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Mitch McConnell Defends President Trump; Trump Flip-Flops on Foreign Dirt. Aired 4-4:30p ET

Aired June 14, 2019 - 16:00   ET



PAMELA BROWN, CNN ANCHOR: I hope you enjoy your Father's Day weekend. Happy Father's Day to all you dads out there.

And "THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER" starts right now.

JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: On the matter of taking foreign dirt, President Trump just made things a whole lot muddier.

THE LEAD starts right now.

If you don't listen to the dirt, how do you know it's bad? That's what President Trump is now saying to justify his argument that taking information on his opponent from foreign governments and not calling the FBI necessarily is not a bad thing. Is President Trump telling Putin, call me maybe?

Then: Kellyanne Conway under fire, an independent government agency recommending that she be fired for politicking on the taxpayer dime. The president just weighed in. What did he have to say?

Then, they were told their drinking water was safe, despite massive contamination. And now the wheels of justice seemingly at a standstill, as all the charges against Flint city officials are dropped. The city's mayor will join us live.

Welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

We begin with our politics lead.

President Trump ringing in his 73rd birthday at the White House today, gifted with 50 minutes on his favorite channel of largely unchallenged, freewheeling opportunities to attack foes and air grievances.

Happy birthday, Mr. President.

The president taking the opportunity to try to clean up that statement that even many Republican officials found wrong and outrageous, that he would theoretically openly welcome and accept dirt on a political opponent provided by a foreign government and that he would not necessarily call the FBI.

National security experts from both parties, as well as a bipartisan chorus on Capitol Hill, condemned the sentiment behind the president's remarks, though other Republicans, including the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, acted as if it's no big deal for the president of the United States to tell the world he thinks there's nothing wrong with such collusion.

Just minutes ago, one of the Democratic presidential candidates, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, told me that he's concerned this will not just be a theoretical discussion for President Trump.


TAPPER: Are you worried that President Trump will take, will accept help from foreign intelligence services, foreign governments?

PETE BUTTIGIEG (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Well, he just said as much, which is, of course, increasingly worrisome, extremely worrisome. But, of course, we shouldn't be surprised.


TAPPER: CNN's Abby Phillip now kicks off our coverage from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.


UNIDENTIFIED MALES AND FEMALES (singing): Happy birthday to you.


ABBY PHILLIP, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): President Trump marking his 73rd birthday with a cleanup call on his favorite morning TV show, attempting to explain his controversial claim that he would accept dirt on a political opponent from a foreign government.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I think it was accurately stated, and I have had a lot of support.


QUESTION: Well, then clarify it.

TRUMP: Yes, I mean, I have had a lot of support.

PHILLIP: A day after receiving blowback from both Democrats and some Republicans, Trump attempted to clarify with one part double down.

TRUMP: And of course you have to look at it, because, if you don't look at it, you're not going to know if it is bad.

PHILLIP: And one part walk-back.

TRUMP: But of course you give it to the FBI or report it to the attorney general or somebody like that.

PHILLIP: Trump even expanding on his claim that a foreign government's attempt to interfere in a campaign is similar to his conversations with world leaders.

TRUMP: I had dinner with the queen. I met with the prime minister of the U.K. I was with the head of France. I was with the head of all these nations. And I constantly am, constantly talking to them. Am I supposed to put -- the president of France, am I supposed to report him to the FBI?

PHILLIP: But as Trump tap-danced around his original claim, he may have made matters worse, now insisting that he should sit down with a foreign government offering political help to listen first.

TRUMP: If you don't hear what it is, you're not going to know what it is. I mean, How can you report something that you don't know?


QUESTION: That's right. How do you know it's bad if you don't listen to it?

QUESTION: So, Mr. President...

TRUMP: No. No. They say, oh, would accept it. Well, if I don't listen, you're not going to know.

PHILLIP: All this prompting and extraordinary rebuke from the Democratic Federal Election Commission chair, Ellen Weintraub, who wrote in a statement: "Let me make something 100 percent clear to the American public or anyone running for public office. It is illegal to solicit, accept or receive anything of value from a foreign national in connection with a U.S. election. This is not a novel concept."

