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Trump Set to Begin 2020 Campaign; White House Blocks McGahn From Testifying. Aired 4-4:30p ET

Aired May 20, 2019 - 16:00   ET



BROOKE BALDWIN, CNN ANCHOR: Thank you both so much for being with me.

I'm Brooke Baldwin. Thank you for being here.


ERICA HILL, CNN ANCHOR: Looks like the stonewall just got a little higher.

THE LEAD starts right now.

Brace yourselves. President Trump is about to enter campaign mode, heading to a place that could be ground zero in the 2020 race -- why his hand-picked war with Joe Biden could get ugly tonight.

Trump loyalists building a wall around the president, after a GOP lawmaker makes the case for impeachment. Will any other Republican take his side?

Plus: forgiving war crimes -- a shocking new report on how far President Trump may be willing to go with his pardon power.

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

HILL: Welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Erica Hill, in today for Jake.

And we begin this Monday with breaking news in our politics lead.

President Trump moments ago officially blocking the testimony of former White House counsel Don McGahn before the House Judiciary Committee tomorrow. McGahn is the lawyer who advised Trump throughout the Mueller probe, and he has the notes to prove it.

Let's get right to CNN's Pamela Brown at the White House.

And, Pamela, what does the White House say?

PAMELA BROWN, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, we have learned, Erica, that President Trump is asserting immunity in order to block former White House counsel Don McGahn, a key witness in the Russia probe, from testifying to Congress yesterday. The subpoena deadline from the House Judiciary Committee was tomorrow.

And so, late this afternoon, White House counsel Pat Cipollone sent a letter to Jerry Nadler, the chair of the House Judiciary, saying that Don McGahn cannot be compelled to testify, citing a 2014 DOJ memo laying out the legal argument.

Pat Cipollone also saying the White House is doing this on the advice of the Department of Justice. Now, Don McGahn is a private citizen. He could choose to not follow the White House directive, but sources tell us that Don McGahn wants to do what the White House is telling him to do because of the committee's interest in his time here at the White House as White House counsel.

But, certainly, this sets up just yet another flash point in this brewing battle between House Democrats and the White House, once again, a former administration official defying a subpoena from House Democrats.

HILL: And so assuming then that McGahn does not show up, what are the next steps at this point for the Democratic chairman, Jerry Nadler?

BROWN: Well, we expect the committee to actually still hold a hearing, even if McGahn doesn't show up, similar to the way the House committee did with the attorney general, Bill Barr.

Nadler has said that he would hold a contempt vote for Don McGahn. And then, of course, this could end up in a court fight. I know the White House is prepared for such a fight, but, of course, part of the calculation, according to a source familiar with the matter, is running out the clock.

If this does go to the courts, it could be years before it's resolved.

HILL: Pamela Brown with the latest for us, thank you.

Well, soon, President Trump will head to Pennsylvania for one of his favorite venues when it comes to blowing off some steam, a reelection rally. President Trump, of course, won Pennsylvania by just one percentage point in 2016. And the commonwealth is also now home to the current Democratic front-runner Joe Biden's campaign headquarters.

All of this adding up as a source tells CNN's Kaitlan Collins the Trump campaign is planning to formally kick off the president's 2020 bid with a blitz of rallies next month.


KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): As the president's campaign prepares to formally launch his reelection effort, the candidate himself is still dwelling on the past.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: That the real collusion was between Hillary and the Democrats and the other side with Russia.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE) COLLINS: Today, President Trump tweeted, asking: "Why are the Democrats not looking into all of the crimes committed by crooked Hillary and the phony Russia investigation? They would get back their credibility."

But the president's aides are urging him to stop focusing on his last opponent and start focusing on his next. Four years after he stepped off an escalator in Trump Tower and into history...

TRUMP: I am officially running.

COLLINS: ... sources tell CNN the president's campaign is expected to officially launch its reelection effort next month. But he will start by rallying supporters in a deep red county in Pennsylvania tonight, after a recent round of polling by his campaign found cracks in his support there and in other states that were critical to his 2016 victory.

