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THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER

Trump Sides With North Korean Dictator on Biden Criticism; American Climber Dies on Mount Everest. Aired 4-4:30p ET

Aired May 27, 2019 - 16:00   ET

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


[16:00:00]

BROOKE BALDWIN, CNN ANCHOR: We will stay in close contact with you as the story will develop today.

Oren Liebermann in Jerusalem, Oren, thank you very much.

And thank you for being with me on this Memorial Day Monday. I'm Brooke Baldwin.

"THE LEAD" starts right now.

ERICA HILL, CNN ANCHOR: Once again, President Trump takes a foreign dictator at his word.

THE LEAD starts right now.

President Trump on the world stage, refuting his host, a U.S. ally, and his own top adviser, all to give North Korea's Kim Jong-un the benefit of the doubt.

And it didn't end there. President Trump teaming up with the brutal dictator to slam former Vice President Joe Biden -- how 2020 Democrats are responding.

Plus, the death toll is growing; 11 people have now died on Everest this year, one seeming to foreshadow his own death in his last post to social media.

Welcome to the special Memorial Day edition of THE LEAD. I'm Erica Hill, in today for Jake.

We begin with our world lead, what was supposed to be a show of unity between the U.S. and Japan.

Instead, President Trump contradicting his host, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, not to mention his own national security adviser. The president saying he was not personally bothered by North Korea's recent missile tests. Mr. Trump also siding with the brutal North Korean dictator over a fellow American, former Vice President Joe Biden.

CNN White House correspondent Kaitlan Collins is traveling with the president in Tokyo. So, Kaitlan, Prime Minister Abe said he and President Trump were

completely on the same page on issues like trade and North Korea, but that's not what we saw.

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Yes, this was a heavily ceremonial trip that was meant to showcase and reinforce the bond between these two leaders, but, Erica, when they got on stage and started taking questions from reporters, the cracks in that bond over key issues became very obvious.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

COLLINS (voice-over): President Trump's trip to Tokyo was brimming with pomp and pageantry.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The first lady and I will never forget this gracious invitation.

COLLINS: But no red carpet could hide the sharp divide between the two leaders when it came to North Korea.

QUESTION: You're not bothered at all by the small missiles?

TRUMP: No, I'm not. I am personally not.

COLLINS: Putting him squarely at odds with his national security adviser, John Bolton, and one of America's closest allies in Asia, who both agree that North Korea's recent missile test violate U.N. resolutions.

TRUMP: My people think it could have been a violation, as you know. I view it differently. I view it as a man, perhaps he wants to get attention, and perhaps not. Who knows? It doesn't matter.

COLLINS: But it does matter to Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

SHINZO ABE, JAPANESE PRIME MINISTER (through translator): This is violating the Security Council resolution.

COLLINS: The president is holding out hope Kim Jong-un will eventually denuclearize North Korea.

TRUMP: He is a very smart man. He gets it well.

COLLINS: And viewing it all through the lens of a real estate developer.

TRUMP: It's located between Russia and China on one side and South Korea on the other. And it's all waterfront property.

COLLINS: The president is also refusing to back off his endorsement of Kim Jong-un's criticism of his potential 2020 opponent Joe Biden.

TRUMP: Kim Jong-un made a statement that Joe Biden is a low-I.Q. individual. He probably is, based on his record. I think I agree with him on that. COLLINS: Trump brushing off concerns he's siding with a brutal

dictator over a former American vice president.

TRUMP: I can tell you that Joe Biden was a disaster, his administration, with President Obama. They were basically a disaster when it came to so many things.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

COLLINS: Now, the president flatly disagreed with his National Security Adviser John Bolton during that press conference and his assessment of North Korea.

But when the president was walking out and he was asked, do you still have confidence in John Bolton, he said, yes, that he did. But, Erica, we should note, John Bolton was not president at the banquet last night with the emperor.

HILL: Kaitlan Collins live from Tokyo for us, Kaitlan, thank you.

And now let's take a deeper dive.

