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Pentagon: ISIS Regain Strength in Iraq and Syria; White House Tries to Bolster Economy Amid Recession Fears; White House Officials Discuss Potential Payroll Tax Cut. Aired 9-9:30a ET

Aired August 20, 2019 - 09:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


[09:00:00] JIM SCIUTTO, CNN ANCHOR: A very good morning to you. I'm Jim Sciutto in New York. Poppy Harlow is off today.

A new CNN poll out this morning, and it shows the former vice president Joe Biden isn't going anywhere. In fact, his lead is building. Now nearly double that of rivals Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. The message in the numbers seems to be that only Biden in the view of most voters can beat Trump. It's a point he makes clear in a new ad targeting Iowa voters.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We have to beat Donald Trump. And all the polls agree Joe Biden is the strongest Democrat to do the job.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SCIUTTO: Last month it seemed that Senator Kamala Harris was surging, a surging threat to Biden. But that surge is now gone as she sinks back down to single digits, far back in the pack. So, is Biden still beatable? I mean, it's early.

Let's check in with CNN senior political writer and analyst Harry Enten.

You know, look at the numbers. We've talked about this for some time, and you made the point to me that if he stays with this kind of lead over time, that's a sign that he's becoming more inevitable. Is that where we are right now?

HARRY ENTEN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL WRITER AND ANALYST: Yes, I mean, so let's take a look. We'll break down everything and we'll get exactly that point a little later on. So I think this is one of the key divides right now for top choice of the Democratic nominees. Do you consider yourself a Democrat or independent? Of course both of those can vote -- I think there's a key breakdown because among Democrats that's where Biden's advantage is coming from. He's up at 31 percent. Sanders at 12, Warren down at 17.

Among independents, if it were just independent voting, that would actually be a very close race between Biden and Sanders, 23 versus 21 percent, but, Jim, that's not the only breakdown that we're looking at here. I think this is also a key one. Look at this. So this is liberals versus moderates and conservatives. Among liberals what we see is a three-way tie right here. Biden, Sanders Warren. Warren actually slightly out ahead, 23, 22, 22. But among those moderate to conservative voters, those Democrats, that is where Biden's advantage is coming from.

Look at that, look at that huge lead, up over 20 points over both Sanders and Warren. And one other thing I'll just kind of point out right here which I think is rather key, top choice for the nomination, under and over 50, among those under 50, look at this, folks. Look at this. This is so key. Sanders, 22 percent, Biden, 21 percent. But among those 50 and older, look at this, a huge advantage, 25-point advantage for Joe Biden right now, 37 to 12. Sanders falling back at 7 percent.

SCIUTTO: It's interesting because, I mean, he's a big advantage above 50, but it's not like he's got a -- you know, he's far behind among the other voters.

ENTEN: That's exactly right. He's keeping his deficits lower, he's trailing, and he has a huge advantage where he's leading and that's a winning combination right now.

SCIUTTO: OK. So, Biden talking a lot about electability here as was Dr. Jill Biden, his wife, yesterday. Is that a key deciding issue for voters who choose him?

ENTEN: Well, I think that this is so important. So take a look at this. Strong chance of beating Trump, shares your positions. Right here we have it both among whites without a college degree, whites with a college degree. Among those whites with a college degree, look at that, strong chance of beating Trump, 65 percent say that's more important and shares your positions on the issues just at 29 percent. Even among whites without a college degree, again, you know, you're talking about the deficits, keeping them low.

Look at this, shares your positions is a little bit preferred among whites without a college degree, 49 percent. But that's still very, very close here. But among this group and overall what we see is those Democrats prefer someone who has a strong chance of beating Trump than someone who shares your positions on the issues.

SCIUTTO: OK. The other big issue here is, let's look at history. You know, past front-runner -- there have been a lot of past front runners with big leads and then they disappeared. But again you made this point to me over time that if that lead sustains over time, they become more likely being the nominee. Where does he stand now?

