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Source: Firings of Pollsters about Pacifying Trump; NYT: Intel Officials Hesitant To Tell Trump about Ramped Up Operations against Russia; Trump Team Fires Pollsters over Leaked Data & Reportedly Hides Details of U.S. Cyber Attacks on Russia from Trump; Ethics Expert: Elaine Chao's Use of Transportation Department for Family Business Is a Violation; Campaign: Buttigieg Canceling Events through Wednesday after Deadly Police Shooting In South Bend, Indiana; Biden Slams Trump for Trying To "Divide the Country". Aired 4-4:30p ET

Aired June 17, 2019 - 16:00   ET


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: -- so much for being here.

JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: How's your Father's Day? I hear Mick Mulvaney got some mercurial.

THE LEAD starts right now.

Queue the golden escalator, President Trump set to kick off his 2020 campaign as a new report warns his own national security aides are afraid to tell him about fighting back against the Russians in cyberspace.

Coming to a boil, Iran now threatening to violate the nuclear deal that President Trump had begin to unravel last year. How close to the brink of confrontation is the United States with Iran?

Plus, the latest Trump cabinet secretary accused of a conflict of interest and she also happens to be the wife of Senator Majority Leader Mitch Mcconnell.

Welcome to THE LEAD, I'm Jake Tapper. We begin with politics lead as President Trump prepares to kick off his 2020 campaign launch with a rally tomorrow in Orlando, Florida. His campaign is simultaneously making some major personnel changes as a nod to the President's difficulty hearing negative news about himself.

The President's re-election efforts have been overshadowed in recent days by some bad internal poll numbers for the President and the cascade of lies about those bad numbers. President Trump again today warning his followers on Twitter, not to believe any, quote, "fake polls" showing him trailing any of the Democrats but the President's definition of fake polls apparently means polls he does not like.

Sources tell CNN the President's been angry for days over the leaking of internal polling data from March showing the President trailing Joe Biden in hypothetical match-ups in key battle ground states. "The New York Times" first reported the existence of this ugly numbers followed by CNN which was then followed by this lie. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF UNITED STATES: They were fake polls that were released by somebody that is -- it is ridiculous. No, we are winning in every single state that we polled.


TAPPER: That is not true. And after various news media obtained the information from the actual internal polling data, the Trump campaign eventually admitted that the polling exists though they called it old and out of context. Yesterday CNN learned three pollsters attached to the Trump campaign were being fired. Now it's unclear if any of those being let go had anything to do with the leaking of the data. One person familiar with the situation says the firing are less about the polls and more about pacifying the President. This is a theme we've seen throughout the President Trump presidency. Officials unsure of how to deal with mercurial boss untethered to facts.

And now "The New York Times" is even reporting that top intelligence and military officials were so worried about the President's reaction to the U.S. government escalating U.S. cyber attacks against Russia, concerned that President might countermand the operation or disclose it to foreign leaders, they hesitated to even tell the President about it in detail even though he is, you know, the commander-in-chief.

CNN's Kaitlan Collins digs into the way staffers are trying to contain and work around President Trump.


TRUMP: You're fired.

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Today President Trump is reviving his old catch phrase and purging his polling team after unflattering internal poll numbers leaked.

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS, ABC NEWS ANCHOR: But even your own polls show you're behind right now, don't they?

TRUMP: No. Might also and I'm winning everywhere.

COLLINS (voice-over): The President is cutting ties with three pollsters including two who were part of his 2016 campaign and another who works for the polling company founded by Kellyanne Conway. The campaign downplayed the polls at the time. But never denied them. Until Trump was infuriated by the coverage.

TRUMP: Nobody showed you those polls, because those polls don't exist here. (INAUDIBLE), just called Brad and I want to ask him that question, OK.

