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Iranian Tensions; Beto Reboot?; Trump Accuses Opponents of Treason. Aired 4:30-5p ET

Aired May 21, 2019 - 16:30   ET



JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: The politics lead now.

President Trump once again accusing his opponents of treason, which is a capital offense. The president has been throwing the term around for months, claiming the FBI committed treason by spying on his campaign in 2016, though even his own appointees dispute that allegation.

His former deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein, saying the investigation was of Russians and it was justified. And the current FBI director, Chris Wray, saying he knows of no evidence that any inappropriate surveillance was conducted.

But the president wants to besmirch the investigation by accusing investigators of high crimes. And now he's suggesting that the attorney general might even back him up.

As CNN's Pamela Brown reports, Attorney General Barr is digging in, leading to critics saying that he continues to look more like the president's personal defense attorney than the role he was confirmed by the Senate to play.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Got to win this state. Got to win this state.

PAMELA BROWN, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): With internal polls showing Donald Trump trailing Joe Biden in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan, the president working overtime to fire up his base.

TRUMP: This phony witch-hunt that we all went through together, it's a disgrace.


BROWN: Using familiar boogeymen to rally his voters.

TRUMP: They were spying on our campaign. It was treason. And it should never be allowed to happen to another president again, ever, ever, ever, ever. BROWN: The Pennsylvania crowd interrupting him with a new take on an

old chant.

AUDIENCE: Lock them up! Lock them up! Lock them up!

BROWN: Trump's response?

TRUMP: Well, we have a great new attorney general who's going to give it a very fair look.


BROWN: The same attorney general, Bill Barr, who told "The Wall Street Journal" he's not helping Trump. Instead, he's helping the institution, saying -- quote -- "I felt the rules are being changed to hurt Trump and I thought it was damaging for the presidency over the long haul."

TRUMP: They all knew there was no collusion.

BROWN: And when not focused on the Mueller probe, Trump stayed on the message his advisers hoped he would talk more about.

TRUMP: When you have the best employment numbers in history, when you have the best unemployment numbers in history, when you have the best economy, probably, that we have ever had, I don't know, how the hell do you lose this election, right?

BROWN: Trump even joking about how long he will stay in office.

TRUMP: I, we ran one time, and we're 1-0, but it was for the big one. Now we're going to have a second time. And if things keep going like they're going, we will go and we will do what we have to do. We will do a three and four and a five.


BROWN: And as the president's campaign ramps up, key staffers are leaving the White House, including top aide Johnny DeStefano. He is expected to leave in the coming days.

So this uncertainty surrounding who will occupy the White House could force others, Jake, to decide their next move, sooner rather than later -- back to you.

TAPPER: All right, Pamela Brown at the White House, thanks so much.

The new numbers that Beto O'Rourke may not want to see, as he attempts to relaunch his campaign. Stay with us.



TAPPER: In our 2020 lead today, former Vice President Joe Biden soaring in a new Quinnipiac poll out this afternoon. He remains ahead of the pack among Democratic voters nationally with 35 percent of the likely votes, Senator Bernie Sanders in second with 16 percent.

The news not as good for former Texas Congressman Beto O'Rourke. His trend line is going the wrong place, dropping from 5 percent to 2 percent in just one month.

His campaign, the O'Rourke campaign, hoping for something of a reboot in tonight's CNN town hall.

And, as CNN's Leyla Santiago reports, we could see a new O'Rourke up on stage.


LEYLA SANTIAGO, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Beto O'Rourke is entering a new phase of his 2020 campaign.

QUESTION: How do you feel you have changed and evolved in this process?

BETO O'ROURKE (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I don't know. You have been here for a lot of it, so you might be -- you might be the one to ask.

SANTIAGO: Here's what we have noticed. The former Texas congressman has gone from sleeves rolled up to more sports jacket, from countertops to a different platform and, at times, a different approach on how to reach voters.

O'ROURKE: Seeing you eyeball to eyeball to me is so much more satisfying than being on cable TV.

I can do a better job of talking to a national audience.

SANTIAGO: According to a source close to the campaign, staffers are working to make O'Rourke appear more presidential, as the candidate offers more specifics recently on policy, like climate change and, just last night, a few critiques of his own.

O'ROURKE: There was no person more inspiring in public life in my life than Barack Obama. One of the frustrations, though, during those eight years is so many people who were willing to walk through walls no longer felt connected to the mission, to the policies, and to the goals during that administration.

SANTIAGO: President Trump is keeping an eye on O'Rourke and the rest of the wide Democratic field, especially former Vice President Joe Biden, whose Pennsylvania roots he targeted at a rally there Monday night.


TRUMP: Don't forget, Biden deserted you. He's not from Pennsylvania. I guess he was born here, but he left you, folks. He left you for another state. Remember that, please.

(END VIDEOTAPE) SANTIAGO: Now, Biden left Pennsylvania when he was young, just 10 years old.

