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THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER

Interview With Jay Sekulow; Democrats Set to Debate; Mueller Set to Testify Publicly; Border Crisis. Aired 4-4:30p ET

Aired June 26, 2019 - 16:00   ET

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


[16:00:08]

BROOKE BALDWIN, CNN ANCHOR: And that is it for me. Quick check of the Dow.

I'm Brooke Baldwin. Thanks for being here.

"THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER" starts now.

JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: OK, lawmakers, you have a good 21 days to actually read the Mueller report before he testifies.

THE LEAD starts right now.

The main event. Robert Mueller now set to testify before Congress and the American people. President Trump spent much of the day lashing out, but will he try to block Mueller from testifying? The president's lawyer is here to tell us.

The harrowing, heartbreaking photo of a desperate father and his daughter who risked it all to try it get across the border into the United States. Today, how this image is shining a light on the border crisis, but still not stopping the gridlock in Washington to solve it.

Plus, it all could change tonight. We're just hours away from the first Democratic debate of the 2020 presidential race, with Senator Elizabeth Warren coming in hot and with a target on her podium.

Welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

We begin today with the politics lead -- quote -- "Does it ever stop?"

That question coming from President Trump after finding out that special counsel Robert Mueller is being forced by Congress to testify publicly on July 17 in what may be the most anticipated testimony of the Trump presidency so far.

Mueller will answer questions from members of the House Judiciary and Intelligence committees, after being slapped with a subpoena. Now, Mueller made clear, in his view, his 448-page report was his official statement and the only one he wants to give. But House Democrats are eager to question the special counsel about the evidence he uncovered and whether he would have charged the president with obstruction of justice but for Justice Department precedent that a sitting president cannot be indicted.

Republicans, of course, are planning to hammer Mueller on the origins of the investigation and raise concerns about the probe's integrity.

CNN's Sara Murray kicks off our coverage now on what is sure to be must-see TV.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The Mueller thing never stops.

SARA MURRAY, CNN NATIONAL POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): President Trump railing against congressional Democrats this afternoon after learning Robert Mueller will testify publicly for the first time since he started investigating the president and Russian election interference.

TRUMP: How many times do we have to hear it? It never ends. It just keeps going on and on. At what point does it end? It is a disgrace.

MURRAY: Mueller set to appear July 17 before the House Judiciary and Intelligence committees. Democrats subpoenaed the special counsel, who hoped to avoid testifying publicly.

ROBERT MUELLER, RUSSIA PROBE SPECIAL COUNSEL: I hope and expect this to be the only time that I will speak to you in this manner.

MURRAY: Mueller's appearance comes at a pivotal moment, a Democrats weigh whether to dive into divisive impeachment proceedings. Either way, Democrats say Mueller's appearance will help Americans better understand his report.

REP. JERROLD NADLER (D-NY): Well, he will be a very compelling witness.

But they're already managing expectations.

REP. ADAM SCHIFF (D-CA): Certainly, the outlines of what he's going to talk about are in the report, so many Americans haven't read the report, but, again, I think we should be realistic about our expectations.

MURRAY: The committees are expected to question Mueller in back-to- back hearings, followed by a closed-door session with the House Intelligence Committee and Mueller's staff to focus on the counterintelligence issues.

Mueller's report concluded there was not enough evidence to charge members of the Trump campaign with conspiring with Russians. He left open the question of whether Trump obstructed justice, writing: "If we had confidence that the president clearly did not commit obstruction of justice, we would so state."

MUELLER: Any testimony from this office would not go beyond our report. We chose those words carefully and the work speaks for itself. And the report is my testimony.

MURRAY: Republicans are jumping at the chance to question especial counsel's conclusions.

REP. MARK MEADOWS (R-NC): Bob Mueller be prepared, because I can tell you he will be cross-examined for the first time. And the American people will start to see the flaws in his report.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

MURRAY: Now, Bob Mueller has said he's going to stay within the four corners of the report if he were called to testify, but obviously that will not stop lawmakers from asking whatever they want to, Jake, particularly why Bob Mueller never subpoenaed Donald Trump for an interview and for his testimony, and, as you mentioned, why he declined to bring these obstruction charges if there was enough evidence there to recommend them -- back to you.