COLLINS (voice-over): The Brad he's referring to is campaign manager Brad Parscale. Sources that the President erupted on several campaign officials after the embarrassing numbers leaked and instructed them to get him new polls. His fixation ramping up in recent days as he tweeted that, "Only the fake polls show us behind the Motley Crew". The President is also firing back at "The New York Times", after it reported that the U.S. is escalating cyber attacks on Russian power grids, as part warning and part preparation. But one of the most stunning details is what the President wasn't told.

According to the "Times" defense and intelligence officials were hesitant to go into detail with him about the move out of fear he might overrule it or tell foreign officials, like he did in 2017 when Trump boasted about classified intelligence in an Oval Office pleating with Russian diplomats.

TRUMP: It's a fantastic --

COLLINS (voice-over): One thing not allowed in the Oval Office -- coughing.

TRUMP: Let's do that over. He's coughing in the middle of my answer. I don't like that.

COLLINS (voice-over): Trump interrupting his interview with ABC News to scold his chief of staff Mick Mulvaney for coughing while he was speaking.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Your chief of staff.

TRUMP: If you're going to cough, please leave the room.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Get a shot from over here.


TRUMP: You just can't --

[16:05:01] UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Sorry, Mr. Trump.

TRUMP: OK. Do you want to do that a little differently then?


COLLINS: Now, Jake, back to those poll numbers, the President and has become so fixated on them in recent days that people familiar with the campaign say that they're lamenting the fact that they simply more focus on containing the leaks than focusing on the President's bad poll numbers and key states, that's something they're hoping to change and the President goes to Orlando, Florida, tomorrow night to officials relaunched his election bid.

TAPPER: All right, Kaitlan Collins at the White House, thanks so much.

Let turn (ph) overall this with our experts and we have a three today, we have conservative columnist George Will joining us, he's out with a brand-new book called "The Conservative Sensibility". Thanks so much for being here George, congratulations on the book. It's a great read, recommended highly.

Let's talk about the President in this situation here where National Security advisers are afraid to tell him about this cyber attack that they're doing against Russia, where pollsters are being let go because of this negative information, what do you make of it all?

GEORGE WILL, AUTHOR, "THE CONSERVATIVE SENSIBILITY": Well, this is the modern presidency when it's occupied by someone who's never occupied any public office at any level before. Which is to say when you treat the presidency as an entry-level office, this is what you get. Someone who -- let's assume he means well, that may be rash. But it is someone who simply is un -- not conversant with the rules of the road. With the common manners of public life and it is chaos.

TAPPER: And presumably, Sara that this -- this data was a leaked, I would think, by somebody on the campaign or whatever who is concerned, who wants President Trump to be reelected and who is trying to convey to him, hey, you're in trouble.

SARA MURRAY, CNN POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Right. Presumably it's someone saying you need to take this seriously, you know, this whole business of running for re-election rather than this business of firing pollsters who aren't actually the ones who control the poll numbers, those would be the people who are responding to the polls.

But, you know, he's been obsessed with his standing in the polls since he first got into the race back in 2015. I don't think it should be a surprise to anyone of that has changed. But I have to imagine it is alarming for the people who is on -- are on his re-election team that he's not taking it seriously. You know, his favorability numbers, his polling numbers, the fact that he's lagging in some of this mid western states that were so important to his victory in 2016, that should be the takeaway from this not coming up with 15 different excuses as to why we should just dismiss all of this polls and why they might have been wrong.

TAPPER: Laura, its classic, Trump that these individuals, these pollsters would be fired on the way to his campaign kickoff when the issue isn't their work or even the leaking, the issue for everybody who supports the President is you're in trouble.

LAURA BARRON-LOPEZ, POLITICAL REPORTER, POLITICO: Right. As opposed to taking responsibility and saying, oh, there may be some alarms going off right now, we're going to address this in the campaign launch. We're going to be playing aggressively in these key states instead Trump decides to fire people who he thinks provide a scapegoat for him.

And also this helps Biden. I mean the fact that Biden looks as though he's way ahead of Trump in Pennsylvania, in these states that Clinton lost. This only helps his entire primary race that he's running against the Democrats.