Mehdi, as we look at this, there is the question of the message, of course, that this sends. You have the president standing next to a leader who is supposed to be an ally, siding with North Korea's dictator. Mehdi, what is that message?

MEHDI HASAN, THE INTERCEPT: The message is that Donald Trump, once he likes you as a foreign dictator, and once you have flattered him, he will have your back.

This is a guy who's always been very loyal to people who flatter him and will throw anyone under the bus the moment they don't. And I think the North Koreans, like the Saudis, like the Russians, they worked that out a while ago. This is how you get to Donald Trump.

And you have Donald Trump saying these kind of -- you saw just now in that tape, he says, I think he's a very, very smart man, at the same time as he accuses the former vice president of the United States of being low-I.Q.

And I know we have played this game before, but can you imagine if Barack Obama in 2011 had said, oh, the Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran thinks Mitt Romney is low-I.Q. and I'm totally with him?

[16:05:03]

The Republicans wouldn't just be demanding impeachment. They would calling him a traitor and demanding execution.

HILL: You're right, we have played that game before, and yet here we are.

What's fascinating, though, is as we listen to each of these in their own words. And I want to play a short part of what President Trump said about Kim Jong-un. Take a listen to this. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TRUMP: I view it as a man, perhaps he wants to get attention, and perhaps not. Who knows? It doesn't matter.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

HILL: Mary Katharine, does it matter?

MARY KATHARINE HAM, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Yes. Yes, it matters a lot.

And, to me, this week is Trump playing into every argument that 2020 candidates will make against him on the Democratic side in the most perfect way. You have got immaturity, you have got volatility and one that is particularly concerning to me and always has been is the possibility of foreign policy via tweet by someone who is impulsive and who doesn't make great decisions and who often times doesn't have a real tuned moral compass when it comes to dictators.

Right? So, this is a real problem. And it's a problem that he and Bolton aren't on the same page and that he's talking about that in public and overseas. And, by the way, the Pelosi stuff is stateside political pugilism. And you can say it's out of bounds in certain ways. Overseas, on Memorial Day weekend, it's just wrong, man.

HILL: It is. You can't ignore the timing on it, Mary Katharine. And you are absolutely right.

You did bring up, though, John Bolton, and we heard from Kaitlan. It was Pamela Brown who asked, actually, at the press conference if the president still had confidence in Bolton. He said yes.

Ron, though, do you think this relationship is in danger here?

RON BROWNSTEIN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, look, I mean, they were never on the same page ideologically to start with.

And so I'm not sure that this really changes that dynamic very much. I mean, to me, what it -- and, you know, and everyone kind of runs out their string with Trump. There's no one who works for him who doesn't share the last name who has kind of like extended tenure.

I mean, the real -- to me, the real point of this week was to underscore the dynamics of the relationship between Trump and the North Korean dictator. The president has gone so far out on a limb in insisting that his personal relationship is what can untie the Gordian Knot that frustrated so many previous presidents from Clinton on, that he's in a position where he has to make this work.

And I think what the North Koreans realize is how much leverage that gives him, because of Trump is -- because of his desire to show that he alone can solve this, is going to bend over backwards, as he demonstrated again this week, to forgive almost anything the North Koreans do.

I think there's no question who is the pursuer and who is the pursued at this point in this negotiation.

HILL: Well, Ron, to your point, too, that really puts in context what we heard from the president in terms of Joe Biden. I will just play it again for folks who may have missed it.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TRUMP: Kim Jong-un made a statement that Joe Biden is a low-I.Q. individual. He probably is, based on his record. I think I agree with him on that.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

HILL: Sara, that's a stunning statement for a number of reasons. But in some ways, it's not all that shocking that we're hearing it coming from the president.

SARA MURRAY, CNN NATIONAL POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: I think it still is a stunning statement, because this is Kim Jong-un we're talking about. I mean, we're not talking about, oh, the French president thinks this of Joe Biden, and I agree with the French president.

(CROSSTALK)

MURRAY: This is Kim Jong-un.

