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THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER

McConnell Challenger; Trump Defends Labor Secretary Over Epstein Case. Aired 4-4:30p ET

Aired July 9, 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]

BROOKE BALDWIN, CNN ANCHOR: Caitlin Dickerson with "The New York Times," nice to have you back.

CAITLIN DICKERSON, "THE NEW YORK TIMES": Thank you.

BALDWIN: I'm Brooke Baldwin. Thank you for being with me. We will see you tomorrow.

In the meantime, "THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER" starts right now.

JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: President Trump says he feels bad for his Cabinet secretary who cut that controversial plea deal for the accused child rapist.

THE LEAD starts right now.

President Trump today standing by his labor secretary, as Democratic leaders call for him to fire Alex Acosta for allowing a rich accused trafficker of children to escape severe punishment a decade ago.

She's a veteran fighter pilot who is setting her sights on the Senate majority leader. We will ask Lieutenant Colonel Amy McGrath why she thinks she has the right stuff to stop one of the most powerful Senate position in the world in a very red Trump state.

Plus, well, that is an interesting way to rebut the accusation you're insecure. President Trump slinging more insults at the U.K. ambassador after leaked cables show the ambassador trashed Trump privately. Now the war of words is having some real-world effects.

Welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

We begin with the politics lead today.

Despite a growing chorus of Democratic voices calling for Alexander Acosta's resignation today, President Trump is standing by him, calling him an excellent labor secretary. The president adding he -- quote -- "feels very badly" for Acosta.

Acosta is under increased scrutiny for having cut as U.S. attorney in 2008 what critics are calling a sweetheart deal for the politically corrected multimillionaire Jeffrey Epstein formally charged this week with operating a sex trafficking ring involving minors.

Prosecutors painting a vile picture of Epstein operating a network in which he sexually exploited and abused dozens of underage girls, using some of those girls to recruit others for himself and his friends.

A judge ruled in February of this year that Acosta violated federal law by keeping the 2008 plea deal secret from Epstein's victims. An award-winning "Miami Herald" story noted that -- quote -- "Acosta allowed Epstein's lawyers unusual freedoms in dictating the terms of the non-prosecution agreement."

And now federal prosecutors in New York are charging Epstein, a move that Acosta, trying to save his job, applauded today on Twitter.

But as CNN's Kaitlan Collins reports for us now, President Trump after calling Epstein terrific in 2002 today said that he and Epstein had had a falling out and that he's not a fan.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: He's done a fantastic job.

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): President Trump coming to his labor secretary's defense today.

TRUMP: I feel very badly actually for Secretary Acosta.

COLLINS: Praising Alex Acosta amid growing calls for him to resign over the role he played as a federal prosecutor 11 years ago in overseeing Jeffrey Epstein's lenient plea deal, a role Trump downplayed in the Oval Office.

TRUMP: I do hear that there were a lot of people involved in that decision, not just him.

COLLINS: Trump making no mention of the alleged victims. And though he once described him as a terrific guy, Trump distanced himself from Epstein today.

TRUMP: Well, I knew him, like everybody in Palm Beach knew him. People in Palm Beach knew him. He was a fixture in Palm Beach. I had a falling out with him a long time ago. I don't think I have spoken to him for 15 years. I wasn't a fan.

COLLINS: His own words tell a different story.

In 2002, he told "New York Magazine" -- quote -- "He's a lot of fun to be with. It is even said that he likes beautiful women as much as I do, and many of them are on the younger side."

Several Democrats are demanding Acosta to step down.

SEN. CHUCK SCHUMER (D-NY): If he refuses to resign, President Trump should fire him. COLLINS: Acosta defended his actions in a series of tweets today and

said he's pleased that New York prosecutors are moving forward with a case based on new evidence.

TRUMP: Secretary of labor, say a few words.

COLLINS: People close to Trump say his future depends on how loud those calls for him to go become.

The White House has faced questions about his role before and claimed they were looking into it.

SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS, FORMER WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: It's currently under review. Because of that, I can't get into a lot of specifics, but we're certainly looking at it.

