Return to Transcripts main page

THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER

Unemployment Rate Falls; Trump Fails to Address Election Meddling With Putin. Aired 4-4:30p ET

Aired May 3, 2019 - 16:00   ET

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


[16:00:00]

BROOKE BALDWIN, CNN ANCHOR: This fiery crash involved 28 other vehicles and killed four people. His attorney calls the charges a massive, unprecedented overreach by the prosecution.

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

"THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER" starts now.

JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: Crazy low employment still is not guaranteeing President Trump his job.

THE LEAD starts right now.

Breaking today, President Trump speaks with Vladimir Putin on the phone for more than an hour. So did that cyber-invasion of our democracy fully laid out in the Mueller report even come up?

The last time unemployment in the U.S. was this low, the Beatles were still together and I was nine months old. So, why isn't President Trump's approval rating as high as Nixon's were back then?

Plus, from playing beer pong to hitting the Barr, as in Attorney General Barr, how Democrats running for president are trying to grab headlines and voters in an historically jam-packed field.

Welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

We begin today with the politics lead.

President Trump today continued to belittle Russian election interference in the 2016 presidential election, as well as continued election interference in the U.S. by Russia.

The president going so far as to say he discussed what he called the -- quote -- "Russian hoax" in an hour-long phone call with Russian President Vladimir Putin. The two leaders discussed a range of topics, including, the president tweeted, trade, Venezuela, Ukraine, North Korea, nuclear arms control, and even the -- quote -- "Russian hoax."

The president went on to tell reporters later that he did not tell Putin to stop engaging in election interference, which remains, according to President Trump's own top national security officials, a continuing threat to the United States.

Based on the president's public statements and apparently his private ones with Vladimir Putin, the man who led and continues to lead cyberattacks on the United States, the president is more concerned with underlining that special counsel Robert Mueller was not able to find sufficient evidence that any members of his team engaged in criminal conspiracy with Russia, than he is focused on this continued threat from Putin and Putin's intelligence services.

The president continues to say things about the Mueller investigation that are simply not true, such as, in this tweet -- quote -- "The Mueller report strongly stated that there was no collusion with Russia, of course. And in fact, they," the Russians, "were rebuffed at every turn in attempts to gain access."

It is not true that the Russians were rebuffed at every turn. It is a lie. The Mueller report details any number of instances when Russians were welcomed with open arms by members of the Trump team, including, for instance, the Russian government lawyer offering dirt on Hillary Clinton and getting a meeting at Trump Tower with the president's son, son-in-law, and campaign chairman.

This all, of course, comes as Congress is investigating whether the president obstructed justice by trying to stop the FBI and Mueller investigations.

As part of that, the House Judiciary Committee has subpoenaed former White House counsel Don McGahn, who told Mueller that President Trump told him to have Mueller fired. President Trump disputes that. And now the president seems to be signaling he wants McGahn to defy the subpoena.

CNN's White House correspondent, Abby Phillip, kicks off our coverage.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

QUESTION: Did you tell him not to meddle in the next election?

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We didn't discuss that.

ABBY PHILLIP, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): President Trump today speaking with Russian President Vladimir Putin about the Mueller investigation, but he didn't bring up the report's major finding, that Russia interfered in the 2016 election.

QUESTION: Mr. President, did you address the election meddling issues that came up in the Mueller report with President Putin today?

TRUMP: We discussed it. He actually sort of smiled when he said something to the effect that it started off as a mountain and it ended up being a mouse. But he knew that, because he knew there was no collusion whatsoever. So, pretty much, that is what it was.

PHILLIP: But that's hardly how Mueller would put it. Mueller found insufficient evidence to prove criminal conspiracy, but the investigation concluded, "The Russian government interfered in the 2016 presidential election in sweeping and systemic fashion to help Trump win" and that the Trump campaign "expected it would benefit electorally from information stolen and released through Russian efforts."

Meantime, President Trump appears ready to shut down efforts by congressional Democrats to force former White House counsel Don McGahn to testify on possible obstruction of justice, appearing to hedge a little, after giving a much more definitive answer just last night on his favorite channel.

TRUMP: So, I don't think can I let him and then tell everybody else you can't, because -- especially him, because he was a counsel.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

PHILLIP: And just yesterday, President Trump disparaged President Obama's response to Russian interference in 2016, saying that President Obama could have confronted Putin, but didn't. He said he did nothing.

[16:05:05]

But that's actually not true. President Obama did directly confront Putin face to face in a meeting. But President Trump in his first phone call with Putin since the Mueller report was released appeared to not be interested in talking at all about the major finding of the Mueller report on Russian interference -- Jake.

