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Trump Insists "There's No Racial Tension" After Calling "The Squad" "Racist," "Radical," "And Not Very Smart"; Rep. Rashida Tlaib Responds To Trump's Racist Remarks; Anti-Defamation League: President Trump "Using Jews As A Shield For His Racist, Xenophobic Tweets"; Lawmakers To Challenge Robert Mueller This Week; Congress And White House Face Friday Deadline To Reach Budget Deal; Luzerne County Manager David Pedri Discusses School District Threatening To Put Kids In Foster Care Over Lunch Debt. Aired 2:30-3p ET

Aired July 22, 2019 - 14:30   ET


[14:30:00] ERICA HILL, CNN HOST: Good to have both of you with us.

Nia-Malika, look, we know this is working for the president. It's working for his supporters. Are Democrats handling these continued texts the right way?

NIA-MALIKA HENDERSON, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL REPORTER: You know, it's hard to know at this point. I think when the president talks in this way and sends that racist tweet and in any way sort of stokes white anxiety or plays white identity politics, it's destabilizing for Democrats.

Because it's not something that we have seen in politics over the last 20 or 30 years played at this level. Certainly not from the White House, the president speaking in this way about members of Congress, calling them anti-American and essentially saying that they should go back to their own countries, which, of course, we know is a racist trope that has been used for centuries against African-Americans and other folks who have come to this country.

So I think, you know, it's a work in progress for Democrats.

We do know, as you said, this is a terrain that the president likes to play on.

Steve Bannon, for instance, said years ago that, you know, as long as you're getting Democrats to talk about racism and sort of throw around the idea that Republicans are racist or this president is racist, he feels that's a winning place for this president to be.

We also know in 2016 the slogan was "build the wall" and this idea in 2015 that folks were coming from the southern border and posed a threat to Americans. That's in some ways, I think, directly connected to what he's doing now.

We don't know if it's going to work in 2020. But he certainly is willing to give it another try. And Democrats have got to figure out how to consistently deal with this. Do they sort of want to move on to policy issues? Can they do both at the same time? HILL: Right.

HENDERSON: Talk about policy, but also call the president out.

HILL: Well, you know, it's interesting you bring it up.

Eliana, that's one of the complaints you do hear from both sides. We're spending so much time talking about this, we're not talking about what's actually happening.

And do hear that from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle that it is a legitimate question of, when you follow up on something, when you call it out, and when you don't. Because at this point, it would seem that the president is really dictating the narrative.

ELIANA JOHNSON, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, that's one of the things I think he has shown a particular talent at.

And it's not only dictating the narrative, but he's particularly effective at keeping it in the news. So this began early last week, and day after day, he's repeated -- he's made repeated comments about the Squad in an attempt to keep them in the news. And he's been very effective at that. And that's why the conversation has continued into this week. The Squad, in turn, has responded.

But I think the conversation has shifted a little bit. The president initially said, "send them back." He's now addressing the particularly controversial things they have said. And their response is now about impeachment. So we do see the conversation shifting a little bit.

But, yes, you know, anonymously, Democrats have spoken up, aired their complaints to the news media, saying we don't want to be talking about this, we don't want to be defined by them. We want to be talking about the bread-and-butter issues we think are going to win the election in 2020. And certainly I think that's how the presidential candidates feel.

HILL: It's fascinating, though. As we look at this, over the weekend, the president actually retweeting something from a far-right columnist in the U.K., who said, "Don't love it, leave it." It's the new campaign slogan for 2020? It's the new "lock her up." And, of course, we heard, "send her back" at that rally last week.

Nia, how prominently do you think that could actually figure throughout the next year-and-a-half?

HENDERSON: Yes. Yes. We'll see, right? What does the president do if this comes up again at his rallies? And it may very well come up again.

We saw him in the rally before not really try to calm the crowd down or sort of prevent them from saying that he was there for, what, about 13 seconds or so, as they chanted that.