COLLINS: But they never offered an update on that review. And sources say it was a strategy to buy time until the controversy died down.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

COLLINS: Now, Jake, today, we have seen several of the 2020 presidential candidates call on Alex Acosta to resign.

And Joe Biden just joined that group, saying on Twitter that he should step down. Now, right now, the president is supporting Alex Acosta, but that could change depending on how the coverage goes and if he starts to see him as a political liability.

One good indicator of whether or not his standing in the West Wing is still good could come next week, when President Trump, according to a source, is scheduled to hold a Cabinet meeting -- Jake.

TAPPER: All right. Kaitlan Collins, thank you so much.

As President Trump and Secretary Acosta try to defend that plea deal, CNN senior investigative correspondent Drew Griffin is taking a closer look now on how exactly that 2008 Epstein plea agreement came together.

[16:05:10]

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

DREW GRIFFIN, CNN INVESTIGATIVE CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): This is the non prosecution agreement sealed by the court 12 years ago and obtained by CNN, a seven-page document which states the Palm Beach Police Department, the Florida state's attorney and the FBI say Epstein knowingly did induce or entice minor females to engage in prostitution and travel in interstate commerce for the purpose of engaging in illicit sexual conduct with minor females.

In other words, all evidence the government thought back in 2007 proved Jeffrey Epstein was sex trafficking underage girls, with much of the abuse happening in his Palm Beach mansion. But instead of facing a possible life sentence, he signed the sweetheart deal that said the federal government would not even prosecute him.

Epstein did plead guilty to two state prostitution charges in 2008 and was allowed to serve a 13-month prison term in a county jail that he could leave during the day. The federal non-prosecution agreement was approved by then U.S. attorney for Southern Florida Alex Acosta, currently Donald Trump's secretary of labor, who was confronted by CNN last year, only to dodge questions.

QUESTION: I want to ask you about the Jeffrey Epstein...

GRIFFIN: In 2017, at his Senate confirmation hearing, he defended the lack of federal prosecution, but did agree Jeffrey Epstein's come and go as and he please jail time was a disgrace.

SEN. TIM KAINE (D-VA): He had to sleep at a county jail, but he was basically allowed to move and go around the community and do whatever he wants. And then that became a subject of significant criticism.

ALEXANDER ACOSTA, U.S. SECRETARY OF LABOR: And I am on record condemning that and I think that was awful.

GRIFFIN: The lack of federal prosecution even more puzzling, given Acosta's record of aggressively going after others for sex trafficking, getting convictions and pushing for sentences of a decade or more behind bars.

Acosta's role in the plea deal brought to light last fall by a long investigation by "The Miami Herald," which identified dozens of women who say they were molested or otherwise sexually abused by Epstein, four of them willing to speak on video.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We were underage. We were little girls.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I was 16.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I was 16.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I started going to him when I was like 14, 15.

GRIFFIN: "The Herald" confirmed that, more than a decade ago, federal prosecutors identified 36 victims were underage. Perhaps most surprising of all is that sweetheart deal agreed to by the federal government was never discussed or even shared with any of the victims.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

GRIFFIN: And it's because of that lack of notification, Jake, that a federal judge just February found prosecutors led by Acosta at the time violated the law which requires that victim notification.

DOJ officials are now investigating plea deal and whether there was prosecutorial misconduct by Acosta and his team. In his tweets today, as you have said, Acosta seems to be applauding the fact that federal prosecutors are doing what he didn't do, prosecute Jeffrey Epstein on sex trafficking charges -- Jake.

TAPPER: All right, Drew Griffin, thanks so much.

Let's talk about this.

First of all, let me just say thank God for "The Miami Herald" and Julie K. Brown, the reporter who broke that story, because if she and -- if she hadn't done that, and if they hadn't invested in that, this guy would be walking the streets today who knows doing what.

But, anyway, today, Kellyanne Conway was asked about Speaker Pelosi's call for Acosta to resign. Pelosi said: "As U.S. attorney, he engaged in an unconscionable agreement with Jeffrey Epstein, kept secrets from courageous young victims, preventing them from seeking justice. #Acostaresign."