TAPPER: All right, Abby Phillip. And Abby joins our experts here.

Bill, I want to play again -- actually, this is new, I think -- something that President Trump said earlier today describing how he talked about the Russian hoax with Vladimir Putin. Take a listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TRUMP: Sort of smiled when he said something to the effect that it started off as a mountain and it ended up being a mouse. But he knew that, because he knew there was no collusion whatsoever. So, pretty much, that is what it was.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: I mean, once again, it seems like President Trump taking the word of Vladimir Putin over his own top intelligence and national security officials, who say, there was Russian election interference, period.

BILL KRISTOL, DIRECTOR, DEFENDING DEMOCRACY TOGETHER: In Helsinki, he took Putin's word over the intelligence community. Now he's taking President Putin's word over the special counsel, a 400-plus-page report, which -- none of which has been quarreled with.

Not only has none of it been disproved, but has the Trump administration even tried to, you know, discredit any fact in that report? I'm really struck. Remember, Rudy Giuliani was preparing a response and they were going to hit back?

Literally, is there a sentence in that report that any responsible person has said or shown or even suggested is inaccurate? So we have a report suggesting systematic Russian interference in the election, and the president not only doesn't raise it, President Trump doesn't -- not only doesn't raise it with President Putin, but accepts President Putin's notion that this is all a hoax.

TAPPER: And, Elliot, you heard President Trump there saying that he didn't bring up Russian election interference.

Let's remind viewers what Abby just reminded people. The special counsel found that -- quote -- "The Russian government" -- this is a quote -- "The Russian government interfered in the 2016 presidential election in sweeping and systematic fashion to help President Trump get elected" and -- quote -- "that the campaign," the Trump campaign, "expected it would benefit electorally from information stolen and released through Russian efforts."

Now, OK, not enough for a criminal prosecution, I get it. But, still, how do -- how does the president not bring this up?

ELLIOT WILLIAMS, FORMER DEPUTY U.S. ATTORNEY GENERAL: Right.

We have gotten hung up on this question of what it takes to charge something as a crime and aren't focused on the clear evidence of wrongdoing on the part of the president and frankly on the part of the president's campaign.

Now, perhaps you could not charge them with -- quote, unquote -- "collusion," even though we all know that's not a federal crime.

TAPPER: Well, they didn't charge him with conspiracy. They didn't even try.

WILLIAMS: Right. Right.

But that doesn't mean that the conduct was proper for the president of the United States.

TAPPER: Right. Right.

WILLIAMS: Look, I think the problem here is not with the president, frankly, even with Vladimir Putin. It's with the congressional Republicans that are letting the president off the hook with respect to this conduct, with respect to sitting down -- or talking to Vladimir Putin and agreeing with him over the advice of...

(CROSSTALK)

KRISTOL: Wait, wait. I'm as happy as anyone to attack the congressional Republicans, but last I looked, there's this party called the Democratic Party that controls the House of Representatives.

And if the president committed impeachable acts, maybe the Democratic Party in the House of Representatives should start moving on that.

WILLIAMS: But something I think we're going to talk about today is all of the attempts the Democrats are making to try to hold the president accountable.

But going back to the beginning of this presidency, because the president remains popular with his base, they're giving a free pass on -- look, Ronald Reagan should be rolling over in his grave at the kinds of statements that we're seeing President Trump agree with.

PHILLIP: And one of the startling things about Bill Barr's testimony on the Hill this week was that he was asked repeatedly about these questions. Was it OK for the Trump campaign to have done all of these things that were listed out in the Mueller report?

And each time, he refused to answer the question, even when they were asked by a Republican senator in that case. So it's not just Republican senators on Capitol Hill. In fact, some of them are calling this behavior out.

But it's also the attorney general, Bill Barr, who doesn't even want to go there, you know, below the bar for charging a crime, what is right and what's wrong.

TAPPER: And, Kirsten, let's not forget, about three weeks ago, Rudy Giuliani, the president's attorney, on "STATE OF THE UNION" told me that there's nothing wrong -- forget illegal.

KIRSTEN POWERS, CNN COMMENTATOR: Yes.

TAPPER: Nothing wrong with getting information from the Russians, depending on what it is.

POWERS: Yes. That seems to be where now this conversation has shifted, that actually this seems to be an argument that's being made, and that -- you know, and that Bill Barr declined to really address that issue.

And it should be illegal, it seems like. And it also seems like the president should be angry when he's talking to Putin about what has been laid out so clearly in terms of what Russia was doing and that they plan to do it again. And he's not.