But the rallies are also part of an effort to help a restless president win back the spotlight.

QUESTION: We have got the town hall with Pete Buttigieg.

TRUMP: Buttigieg.

COLLINS: Sources tell CNN Trump has grown frustrated that Democratic presidential candidates are blanketing the airwaves. His annoyance spilled into public view Sunday, when he tweeted: "It was hard to believe that FOX News is wasting airtime on Mayor Pete," as the network hosted a town hall with the Democratic presidential candidate from South Bend, Indiana.


Sources tell CNN that the president also wants to counterprogram upcoming Democratic debates with more rallies, as he hopes to shape the 2020 election in his favor.


COLLINS: Now, Erica, clearly, Pete Buttigieg is on the president's mind, but sources say it's Joe Biden who is occupying the most head space.

The former vice president was in this state just two days ago, so aides say you can expect President Trump to dial up the rhetoric tonight in what is going to be his fifth campaign rally of the year, with many more to go.

HILL: Kaitlan Collins with the latest for us, Kaitlan, thank you.

As we look at all of this laid out here, President Trump, of course, as we pointed out, won Pennsylvania by just one point in 2016. The former vice president has ties to the state, Joe Biden. We know his campaign headquarters are there. And today Politico reporting that the Trump campaign recently

completed a 17-state polling project that concluded the president trails Joe Biden in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan, according to two people briefed on those results.

Kristen is our pollster here at the table.

What do you make of that?

KRISTEN SOLTIS ANDERSON, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: Well, Joe Biden has been a formidable candidate. He's somebody who was ahead even before he sort of jumped into the Democratic race.

And since announcing, he's really surged to the front of the pack there. And part of his appeal, I believe, to many Democratic voters is this electability argument, that he's someone who both kind of hangs on to the establishment part of the Democratic Party, as well as being able to speak to some of those working-class, blue-collar voters that President Trump was so effective at peeling away from the Democratic coalition four years ago.

But if on issues like trade, for instance, if the president's agenda is still kind of up in the air, let's say we're in a trade war with China, if those voters in those blue wall states aren't necessarily sure that the president has delivered on his promise, there's less partisanship holding those voters there, and therefore a candidate like Joe Biden has the potential for peeling them away.

HILL: Can we also make the argument, too, that we're going to see a lot more action in both Michigan and Wisconsin after we see that, not just Pennsylvania?


HILL: I think that lesson was learned certainly in 2016.

President Trump was asked too on FOX last night about his criticism at his rallies, including the one that he's gearing up for tonight, that he doesn't spend enough time talking about the positives, focusing on the good economy, for example.

Here was his response.


TRUMP: If I stood there and talked about the economy for that long a period, let's say, the economy is great, unemployment is low, we're doing wonderful, we have the most number of people ever working.

QUESTION: Would you say it's boring to just talk about that?

TRUMP: They would start falling asleep.


HILL: Start falling asleep. I'm not sure if that's because people are tired of winning, Jackie, or because he doesn't find it as exciting to talk about the economy, but that is one winning point for him.

JACKIE KUCINICH, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: You can that -- you can almost see his adviser being like, yes, we know, like, we have heard this before.

But, no, so those rallies are to gin up the base. And the president, it's about the performance, it's about whoever he's battling against, be it Mueller, be it whatever lawmaker he's currently going up against. Hillary Clinton, for that matter, is still this, you know, person that he sets up and likes to knock down.

So there is a lot of frustration, particularly -- I mean, look at what happened during the midterms. He can misstep here. He gets a big roar about immigration in front of his folks, but then you step back and look at the bigger picture, his message wasn't resonating in certain congressional districts where it actually really mattered.

So it is a risk to not talk about the economy, which is something he really -- the majority of voters do think he's doing a good job on.

NIA-MALIKA HENDERSON, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, and you talk to Democrats on the subject of the economy, and they feel like, even though the top numbers are great, right, GDP, the unemployment rate, the way that people experience the economy isn't necessarily that much better than it was four years ago.