Here's Kellyanne Conway responding to that.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

KELLYANNE CONWAY, TRUMP SENIOR ADVISER: It's classic her and her Democratic Party to not focus on the perpetrator at hand, and instead said to focus on a member of the Trump administration.

They're so obsessed with this president that they immediately go to Alex Acosta, rather than Jeffrey Epstein. Why are you talking about Alex Acosta, not Jeffrey Epstein? Jeffrey Epstein is the pig. Jeffrey Epstein is the one raping young girls.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: So why are people talking about Alex Acosta, as opposed to Jeffrey Epstein, as Kellyanne Conway asks?

JEN PSAKI, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, I think, as you mentioned, thanks to "The Miami Herald" and the work of many, he's going to jail.

But Alex Acosta is currently in the Cabinet of the president of the United States. And, as we know, from a lot of great reporting, he also -- he's somebody who covered up the disgusting work of a pedophile and a sex trafficker by helping him get this sweetheart deal.

That shouldn't be something that we find acceptable. It's not confusing or surprising, frankly, that Kellyanne is defending it, given Trump is defending it, but that shouldn't be the bar that we accept. And we're talking about him because he's somebody that is running the Labor Department in the United States.

TAPPER: And one of the things, one of the points that I think a lot of critics are making is that a judge in Florida found that Acosta -- we made this point earlier -- Acosta violated the law by not letting the victims, the survivors know about the plea agreement before it was formally done, because the law exists so that people can protest if they don't like it.

[16:10:15] AMANDA CARPENTER, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Yes.

I mean, a big part of the why Acosta is a central figure here is because people like Jeffrey Epstein don't continue to operate without enablers, without helpers.

And I think he should resign, but a part of me hopes that he doesn't, so that Congress hauls him in there and says, why, when you had evidence of human trafficking and abuse, did you cut a deal to let him plead guilty to prostitution? This is not prostitution. It's human trafficking. It's abuse.

And he continued to do it. And that's why the SDNY went after him. And a big part of this, as you pointed out, why did you not let the victims know? That is a reason why he got to continue to operate in New York and fly around. So I want Acosta to explain why. Is it because he's rich and powerful?

Is it because he got bullied by his team of high-powered lawyers, which there's plenty of evidence? Tell us why.

TAPPER: And some of the Republicans are holding their fire. They're saying they want the Justice Department to conduct its investigation, figure out if there was any malfeasance.

Marco Rubio tweeted: "If DOJ probe uncovers misconduct in Florida plea agreement, those responsible should face consequences."

Similar comments have been made by other Republican senators. I guess one question, though, is can Bill Barr, Attorney General Bill Barr's Justice Department, do you have faith that it can conduct an investigation into a fellow Cabinet official and his conduct 10 or 11 years ago?

SABRINA SIDDIQUI, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: I think there is a great deal of doubt that they would be able to conduct an independent investigation, especially when the president has so -- has stood by Alex Acosta just today.

And we have seen that Attorney General Bill Barr in particular has been reluctant to disagree with this president. In fact, as we have seen time and again, he's very much been willing to do his bidding.

And so I don't think that there would be a lot of trust in that investigation. I think the point that Amanda made about the culture of enablers is very important, because this is not the first time that the president, when faced, even if by proxy, with a controversy involving sexual misconduct, in this case, human trafficking of underage girls, has been willing to look the other way.

You think about, of course, his endorsement of Roy Moore in the Alabama Senate race even after Moore was himself accused of molesting underage girls. He hired Bill Shine as his communications director, who was not personally accused of sexual misconduct, but was accused of covering up allegations against Roger Ailes and Bill O'Reilly at FOX News. This is part of a pattern where if someone is the president's friend

or if someone worked for him...

CARPENTER: Robert Kraft.

SIDDIQUI: Robert Kraft.

(CROSSTALK)

CARPENTER: Then he's not really willing to take the allegations seriously. In fact, he's willing to go to bat for the people who are at the center of the controversy.