But, on the other hand, you know, it's not surprising in the sense that President Trump doesn't think about the things he's saying as sort of, what does this mean for the presidency, what does this mean broadly for diplomacy? What message am I sending as the president of the United States agreeing with the leader of North Korea over his view of a former vice president?

He thinks, ah, great, Kim Jong-un is on my team. We both agree that Joe Biden is a low-I.Q. individual. How great to have another person in my corner.

And President Trump, and this was true when he was a candidate, too, doesn't really care who you are or what you believe or what you think or what you have done in the past, as long as you are supporting him and you are vocal in that support. And that is one of these things that has not changed about him.

(CROSSTALK)

HAM: Also, I would say, as an ally, it doesn't -- as an ally of the Japanese, it doesn't help in front of them to sort of flaunt the fact that, oh, we're much further away from the North Koreans, so we don't have -- I'm not super concerned about it.

Well, of course Japan's concerned about it. They're right there, guys. I mean, not helpful.

(CROSSTALK)

BROWNSTEIN: In the flood of daily kind of outrageous and controversies from Trump, there are very few that I could imagine making it all the way to 2020, but this -- as Mary Katharine was saying before, this so encapsulates the arguments that you're going to hear from Democrats against him that I can imagine this being -- especially if Biden is the nominee, Biden using this to kind of really encapsulate the case against Trump, that he is willing to -- you know, that he is so focused on his own interests above the national interests, that he's willing to give credibility to a brutal murdering foreign dictator in order to score a temporary political point against an opponent at home.

[16:10:03]

I think this is something that's actually going to last. And we will hear about it in the general election of 2020.

HASAN: Just on a substantive point, can we draw for a moment on the idea that Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump are the people who are going to decide who has and who doesn't have high I.Q.?

BROWNSTEIN: Yes.

HILL: I'm not going to touch that one.

(LAUGHTER)

HILL: But I do want to bring up -- Mary Katharine, in all seriousness, I do want to go back to one point, which is just piggybacking off of what Ron was saying.

And you brought this up in the beginning, at the top of the hour here, in that, look, we're used to President Trump ignoring the norms, right, doing things his own way.

HAM: Right.

HILL: That is not surprising anymore.

But there is still something to be said for a sitting president who takes the campaign overseas. Typically, what we have seen, if a president is going to run for reelection, the campaign stays at home when he's traveling abroad for the country.

HAM: Right.

And it should, and it's not a norm or a line I think he's going to start observing, although he should. If you're not observing it on Memorial Day weekend when you're having a press conference with an ally overseas and talking about Kim Jong-un, I'm not sure when you're going to observe that.

And I do think, look, that is one of the things -- like I said, fighting at home is something that we do and that many have died for the great right for us to run our mouths at each other and insult each other on our homeland. But, generally, when you step foot overseas, you're supposed to keep it within the family. And he's not willing to do that. And it is something that I think that when it comes to more moderate

voters, certainly those suburban and exurban women voters that he tends to lose, that's not something that will play great with them. And I agree with Ron. A lot of these things don't have staying power, but this is perhaps one that goes a little further and may. But who knows these days?

(CROSSTALK)

HASAN: It's been several months since he said in West Virginia in a rally -- I think it was September -- that we wrote each other letters and we fell in love. That itself should have been the moment everyone went, what, a U.S. president, a Republican president saying he's in love with the dictator in North Korea?

And the crowd just cheered and Republican members of Congress said nothing.

BROWNSTEIN: Yes.

(CROSSTALK)

BROWNSTEIN: And -- right. And you can very easily imagine how this can be taken from the other -- how Democrats can come on from the other side in this ,again, basically making the argument that Trump has climbed so far out on a limb that he's basically surrendered all -- too much or all of America's leverage over North Korea, because they realize, he is so reluctant to in any way allow for the possibility that all of this was for naught.

And that gives them a lot of leverage and puts him in a position of excusing a lot of their behavior that another president simply would not.

HILL: Speaking of Democrats, President Trump now saying he would be willing to work with House Democrats, even while they're investigating him.