And even though Russia did offer the Trump campaign political dirt in 2016, Trump is now claiming that he would never face that choice.

TRUMP: I don't think anybody would present me with anything bad because they know how much I love this country. Nobody's going to present me with anything.


PHILLIP: And President Trump called the Russian investigation the worst political scandal in the country's history. But in this lengthy interview on FOX today, he did not say anything about actual Russian interference in the 2016 election and nothing really to condemn it -- Jake.

TAPPER: Abby Phillip at the White House, thanks so much.

Let's chew over this with our experts.


Did the president's clarification clarify anything for you, Bill?

BILL KRISTOL, DIRECTOR, DEFENDING DEMOCRACY TOGETHER: Yes, it clarified that he's fine with foreign governments approaching people in campaigns with information.

He's going to look at it and decide whether it's somehow corrupt or not. That's unbelievable, right? Almost to go that far is unbelievable, right? Shouldn't you just say, no, thank you, and call the FBI the next moment?

Just remember that what is this based on? In 2016, his son got an e- mail saying the Russian government's interested in -- basically in helping your father, and we have some information.


TAPPER: Dirt on Hillary Clinton, yes.

KRISTOL: Dirt on Hillary Clinton.

And Donald Trump Jr. e-mailed back, what is it?

TAPPER: "If it's what you say, I love it."



TAPPER: And Donald Trump, Donald Trump, President Trump has never, ever denounced that, said that was the wrong thing to do, that that was a mistake, he wishes his son hadn't said it.

That's what they believe is the right thing to do. If a foreign -- hostile foreign government, not just a random -- the Trump people are trying to say, well, would you take some random person of another nationality shows up somewhere and has something?

That's not what it was. It was the government of Russia, and they welcomed it.

KAREN FINNEY, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: But even during the campaign in 2016, remember, he was very public about saying, hey, Russia, if you're out there, I will take those e-mails, right?

And the other thing that's interesting about this, though, is that polling-wise, most Americans know more about the second part of the report, the obstruction, not the first part. With the president talking about it so much, it's sort of getting us to revisit this whole question about collusion with the Russians and the Russian involvement.

And I will tell you the other thing. Law Works came out with a poll earlier this week. A majority of Americans actually don't think you should take information from a foreign government.

TAPPER: And let's -- just because Karen brought it up, let's remind our viewers what the Republican nominee, Trump, President Trump now, said in July 2016.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) TRUMP: Russia, if you're listening, I hope you're able to find the 30,000 e-mails that are missing.


TAPPER: Now, later, the president said he was just joking, that wasn't meant to be taken seriously.

But, Jeremy, it sounds like it's meant to be taken seriously. I mean, he's now basically of the position no collusion, no collusion. Now he's saying, yes, collusion, it's fine.


And what he's doing right now with his comments is essentially reiterating that, Russia, if you're out there, and you can find those e-mails, then find them, right? It's an invitation for other countries, foreign powers, potentially even those who are adversaries of the United States, to come in, and essentially offer him information his opponents, suggesting that he would welcome it.

And that's why I think, fundamentally, it's important to view the comments that the president made this morning not as a walk-back, but as an attempt to really muddy the waters here. And either it's that he misunderstands what this actually entails, which seems unlikely, or it's the fact that he's simply trying to reframe this issue to try and justify his earlier comments, reframing this notion that you have to first look at the information and, if it's bad, then share with the FBI, which actually would probably amount to more interference than anything else.

If you're sharing information from a foreign power that is somehow derogatory to try and spark an investigation, it raises a lot of questions.

TAPPER: And, Seung Min, take a listen to the national press secretary for the president's reelection campaign, Kayleigh McEnany, earlier.


KAYLEIGH MCENANY, NATIONAL PRESS SECRETARY, TRUMP 2020: The president is our leader. We follow everything he says, as he said, a case-by- case basis. He said he would likely do both, listen to what they have to say, but also report it to the FBI.


TAPPER: The FBI has been pretty clear what they think should happen. You report it to the FBI, and you're not allowed to accept this information.

