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Tropical Storm Barry Targets Louisiana; Secretary of Labor ResignsTropical Storm Barry Threatening Gulf Coast Region With Unprecedented Flooding; Sen. John Kennedy (R-LA) is Interviewed About Tropical Storm Barry Threatening the Gulf Coast Region; Dem Lawmakers Get Emotional Describing Detention Centers. Aired 4-4:30p ET

Aired July 12, 2019 - 16:00   ET



BROOKE BALDWIN, CNN HOST: Here's to 40. I think I'm done. I think I'm done. I'm taking a vacation for two weeks. So, deuces.

Jake Tapper, take it on over.

JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: Did Acosta's efforts at damage control ultimately seal his doom?

THE LEAD starts right now.

He's out. President Trump's labor secretary is leaving, as critics slam a plea deal he helped broker for an alleged child rapist, leaving yet another major vacancy at the top of the government.

Bracing for Barry. New Orleans already filling with water, and the tropical storm that has even not hit yet -- why the city that has already seen so much weather misery is facing an unprecedented flood threat right now.

Plus, he gave up the gavel, then picked up a hammer. President Trump today unloading on Paul Ryan after Ryan basically said he doesn't have a clue.

Welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

We begin with the politics lead. President Trump on defense, unloading at the White House today as yet another Cabinet secretary leaves the administration under the shadow of scandal.

This time, it's Labor Secretary Alex Acosta standing next to the president this morning, claiming he is choosing to leave willingly, so he will no longer be a distraction.

But, privately, President Trump was stewing about the unwanted attention Acosta was bringing to the Trump administration, according to a senior White House official, and the president was worried about the steady stream of revelations to come involving the 2008 plea deal Acosta, as U.S. attorney in Florida, brokered with well-connected multimillionaire and accused child rapist Jeffrey Epstein, who earlier this week was indicted in New York for child trafficking. Sources also tell CNN that President Trump went from praising Acosta

to privately questioning why the victims had not been notified about that plea agreement ahead of time, as mandated by law. And that's a key question many of us have been asking and that a federal judge in February found should have been done, ruling that Acosta broke the law.

As CNN's Kaitlan Collins now reports, Acosta's exit comes as President Trump is weighing whether another top official should soon be headed to that busy Trump administration departure lounge.


KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): The day at the White House began with an exit.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Alex called me this morning, and he wanted to see me.

COLLINS: As Labor Secretary Alex Acosta announced he will resign amid intense scrutiny over the role he played in Jeffrey Epstein's plea deal 11 years ago that helped him avoid federal charges.

ALEXANDER ACOSTA, U.S. SECRETARY OF LABOR: I do not think it is right and fair for this administration's Labor Department to have Epstein as the focus.

COLLINS: With Acosta by his side, President Trump insisted the decision was Acosta's.

TRUMP: This was him, not me, because I'm with him.

COLLINS: But the writing was on the wall Thursday night, when CNN first reported Trump had grown skeptical that Acosta's press conference would calm the waters.

ACOSTA: Today's world treats victims very, very differently.

COLLINS: Sources said the president went from praising Acosta privately to questioning why the victims were never notified about the plea deal.

Yet, today, he insisted otherwise.

TRUMP: I thought Alex did a great job.

COLLINS: For Trump, Acosta's resignation comes as a relief amid renewed scrutiny over his own relationship with Epstein, though, today, he said it wasn't a distraction.

TRUMP: Well, Alex believed that. I'm willing to live with anything.

COLLINS: The departure leaves the president with another acting secretary in his Cabinet.

TRUMP: We have -- as everybody knows, we have Pat Pizzella, who right now is a deputy, and he will be acting for a period of time.

COLLINS: The acting labor secretary will be in good company because the Department of Defense, Department of Homeland Security and multiple other federal agencies are all run by acting heads.

While experts say permanent Cabinet secretaries provide more stability, the president prefers it his way, without the confirmation hearings.

TRUMP: I sort of like acting. Gives me more flexibility.

COLLINS: Critics have also noted that outgoing Labor Secretary Acosta was the only Hispanic in the president's Cabinet, a detail Trump noted today.