And we do know that this is sort of the environment that the president likes. These sorts of loud, boisterous crowds. And remember before, "lock her up" or "build the wall." So we'll see.

He's gone back and forth about whether or not he supports this chant and whether or not he thinks folks should be chanting it. We'll see.

But I would be surprised if, you know, we don't hear this again, right? It's a catchy chant. These -- you know, go directly into what the president wants to be talking about, the idea of immigration, the idea of these women representing a different kind of America that makes people -- some people uncomfortable.

So, you know, I'll be surprised if he tries to tamp down on it.

HILL: Eliana, the Anti-Defamation League said the president is, quote, "Using Jews as a shield for his racist, xenophobic tweets."

Mercedes Schlapp, speaking to Jim Sciutto, earlier today, senior adviser to the Trump complain, when Jim asked her about it, she deflected. And her response was simply, "There's no better friend to Israel than the president."

Does that come back to haunt him?

JOHNSON: You know, Jews have never been particularly strong supporters of this president, despite his closeness to Israel. So I'm not sure that will come back to haunt him.

[14:35:01] But I think the president's -- Mercedes Schlapp's statement is precisely what the ADL meant, in that the president is wielding his support for Israel, and the criticisms that these congresswomen have made of the Israeli government, to say that they -- to intimate they are anti-Semitic, and to beat them over the head with criticism.

HILL: Eliana, Nia-Malika, always good to talk to you both. Thank you.

HENDERSON: Thank you.

HILL: One of Pennsylvania's poorest school districts is in the spotlight today, for all the wrong reasons. Parents threatened to either pay their children's lunch debt or have their children taken away.


[14:40:21] HILL: Democrats preparing for a big moment a long time and coming this week, questioning Robert Mueller under oath.

The president today saying, maybe he'll watch a little bit of Mueller's testimony. Going on to call the hearings, once again, a waste of time.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: No, I'm not going to be watching. Probably, maybe I'll see a little bit of it. I'm not going to be watching Mueller, because you can't take all those bites out of the apple. We had no collusion. No obstruction.

They're wasting their time.

And Robert Mueller -- I know he's conflicted. There's a lot of conflicts he's got, including the fact that his best friend is Comey.

But he's got conflicts with me, too. He's got big conflicts with me.


HILL: Many Democrats believe Mueller's testimony will help make the case to the American people that the president, in fact, did break the law, that he must be impeached.


REP. JERRY NADLER (D-NY): The report presents a very substantial evidence that the president is guilty of high crimes and misdemeanors. And we have to present -- or let Mueller present those facts to the American people and see where we go from there. Because the administration must be held accountable and no president can be above the law.

REP. ADAM SCHIFF (D-CA): Since most Americans in their busy lives haven't had the opportunity to read that report, and it's a pretty dry prosecutorial work product, we want Bob Mueller to bring it to life, to talk about what's in that report.


HILL: There's a lot to unpack as we prepare for Wednesday. It will be a big day.

Jennifer Rodgers is a former federal prosecutor and CNN legal analyst.

That might be a tall order to bring this report to life. As we know, there's a lot of talk about who read it, who hasn't read it. It is dense, I agree.

However, as we look at this, Robert Mueller has made it very clear, he's reluctant to testify. He says he will not go beyond what's in that report.

Where do you think is the opening for Democrats then to get Robert Mueller to give them a little bit more information, some sort of game- changing testimony that they believe is going to happen?

JENNIFER RODGERS, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Well, I think there are a couple of ways that Democrats do it. But they need to be very careful.

They can have him bring it to life if they ask him very precise, quick, short questions that causes him to go through the evidence where they did find substantial evidence of the president's obstruction.

And then there are a couple of other ways they ought to get information from Mueller outside of the four corners of the report itself.

With the counterintelligence investigation, we don't know what happened with that. He should be able to talk about that.

And the 2020 election threat. This is an ongoing threat. He mentioned it at the press conference. Hopefully, he'll be willing to talk more about that, as well.

