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THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER

Trump Considering Pardon for War Crimes; Taking on Trump. Aired 4:30-5p ET

Aired May 20, 2019 - 16:30   ET

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


[16:30:01]

JESSICA SCHNEIDER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: 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," published a story today pointing out he's been out of town for nearly half the days in recent months. The South Bend Common Council president says there hasn't any problems in his absence, Erica, and they have been working together very well as the mayor travels -- Erica.

ERICA HILL, CNN ANCHOR: All right, Jessica, thank you.

As we saw, Pete Buttigieg's town hall very well-received. He was asked about those Twitter attacks from the president, and he actually followed up, saying: "We have to make it less about him and more about what matters. That's the best way to defeat him."

Nia, we have heard this before. Easier said than done?

NIA-MALIKA HENDERSON, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Sure.

And I think it's easier said than done and sort of Pete Buttigieg's campaign so far proves it. It's not clear what he would do as president. He's starting, I think, to roll out some policy on his Web site in broad strokes.

You know, this debate about FOX News, I think really was ignited by Elizabeth Warren's, you know, kind of scorched-earth approach that's basically saying that she wouldn't go on. And you see Kamala Harris kind of saying, maybe she will go on at some point.

But, you know, in terms of Pete Buttigieg, the town hall is in some ways why we know who Pete Buttigieg is, right?

(CROSSTALK)

HENDERSON: It's been a good forum for him. He was on our air, I think, twice now with town halls. So it's been really good for him.

But he has some work to do. He's about 8 or 9 percent in the polls. He's very good with a certain segment of the Democratic Party, really well-educated white voters. That's -- you know, that's not a huge part of the Democratic coalition. So he's got some work to do.

And I think his broad argument that he could appeal in red states, not really sure, right? He's the mayor of a town that's had a Democratic mayor, I think, since 1972. It's about 100,000 people. I don't think he could win a statewide race in Indiana. So he's got ways to do -- but I guess it's a start with FOX News and trying to appeal to those Rust Belt voters.

JACKIE KUCINICH, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: But he is going to have to build out his policy, because it's not like he's running against President Trump on the front end, right?

HILL: Yes.

KUCINICH: He's running against all these -- particularly people like Elizabeth Warren and Pamela Harris, who are putting out -- and Kirsten Gillibrand -- who are putting out these like very-steeped-in-policy proposals, and that are detailed, that actually -- you know, they're saying, well, this is how it could work.

Whether or not you believe it could work that way, they do have plans. So the pressure for all of these candidates to become a lot more substantiative and not just rely on rhetoric and being able to really take advantage of some of these forums, you're going to have to get up to speed quickly.

KRISTEN SOLTIS ANDERSON, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: Well, but you know who shares that frustration, that why isn't this about my policy plan, why is this about Trump's tweets? The other 16 people who ran against Donald Trump for the Republican nomination in 2016.

I mean, rest in peace, Jeb Bush's energy plan. You talk to any of the folks that worked on those campaigns and they will tell you that it was just nightmarishly frustrating to constantly feel like you were putting out things of substance, and yet every day you were being asked to respond to the latest tweet.

If you want to know how this ends, you can look no further than four years ago at exactly sort of where the attention and the energy winds up going, for better or for worse.

KUCINICH: Sure, but it doesn't seem like there is that Donald Trump mirror image in the Democratic Party right now, where they're being able to suck up all the oxygen just by walking into a room and tweeting something outrageous.

They have to get through that, so maybe that's how it ends, but it feels like, at least when weapon get to the debate stage, there's actually going to be a substantiative debate for the Democratic nomination on a lot of different issues.

HILL: Let's look at this latest policy, right, we got today from Kamala Harris when it comes to her plan for equal pay and how companies now have to prove that this is, in fact, what they're doing. The onus would not be on the individual.

A smart policy play?

KIRSTEN POWERS, CNN COMMENTATOR: Well, I support it, but I think it will obviously be pretty hard to implement, because there's a lot of disagreement over what causes wage inequality.

