Return to Transcripts main page

THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER

Patrick Shanahan Withdraws as Defense Secretary Nominee; President Trump Kicks Off 2020 Reelection Campaign. Aired 4-4:30p ET

Aired June 18, 2019 - 16:00   ET

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


[16:00:00]

ALEX MARQUARDT, CNN ANCHOR: He may answer questions from reporters on his way out of Washington, as he so often does. If so, we will bring that to you live.

And that will do it for me. I'm Alex Marquardt.

"THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER" starts right now.

JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: Iran, North Korea, Afghanistan, Syria, not a good time to not have a secretary of defense.

THE LEAD starts right now.

Breaking news, a shocking shakeup at the Pentagon, as President Trump heads to Orlando right now to kick off his 2020 reelection campaign, a surprising story emerging surrounding why Patrick Shanahan is no longer in the running for the job.

Not Trump. The hometown paper in Orlando says President Trump would have to cure cancer for them to even consider backing him. The author of the editorial will join us.

Plus, images of guns, threats that a storm is coming, the social media posts of the man who tried to shoot up a federal building in Dallas and how he may fit a new frightening pattern.

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

TAPPER: Welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

We begin with some breaking news today. Any moment, President Trump is going to be departing the White House and heading to his official reelection campaign launch in Orlando, Florida. But he will be leaving behind some upheaval here in Washington.

This afternoon, the president announced his acting secretary of defense, Patrick Shanahan, is pulling out of the Senate confirmation Congress process to become the official secretary of defense. Shanahan's final day at the Pentagon will be Friday.

It's yet another example of the quite turbulent Trump administration eclipsing what campaign advisers had hoped would be a blemish- and drama-free day for the president.

The withdrawal following reports of Shanahan's combative divorce. His ex-wife, Kimberly, had been arrested and charged with assault for a 2010 incident that left Shanahan with a black eye and bloody nose. Those charges were dropped, but Shanahan was also accused of hitting his now ex-wife in the stomach during the incident, an act he vehemently denies.

Patrick Shanahan said in a statement today -- quote -- "It is unfortunate that such a painful and deeply personal family situation from long ago is being dredged up and painted in an incomplete and therefore misleading way."

Shanahan's son called his father a source of stability. His daughter said she never saw him raise a hand against their mother. In a "Washington Post" interview published this afternoon, Shanahan talked at length about that incident, as well as another act of family violence in 2011, when Shanahan's then 17-year-old son beat his own mother, Shanahan's now ex-wife.

Shanahan at the time wrote a defense of his son -- quote -- "Use of a baseball bat in self-defense will likely be viewed as an imbalance of force. However, Will's mother harassed him for nearly three hours before the incident" -- unquote.

It's a statement that Shanahan today disavows. Needless to say, all of this news is sending shockwaves throughout the Trump administration, on Capitol Hill and beyond.

CNN's Barbara Starr is at the Pentagon for us.

But let's start with CNN's Kaitlan Collins, who is in Orlando ahead of the president's rally, Orlando, of course, a crucial swing part of a vital battleground state, where supporters of the president's have been lined up for hours, even overnight, for this evening's festivities.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Our friend Shanahan is a good man, and he's done a great job. And he's a good buyer.

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): President Trump announcing his pick to lead the Pentagon will withdraw before he's even been formally nominated, writing on Twitter that: "Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan, who has done a wonderful job, has decided not to go forward with his confirmation process, so that he can devote more time to his family."

Trump said he will name Army Secretary Mark Esper as the new acting defense secretary, but declined to say whether that would become permanent. Shanahan is the former Boeing executive who had been running the Defense Department since James Mattis resigned in protest in December, but only in an acting capacity, until Trump announced last month he would make things official.

But the paperwork was never filed, raising eyebrows inside the White House about why.

PATRICK SHANAHAN, ACTING U.S. DEFENSE SECRETARY: I can't tell you how long the process is supposed to work.

COLLINS: Now CNN has learned his resignation came amid details of a contentious divorce, including an allegation from Shanahan's ex-wife that he hit her during a dispute nine years ago, an allegation Shanahan has denied. His ex-wife was arrested and charged with assault, but those charges were later dropped.

In a statement today, Shanahan said he was resigning to protect his children, writing: "I would welcome the opportunity to be secretary of defense, but not at the expense of being a good father."