So the big question, of course, what changed? More of our live coverage is next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

[16:16:48] DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I think that we will work with them. We have a USMCA, we have a deal with Canada and Mexico that everyone wants. I would imagine that Nancy Pelosi will approve that. I would think it will be very hard not to, but we'll see. But certainly, as things get approved, I would love to sign them.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

HILL: President Trump reversing course now, as you just heard. He said he's willing to work with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi despite ongoing Democratic investigations. The shift comes on the heel of some stinging personal attacks last week, lobbed by both the president and the speaker.

CNN's Phil Mattingly is live.

So, Phil, the president said, Democrats need to focus on areas of cooperation, like lowering drug prices and trade. Is there a traction there?

PHIL MATTINGLY, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, one of the most striking things about the sudden legislative freeze declaration last week is what was actually happening behind the scenes. Just after the course of a couple of days prior, there have been ongoing bipartisan discussions with the White House that had broken some new ground on a budget agreement. There had been behind scenes discussions between Speaker Pelosi staff and White House staff on prescription drugs, trying to coalesce around the proposal there. On the USMCA, the so- called number one legislative priority of the Trump administration, Speaker Pelosi had just told the trade representative that she was going to designate working groups to work with the administration on their outstanding issue.

So, there actually had been work going on and some progress made on a lot of those issues made before the president called for a freeze. I think the complicating factor here is the difficulty with both Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill, knowing exactly where the president is on these issues. These issues are all complicated, these issues are all difficult, and all of these issues are going to need not just White House buy-in in on the whole, but the president himself to be involved, to be present, and to try to figure out a path for them actually to reach an agreement.

USMCA I think is the one that they expect something to happen on if something occurs, but a reminder that through all the kind of back and forth of last week, Speaker Pelosi decides whether or not the trade agreement ever comes to the House floor. And therefore, the relationship is necessary, no matter how fractured it is. And perhaps that more than anything else is why you saw the president kind of partially walk back what he had declared just a few days prior.

HILL: Maybe it's extending a tiny little olive branch, perhaps.

MATTINGLY: A little bit.

HILL: Phil, good to see you. Thank you.

Ron, especially as Phil laid it out there, there are still a number of questions, but how, if at all, does this rhetoric that we're hearing from the president today, this offer, saying he's willing to work with Democrats, how do you think that changes the strategy for Democrats?

BROWNSTEIN: I think it changes very little. I think the -- first of all, the first step of all of this is that Mitch McConnell is refusing to consider any of the legislation that House Democrats are passing, right? I mean, they identified their, you know, top 10 issues and they've been moving through them. I think they passed five of them now on the floor. There have been a

total of two negative votes among Democrats on things like universal background checks, climate change, political reform, equal pay, the equality act on same-sex couples that work and in housing and so forth.

And McConnell is refusing to consider any of them. So, there's very little that has prospects of getting to the president in the first place. And, you know, I wonder, I know Phil is obviously more plugged in than any of us on the day-to-day, but whether Democrats who see the primacy of winning back the three states in the Rust Belt that tipped to Trump in 2016, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin, are going to give him a victory on the re-negotiated NAFTA without exacting some of their own priorities in return, since that is the one thing he really needs to have from Congress in additional to budget deal.

[16:20:15] That seems to me unlikely that they will give that up without getting something back. And right now, both the Senate Republicans and the administration have shown very little interest in advancing any of the priorities that Democrats are passing.

HILL: There's also issues, as Phil laid out, of the president himself. We know he is mercurial and that he can change focus, change tune very quickly, as we heard in the last few days. In fact, just to remind folks, this is what he had to say just a couple of days ago about Nancy Pelosi.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TRUMP: She's a mess. Look, let's face it. She doesn't understand it. And they sort of feel she's disintegrating.

Crazy Nancy, I'll tell you what, I've been watching her, and I have been watching her for a long period of time. She's not the same person. She's lost it.

You think Nancy's the same as she was? She's not. Maybe we can all say that.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

HILL: And listen, as we've pointed out, too, Nancy Pelosi did hit back a little bit. She was questioning the president's fitness, questioning whether folks around him were paying enough attention, Sara.

