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Gillibrand Rallies Against Georgia's Strict Abortion Law; Buttigieg Reflects on His Military Service in Afghanistan; NY Daily News: Trump Administration Gave Brazil-Based Company $62M That was Supposed to Go to U.S. Farmers Hit By Trade War. Aired 4:30-5p ET

Aired May 16, 2019 - 16:30   ET


JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: 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.

[16:30:00] 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. And she's sort of been pressing others in the field to come along with her. And I think for the most part, they have.

But I certainly think she has been a strong voice on this issue. And it's worth pointing out that she's been a strong voice on this issue, not just now in the wake of the Alabama bill, but she's been talking about this in Congress as well. So this could be an opportunity for voters to give her if not a second look, a first look.

She is certainly someone who has been nestled in this field and hasn't been one of the people able to rise to the top yet. And I think you are seeing, you know, for a bill that passed through the state legislature essentially, you know, with senators saying we don't even want this to become law in our state, we don't believe this is going to become law in our state, it has created a national conversation. And I think we've seen her capitalizing on that.

TAPPER: David Urban, let me ask you, as somebody who does not want big Democratic turnout in 2020, are you worried at all --

DAVID URBAN, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: That's an understatement, Jake.

TAPPER: Yes. But are you worried at all about laws like these bills being passed in --


TAPPER: -- Ohio, Georgia, Alabama, et cetera, Missouri, that are, you know, strict anti-abortion bans, getting Democratic voters to the polls?

URBAN: Well, look, I do think this law is going to be struck down pretty quickly. I don't think that anybody thinks it's going to withstand any type of scrutiny. It's incredibly broad. So, it's not going to get to the Supreme Court.

I do think it does, obviously, to state the obvious there, it motivates the base. It energizes lots of Democrats in suburban Philadelphia and other places to turn out. So at some point, it is concerning.

But the flip side of that is, the argument goes that you heard Christine Quinn on the Cuomo show the other night and you heard the mayor -- the governor of Virginia make extremely inflammatory comments which Republicans kind of hear and want to run to the polls. So it's something that will be, you know -- it will be hotly contested issue.

FINNEY: But, David -- here's the thing, Jake. I mean, this is also an issue -- it's not just Democrats and Republicans. I mean, what these bills are saying, if you cannot trust a woman to make her own decision about her health care, how can you trust her to run a country or run a company?

That's how women feel about this legislation. It's a fundamental assault on our basic freedom, and so I think it's going to be very mobilizing. I mean, seven in 10 Americans believe that Roe v. Wade should remain law. It should not be overturned.

That's going to be very mobilizing for the middle, not just for the far ends of the scope.

URBAN: Karen, you know, this was in Alabama. This isn't a national movement --

FINNEY: But these bills are being passed -- bills like this are being passed all across the country. Just today a similar one in Missouri.

URBAN: There are 50 states, federal system.

FINNEY: And the more these rights are being eroded at the state level, the more aware people are becoming of how in danger we really are.

URBAN: It's not going to be eroded. It's going to be struck down.

TAPPER: Everyone, stick around. We've got more to talk about.

But right now, Mayor Pete Buttigieg campaigning in Chicago this afternoon just miles away from one of the places he served as a naval reserve officer.

And as Jeff Zeleny reports, Buttigieg often invokes his service in Afghanistan to try to defend his age and experience in the Democratic primary. And he uses it to attack President Trump.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): There's one chapter of his life that Pete Buttigieg often turns to.

PETE BUTTIGIEG (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Somebody who served in Afghanistan.

When I went overseas.

When I was packing my bags for Afghanistan --

ZELENY: The 37-year-old mayor of South Bend, Indiana, deploys his military service as a sword and a shield. Whether taking questions about his experience or quieting anti-gay protesters, Afghanistan is often his answer.

BUTTIGIEG: It's one more reason why it might not be a bad idea to have someone in the White House who actually served.

ZELENY: His time as an intelligence officer in the Naval Reserves and six-month deployment to Afghanistan makes his gold plated resume shine even brighter.

Yet, Buttigieg rarely talks about why he joined the service after graduating from Harvard and studying as a Rhodes Scholar.

It turns out, it was 2008 and he was volunteering for the Barack Obama campaign in Iowa where he said he saw many young people signing up for the Army or National Guard.

BUTTIGIEG: I wanted to drag my feet on it forever if I hadn't had that experience in Iowa and just realizing that some communities were almost emptying out their youth into the military. And some were barely serving at all.

ZELENY: Now he's one of three presidential candidates who served in America's longest wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.


ZELENY: Joining Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard and Congressman Seth Moulton.

After five years of reserve duty, he deployed to Afghanistan in 2014 just as President Obama was announcing a troop withdrawal. Military records reviewed by CNN show Buttigieg was part of a unit assigned to identify and disrupt terrorist finance networks.

[16:35:02] It was largely a desk job at the Bagram Air Base but he also worked as a driver and armed escort.