ENTEN: Yes. So I think that this is rather important. And so this is basically -- I looked at both the Iowa caucuses and the national primaries, July, August, and the year before the caucus, so these were a bunch of failed national front runners, right? You remember these folks. Jeb Bush, Rudy Giuliani, Joe Lieberman. Compare them to where Biden is. So right now Biden at 31 percent nationally, if you take an average of all of the polls, and that is actually ahead of where Jeb Bush was nationally at 13 percent, Rudy Giuliani, 27 percent, Joe Lieberman, 17 percent. But it's not just nationally. I think the key thing here, Jim, is

that in Iowa what we see is that Biden's advantage nationally is translating to Iowa. So last week what we saw was Biden in a Monmouth University poll at 28 percent in Iowa, and that's well ahead of where these three folks were. And if you were to basically extrapolate this out, which you would say at this point, based upon the national polling and the Iowa polling, Biden would have about a 40 percent chance of winning the Democratic nomination.

SCIUTTO: Forty percent. I will note to you that that's also the chances the Mets make the playoffs, but I might note that.

ENTEN: You're going to note that to me and we're going to note it together.

SCIUTTO: And we're the only two people in the world that care about that.

Harry Enten, thank you very much.

ENTEN: Have a good one.

SCIUTTO: Joining me now to discuss all this, CNN political commentator David Swerdlick, assistant editor at the "Washington Post" and CNN political analyst, Julie Hirschfeld Davis, she's congressional correspondent at "The New York Times."

So, David, the way this race is shaping up as we speak to Harry Enten who's deep in the numbers is that electability really a big deciding issue for many Democratic voters here.

[09:05:01] Listen to how Dr. Jill Biden, the vice president's -- former vice president's wife spoke about this yesterday. I want to get your reaction.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JILL BIDEN, WIFE OF JOE BIDEN: I know that not all of you are committed to my husband, and I respect that. Your candidate might be better on, I don't know, health care, than Joe is, but you've got to look at who's going to win this election. And maybe you have to swallow a little bit and say, OK, I sort of personally like so and so better, but your bottom line has to be that we have to beat Trump.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SCIUTTO: So, David, you have to swallow it and vote for Biden. I mean, is that the sign of a, you know, hot campaign, one that's really attracting voters here?

DAVID SWERDLICK, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Yes, good morning, Jim. So I think it was an unusual but refreshingly honest take on what's going on here. The campaign that Vice President Biden is running as articulated by his wife Dr. Jill Biden is that this is the guy who can best beat Trump. He may not be your first choice but your first choice is beating Trump, her speaking to Democratic voters, and I think that right now at least that's working for them as evidenced by those polls that you and Harry just rolled out.

I do think that Democrats are putting a lot of eggs in that electability basket when they haven't thought as much about how Vice President Biden is going to match up on a debate stage with President Trump and I also think that Senator Warren is still a little bit of an undervalued stock there, but that's the state of play right now, and I think she expressed it pretty clearly even though it's weird for a campaign to say that about its own candidate.

SCIUTTO: So, Julie, it rings a little bit familiar when you look back to 2016 where Democratic bigwigs were like, listen, Hillary Clinton, she's the electable candidate. Look at that resume, and we know how that turned out. I mean, is that dangerous for Democrats here?

JULIE HIRSCHFELD DAVIS, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, I think there is some concern among Democrats that, you know, they could be headed down the same sort of road that they were on in 2016 when everyone sort of considered it a forgone conclusion that Hillary Clinton was, you know, the one who was likely to win, that she'd be able to go toe-to-toe with Trump and win. And I think that that's a concern.

But it's particularly interesting to me that the Biden campaign is pushing this electability narrative so hard so early on particularly when, if you look at some of the polling that we've seen in the last few weeks and months, the head-to-head between with Donald Trump and some of the other Democratic candidates show him losing, so in a lot of ways I think that they are really investing in this argument and clearly it's the premise of the Biden campaign that he's the one who's best able to beat Donald Trump, but right now it seems like it's more of an assertion than a proven sort of truism.

And so we'll just see whether that actually holds true and whether Democrats do get a little bit uncomfortable that they're perhaps making too many assumptions in going with that theory.