But as we look at this back and forth, there is a very real question of whether the commitment lasts, as Phil pointed out, and where they take this. So, Sara, how do you think that is being weighed today?

MURRAY: I don't think it was anyone's finest moment last week when the president was calling Nancy Pelosi crazy and Nancy Pelosi was saying the president and his family need to have some kind of intervention. So I do think that both sides realize they need to move beyond that point, because it doesn't look good for anyone, frankly, if they just get nothing done and are stuck in a stalemate. I mean, Democrats are also trying to get the president out of the

White House. They want to elect their own candidate. And if they essentially get nothing done and they don't have anything that they can champion as their priority, they have a problem, too, as to what they stand for going into 2020, aside from just defeating President Trump.

That said, the president stands up, well, no one's doing what I want, the investigations are continuing, so I'm not going to play nicely with anyone. That is not a re-election message. You cannot just say, I'm taking my toys and going home when you're the president of the United States. That's not how it works. You still need to run the country even if there's another party that controls the house and that party is investigating you. And that's been true for every other president who has been under investigation.

HILL: In terms of those investigations, Mary Katharine, the Trump team suffered some significant legal losses in terms of these financial documents. And there's a good chance, let's be honest we're going to see some of that. At this point, how much does the American voter care?

HAM: Well, so part of the issue is that this was, to some extent, litigated during the 2016 election and he was elected without giving his tax returns, which I have always said, he should give. But he did not, and voters weighed that. So that is part of it.

They are not as interested as many in media thought they were. They may be more interested now, but I'm not sure. Like, things have -- the game has changed when it comes to what voters consider about this particular person.

HILL: It's a fair point. Go ahead.

HASAN: I think Mary Katherine's right about how you weigh things up. And we don't know -- although we know more now than we knew then about his billions of losses, the accusations of, you know, money laundering, the Deutsche Bank in-house investigator who is flagged certain suspicious activities. Things have changed in that sense.

Just on Pelosi and Trump, can I say, I know that Erica and (INAUDIBLE) may not be able to say, let me just say, he's not mercurial, he's unwell and unstable. And this isn't about both sides. Yes, Nancy Pelosi said that there should be an intervention, but most people who have worked for Trump have come out and said that after leaving Trump or off the record. He on the other hand put out a video saying Pelosi stammers through news conference which still sits on his Twitter account last time I checked before I came on air, an outrageous edited to make her look bad and crazy.

And everything you played in that video just now was classic Trumpian projection. She's crazy, no, he is. She's changed over the years, no, he has. And we've all seen.

And I think this is a real problem. And for Pelosi to say, family and colleague should intervene, I'm sorry. Let's talk about this impeachment debate that the Democrats are now having internally, finally.

The idea that the speaker of the House is calling on Mike Pence, Ben Carson and Melania Trump to save the republic when House Democrats should actually be calling more impeachment hearings is absurd on her part.

HILL: All right. We'll leave there for a just a moment. But stay with us.

They're all vying for the party's nomination, so why are several 2020 Democrats now coming to the defense of their party's frontrunner Joe Biden? We'll explain.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:289:05] HILL: Welcome back to this live special edition of THE LEAD.

Our 2020 lead now. We are less than a month away from the first Democratic debate and candidates on this holiday weekend are in full campaign mode, focusing, though, less on each other, and more on attacking President Trump.

As CNN's Rebecca Buck reports, the president may be overseas, but he's still at the center of the 2020 race.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SEN. ELIZABETH WARREN (D-MA), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: What a crowd!

REBECCA BUCK, CNN POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): This Memorial Day, the 2020 field is spread out across the country, in Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Bend, Indiana. President Trump keeping his focus on the race, even during his official visit to Japan, taking a swipe at Democratic front-runner Joe Biden in a tweet praising North Korean dictator, Kim Jong-un.

The tweet drew a swift response from Democrats like Senator Elizabeth Warren --

WARREN: Foreign policy by tweet does not work.

BUCK: And Beto O'Rourke who called on Trump to end these love affairs with dictators and strongmen. A Biden aid responding to CNN, calling the president's tweet unhinged and erratic.

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