TAPPER: One other thing that was interesting on the call today, take a listen to the president talking about how he believes Putin on the subject of Venezuela, Putin claiming that he's not interested in interfering in Venezuela, despite everything we have heard from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and all sorts of other U.S. officials. Take a listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TRUMP: He is not looking at all to get involved in Venezuela, other than he'd like to see something positive happen for Venezuela.

(END VIDEO CLIP) [16:10:02]

TAPPER: Directly contradicting statements made by Secretary of State Pompeo, National Security Adviser Bolton, who have called out Russia specifically for propping up the dictator, the socialist dictator Maduro.

And we have done stories on the show about how there are Russian troops in Venezuela right now.

PHILLIP: Yes.

And, I mean, Pompeo has said this on this network earlier this week, that he believed that Maduro was about to leave Venezuela, but was convinced not to do it by the Russians. John Bolton stood outside of the White House.

I was standing right in front of him when he said he believed the Cubans and the Russians were propping up Maduro's regime. So, the president has a phone call with Vladimir Putin and similarly to Russian interference.

Putin tells him something, and the president's response to that is, oh, you're right. And then he repeats it to the press. And this is now the new narrative from the administration. But it really goes against everything, the entire foreign policy strategy when it comes to Venezuela.

And it will be interesting to see how Mike Pompeo and John Bolton shift now their language around Russia's interference in Venezuela, which is a huge part of that puzzle.

TAPPER: And, Bill, just to point out, President Trump is not saying, well, this is what Putin claims.

KRISTOL: Right.

TAPPER: He is giving Putin's point of view, almost as if he is the spokesman for the Kremlin. He is not looking at all to get involved in Venezuela. There are Russian troops in Venezuela.

KRISTOL: Right. This is the president taking Putin's word on Venezuela, taking Putin's word on interference.

On Kirsten's point, when he was a candidate, fine. He was a candidate. It was a sloppy campaign. They should have been more -- he is president now. He has a different -- even if they did some stuff in the campaign, as president of the United States, he has a phone conversation for an hour with the president of Russia and doesn't rebuke him for an attack on our electoral system, and then takes his word over the manifest obvious facts that Russia is in Venezuela?

WILLIAMS: It's a recurring theme -- and take this out of the national security context -- overruling the opinions of career officials, national security officials, lawyers, the Justice Department. (CROSSTALK)

TAPPER: And facts.

WILLIAMS: And facts.

TAPPER: And just the facts on the ground as they're being -- as we're witnessing them ourselves.

Everyone, stick around.

The chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee just invited special counsel Robert Mueller to testify, but there is a big if in the invitation. That's next.

Then, how do you stand out in a crowd of 21 Democratic presidential candidates? The lengths to which some of these candidates are going -- coming up.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:15:00]

TAPPER: In our politics lead, republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Chairman of the Judiciary Committee and strong ally of President Trump, just invited Special Counsel Robert Mueller to testify before the Judiciary Committee if he has any issues with how Attorney General Bill Barr initially handled the release of the Mueller report. Let's go right now to CNN's Sunlen Serfaty on Capitol Hill. Now Sunlen, Graham sent a letter to Mueller and he brought up one particular section of testimony from Wednesday's Senate hearing with Attorney General Barr. What was it?

SUNLEN SURFATY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: That's right. Jake. This relates to a phone call between Bill Barr and Robert Mueller that Bill Barr talked about during his testimony up here on Wednesday. Barr told the committee on Wednesday that when they spoke on the phone, that Mueller told him that he did not think that the four-page summary that Barr provided to Congress was inaccurate, but Barr said that Mueller told him he was unhappy, specifically, with the media coverage of Barr summary.

And that, of course, is a much different tone and much different substance than what we all know now from the letter that Mueller sent to Barr outlining his complaints. The chairman of the committee, Lindsey Graham, is essentially saying, go ahead, Robert Mueller, come in and refute the point that the attorney general made under oath here. Graham says in his letter, quote, "please inform the committee, if you would like to provide testimony regarding any misrepresentation by the attorney general of the substance of that phone call."

But Jake, it is very unclear at this point what Graham specifically means when he says "provide testimony," because he has been repeatedly, adamantly against Robert Mueller coming in to testify before his committee. Still unclear what form that takes. TAPPER: All right. Sunlen Surfaty on Capitol Hill. Thank you so

much. I want to get to whether or not Mueller will testify in a second. But first, Elliot, let me ask you a question. You're a former deputy assistant attorney general at the Justice Department. The president said this decision about whether Don McGahn, his former White House counsel, should comply with the subpoena from the House Judiciary Committee to testify. The president said a decision will be made on McGahn testifying in the next week or so, but he obviously signaled that he does not think he should. Can the president stop McGahn, who is now a private citizen, even though he was his White House counsel, from testifying?

