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Trump Escalates Attacks On Democratic Congresswomen; State media reports, Iran seizes foreign tanker carrying smuggled fuel; Lawmakers Grilling Acting DHS Secretary On Migrant Detention. Aired 10-10:30a ET

Aired July 18, 2019 - 10:00   ET




JIM SCIUTTO, CNN NEWSROOM: A very good Thursday morning to you. I'm Jim Sciutto.

POPPY HARLOW, CNN NEWSROOM: And I'm Poppy Harlow. At any moment, you are going to hear from the acting Homeland Security Secretary, Kevin McAleenan. He is facing lawmakers on a very important meeting on Capitol Hill. He's expected to be grilled over overcrowding at detention centers and also separated families. I should note he did allow cameras in this week to see those facilities and talk to some of those detained.

But, first, President Trump's 2020 strategy becoming more and more clear. If you missed it, that was quite a rally last night in North Carolina. It sounded a lot like the President's 2016 lock her up chants.


DONALD TRUMP, U.S. PRESIDENT: Omar has a history of launching vicious, anti-Semitic screech.


SCIUTTO: That's a crowd of Americans in the year 2019 chanting, send her back, to a Somali-born U.S. citizen, I should not, she's a U.S. citizen and an elected congresswoman. Ilhan omar, one of the four progressive women the President has been zeroing in on more and more as he builds out his 2020 campaign strategy.

Just moments ago, what has become something of a rarity, this is the sitting republican congressman, Adam Kinzinger, speaking out in fairly clear terms against those chants, against Omar, saying, I deeply disagree with the extreme left and have been disgusted by their tone. I woke up today equally disgusted, chants like send her back are ugly, wrong, and would send chills down the spines of our founding fathers. This ugliness must end or we risk our great union.

These are not small words from a sitting republican congressman. We risk our union, he says. Abby Phillip, she is at the White House. I imagine the White House is not concerned, because, as always, this is a very small group of republicans willing to stand up and criticize in clear terms that kind of rhetoric. But it strikes us here as we've been covering this that this is not an exception, this is going to be a consistent message going into 2020 from the President.

ABBY PHILLIP, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: The tone is going to come from the, Jim. And I think White House aides, the President's campaign aides are taking the lead from the President himself in how they are handling this. After the Tweet was sent out over the weekend, many of the President's aides thought it was not a great thing that there was no strategy about it, in fact, and that going there, going to this racist place was something that they didn't want to do.

But then they have shifted the strategy to something entirely different. And you saw last night at that campaign rally the President reading from the teleprompter a scripted rant against these four congresswomen, reframing this debate about socialism, about anti- Semitism and not about what it was originally about, which is essentially racism. Take a listen.


TRUMP: The hate-filled extremists who are constantly trying to tear our country down, they never have anything good to say. That's why I say, hey, if they don't like it, let them leave. Let them leave. Let them leave.

They don't love our country. I think in some cases, they hate our country. And they're so angry.


PHILLIP: The President said there if they don't like it, let them leave. But that's not what he said originally. He said they should go back from the crime-infested corrupt places from which they came. And that's what the crowd chanted back at him, send them back.

This is what the Republican Party is now trying to deal with yet again today after several days of trying to help the President reframe this debate. The crowd last night really saw through that and went back to what the original intent was. The question now is will there be more republicans speaking out or will there be unity, as the President has praised his party for standing by him on this one.

SCIUTTO: Well, to be clear, Abby, you're saying that the crowd want to send them back, plural, as to all four of them?

PHILLIP: Send her back.

SCIUTTO: Send her back, okay, just to be clear.

PHILLIP: That particular part of the script was about Ilhan Omar. Send her back was referring to Ilhan Omar, who is an American citizen. SCIUTTO: I wanted to be clear there. Regardless, it is sending back a U.S. citizen and elected member of Congress. A remarkable and sobering moment. Abby Phillip at the White House, thanks very much.

Just a short time ago, Senator Lindsey Graham spoke with CNN's Manu Raju about the President's comments. Listen to his reaction.


SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R-SC): I don't have any animosity toward anybody who disagrees with me based on their origin. The point is, they're all American citizens entitled to their voice. And when they do provocative things, they're going to be met with provocation. So this is a two-way street, not a one-way street. I'm trying to fix the broken immigration --

REPORTER: -- there are other naturalized American citizens that of a dominantly white crowd is chanting, send her back?