But I actually do seriously think it's a great idea. And I think it would be -- I like what she says. Don't put the onus on the women to try to figure out. Put the onus on the corporations to fix the problem.

I do think it's important to have policies, but your point is really well-taken. People often look to presidents not to be policy gurus. They look to them to inspire them. They look to cast a vision of the future, to be somebody who can, you know -- yes, something that they can relate to in terms of where they're going to take the country.

And the idea is that they will hire people who know how to do a lot of these things. I don't think it's coincidental that the people that you all named are women, who definitely feel like they have to meet a higher standard, and so they're cranking out all of these policy profiles, and the men really don't feel like they have to do that.

Beto's been criticized for not having a lot of policies, Pete Buttigieg. And so I think that it's substantively important. You need to have policies. I'm not sure that voters really hold you accountable if you don't have a ton of policy proposals.

HILL: Just out of curiosity, too, because there was so much backlash, right, when President Trump started with this slew of executive orders.

One of the things -- and this is not the first time we have heard it from Kamala Harris, right?

KUCINICH: Yes.

[16:35:00]

HILL: It came up in the CNN town hall when talking about guns.

But one of the things she said today as part of this policy, she had said there's a certain portion of it, that no matter what she would follow through with an executive order to make sure it was implemented.

Is that something that could -- and I will throw this one to you -- could that come back to haunt her, given what we saw in terms of backlash against President Trump, if you're starting out, saying, I will just go to an executive order?

SOLTIS ANDERSON: Well, and then Republicans used to complain when Obama said...

(CROSSTALK)

HILL: It's interesting how this keeps coming around. (CROSSTALK)

SOLTIS ANDERSON: Everybody loves executive power when they have it. Everyone hates executive power when they don't.

Look, I think, in terms of the policy, I think you will find that, especially among Democratic primary voters, the idea that we need equal pay for equal work is quite popular.

I do think that it's worth asking what types of policies will actually achieve that, and to what extent sort of the government getting involved in people's performance reviews and aggregating them and deciding which ones are valid, if that is right way to go about it.

But it's the sort of thing where, at least in the Democratic primary, I can see it playing quite well.

HENDERSON: Yes, college-educated women, this is sort of a play for them. She's got the teacher pay program as well or plan. So I think this is interesting in terms of what it tells us about what kind of voters she's going through.

HILL: It will be interesting to see, too, tomorrow night, if we learn about perhaps about other policies in a CNN town hall with former Congressman Beto O'Rourke moderated by CNN's Dana Bash.

That will be happening live in Des Moines, Iowa, tomorrow night, 10:00 Eastern, right here on CNN.

Up next, a general, retired general, standing up to President Trump, calling a plan reportedly in the works immoral. He joins me live.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:40:53]

HILL: Our national lead now.

He's charged with stabbing and killing an injured man, among other war crimes, all while serving as a Navy SEAL overseas.

Now "The New York Times" reports President Trump is considering a pardon for chief Edward Gallagher.

CNN can confirm the Department of Justice Pardon Office asked for files on Gallagher and another service member accused of murder.

As CNN's Barbara Starr reports, some former military members are now warning the president to reconsider.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): President Trump is considering pardoning military members accused of what may amount to war crimes. The Pentagon suddenly was asked to send case files to the Justice

Department Pardon Office for at least two service members accused of murder, including Navy SEAL Edward Gallagher and Army Major Matt Golsteyn, several U.S. officials tell CNN.

"The New York Times" was the first to report the possible pardons, which some battlefield veterans say is a terrible idea.

WAITMAN BEORN, U.S. ARMY VETERAN: This is not even a fog of war, you know, judgment call kind of situation, bullets are flying. These are premeditated, cold-blooded murders. And it gives everyone a bad name, every veteran that served.

STARR: Gallagher, who is awaiting trial, is accused of stabbing and killing an unarmed detainee in Iraq and then posing for a photo holding the dead man's head. He's also accused of shooting a young girl and an unarmed older man and bragging in text messages about his activities.

