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Large and Powerful Tornado Rips Through Kansas City Area; Oklahoma and Arkansas Brace for Record-Breaking Floods; Mitch McConnell Proudly Declares He'd Fill Supreme Court Vacancy in 2020; Republican Congressman Justin Amash Gets Standing Ovation at First Town Hall After Saying Trump Engaged in Impeachable Conduct; President Trump Attacks His Biggest Democratic Rival Joe Biden. Aired 9-9:30a ET

Aired May 29, 2019 - 09:00   ET


[09:00:00] CAMEROTA: What selfless friendship and that just packs a powerful punch for all of them. That is beautiful. OK. Tornadoes meanwhile are threatening a wide swath of the country this morning from Texas to major cities in the northeast so our coverage picks up now.

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN ANCHOR: Very good Wednesday morning to you, I'm Jim Sciutto in New York. Poppy on assignment today.

We begin in the latest aftermath of tornado outbreak for the ages. It's truly remarkable. Overnight eastern Kansas got the worst of a 13th consecutive day of tornadoes reported in multiple cities and multiple states.

In the town of Linwood just west of Kansas City the mayor says that dozens of houses are, and I'm quoting here, "just all gone." Same goes for nearby Lawrence where at least 12 people were hurt, badly enough to go to the hospital.

This morning almost 40 million people from the southern plains to the mid-Atlantic coast are what forecasters call at an enhanced risk of more violent storms. That's something that they take very seriously.

Linwood, Kansas, is just outside that zone but only barely. CNN's Scott McLean is there.

Tell us about preparations on the ground now for more tornadoes.

SCOTT MCLEAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hey, Jim. Well, luckily this area specifically is out of the woods for any tornadic activity for the next two days, but as you said, there are some 40 million people across the country who could have a possibility of seeing a strong tornado today.

Here in Linwood, this is all about the cleanup effort today. This thing came through last night and it came through pretty last minute for these people. A lot of people were watching TV. They got down in their basements. They got the alert on their phone. They heard the sirens and they got in their basement. And it's a good thing that they did.

You mentioned the mayor said a lot of these houses look like they're completely gone. Well, this doesn't look like a house, this looks like a pile of garbage. That is somebody's belongings there. And believe it or not, I just spoke to a friend of the homeowners here and he said that they were actually home at the time. They were in the basement. It doesn't look like there is a basement, but if you look over here there is actually one just a little bit dug into the ground there. So they were able to get out thankfully out of that area.

Now an insurance adjuster actually came by this house earlier today. Not because the homeowners had called them, but because he had seen on Facebook a piece of their mail with their address on it had actually ended up in another town about 50 miles away and so he figured perhaps the house is no longer there or at least severely damaged and when he got here obviously he realized that it was.

Here is what a different homeowner said about the moment that the tornado actually came through. Listen.


BRIAN HAHN, TORNADO SURVIVOR: I saw my bedroom just leave. It's gone. We were underneath the one part of the house that didn't get taken. We knew it was coming, I just didn't think -- I was just hoping it wasn't coming right at me, and it did.


MCLEAN: And, Jim, I just want to show you a little bit more of the destruction. You can see the debris field here. A house there completely destroyed, another one over there. The homeowner here, we actually just spoke to him. The house looks relatively intact. I can tell you it is not. It is missing a wall with bricks on it that are scattered across the ground now, part of the roof has collapsed. He was actually inside of his house, despite the obvious safety risk, trying to get medicines and things that are not easily replaceable.

What is incredible about that situation is he said that he actually had a trailer 7 feet by 14 foot trailer. He said he doesn't know where it is. It's nowhere to be found -- Jim.

SCIUTTO: Yes, I mean, the speeds, the power of those winds, you can see it there behind you.

Scott McLean, great to have you on the ground.

Where there are storms, there often also floods and those two in the central U.S. are well past the point of extreme now. Just look at these photos from the air. This morning the Arkansas River is cresting in spots, still rising in others, setting each time all time records for some of these areas.