TRUMP: He was a great student at Harvard. He's Hispanic, which I -- which I so admire, because maybe it was a little tougher for him, and maybe not.


COLLINS: Now, Jake, we have reported on this show before the president's frustrations with his director of national intelligence, Dan Coats.

And it appears those frustrations have revived themselves. And now sources are telling CNN the president is once again weighing replacing Dan Coats. A national security official denied that this would happen any time soon.

And another person offered a word of caution, because the president is, of course, hesitant with these departures to make it look or add to that perception that this administration is chaotic. So, of course, since there was just another departure this morning, it might buy Dan Coats some more time -- Jake.


TAPPER: All right, Kaitlan Collins at the White House for us.

Let's chew over all of this.

Jackie, let me start with you.

Let's talk about the display of President Trump and Acosta coming out together. The president praises Acosta, says it was Acosta's decision, his decision alone. Do you buy it, first of all?

JACKIE KUCINICH, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: When you look at Acosta's letter, resignation letter, it was very complimentary to the president, thanking him, talking about how he's going to make America great again. And that's why he has to step aside, so he's not a distraction.

I haven't heard anything behind the scenes that contradict that. I mean, there had been people inside the White House who had been urging the president to kick Acosta to the curb when this Epstein...


TAPPER: Mick Mulvaney, the chief of staff.


KUCINICH: That was because of regulatory -- but also there were others because of what was happening with Epstein. They saw that rising tide, that this wasn't going to go away, and it's not going to go away.

And the president was resistant at that time.

TAPPER: So, David Urban, first of all, we should note for our viewers you're a Trump 2020 campaign adviser, also a D.C. lobbyist. You work on behalf of energy defense and transportation companies.


DAVID URBAN, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: That's like a tag line. That's great, my new tag line.


TAPPER: Well, just full disclosure.

But take a look at the sheer number of high-profile exits from the Trump administration.

URBAN: Sure.

TAPPER: And here's some top -- some of the top positions which are being held in just an acting capacity right now. That's a lot of acting secretaries. The president and said he likes acting positions. It gives him more flexibility.

But obviously the Constitution says the Senate gets to advise and consent. I understand it's easier for the president, but that's not how it's supposed to be done.

URBAN: Yes, but so let's not forget that some of this blame lies squarely on the shoulders of our good friend the minority leader, who is...

TAPPER: Chuck Schumer.

URBAN: Chuck Schumer, who's adeptly using his rule in terms of burning the amount of time.

Most of America does understand the arcane rules of the Senate, but the Senate majority (sic) leader has been very adept at doing that and keeping people at bay for quite some time, and not allowing people to get hearings.

And it's just -- he's doing a good job at it. So there are -- some of these folks, there are vacancies, legitimate vacancies that need to be filled, and some of the folks are just kind of treading water.


TAPPER: But the president hasn't named even...


URBAN: No, no, exactly. No, he's named some folks, like Secretary Esper.


TAPPER: But he doesn't blame Schumer for it.


URBAN: No, but Senator Schumer should get -- some of the blame should lay on his shoulders for a lot of the folks that aren't confirmed that have been nominated.


KAREN FINNEY, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: You're not talking about major Cabinet-level people.


URBAN: Listen, as we all know, right, around this table, and in America they should know this, right, everybody is in the acting capacity of this administration, right?

Even if you are the secretary, you may not be the secretary the next day.


FINNEY: I mean, look, it is about transparency and accountability.

I mean, someone who is -- has to be confirmed by the Senate, I would argue -- Jackie and I were just talking about this -- maybe they didn't do the best job with Secretary Acosta because we should have had this conversation about this.


KUCINICH: Only Tim Kaine.


FINNEY: But it matters because a person has to go through a process of being confirmed, and then they become the actual secretary.

And there is, again, transparency, there is accountability, not just to the president, but to the American people. And part of the reason that the president I think seems to like -- when he says he likes it, he's running it more like a corporation, where you can fire at will a lot more easily than when you have had somebody who has only been there six months, who's an acting.