BUTTIGIEG: Look, it's not like I killed bin Laden, right? I don't want to understate what my role was, but it certainly was something that was dangerous. People that I knew, unfortunately, were attacked.

ZELENY (on camera): Do you think you'd be able to make this run as credibly without this military service? BUTTIGIEG: Well, I think at a moment when, obviously, people are

looking for contrasts, it helps me demonstrate the difference between how I'm oriented and how the current president is.

ZELENY (voice-over): Jason McRae still remembers the day he met Buttigieg at their training in South Carolina. He didn't know the man assigned to be his battle body was also an Indiana mayor.

JASON MCRAE, SERVED WITH PETE BUTTIGIEG: One of my early memories is he had an ear bud in and was learning a language. I think it was Dari. I don't remember other folks picking up a language at that point in time.

ZELENY (on camera): He was interested in Afghanistan and was studying and consuming everything about it?

J. MCRAE: Yes, for sure.

ZELENY (voice-over): A dozen people who served alongside Buttigieg in the reserves and in Afghanistan who spoke to CNN described him as mature and, yes, ambitious. But several said he was hardly alone on that front.

J. MCRAE: To go through a deployment in Afghanistan is -- there's probably less dangerous ways to check the box.

ZELENY: McRae and his wife sue are watching their friend's campaign from afar with interest.

SUE MCRAE, WIFE OF JASON MCRAE: When I first met Pete, it was just a wife going to say good-bye to my husband and we just happened to meet a battle buddy.


ZELENY: So Mayor Buttigieg talks about Afghanistan pretty much every stop he makes, Jake, including here in Chicago, and he was talking to the Chicago City Club earlier today. He said it's time for a new Afghanistan policy in the U.S., noting that people enlisting now were not even born on 9/11.

But as for his own service, Jake, as I sat down with him today to talk about what led him to sign up back in 2009, he said he did not have public service in mind at that time. Of course, he ran shortly after that but he noted this -- he said military service is not always popular. You must serve if it is or if it isn't -- Jake.

TAPPER: All right. Jeff Zeleny, thanks so much for that. Appreciate it.

Tens of millions of dollars meant to help struggling American farmers are instead reportedly went to Brazilian brothers being investigated by the Department of Justice. And that's the least of their legal problems.

Stay with us. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:41:43] TAPPER: The money lead now.

Millions of dollars that were supposed to go to struggling American farmers hit by President Trump's trade war with China may actually be helping line the pockets of two Brazilian crooks. According to a new report today in "The New York Daily News", the Trump administration gave $62 million to a meat-packing company in Colorado. Its parent company is in Brazil and its owners, two wealthy brothers who had spent time in jail who have confessed to bribing top officials in their country.

I want to bring in the reporter who broke this story, Chris Sommerfeldt, a politics reporter for "The New York Daily News".

Chris, thanks for joining us.

The money is supposed to go to American farmers. How does it end up in Brazil?

CHRIS SOMMERFELDT, POLITICS REPORTER, THE NEW YORK DAILY NEWS: Well, essentially you have a pot of money that the Trump administration has designated towards helping out farmers hurt by the administration's trade war. Now as you said, the subsidiary in Colorado has been given this money in order to then forward the money to American farmers.

Now, there's actually no proof showing what this Colorado subsidiary has done once they've handed it over, and considering who the owners are of this Colorado subsidiary, two brothers who have confessed to massive corruption schemes in their home country. Can we take the administration at their word when they're saying this money is coming to American farmers?

TAPPER: Right. And the Trump administration's Department of Agriculture wrote a check to the Batista brothers' company in January for $22.3 million, you write in your story. And even after the Justice Department, in this country, began investigating their company for possible violations of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act in an unrelated matter, the Agriculture Department issued two more multimillion-dollar checks to this company?

SOMMERFELDT: Correct, in February and again earlier this month.

Now what the Agriculture Department is telling me is that this money from their vetting is ending up in American farmers' hands but again, we have seen no proof that that is actually the case and considering the corrupt history of JBS, there seems like we need -- it warrants some scrutiny as to where this money is actually going.

TAPPER: Absolutely. Now, the president said this time around he may give an additional $15 billion to American farmers. This money for farmers hurt by the tariffs is not by law just for Americans. It theoretically can go to foreign-owned companies that aren't hurting for money at all? SOMMERFELDT: So, that's where it gets a bit dicey. Now, if you look

back what happened in November last year, there was a Virginia-based company called Smithfield Foods. That is owned by a Chinese firm. At the time, several members of Congress were outraged at this, including Senator Chuck Grassley. And the payment ended up being reversed because of the foreign connection.

Now, with JBS, the same outrage has not happened and that's still an outstanding question that I'm trying to figure out in my reporting as to why this payment to JBS, which is way bigger than the Smithfield Food payments, is being largely ignored by members of Congress.

TAPPER: And I'm told you just got a response from the Trump administration on your story. What's their explanation?

SOMMERFELDT: Their explanation is that they are given this money to JBS, which they say are complying with their standards of paying -- or rather funneling that money back into the American farm industry.