CNN's Ed Lavandera, he's in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

We talked to you yesterday along the river there. Tell us what the story is today.

ED LAVANDERA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, the weather is, again, the factor today and depending on how much rainfall comes and where that rainfall will determine just how much more complicated this flooding situation gets here in eastern Oklahoma and in western Arkansas.

We are, Jim, on the edge of the Arkansas River. You can see it humming past by. We also have a drone shot up so you can get a sense of just how strong the current is as it rages its way through Tulsa and pushes eastward toward Ft. Smith, Arkansas.

The good news is here in the Tulsa area the Arkansas River is close to cresting if it hasn't crested already, but as I mentioned, rain is in the forecast today and depending on where it falls more water from the Keystone dam might have to be released and if they have to increase that flow that means everyone downstream from that dam is in possibly more danger.

[09:05:05] So we will have to see how that plays out today. But there have been communities from Tulsa all the way to Ft. Smith, Arkansas, who have been warned over the last few days to be prepared to either voluntarily evacuate or be ready to move quickly if these floodwaters continue to rise. So that is what residents here along the Arkansas River in Oklahoma and Arkansas will be monitoring today -- Jim.

SCIUTTO: So many homes, so many lives in danger there.

Ed Lavandera, we know you'll stay on top of it.

Another story we're following, please take a moment here to listen to the Senate majority leader, the Republican Mitch McConnell, to make a promise, a threat perhaps, to reverse a standard he himself set on filling a Supreme Court vacancy.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: If a Supreme Court judge was to die next year, what would you do?




SCIUTTO: Fill it in the year 2020. Remember, that is, of course, a presidential election year and that pledge, let's be clear, contradicts the argument that McConnell himself used repeatedly in 2016 to justify blocking President Obama's nominee to the Supreme Court at the time, the Judge Merrick Garland.


MCCONNELL: All we're doing, Chris, is following a longstanding tradition of not filling vacancies on the Supreme Court in the middle of a presidential election year. The American people should have a say in the court's direction.


SCIUTTO: Well, it wasn't only McConnell who used that line of argument, other Republican senators including the chairman of the Judiciary Committee which of course runs the confirmation hearings for Supreme Court justices lined up and repeated that argument almost verbatim.


SEN. CHUCK GRASSLEY (R-IA): If you have a vacancy when a president is a lame duck that it ought to not be brought up during the heat of a presidential campaign, that it's unfair to the Supreme Court, it's unfair to the Senate, it's unfair to the nominee.

SEN. TED CRUZ (R-TX): For 80 years it has been the practice that the Senate has not confirmed any nomination made during an election year.


SCIUTTO: Well, now, McConnell's spokesman says that the difference today is that both the Senate and White House are held by Republicans. But let's be clear, that is not the reasoning that the Senate majority leader and his colleagues repeated in public at the time.

You can call it moving the goal posts, tearing down the goal posts might be a better analogy.

I'm joined now by CNN Supreme Court reporter Ariane de Vogue, and Ariane, you're going to hear a lot of justification for McConnell's pledge now from himself and other Republicans. You've covered the Supreme Court for some time. Is this tearing down the goal posts on that pledge, that reasoning?

ARIANE DE VOGUE, CNN SUPREME COURT CORRESPONDENT: It sure seems like it. Keep in mind that audience yesterday they responded to his comments with laughter. There was outrage in Washington by the Democrats.

Contrasted back to March 2016 Justice Antonin Scalia had died, President Obama, he looked for a consensus candidate, he nominated Merrick Garland, and McConnell said, nope, no hearings, we're going to wait until after the election and that nomination lingered and went away. When President Trump did win, he then replaced Justice Antonin Scalia with Neil Gorsuch. It was a conservative replacing a conservative, so it didn't change the direction of the court too much, but of course Gorsuch is much younger.