The sudden withdrawal leaves the Pentagon without a permanent leader amid escalating tensions with Iran.

MIKE POMPEO, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: President Trump has said very clearly he doesn't want to go to war.

COLLINS: The drama also coming as the president heads to Orlando, Florida, to launch his reelection bid in front of 20,000 people.

TRUMP: We will make America great again.

COLLINS: He's held more than 50 rallies while in office and filed his reelection paperwork the day he was inaugurated.

[16:05:03]

But the campaign says tonight's rally will make things official. It comes amid rising tensions in the president's campaign, after leaked internal polls showed Trump trailing Joe Biden in critical states like Florida, polls the president has denied even exist.

TRUMP: Nobody showed you those polls, because those polls don't exist, George.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

COLLINS: Now, Jake, the president is speaking to reporters as he heads here to Orlando tonight for this rally. He's talking about Pat Shanahan, calling him a wonderful guy, saying that he's going through a difficult time.

And, Jake, he makes sure to point out that he did not ask Patrick Shanahan to withdrawal. And he said -- quote -- "I heard about it yesterday for the first time. It's very unfortunate."

He said they have a great vetting process, but, Jake, we should note that our sources did tell us the White House was generally aware of the rumors surrounding Patrick Shanahan, but not about the details.

TAPPER: All right, Kaitlan Collins with the president in Orlando, Florida.

Let's go to CNN's Barbara Starr at the Pentagon.

And, Barbara, reports are, as we have been discussing, that acting Secretary Shanahan's FBI background check was holding up his confirmation hearing. Do we know that that had any sort of impact on pushing the confirmation hearing, which I think had been scheduled for close to the end of July?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, we do know that these questions were coming up. Sources have told us that the questions were being raised about his personal life, about his marriage, his ex-wife, what had happened there and what had happened with his three children, and that they were answering those questions.

I don't think we have a full picture yet of what the FBI may have known, who they exactly spoke to and what they found out.

But what is clear is the paperwork wasn't getting filed and this was a nomination that was dragging on, Jake.

TAPPER: And, of course, he had been acting secretary of defense for something like seven months. This is the longest the Pentagon has gone without a confirmed secretary of defense, I believe.

And all of this comes as the U.S. is involved in any number of military involvements, but also right now the showdown with Iran.

STARR: Well, and this is what Mark Esper, the new acting secretary, will face on Friday when he takes office.

Esper has been in charge of the Army. That means it is a very important, but not necessarily highest level of national security classification information that he's been handling. He's involved in training and equipping the Army.

Now Mark Esper, starting perhaps as soon as today, has to get briefed up on everything from nuclear command-and-control procedures to how to send SEAL Team Six into combat, if it were to come to that, and those threats, what is the latest of the highest level security information about Iran, Russia, China, North Korea.

Esper will now have to get a series of immediate briefings and be ready on Friday, when he takes command at the Pentagon, Jake.

TAPPER: All right, Barbara Starr at the Pentagon.

And we should note that we don't even know if Esper is going to be formally nominated for the job or if he will be another yet acting secretary, as we have had for seven months.

Jeff, let me start with you.

Shanahan has been the acting secretary since January 1. This really does say something about not only the turnover of the Trump administration, the lack of vetting by the Trump administration, but also just how many acting secretaries he has. JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: So many acting

secretaries in such serious positions. All Cabinet positions are serious.

But this is the defense secretary. And, as you said, look at all the hot spots, things happening around the world. But what is so astonishing about this is that he was confirmed already as the deputy secretary. So this didn't come up then. But he had to know that this was going to be revealed.

So why he didn't resign after Secretary Mattis stepped down is totally baffling to me. But the president knew about this, didn't know it was going to be as big of a deal. But the president, we're told, reached out to senators on Capitol Hill shortly before this was announced and he said it was time to withdraw.

So, look, he was not going to be confirmed, so I guess -- my guess is this is the appropriate course of action. But why did it reach this point mid-June, when this could have been resolved six months ago?

TAPPER: Yes. And I'm told that President Trump on his way to Marine one, on his way to Orlando just said that he will most likely nominate Army Secretary Mark Esper to fill the role, although who knows.