ELLIOT WILLIAMS, FORMER DEPUTY ASSISTANT ATTORNEY GENERAL: He can kick and scream, but Don McGahn is a private citizen. The president certainly doesn't want him to testify, but here' the thing, the president is trying to have it both ways by claiming to be the most open and transparent president in American history and then manufacturing these claims on executive privilege that are actually quite thin. He's waived a lot of them by disclosing the substance of his conversations with McGahn. Most of them were waived once the report got submitted to Congress and submitted to the public and so on. So he doesn't really have much of a ground to stand on. He can kick and scream and it's sort of like rolling it out like a TV preview. I'll make the decision in a week. Make the decision on it. You've had plenty of time to think about it.

TAPPER: And the other question I have for you as an attorney is, McGahn obviously testified and cooperated with Mueller.

WILLIAMS: Yes.

TAPPER: And in that area, obviously, executive privilege was waived. Can he now invoke executive privilege, whether it's McGahn or President Trump, given that it was waived once before?

WILLIAMS: No, it was waived once before and it will extend to another proceeding. The other thing is, we're confusing -- the president is pretty clearly confusing the difference between the special counsel investigation and Congress. It's not functionally the same. So the mere fact that he testified before doesn't preclude him from going to Congress. But again, it's sort of like, you know, it's the privilege that you have with your spouse, right? It exists -- once one of you waives it, you can't...

TAPPER: It's gone.

WILLIAMS: ... exert it in another...

TAPPER: It's like invoking the Fifth Amendment.

WILLIAMS: All of the above.

TAPPER: Once you invoke it, it's gone.

WILLIAMS: Once you said it, you can't unring the bell. That's correct. TAPPER: Let's go back to whether or not Mueller should testify. Take a listen to President Trump earlier today asked if he thought the special counsel should testify?

(BEGIN VIDEO)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Mr. President, should Mueller testify? Would you like to see him testify?

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I don't know, that's up to our attorney general, who I think has done a fantastic job.

(END VIDEO)

TAPPER: But Barr testified earlier this week that he has no problem with Mueller testifying.

ABBY PHILLIP, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Right and I think the president is making -- the last part of that is the most important to the president, because I think he's basically signaling to the world that he thinks Mueller is going to make the best decision as it relates to him. Whether or not that is true or not...

TAPPER: Whether Mueller will or Mueller - Bar will?

PHILLIP: I'm sorry, Barr will ...

TAPPER: Yes.

PHILLIP: ... make the best decision as it relates to the president. We don't know if that is true or not. But Barr has already indicated that he has no problem with it. He sees that as sort of par for the course. It hasn't actually gotten to a decision point yet, it doesn't seem. But when he's up against that decision, it will remain to be seen. And I think it's clear President Trump doesn't want anybody testifying anymore on this subject. He's said repeatedly, he thinks that this case is closed and that giving anymore to democrats only fuels these investigations that he calls harassment.

[16:20:00]

And so I wouldn't be - what's interesting to me is how the president's relationship with Barr might change if Barr does allow Mueller to testify or simply doesn't stand in the way of it.

TAPPER: Lindsey Graham, what's he doing here? It's interesting, because he had said very clearly, this is done, I'm over, if the democrats want to do it on the House, that's their thing, but as Chairman of the Judiciary Committee on the Senate side, I'm not going to do it. But now he's saying, Mueller if you have anything that contradicts from what we've heard on Barr, you can come on in.

KIRSTEN POWERS, "USA TODAY" COLUMNIST: Well, I'm assuming he's doing this because he must think that Mueller is going to back up Barr. I don't think Lindsey Graham has any interest unless something has shifted in his thinking in making the attorney general look bad or making the president look bad. But what doesn't make sense is that the letter clearly states the problem. So it's in writing. Mueller took the time to write this letter, to say what the problem is, and he didn't say anything about media coverage. Now, it's possible he said that the media coverage wasn't accurate, but that wasn't his primary complaint.

TAPPER: Wasn't in the letter.

PHILLIP: Right. His primary complaint which he took the time to write down had nothing to do with media coverage.

BILL KRISTOL, CONSERVATIVE WRITER: I just think -- I mean, the House of Representatives has, in my view, an absolute obligation to hear from Robert Mueller in a formal hearing. I think they have an obligation to hear from Don McGahn. Mueller reported that McGahn said that the president urged him to lie about something, first to fire Mueller and then to lie about it. The president has denied that.

