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Panic in America; Will Trump Follow Through on Background Check Promises?; Scares Across U.S. Cause Panic After Deadly Mass Shootings; No. 2 Intel Official Steps Down Amid Trump's Loyalty Concerns. Aired 4-4:30p ET

Aired August 9, 2019 - 16:00   ET




JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: The check is in the mail, and I promise I'll do something about background checks.

THE LEAD starts right now.

President Trump again makes a promise to get tougher on gun background checks. He says Congress is behind him. But is this going to be any different than the last time he said it and did nothing?

Fear in America. From heavily armed men to false alarms, all sparking very real panic in public places across the country. A look at a nation on edge after two more mass shootings.

Plus, several 2020 candidates now have no problem calling the president of the United States a white supremacist. The president says that is the last card they have to play. How is that all playing out in the proving ground of the election?

Welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

We begin with the politics lead.

President Trump today is once again claiming he will pursue expanding -- quote -- "meaningful and intelligent background checks" for gun sales, as he has before in the past in the immediate aftermath of mass shootings in the U.S., such as after the massacre in Parkland, Florida, last year for example.

President Trump on his way to vacation at his golf club in New Jersey said he is talking to congressional leaders, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who the president claims is -- quote -- "totally on board" with this plan, though McConnell's spokesperson almost immediately disputed that, telling CNN McConnell did not endorse anything in his conversation with President Trump.

The president has, of course, promised action on expanding background checks before. He has never followed through, and we should note earlier this year even threatened, the president, threatened to veto two bills passed by the Democratic-led House to strengthen background checks.

CNN's Pamela Brown has more now on the president repeating this promise to the American people, the one he's broken many times before.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We want to take the guns out of the hands of crazy, demented, sick people.

PAMELA BROWN, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): President Trump claiming he will do something on gun control.

TRUMP: I think we could get something really good done. I think we can have some really meaningful background checks.

BROWN: But it is not clear what.

TRUMP: I think that the Republicans are going to be great and lead the charge, along with the Democrats. I spoke yesterday to Nancy Pelosi. We had a great talk. I spoke to Chuck Schumer. We had a great talk.

BROWN: The president says he has a commitment to take up background checks from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who has been under pressure from Democrats to bring the Senate back from its five-week recess and even facing protesters at his Kentucky home.

TRUMP: He's totally on board.

BROWN: But McConnell's spokesman today saying the senator leader hasn't endorsed anything, adding the Senate won't come back early and saying McConnell has only promised to let the Senate discuss background check and red flag warning legislation when it returns.

SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY): Those are two items that for sure will be front and center as we see what we can come together on and pass.

BROWN: The president also talking with the National Rifle Association's Wayne LaPierre, tweeting today that: "Their very strong views can be fully represented and respected."

TRUMP: I have a great relationship with the NRA. They're really good people. They're great patriots. They love our country. They love our country so much. And, frankly, I really think they're going to get there also.

BROWN: In a statement, LaPierre warning lawmakers: "The NRA opposes any legislation that unfairly infringes upon the rights of law-abiding citizens."

And while some analysts believe a bruising leadership battle inside of the NRA weakened its influence in Washington, Trump says he will take their calls and wants their support in 2020.

TRUMP: I think in the end Wayne and the NRA will either be there or maybe will be a little bit more neutral. And that would be OK, too. BROWN: After LaPierre warned Trump earlier this week his base

wouldn't like background checks, the president today said this about his supporters:

TRUMP: I think my base relies very much on common sense and they rely on me in terms of telling them what is happening.


BROWN: And the president today, Jake, was asked about how this is different from after Parkland, when the president didn't follow through on some of his pledges.

Well, the president said in response to that that he never said then what he said now. But, as you will recall, Jake, he did say back then that he was in support of strengthening background checks, and then he backed down under pressure from the NRA.

Also, Jake, the White House isn't saying whether the president will now support or is considering support of the House bill on background checks that the White House has previously threatened to veto -- Jake.

TAPPER: All right, Pamela Brown at the White House, thanks so much.

Our panel of political experts is here.

And let's start right there, where Pamela was talking. President Trump said in February 2018 after that horrific massacre in Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida -- this is what he said about background checks.



TRUMP: We're going to be very strong on background checks. We will be doing very strong background checks.

We want to be very powerful, very strong on background checks.

We certainly have to strengthen background checks. Everybody agrees with that.


TAPPER: And yet nothing happened, and the president spent no political capital to do this.

So why -- and maybe it is, but why would anyone think this time is going to be any different?

KAROUN DEMIRJIAN, "THE WASHINGTON POST": Only because it seems like at this point the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, is saying, maybe we will do something.

He's not committing to spend any political capital to do anything, but he's saying, maybe we will be open to red flag legislation or some sort of other gun control legislation.

