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Bill de Blasio Announces Presidential Bid; Iran Tensions; Former DOJ Legal Chief: Democrats Are Missing the Point; Protesters Jeer as NYC Mayor Announces Presidential Run. Aired 4-4:30p ET

Aired May 16, 2019 - 16:00   ET



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

"THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER" starts right now.

JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: Does President Trump think one of his own advisers is going too far?

THE LEAD starts right now.

Make deals, not war. The commander in chief himself tries to cool down the situation with Iran, but are some inside the White House ready for war, even if the president is not?

Twenty-three now for 2020, another Democrat jumping into the presidential race, as some New York City boo birds comes out. Can the mayor and former Hillary Clinton Senate campaign manager go the distance?

And if the trade war is driving you to drink, well, I have got some bad news for you -- why everything from Kentucky bourbon to bargain basement Wal-Mart prices are now taking a hit.

Welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

We begin today with the world lead, President Trump delivering a message to Iran: Let's talk. In a meeting with the Swiss president, Mr. Trump tried to tamp down the escalating rhetoric today.


QUESTION: Mr. President, are we going to war with Iran?



TAPPER: Right now, congressional leadership and the heads of the House and Senate Intelligence Committees, known as the Gang of Eight, are all being briefed on the latest intelligence that prompted the Trump administration, they say, to claim an increased threat from Iran. According to "The New York Times," new images obtained by the Trump

administration show Iranian forces loading missiles onto boats, raising White House fears of attacks on U.S. forces, interests and allies in the region.

This all comes as sources tell CNN the president is growing a bit irritated at the perception that National Security Adviser John Bolton is drawing the United States into war with Tehran.

As CNN's Pamela Brown now reports, the president isn't the only one concerned about Bolton's hawkish views.


QUESTION: Mr. President, are we going to war with Iran?

TRUMP: I hope not.

PAMELA BROWN, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): President Trump today taking a new approach to deal with the Iranian regime, meeting with the Swiss president today, in hopes of creating a diplomatic back channel with Iran to defuse escalating tensions.

SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: He'd like to see some behavioral change come from them. We're going to continue the maximum pressure and that, as the president has said, if they take action, they're not going to like what he does in response. They're not going to be happy.

BROWN: A top European security official says U.S. allies are closely watching the Trump administration's next move, adding, National Security Adviser John Bolton's hawkish reputation on Iran, including regime change, is a concern.

Sources tell CNN the president has grown irritated with the perception that Bolton and others are leading him into a war with Iran, expressing it on Twitter today, saying: "I make a decisive and final decision" -- a message echoed by his press secretary.

HUCKABEE SANDERS: The president is the ultimate decision-maker, and he's going to take all of the information and intelligence that's given to him, and he will make the decision that he thinks is best to keep Americans safe. It's that simple.

BROWN: People familiar also say Trump is privately complaining that, if Bolton had it his way, the U.S. would be at war on multiple fronts, while publicly saying:

TRUMP: John is very good. John is a -- he has strong views on things, but that's OK. I actually temper John, which is pretty amazing, isn't it?

BROWN: The president has also publicly expressed frustration with his administration's lack of direct dialogue with the Iranian regime. According to people familiar with the matter, last week, the White House even gave the Swiss a special phone number to give to Iran for direct negotiations with the U.S.

But, publicly, Iran says it isn't interested. The ayatollah said Iran doesn't want war and that negotiating with the U.S. is poisonous.

Trump retorting on Twitter: "I'm sure that Iran will want to talk soon."


BROWN: And even allies of the president on Capitol Hill, like Senator Lindsey Graham, are expressing frustration about the administration's lack of information-sharing about Iran, saying, Graham, for this instance, saying that he believes there are a lot of senators who feel they're in the dark.

That frustration may be appeased next week, Jake, when all senators are briefed by national security officials, which follows this afternoon's briefing of the Gang of Eight -- Jake.

TAPPER: All right, Pamela Brown, thanks so much.

Let's dive into this with my experts.

Karen, let me start with you.

The president shifting from, I'm ready to deploy troops to counter Iran, to now saying, let's hit the pause button and see if we can negotiate. Take a listen to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.


REP. NANCY PELOSI (D-CA), SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE: I like what I hear from the president, that he has no appetite for this, even though some of his supporters are rattling sabers.


TAPPER: Do you like what you're hearing from President Trump?


KAREN FINNEY, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: I do, although it's hard to know what to trust from this president, as you know, and his press secretary, given their penchant for lying.

Look, I think Trump underestimated how strongly the pushback would be, given not just John Bolton's penchant for regime change in Iran or his desire -- that known desire, but this is -- John Bolton, we know, has -- was part of leading us into war in Iraq. There are a lot of people in the national security community, a lot of Democrats who do not trust John Bolton.