TAPPER: All right, Sara Murray, thanks so much.

And joining me now to talk about this is President Trump's personal attorney, Jay Sekulow.

Jay, thanks so much for being here. We appreciate it.

JAY SEKULOW, ATTORNEY FOR PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Hey, thanks for having me, Jake. Thanks.

TAPPER: So, I guess the first question, will the president try to block or limit Mueller's testimony in any form or tell the attorney general, Bob Barr, to do so?

SEKULOW: No, the president turned this over, this issue over to the attorney general. The attorney general said -- Attorney General Barr said it was fine for Bob Mueller to testify. And now he's going to testify.

So I think, look, I mean, what he said, what Bob Mueller said was that his report was his testimony. Now I expect that his testimony will be his report. So, no, there's no -- there's no legal moves that are being made here. Bob Mueller will testify.

[16:05:01]

I'm sure he's going to stick to the -- you know, what's in his report. I don't expect there's going to be a new revelation here. That certainly would be inappropriate. So we will find out when he testifies what he is going to say, but I expect it to the report.

TAPPER: I should -- I think I messed it up.

Bill Barr is who I meant to say. Sorry about that.

(CROSSTALK)

SEKULOW: That is OK. I knew who you were talking about. TAPPER: Yes.

Are you worried at all that Robert Mueller will testify that he did, in fact, intentionally leave it up to Congress to decide whether the president obstructed justice? Is that a concern?

SEKULOW: No.

I'll tell you what it is. If you look at the volume two of the report, of the report, which is the obstruction provision, the whole process is turned upside down.

I think the biggest question Bob Mueller is going to have to ask himself is -- or be asked is, do you really think it is the job of the special counsel to exonerate someone? Because prosecutors don't exonerate. You're presumed innocent until proven guilty or at least until a charge would be brought in a court of law.

Here, he said that wasn't -- he said -- he specifically said, we're not saying the president committed a crime. We're not exonerating him either.

But the job of the special counsel is not to exonerate. I think that where this is conflated -- and I think it was conflated in the report -- it turned the whole burden of proof and our presumption of innocence upside down. And I think that is going to be a big question he is going to have to answer.

TAPPER: Why do you think he did that, he and his staff?

SEKULOW: I don't think they could come to a conclusion that there was, in fact, obstruction of justice.

And he did what -- under the Department of Justice guidelines, if a prosecutor cannot make that determination, which he did not, it then is reviewed by the superiors. Here's, it's the attorney general, the deputy attorney general.

And they said, based on the evidence that Bob Mueller put forward in his report, that there was, in fact, was not obstructive intent, which, of course, would be required for obstruction of justice.

So Bob Mueller will have to explain this report, especially the volume two aspect, because, frankly, I have -- and I have read it multiple times.

And I'm glad you said at the beginning that maybe members of Congress will actually read this report now.

TAPPER: Now.

SEKULOW: The fact of the matter is, it's not a coherent legal argument in volume two. As I said, it turned the burden of proofs upside down. And it was really incorrect as a matter of law.

TAPPER: Has the president read the Mueller report? SEKULOW: The president has said he's reviewed it. I have not had --

I'm not going to discuss conversations I have had with the president or not on this.

I don't know the details of what he's reviewed. I will tell you this. His lawyers have. We have reviewed it thoroughly, more than once. And it doesn't get -- it's not an easier read the second or third time around, to tell you the truth. It's very convoluted. It's very hard to follow.

And I know people are trying to shed a new light on it. But I expect -- Jake, honestly, I expect that Bob Mueller is going to say, here's what I said. I said what I said in report. That's my conclusion.

It was interesting. When he when -- he made his statement back a month ago, he said he thought it would be inappropriate to appear before Congress to respond or to even answer questions from the press.