TAPPER: And sources tell CNN, Paul, that the President has been angry for days about this leaked internal poll numbers showing him losing to Joe Biden in key states, he's telling his Twitter followers not to believe them. But this is a familiar strategy. Take a listen to the President in 2018.


TRUMP: Just stick with us. Don't believe the crap you see from these people, the fake news.

Just remember what you're seeing and what you are reading is not what's happening.


TAPPER: What you're seeing, what you're reading is not what's happening.

PAUL BEGALA, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, that's the first goal of an autocrat, is to destroy truth. So straight out of 1984 literally right, two plus two equals five. And so I think, that's probably more important goal he's got here is try tell his supporters not to believe the facts. And I did come across though in terms of polling and his predictive capacity this far out is a terrible polls for the President.

Trailing in, get this, trailing in Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Michigan, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Wisconsin. That was Barack Obama 11 months before his comfortable re-election. By the way Obama carried 11 of those 12 swing states where he was trailing both Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich only 11 months before the election.

Democrats need to avoid irrational (INAUDIBLE) are these polls, they're useful in some ways but they're absolutely useless in terms of predicting what the outcome is going to be.

TAPPER: George, I want to ask you also regardless of ones feeling about the conspiracy of the deep state, the idea that there would be National Security officials reluctant to go into details about a cyber attack on Russia that the United States is doing because they're worried that he might say call it off or they're worried that he might leak it to the Russians or whatever they're fears are to tell some foreign leaders about it.

I mean frankly, it's not their job to do that? That he's the commander-in-chief. I get that people don't trust him and they feel like he's irrational presumably, but like they -- they weren't elected, he was.

[16:10:04] WILL: He was elected but they're job also, and they've sworn an oath to this, is to defend the country and the constitution. And they have two examples. They have the example of him in Helsinki where he stood in public next to Putin and sided with Putin against his intelligence community. And the meeting with Lavrov and someone else against the Russian ambassador to the United States in the Oval Office where he carelessly --

TAPPER: Is not -- yes.

WILL: Yes, not maliciously, but carelessly revealed an important intelligence secret about an operation in Syria.

TAPPER: You remember when Scaramucci said when during the 10 days that he was communications director, that there are people in the administration who think it's their job to protect the United States from Donald Trump? Remember that?

MURRAY: Of course well that was such a blissful time remember it, Scaramucci.

TAPPER: Those in -- for 10 days.

MURRAY: And how much fun that was. But yes, I think there are people that are not just -- I mean there are people across government who I think feel that that is their duty right now under President Trump and, you know, not necessarily because they're not even on the same party as he is, but just as your talking about, these are career public servants who just feel like he can't be trusted or doesn't understand the gravity of the situation we're in.

I mean that said, the American people elected him and if this gives them so much pause, then elect someone else in 2020.

TAPPER: All right everyone, stick around. We have a lot more to talk about. Tensions escalating with Iran and first they announce an increase in uranium enrichment now one of its ambassadors with a scary prediction, that's next.

Then he was just four months old when he was separated from his father at the U.S.-Mexico border, the heartbreaking story of Constantine.


[16:15:33] TAPPER: In our Money Lead, House Democrats are considering opening an investigation into Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao. New questions are being raised about whether she used her office at the Department of Transportation to in any way help her family's business, a shipping company. She also happens to be Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's wife.

CNN's Drew Griffin is digging into what experts say is a clear-cut ethics violation.


DREW GRIFFIN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao is the Trump administration's top official overseeing shipping in the United States which is exactly the industry that has helped make Elaine Chao rich. Her family's company built by her parents both Chinese immigrants and now run by her sister Angela is a global leader in dry boat shipping and does major business in China which is why Chao's use of the office to put her family and its business on display is raising more than a few eyebrows.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: She has attempted to use and has used government office to help her father and his business. GRIFFIN: In 2017, Elaine Chao used the Department of Transportation as a backdrop for multiple interviews with Chinese and Chinese language media like this one, her father at her side. And showing off the lapel pin he received flying on Air Force One.