Phil, you have been through the confirmation process. Shanahan was confirmed by the Senate, as Jeff just pointed out, to serve as the deputy secretary of defense in 2017. Would this not have come up then? A lot of media were chasing this story and it had popped up because there were police reports of both incidents.

PHILIP MUDD, CNN COUNTERTERRORISM ANALYST: Sure.

But let's make sure we distinguish between what came up in the security process and what could prevent you politically from going through a nomination process on the Hill.

By the way, I withdrew my nomination in 2009. I had a top-secret clearance. It was because I was going to be embarrassed by a Senate committee. I said, no, I'm out.

This is about a clearance process that looks at things like drug use, alcohol use, use or abuse, things like extreme debt. A lot of people have a lot of credit card debt. Somebody might have seen the police report, saying, I disagree that he should step away. It looks like he might have been a victim. We don't know.

[16:10:08]

Why would you step away if there is private information suggesting you had a former spouse who did that? And now you transition from a security process to a political process, where people say, I don't care if you get a police.

ZELENY: But the police in Sarasota, Florida, according "The Washington Post" report, said that he impeded an investigation, if that report is true. So I mean, I think this is all much more complicated than we know.

MUDD: Yes. And just one final comment.

There's also a difference between saying, did they know about the report and was he truthful in saying, this is what happened at the time? If you're not truthful, drug use, alcohol abuse, even if it's something that can be explained, the lack of candor will really hurt you.

TAPPER: And just to clarify, what you're talking about is the violent incidents allegedly by his son, him coming in and not helping investigators. He's accused of not helping investigators with that investigation.

We should also point out, just for fairness' sake, that all three of the children are siding with their father and estranged from the mother, for whatever that is worth. It's very uncomfortable talking about this sort of thing, Karen.

KAREN FINNEY, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: It's just very surprising, though, again, in a vetting process, for a much lower role, the conversations that I have had with candidates, where you sit down and you say, this is the kind of thing that will come out. What are we going to say?

And so it's just very surprising. And it does say something about the nature of the way vetting may be happening or not happening in the Trump administration, that they were surprised by this, if it didn't come up before, or didn't see that this could be a problem.

I think that's what I find so surprising.

TAPPER: What is your reaction to all this, Amanda?

AMANDA CARPENTER, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: I mean, obviously, the personal stuff is very messy here. But the professional side of this job is not a cakewalk.

There was a big story over the weekend in "The New York Times" that Congress had passed rules to allow the defense secretary to take secret cyber-action against Russia. That certainly would have been part of the confirmation process. That certainly would have led to tough talks with President Trump.

So I think a reasonable person can say, listen, maybe he's innocent, but this certainly would have ruined the lives of their kids in a very public way. Do you want to go through that process for a person that's going to pummel you in public life too? No.

TAPPER: That's interesting.

And we also heard this from my Democratic Senator Richard Blumenthal. He's on the Armed Services Committee. He's questioning how this hadn't come out before. Take a listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. RICHARD BLUMENTHAL (D-CT): There was possibly a deliberate concealment here. I think there ought to be an investigation by the I.G. in the Department of Defense.

There is absolutely no reason for the failure to disclose to the Armed Services Committee, as a part of our process, that there was something in this nominee's past.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: Phil, you're looking skeptical.

MUDD: Time-out. We have somebody personal's life at stake here about an incident that happened years ago with few facts.

Before we impugn somebody's reputation, it'd be nice if people on the Hill could say, we will get a fact or two. Unsurprising we have a Democrat taking a shot at Republican nominee. I would argue this is nonpartisan. A man had a family issue. Let's check on it before we go attack him.

I don't think we know what happened here yet.

CARPENTER: Well, I just -- I think the issue that they're suggesting he hid this. This was in police reports. That's how we found out about it.

And so I don't think that's totally fair by Blumenthal.

TAPPER: All right, everyone, stick around. We have more to talk about.

President Trump is not getting a warm welcome from every corner of Orlando, Florida. The editorial board of the city's largest newspaper just issued a stunning endorsement, using phrases such as assault on the truth and no capacity for empathy or remorse.

We're going to talk to the paper's opinion editor, who wrote that editorial, next.

Then, it looks as though convicted former Trump campaign chair Paul Manafort will be spared a visit to one of America's most notorious prisons.

Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:17:45] TAPPER: In our 2020 lead, the doors are now open for President Trump's re-election campaign launch event in Orlando. But before he takes the stage, the editorial board of the largest newspaper just made an endorsement for 2020 and their endorsement is, quote, not President Trump.

"The Orlando Sentinel" writing, quote, enough of the chaos, the division, the schoolyard insults, the self-aggrandizement, the corruption and especially the lies, unquote. "The Sentinel" has historically supported Republicans, though in the last 20 years, they've endorsed Bush in 2000, Kerry in 2004, Obama in 2008, Romney 2012, Clinton last time. So, three of the last five were Democrats.

Joining me now is one of the authors of the piece and the opinion editor for "The Orlando Sentinel", Mike Lafferty.

Mike, thanks so much for joining us.

Why write this article now so many months, more than a year before the presidential election?

MIKE LAFFERTY, OPINION EDITOR, ORLANDO SENTINEL: Well, you know, Jake, when we first heard the president was coming to town, we started talking about what we as the editorial board could do to mark that. And when we then found out that he was going to use this as a time to relaunch his campaign, we thought this was as good a time as in to just go ahead and say what had been on our mind for a while, which is that we would not be able to endorse him for another term.

TAPPER: The new Quinnipiac poll that came out just a couple of hours ago shows that 54 percent of Florida voters say they are better off financially now than they were in 2016. Might that not be enough for the voters of your state, which went for Trump last time even if Orlando and Orange County did not?

LAFFERTY: Oh, sure, it could be. You know, I'm not really in the business of prognosticating. You know, what we wanted to do was lay down what we thought were important points to make about the president and about his -- about the economy.

And we acknowledge the economy is doing well. And in many respects it is. Of course, some of that is a continuation of some positive economic news that had been already taking place in the Obama administration. So, yes, we acknowledge that. I don't know how much it will mean to voters next year.

TAPPER: And you note in the article, quote, this non-endorsement isn't defaulting to whomever the Democrats choose.

[16:20:07] I guess that you -- the editorial board there kind of is center left in a way. I'm just looking at the last few years full of endorsements. Are you concerned that the Democratic Party might go too far to the left and you don't endorse at all?

LAFFERTY: You know, the editorial board has a long history of "The Sentinel" of being pretty conservative fiscally. That is the reason, really, that we endorsed Mitt Romney in 2012. So, yes, we are kind of concerned that the financial business of the United States might not get enough attention from the Democratic nominee.

Now, I'll tell you, in 1980 when Ronald Reagan ran against Jimmy Carter, we didn't endorse. That is always an option. That is something we might decide to do depending on who the Democratic candidate is. TAPPER: All right. Michael Lafferty from the "Orlando Sentinel,"

thank you so much for joining us. We appreciate it.

LAFFERTY: You're welcome.

TAPPER: So let's chew over this. When asked why now, they said in the editorial because there is no point pretending we would ever recommend that readers vote for Trump. We should point out that of the nation's biggest papers in 2016, Hillary Clinton got 57 endorsements, Donald Trump got two and ultimately Hillary Clinton is not in the White House.

Does it matter?

JOHN AVLON, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: I think the newspaper endorsements don't have the punch they used to and the pull among the readers in terms of driving perhaps ultimate decisions. But this was a barnburner editorial. I mean, this is sort of an instant classic in terms of laying out a real argument rooted in stats and facts, as well as moral and ethical concerns.

And so, I think, you know, the fact they are coming out early on the day, you know, that Trump will announce in their home city, it is significant. This is one that is going to I think frame a lot of arguments for Democrats going forward.

FINNEY: I think I also -- sorry. I think the words to your point -- it is what people are feeling. I mean, remember in 2018, we heard those white college educated suburban women talking about the meanness of Donald Trump. So, some of the arguments they make and the lying, people are tired of that.

And so I think part of what made it so powerful is it is what people are feeling. And, you know, to the economy --

TAPPER: Didn't voters you are talking about vote for Donald Trump?

FINNEY: Barely.

TAPPER: OK.

FINNEY: I mean, he won the state barely.

TAPPER: Yes, I'm just saying. They still voted for him.

FINNEY: They didn't in 2018. They didn't in 2018. So we had such a record turnout and we ended up with a different Congress.