You think about drug prices, you think about the cost of day care, you think about the cost of health insurance more broadly, you think about the cost of sending your kid to college, so those are the ways that they obviously talked about it in 2018, very effectively.

And they feel like that is something that they can do in 2020. They also look at Donald Trump's penchant for talking about immigration, as well as the tax bill, as something that actually backfires with a number of voters, because, again, they just aren't there.

They're not necessarily a part of that hard-core base of voters. They also look at 2016, and they see people who voted for Trump, one of the reasons that some people voted for Trump is that they just couldn't stand Hillary Clinton, right? It wasn't that they were so pro-Donald Trump. It was just that they couldn't stand Hillary Clinton and whatever she represented, whether it was e-mails, whether it was a sort of cultural shift.

So, you know, for now, they feel good and they feel like they can go on the offense on any number of issues.

HILL: Hillary Clinton is not running again, as we know.

HENDERSON: Exactly. Right.

HILL: And yet, to your point, Jackie -- and, Kirsten, I will throw this one to you -- President Trump continues to bring her up.

Is there a sense that that is resonating at all beyond his base?

KIRSTEN POWERS, CNN COMMENTATOR: Well, I think that -- so everybody has their different theories of the case. Right? And I have never been big on the one that Donald Trump got elected over the economy.


I think that he got elected on cultural issues, and that he is very dialled into that. He understands. That's why he talks about Hillary Clinton. It's why he stokes immigration, because these are issues that sort of transcend economic issues.

And I think, for some people, it was economic. And a lot of times people want to say it's the economy, because they don't want to say, it's because I don't like immigrants. Right?

And if you look, "The New York Times" has a story today talking about these Midwestern voters, and exactly that comes up. You know, a lot of these voters are starting to talk about immigration, even though, in these states, it's not actually that big of an issue.

But they're saying that the immigrants are ruining everything, they're coming and they're taking all our money. It's this kind of idea.


POWERS: Yes. And there's just a question of whether or not a realignment has occurred. Have the Democrats sort of traded these white working-class voters for suburban voters?

And you could probably -- suburban Republican voters.


POWERS: And have they sort of switched and they're not coming back? Or is it something that you can actually bring them back into the fold?

HILL: That will be the great unknown, right?


HILL: Well, just ahead, he bucked his entire Republican Party, making a case for the president to be impeached. And now, just moments ago, this GOP congressman took his argument even further.

And a retired general calling out President Trump. He will join me with his warning ahead.


[16:15:23] HILL: The politics lead. The one-man revolt amplified this afternoon with Republican Congressman Justin Amash today repeating his case to impeach President Trump. Amash is the first and so far the only Republican to go this far. His argument now making conversations, though, about impeachment bipartisan ones. As CNN's Sunlen Serfaty reports, however, it is up to House Democrats

to take the lead.


SUNLEN SERFATY, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Republicans today rushing to shut down one of their own for saying, quote, President Trump has engaged in impeachable conduct.

REP. KEVIN MCCARTHY (R-CA): He votes more with Nancy Pelosi than he ever votes with me. It's a question whether he's even in our Republican conference as a whole.

SERFATY: Michigan Republican Congressman Justin Amash doubling down on Twitter this afternoon, making a legal case for impeaching the president of his own party. Amash accusing the president of obstructing the Russian investigation, saying that Mueller's report reveals that President Trump engaged in specific actions and in a pattern of behavior that meet the threshold for impeachment, and undoubtedly any person who is not the president of the United States would be indicted based on such evidence.

President Trump quickly hitting back, calling Amash a total lightweight and a loser, tweeting, "how do you obstruct when there is no crime?"

Republican Senator Mitt Romney, a frequent critic of Trump, telling Jake Tapper on "STATE OF UNION" Sunday that he does not agree with Amash.

SEN. MITT ROMNEY (R-UT): Justin Amash has reached a different conclusion than I have. I respect him. I think it's a courageous statement.