Gallagher, who denies all charges, was turned in by members of his own unit. Trump in March ordered Gallagher moved to less restrictive confinement. Now he could be pardoned even before a potential conviction.

Golsteyn's case is also being reviewed. He is facing a court-martial for allegedly killing a suspected bomb-maker in Afghanistan in 2010. In December, President Trump tweeted he would get personally involved, calling Golsteyn a U.S. military hero.

"The Washington Post" reported that, in a CIA job interview, Golsteyn admitted to killing the released detainee, believing he would conduct more attacks. His lawyer says it was an authorized mission. His wife says he is being victimized.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: There are so many sinister actors at play.

STARR: If President Trump approves the pardons, they could come as soon as Memorial Day, the day set aside for honoring those who have died while serving in the armed forces.

COL. CEDRIC LEIGHTON (RET.), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: If troops that are on the front lines actually think that they will get a pardon for behaving badly, for violating the rules of armed conflict, for, in essence, committing war crimes, then we really are opening up a real terrible potential here.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

STARR: And so far today, silence from the Pentagon, not officially commenting on any of this at all.

In fact, an aide to acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan says Shanahan, for now, has no plans to get involved in any of it -- Erica.

HILL: Barbara Starr with the latest for us. Barbara, thank you.

I want to bring in now retired Lieutenant General Mark Hertling, who served 37 years in the Army. He is now a CNN military analyst.

And you have a new opinion piece up on CNN.com. And in that piece, General, you say that these pardons would be, in your view, not only immoral, but also dangerous. Why?

LT. GEN. MARK HERTLING (RET.), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Extremely, Erica.

And what I'm saying is because this is more than just the execution of a criminal act. We're talking about the violation of the laws of land warfare, the disobedience of legal orders, the ignoring of ethical and professional standards that are upheld by the military.

And it would create unbelievable discontent within the ranks. This is something where you have to be concerned regarding good order and discipline. And, unlike in many cases, where you're applying a pardon to a criminal act from the chief executive of the United States, the president, in this case, the president is also the commander in chief of the armed forces.

So he is, in fact, undercutting the rules and regulations that contribute to good order and discipline in the military. And that, to me, is anathema, and it's immoral, because these acts are not the acts of patriots.

[16:45:00] We train soldiers and military personnel before they go to war. In fact, from the very first day they enter basic training, they're trained on these kinds of rules that contribute to good order and discipline, but they're also trained to ensure that dignified and unified and trustworthy units don't turn into mobs and using gang violence.

As soon as you do that as a commander of forces -- and I had to relieve some commanders in combat because I thought they were going over the edge in some of these areas. If you lose control of your forces, you no longer are a military force, you're just a mob.

ERICA HILL, CNN ANCHOR: You mentioned if the president were to follow through this, you think he'd be undercutting the rules and regulations. Is he also undercutting the moral authority of the American military?

HERTLING: Absolutely. And he is the moral authority as the commander in chief so he is certainly undercutting that. And there would be a huge -- you know, I can't state this more emphatically. There would be an unbelievable blowback from the vast majority of veterans and I'm sure of that based on some feedback I've seen from the ranks and from senior soldiers.

HILL: Certainly not the last we have heard about this. Lieutenant General Mark Hertling, always good to speak with you. Thank you.

HURTLING: Thank you, Erica.

HILL: Iran today pushing back on President Trump's tough talk of the response to the President's fire and fury like tweet next. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:50:00] HILL: In our "WORLD LEAD," from let's talk to now a threat of total annihilation. President Trump warning Iran on Twitter "If Iran wants to fight, that will be the official end of Iran. Never threaten the United States again." Well, the President's warning prompting this response from Iran's foreign minister. #never threaten an Iranian, try respect, it works.

Joining me now former FBI and CIA Analyst Phil Mudd. I always a lot of respect for you, my friend.

PHIL MUDD, CNN COUNTERTERRORISM ANALYST: If you don't respect me, total annihilation.

