Return to Transcripts main page

THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER

How Do Pennsylvania Voters Feel About Trump for 2020?; Washington Post: Rosenstein to Trump "I Can Land the Plane" on Special Counsel Robert Mueller's Investigation; Gold Star Families Hit With Huge Tax Increases; Two Women Push For Prison Reform Beyond Trump's First Step. Aired 4:30-5p ET

Aired April 26, 2019 - 16:30   ET

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


[16:30:00] UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I don't know what the country's ready for. I don't know if they're ready for a woman president or a gay president or any of that stuff, either.

MIGUEL MARQUEZ, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): The economy here, paramount.

DEMONSTRATORS: What do we want?

MARQUEZ: All 1,700 members of Erie's largest union, United Electrical, went on strike earlier in the year. Trump won many rank and file union votes in 2016. Both parties vowed to fight for those same voters in 2020.

JIM WERTZ, CHAIRMAN, ERIE COUNTY DEMOCRATIC PARTY: Going into 2020, we're looking very strong. I think 2018 built a lot of momentum.

MARQUEZ (on camera): Do you think you can count on union votes in 2020?

VEREL SALMON, CHAIRMAN, ERIE COUNTY REPUBLICAN PARTY: Well, we've got to work for them. And I can count on them thinking and believing in this region.

MARQUEZ (voice-over): The Rust Belt, a major route on the road to the White House.

Miguel Marquez, CNN, Erie, Pennsylvania.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: And our thanks to Miguel Marquez for that report.

So we were just talking about the commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Seung Min, you just saw a voter who backed Obama twice, voted for Trump, and he says he will vote for President Trump again, even though he wouldn't want to have a beer with him.

Is the economy strong enough that it will actually bolster his chances of even doing better in Pennsylvania, perhaps? SEUNG MIN KIM, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: And that's the major question

that we'll see, because if you look at the president's current approval ratings, "The Washington Post" just released a poll an hour or so ago, his approval ratings at 39, disapproval at 54. With how good the economy's doing, those are remarkably low numbers. So, you wonder how those numbers would be if this was a conventional president who didn't have the specter of a special counsel investigation hanging over, who perhaps didn't have access to a Twitter account.

But, clearly, the economy is going to be so paramount in these Rust Belt states. I've also been talking to people in Wisconsin, ahead of his rally in Green Bay tomorrow. And while there are Republicans there who say, you know, we wish you would stop tweeting, they do like the tax cuts and the new regulation policies of the administration.

TAPPER: And they like the economy doing well. You just talked about a new "Washington Post" poll. Take a look at this poll from Monmouth University, which has President Trump at 40 percent approval, 54 percent disapproval.

Jeff Zeleny, one of the things that's interesting about this is, President Trump won with very low approval numbers. I mean, it was -- Hillary Clinton also had low approval numbers, but, I mean, it wasn't as though he was super popular and he became elected president. There are a lot of people that held their nose and voted for him and also, of course, he lost the popular vote by 3 million votes.

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: Exactly. And that's not -- I mean, I think that will be an increasing trend, most likely, just by how people view politicians. The approval rating is not going to be that high.

But I think at this point, any poll like that, you must take with a grain of salt. They don't know who is going to be running against him. So Joe Biden's challenge and task, and other Democrats, are convincing those O.T. voters, if you will, Obama and Trump voters, to go back to the Democratic Party. And that is at the heart of Joe Biden's message.

But you also heard the other voters say, she's like, I'm not sure what progressives are pushing, how much the country is ready for. So that is the balance there inside the Democratic Party. As you see it sort of veering left, Joe Biden's trying to, you know --

TAPPER: And, Tara, let me ask you. Because your vote is up for grabs, theoretically, a Republican who doesn't like Donald Trump's behavior. You want the economy to stay strong.

Does the Democrat have to basically say, I'm not going to try anything too crazy to get your vote?

TARA SETMAYER, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, I can -- I can tell you, they start talking Green New Deal stuff, they're not going to get my vote. And Donald Trump's not getting it either. But if they want people like me, the people who crossed over during the midterms and voted Democrat in the midterm elections, the moderate right-of-center folks, they cannot be these pie-in-the-sky, very -- the socialist idea that Trump and the right are pushing. That's very effective.