SCIUTTO: And David, the theory, part of the theory here is that Joe Biden more than a coastal liberal can win the key swing states in this election. The Wisconsins, the Michigans, the Pennsylvanias.

SWERDLICK: Right.

SCIUTTO: Does that argument hold water?

SWERDLICK: Well, it depends on which theory of the case you have. Yes, Democrats have to play in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin. Florida is going to be a reach for them. North Carolina that President Obama won the first time is a real reach for them, so the rustbelt is where they've got to sort of take their stand and take those states back from President Trump. And if you look at Joe Biden as the Scranton, Pennsylvania, guy, you know, someone who is popular because of his association with President Obama who remains extraordinarily popular with Democrats, and because he's seen as more politically moderate, yes, that is one of theory of the case of getting to those midwestern heartland states.

On the other hand, though, those are states where President Trump resonated with his message particularly to the white working class in the last election, and whether or not Vice President Biden going with a message of essentially I'm the anti-Trump is going with work this time I think is an open question. I think it's a good theory but I don't think it's a theory that's a lock by any means, as Julie kind of just said there. Yes.

SCIUTTO: So, Julie, another headline from this poll is just a precipitous drop of Kamala Harris after a great launch to her campaign and the headline-making performance in the first Democratic debate. Why? What's happening?

HIRSCHFELD DAVIS: Well, it's not really clear but it does show you how fleeting some of these surges and ebbs and flows can be particularly at this stage in the race. Clearly Kamala Harris had a huge boost from that performance on the debate stage, taking on Joe Biden very directly, and there I think was a sense at that point that she might be the one who would be either as well suited or better suited than Joe Biden to potentially take on President Trump.

But over in the ensuing weeks I do think that this narrative that the Biden campaign and others have been pushing about him being the one who, if you look at some of the internals of the poll there could best be positioned to beat President Trump.

[09:10:16] That has kind of subsided. She's also had some challenges in terms of dealing with big issues that are important to the Democratic base. She's gone back and forth a bit on her position on health care and Medicare for all. And so I think that there's a bit of an erosion to some of that surge, but that doesn't mean that we might not see it again based on what happens in the upcoming debates, and I do think things are very much influx as you can see from some of these more recent numbers.

SWERDLICK: Yes. Senator Harris hasn't made the --

SCIUTTO: Yes.

SWERDLICK: Oh, sorry, Jim.

SCIUTTO: No, no, go ahead.

SWERDLICK: Senator Warren has not made the positive -- excuse me, Senator Harris has not made the positive case for her vision for the country. Vice President Biden's theory of the case is make America America again. Senator Warren's theory of the case is, I've got a plan for that, I'm going to get my wrenches, get under the hood, maybe give America a new head gasket, fix what's broken in this country from her point of view, whereas Senator Harris I think is good at creating those viral moments in confirmation hearings, in debates against Vice President Biden but people still wonder where does she want to take the country.

SCIUTTO: Right. Finally, before we go, Julie, the other headline from these polls is the flattening to some degree of Elizabeth Warren's rise. But also when you look at Warren and Sanders, is there a danger there for the progressive wing of the Democratic Party that in effect Warren and Sanders are splitting that vote?

HIRSCHFELD DAVIS: Well, I think so. And I think that was always the concern from both of their camps frankly at the beginning of the primary when things first got under way. I think we are seeing some of that. But if you look at those numbers that you showed earlier about the differences among age groups and the differences among progressives and the more sort of moderates or the independents in the party, I think you do see a risk that both are sort of canceling each other out in those demographics and in those lines of thinking.

And I think so particularly when you have a candidate in the race like Biden who is kind of drawing from each of those sides they are potentially each other's biggest problems right now. And so I think we're going to continue to see them go sort of head-to-head, maybe shadow boxing with each other on the trail on issues and other things but no question that they each have to really -- there's a tug-of-war between the two of them for that group of voters. And it's a very -- it's a key group.

SCIUTTO: No question, key group. The one staying point here is Joe Biden's staying power so far.