SERFATY: Amash's conclusion going even farther than Democratic leadership and many Democrats.

REP. NANCY PELOSI (D-CA): Now, I don't want to impeach.

SERFATY: Even as some Democrats are now using Amash's position as a call to arms.

REP. LLOYD DOGGETT (D-TX): I think we have a little more work to do in our investigation and exposure of this, but I'm not ruling out in any way impeachment. I'm eager to see Democrats show the same kind of courage that Justin Amash has shown.

SERFATY: This isn't the first time Amash, a libertarian, has been willing to publicly split from his party. In February, he stood alone among Republicans for earnestly questioning the president's former attorney, Michael Cohen.

REP. JUSTIN AMASH (R-MI): What is the truth that you know President Trump fears most?

(END VIDEOTAPE) SERFATY: And Amash is now facing a primary challenger back home in Michigan, State Rep James Lower. He announced that he intends to run against Amash in the upcoming election. He says he decided before Amash came out and said his stance on this, but certainly he says people back home are very angry about this position -- Erica.

HILL: We'll be watching for more on that. Sunlen, thank you.

In fact, Congressman Amash really doubling down, repeating his case today, even after the criticism he received over the weekend, for initially sending those tweets.

It does beg the question, though, Jackie, what do you make of his timing?

KUCINICH: It's a really good question. I mean, you're right. We're coming up against the White House stonewalling many members of the house. I don't know that he has spoken to what his -- the timing of this is.

That said, listening to that sound from Kevin McCarthy, Justin Amash has been someone who has broken with his party many times. And there is a lot of pent-up, we'll say, resentment within the party about him being libertarian. He says no a lot to his own party.

Now, we'll have to wait and see if he -- if this hurts him politically. He's someone that has a district that has seemed to like him the last couple of years, or the last couple of cycles. All the other Trump -- the people who have challenged Trump in the past, so far, Bob Corker, Jeff Flake, Mark Sanford, they've either resigned -- or, I'm sorry, retired or they've lost their seat. We'll see if that happens to him. It's not clear yet.

POWERS: I mean, he has -- and I've talked to him about this before -- asking him, how do you do that? His district is about 50/50. He has a lot of people in it, for example, that supported Obamacare and he didn't support Obamacare because he's libertarian and he kind of sticks really to those issues. And he says it's because he has such a close relationship with his constituents and that he really takes the time to explain to them how he reaches his conclusions.

You know, I was like, I don't really know how that really changes anything in terms of if you don't support what they support, but he says that it works. So I think it's actually -- I disagree with him on a lot of things, but I think he's very principled. And he tends -- and I think you have to respect that. And so I think this is a good example of him being principled. He said he read the whole report and this is the conclusion that he came to.

ANDERSON: And I think his political future will be determined by whether his own voters believe this is actually a matter of principle or this is a desire to get more attention. And in focus groups I've done of Republican voters, that's sort of their number one frustration with what they perceive, wherever a Republican leader puts out a press release, oh, the president just said this one thing, but I wish the president hasn't done it. [16:20:11] Anytime there's criticism coming from inside the House,

Republicans' big frustration is not that there are honest disagreements within the party, but a frustration that they feel that some Republicans try to profit or benefit or make a name for themselves by being the ones to take a shot at Trump. And if that's how Congressman Amash's voters view him, rather than someone who's doing this because he's genuinely principled, that would be something --


HENDERSON: That's something that McCarthy basically said. He just said, this is something he's doing just to get attention. I imagine there are all sorts of things he could do to get attention, but also not put his seat in jeopardy, because he has this primary challenger.

It does kind of bring to mind, you know, he's from Michigan, represents a district there that I think you said Trump won by 51 percent or something like that. It does sort of lead to the broader question of what Michigan looks like for this president and what those voters look like for this president. It's a state that he won by about 10,000 votes in 2016. We obviously have seen the 2020 candidates go there already and focus on this state. So that's what it brings to mind. It's not even a matter of whether or not folks on the Hill are going to line up behind Justin Amash, but whether or not he's speaking to sort of discontent among rank and file Republican voters. Not the majority of them, but around the edges.

