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THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER

Warren, O'Rourke, Booker Face Off in First Night of Debates, With Biden, Sanders, Harris, Buttigieg Set for Night Two. Aired 4:30- 5p ET

Aired June 14, 2019 - 16:30   ET

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


(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:34:16] JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: This afternoon, we're finally getting our first looks at the lineup for the first Democratic debate. That's our 2020 lead today.

Nearly every front-runner in the polls will face off on the second night of debates, including Joe Biden, Senator Bernie Sanders, Senator Kamala Harris, Mayor Pete Buttigieg. The candidate whose star has been on the rise, however, Senator Elizabeth Warren, she is going to take the stage on night one. That's the luck of the draw or bad luck of the draw.

And as CNN's Ryan Nobles reports, the Warren campaign is focused on one simple phrase that they believe sums up her candidacy.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

RYAN NOBLES, CNN WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): For months, the nearly two dozen Democratic presidential contenders have spent their time drawing distinctions from a far.

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS (I-VT), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: When it comes to health care, there is no middle ground.

[16:35:04] NOBLES: Today, they learned who they will be face-to-face with for the first debates.

The first night will feature ten candidates, including Elizabeth Warren, Beto O'Rourke, Cory Booker and Amy Klobuchar. Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, Pete Buttigieg and Kamala Harris are among those going on the second night.

SEN. ELIZABETH WARREN (D-MA), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I got a lot of plans so let me just mention a few.

NOBLES: Elizabeth Warren calling the debate "an opportunity to discuss my plans." The Massachusetts senator's "I have a plan for that" strategy appears to be paying off as national and early state polls show her jockeying with Sanders for second place behind Biden.

Today, Warren unveiled another proposal. This one aimed at empowering minority entrepreneurship. She told voters in New Hampshire that her recent success is about making direct connections with voters.

WARREN: We're going to get some more people. One at a time, two at a time. Five at a time. That's why I'm working on a grassroots movement here.

NOBLES: But for now, Biden remains the leader of the pack, releasing a video calling out the president over foreign interference in U.S. elections.

JOE BIDEN (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Donald Trump doesn't think it matters if candidates for presidency accept damaging information on other opponents from foreign governments. I believe he's dead wrong.

NOBLES: The president appears to be keeping his eye on Biden.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Everybody knows Joe is -- doesn't have it.

NOBLES: And the rest of the Democratic field, including Warren.

TRUMP: I would love to run against her. I see that Bernie Sanders is not doing well at all. I would have, frankly, liked to have run against.

I don't see the other ones. They talk about Kamala. I don't see Kamala. I don't see -- I think it's probably between the three of them.

Mayor Pete, I don't see that at all. I think that's a joke.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

NOBLES: And while all the campaigns are spinning how the debate lineups are great for their candidates, it would still be difficult to prepare for and stand out in a massive crowd of 10 debate participants. Jake, as one campaign told me today, quote: There's only so much substance you can get into when you only have a few minutes to speak.

TAPPER: It's true.

All right. Ryan, thank you so much.

Let's chat about this. But I do want to start with something very interesting. You might remember a few weeks ago, "The New York Times" reported there were these internal Trump campaign polls showing the president losing to Joe Biden in states he needs to win like Pennsylvania or Wisconsin. President Trump took to Twitter and went on interviews and talked about no polls. It's phony, fake and made up.

Well, ABC News actually got their hands on it and now the Trump campaign is acknowledging these internal polls from March showing Trump losing resoundingly to Biden in states such as Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. Once again, the president says it's not true and it's true. JEREMY DIAMOND, CNN WHITE HOUSE REPORTER: Yes. That's right. And

for a while the president and his campaign couldn't decide whether they want to say the polls were misinterpreted or that they were old or that they were fake or whatever it was, and now, they are finally settling on, OK, they were old but we have new polls now.

And the new polls are issue polls that means they are asking voters leading questions like do you think it's a good idea for undocumented immigrants to get health care. That's one of the polling questions that the campaign manager, Brad Parscale, pointed to in this statement. That obviously doesn't mean the president is winning in the state in which that was polled, because races aren't just about one issue and certainly not one person who's going to frame that issue.