But we learned one other thing from that speech yesterday and it's, again, how proud McConnell and other Republicans are of what they've done with judges because they've put two Supreme Court nominees on the bench, but they've also changed the face of the lower courts and we're going to see that as these abortion cases, for instance, play out. SCIUTTO: Yes.

DE VOGUE: They're going to hit these judges and Trump nominee's judicial philosophy is likely going to be different, Jim, than an Obama nominee's judicial philosophy.

SCIUTTO: Wow. Yes, to say the least. And as you say, with cases moving through these courts on "Roe v. Wade" and others it will have a real effect on people's lives.

Let me ask about how the court would react to McConnell's pledge yesterday because the chairman of the -- the chairman of the court, not the chairman, but the justice, chief justice, he has very publicly lamented that the court has become so political in the eyes of the American public. And I wonder, would he bristle at Mitch McConnell making such a pledge?

DE VOGUE: Well, look, he bristles anytime that there is any movement to make the court look in any way political. But keep in mind we're talking about this, there is no vacancy on the court and there may not be a vacancy. We've got Ruth Bader Ginsberg, 86 years old, three-time cancer survivor. She issued a biting dissent yesterday. Justice Breyer, he's 80 years old. Would either one of them step down during a Republican administration, maybe not. And then some people, well, what about Clarence Thomas?

[09:10:03] He's 80 years old. Would he move over to give President Trump a chance at a younger nominee? And sources close to him say, look, he's having a time of his life right now. Finally a lot of his dissents are going to be the majority opinions in the future. He may not go either, Jim. So I'm not sure that there really is a vacancy among all this talk.

SCIUTTO: Yes. Folks don't like to give up those lifetime appointments.

Ariane De Vogue, thanks very much.

Let's speak now with Sabrina Siddiqui, she is White House correspondent for "The Guardian," and Astead -- Herndon, rather, he's national political reporter for the "New York Times."

So, Sabrina, again, spokesman for McConnell, other Republicans will make the point, well, this is different, it's not quite the same as 2016, but, you know, as Ariane said there, it's pretty clear cut. Any hesitation from Republicans making that argument?

SABRINA SIDDIQUI, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, look, remember in 2016 as much as Republicans said that they were simply following precedent, they didn't even give Merrick Garland, President Obama's nominee, a hearing, much less a vote. So there was -- really wasn't much precedent for that, if any. And I think that it's become transparent -- it was at the time to many -- that they were acting out of political motivations.

And when McConnell's office says, well, the difference now is that there is a Republican in the White House, that's almost openly conceding that this president would nominate someone who Republicans are more likely to support than a Democratic president would have in the past, in Obama's case.


SIDDIQUI: What's also important to remember is Republicans will use that vacancy to galvanize their base, to go to the polls and vote for Donald Trump who they had said they had maybe disagreements with, that he wasn't their preferred nominee, but this was really about the Supreme Court and the judiciary. So the question now is, can Democrats turn the tables, especially as you have this slate of anti- abortion laws and other issues that perhaps have generational consequences? Can they use this moment to actually galvanize their base around the judiciary which they have struggled to do in years past?

That's what you've seen Democratic contenders trying to do in the wake of this abortion debate.

SCIUTTO: Yes. Astead, there is no issue arguably that comes before the Supreme Court, particularly for women voters, that is more visceral than a woman's right to choose here. And I wonder, is this a galvanizing issue for Democrats? I mean, could they have the advantage if Republicans, McConnell, push their hand on this?

ASTEAD HERNDON, NATIONAL POLITICAL REPORTER, THE NEW YORK TIMES: Yes. We've seen Democratic nominees in the 2020 race try to go in pure kind of horse race terms on offense on this issue recently. You've had several nominees put out plans saying they want Congress to codify abortion laws. They know that that probably would likely not happen in Congress but what they're doing so is trying to galvanize the base, is trying to rally support around these issues because there is a sense that maybe Democrats have been too defensive on this for too long.