GRAHAM: Here's what I think. I think the President is playing on the 1968 love it or leave it. I've said before that if you're Somali refugee wearing a MAGA hat. He

doesn't want to send you back. He probably had dinner at the White House. What does that tell me? That it's about the criticism and critic that the President believes that what they're doing is over the top. We're not running concentration camps. So when you start accusing people of running concentration camps --


HARLOW: Let's discuss this with Seung Min Kim, White House Reporter for The Washington Post, Francesca Chambers, White House Correspondent for the Daily Mail.

Ladies, to you. I do think it's interesting that Lindsey Graham there just brought up, you know, what was said by a number of Nixon supporters in '68, I think '72 as well. You know, America, love it or leave it. But, Francesca, isn't this just a lot different to hear a crowd chanting over and over again to, as Jim said, a sitting U.S. Congresswoman to go to Somalia where she came to this country as a refugee?

FRANCESCA CHAMBERS, WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT, DAILY MAIL: Well, I was actually just talking to a campaign source about this and whether or not the President's campaign believes that this is problematic and whether he is actually winning this debate, as he said yesterday. And they actually believed that he is. They think that the things that the four congresswomen have said are too radical and America will reject those.

And I asked specifically about that chant because the President stopped and waited for them to chant. He wasn't chanting himself, but he gave it room to breathe. And this person told me that people were shouting, lock her up, about Hillary Clinton, and, of course, the President never locked her up. So, obviously, he's not going to send anyone back anywhere as well.

However, President Trump did say that he wanted to investigate Hillary Clinton. He's long said he thought that she should be in jail. So the comparison there might not be a good one.

SCIUTTO: Listen, let's cut through the spin here. The President is not being dragged kicking and screaming into this rhetorical battle. He has Tweeted that he thinks that this helps him, his advisers are saying by singling out these women and making them the face of the Democratic Party, that suits his interest for 2020, does it not, Seung Min Kim?

So this idea to see Lindsey Graham, it's a two-way street, provocative is going to be met with provocative here, as if this is the President kind of reluctantly going down this path, when the facts are he sees this as politically beneficial?

SEUNG MIN KIM, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, remember how this all started in the last five days. It started out with that stunning Tweet from the President of the United States telling these liberal -- four liberal democratic congresswomen to go back to their -- like Abby said earlier, to their crime-infested countries.

It is true that for much of this year that republicans have sought to make, you know, the squad, as we call them, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the other lawmakers, kind of the face of the Democratic Party, trying to tie the broader Democratic Party to the brand of socialism. They believe that that's not where the majority of the country is.

So you've seen the Republican Party adopt that as a strategy. But the President, like he very often does, kind of cranks that up to 11 and injects this very contentious issue of race into that strategy. And that's why you're having more republicans speak out about this. I imagine later as the House and Senate vote, we'll hear more as well.

But it has been interesting to me how republican senators, particularly those allied with the President, have tried to kind of explain away. They're saying, you guys are taking him too literally. This is what he meant to say. He's not trying to single them out for your race, but there is -- and he is the President of the United States, his literal words do matter.

SCIUTTO: And the other thing you mentioned that Lindsey Graham did, the love it or leave it, going back to the '60s and '70s, that's 50 years ago. That's five decades of history now, the idea. And, listen, the idea that we're back in that kind of conversation is sobering.

HARLOW: And building on that point, Jim and I were both struck, Francesca, by Adam Kinzinger's Tweet, you know, saying he doesn't like those liberal policies but he's equally disgusted by this language and saying we risk our great union. Is he going to remain largely on an island or do you suspect, as your reporting, that other republicans will join in that chorus?

CHAMBERS: Well, Mark Walker who has also said that he was uncomfortable with what happened last night. So there are at least two. And, of course, we also know that another congressman left the Republican Party over some of these things that President Trump has said recently.

HARLOW: Yes. But it's three of hundreds, right?

CHAMBERS: But there -- and that's exactly why President Trump is not worried. That's not that many republicans who are aggressively speaking out against him on this issue. And it's also again why he believes that he can win the argument against them. Republicans are united on this issue, while democrats are publicly united, of course, we know behind closed doors just a week ago, Nancy Pelosi and these four women were arguing over their progressive policies.


And so they see them as less united as a party that could splinter if he keeps driving the wedge.