David Swerdlick, Julie Hirschfeld Davis, thanks very much.

SWERDLICK: Thanks, Jim.

SCIUTTO: Also this morning CNN can confirm that the White House at one point in recent days discussed the possibility of a payroll tax cut to head off an economic slowdown. This is despite saying publicly the president included that the economy is just fine and that he and his advisers have no concerns about the possibility of a recession.

CNN senior Washington correspondent Joe Johns has more details.

And Joe, you know, this is typically the kind of tax cut you would consider as the economy is in a recession or much closer. Does this indicate that the White House is seeing something more worrisome here than they're letting on?

JOE JOHNS, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: Well, that's the kind of thing certainly that you would see to try to boost consumer spending. Obama did it back in 2011. And, you know, surprise shocker perhaps this White House is doing some mixed messaging over just a 24- hour period. The public face of the message machine telling everybody that the fundamentals of the economy are strong but then we have the reporting and "The Washington Post," also CNN's Kaitlan Collins, saying they have been talking very preliminary about the possibility of a payroll tax cut.

So what are you supposed to make of that? Well, the White House also has told CNN's Jim Acosta that nothing like that is under consideration. It's very hard for this White House to go out and say that they're talking about a payroll tax cut at this juncture simply because it's their position that the economy is strong. The president even in tweets just yesterday pinning it on the Fed saying Jerome Powell needs to reduce the Fed rate by 100 basis points, which of course would put the economy in a tough position because the Fed wouldn't have a lot of room to move if there were an actual recession -- Jim.

SCIUTTO: Exactly right. And also with the deficit as big as it is already, you wouldn't have a lot of fiscal leeway to move if there was a recession.

Joe Johns, thanks very much.

Still to come this hour, the White House may not be publicly worried about a potential recession as Joe Johns has been saying there, but what about members of the president's own party? I'm going to ask a Republican congressman about the growing concerns.

Plus President Trump says that ISIS has been totally defeated but now the terror group is showing signs of regaining strength.

[09:15:00] JIM SCIUTTO, ANCHOR, NEWSROOM: Regaining strength, and could jailed sex offender Jeffrey Epstein had suggested he was about to take his own life days before he died inside his jail cell?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SCIUTTO: It was just five months ago that President Trump said that ISIS was totally defeated. This morning, the Secretary of State says the terror network is now getting stronger again.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Is it gaining strength in your opinion?

MIKE POMPEO, SECRETARY OF STATE, UNITED STATES: It's complicated. There are certainly places where ISIS is more powerful today than they were three or four years ago, but the caliphate has gone and their capacity to conduct external attacks has been made much more difficult.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SCIUTTO: Pompeo's comments there come as reports continue to show ISIS regaining strength in both Iraq and Syria. Joining me now is CNN senior international correspondent Nick Paton Walsh. Nick has spent a lot of time in both places. So, Nick, where and how are we seeing ISIS regain its strength?

[09:20:00] NICK PATON WALSH, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, clearly, we've seen in the past few days, Afghanistan where something quite different to the kind of beast we saw in Syria and Iraq, and more Pakistani, more local. But using the ISIS branding is finding a new sense of strength, horrifying in its result.

But really, it's the Syrian and Iraq element which I think Mike Pompeo was sort of referring to there, it's complicated there, the sort of phrase where more users seeing on Facebook relationship statuses than discussing a terror organization. But it's startling how much I think we're seeing them come back as a ragtag insurgency, predictable, frankly, to some degree.

I mean, though even back when Raqqah just fell in 2017, we were seeing in the desert, literally the Syrian Kurds saying don't go over there because we know ISIS fighters had ran off in that particular direction. They've been chasing them around parts of northern Syria and also putting them and their supporters into camps, thousands -- tens of thousands of supporters in the Al-Hawl refugee camp there, a lot of radicals often angrily greeting journalists when they go there.