SEUNG MIN KIM, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: And, by far, most Republicans on Capitol Hill have also said, we would go to the FBI immediately and report to them.

But this again shows just how the president's comments -- I mean, beyond the appropriateness of it, it also has put Republicans in a difficult position once again.

I had a really interesting, brief but interesting conversation with Lindsey Graham about this yesterday, when he said, I talked to the president this morning to try to get a little bit of clarity on his comments. And I explained to him, these are the times when conversations with the foreign officials are OK. You don't have to report it.

But then if they're offering you something that's inappropriate, then you should report it.

But it's just the fact that they have to have these conversations with the president of the United States is a fascinating dynamic.

KRISTOL: And they will not support legislation that would make this -- that would simply say -- very simple legislation. If an agent of a foreign government or someone you think is an agent of a foreign government approaches you in a campaign, for whatever reason, report it to the FBI.

What's wrong with that?


KRISTOL: Mitch McConnell won't bring it to the floor.

FINNEY: Exactly.

KRISTOL: Lindsey Graham won't put any pressure on Mitch McConnell to bring it to the floor.

All these Republican senators -- I'm sorry if I'm worked up about this -- but getting credit for -- five of them actually criticized sort of vaguely, mildly, the president of the United States today with one or two sentences.

They can actually do something about this, and they're unwilling to.

FINNEY: But, obviously, I think Mitch McConnell is -- he's a politically astute man. He seems to believe that it benefits the Republican Party to not actually put forward any of this kind of legislation and to not put forward any kind of legislation that would protect our elections at this point.

TAPPER: All right. Well, we're going to talk about Mitch McConnell in a second.

Everyone, stick around.

And you can see, by the way, my full interview with Mayor Pete Buttigieg this Sunday morning on CNN's "STATE OF THE UNION" 9:00 a.m. and noon Eastern.

Coming up, it's not exactly flattering. So why is Mitch McConnell embracing the new nickname the Grim Reaper? That's next.


Then, breaking news about the tanker attack in the Middle East, a U.S. official just telling CNN one of the Iranian boats fired a missile at an American drone before the attack.

Stay with us.



SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY): The case is closed. Why don't we move on?


TAPPER: The case is closed, at least according to Republican Majority Leader Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, who refused to criticize President Trump for saying he theoretically would welcome political dirt from a foreign government in 2020.

As CNN's Sunlen Serfaty reports, the bigger issue might be that McConnell has shown hostility toward legislation that would tighten security in U.S. elections.


MCCONNELL: They just can't let it go, Laura. I said weeks ago, case closed.

SUNLEN SERFATY, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell not just defending the president, but blaming Democrats who were astonished by Trump's comments about accepting dirt on political opponents from foreign governments.

LAURA INGRAHAM, FOX NEWS: Would you answer that question that way?

MCCONNELL: Well, he gets -- he gets picked at every day over every different aspect of it, but the fundamental point is, they're trying to keep the 2016 election alive.


SERFATY (voice-over): In addition to changing the conversation for the president, McConnell has been cleaning house in the Senate, blocking votes on any bill he chooses.

Since January, the Senate has only passed 21 of the 264 bills already passed by the House which have become law. Two more were vetoed by the president. Some of the legislation passed includes back paying federal workers during the shutdown and a 19 billion dollar disaster relief bill.

But McConnell has blocked multiple bipartisan bills, including a bill aimed at tightening security in U.S. elections. On Thursday, was a bill from Democrats requiring political campaigns

to report assistance offers from foreign nationals to the FBI. Officially blocked by Republican Senator Marsha Blackburn.

SEN. MARSHA BLACKBURN (R-TN): Presidential campaigns would have to worry about disclosure at a variety of levels.

SERFATY: McConnell killing of countless other bills have earned him a new nickname from Democrats.

SEN. CHUCK SCHUMER (D-NY): Leader McConnell, the Grim Reaper, is creating this graveyard.

SEN. NANCY PELOSI (D-CA): Leader McConnell seems to take great pride in calling himself as Grim Reaper. It's part of the pride he takes as leader of the Senate.