But, again, it gets to the notion about why is the president so adamant about denying why he's losing in these polls. I mean, all we have to do is look at the public polling. In all of these states, that shows the president in hypothetical head-to-head matchups lagging, losing in those rust belts that were so crucial to his 2016 election.

TAPPER: And, Sunlen, I've heard people theorize, smart reporter types, that one of the reasons that these polls keep being mentioned to the press and perhaps, we don't know, one of the reasons why somebody leaked in to ABC News is because these are people who want the president to be reelected, who want -- are trying to get his attention. Hey, watch out, you're in trouble here and maybe trying to get him to change some of his erratic behavior.

SEUNG MIN KIM, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: And also remember that the president is constantly elevating Biden, because he keeps saying that he wants to run against him. We have seen from the early polling in these head to head matchups that he does appear to be the stronger general election candidate. I mean, we almost saw that split screen general election moment earlier this week in Iowa.

And oftentimes if you have a politician of one party weighing in the primary of another, you kind of want to elevate people who you think are weak. But clearly, what we've seen from the numbers, Biden does appear to be very strong against him and Trump keeps pushing it up and making him seem inevitable.

TAPPER: Let's talk about the debates, if we can. Warren tweeted today that she's looking forward to the upcoming Democratic debate. But in response to lineup, Josh Holmes, one of our Republican friends who comes on the show every now and then, tweeted quote: Despite assurances to the contrary, the Dems are, in fact, having a varsity and JV debate. If I were Warren, I'd be hot.

[16:40:01] Now, it was a luck of a draw.

KAREN FINNEY, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: It was.

TAPPER: But it is true that of the four -- of the five frontrunners, four are there the second night and Elizabeth Warren, sadly for her, perhaps, is there the first night.

FINNEY: I think great for her.

TAPPER: Great for her? OK.

FINNEY: Are you kidding me? She's got the first night all to herself. She's probably --

TAPPER: Well, there are nine other candidates.

FINNEY: Yes, yes. I'm just kidding.

Yes, but she will have a strong opportunity to make her case, to talk about all these various policy proposals. I think it will be -- I think for most of these candidates, right, they are all trying to figure out how they're going to use their time. I think most will try to appear presidential and sound like, I've got ideas, I've got plans, it's not just Joe Biden who can beat this guy, right?

And so, for -- if I'm Elizabeth Warren, I would enjoy having that first night without the noise of those other front runners and being able to put forward her ideas.

TAPPER: There's been some criticism of the DNC and the criteria for which they are doing this. In fact, it's been pointed out, Steve Bullock, who is the governor of Montana, the only Democratic governor running from a state that Trump won handily, he did not make the cut off.

Seth Moulton, congressman Democrat from Massachusetts, who has received medals and fought valiantly in Iraq, they didn't make the debate stage. People who others might not know, Andrew Yang, Marianne Williamson, they will be there.

BILL KRISTOL, CONSERVATIVE WRITER: Yes, and people who got 1.2 percent in the polls are making it and people with 0.8 aren't, and everyone knows that's utterly meaningless, honestly. I mean, literally, it's just -- one extra person said in some poll --

TAPPER: Yes, literally.

KRISTOL: -- you know, that he or she was for this candidate.

I actually think Moulton and Bullock have a bit of a chance to say, you know what? We didn't make it, fine. That's the way the cookie crumbles.

But I'm going to do eight town halls the day before or something, you can get more time, much more time to do it in Iowa or New Hampshire, which are states that matter. This is a national primary that we have here in the United States, and I think they can sort of take advantage of this.

I agree with Karen. I think the conventional wisdom of Elizabeth Warren, she has a really opportunity on the first night to frame her key issues. I don't see the other candidates go after Elizabeth Warren the first night. They may go after Sanders to show they are more moderate, or they go after Biden to show he's yesterday's story. I think she has a good shot to continue that she showed in the last month, which is pretty impressive. People are -- we have commented on this show.

TAPPER: Yes.

KRISTOL: But stepping back, if you said three months ago she would be tied with or slightly ahead of Sanders, I think all the early states at this point, it's impressive.