And then on the other side too in some of the make-shift prisons holding the fighters 2,000, including foreign fighters as well there. So, a lot potentially of radicalization growing within those groups of people. And then of course, the big thing that was missing from the Trump kind of bombastic statements about we're going to wipe them off, we're going to bomb them and having defeated them completely was the reconstruction.

You don't defeat insurgencies just through military force, there has to be rebuilding, there has to be diplomacy, and the underlying kind of grievance that began the brutality of ISIS, and that's in the ethnic Sunni parts of the Muslim population in both Syria and Iraq, they were the people giving Sukkah to ISIS at the beginning, that's not been addressed by either country, and frankly, those people are going to continue to support ISIS the more disenfranchised they failed, Jim.

SCIUTTO: As you know, President Trump reduced U.S. force presence in Syria, famously doing so by tweets a number of months ago. Has the reduction in U.S. forces in Syria specifically made a difference here?

WALSH: It seems as though they're obviously not able to do as much possibly as they would like. There seems to be a cap certainly on the number of people that were allowed in that country. I mean, obviously, the U.S. didn't want to be there forever, they were kind of there to jeer strategically as kind of a blocking force to limit Iranian involvement in Syria urging towards the U.S. ally of Israel.

But I mean, it's not really entirely a military thing here, we're talking about tens of thousands or maybe a 100,000 people who are the end group of ISIS there. In a desert, minimal food, minimal support facing Syrian Kurds who fought ISIS for the U.S. mostly, hostile towards them. That's the building block of what we're going to see next. And I hate to say it, it won't be called ISIS, but it'll look and feel very similar and it will hail from a very similar disenfranchised angry part of the population, Jim?

SCIUTTO: Nick Paton Walsh, thanks very much. Here at home, fears of a recession, never-ending trade wars, what is Washington doing to ease American's worries? We're going to ask a Republican congressman next. And we are just moments away from the opening bell on Wall Street, Alison Kosik here following the markets, what do we expect today?

ALISON KOSIK, CNN BUSINESS CORRESPONDENT: Good morning. We are less than ten minutes before the opening bell. It looks like a flat start for stocks as investors are going to be paying close attention to the headlines, that is what White House officials discussed ways to boost the economy despite saying they're not concerned about a recession.

One idea being floated, what you've been talking about all morning, this temporary payroll tax cut. The White House is throwing cold water on the idea for now, but if it happens it could wind up boosting consumer spending. Also, a tweet from President Trump telling the Fed to cut a key interest rate, a full percentage point, that's getting a lot of attention from investors.

Fed chief Jay Powell has said that the president doesn't influence his decision on rates, but the reality is, it's hard to ignore the drum- beat coming from Trump's Twitter feed about the Fed, and it's something that investors certainly can't ignore either.

SCIUTTO: No, the question is, you know, is this about the political time-table or is it about the actual economic needs of the economy, where you're talking about the tax cut or the interest rate cut. Alison Kosik --

KOSIK: That's the key question.

SCIUTTO: Thanks very much.

KOSIK: You got it.

SCIUTTO: We'll be right back.

[09:25:00] (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SCIUTTO: Welcome back, new this morning. CNN has learned that in recent days, there were discussions in the White House of a potential payroll tax cut. This to stave off a potential economic slowdown. A White House official to CNN is denying a payroll tax cut is being considered at this time.

But went on to say that more tax cuts are certainly on the table. Joining me now is Republican Congressman Tom Reed of New York, he sits on the House Ways and Means Committee. Congressman, thanks for taking the time this morning.

REP. TOM REED (R-NY): It's good to be with you, Jim.

SCIUTTO: So, first, on a payroll tax cut, would you support such a measure right now if the president were to bring it forward?

REED: Well, you know, obviously, reducing taxes is something I support. But if we're going to do it because we're concerned about the status of the economy, I've just seen the numbers and the reports coming across my desk, the economy is still vibrant, still strong, and they try to use it for stimulative effect.

It's something I think rightfully should be out there as a tool in the toolbox down the road, but you know, it should not be considered at the present time.

SCIUTTO: OK, you know, it's expensive if the White House were to move forward. The deficit rose 27 percent.