ELAINE CHAO, SECRETARY DEPARTMENT OF TRANSPORTATION: Well my father and I traveled on Air Force One. That's always an experience. And I was so pleased that I was able to bring my father on Air Force One with the President.

JAMES S.C. CHAO, ELAINE CHAO'S FATHER: President's spent about seven minutes with me.

GRIFFIN: The Chao family company called the Foremost Group is based in the U.S. but the company builds ships in China, hires workers in China, does much of its shipping to and from China. Elaine Chao's sister Angela sits on the board of the state-run Bank of Chinas and even though there is no evidence, Elaine Chao used her office to influence government policy to benefit her family's business she has repeatedly traveled to China for major company events.

Several Chinese government and business experts tell CNN her relationship to her family sends a message intended or not. Chinese expert Robert Lawrence Cune says though there has been a recent crack down on corruption in China, personal relationships remain very important.

ROBERT LAWRENCE KUHN, CHINESE EXPERT: To understand the relationship between business and government in China is a story of Chinese culture going back for a long period of time and indeed in recent times as well. And the perception is that if you are seen in the company of powerful people or relatives of powerful people within China, that is good for your business relationships.

GRIFFIN: A spokesperson for Elaine Chao is quick to point out the Transportation Secretary has no official connection to the Foremost Group but the Foremost Group has certainly helped make her rich. Chao and her husband Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell received between $5 and $25 million in gifts from Chao's parents according to 2008 Senate Financial disclosures. Catapulting McConnell to becoming one of the richest members in the Senate.

Elaine Chao's extended family has donated more than a million dollars to McConnell's political pursuits. And Elaine Chao could inherit even more wealth as Foremost shipping continues to flourish. Making scenes like this all the more troubling according to law professor and government ethics expert Kathleen Clark. Clark says regardless of the perception in China, this use of office violates U.S. government ethics rules, specifically this one. On endorsing organizations, products or persons.

Executive branch employees may not use their government positions to suggest that the agency or any part of the executive branch endorses organizations, products or people.

KATHLEEN CLARK, LAW PROFESSOR & GOVERNMENT ETHICS EXPERT: It's a clear-cut violation. If Secretary Chao did not violate that regulation under these circumstances, then the regulation means nothing. Then any government official will be able to, you know, endorse any kind of outside enterprise associated with the family member.

GRIFFIN: In or out of public office, visit after visit, it is Elaine Chao who appears to be the Foremost Group's most important unofficial representative in China. She has accompanied her father or sister to more than a dozen events there, often meeting top Chinese officials.

In 2008 when she served as Labor secretary, Chao brought her father on an official visit to meet the Chinese premier. In 2015 she is sitting prominently with a party leader and introduced as the former U.S. Labor secretary.

[16:20:00] According to a Chinese report, the meeting was to promote mutually beneficial cooperation between Foremost Group and Hube Profits.

New watchdog group headed by Democrats is now suing the Department of Transportation for any agency documents that mentioned the Chao family business. Several House Democrats say they are concerned about Chao's use of her office. But for now the Department of Transportation is calling the attacks political and attempt to fabricate a web of old, tired innuendos and baseless inferences reflecting a lack of understanding of the department's responsibilities while demonstrating deep cultural misunderstanding. Chao, the spokesperson says, has done nothing wrong.


GRIFFIN: And, Jake, when asked if the Chinese could interpret Elaine Chao's behavior as an endorsement of the family's business, a spokesperson says we don't speculate on who interprets what in China and then went on to call some of this media attention racist, stating that if her last name was Smith, none of this would raise a question. Jake?

TAPPER: Drew Griffin, thanks so much.

Coming up, why Mayor Pete Buttigieg is off the 2020 campaign trail today and back in South Bend, Indiana?