HILL: I'm glad you brought that up. That was something he was very forceful on at the press conference, talking about the threats of 2020. It's an ongoing threat. Clearly, not seeing the kind of action he believes we should be seeing in terms of the threat.

Where do you think that questioning will take us, both with Democrats and Republicans? Could Republicans, you think, broach that at all?

RODGERS: I don't know if they will. But I hope that they do. Because this really ought to be an issue that is a bipartisan issue, protecting our elections from interference. So hopefully, both sides of the aisle will want to talk about that. And I hope the public pays attention, too.

You know, he really did, Mueller, seem to feel strongly about this at the press conference, that everyone should be focused on this.

So this is an area where I really think, hopefully, both sides can get in on it and we can start talking about what steps need to be taken in advance of the 2020 election, which is really almost upon us as we speak.

HILL: There's a risk and, frankly, on both sides. Perhaps, you know, a little more on the Democrats, because there's a little more pressure on them here. But there's this risk of grandstanding. And we have seen a lot of it in Washington as of late. So it's the grandstanding versus asking an actual question.

What is your thought, just as you watched everything? How much real questioning do you think we're going to get here?

RODGERS: I hope more than usual. You know, they love to be seen. They want to have their moment in the sun. But it's really important to ask precise, careful questions. So I really hope they'll be listening to their staffs, who hopefully will be putting together questions in advance so they don't waste time.

Because if you're really looking for kind of hippy sound bites the public will take away from them, those only come with very carefully crafted questions, like a cross-examination would be in court.

So that's what I'm hoping they go for. It will require putting aside the grandstanding a little bit.

HILL: We have heard about how Democrats are working to make sure that they're going about this the right way.

When it comes to Republicans, what do you think we'll hear from them in terms of questioning? If not just grandstanding, which we can see from both sides, where do you think they'll take the questions?

RODGERS: So if they're smart about this, what they will do is they will take him through all of what the investigation did. The millions of documents, hundreds of witnesses interviewed, 22 months, a really talented staff. And so kind of get him to say, yes, we did a good job, thorough job, a comprehensive job.

[14:45:13] And then start to ask very pointed questions. And with all of that, you found no evidence of conspiracy between the president and Russians? No evidence between the campaign and Russians? No evidence between the campaign and Russians? No evidence of any American conspiring with the Russians?

If you ask careful questions like that, you'll get the sound bites that the Republicans are looking for.

HILL: We will be watching for all of it.

Jennifer Rodgers, good to see you. Thanks.

RODGERS: Thanks, Erica.

HILL: Be sure to tune in as former Special Counsel Robert Mueller, testifies before Congress. Our coverage here on CNN begins Wednesday morning, 8:00 Eastern.

Stunning new court documents show drug companies shipped hundreds of millions of doses of opioids to two counties, just two counties, in Ohio. Just ahead, you'll meet a mother and father who have felt the direct impact of those actions. They'll tell us about their son they lost to addiction.


[14:50:27] HILL: The pressure is on right now in Washington. The White House and Congress rushing to work out a budget deal by this Friday. If they fail, the U.S. could run out of money before lawmakers return from their August recess.

Right now, they're looking into nearly $1.4 trillion budget, which includes a two-year suspension of the debt ceiling.

And keep this in mind. As we said, they have until Friday, and at this point, nothing is on paper yet.

CNN Congressional Correspondent, Phil Mattingly, joins us from Capitol Hill.

So how is it looking? Any possible areas of agreement here?

PHIL MATTINGLY, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes. You know, Erica, the interesting or funny part about this town, despite the partisan rancor, there's nothing like a crisis or crises to get people together to try and make a deal. That's basically where they are right now. There's two pieces to this. There's raising the debt ceiling or

suspending the debt ceiling. Obviously, if they did not do that, the default would be catastrophic for the market. That's one trigger here.

The other is automatic spending cuts the U.S. is facing, the U.S. Congress is starting early next year.

Both pieces have driven these two parties together and the White House, trying to figure out an agreement.