[16:45:00] They're saying that they're complying with the standards that they've set out. They're saying that from operating with them over months they're doing a good job. But again, that's the administration's word. All we know is that $62 million has ended up in the hands of a Brazilian owned company that's being run by two brothers who have confessed to corruption.

JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: And no evidence that any of that money went to American farmers. Chris Sommerfeld, thank you so much. I really appreciate it. Congrats on the scoop.


TAPPER: Attention Wal-Mart shoppers. You're about to pay more. That's next.


[16:50:00] TAPPER: In our "NATIONAL LEAD," a big announcement from one of the country's largest retailers Wal-Mart, a company caught in the middle of the President's trade war with China. Today Wal-Mart said it will raise prices not saying on exactly which products but executives did blame the tariffs imposed by President Trump on Chinese goods.

And we're hearing story after story of suffering in Middle America from the tariffs including one man who tell CNN's Miguel Marquez that these tariffs could put him out of business.


STEVE GATES, KENTUCKY AUTO DEALER: Maybe I could sell you a car.

MIGUEL MARQUEZ, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Steve Gates sells cars, nine dealerships, three states nearly 700 employees. His family closing deals for three generations.

GATES: I would love to grow -- I would love to add rooftops and people. I'm too scared right now.

MARQUEZ: Scared because the President's trade fight with China and the world taking a bite out of the automotive industry slowing sales, creeping growth, creating uncertainty.

GATES: It just seems so unfair. I mean, I work so hard every day and for politicians to dictate to me what my future is, it just seems -- it just seems wrong.

MARQUEZ: Nationwide, a firm that tracks job losses found that this year nearly 20,000 jobs in the automotive sector gone. With the threat of an additional 25 percent tariff on finished products hanging out there, many more jobs on the line.

The U.S. auto industry hit by tariffs and price increases for over a year now. First due to steel and aluminum tariffs in March 2018, then tariffs on Chinese made car parts in July and again in September last year. And last week, even higher tariffs imposed again on Chinese auto parts among other materials. Here in Kentucky, it's not just car production and sales feeling the tariff pinch.

ERIC GREGORY, PRESIDENT, KENTUCKY DISTILLERS ASSOCIATION: Nobody wins in a trade war. There's only consequences and casualties, and right now we're collateral damage.

MARQUEZ: Since 1999, Kentucky has seen exponential growth in global exports of its most famous beverage, bourbon, not anymore. The E.U. and countries like China fighting back aiming their own tariffs directly at the home state of Trump loyalists and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY): I am not a fan of tariffs.

GREGORY: We just got numbers today for the first quarter of this year and they're down ten percent American whiskey, and 20 percent to the E.U. just in the first quarter.

MARQUEZ: 20 percent, that hurts.

GREGORY: That hurts.


MARQUEZ: Now, there are some winners here, Jake. There are aluminum smelters in Kentucky. They've added some capacity and some jobs but the question for Kentuckians who are the auto industry or the Bourbon industry is all the paint they're suffering right now worth the gain. Back to you.

TAPPER: All right, Miguel Marquez in Lexington, thank you so much. I appreciate it. The trick to getting a pardon from President Trump, a helpful tip, that's next.


[16:55:00] TAPPER: So if you find yourself in a bit of a legal pickle and you're now wondering how to get out of prison, you may want to think about writing a glowing book about President Trump or writing an op-ed in which you call Robert Mueller a few bad names.

In the past 24 hours, President Trump has issued two more presidential pardons to two more obvious political allies. One, former media mogul Conrad Black who served 42 months in federal prison for defrauding his own company and its shareholders of $60 million, but who also wrote this book entitled Donald J. Trump: A President Like No Other.

The other pardon recipient, Patrick Nolan, former California State Legislator who served time for corruption and who last year slammed the Mueller probe saying investigators "decide who they're going to prosecute and then hunt for a crime."

Just the latest examples of President Trump passing out "get out of jail free cards" to those who say nice things about him such as trump supporter and former Sheriff Joe Arpaio convicted of attempt of court in a case related to racial profiling or conservative pundit Dinesh D'Souza who pleaded guilty to illegal campaign donations but once compared Trump to Abraham Lincoln.

According to the conservative heritage foundation, a purpose of pardon power is to temper justice with mercy in appropriate cases and to do justice if new or mitigating evidence comes to bear on a person who may have been wrongfully convicted.

Another purpose, according to the Heritage Foundation is ensure peace and tranquility in the land. Now, that would not seem to be how the pardon power is being exercised here. Now, of course, yes, past presidents have issued some extremely questionable pardons. President George H.W. Bush pardoning six Reagan administration officials including Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger related to the Iran Contra scandal, or President Bill Clinton pardoning his half-brother Roger and fugitive financier Marc Rich who was married to a big-time Clinton fundraiser.

Those were issued with a certain sense of shame, however, during the final days, if not final hours of the Bush and Clinton administrations. But with this president, there is no apparent sense of shame and no blowback from his fellow Republicans.