the White House when you worked in the Obama White House. What does he need to do to stay on top of the polls? They say your best day is your announcement day and now you have literally 40 years of oppo that's going to drop on him. CUTTER: And also 40 years of a pretty strong record on some core

issues Democrats and all Americans care about.

So, you're right. He's coming into this race as a front-runner, largely because of his name recognition and the work that he did as Barack Obama's vice president.

I think that it's only natural that he is not going to maintain that front-runner status. We're going to see ups and downs throughout the course of the race over the next nine months.

[16:30:00]