So now he's in a situation where he's agreed to do it. Fine. We will see what he has to say. I don't expect any real new revelations in any of this. I think we're going to hear more of the same of what's in it. And they did not make a conclusion that ultimately the attorney general, Department of Justice did make.

TAPPER: What if he does go beyond the parameters of the Mueller report? What will you do? Are you anticipating, are you preparing for him to do something like that?

SEKULOW: Well, I mean, we -- look ,you can't run into -- you're not going to run into the proceeding and stop the proceeding. I mean, there's -- we actually -- unlike others, we respect the separation of powers here, and whose job and responsibility is.

But I can't imagine a circumstance where he's going to start extrapolating something that's not in the report. Now, I mean, the issue on the counterintelligence investigation, that's going to be done in closed-door session, so that's completely separate.

But I can't imagine a scenario where he's going to change something, come to a different conclusion after his report has been issued, when he said, my report is my testimony.

So, I just -- it's hard to speculate what that would actually be, I mean, frankly, and I think that's why you're seeing this kind of initial enthusiasm and lowering of expectations 24 hours later.

TAPPER: It seems likely that the Democrats are doing this because most Americans, unlike you and I, most Americans have not read the Mueller report, and they want them to know what's in it.

SEKULOW: Yes.

TAPPER: Do you think that House Democrats will ultimately begin impeachment proceedings? And are you preparing for that?

SEKULOW: I do not think they're going to begin, start impeachment proceedings.

First of all, you got to go back to, what would be the high crime and misdemeanor, I mean, at the outset?

But I think, politically -- look, politically -- and Republicans have this experience. This is a nonstarter. And, look, the Democrats can say whatever they want to say. And that's up to them and within their political caucus to determine what they're going to do.

But to start an impeachment proceeding based on Bob Mueller's report, I think would be a -- and I'm not a political prognosticator here, but I think it would be a political mistake.

Legally, it would be ridiculous. Politically, I think it would be very dangerous.

[16:10:02]

TAPPER: OK. So you don't think they will, but are you preparing for them to do so, just in case there is? Obviously, I think it's a third of the Democratic Caucus in the House is now on record saying they want impeachment proceedings to begin.

You're not preparing?

SEKULOW: We're not. We have no impeachment preparation team in place. So, no, because you just said it.

There is an example. So, one-third of what they would need wants impeachment and two-thirds do not.

TAPPER: Right.

SEKULOW: And, look, you look at some of the key districts involved here, there is a lot of members of the party that -- the Democratic Party that are not going to want impeachment. It doesn't bode well for them on reelection.

Look, Nancy Pelosi is doing what she's doing. She's the majority leader. She's speaker of the House. She's trying to control her caucus the best she can. There is going to be diversity within their caucus. I get that. That is part of the political process.

But I don't see impeachment as a threat at all.

TAPPER: Jay Sekulow, thanks so much for your time. We appreciate your coming here.

SEKULOW: Hey, Jake. Thanks for having me.

TAPPER: A warning now: The images you're about to see are upsetting, a toddler's tiny lifeless arm draped across her father's body, the horrific photo from the border that is raising new questions about the desperation and danger.

Stay with us. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:15:18] TAPPER: We're back with our national lead and the heartbreaking photograph gripping the nation. And fair warning here, what we're about to show you is difficult to look at but we're showing it to you because it illustrates the desperation and the humanitarian crisis at the southern border of the United States.

So, this is Oscar Alberto Martinez and his daughter Angie Valeria. She was just about to turn two, they were fleeing conditions in El Salvador. They drowned in the Rio Grande earlier this week.

CNN's Ed Lavandera now has the story behind this haunting image.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ED LAVANDERA, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): The tiny arm of 23- month-old Angie Valeria still clings to her father Oscar Alberto Martinez as the pair float lifeless on the shore of the Rio Grande. Their long and desperate journey toward a better life cut short at America's edge.