So I think we have all been pleased to see, ironically, both the president and, frankly, the message coming from Iran that the goal is to avoid this. Here's the other thing, Jake. I think the president probably realized

this would be detrimental to his hopes in 2020. Getting us into a war with Iran I think would be devastating, because I don't think there's anybody in America who believes at this moment that it probably couldn't be avoided with some form of negotiation, which is not Trump's strong suit.

TAPPER: David Urban, take a look at this tweet from Democratic Senator and presidential candidate Amy Klobuchar.

She wrote: "To president, NSA Adviser Bolton, Secretary Pompeo, the authorization for the use of military force that Congress passed in 2001 against al Qaeda does not authorize a war against Iran. Saber- rattling and risking the lives of our men and women, while eschewing diplomacy, is not leadership."

What is your reaction?

DAVID URBAN, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Yes, well, I would say that perhaps Senator Klobuchar didn't see the president standing there with the Swiss president today. That looks a lot like diplomacy to me, Jake.

I hear what Karen is saying about the national security adviser. And the president himself acknowledges that frequently Ambassador Bolton is a little more hawkish than he is in his positions. And the president knows it and balances it out.

I think talking to the Swiss president, it clearly indicates this president wants to talk. He said, I hope we're not going to go to war. Unfortunately, the same is not echoed back by the ayatollah, as you hear, saying it's poisonous to enter into talks with the Americans.

And so it's somewhat troubling. But this president doesn't seem to be rushing headlong into any type of conflict whatsoever.

TAPPER: Sara Murray, take a listen to White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders discussing the decision-making process in the White House.


HUCKABEE SANDERS: And the president wants to hear all viewpoints, but, ultimately, it's going to come down. There's only one person that was elected to make those decisions. And that was the president. He will be the one that decides. There's only one agenda here, and it's the president's.


TAPPER: Sara, you cover this White House. Do you have a sense of how decisions get made?

SARA MURRAY, CNN NATIONAL POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, I mean, look, there are some days I think when pundits stand around and they are horrified because President Trump is not listening to the advisers around him, and I think there are other days, and today might be one of them, where people are actually pleased that he's not listening to the advisers around him.

We knew that John Bolton was hawkish when he went into the White House. I think that freaked people out when he got this job. And so, no, it's not a surprise that the president does, you know, hear advice from some advisers and say, well, I have already decided this is how I feel about this issue. Or I don't think you're making a good enough argument.

Or, in the case of this situation, he could have looked at John Bolton and saying, are you kidding me? Are you trying to sink my 2020 prospects? There's no way we're going to go to war with Iran.

So, I do think this is indicative of how decisions can be made in the White House. There are sometimes when advisers can shift the president's thinking, but in a lot of cases, we have seen the president get advice from the advisers around him and say, you know what? I'm not going to do that.

TAPPER: And, Nia, of course, the president's mind seems to change often, based on what he sees on cable television.


His mind changes based on cable television, based on maybe something he hears from Putin, for instance, as we saw in the case of what happened with Venezuela.

I think one of the things that will be interesting to see is John Bolton's fate here. We have seen a number of advisers sort of get a little too big for their britches in terms of this administration. And their days aren't long for the world.

It might take a little while. So, we will see. I think when you think about what happened here with Iran and John Bolton seeming to be sort of the face of American policy in terms of Iran and also what happened with Venezuela, a bit of a mess there, too, overestimating the kind of coup that was no coup in the end.

It will be interesting to see how long John Bolton lasts, if he is in any danger of leaving this White House and being sort of expelled, in the way that we have seen other foreign policy folks like Tillerson end up souring on this administration and the president souring on them. So we will see how that ends.

TAPPER: Yes, it's a long list, Tillerson, McMaster, Mattis.


HENDERSON: Right. Exactly.


TAPPER: David, go ahead.

URBAN: I was going to say, I think Bolton lasts longer than Maduro does. That's my prediction.

TAPPER: We will see.

Karen Finney, take a listen to the top Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, Senator Bob Menendez, speaking just a few minutes ago with my colleague Jim Sciutto.


SEN. ROBERT MENENDEZ (D-NJ): This is the most opaque administration I have ever dealt with over four presidencies. Right now, we're being asked to make foreign policy and national security decisions while flying in the -- blindly.


TAPPER: Your reaction?

FINNEY: Well, look, I think the meeting with the Gang of Eight is critically important.


And I think making sure that both Democrats and Republicans in Congress have all of the information that they need -- and, again, this point about war powers that Klobuchar was talking about is critically important.