SERFATY: It's a moniker McConnell does indeed seem to relish, even selling a Grim Reaper t-shirt on his campaign website.

And McConnell had this to say a few months ago regarding some of the more progressive bills including the Green New Deal and Medicare-for- All.

MCCONNELL: Think of me as the Grim Reaper. None of that stuff is going to pass. None of it.


SERFATY: The Senate majority leader, however, he has been focused on one of his biggest priorities, nominations and confirming conservatives into judgeships. Now, McConnell, notably, is up for re- election in 2020 where, of course, it's seen as contextually staying in President Trump's good graces that seen as being politically advantageous for him -- Jake.

TAPPER: All right. Sunlen Serfaty on Capitol Hill, thanks so much.

Let's chew over this.

Seung Min, I get why he's proud, Senator McConnell, to be the Grim Reaper for the Green New Deal or for any progressive legislation. Why is he the Grim Reaper for bipartisan election security legislation? I mean, why would that be something he kills?

SEUNG MIN KIM, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: I think he's so writ large he has characterized everything that Democrats are pushing, everything that the Democratic led House is pushing as something that's tied to socialism even if it's not necessarily the case, because that has been the broader Republican message leading up to 2020 not just from the President Trump's level but down to the Senate races and down to the House races.

And now, Sunlen made a good point that Mitch McConnell himself is up for re-election and going to -- you know, as part of the right as possible is politically advantageous to him. Now, my question is, do his Republican members particularly the ones

who are running in these at risk states --

TAPPER: Susan Collins in Maine, Martha McSally --

KIM: Do they get impatient with a lack of legislative accomplishment? Then, McConnell may start to switch a little bit. But right now, we have seen no signs of that.

KAREN FINNEY, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: But I think you can't underestimate the suppressive effects these things have, right? We're not even talking about the fact that, for example, African-Americans were the ones who are targeted -- largely targeted in 2016 by the Russians and the bots, right?

So, you have organizations like the NAACP actually trying to do workshops to train people. Here's how you protect your elections and your communications because the federal government is doing nothing. There's such a concern about this and nothing is happening.

At the same time, people are talking about things like we should be doing paper ballots. What are Republican governors doing? Moving away from paper ballots.

So, I think, yes, there's also a sort of legislative accomplishment piece. But there's also a real strategy, I think, that is about suppressing the vote in way that I think they believe will actually benefit Republicans.

TAPPER: Bill, House Speaker Pelosi tweeted out this photo of what she called McConnell's graveyard in response to legislation. The Democrats passed in the House, it goes to the Senate and nothing ever, ever happens. Obviously some of this stuff they would never support but among them are bills like lowering prescription drug prices, which President Trump has talked about, the re-authorization of the Violence Against Women Act which used to be a fairly bipartisan piece of legislation.

Why kill those? I don't understand. If it's something that could be bipartisan and could pass.

KRISTOL: Yes, someone went to open the door, though, some bipartisan things, one or two Republican co-sponsors, is it enough. It's easier. As long as they are not paying a price, as long as you say his members are paying no prices, to just shut the door on everything.

But I do wonder if that's sustainable. I think the Democrats can do a much better job of highlighting these individual bills, not saying, I don't think it's very effective, 245 bills have been passed, he's a Grim Reaper. Put up ads, put up ads saying Mitch McConnell has stopped this piece of legislation which has bipartisan support, which conservative Senator James Lankford from Oklahoma has supported for reasons X, Y and Z.

[16:20:08] They're not really putting much pressure, as much pressure as they could I think on McConnell right now. TAPPER: I mean, it does seem like the Democrats in the House are voting for a lot of bills that will never become law. That might be fun and that might make them feel good but at the end of the day it's not legislating.

JEREMY DIAMOND, CNN WHITE HOUSE REPORTER: I guess the question is will Democrats use the argument that the president tried the make over the first couple of years of his presidency which was Democrats are obstructionists, right? Will the Democrats take that and weaponize it against Republicans to say look at all the bills we passed and that we've tried to push over to the Senate where Republicans control things, where Mitch McConnell is refusing to take the bills to the floor and bring them forward for a vote?