HILL: As we look at all of this, the President went on to say tweeting Iran will call us if and when they're ever ready. In the meantime, their economy continues to collapse, very sad for the Iranian people. What's fascinating is we did see a somewhat similar approach when it comes to North Korea. I'm not really sure how that's you know played out for the President but this little bit of back and forth, if this is, in fact, a similar strategy with Iran, is it viable?

MUDD: Look, it's -- I think it's tough with Iran because if you look at this from the Iranian perspective, yes, they want the Americans at the table, yes, they're worried about oil exports, but they've got a safety valve, in fact, three of them. The Europeans, big business in Iran, the Chinese, the Russians.

So if the President wants to squeeze the Iranians, he's going to have a problem like what he had with the North Koreans. That is the North Koreans run to Russia and China. The Iranians have the additional valve of the Europeans. How do you squeeze him if they have a place to go?

HILL: What's also fascinating because the warn we're hearing from the president, here's what he had to say when he talked about the actual threat from Iran. Take a listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I just don't want them to have nuclear weapons and they can't be threatening us. And you know, with all of -- with all of everything that's going on, and I'm not one that believes -- you know, I'm not somebody that wants to go into war.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

HILL: Doesn't want to go into war. It sounds like though that would be some sort of a red line right, Iran restarting its nuclear program. But what would that actually mean from a U.S. perspective? If in fact, that's a red line, what happens?

MUDD: Well, I don't agree that it's a red line. Let's go to the endgame. What the heck are you going to do about it? If you --

HILL: Well, there, exactly. Yes.

MUDD: If you're Iran, you're looking at this -- you've looked at this for decades and you have what we used to call at the CIA, the dispersed and buried program. That is you take your nuclear facilities, you spread them out across geography and you ensure that they're buried so a big bomb can't destroy them.

So you can talk tough but especially after the president has been behind getting out of Iraq. He says he didn't support the war although he did. How do you talk tough and both eliminate a program that's buried and dispersed and tell the American people we're going to try Iraq all over again. I think he talks tough. I don't know what's behind it.

HILL: You know, he seems to think that Iran will eventually let him know when they're ready to talk. Do you see that happening? I mean, they said pretty clearly that we're not picking up the phone. That being said, you know, this is today. Who knows what happens tomorrow? What do you think would change that equation?

MUDD: I think an election in a year-and-a-half -- the Iranians are very smart. These guys have been around forever. The leadership at the top level and the foreign ministry knows American politics. They're going to watch the pressure on the president over the next year and a half.

There's another piece of this though. They watched what happened with North Korea. They may look at this with the political savvy they haven't say the president's going to want a victory. He's going to raise the bar the Iranians are terrible. And then he might pull North Korea out of the hat.

Now we met and everything is great, gets off the plane, says I solved it to the American people. I don't think this game is over yet.

HILL: All right, we'll keep watching for it. Phil Mudd, always get to see you.

MUDD: Thank you.

HILL: Thank you. The potentially awkward meeting on President Trump's calendar when he visits London next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:55:00] HILL: In our "MONEY LEAD," Ford is laying off ten percent of its global workforce by the end of August. The auto giant's CEO, Jim Hackett, breaking the news that 7,000 workers will be without a job in the coming months, breaking that news in a staff-wide e-mail. Hackett previously called 2018 a "challenging year for the company" while taking home $18 million for himself.

The cuts are all for white-collar employees and they're similar to rival General Motors' cuts which we saw back in November. 15% of salaried and contract workers lost their jobs in that case.

And in the "WORLD LEAD," Prince Charles has agreed to tea with President Trump during the President's visit to the United Kingdom next month and it could make for a royally awkward exchange, given, of course, Prince Charles' outspoken fight against climate change and President Trump's yanking the U.S. out of the Paris Climate Accord.

Now, the meeting with the heir to the throne is part of Trump's already controversial state visit. The President's last working visit caused quite the commotion, sparking protests across the U.K., including that infamous 20-foot Trump baby blimp floating above London.

You can tweet the show @THELEADCNN. Our coverage on CNN continues right now.