Maybe they've conceded the premise to Republicans around the issue for too long and that has had negative consequences. I don't think we should beat around the bush around the majority leader here. This isn't really a reversal but more so a continuing of what we've seen from him for a long time which is the willingness to use power to produce Republican results at any cost.


HERNDON: And so that has sometimes come at the cost of the Senate institution and precedent before, but that's why Republicans love him, is because he produces those kind of Republican desired results and doesn't care about the consequences.

SCIUTTO: Or at the cost of contradicting himself on the judiciary. There's that, too.

Astead Herndon, Sabrina Siddiqui, thanks very much.

Still to come, a standing ovation for Republican Justin Amash. We are hearing from the congressman for the first time since he called the president's conduct impeachable. Look at the reception he got.

Plus Biden does not take the bait. The Democratic frontrunner back on the trail for the first time since the president's latest very personal attacks, but it is what he did not say that is making the headlines this morning.

And the hiker who went missing for 17 days in a Hawaiian forest is speaking out about her ordeal saying that she let a voice guide her and she has some advice for anyone planning now to hike alone.


[09:15:00] JIM SCIUTTO, HOST, NEWSROOM: Republican Congressman from Michigan Justin Amash gets a standing ovation. This was Amash's first town-hall since becoming the only Republican lawmaker to say that the president engaged in impeachable conduct, this after his reading of the Mueller report.


REP. JUSTIN AMASH (R-MI): Clearly things that violate the public trust are impeachable. I'm confident that if you read volume two, you will be appalled at much of the conduct. And I was appalled by it. Congress has a duty to keep the president in check.


SCIUTTO: Joining me now is CNN Sunlen Serfaty. So Sunlen, Amash says that in private at least, he's not the only Republican who feels this way. And I'm sure you've had this experience, I certainly have, speaking to Republican lawmakers who will speak about the president in critical terms in private, but never do that in public.

I'm curious if you're hearing any defenders of Amash's position from the Republican side of the aisle.

SUNLEN SERFATY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, not yet. It is notable, as you say, that Congressman Amash, Jim, is saying, you know, he's having phone conversations with his Republican colleagues and they're telling him that they agree with his position, but they're just not saying it publicly yet.

But it is notable that Amash is still essentially on an island alone. He still is the only sitting Republican member of Congress to say out loud that he believes the president committed impeachable offenses based on his reading of the Mueller report.

[09:20:00] And last night, we saw him really double-down on that position at this real significant town hall that he had in his district last night, saying, he believes that Pelosi should move ahead with an impeachment inquiry, but he was somewhat critical of the speaker of the house, her take it slow, show restraint strategy.


AMASH: No matter what any individual member of Congress wants to do, if the speaker is not on board, the thing is not happening. I think it would be appropriate for her to proceed with that. I think she's very nervous about some of her Democrats who are in what she considers tougher districts, and I think she's trying to maintain the majority, so she's sort of playing it both ways.


SERFATY: And his reception last night at that town hall was significant, the fact that he received at many points many standing ovations from the crowd, praising him for what many in the crowd said was courage and standing up to take this position. But he also did have his fair share of critics in the crowd, many Republicans who were essentially unhappy with him breaking from his party.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I've been your supporter since you started running for Congress, and I can't even tell you how disappointed I am. How can you become a Democrat when we voted for you as a Republican because you're just drink the same Kool-Aid as all the Democrats.


SERFATY: An interesting moment there, and you hear the crowd booing that person down. But Jim, it's going to be certainly interesting to see how 2020 candidates are reacting to this. We heard from Kamala Harris last night after his town hall, she says she praised him for that position and said it's -- I'm glad to see people are putting country before party, Jim.