And so, if they do that, that's a no-go for people that are in a lane like mine. But I worry about Trump doing something to manipulate the economy for short-term gain, just because he knows that the only lifeline that he has, you know, the shutdown didn't affect anything. Who knows, will he do that again? Is he trying to stack the Fed because he wants to manipulate monetary policy?

TAPPER: It will be interesting.

SETMAYER: Right, of course. So, those kind of things worry me about what he's going to do, because people respond to pocketbook issues.

TAPPER: But this is also a big debate for your party, Paul. You have Democrats, progressives who want boldness and think that the idea is, don't run a corporate Democrat like Joe Biden. Their words, not mine. Run somebody who's going to get out young people, Democratic socialists, far-left progressives, minority voters. Get their vote out and stop worrying about the -- no offense, but the Taras of the world.

SETMAYER: Well, there's a lot of us.

PAUL BEGALA, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: They should worry -- the idea here is to win.

SETMAYER: Yes, right.

TAPPER: But can you do that by straddling big, progressive ambitious plan, versus, I don't want to rock the boat on the economy. I like the economy.

BEGALA: First, I just want them to focus on the economy rather than say, should the Boston marathon bomber be able to vote from prison. Are you kidding me?

[16:35:01] Democrats -- the president's approval rating --

TAPPER: You're not a fan of that one.

BEGALA: Not a fan of that one.

(LAUGHTER)

BEGALA: The president's approval rating took a hit last week. And we all thought it was because of Mueller. Maybe it is.

My buddy Carville has a different theory. April 15th tax refunds came out and most middle class people did not get what they thought they deserved. So, his idea -- and I think it's the right one, Democrats ought to be holding hearings on the tax cut and how it's not helped the middle class.

On the president's proposal to cut $2 trillion from Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, in other words, get back to the meat and potatoes economic issues, Democrats. TAPPER: Everyone, stick around.

Next, saving his job, a new report from "The Washington Post" detailing the great lengths to which Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein went to try to convince President Trump to not fire him.

Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:40:08] TAPPER: We have some breaking news for you now.

"The Washington Post" is reporting that Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein sought to reassure President Trump that he was on his team last fall, reportedly telling Mr. Trump that he would make sure that he was treated fairly in the Mueller probe.

Quote: I give the investigation credibility, Rosenstein said, in the words of one administration official offering their own characterization of the call. I can land the plane.

This call happened, according to "The Washington Post," shortly after "The New York Times" reported Rosenstein discussed secretly recording the president.

In response to the story, Rosenstein tells CNN, quote: The only commitment I made to president Trump about the Russia investigation is the same commitment I made to the Congress: so long as I was in charge, it would be conducted appropriately and as expeditiously as possible, unquote.

So, Paul, Rosenstein oversaw the Russia investigation. He helped the current attorney general, Bill Barr, spin, I think it's fair to say, Mueller's findings to make them sound more favorable to Trump than the 400-plus pages actually did. He also helped make the determination that Trump did not obstruct justice.

So what do you make of this?

BEGALA: I think he's trying to clean up his reputation going out the door. I think all of those things are true. I think he did a heroic job of protecting the investigation. We're only learning how much the president wanted to end that investigation.

TAPPER: And the release also was pretty impressive, I have to say, by Barr and Rosenstein. We got most of the Mueller report released.

BEGALA: I still think there are too many redactions, but short of national security stuff, I don't think that the grand jury material should have been excluded. We have a right to that. You can go to the judge.

TAPPER: There was a fear we weren't going to see any of it.

BEGALA: I agree.

TAPPER: Sorry --

(CROSSTALK)

BEGALA: He was complicit in the attorney general misleading the country and that is a really big deal. And he'll have to live with that in his legacy. And then this bizarre conclusion that somehow Mr. Mueller didn't see obstruction of justice, when you see ten different times, Mueller basically said, he obstructed justice here, here, and here, but I can't charge him because your rules don't allow me to charge a sitting president.

TAPPER: So, your newspaper also reports that Rosenstein had gotten teary-eyed in a meeting with Chief of Staff John Kelly, chief of staff at the time, before taking the call from President Trump. A source familiar with the matter said that Rosenstein was actually not teary- eyed. Rosenstein unloaded in a speech last night, we should point out, on the Obama administration, on James Comey, and on the media. Here's a little bit of that.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ROD ROSENSTEIN, DEPUTY ATTORNEY GENERAL: One silly question that I get from reporters is, is it true that you got angry and emotional a few times over the past two years? Heck, yes, didn't you?