Any time we are anywhere near going up to this line, it is really important. This is when these separation of powers -- we have been talking about these issues with regard to the Mueller report and tax records and those sorts of things.

But this is a fundamental task of Congress. And I think the American people are going to stand firmly behind their ability to rein this president in and make sure that if we, God forbid, go to war or have any aggressive action, that everyone is confident in the intelligence. And, again, John Bolton is not someone to be trusted in that environment.

TAPPER: All right, everyone, stick around. We are going to keep talking.

Presidents say -- I'm sorry -- Republicans say President Trump is exonerated by the special counsel. Democrats say they need to see more of the report. But what if both parties are fundamentally wrong about the Mueller report?

And then millions of U.S. taxpayers dollars meant to help American farmers reportedly ending up in the hands of foreigners who are allegedly corrupt.

That's ahead. Stay with us. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:15:14] JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: The politics lead. The House judiciary chair is still trying to negotiate to get the special counsel Robert Mueller to testify. But the attorney general claims he's not the reason for the hold-up. Attorney General Bill Barr telling "The Wall Street Journal," quote: It's Bob's call whether he wants to testify.

I want to bring in Walter Dellinger. He served as both solicitor general and head of the Office of Legal Counsel for the Justice Department in the Clinton era. He now argues Democrats and Republicans are going at the Mueller report all wrong.

Walter, thanks for joining us.

In addition to Mueller's testimony, Democrats want his unredacted report. They've issued a subpoena to see it. They've voted to hold Barr in contempt over it.

But you argue they focus too much on process. You have this op-ed in "The Washington Post" titled, quote: Democrats obsession with redaction is obscuring the obvious: Trump committed high crime, and you say the president regularly and audaciously violated his oath and committed the most serious high crimes and misdemeanors.

What high crimes and misdemeanors?

WALTER DELLINGER, ASSISTANT ATTORNEY GENERAL, OLC 1993-1996: Well, I think his interference with the investigation, his attempted interference, his direction to the White House counsel to have Mueller fired, his direction to the White House counsel to do a false memo to the file denying that the president ordered him to do that, his effort to have Sessions unrecuse himself and prohibit them from investigating the 2016 election, leaving Mueller to look to the future. All of those are really well substantiated.

We have -- this is the testimony of the president's White House counsel, the deputy White House counsel, the White House chief of staff, the White House counsel chief of staff. This is all established, and it's shocking when you read the report.

Just to give you one example, Jake, Attorney General Barr says, well, maybe he wanted him fired because of conflicts of interest rather than for the corrupt motive of interfere with an investigation. Well, if you look at page 80 of volume two of the Mueller report, you'll see that the alleged conflicts are just laughable. They're laughable. There's nothing to them. It was a straight up case of obstruction, of which all of that is just one example. It's overpowering when you read the report.

And the problem with the Democrats' response is, the insistence of seeing the redactions indicates that there's something more we need to learn. Looked like most of the redactions are initially appropriate redactions of various kinds. We have 93 percent of everything. And that should have been enough for them to say, these are crimes most serious.

TAPPER: But Mueller did not reach the conclusion. You did. Or at least he didn't state that he did.

DELLINGER: Well, I think, if you -- when you read the report, I think Mueller reached the conclusion that I did. He is very careful to say because it is departmental policy not to indict a president while he's sitting and the president cannot be indicted until he leaves office, we're preserving all of the evidence when memories are fresh and documents are available for that time. The president can be prosecuted at that time.

He assembled all the evidence and says because we can't indict him and he can't defend himself for another two years where he could then go on trial if he loses, we think it's inappropriate to announce a conclusion.

But the conclusion is obvious from the report. So I do think that is the misreading, the notion that we need something more to reach a conclusion about the president's actions. And, remember, even if there was some reason why a president did not technically violate parts of Section 512, this interference with the administration of justice is grounds for the most serious response instead of waiting around and talking about process and redactions.

TAPPER: So, let me ask you also because in your op-ed, you also fault President Trump for what you call, quote, a failure to defend the country's electoral system from foreign attack, unquote. Now, President Trump administration officials tell me and argue that the Pentagon, the National Counterterrorism Center, et cetera, they are all working hard to defend the country from attack, regardless of what President Trump says. And Trump himself often notes that this devastating attack in 2016 took place during the Obama presidency.

Was he negligent as well?

DELLINGER: Yes, there's no question, I think, that President Obama -- one of the many things that happened because everybody in the world, including, I think, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, thought Hillary Clinton was going to win and Obama did not want to appear to be interfering, but in retrospect, he clearly failed to respond sufficiently.

But it was the presidential campaign of Donald Trump that was clearly welcoming actions by the Russians.