TAPPER: And, Sara, one other person who has been closely tied to Epstein is Bill Clinton. His spokesman released a statement last night saying that, in 2002 and 2003, Clinton took a total of four trips on Epstein's airplane.

Now, the reason why four trips sounds like such a smaller number than the 26 flights on the plane that FOX News has reported is because there's a difference between how Clinton is counting these trips, because it might be seven stops on one trip. Not surprising that he's parsing there to make the friendship seem smaller.

SARA MURRAY, CNN NATIONAL POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: I mean, you can diminish the friendship all you want if you're Donald Trump or if you're Bill Clinton.

I mean, I think the fact of the matter is the reporting that has come out has made it sort of seem like people who were around him knew that this is what he did, that he liked young girls and that girls were around.

And no one who was in his circle -- and who knows what Bill Clinton knew personally, what Donald Trump knew personally, but nobody who was in his circle of high-powered friends felt the need to do anything about it. And I don't think we need to wait for Bill Barr to say something about Alex Acosta's behavior, because we already had a judge, you acted improperly, you screwed this up.

And in some ways, you would think that would be enough to prompt Republican congressmen to say something, but I guess it's not.

TAPPER: We're in a different era when it comes to shame, I believe.

Everyone, stick around. We have more to talk about.

President Trump keeps adding Joe Biden's name to his attacks on Obamacare. But is this a fight the former vice president actually wants?

Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:18:23] TAPPER: And we're back with breaking news in our politics lead and a major court hearing on the future of Obamacare just wrapping up with two out of three judges questioning the basis for the law. Their decision could ultimately take down Obamacare and wipe out coverage for millions of Americans.

Obamacare also under assault from the left in the 2020 presidential race as many leading Democratic hopefuls are advocating replacing it with Medicare-for-All.

But as CNN's Arlette Saenz now reports, frontrunner Joe Biden says getting rid of Obamacare, well, that would be, quote, a sin.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ARLETTE SAENZ, CNN POLITICAL REPORTER (voice-over): The 2020 fight over health care is on. With Joe Biden insisting Medicare-for-All isn't the answer.

JOE BIDEN (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Starting over would be, I think, a sin.

SAENZ: The former vice president at President Obama's side when the Affordable Care Act became law.

BIDEN: This is a big (EXPLETIVE DELETED) deal.

SAENZ: Even the Trump administration reminding voters of his connection. Today calling it --

KELLYANNE CONWAY, WHITE HOUSE COUNSELOR: Obama-Biden care.

SAENZ: Biden is now pitching himself as the protector of that plan, saying he'll build on Obamacare and offer a public option to buy into government-run insurance.

BIDEN: I'm opposed to any Republican who wants to dismantle it or any Democrat who wants to dismantle it.

SAENZ: That warning directed at his Democratic rivals pushing Medicare-for-All.

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

SAENZ: In South Carolina this weekend, Biden singled out one Medicare-for-All backer, Kamala Harris.

BIDEN: Health care, we strongly disagree. I don't want to get away -- do away with Obamacare and start all over and trash it.

SAENZ: This new line of attack comes as Harris has struggled to explain whether she supports scrapping private health insurance, starting with this moment in January at a CNN town hall.

[16:20:07] SEN. KAMALA HARRIS (D-CA), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Let's eliminate all of that. Let's move on.

SAENZ: And then this question at last month's debate.

LESTER HOLT, DEBATE MODERATOR: Many people watching at home have health insurance through their employer, who here would abolish their private health insurance in favor of a government-run plan?

All right.

SAENZ: Harris later saying she misunderstood the question, thinking it was about her own insurance and she's now trying to ease some voters concerns about Medicare-for-All.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We cannot go immediately into health care for all.

HARRIS: But to your point, it can't just happen overnight. There will be a transition period.

SAENZ: While Biden vows Obamacare is here to stay.

BIDEN: No one is going to tear down the jewel of President Obama's presidency, I promise you that.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SAENZ: And, Jake, Joe Biden still often calls himself Middle Class Joe and tonight, we're getting our first look at how much he's made since leaving the White House. Biden and his wife Jill reported earning $11 million in 2016 and $4.6 million the year after -- Jake.