DIAMOND: Well, I think while we're focused very much on the head to head match ups and how that's going to play out on the debate stage, I also think that a lot of these candidates are going to be trying to introduce themselves to the American public.

TAPPER: Yes.

DIAMOND: They may not want to go head to head or spar as much but I guess we'll have to see.

TAPPER: All right. Everyone, stick around.

Coming up, with criminal charges pending against eight officials for the Flint water crisis, suddenly, all of the charges dropped. The investigation botched. A new outrage in the community that's already been victimized.

We're going to talk to the mayor of Flint, Michigan, next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:45:00] TAPPER: To "NATIONAL LEAD" now. The people of Flint, Michigan say they are horrified again. This time it's because prosecutors dropped all criminal charges against the officials who had been accused of being at least partly responsible for their poisoned water.

It's been four years since led tainted water was pumped through Flint, Michigan which has a population just under 100,000. And prosecutors have linked at least 12 deaths to a disease caused by the contaminated water. The long-term health consequences remain unknown.

Eight state and local officials were facing serious charges ranging from involuntary manslaughter to obstruction of justice but the Attorney General's Office says it was all mishandled and they dropped charges over a lack of confidence in the investigation. They have pledged to start over.

The Mayor of Flint Karen Weaver joins me now. Mayor Weaver, thanks for joining us. What was your reaction when you -- when you first learned that the Attorney General was dropping all the charges?

MAYOR KAREN WEAVER (D), FLINT, MICHIGAN: Well, you know, I got a call from the attorney general before that release went out. One of the things they said to me even right after they got into office was they didn't know that they had competence and what had been done and that they thought there may be other evidence that needed to be looked at that had not been introduced and they were making sure that they were able to do that.

One of the things they said was the amount of evidence that was left out and they said millions of documents in over 60 devices that have not been looked at that they felt like a new investigation needed to be done and needed to be reopened.

And I'll tell you what I hope is evidence found will create culpability that people will be more than just charged, that they'll also be convicted. So that's what I'm hoping happens as a result of a new investigation.

TAPPER: The people of Flint Michigan, your constituents, the ones that have had to deal with this for so long, are they hearing your message that this might actually be ultimately good news or are they despondent, are they worried that no one is going to be held accountable for this.

WEAVER: Well, you know, we've always had concerns and wanted people to be held accountable. And that is why I wanted to explain to them because the headline has been that charges have been dropped or dismissed but I really do wish the headline have read that new evidence found creating culpability which could lead to conviction.

Because one of the things we have said is no one has been held accountable for this criminal activity that took place in Flint. You said people have died as a result of this and all charges have been brought. There hasn't got enough evidence to convict anybody. And we know there should be evidence.

And when it said they found the amount of documents that had not been looked at, that's very troublesome to us. And while one of the things I told people as we recognize that the wheels of justice move slowly, but it's like the Attorney General said justice delayed does not mean justice denied. And I'd like them to be able to produce all of these evidence and hold people accountable and get some people convicted for what happened in Flint.

[16:50:37] TAPPER: Well, we sure hope that your positive interpretation of this is what's actually going to happen. Before you go, I just want to ask you, madam mayor, how is the water influence today?

WEAVER: You know, we made a lot of progress with the water. The water test good. We are ahead of schedule. We'll be finished with this service replacement by early fall. But until we get everything we need from the -- from the state government which is new fixtures for people's home, I am advising people to stay on bottled and filtered water until all of those -- to make sure all of the lead out of Flint and that our medical community, our public health, our scientists say they see enough testing and they are ready to sign off.

So I'm taking my lead from the health community and we're going to always put health above profit. And so that's what I'm leaning to. TAPPER: All right, Mayor Karen Weaver, God bless you. God bless the people of Flint. Please stay in touch with us. Help us help you make sure that people are held accountable for all this.

WEAVER: Thank you so much.