SCIUTTO: Yes. Let's though play a little devil's advocate here, Seung Min. You know, the idea that this strategy works, set aside what's right, okay, and what the President believes works. He tried a nativist anti-immigration strategy using the bull horn of the caravan going into the midterms and the republicans' own election postmortem showed that hurt republican candidates in those swing states. Is it clear that this is politically positive for the President?

KIM: Well, I just remember talking to a lot of republican strategists in the final weeks of the 2018 midterms. And they told me that every time the President talked about the caravan, you look at the polling numbers a day later, the 24 hours, and those really critical suburban swing districts. And there, the republican numbers dropped precipitously. And that's what the President's immigration rhetoric did do these really heavily contested republican districts.

And remember, it was a prescheduled press conference, but the chairman of the National Republican Campaign Committee, Tom Emmer of Minnesota, had breakfast with reporters this morning. He is the guy in charge of electing republicans to the House and he condemned those comments as well.

So you can kind of imagine, is that really politically smart for republicans in these contested House districts? And these republicans are indicating that it's not.

SCIUTTO: That's the thing. Because there's clearly a split in the Democratic Party on this issue, but there is something perhaps not as public and not as numerous split in the Republican Party on how to approach this.

Francesca Chambers, Seung Min Kim, always good to have you on.

HARLOW: Thanks, ladies.

SCIUTTO: Another story we're following closely this hour, Iran has reportedly seized a foreign ship carrying millions of liters of smuggled fuel, it says.

HARLOW: State media reports this small tanker was ambushed during an anti-smuggling operation on an island in critically important Strait of Hormuz. Our Pentagon Correspondent, Barbara Starr, is with us now. Do we know much about where the ship was from, et cetera?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: We don't at this point. The Iranians are not saying all that much publicly. The U.S. is, you know, wondering, speculating, probably wondering is a better word, if this ship is actually the tanker that disappeared over the weekend that the U.S. had been looking for to see what its fate was. There was a small tanker that went into Iranian waters. The U.S. was not certain what circumstances took it there. But Iran, at one point, had said it had helped tow this small disabled tanker and now, suddenly today, they're saying they seized a tanker that was involved in smuggling. Not exactly clear if they are the same ship.

SCIUTTO: Another part of this, as tensions with Iran remain high, the U.S. is sending now hundreds more U.S. forces to Saudi Arabia. Explain why.

STARR: 500 troops, Jim and Poppy, going to Saudi Arabia to an air base east of the capitol out in the remote desert there. They want to use the base as an area that they can fly advanced U.S. jets from so they can patrol over the Persian Gulf, they can patrol the region as deterrents against Iranian aggression. But there will also be a patriot missile battery there to help defend the air space in Saudi Arabia.

So why did they pick this area? Partially for defense of Saudi Arabia, something that's a very sensitive point with the Saudis that they would even still, after all these years of buying billions of dollars of weapons, need U.S. troops, but also picked because of its remote location in the area that Iran would have a hard time targeting with its missiles. Jim and Poppy?

HARLOW: Yes, both very, very significant. Barbara, so glad we have you on this. Thanks so much.

Still to come, happening right now, these are live picture of a critically important hearing on Capitol Hill. The acting DHS Secretary is in the hot seat. He is facing lawmakers' questions over conditions at those migrant detention facilities, the separation of families. We are keeping a very close eye on this.

SCIUTTO: As tensions escalating in Puerto Rico overnight, police fired tear gas at protesters who were calling for the government to step down. We're going to have a live update from Puerto Rico ahead.



HARLOW: Happening now, acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan is in the hot seat as the House Oversight Committee is asking him a lot of critical questions about the humanitarian crisis at the southern border.

SCIUTTO: McAleenan expected to face hard questions over family separations, conditions inside detention centers and those secret Facebook groups in which border agents mocked migrants and lawmakers as well.

Joining us is now is John Sandweg. He's the former Acting Director of ICE, as well as the former Acting Counsel at DHS. Always good to have you on, John, thanks for taking the time.


SCIUTTO: So let me begin with this because this is something I think is important. Whose responsibility is the welfare, right, of these people that are being held?


Because it is true that numbers are going up. That's no question. There are more people coming in. But it is also true that people are being held at the border longer. That's a matter of policy. It's also true that families are being separated and that was Trump administration officials have said, partly intended as a deterrent. So you're holding more people in part as a result of policies and decisions. Does that mean that the responsibility for their welfare lies with the U.S., with the U.S. government, with the detaining agencies, ICE, et cetera?