But if the president doesn't go there first, it is very unlikely that he will have the wind at his back in the Senate, that the Republicans will actually go ahead of where the president goes.

And, as we have seen, the president waffles on this sort of thing whenever he gets to feel too much pressure from the NRA, too much pressure from the GOP wing that doesn't want him to act on this.

So will the president make a move in the next few weeks that paves the way for Congress to do it? That is a possibility. But it would have to go the other direction from what he's historically done.

TAPPER: And polling-wise, background checks, universal background checks are incredibly popular, even among Republicans. Right?

KRISTEN SOLTIS ANDERSON, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: Even among Republicans. Even among members of the NRA. And for a long time, there has been talk about, is there a difference between people who are gun owners and the leadership of the NRA in terms of their view point on certain issues?

There are other things like handgun bans where, et cetera, there is wide opposition. But on something like background checks, you tend to see pretty significant majorities in favor.

But I think in order to get a Republican president doing it, it in a way has to be someone like Trump, who has such strong hold on the base, where you have 90-plus percent of Republicans thinking they have a favorable view of him, in order to take on what is a pretty strong and influential group within the party.

You saw Trump able to do that with things like criminal justice reform, that you could see the political winds on that may have been -- made things different if it wasn't Trump. But almost like a Nixon goes to China sort of situation, can Trump be the Republican president that actually gets his party into a different place on gun reform?

He may be the unique figure in the party, in that he would be the one able to move them.

TAPPER: And, of course, as we know, Madam Mayor, the mass shootings are not the number one incident that causes gun deaths. It is the one-offs or the two-offs, whether it is rural America or urban America like Baltimore, which you used to be the mayor of.

Would universal background checks help the people of Baltimore? Would it be effective?

STEPHANIE RAWLINGS-BLAKE (D), FORMER MAYOR OF BALTIMORE, MARYLAND: I think we have very strong -- many cities across the country have very strong gun laws.

Universal background checks would be good across the country, but the gun laws in Baltimore and in Maryland are stronger than most across the state. So I fear not for Marylanders when we're talking about this gun

reform, but other jurisdictions around the country. And to the point about can Trump do it, I'm not waiting for him to be courageous politically or anything else.

I think it will be different when we see different from the people. We learned the hard way that polls don't vote. So we can talk about the fact that 90 percent or more of the people across this country want commonsense gun reform. We have to see it.

There is no doubt in Hong Kong how people feel about China's influence. They are showing it every day. We need more people, not just after an incident, but more people on a consistent basis to show it with their voices, with their presence that they're not going to tolerate the status quo.

TAPPER: Background checks would not have necessarily -- I don't think there is any evidence it would have prevented either the mass shooting in Dayton or the mass shooting in El Paso.

It is possible that really, really strong red flag laws, where if family members or police see somebody that might be a harm to himself or others and adjudicate to get guns removed from that person temporarily, it is possible it could have played a role, but probably still unlikely.

SABRINA SIDDIQUI, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, the way so-called red flag laws work is that a family or someone who knows an individual they believe is a harm to themselves or others can go and petition in court to get what is a temporary restraining order that would prevent that individual from being able to access firearms.

And it has been adopted in roughly 17 states and the District of Columbia. But the challenge with the proposal of Republicans in Congress are pushing is that it doesn't require states to adopt red flag legislation, so it is not actually enforcing change at a federal level or mandating change.

It is incentivizing states to adopt those bills. And there is no guarantee, particularly in Republican-controlled states across the country, that they're going to implement red flag legislation just because the federal government is incentivizing them to do so.

I think the challenge here is that what you're probably going to see is a watered-down version of any kind of legislation. Even Manchin- Toomey was a watered-down version of background checks. It expanded them, but it didn't make them universal.

And if you have a president who is willing to really use the bully pulpit that is at his disposal to build the case not just to members of Congress, but also to the American public, you are not going to see any meaningful action.

[16:10:04] That is why we have been down this road so many times. And with President Trump, the fact he's in frequent communication with the NRA, which has explicitly made clear its opposition to universal background checks, I just don't think we are going to see anything change.

TAPPER: I'm old enough to have covered Columbine.

And I remember we were talking about the gun show loophole, which is basically the debate over universal background checks, back then, 1999. Do you think something will happen?

DEMIRJIAN: Look, the discussion has not changed that much in 20 years, right? And that is the sad part about this.

There's many things. We know the answer is if you want to solve that problem, but Congress decides they don't actually want to address that issue in that way.

Look, the president is speaking less about gun control than he did a year-and-a-half ago, if not more. And that suggests that you're not necessarily going to see the president rushing to take that bully pulpit, as you said, and to push the issue the way he could if he chose to spend his political capital in this way.