A lot of these Democratic candidates will have to differentiate themselves on the campaign trail. O'Rourke has a habit of sort of picking up what he hears from voters and incorporate that in his speeches. But will that resonate on this stage?

We will find out soon, Jake.

TAPPER: All right, Leyla Santiago with the O'Rourke campaign, thanks so much.

Let's talk about this with our experts.

Karen Finney, let me start with you.

O'Rourke is trying to reset his campaign to reach a broader audience. In that Pew poll, he was at 12 percent in March, 5 percent in April. Now he's at 2 percent. But other candidates like Pete Buttigieg have gotten a boost after their town halls.

What would you tell O'Rourke to do, if he were successful?

KAREN FINNEY, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Do -- I was going to say, first of all, do a CNN town hall. That's obvious, right?


TAPPER: Well, he's finally doing one. He's finally doing one.

FINNEY: Right.

And so -- but I think part of what he's got to show tonight is a bit more depth on some of the issues, a little bit of introspection about his own campaign and that question, sort of, what have you learned? Those are pretty typical types of questions that he should be prepared for.

And, look, part of this whole like seeming presidential is, you want people to be able to see you in the job that you're applying for. So, again, he's got to convey, and particularly with Joe Biden in the race, because there is a bit of a stature gap, just based on the nature of his experience -- so he's got to show that he can, you know, hold his own on some of these tough foreign policy questions, as much as he can on domestic policy questions, and hopefully recapture some of the energy and excitement that was part of why people were so interested in having him get in the race in the first place.

TAPPER: And, Maeve, why do you think he has gone down in the polls? There was all of this excitement about him entering the race in March, but that's largely dissipated.

MAEVE RESTON, CNN NATIONAL POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, I think it was a pretty disastrous rollout in many ways, in the sense that he didn't have answers to basic questions. I remember at one point on the trail, he was asked about what his

agenda should be, and said back to the voters, what do you think my agenda should be? And that just like doesn't fly with voters when they're looking for someone to be commander in chief.

I did spend four days with him on the trail in Nevada and California, though, recently, and there still is a lot of energy and electricity in his crowds. There's real curiosity about him and why he energized so many people in Texas.

But he really is kind of in real time trying to come into his own and give answers with more substance. You see him running around on the campaign trail with his little green network, his field notes. He's constantly taking notes, sort of trying to absorb information and show people that he is kind of learning as he goes along and being open about that.

And we will see whether that connects with Democratic voters -- Jake.

TAPPER: And, David Urban, you traveled to Pennsylvania, your home state, my home state, with President Trump yesterday.

He took a shot, saying Biden abandoned them by moving. Of course, the Bidens moved from Scranton to Delaware when Joe Biden was 10 years old. So I don't know how fair that is.



URBAN: But who is counting?

TAPPER: But you know this, that, for years, when he was a senator from Delaware, he was referred to as Pennsylvania's third senator.

URBAN: Well, by -- Ed Rendell removed to him as -- it should have been as Philadelphia's third senator, because I'm not so sure that people in Pittsburgh felt that Joe Biden was helping them out.

TAPPER: All right, but what's the pitch for President Trump in Pennsylvania, considering that Joe Biden does seem to have focused so much on the state, on the commonwealth, I should say?

URBAN: Listen, I think the pitch is -- the president made the pitch last night.

Again today, by the way, AP has a story out, Pennsylvania, again, sets new records in unemployment. And April's numbers are even lower than they were before, lower than any historical number that's been records being kept for.

So I think the president made the case last night, is going to continue to make the case, cutting the regulatory burden, of cutting taxes, of real wages have grown at the bottom end of the socioeconomic spectrum. lowest unemployment African-American, minority, women. He is going to continue to make that economic case across the commonwealth.

And Joe Biden can't get up and say, hey, well, we did that, really, that wasn't you, Donald Trump, we did that. That's not going to carry the day, because I think people see right through that.

So the Democrat, whoever it's going to be, is going to have to have a bigger platform than simply Green New Deal.


FINNEY: We brought you health care, is what they -- what he can say.

URBAN: Oh, will see.

TAPPER: Be sure to tune in -- be sure to tune into CNN tonight for the town hall with Beto O'Rourke. CNN's Dana Bash will moderate the live event from Des Moines, Iowa, 10:00 p.m. Eastern this evening.

Coming up: Top national security officials just finished briefing Congress on the threat from Iran, but some lawmakers are already saying they are not convinced of the threat.

Stay with us.



TAPPER: In our "WORLD LEAD" today, we're getting first reactions from lawmakers after being briefed on threats from Iran by top U.S. security officials this afternoon. The Acting Defense Secretary saying today that the threat from Iran remains high.

But after his briefing, one Democratic congressman has started to cast doubt on that saying there has been no significant change in threats from Iran over the last years and questioning whether the Trump administration is actually looking for an excuse to go to war.