I think that's an argument we could see from Democrats and, frankly, was an argument that the president made fairly successfully to voters previously. I think Democrats would have a good amount of success making that same case.

TAPPER: Everyone, stick around.

Breaking news in our world lead. Now, CNN is learning what Iranian boats were allegedly doing before the attack on two tankers in the Middle East. That's next.


[16:25:48] TAPPER: And we have some breaking news for you now on our world lead. New shocking details on what happened before two tankers in the Gulf of Oman were attacked.

And now, what was previously a war of words between President Trump and the Iranian regime now becoming potentially something far more dangerous. President Trump firmly blaming Iran for the attack on the two ships. The U.S. releasing this video to prove Iran is responsible. Officials say it shows Iranian boats removing an unexploded mine in the side of one of the ships.

CNN's Barbara Starr has some stunning new reporting on what may have happened and what it means.


BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): In the hours just before the attack on two oil tankers, a U.S. drone flying overhead saw Iranian boats closing in on the tankers and then Iran launched a surface to air missile at the American drone but missed, a U.S. official tells CNN.

The source did not say the drone captured the Iranian boats conducting an actual attack.

Now at the Pentagon, tough words for Iran.

PATRICK SHANAHAN, ACTING DEFENSE SECRETARY: We're making sure that General McKenzie and the Central Command has the resources and the support that they need to conduct their missions.

STARR: But Iran doesn't seem to be backing off. More provocation. Iranian small boats are preventing tug boats from towing away one of the damaged tankers, a U.S. official says. President Trump, this time, believing the intelligence he is shown.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Iran did do it and you know they did it because you saw the boat.

STARR: U.S. officials pointing to these images as the proof. An Iranian boat coming along side one of the two commercial tankers that had just been attacked in the sea of Oman. Iranians trying to remove an unexploded mine so no evidence is left behind, according to U.S. officials.

Now, President Trump is sounding a warning.

TRUMP: We don't take it lightly, that I can tell you.

STARR: Right now, U.S. policy is to maintain diplomatic and economic pressure on Tehran through sanctions.

SHANAHAN: The focus for myself and Ambassador Bolton and Secretary Pompeo is to build international consensus to this international problem.

STARR: Behind the scenes, all options are being reviewed.

MIKE POMPEO, SECRETARY OF STATE: These unprovoked attacks present a clear threat to international peace and security, a blatant assault on the freedom of navigation and an unacceptable campaign of escalating tension by Iran.


STARR: And CNN has learned that another U.S. drone was shot down just days earlier by Iranian-backed rebels in Yemen. And to add to all of the confusion, one of the owners of one of the tankers says he doesn't even think his tanker was hit by a mine -- Jake.

TAPPER: Barbara Starr at the Pentagon for us -- thank you so much.

And now, breaking in our politics lead. We are learning that the Justice Department will respond today to Democrats in Congress after the Trump administration defied a subpoena of President Trump's tax returns.

CNN's Laura Jarrett at the Justice Department for us now.

And, Laura, what are you hearing?

LAURA JARRETT, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Jake, later today, the Justice Department is expected to release an opinion from the Office of Legal Counsel known as OLC over here, essentially supporting the treasury secretary's refusal to hand over President Trump's tax information. You will recall the top Democrat on the House Ways and Means Committee, Richard Neal, has subpoenaed for about six years worth of Trump's personal and business-related tax information. He said he needs it in order to understand better the auditing process for presidents. The treasury secretary has defied that subpoena along with the IRS essentially saying this is all politics. That's purely pretextual. So, we now wait to see the written opinion from the Justice Department. Those agencies have previously said that they were we relying on the Justice Department's advice -- Jake.

TAPPER: All right. Laura Jarrett, thank you so much.

We've got the line up for the first Democratic debate but already questions are being raised if it's essentially been divided, even if it's just an accident, into the jayvee, debate one night, and the varsity another. And is Elizabeth Warren getting the shaft despite her rise in the polls? That's next.