[16:25:48] TAPPER: We're back with our 2020 lead. South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg is off the presidential campaign trail today, cancelling his events so he could go home to South Bend to deal with a police-involved shooting. Buttigieg meeting with city leaders and members of the community today and acknowledging his quick return was guided by criticisms in a small part over how he handled similar shootings in the past. CNN's Vanessa Yurkevich is in South Bend, Indiana for us.

And, Vanessa, you just spoke with the staff of the Buttigieg campaign. You have some breaking news. What are you learning? VANESSA YURKEVICH, CNN BUSINESS &POLITICS REPORTER: Yes, that's right. Hi, Jake. We are just learning that the Mayor has now canceled all campaign-related events through Wednesday on the heels of this fatal police-involved shooting. That includes a speech he was scheduled to give tonight in New York that includes two big fundraisers scheduled Tuesday and Wednesday in California. And that also includes a policy rollout that he was scheduled to deliver as well.

And as you mentioned, this comes on the heels of a police-involved shooting on the street just behind me where there was a death of one man, a South Bend resident. The victim has been identified as Eric Jack Logan. And the Mayor traveled here to South Bend yesterday afternoon and he held a press conference at 10:00 p.m. last night. He said he wanted to make sure he spoke to the community early, something he says he's failed to do in the past.


MAYOR PETE BUTTIGIEG (D-IN) PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: We've had prior cases of use of force incidents and officer-involved shootings where I hesitated, frankly, to get in front of cameras because we didn't know very much and it was out of our hands. But what I learned, what I was told by people in the community, is that it is important to open channels of communication to try to be clear on where the city is even if we don't find ourselves in the position to be able to say or do much right away.


YURKEVICH: A candlelight vigil is scheduled for the victim this evening at 8:00 p.m. the Mayor is not expected to be attending that. But, Jake, as of right now, the Mayor will attend the Clyburn Fish Fry this weekend in South Carolina. That is the event where all 22 candidates for the Democratic nomination are scheduled to meet this weekend. Jake.

TAPPER: All right, Vanessa Yurkevich in South Bend, Indiana, thank you so much.

Let's chew over this with our panel of experts. Paul, I guess it's an opportunity for the Mayor to show him doing his job, being a mayor.

BEGALA: Right. Earlier in the broadcast, George talked about how it's useful to have experience. In South Bend, Indiana, smaller population than the University of Texas home football game, but an interesting and important complicated city and this is an example now he'll have to show real leadership. I was instructed in the interview though where he did something unimaginable in today's White House. He said, I got it wrong before. And now I've learned from my citizens and I'm going to get it right this time. That's a candor that I find very appealing.

TAPPER: South Bend, we should point out, is, I think, it's the fourth largest city in Indiana. It's not a metropolis.

BEGALA: About 100,000 people.

TAPPER: Hundred thousand people.

BEGALA: Just a little fewer than a home game for the Longhorns.

TAPPER: It's pretty small.

BARRON-LOPEZ: Yes. Others running like Cory Booker have actually managed far bigger cities. But I thought that it was interesting what Buttigieg said. Like you mentioned, Paul, which is that, look, I'm learning from my mistakes and this is a big opportunity for him given a fact that criminal justice reform and police brutality have been a big issue in the primary and this is a way for him to say, look, I'm going to tackle this head on and be as transparent as possible.

WILL: Well, it's strange to have a presidential candidate who actually has a job. Nixon in '68 had the advantage of being unemployed, Reagan in '76 and again in '80. No senator has a job that detains them in any serious way. So this -- he'll stand out as someone who isn't entirely given over to the next job.

TAPPER: Meanwhile there is this forum going on with all these 2020 candidates today and, Sara, Vice President Biden spoke at this forum. He's attacking President Trump in pretty sharp ways. Take a listen.


JOE BIDEN (D) PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: We got to stop letting these guys use the divisions that exist in the country as a mean like charlatans always do to divide the country. It's used by charlatans all of the time and we have a guy in the White House who turned it into an art form.