It is an election year. He's probably more nervous about the potential cost of doing that, but at this point you need the president to take that stand. He hasn't indicated in the last few days that that is the direction he is moving.

TAPPER: And what is the point of political capital if you don't spend it, is one argument.

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

A man in body armor carrying a rifle sparking panic at a Walmart, just one example of the fear spreading across America right now, as people prepare for a weekend running errands. Let's hope that is all that happens this weekend.

Then, as the Democratic presidential candidates descend on the Iowa State Fair, there is one label they're all being asked about. What is it?

Stay with us.


[16:15:35] JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: In our national lead, the fear and fallout from the murders of 31 innocent people is weighing heavily on the minds of many Americans less than a week after those two horrific shooting rampages in Texas and Ohio. In addition to the terror, we've heard voice from various members of minority communities just this week, any number of incidents including four in New York City, Utah, Louisiana and Missouri, sending people into panic, including last night.

A heavily armed man in full body armor arrested walking around a Walmart charged with making a terrorist threat.

CNN's Ed Lavandera now has more on America on edge.


ED LAVANDERA, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Not in my home town. The accused racist terrorist in El Paso is telling investigators he chose the border city instead of Allen, Texas, where he's from, some ten hours away, because he believed if he pulled off his deadly attack in another city, his family and friends wouldn't know it was him.

Three sources with knowledge of the investigation tell CNN Patrick Crusius expressed shame at the idea of doing it near his home.

Throughout the country, the El Paso gunman's actions has already put people on edge. This 20-year-old is now facing a terror threat charge striking fear inside a Springfield, Missouri, Walmart after walking through the store dressed like this.

LT. MIKE LUCAS, SPRINGFIELD POLICE DEPARTMENT: There were people hiding outside behind the barriers and businesses sand it was pretty chaotic.

LAVANDERA: It's the latest example of angst and anxiety across America, from Times Square in New York, where a motorcycle backfiring sent people running, to a mall in Utah where a sign crashing to the ground had shoppers scrambling to safety.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We didn't know what was going on until somebody went in to tell us we feed to leave the place. So, we just jump basically ran.

LAVANDERA: A Costco in California was evacuated after reports of a possible gunman inside. All of these incidents and others like it just this week.

And while protesters plead with Washington to act.


LAVANDERA: Walmart today took the first actions since the shootings, deciding to stop playing violent movies in their TV sections and eliminating displays of violent video games, but still planning to sell the games as well as guns.


LAVANDERA: And, Jake, newly filed court documents, El Paso police say the suspect confessed to the murders with an AK-47, shooting multiple people and that he had come here to El Paso to target, quote, Mexicans, and that when he was approached by police just a few blocks away from the shooting scene, he emerged from his car and put his hands up and declared "I'm the shooter" -- Jake.

TAPPER: Ed, before you go, let me ask you, you've been in El Paso for about a week now. How is the community handling this? How are they doing after all of this pain and all of this horror?

LAVANDERA: Well, Jake, you know, I think after reflecting on this over the course of the last week, I was struck by what we've seen here today when I first got here to the shooting scene just hours afterwards, we were standing there on that corner where this memorial has emerged. There was nothing there. And then we started slowly seeing these public displays of grief, people bringing flowers and a number of murals across the city that have popped up, one that says "El Paso Strong" and one says in Spanish, "El Paso, you are not alone".

And I'm left thinking about the words of a man I met while we were riding a vintage street trolley here in downtown El Paso, Jake, who thought -- I asked if he thought -- what the legacy and what kind of impact the shooting would leave on the city and he said it -- he sounded very upbeat and very hopeful. He said he thought in the end the family values, the values of love that this community shares will win over the values of hate that this gunman brought here to this city and that man kind of left thinking he thought the rest of the country would see these public displays of grief and affection amongst one another and that ultimately would prevail -- Jake.

TAPPER: A great American city, El Paso.

Ed Lavandera, thank you so much. Appreciate it.

A handwritten note that may say it all about President Trump's relationship with the intelligence community. That's next.


[16:24:22] TAPPER: In our politics lead, the way that President Trump selected his new director of national intelligence has alarmed intelligence professionals across the board.

He passed over the number two at the intelligence agency, Sue Gordon, because, two sources tell CNN, it was believed that Gordon would not be the, quote, type of political loyalist the president wanted in the role, unquote. Her decades of experience notwithstanding, the president's son attacked Gordon on Twitter last week, referring to rumors about her.

Sue Gordon made clear in her farewell note to the president which the White House released that stepping down was not her idea -- as CNN's Alex Marquardt reports.


[16:25:01] ALEXANDER MARQUARDT, CNN SENIOR NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): In just a few carefully chosen words, Sue Gordon makes it clear it was not her choice to leave. A handwritten note to the president attached to her resignation letter saying it is an act of patriotism, not preference. You should have your team.