And here's where they stand right there, now, essentially on the cusp of that agreement. What they will do is increase spending for both defense and non-defense domestic on an equal basis. That's what Republicans and Democrats want. They will suspend the debt ceiling for two years, push it past the election, which is what a lot of negotiators want, as well.

For Democrats, one of the things they had a problem with that Republicans put on the table is Republicans wanted to pay for a lot of the spending increases. Right now, they'll end up with about $75 billion in offsets, much less than the White House wanted.

For the White House, Democrats have offered essentially a verbal agreement that they won't try and restrict how the administration moves or reprograms funding in the future.

So that's the core tenants of the agreement.

One thing is missing right now. The president's signoff. As we have seen over the last two years, he can make or break these things. That's what everybody is waiting for. But right now, they're at least on track, depending on what the man in the Oval Office says -- Erica?

HILL: As we both know, Friday is a long way off.



HILL: Phil Mattingly, appreciate it. Thank you.


HILL: There's breaking news this hour in the showdown with Iran. President Trump speaking from the Oval Office, moments ago, saying, "We are ready for the absolute worst." What could that mean? That's next.


[14:57:03] HILL: Hey, your kid's lunch debt or your children could be taken out of your home and put in foster care. Imagine getting that letter. Well, lots of those letters were sent out in one of Pennsylvania's poorest school districts. And now they are under scrutiny. That letter went home to parents. And, again, that's what the threat


The county manager for Luzerne County, David Pedri, joins me now.

As county manager, you also oversee child protective services, foster care. What do you know about this letter and this threat?

DAVID PEDRI, COUNTRY MANAGER, LUZERNE COUNTY, PENNSYLVANIA: Erica, when this letter went out, Luzerne County was shocked. This is not something that we do.

The foster care system is to be utilized as a shield to protect children, not as a sword. It shouldn't be utilized to try to get parents to pay school debt.

We're there to help kids when they're abused. We're there to help families when they're in tragedy. This is not what we do. And this is not who we are.

HILL: It has a lot of people not only scratching their heads, but outraged, quite honestly.

The district's lawyer defended the letter and said, quote, "Hopefully, it will get their attention." It certainly did, didn't it?

If you think about it, you're here this morning. He said this to a reporter, because some parents cried foul, because they don't want to pay a debt attributed to feeding their kids. How shameful. The letter itself shamed parents, saying you're sending your kids to school without a meal. You're not paying their debt.

What is the reality of the situation for many of these parents?

PEDRI: Here's what happens in real life. These parents are poor. These kids are going to school. They're trying to do the right thing. A lot of times these issues come up. We have to work with them. We have to work with our school districts. And we get that.

But the main thing is foster care should never be utilized as a weapon or to try to terrorize families into doing something. That's not what foster care is. We're trying to change perception as to what we do in real life.

HILL: And to be clear, not only is that not what you do, but could you even legally take someone's children because they owe, say, $22 to the school cafeteria?

PEDRI: Well, let me put it this way. Luzerne County foster care will never take a kid for not paying school dealt debt and we never will.

HILL: What's the solution here for the county because there are clearly families in need?

PEDRI: We hope families reach out to us. We can work with the families. There are state and federal programs we can come across to assist these families along their way.

Most importantly, we've got to get the word out there that this is a real issue we have to talk about. But most importantly, let's draw attention. No one is coming to take your kids in the middle of the night. This isn't a bogeyman coming to get your kids for school lunch debt. This was a way to get parents to pay a bill. Bill collectors do it in the wrong way sometimes. We think they did in this case, as well.

HILL: David Pedri, I appreciate you joining us. And we'll continue to follow up on this. Thank you.

PEDRI: Thank you for having me on.

HILL: Top of the hour now. I'm Erica Hill, in for Brooke Baldwin today.

We begin with Puerto Rico turning on its government, frustrated, angered by leaders that many feel have failed them, failed the citizens. Hundreds of thousands of protesters are in the streets today, braving the rain, demanding the resignation of Puerto Rico's governor, Ricardo Rossello.


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