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: It is, I think, a mark of this administration that people come in and a lot of them wrestle with how to do their job. And some of them end up leaving with reputations worse off than they were before.

KIM: Yes, and as my wonderful colleagues point out in their story, this does really illustrate that tightrope that Mr. Rosenstein has had to walk in the last two years. He has to be the defender of the Russia probe, but he's also, at the same time, a Trump administration official. He is a Trump appointee.

I do find it interesting, when and if Democrats will really turn their focus on Rosenstein at this point, we haven't had that too much yet. But, as you both pointed out earlier, he did have a role with the attorney general, whom Democrats are furious at, over how he's handled the rollout of the report. And other issues related to the investigation. He was part of that decision making to not pursue obstruction of justice charges.

Right now, Democrats obviously are going after Barr, they do want to speak to Mueller soon. And when they -- do they turn their attention to Rosenstein at some point, we'll wait to see.

TAPPER: I want you to take a listen, Jeff, to President Trump denying that he told White House counsel Don McGahn to fire special counsel Robert Mueller, which McGahn testified under oath about to Robert Mueller and provided contemporaneous notes and a contemporaneous account to his lawyer and he was testifying under threat of perjury.

Take a listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TRUMP: I never told Don McGahn to fire Mueller. If I wanted to fire Mueller, I would have done it myself. It's very simple. I had the right to, but I'm a student of history. I see what you get when you fire people. And it's -- it's not good.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: So, obviously, they see this as a vulnerability.

ZELENY: They see it as a vulnerability, but also, it just is trying to create a new reality. Like, once again, I mean, the Mueller report says what it says, and Don McGahn, you know, he'll have to testify likely, at some point on this. So, he has obviously shown that he is his own man on this and he's not beholden to the president and he's telling an honest account here.

So the president there, he has fired a lot of people. A lot of people have quit, but he doesn't actually fire as many as you think. And he was always afraid of firing Mueller. So I think that he's just trying to re-write history here. And maybe his hard-core base believes him, but the rest of us, I don't think will.

SETMAYER: And he also did not have the right to fire Mueller. Only the attorney general could actually fire Bob Mueller. So, that's something --

ZELENY: That's why he didn't --

[16:45:00] SETMAYER: Right, that's right. And you know, and look Don McGahn -- the special counsel lays out pretty clearly Trump tried multiple times to get him to fire Mueller you know, and end this investigation. That is the strongest part of the obstruction of justice part of this.

TAPPER: Stick around, everyone. President Trump touted as a signature accomplishment but up next why some military families, Gold Star Families are calling the new tax law an absolute betrayal. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

TAPPER: A travesty in our "NATIONAL LEAD." Advocates for gold star families who have lost loved ones in the military during a time of conflict, they plan to go to Capitol Hill next month over a disturbing consequence of President Trump's tax bill.

The families of fallen service members saw the death benefits to which they're entitled suddenly and unexpectedly taxed at a much higher rate. As CNN's Alex Marquardt reports, some families are calling this an absolute betrayal by the U.S. government.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) [16:50:24] ALEX MARQUARDT, CNN SENIOR NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: It's been almost five years since Elizabeth Davis lost her husband, Matt. He was a marine, a first lieutenant, father to Aubrey, who was just six when her father died. As if that pain weren't enough, Aubrey, who's now 11, has just had to pay $10,000 in taxes on the benefits from her dad's death.

ELIZABETH DAVIS, GOLD STAR WIDOW: It is an absolute betrayal of the families who have already given so much. And this is, you know, money that is intended for children who are essentially orphaned.

MARQUARDT: Davis is one of the thousands of gold star widows grappling with President Trump's changes to the tax code, which have resulted in a surge in taxes on benefits to military families.

DAVIS: I had a hard time understanding it at first. I thought, for sure, like, this figure is wrong. There's no way she owes that much in taxes, but it wasn't.

MARQUARDT: Both the Departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs offer benefits to spouses of fallen troops. But the full amounts can't be received simultaneously. They're offset against each other. So parents often put the taxable DOD benefits in their children's names, in order to receive both benefits at the same time.