SANDWEG: Look, I think that the frustrations and the issues that we're seeing here at the border really fall at the footsteps of the White House. This is an interagency problem. It's a complex problem. It involves at least three or four different agencies to process these children.

The administration has taken this approach of a detention-based approach. And what that has done is put the Border Patrol agents in, really, an unwinnable situation where they now have to be the guardians over children in facilities that were never designed for children.

Remember, these are Border Patrol agents signed on to basically go chase drug smugglers through the desert, apprehend them, process them and remove them from the United States. But now, they're seen here as the guardians of children in facilities that really are inadequate to house children to begin with.

HARLOW: We saw five Tweets from McAleenan just as he was going into this hearing. And let me read you some of what he wrote just minutes ago. Though we saw a drop in numbers in June, total enforcement actions increased 103 percent over the same time in fiscal 2018. This year, we have had more apprehensions in the previous ten years, 688,375 total by the end of June. To put that in perspective, that averages two enforcement actions every minute for the last 272 days.

We know when the Obama administration, under which you worked, he earned the title, deporter in chief, from some immigrants rights groups, deporting about 3 million migrants during his term. This situation under this administration is holding so many more in these conditions. What is your advice, I guess, I would ask, for Kevin McAleenan at this point?

SANDWEG: You know, Poppy, I think, honestly, what we need to do here is surge resources in and flood the zone with the rule of law. What that means is, you know, instead of putting all this money into detention and facilities that have proven ineffective, surge immigration judges in to process these claims quickly.

I understand why people are frustrated with this idea that somehow because of the mass numbers of people that have come across filed asylum claims, and as a result, they've overwhelmed the system, that they can take advantage of that and stay in the United States for a long time.

But we don't need to build these mass detentions centers, separate children or house -- you know, detain children for a long in order to address the problem. We simply need the flood resources in to the officers and judges and process these asylum claims, process them quickly and then we can return the people back to Central America who don't have valid claims.

Look, I think Kevin knows that's the answer, quite frankly. I don't think he's necessarily the one though who is calling all the shots here.

HARLOW: Yes, clearly.

SCIUTTO: Well, clearly, exactly. You know how these -- the border works, you know how these various measures work and how they work together. I just want to ask you as you watch it from your position and based on your experience, is it intentional on the part of the administration to make it difficult, to make it unwelcoming, to make it even dire to some degree, right, to know that these are the conditions you're going to face if you attempt to come here and claim asylum?

SANDWEG: Yes, absolutely. I mean, look, I think there's no doubt that's part of their approach. It's a deterrence-based approach rather than just simply pragmatic approach to deal with the situation.

Why they've taken this approach, I'm not entirely sure, because it has consistently demonstrated it doesn't work. The numbers have increased year over year over year, where it have gotten harder, detaining more, separating the families, none of this has proven effective. If there's any -- you know, we need to just address the problem and that requires a simple solution, which is surge resources to handle it. The administration has been very vocal in their opposition to that and instead has doubled down on these kind of policies.

And, really, the biggest -- one of the biggest harms it's done is to the reputation of Border Patrol and ICE. And it's going to take years, years for those agencies, which are good agencies, full of really good people, to overcome the damage that this administration has caused and these policies have caused.

SCIUTTO: That's an interesting point. John Sandweg, it's always good to have you on on your direct experience on this.

SANDWEG: Thank you.

SCIUTTO: We are standing by because any minute now, dozens of documents could be released exposing a great deal of information about Trump, the Trump hush money probe payments to those women during the campaign to keep their stories silent. We're going to have more on that story coming up.



SCIUTTO: Just minutes from now, we're expecting an important document released regarding the President, a great deal of information in the Trump hush money probe expected to be made public. Federal prosecutors dropping copies of search warrant material and status reports in that investigation.

HARLOW: And it's all part of an investigation into that money paid to women who allegedly say they had affairs with the President, affairs the President denies. Why are these documents important?

Joining us now to talk about it, Arianna Berg, former Assistant Attorney for the Southern District of New York.

Good morning to you. This comes on the heels of prosecutors yesterday ending this probe into the hush money payments, eliciting quite a response from Michael Cohen's attorney, of course. He's serving jail time over this in part. What is the most significant thing that you think that these documents could show?


ARIANNA BERG, FORMER FEDERAL PROSECUTOR: Good morning. Thank you so much for having me on today. Yes, we expect any minute to get some more information, essentially --