SCIUTTO: Sunlen Serfaty, thanks very much. Back with me now Sabrina Siddiqui and Astead Herndon. Astead, I mean, the real question here is of course significant that you have a Republican lawmaker, very publicly going after the president on this, and making cogent legal arguments based on his interpretation of the Mueller report.

Have you spoken to Republican lawmakers in private who say, yes, you know what? I agree with him, but, man, political price too high for coming out in public?

ASTEAD HERNDON, NATIONAL POLITICAL REPORTER, THE NEW YORK TIMES: I mean, this tracks what we've seen from Republicans for years now. I remember when I was in Washington, no more on the campaign trouble. When I was in Washington, you would hear from Republicans all the time, basically saying on every individual Trump controversy, how shocked or appalled they were in private.


HERNDON: But again, those statements were not happening in public --


HERNDON: Partly because they understand how the control that the president still has on his political base and on the Republican base. And so, I think it's interesting to see the congressman take this stand, experience some backlash and some support.

But what we're -- what I think actually will be the most consequential thing is the pressure it puts on Speaker Pelosi --


HERNDON: Because that now has a Republican saying things that they wish the most powerful Democrat in Congress --


HERNDON: Was saying, but she is not doing so, partly because of those political and electoral calculations.

SCIUTTO: Yes, Sabrina, that's arguably the more interesting conflict here, right? Is the conflict within the Democratic Party where you have widespread, of course, criticism of the president, but disagreement on whether pursuing impeachment is the right course.

Is Speaker Pelosi feeling more of this pressure or has she successfully headed off? I mean, we made a big deal of her comments last week, saying that the president has pursued a cover up, and that gave her some political cover not to pursue impeachment right away.

SABRINA SIDDIQUI, WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT, THE GUARDIAN: Well, in a private meeting with her caucus last week, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's message was clear, that pursuing impeachment would play directly into the president's hands, that he would welcome impeachment proceedings from Democrats because it's a politically divisive issue.

Now, whether or not her caucus agrees with her is a separate question. There is certainly increasing support to at least open up an impeachment inquiry because Democrats of course want to access documents and witnesses, and are being stonewalled by the White House, they're frustrated with the lack of cooperation from the executive branch.

They feel like they're not able to conduct thorough oversight. At the same time, you did have these two court decisions last week that essentially ruled in the favor of Democrats by suggesting that they should, in fact, be allowed to access some of the president's financial records.

So that was something Pelosi could point to and say, look, there are other options before us and we could litigate these issues in court, and that's how we could continue and press the White House for the materials that we need and we're just not there yet on impeachment. Now, Amash is so far the only Republican to join the chorus --

SCIUTTO: Right --

SIDDIQUI: Of those who are calling for impeachment. I think if other Republicans joined or echoed that message, then it would be a different calculation for Pelosi, but --

SCIUTTO: Yes, we'll see -- SIDDIQUI: At this particular point in time, Amash is on his own,

that's certainly the case.

SCIUTTO: We'll see about that. There are Republicans and I will mention one, conservative columnist Matt Lewis, he is out with a piece today calling for Republicans to draft Amash to challenge President Trump in the Republican primary in 2020.

[09:25:00] He said "as a conservative who has grave concerns about Donald Trump, I have arrived at an unavoidable conclusion. It's time to draft Justin Amash for president." I wonder, is that a serious possibility, Astead, based -- as you are out on the campaign trail?

HERNDON: Yes, I think the lessons from 2018 all the way through now are that this is Donald Trump's Republican Party. We have not really seen an appetite from Republicans to really have an opening for that kind of never Trump Republican, a kind of return to Republicans of the past.

And so while there's certainly an appetite for that in Washington, amongst more academic Republican circles, among the base on the trail, that's not something I've seen reflected and I don't think that's something Justin Amash would want to do.

SCIUTTO: Right, all right, Astead, Sabrina, thanks very much. President Trump wasting no time going after his top Democratic rival, but former Vice President Joe Biden, he's got an interesting response to those attacks. That is, no response.