Joining me now is CNN Chief National Security Correspondent Jim Sciutto. He's also the author of a brand-new book, an excellent book that you should get called the Shadow War: Inside Russia's and China's Secret Operations to Defeat America which also explores various ways that Iran is working against the U.S.

Jim, thanks so much for joining us. We're hearing very different messages from Republicans and Democrats on this but there's also a serious divide between the president and his advisors on Iran. Why?

[16:50:21] JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: That's the thing. And we're so used to seeing differences between Republicans and Democrats on everything, and this may be a very substantial one on reading this intelligence, but the President himself said yesterday to reporters that he sees no indication of an imminent attack from Iran on U.S. forces in the region.

So how do you reconcile that with the warnings you and I have heard and the American people have heard over the last two or three weeks from the administration, from secretary Pompeo, from John Bolton the National Security Adviser justifying the deployment of an additional carrier group to the Persian Gulf saying that intelligence indicated preparations for an imminent attack on American forces.

So why that warning, why that moving of what is arguably the most powerful weapon in the -- in the American Arsenal, an entire carrier group, and the president then saying yesterday well, actually there's no indication of an imminent attack. It raises real questions and we've seen this so often the administration, conflicting messages from inside the White House which leaves, I imagine, folks at home wondering what the truth is.

TAPPER: You interviewed American and foreign intelligence leaders for your new book on the Shadow War. How does Iran play into that?

SCIUTTO: So as -- the Shadow War in effect talks about how Russia and China are fighting to undermine the U.S. and surpassed the U.S. on multiple fronts at the same time, and there are so many of them. Iran is one of them because here is one where the U.S. is on one side, Russia and China on the other side regarding how to deal with Iran.

In fact, for a while, we were all on the same side because we were signature to the nuclear deal. But the Trump administration pulled out. It is now pursuing a more aggressive strategy punishing not only Iran with sanctions but also any country that deals with Iran, Russia, and China included, but also even our European allies.

It's another playing field in a broader battle between the U.S., Russia, and China for influence on multiple fronts.

TAPPER: Do those intelligence officials who you talked to for your -- for your book, do they think the United States is prepared for the threats from China, from Russia, and what do they think is the biggest threat facing the U.S.?

SCIUTTO: Well, here's a thing. You know, China and Russia pursuing a very similar strategy. They're the ways people know, interfering in election, stealing state secrets by China, but do they know that Russia and China have deployed offensive weapons to space that could destroy or steal U.S. satellites out of orbit.

This is happening today. They're floating above our heads right now. Certainly, in cyberspace there's a war underway. There is land acquisition. Russia invading Ukraine, China manufacturing territory in the South China Sea, but there's also a new battle under the waves, Russia and China both deploying far more advanced quieter submarines which allow them to come right up to the U.S. coastline with their nuclear weapons. It's on multiple fronts and the U.S. is only just coming around to recognizing this battle.

TAPPER: All right, Jim Sciutto, thank you so much. Everyone, check out his new book. It's called The Shadow War: Inside Russia's and China's Secret Operations to defeat America. It's out now. Right now, the over strict state abortions laws happening in the courtroom. Coast to coast in protest and on the steps of the highest court of the land. That's story next.


[16:55:00] TAPPER: Our "NATIONAL LEAD" now. Protesters and democratic presidential candidates rallying across the country today against a wave of strict abortion laws recently passed in red states. One of those laws which bans abortions as early as six weeks into a pregnancy, before many women might even know that they're pregnant faced a deeply skeptical and even occasionally angry federal judge in Mississippi today.

CNN's Supreme Court Reporter Ariane de Vogue was inside that courtroom and joins us live from Jackson, Mississippi. And Ariane, what was the judge so skeptical about?

ARIANE DE VOGUE, CNN SUPREME COURT REPORTER: Jake, he was almost incredulous. And he pointed out that just a few months ago, he struck down a 15-week ban. And then this legislator came back and passed an even more restrictive law. He said at one point in court that that's smacks of defiance.

And rhetorically, what's next, a two-week ban, a four-week ban. But the thing that bothered him the most at the end of arguments is that this law has no exceptions for rape or incest. The critics say that it's unconstitutional, that women very often don't know they're pregnant at six weeks.

But then on the other side, the state said, look, it has a duty to regulate, a right to regulate, and they say that they have an interest in protecting life. But this judge today, he seemed really skeptical of this law, Jake.

TAPPER: And Ariane, so many of these laws being passed all over the country, Georgia, Alabama, Ohio, et cetera. Is one of them or all of them going to ultimately end up in front of the U.S. Supreme Court?

DE VOGUE: Well, you're right. These states, they're emboldened. They're emboldened by President Trump. Just last weekend, he said that he was strongly pro-life and he touted the fact that he has put on this court, two supreme court justices, and he filled the lower courts with other judges and that will really impact this issue.