ZELENY: I would say Florida wasn't -- was one of the shining Republican examples of what happened in 2018. They won the governor seat, they won the Senate seat.

So, for all of the talk now of the polls, for all the talk of these blistering editorials, the reality is Florida is going to be as close as ever, as it ahs been since we've been covering politics, it may very well frustrate Democrats. The state of Florida has changed, demographically it changed. It's never lived up to all these new Puerto Rico voters to vote Democratic.

So the burden is on Democrats to win the state. Obviously, President Trump has to win this state. He cannot get to the White House without it.

Democrats don't need it. And they may not get it.

TAPPER: While we're talking about Florida, let me go to you with the new poll numbers from the Quinnipiac poll of Florida voters with a plus or minus 3.3 percent margin of error shows Trump losing, whether you believe it or not, to any number of hypothetical match-ups. He loses against Joe Biden, he loses against Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, Beto O'Rourke, South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg.

But again, if you factor in the margin of error, the only one who is actually ahead, if you put in the 6.6 percent, or 3.3 percent from each side, is Joe Biden.

CARPENTER: We'll see what happens when Joe Biden gets on the ground. I've been watching him very closely. I don't think he's had a good outing since he's announced for president. He does very well and he's disciplined when he's not competing. But he got wrapped around the axle about the Hyde Amendment and people didn't find that too convincing.

And when you look at Florida, it is so tight. Maybe a newspaper editorial will not do it but it is a 1 percent state and now it is a less than 1 percent state. Yes, Governor DeSantis, Senator Rick Scott did win and it is less than 1 percent.

And then when you look at Michigan where Democrats have been on the March and Wisconsin where Republicans have lost their edge -- man, this is going to be very tight in all of the battleground states.

AVLON: Sure. But Florida is particularly key here, right, because what we saw in 2018 is the shy Trump voter. DeSantis trailing a lot of polls, and then pulls it out fairly convincingly on election day. Same thing happened if you look at the arc of the polls over the course of 2016, Trump really pulls it out in the last couple of days. Number of factors there.

So, the demographic changes haven't helped necessarily Democrats the way they thought. But the aging population may be something that Joe Biden is able to translate. He's a reassuring figure. I mean, you don't want to campaign on return to normalcy but that is basically the argument in some ways the "Orlando Sentinel" article.

[16:25:03] TAPPER: And we should point out also that in the gubernatorial race, the Quinnipiac poll had the Democrat Andrew Gillum winning by seven points, and he lost by something like one.

AVLON: Yes.

FINNEY: Now, I mean, look, it's going to be -- it is all about turnout, right? And that is why you have a number of efforts on the Democratic side in Florida looking specifically at registration --

AVLON: Led by Gillum doing it.

FINNEY: Led by Andrew Gillum and another effort there as well, because in all of the key states, it is going to be a game of inches to quote from one of my favorite films, because it is going to be about making sure you find your voters, you register your voters and you turn them out.

And again, in Florida, the other thing I want to mention that I thought was interesting in this poll, it's not surprising to me that people continue to say they feel better about the economy and yet they don't feel good about Trump. We forget that, you know, the 2008 crash is not that far behind us. And for a lot of voters, they still feel anxiety a lot of anxiety as to whether or not it will last.

We saw that in 2016 and I heard it many times over in 2018. And when you have such an erratic human being coming to your state as your president, that does not give you the sense of -- talking about tariffs, that doesn't give you comfort that your economy will stay stable.

ZELENY: I mean, Florida is basically President Trump's home state. He spent more time in Florida than any other state. He's at Mar-a- Lago. He has property there. So, that fits him pretty well.

If Joe Biden or whichever Democrat was to pick their first rally, likely would be in Florida. Democrats are looking at Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania. That is where the real trouble for the president is, probably not in Florida.

AVLON: But let's acknowledge the obvious, too. He's campaigning, he's launching in Orlando for a reason, right there in the heart of the I-4 corridor. He lost Orange County last time around, but, you know, he picked up in the Hillsborough-Pinellas split. He really was able to made inroads against where Democrats --

TAPPER: And the Panhandle in North Florida.

AVLON: Exactly right.

TAPPER: Everyone, stick around.

Quote: I don't believe the polls.

Who said it? President Trump or Joe Biden?

Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:30:00]