A team she saw she would be no part of.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Sue did a great job. I like Sue Gordon very much.

MARQUARDT: The president today praising Gordon as did he on Twitter Thursday night, announcing her departure.

But she has represented what he has railed against. Almost 40 years in the intelligence community making her firmly part of that establishment, he has long been suspicious of. Tweeting after the intelligence chief's worldwide threats briefing they should go back to school.

In recent years, she reported to President Obama's CIA director, John Brennan, and then Dan Coats, the president a fan of neither of them.

Former CIA Director, General Michael Hayden, told Jake Tapper, Coats is a good man but Gordon kept the trains running on time. Trump doesn't understand what it is to be a professional intelligence officer.

When Trump did not name Gordon the acting DNI after Coats decided to resign two weeks ago, the writing was on the wall, as the president bashed the intelligence community.

TRUMP: We need somebody strong that can really reign it in because as I think you've all learned, the intelligence agencies have run amok. They've run amok.

MARQUARDT: Congressional leaders, including some top Republicans, wanted Gordon to stick around. Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr called her departure a significant loss, saying, I will miss her candor and deep knowledge.

Instead of Gordon, the president has named Joseph Maguire to be the acting DNI. The retired vice admiral is a former Navy SEAL, a Special Forces commander and the current director of the National Counterterrorism Center. But if the president is looking for a yes- man, Maguire has said that won't be him.

JOSEPH MAGUIRE, NATIONAL COUNTERTERRORISM CENTER DIRECTOR NOMINEE: I promise to tell the truth and to be able to represent the information and the hard analysis from the intelligence community professionals as accurately and forthcoming as I possibly can, and I am more than willing to speak truth to power.


MARQUARDT: And, Jake, while it was not entirely unexpected that Sue Gordon would have to step down, it did happen far more abruptly than anticipated. Our colleagues Zack Cohen (ph) and Kaitlan Collins are reporting that during a meeting on election security just yesterday that Gordon was in, the outgoing DNI Dan Coats interrupted it and asked her to submit her letter of resignation. We don't know why he suddenly did that during a meeting, but we are told that Gordon gave the letter to Vice President Pence after meeting with him instead of President Trump, even though the letter is addressed to the president -- Jake.

TAPPER: Alex Marquardt, thanks so much.

Joining me now to discuss this is former CIA counterterrorism official and CNN analyst, Phil Mudd.

Phil, Gordon got a lot of praise from the intel community, bipartisan support from lawmakers, everyone was telling the president that she is the person for the job.

What questions does this raise for you on the president's judgment when it comes to who he wants running intelligence?

PHIL MUDD, CNN COUNTERTERRORISM ANALYST: Pretty simple question, who is going to speak to us about things like you're just talking about, election security. Dan Coats said something different in public about election security and Russian interference than the president wanted him to say. Look, the audience for the intelligence community isn't just the president. It's also the Congress and the American people.

So let me lay out why people are concerned about the change and Sue Gordon's departure. Going into election season, if you have a loyalist in that office, will they speak about what the intelligence community sees in terms of Russian interference, or will they hear the same thing they hear from the Oval Office including the Congress of the United States who will be briefed by the DNI.

I'd be worried that the intel will be masked by someone who wants to reflect the president's words and there is a big air gap between what the intel guys believe and what the president says.

TAPPER: I spoke with a former senior national security official and he said really good positive things about Maguire and Maguire said he would not be a yes-man. Are you concerned at all about him?

MUDD: No. He has -- I don't know him well. I met him a few times. He has a very good reputation among colleagues. I suspect he was appointed to the acting position because the president knew he would be an easy sell for a short period of time among intelligence professionals and on Capitol Hill.

I would be surprised if the president -- surprised is a mild word -- if the president nominates him full time. But yes, among my colleagues, he's well-regarded and I do think he would speak truth to power.

TAPPER: That's right. He is just acting director right now.

MUDD: Yes.

TAPPER: Gordon's letter was pretty cut and dry. I offer this letter as an act of respect and patriotism, not preference. You should have your team.

She's basically saying, I want to keep on the job but you're shoving me off.

MUDD: She's saying more than that. Look, whether it's the U.S. military, whether it's a diplomatic post, whether it's the intelligence people, whether it's Jake Tapper show, you would say, especially -- she's got 30-plus years in the business when the head that is the DNI leaves as a courtesy, you're going to say, even if you want to retire, even if you've already put in your retirement papers, I'm going to stick around for a few months and help the transition, make sure the trains run on time.

For a professional with 30-plus years to say I'm not even going to do the transition, that's a message, Jake. That means she was nudged out and was unhappy.

TAPPER: All right. Phil Mudd, thanks so much. Appreciate it, sir.

Democratic presidential candidates using two words to describe President Trump. But could those two words help re-elect him? That's next.