And the new tax code then puts those kids into a bracket known as the kiddie tax, smacking them with taxes as high as 37 percent, which can be triple what it used to be.

DAVIS: It changes everything financially you know, week to week and month to month.

MARQUARDT: Davis is giving politicians the benefit of the doubt that they didn't set out to target military families. But she and others affected say that Congress has to fix the problem to allow spouses to receive both benefits in full, so they don't to put them in their children's names and get taxed so high.

DAVIS: When you are at a military funeral and they are folding up, you know, in my instance, as they're folding up my husband's flag off of his casket, and the marine that handed it over to me said, this is on behalf of a grateful nation, I'm looking for someone to stand up for me in the way that my husband stood up for this country.

I'm looking for someone to take care of my daughter and my family in the way that I know my husband would do for this country.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

MARQUARDT: Jake, Congress is taking action to try to rectify this. There are two bills, one in the House, the other in the Senate. These efforts supported by a wide range of lawmakers from both parties. Now, a spokesman for the House Ways and Means Committee tells CNN that the higher taxes for these survivor benefits were an unintended consequence of the tax bill, that they didn't realize it would affect these children of fallen service members. Jake? TAPPER: Well, then, they should fix it. They've paid enough. Alex Marquardt, thanks so much. Coming up next, what's motivating a woman who spent five years in prison to head to the Hill to lobby members of Congress? Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:55:00] TAPPER: The "NATIONAL LEAD" now. The U.S. imprisons more of its citizens than any other country on earth, a fact that is finally meeting with bipartisan alarm, and now news of progress trying to curb years of prison overcrowding. The Bureau of Justice Statistics shows 1.4 million inmates locked up in 2017.

Now that's a drop from the year prior, though it is still the highest number in the world. CNN's Jessica Schneider met two women working to change the system.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

PAM WINN, FORMER PRISONER: It's a dream come true.

JESSICA SCHNEIDER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Pam Winn spent five years in prison for bank and healthcare fraud.

WINN: I'm a Democrat but I'm voting for you.

SCHNEIDER: Never imagining she'd be lobbying members of Congress in the years after her release in 2013.

WINN: So I felt like the least that I could do is to fight and try and do something to stop this so nobody would have to experience it again.

SCHNEIDER: While Winn was pregnant and awaiting sentencing, she's stumbled while her ankles and hands were shackled.

WINN: I would send a medical request for like a couple of weeks and nobody was responding to me. I never got seen. I ended up miscarrying before I could ever get any care.

SCHNEIDER: The prison says it has no records of complaints substantiating Winn's claim. She fought for a provision in the First Step Act that prohibits the shackling of pregnant women. The bill was signed into law in December and is the biggest initiative the federal government has ever taken to reduce the number of people in federal custody.

Among other provisions, it shortens mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenses and eases the three-strikes rule to impose a mandatory 25-year sentence instead of life. Winn shared her story with Republican Congressman Doug Collins who co-sponsored the bill.

REP. DOUG COLLINS (R-GA): As we started this, we started getting calls from all over the country and letters from inmates and everything to say this is what my story is.

SCHNEIDER: The First Step Act has already led to the release of nearly 650 federal inmates including April Johnson.

APRIL JOHNSON, FORMER PRISON: Thank you for signing the bill. I got on compassionate release for my daughter.

SCHNEIDER: Who is now at home in Georgia taking care of her 24-year- old daughter who has terminal cancer. Human rights attorney Jessica Jackson advocated for the bill and says there's more to be done.

JESSICA JACKSON, NATIONAL DIRECTOR, #CUT50: It's time for us to really take a fundamental look at why we're so focused on punishment and retribution and how we can start promoting healing and opportunities for people to succeed that make our communities safer.

SCHNEIDER: Lawmakers say plans are already in the works for a second step act. Jessica Schneider, CNN Atlanta.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

TAPPER: More stories like this on "THE REDEMPTION PROJECT" with Van Jones, that's this Sunday night at 9:00 here on CNN. And you can join me for "STATE OF THE UNION" this Sunday. My guests will be White House Counselor Kellyanne Conway and 2020 presidential candidate Congressman Seth Moulton. That is Sunday morning at 9:00 and noon only here on CNN.

Our coverage on CNN continues right now. Have a great weekend.

[17:00:00]