[16:20:07] What the special counsel says that they did not have proof beyond a reasonable doubt that there was an actual agreement between the Trump campaign and the Russians. So they found copious evidence of how the Trump campaign had welcomed it, and the president meeting with Vladimir Putin and not raising this right after the Mueller report comes out. And details what Mueller calls a substantial, sustained, massive interference in our election.

When the president meets with Vladimir Putin and doesn't raise it, I think that -- TAPPER: He was talking on the phone with him, yes.

DELLINGER: Right. That -- right. When he talked with him on the phone and doesn't raise it. That is really a green light to the Russians to interfere in the 2020 election.

TAPPER: All right. Walter Dellinger, thank you so much for your time. Appreciate it, sir.

DELLINGER: OK. Thanks, Jake.

TAPPER: Mutiny or just some friendly help? Up next, the reason Senator Kirsten Gillibrand is getting help from people working for her 2020 presidential opponents. Stay with us.


[16:25:47] ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

TAPPER: We have some breaking news now. ATF headquarters has been evacuated after an employee opened a package with a liquid inside and immediately felt sick. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and Explosives sharing this photo on Twitter. One official telling CNN this was, quote, not the usual suspicious package, unquote.

A hazardous materials team will head to the building soon. We will bring you more information on the story as it develops.

In politics, a less than warm greeting for New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio today.

Greeted by protesters outside the TV studio where he announced his bid for president today, the 23rd Democrat in the presidential race, and those protests coming from the police officers in his own city with the Police Benevolent Association adding this message on the Twitter, quote: He can't run the city. He can't run the country.

Let's talk about this with the panel.

Karen Finney, we should note this group has been against de Blasio for years. So, these protests are nothing new. But in a recent poll, 76 percent of New York City voters said they did not want de Blasio to run for president.

How does he convince a national audience it's a good idea?

KAREN FINNEY, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Yes, good question. I can't spin this one, I'm sorry. Let me do my best to try.


FINNEY: I did work with Bill de Blasio on Hillary's Senate campaign where he was the campaign manager. Look, I think he's going to have to -- I've always been of the mind that Bill needs to shore up his record in New York if he were going to try to run for president because Mayor Pete, part of his argument about why he can be the executive of this country is his record as mayor. That is the argument you'd expect a mayor to be able to make.

Obviously, having had such a rough start, he is going to have to find ways to get around that and figure out what is it that he can offer this country? What policy arguments can he make? And then show directly what results he's been able to deliver for New York.

And as the data points out, that's going to be a tough road for him.

TAPPER: Well, Nia, he is attempting that. Listen to him making his pitch this morning to working voters.


MAYOR BILL DE BLASIO (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I've actually done it. I've proven it can be done. We're doing things like guaranteed health care for all New Yorkers, including mental health care. The issue that Chirlane is focused on, paid sick leave, pre-K for all. These are things that change working people's lives for the better.


TAPPER: And, Nia, he's trying to make the point that a lot of the items on the progressive agenda -- health care, higher minimum wage, child care, these are already things he's accomplished.

NIA-MALIKA HENDERSON, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL REPORTER: That's right, and those are the issues that really made him a progressive star as he was entering the mayor's office. The idea was that New York City was going to be all these issues around, income inequality around criminal justice.

But you see after years in office, his second term now, New Yorkers aren't really sold on him. Partly, it is the infrastructure in New York, the subway in New York. But if you are Bill de Blasio, you see this huge field, you also see in Joe Biden somebody that some people think is a bit of a weak front-runner, right?

And so the idea is, and a lot of these candidates feel this way, that if Joe Biden stumbles, then there is going to be somebody that Democratic voters look to, to sort of fill the voide of Joe Biden. Joe Biden, of course, somebody who people think can appeal to all sorts of different voters and the polling shows that. He polls well among African-Americans, among white folks of all socio economic backgrounds.

So the idea if you're Bill de Blasio, maybe you have a shot as well. And certainly if you look at somebody like Pete Buttigieg who's at 7 percent or 8 percent in early polls, if this guy who is the mayor of a town that's, what, 100,000 folks, if he can get a look from Democratic voters and you're Bill de Blasio, you're the mayor of 8 million people, then you figure, you know, why not give it a shot?

TAPPER: Kirsten Gillibrand is in Georgia today, Sara. She's protesting the state's new law that bans abortions after a fetal heartbeat can be detected. Gillibrand's not seen her campaign take off yet. Could this be an issue that helps her rise from where she is in the

polls, Sara?

SARA MURRAY, CNN POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: I mean, it's certainly possible. I think she has really been sort of the leading voice in the field since this, you know, there's been a small time frame, but since we've been reckoning with this bill that they passed out of Alabama.