TAPPER: Coming up, Sarah Sanders might be leaving but Kellyanne Conway, she's not going anywhere. Why her boss the president is ignoring a recommendation to say you're fired.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:55:00] TAPPER: In our "POLITICS LEAD," President Trump is not going to fire Senior Counselor Kellyanne Conway, at least not now. He's rejecting a recommendation coming from an independent federal government agency to fire her for repeatedly violating the Hatch Act which bans federal employees from playing an active role in a political campaign. The President disagrees saying they are trying to take away Conway's First Amendment right.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I got briefed with it yesterday and it looks to me like they're trying to take away her right a free speech and that's just not fair.

No, I'm not going to fire her. I think she's a terrific person.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: Bill, is that what's happening? Is this about free speech?

KRISTOL: No, I was in the White House and you're covered by the Hatch Act and you get briefed on it, and then she violated it apparently. It was cautioned and then continued to violate. But Trump has an interest in not holding people accountable for violating various ethical norms.

TAPPER: The Office of Special Counsel specifically said that Conway violated the Hatch Act twice, both times from the White House lawn. She weighed in on the Alabama special election and why vote should not choose the Democrat Doug Jones.

Between those two times, she was reminded of the Hatch Act restrictions and then she did it again which is why the agency recommended her firing. Here she is just a few weeks ago.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

KELLYANNE CONWAY, COUNSELOR TO THE PRESIDENT: If you're trying to silence me through the Hatch Act, it's not going to work.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'm not trying to silence you. The office of special counsel said you violated it.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Kellyanne, is -- CONWAY: Let me know when the jail sentence starts.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

DIAMOND: Yes. Let me know when the -- I mean, look, this is a problem with the Hatch Act too. There's no real enforcement mechanism other than OSC recommending to the president a certain action. They've recommended and the president said you know, I don't care.

FINNEY: Well, maybe he should allow Hope Hicks and Don McGahn to use their First Amendment rights to speak to Congress. How about that?

TAPPER: Well, that's a whole different thing.

FINNEY: I know.

TAPPER: But I remember during the Obama years, I think Sebelius the HHS Secretary and Julian Castro who's now running for president, then the HUD Secretary, they both were found in violation of the Hatch Act. As I recall, they both apologized and moved on. But what Conway has done I guess has not apologized but continued to violate it.

SEUNG MIN KIM, WHITE HOUSE REPORTER, WASHINGTON POST: Exactly. And this obviously is by no means the first time that White House officials in this administration had been reprimanded under the Hatch Act. Last year, I believe they were about six White House officials who were reprimanded for using their official Twitter accounts for politicking messages.

Obviously, Kellyanne Conway had been disciplined before and the leader of the Office of Special Counsel told us in an interview that it is unprecedented that we, our office recommend firing someone, does missing someone, but what Kellyanne Conway did is unprecedented.

TAPPER: But there is this flouting of rules as you said. We should know by the way that the President is not covered by the Hatch Act. He's -- he or she is allowed to stay or do whatever they want.

KRISTOL: And people sort of sell what's Hatch Act side reports, but there's a principle behind it that's not (INAUDIBLE). It is taxpayer money, these are government jobs. Government resources shouldn't be used for partisan political campaigns. And that's why you get all these things where the president flies for a campaign appearance, the campaign reimburses.

For some of the cost, it gets complicated and there's a lot of fuzziness but that's a pretty reasonable principle you want to uphold. Government is not the same as partisan politics. It's a principle the Trump administration doesn't believe in.

FINNEY: Well, and again, I mean, just about Don McGahn, but it -- but it does go play to this idea that they sort of pick and choose which laws or rules they decide they want to follow and this idea that he's above the law.

TAPPER: All right, everyone, thank you so much. Have a great weekend. Make sure you tune in to CNN tonight for a special report. Our own Kate Bennett has an inside look at the East Wing and First Lady Melania Trump. That airs at 9:00 p.m. Eastern tonight.

And then of course, be sure to tune in to CNN this Sunday morning for "STATE OF THE UNION." You'll see my entire interview with the Democratic candidate Mayor Pete Buttigieg. Plus, I'll talk to one of his opponents, former Congressman Beto O'Rourke of Texas. That's 9:00 a.m. and noon Eastern on Sunday,

You can follow me on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, wherever the Social Media lies @JAKETAPPER or you can tweet the show @THELEADCNN. Our coverage on CNN continues.

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