It's just very different.

TAPPER: And we don't know exactly what's going to happen next with that position, but the deputy secretary of labor, who might become the acting secretary of labor, he's a guy named Pat Pizzella.

And there are questions about this possibly new acting secretary of labor was a lobbyist for sweatshops in a previous life. Here he is from his confirmation hearing. Here is Senator Al Franken in 2017 asking him about this.


SEN. AL FRANKEN (D-MN): The key issues you lobbied on was to block bipartisan legislation for basic worker protections in the Northern Mariana Islands, where garment manufacturers could produce clothing labeled made in the USA without having to comply with the U.S. minimum wage laws.


TAPPER: Is this going to be a problem for the Trump administration too, you think, this new guy?

LAURA BARRON-LOPEZ, POLITICO: if they want to confirm him and appoint him in a permanent capacity, it will be.

Democrats are definitely going to have an issue with that. But it's also something that's a bit of a pattern with the Trump administration, because it also exists in the EPA, where there were appointments of high-level people who were lobbyists for energy corporations and people who flat out said that they wanted to undo the EPA, and yet they were put in positions to run it.

TAPPER: And what do you make? Do you think Democrats are going to come at this guy, Pizzella?

FINNEY: I mean, I certainly hope so.

I think I hope they have actually at least learned the lesson that it is important to have real scrutiny of these folks and, where appropriate, you go through the process of actually making sure they're not confirmed.

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

Coming up, bracing for Tropical Storm Barry. Will the already taxed levees and draining system hold up as the storm churns towards the Louisiana Gulf Coast?



REP. ALEXANDRIA OCASIO-CORTEZ (D-NY): That women were being called these names under an American flag, we cannot allow for this.



TAPPER: Dramatic testimony today by Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio- Cortez. She was apparently exasperated. Some of her peers were in tears.

Also, somebody on the other side got emotional. We will show you why.

Stay with us.


TAPPER: Some breaking news in the national lead now.

The Gulf Coast, already inundated with flooding, now officials there are racing to get ready for Tropical Storm Barry. The governor of Louisiana issued this warning today:


GOV. JOHN BEL EDWARDS (D-LA): No one should take this storm lightly.

The real danger in this storm was never about the wind anyway. It's always been about the rain. And that remains a very significant threat.


TAPPER: Let me show you one of the big problems here. This is New Orleans, where flooding from the Mississippi River is already at an all-time high.

Then you add slow-moving Tropical Storm Barry to the mix. Its storm surge, combined with all the rain, could make for a flooding disaster, which is why mandatory evacuations are under way in low-lying areas right now.

[16:15:05] We have teams down in the Gulf Coast and the CNN weather center to show us what might be about to hit the U.S.

Let's start with meteorologist Allison Chinchar.

Allison, how strong will this tropical storm likely get and how long will it be a problem for the Gulf Coast?

ALLISON CHINCHAR, AMS METEOROLOGIST: Right. So, let's start with the first question. We do still expect this to intensify a little bit more, getting up to a low-end category one storm right before it makes landfall. That landfall is expected Saturday morning in Louisiana.

The concern going forward is all of the rain that it ends up bringing to the other locations it then continues to go on as it pushes further off to the north. But in the short-term, everyone wants to know, what are the implications going to be for a city, say, like New Orleans, which is prone to flooding and can often have a lot of big issues with that.

Here is the thing. One of the biggest concerns right now is going to be storm surge. You could see those outer bands of what's going to pull that water all the way in towards the city of New Orleans.

Here is the thing. Then everybody starts to wonder, how does the storm surge impact the levees? Right now this particular region, we're expecting about three to five feet of storm surge. The problem is, as it does that and comes back over, it has the potential to overtop that eastern edge of the levee right there on the Mississippi River. From there, then the question becomes, what happens to all of that water?

Well, it actually starts to flow backwards towards the city of New Orleans. It basically becomes funneled and pushed all the way back. The concern then is if those water levels, Jake, can get to 20 feet or higher, the levees will be overtopped and that's when you start to see New Orleans begin to flood.