HILL: There is, too, and I want to get your take on this, because there is the other part of this, which is now there's a Republican who's come forward and faced criticism and as we saw, just a short time ago, doubled down. So isn't backing away from it. And we've heard from Democrats, well, a number of different things. Well, we need bipartisan support, we can only do this in the senate. Would a Republican senator carry more weight than a member of the House? Yes, if you're talking impeachment.

But it begs a question, Kirsten, how much longer can Democrats continue to punt on what their reasoning is and what their plan is to whether or not they plan to proceed with impeachment?

POWERS: Well, I think they have a completely defensible position, which is, they're trying to do an investigation. And so you should actually -- you should do the investigation before you talk about actually impeaching somebody. I think that's a reasonable thing to do and that's what they're trying to do and they're getting stonewalled basically, right? So I think they can keep trying to do that. Trying to do that.

I don't think they're going to have Republicans joining hands with them on this and I think Justin Amash is a bit of a unicorn. I don't think there are a lot of people like him, frankly in either party, who frequently do this, who he frequently comes out and stakes out positions that are, you know, go against his party.

But the idea that he's not conservative is kind of crazy. He's a member of the Tea Party, right? So, he's not -- I mean, he holds very conservative positions.

HILL: Don't let the voting record get in the way of a good sound bite. Come on.


HILL: Mayor Pete Buttigieg using the conservative audience to his advantage and getting a standing ovation at a Fox town hall, also drawing the attention of President Trump. The chances of his challengers following suit, that's next.


[16:27:33] HILL: Our 2020 lead now. A Democratic presidential candidate finding success in an unlikely outlet, conservative media.


CHRIS WALLACE, FOX NEWS ANCHOR: Wow, a standing ovation.


HILL: A standing ovation. South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg going on the president's favorite network, Fox News, for a town hall. It's a move that's bringing him praise from many supporters, especially as CNN's Jessica Dean reports, after he took a moment to attack some of the network's hosts on their own channel.


PETE BUTTIGIEG (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: The tweets are -- I don't care.

JESSICA DEAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg scoring a hit while appearing on the president's favorite channel discussing Trump's tweets.

BUTTIGIEG: It's a very effective way to command the attention of the media.

WALLACE: Well --

BUTTIGIEG: And I think that we need to make sure that we're changing the channel.

WALLACE: Buttigieg did not shy away from criticizing some Fox News hosts while appearing on their network.

BUTTIGIEG: A lot of folks in my party were critical of me for even doing this with Fox News. And --

WALLACE: I've -- I've heard that.

BUTTIGEG: And I get where that's coming from, especially when you see what goes on with some of the opinion hosts on this network. I mean, when you've got Tucker Carlson saying that immigrants make America dirty, when you've got Laura Ingraham comparing detention centers with children in cages to summer camps.

WALLACE: Buttigieg taking part in the Fox town hall while some of his opponents have not. Senator Elizabeth Warren rejecting an invitation earlier this month to participate in a Fox town hall, calling the network, quote, a hate-for-profit racket in a series of tweets. Two aides told CNN Senator Kamala Harris has also ruled out a town hall on the conservative network for now as well.

Meantime, Harris launched a new pay equity policy today.

SEN. KAMALA HARRIS (D-CA), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Working moms and women in the workplace deserve to be paid the same amount for the same kind of work.

WALLACE: Which would require companies to disclose what they pay employees, prove men and women are paid equally for equal work, and if disparities exist, prove they're not based on gender. For every 1 percent pay gap, companies would be fined 1 percent of their daily profits under Harris' plan.

HARRIS: What I am proposing is we shift the burden. It should not be on that working woman to prove it. It should, instead, be on that large corporation to prove they're paying people for equal work equally.


DEAN: And back to Mayor Pete Buttigieg for just a moment, as he continues to campaign across the country, his hometown paper, "The South Bend Tribune."