The child's mother Tania (ph) witnessed it all from the Mexican side of the river. She told a local reporter her husband and daughter initially made it across the river. Oscar set their child on the opposite shore and began swimming back for his wife but the toddler jumped in after him. He clung to her as they were swept away in a current, eventually drowning together in his t-shirt.

Back in their home country of El Salvador, Valeria's grandmother weeps for her family.

GRANDMOTHER (through translator): They lived here with me in the same house so they wanted to have their own house and that was what motivated them.

LAVANDERA: The family of three spent some two months in Mexico, eventually joining thousands of other migrants crowding near the U.S. border. They were waiting to ask for asylum from American officials but on Sunday, they risked their life lives for a faster way into the country.

The push of poverty and the pull of promise have led millions to take such chances. Customs and Border Protection often release footage of migrants and young children making the dangerous river crossing into the United States. According to U.S. Border Patrol, 283 migrants died on the south west border with Mexico last year, 283 dead.

It's a number some pay easily forget until an image like this reveals what a humanitarian crisis on the border really looks like.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

LAVANDERA: And, Jake, critics of the Trump administration's crackdown on this asylum policy which limits the number of people who could cross legal ports of entry say this will not remain an isolated incident. They've already seen dozens of people who have had to have been rescued from the Rio Grande over the last few months. In many cases, we've seen border patrol agents jumping into the river to save people from drowning -- Jake.

TAPPER: All right. Ed Lavandera, thank you so much.

President Trump this afternoon was asked how he felt after seeing the photograph. Take a listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I hate it. And I know it could stop immediately if the Democrats change the law. They have to change the laws. And then that father who probably was this wonderful guy, with his daughter, things like that wouldn't happen.

They want to have open borders and open -- open borders mean crime and open borders mean people drowning in the rivers.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: The president blaming the Democrats.

Let's talk about this with our panel.

And, Priscilla, let me start with you because you cover immigration for CNN. That's the president. His basic argument is the Democrats need to change the asylum laws so as to provide disincentive for people fleeing from the Northern Triangle countries, Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador, so they stop coming, so that people don't try to cross the river.

What are the policy implications here? What could have prevented this horrific tragedy?

PRISCILLA ALVAREZ, CNN REPORTER: That's exactly right, Jake.

So the administration wants to see two specific things happen. So, they want to hold families together no detention for a longer period of time. Something that is limited currently and they want to be able to return unaccompanied minors from the Northern Triangle countries back to their countries, something we do with Mexico. These are both nonstarters for Democrats, but it's something the administration has continually urged them to do.

As far as this current situation, what we know about the father and his child is that they were coming here to seek economic opportunity. Now the Trump administration has made it more difficult for asylum- seekers to seek asylum here in the U.S. through some of their policies. But it's difficult to know what exactly would change.

Now, another part of this, because all of this is a multi-layered approach is funding for the Northern Triangle countries, where these migrants are coming from. And that is something that the Trump administration said they're cutting funding to these countries so the conditions they're fleeing from as far as we understand are worsening. JACKIE KUCINICH, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Funding that Trump's own

officials said was working in El Salvador.

TAPPER: Kevin McAleenan, the head of Homeland Security, that's one of his points, is fund these countries, provide them with aid.

[16:20:05] KUCINICH: And actually, from 2017 to 2018, you saw migrants from El Salvador dropped. So, cutting that funding is actually going to exacerbate this problem, and likely drive more people to try -- to try to escape desperate situations that are going on in their home countries.

TAPPER: Scott, what's your take?

SCOTT JENNINGS, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, I think that the way forward here is pretty clear. Both the House and Senate have approved legislation but only one of those bills has a chance to become law and that's the Senate bill.

TAPPER: You're talking about the supplemental $4.5 billion --

JENNINGS: To deal with the humanitarian crisis at the border and right now, the House bill is dead. OK? The president will veto it. It has no chance to become law.

The Senate bill passes a while ago. It got 84 votes. The fact is Mitch McConnell and his team and Chuck Schumer and his team work actually together to get a bill that was palatable to both parties.