The House has to see what -- how -- what the truth is as well as they can and have McGahn testify. And certainly I think the House Foreign Affairs Committee has an obligation to call Secretary Pompeo at the beginning of next week and say, what is our Venezuela policy?

TAPPER: Venezuelan policy.

KRISTOL: It's not a joking thing! We encouraged a rebellion there. People are getting killed. We've worked very closely with allies to put pressure on the government. We have sanctions. This is actually an important foreign policy matter. And actually, I would say on this one more than most, the administration seems to be working fairly coherently, so far as one can tell in one direction...

TAPPER: Until today.

KRISTOL: ... until today and now the president has called into question and there are people going into the streets in Venezuela and to hear the president say no problem with the Russians and no need for...

PHILLIP: And on that point, Sarah Sanders was literally just asked about the disconnect between Pompeo and the president on this. And she says well the president's just repeating what Putin told him, which goes back to the origin problem. Why is the president simply repeating what Vladimir Putin tells him?

TAPPER: Everyone stick around, from playing beer pong to capitalizing on the moment the president calls you a name, democratic presidential hopefuls are pulling out all the stops in trying to stand out in a crowd field. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:25:00]

TAPPER: In our 2020 Lead today, how do you stand out in a field of 21 people? Well, from sparring with the president to viral social media moments, CNN's Jessica Dean now takes a look at how the democratic candidates are trying to fight for attention in this historically crowded field.

JESSICA DEAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: In a field of 21 contenders, democrats are looking for their big moment to break out from the pack.

(BEGIN VIDEO)

SEN. KAMALA HARRIS, (D) CALIFORNIA AND DEMOCRATIC PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I think you've made it clear that you've not looked at the evidence. We can move on. I think you've made it clear, sir, that you've not looked at the evidence and we can move on.

(END VIDEO)

DEAN: Senator Kamala Harris' questioning of Attorney General William Barr this week going viral, drawing the attention of President Trump.

(BEGIN VIDEO)

TRUMP: Well, she was probably very nasty.

(END VIDEO)

DEAN: Harris is now fund raising off that moment. Writing to reporters, quote, "Nasty? It seems like anytime Donald Trump feels threatened by a strong woman, he lashes out with this gross, weird attack." Senator Kirsten Gillibrand also used the Senate hearing as a way to grab the spotlight delivering a strong statement about sexual assault in the military.

(BEGIN VIDEO)

SEN. KIRSTEN GILLIBRAND, (D) NEW YORK AND 2020 DEMOCRATIC PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I am tired of the statement I get over and over from the chain of command. We got this, ma'am, we got this. You don't have it! You're failing us!

(END VIDEO)

DEAN: Meantime, Senator Amy Klobuchar is focusing on policy as a way to stand out, rolling out a plan to prioritize mental health and combat addiction. She's talked openly about her father's struggle with alcoholism.

(BEGIN VIDEO)

SEN. AMY KLOBUCHAR, (D) MINNESOTA AND 2020 PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: When he went to treatment, in his words, he was pursued by grace and so that has pushed me.

(END VIDEO)

DEAN: Governor Jay Inslee, who had made combating climate change the central theme of his candidacy today unveiled his plan to implement 100 percent clean energy standards for key sectors of the U.S. economy.

(BEGIN VIDEO)

JAY INSLEE, GOVERNOR OF WASHINGTON AND DEMOCRATIC PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: There is a dark cloud over America. And that is the dark cloud of climate change.

(END VIDEO)

DEAN: His announcement follows Beto O'rourke's release of his own climate change plan earlier this week. His first major 2020 policy proposal.

(BEGIN VIDEO)

REP. BETO O'ROURKE, (D) TEXAS AND DEMOCRATIC PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: This country needs direction when it comes to meeting the single greatest threat that we've ever faced.

(END VIDEO)

DEAN: Polls support focusing on climate change is a good strategy; 82 percent of democrats say that issue is very important. And while each of those candidates mentioned in that story are doing what they can to stand out, they all continue to poll well behind Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden right now, Jake.

TAPPER: All right, Jessica Dean thanks so much. Seung Min Kim joins us now and thank you so much. You saw what happened with this hugely crowded field of republicans in 2016. Might that dynamic play here as well in the sense that somebody just gets 30, 35 percent of support in the party and then gets the nomination?

SEUNG MIN KIM, WHITE HOUSE REPORTER FOR "THE WASHINGTON POST": Yes, and I think what's important to remember, too, is that the democrats broadly want someone who can beat Donald Trump and they want their party unified this time, so whoever the nominee is, even if it isn't their primary favorite, it's pretty clear they will most likely align behind whoever the nominee is - whoever the nominee is when they're --

[16:30:00]