TAPPER: All right. Thank you so much.

Let's go to CNN's Gary Tuchman right now. He's live in New Orleans.

And, Gary, city officials there say they have confidence in the levee and pumping system but people who live in previously flood-prone areas have good reason to be concerned.

GARY TUCHMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Jake. The people who live in this area where I am right now have very good reason to be concerned because this area was devastated during Katrina. This is the lake view section of New Orleans on the shores of the 630 square mile Lake Pontchartrain which is behind me.

When we arrived here about two hours ago, there was no water on this road. There has been virtually no rain but it is already flooding. Next to us is this water pumping station. This station was built after Katrina, they're literally pumping water right now from the street and from property. Back in to Lake Pontchartrain.

And this is right next to the 17th Street canal, one of the largest canals in New Orleans, surrounded by the 17th Street levees, new levees built after Hurricane Katrina, 20 feet tall, to protect the city. But before Katrina, the levees that were there were compromised. It was split open on the east side into the lake view section. Tons of water came through and other levees were destroyed and that's what contributed to hundreds of people dying here in New Orleans during Katrina, a total of 1,800 people died in New Orleans and other parts of this area from hurricane Katrina.

So there is no mandatory evacuation order in effect, but people here are being promised that they're doing everything they can to keep you safe but they are a bit jittery.

Jake, back to you. TAPPER: Understandably so. Gary Tuchman in New Orleans, thanks so


Let's bring in Republican Senator John Kennedy of the state of Louisiana. He spoke with President Trump about the storm earlier today. He's joining us on the phone from Baton Rouge.

Senator Kennedy, always good to have you on.

Tropical Storm Barry expected to make landfall overnight. What's your biggest concern right now?

SEN. JOHN KENNEDY (R-LA) (via telephone): The water. It was starting to feel the effects. I mean, you can see it. I just came from New Orleans and Baton Rouge and you could smell it. You could smell that a storm is coming.

I think it will hit in about 15 hours and go up the middle of the state. It is about 200 miles wide. Winds, you know, not good, but I've been through worse storms. Water is our concern, number one, you get 10 to 20 inches of rain, you're go fog flood even if your on pike's peak and we're concerned about the levees overtopping.

Look, I've been through a lot of these. Every storm is different but they have two things in common, they make you realize that the power of nature can humble the power of human beings anytime it wants to, and the other thing I always learn is if you are not scared, you're either a fool or a liar.

TAPPER: Right.

KENNEDY: But we are ready, as ready as we can be. The president called me this morning and he's declared an emergency. We're getting great help from Homeland Security and from FEMA. And my people are tough as a boot and we'll get through it.

TAPPER: The governor of Louisiana, John Bel Edwards was asked if Louisiana is better for a hurricane compared to past storms such as Katrina.

Take a listen to his response.


GOV. JOHN BEL EDWARDS (D), LOUISIANA: Our state is better prepared. But that comes with a caveat. You never know what Mother Nature is going to serve until she has served it.


TAPPER: Do you believe that preparations in Louisiana have been adequate, Senator?

[16:20:02] KENNEDY: Yes, I do. And they're better. I was there during Katrina. I was serving as a state treasurer. It was a dumpster fire at all levels, federal and state and local. We had nowhere to go but up, but we're infinitely better prepared and

all levels of government are coordinated, the federal resources are here. That doesn't mean that this is going to be a cake walk or this is the big rock candy mountain here, this is a serious storm but we're as ready as we can be for it. We have our protocols that have all been followed.

TAPPER: There are people obviously in low-lying areas that are under mandatory evacuations. Some of them, however, are not leaving. Take a listen to the reasoning.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'm worried, but I don't know, it is not that bad of a storm I don't think. I could be wrong. We'll see.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: As long as you got electricity you could still make it. But I'm not going nowhere for this. I don't see it going to be too bad.


TAPPER: Senator, what is your message to people in the mandatory evacuation areas who are not leaving and who think they can just ride out the storm?

KENNEDY: Well, my first response is a lot of people stay to protect their property. The most important things in life aren't things. Worry about your life, worry about your family's life.