And so, I think the way forward for U.S. policy in the short-term is to get on top of the humanitarian crisis. Everybody is outraged and heartbroken by this photo. One way we can stop these heartbreaking images is to get on top of the humanitarian crisis. The Senate bill does it and it's the only one that could become law.

KAREN FINNEY, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: You know, the problem that I have with all of this is this president could stop this right now. Why not call in the Red Cross, Save the Children? Why not ask pediatricians around the country to volunteer a week of their time to go down and help administer aid and care to these children? Why not just call in every kind of resource that you have to deal with the problem that is there right now?

Because in the tragedy of this photograph that we're looking at is that is just one part of this tragedy. Over the weekend, the stories that emerged about the conditions that the children are living in. It doesn't make you a less of a bad ass or tough or mean or whatever he wants to show in terms of his policies if you say, we don't want you to come but we won't let children -- I mean, these children are undergoing permanent damage. We're doing permanent damage to these children. PTSD, anxiety issues, depression issues.

And in many cases, as we know, part of the recklessness of this administration with so many acting this and acting secretary that, is these children are getting lost in the system. We're not able to -- re-connect them with their families. It's shameful on everybody's side and who cares about the stupid bill? Get the help in there now.

TAPPER: Priscilla, where is -- what is the future of first of all this $4.5 billion in humanitarian aid for people at the border, but then beyond that, is there any hope for any sort of larger reform of the immigration system?

ALVAREZ: You know, what the administration would say right now is that this border wall -- or not the border wall but funding for the border is what they need immediately and I think the conditions in the border patrol facilities is an example of that.

These conditions are deteriorating. They are overwhelmed by the crush of migrants arriving every single day. And they would say that is what they need.

Now, as far as where we go moving forward in terms of reform, the administration will continue to push because they're trying to say they want to deter migrants from coming to the border, but Democrats have shown in this moment, especially as they even fight over what should be included in the spending bill, that that's unlikely.

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

Each candidate is getting a few minutes to talk at tonight's Democratic debate. The last-second preps to make sure those minutes are memorable, next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:28:08] TAPPER: In our 2020 lead now, we're just hours away from the crucial first debate of this election cycle.

Here is how the Democratic candidates will be positioned on stage tonight. Starting with New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, Congressman Tim Ryan, former HUD Secretary Julian Castro, Senator Cory Booker, Senator Elizabeth Warren, former Congressman Beto O'Rourke, Senator Amy Klobuchar, Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard, Governor Jay Inslee and former Congressman John Delaney on the first night of the two-night debate event.

CNN's Kyung Lah takes us behind the scenes into their last-minute debate preparations.

(BEGN VIDEOTAPE)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: These are your candidates!

KYUNG LAH, CNN SENIOR NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): The first main event of the 2020 race. Ten Democratic presidential candidates facing off on this stage for the first time, in the center, Elizabeth Warren, the only one of the top five contenders on tonight. She'll be flanked by Cory Booker and Beto O'Rourke.

BETO O'ROURKE (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Well, it's going to be tough, right? We've got 60 seconds to respond to some of the biggest questions that are on the minds of American people right now.

LAH: Warren also practicing drilling down on her plans to short answers.

Amy Klobuchar is preparing by watching the 2016 primary debates marked by unpredictable exchanges.

The ideological divide among Democrats will be front and center. Warren and other progressives on stage may see challenges from moderates like Klobuchar and John Delaney.

JOHN DELANEY (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Medicare-for-All may sound good, but it's actually not good policy, nor is it good politics. I'm telling you. I'm telling you.

LAH: Julian Castro and O'Rourke both are campaigning on immigration reform. Back in the spotlight after the disturbing image of the father and his daughter who drowned trying to cross the Mexico U.S. border.

SEN. AMY KLOBUCHAR (D-MN), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: This president has put us into this situation.

LAH: Klobuchar and Warren traveled south of the debate site today --

[16:30:00]