TAPPER: All right. Thank you so much.

Let's talk about all of this.

So, Jen, let me ask you about the strategy of calling it Obama-Biden care. I don't know that that is not what Joe Biden wants. I think he wants to defend Obamacare.

PSAKI: That's right. As he said himself, I think President Trump continuing to fight this fight, this possibly going to the Supreme Court next summer where the Supreme Court will be ruling potentially on whether or not pre-existing conditions should be covered for tens of millions of Americans is a gift to the Democrats, whether it is Joe Biden or another person as the nominee. They want to have this fight.

As we've talked about in the segment, Democrats are divided on health care. They have different views on whether having insurance should continue, whether they're for Medicare-for-All or continue to build on Obamacare. If President Trump keeps going on this fight, they'll be united, people will be united because they will want to fight against Trump's effort to take it away.

TAPPER: So, in April, Gallup polled Obamacare and it's more popular now than it was when we started covering Obamacare, 50 percent of American approve of it, 48 percent disapprove. So, it's not a wedge issue.

Do you think it's smart for Trump to continue taking this on? CARPENTER: Yes. I mean, one of the reasons where everyone is still

fighting about health care is because Obama did not deliver on the promise of bringing health care costs down. And I think it is actually smart for Kellyanne to call it Obama-Biden care because Republicans have always suspected that Obamacare was a stalking horse for universal health care, public option, whatever you want to call it.

So, when Democrats are saying, hey, we might abolish your private health care system, we don't know really know what's going to happen, that just barricades Republicans saying, oh, we cannot go in that direction. That said, in 2020, Trump will have to come out with a plan to counter all these proposals.

TAPPER: Yes.

MURRAY: But I think we keep saying Donald Trump has to come up with a plan. Republican lawmakers haven't come up with a plan. It was like a whole shot -- all of the time and everybody is so angry about Obamacare and no one like thought to sit down and make something we should rally around or we can put forward as an alternative.

People like free birth control, and people like being able to cover pre-existing conditions and not all parts of Obamacare but some of the things that they've been able to get from it. And so, when the counter to that is we don't want to do this anymore but we don't have anything else to cover you, like that's what we saw in 2018 and it didn't work out great.

SIDDIQUI: And one thing worth recalling in the 2018 midterms, part of the success for Democrats is when Trump was talking about immigration and the caravan in terms of the congressional districts, Democrats kept their message laser-focused on health care and protecting pre- existing conditions. And it proved to be a winning issue for them.

I think it is notable that if you look at recent election cycles, Republicans on the ballot, they've increasingly stopped talking about or campaigning on repealing and replacing Obamacare because I think that they've realized that counter to that is Democrats saying what is your plan, otherwise you'll do away with access to health care for millions of Americans, and in the first years of Trump presidency when they control both chambers of Congress and the White House, they were unable to pass, of course, their own plan.

So I think that Democrats are eager to take on this issue and that is why they made it an essential plank in 2020.

TAPPER: Everyone, sticking around.

Coming up, he's the only senator who asked Alexander Acosta about the Jeffrey Epstein plea deal during Acosta 2017 confirmation hearing. Senator Tim Kaine will join me live next with his take on President Trump defending the labor secretary.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) [16:29:21] TAPPER: And we're back in our politics lead as the list of Democrats calling for Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta's resignation continues to grow, one of the first people on Capitol Hill to sound the alarm and question the labor secretary's handling of the Epstein case was Senator Tim Kaine of Virginia who joins me now.

Senator, thanks so much for joining us.

Take a listen to what President Trump had to say this afternoon.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I feel very badly actually for Secretary Acosta because I've known him as being somebody that works so hard and has done such a good job. I feel very badly about that whole situation.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: What's your response to that, Senator?

SEN. TIM KAINE (D-VA): Well, I think what you should feel badly about is dozens and dozens of teenage girls, middle schoolers who are preyed upon by this character.

[16:30:00]