We've got shelters set up all across south Louisiana, all you have to do is give somebody a call and we'll come get you, and we'll get you to safer ground. Don't -- don't be stuck on stupid. Get out if you feel at all at risk.

The problem with the rainfall and the levee topping is we don't know exactly where, if at all, the levee will top and we can't predict where the heavy rain will be. Now, the gentleman you just had on, he may be fine. But if he gets 20 inches of rain over a short period of time, two days, he's likely to flood. And he's putting himself at risk.

TAPPER: All right. Senator John Kennedy, Republican of Louisiana, thank you so much. We appreciate your time, sir.

KENNEDY: Thanks, Jake.

TAPPER: Coming up next, living in fear inside a church. One mother's desperate attempt to avoid this weekend's ICE raids.

Stay with us.


[16:26:58] TAPPER: Our politics lead now, emotional testimony in a hearing about the way that migrant children and other undocumented migrants have been treated under the Trump administration. Several Democratic lawmakers detailed their horrific conditions they say they witnessed while touring detention centers on the border.

This comes as the House Oversight Committee revealed that at least 18 children under the age of two were separated from their parents in some cases for up to six months.

CNN'S Sunlen Serfaty reports today on a dramatic day on Capitol Hill.


REP. ALEXANDRIA OCASIO-CORTEZ (D-NY): Children separated from their parents in front of an American flag.

SUNLEN SERFATY, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Emotional testimony from House Democrats.

REP. RASHIDA TLAIB (D-MI): The fear in their eyes wouldn't be forgotten, Mr. Speaker.

SERFATY: About what they saw during the visit last week to two border facilities in Texas.

OCASIO-CORTEZ: I believed the canker sores that I saw in their mouths because they were only allowed to be fed un-nutritious food. I believed them when they said they were sleeping on concrete floors for two months.

SERFATY: Firsthand accounts of the conditions and encounters with detained migrants.

REP. ALYANNA PRESSLEY (D-MA): She asked me if she deserved to be treating like this, if they deserve to be treated like dogs.

SERFATY: The Department of Homeland Security has denied some of the allegations, including that women had to drink from toilets, saying water was available.

The acting DHS inspector general today also sounding the alarm.

JENNIFER COSTELLO, ACTING INSPECTOR GENERAL, DHS: We remain concern it is not taking sufficient steps to address the overcrowding and prolonged detention we observed particularly with respect to single adult detainees.

SERFATY: The former custom enforcement chief also emotional, defending his agency.

THOMAS HOMAN, FORMER ACTING DIRECTOR, ICE: I'm the only one in this room that has wore a green uniform and been on that line. I'm the only one in this room that stood in the back of tractor-trailer by 19 dead aliens, including a 5-year-old little boy who suffocated to death in his father's arms. I was there. And I saw and I smelled it and it's terrible. And I still have nightmares to this day.

This isn't just law enforcement. This is about saving lives. I found enough dead bodies in my day.

SERFATY: All this as the House Oversight Committee released a new report of the at least 2,648 children who were separated from their parents, at least 18 were infants and toddlers under the age of two, including nine babies under the age of one kept apart for 20 days to six months.

REP. ELIJAH CUMMINGS (D-MD): The administration child separation were more harmful, traumatic and chaotic than previously known.

SERFATY: Meantime today, Vice President Mike Pence and a group of Republican senators are making their own visit to a border facility in Texas. All Democrats invited to join them declined. That derided by Senator Thom Tillis, tweeting, a lot of empty seats since not a single Democrat showed up.


SERFATY: And the vice president's trip follows the media being given access yesterday to one of the same facilities that the Democrats had toured a few weeks ago. There were very actually few migrants left in that facility, despite the dramatic overcrowding in recent weeks. That likely due to the fact that Congress approved funding earlier in June, likely easing some of the overcrowding by sending some of the children to HHS facilities, Jake.

TAPPER: All right. Sunlen Serfaty on Capitol Hill.

President Trump confirmed today that on Sunday, Immigration and Customs Enforcement or ICE will begin nationwide deportation raids.