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Trump Grows More Erratic Amid Economic Warnings; Gov. Jay Inslee (D) Washington Drops Out Of 2020 Race, Will Seek Third Term; Trump Seriously Ending U.S. Birthright Citizenship; Interview with Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT). Aired 10-10:30a ET

Aired August 22, 2019 - 10:00   ET


JIM SCIUTTO, CNN NEWSROOM: -- both sides of a host of issues from this president.


The New York Times reporting this morning, quote, some former Trump administration officials in recent days said they were increasingly worried about the president's behavior, suggesting it stems from rising pressure on Mr. Trump as the economy seems more worrisome and next year's election approaches.

And just one day, the president called himself the chosen one to take on China on trade. He praised a conspiracy theorist who dubbed him the king of Israel, that's right. He called the prime minister of Denmark's comment nasty after she said that Greenland, a sovereign part of her sovereign country, was not for sale to the U.S., he flip- flopped on new tax cuts and went after President Obama, blaming his predecessor 20 times for all the country's current problems, all this in a span of 30 minutes.

Joining me now is CNN's Sarah Westwood. So, Sarah, what's the latest coming from the administration? Are his advisers trying to clear up, for instance, simply on one issue, let's focus on that, on gun control? Are there any real actual plans to be presented by this White House in terms of gun control measures?

SARAH WESTWOOD, CNN WHITE HOUSE REPORTER: Well, at the moment, Jim, there seems to be a few of them. White House officials have prepared a range of options for President Trump to consider and he's been briefed on those options. But there's no clear timetable for rolling out those gun control proposals, although White House officials do say that they aim to have something ready to go by the time Congress comes back from their August recess. That, of course, is fast approaching.

President Trump, as you mentioned, he's been all over the map when it comes to gun control measures in the wake of those back-to-back mass shootings. Sources tell CNN that, behind closed doors, he's been cooling to the idea of backing tougher background checks, that's because lawmakers, NRA, aides and allies have been telling him he could actively hurt himself with his base and score few political points if he were to back those expansive background checks. The White House issued a veto threat for a House Democratic bill that contained those back in February. But yesterday as he was leaving the White House, President Trump then told reporters that he does have an appetite for background checks, so not sending a clear signal there. The White House and President Trump at different times have also said that he backs red flag laws, red flag proposals exist in some states. Aides and allies like Senator Lindsey Graham are pushing broader red flag laws. He's also frame this as a mental health issue. And he's even talked about strengthening the death penalty, making mass shooters, hate crimes have to face the death penalty.

So President Trump not sending a lot of clarity on his gun control stance and time is running out. Congress will soon be coming back and this conversation, Jim, will get a lot more serious.

SCIUTTO: Yes. And if you look at the track record, listen, he's repeatedly backed off any substantive gun control measures after these shootings. So if that's indicative, we shouldn't expect too much. Sarah Westwood at the White House, thanks very much.

Joining me Lynn Sweet, Washington Bureau Chief for the Chicago Sun Times, and Michael Shear, White House Correspondent for The New York Times.

Lynn, Rachael Bade of The Washington Post made what I thought was a smart observation on the president seeming to backtrack again on background checks, saying that what he was really reacting to were reports that the NRA president made one phone call to the president and he backed off background checks and the president liked it to be seen that he was listening to direction from the NRA.

LYNN SWEET, WASHINGTON BUREAU CHIEF, CHICAGO SUN TIMES: I think when you analyze this, part of this is that President Trump wants to put a lot out there to see what works for him in the sense that this is the biggest focus group of all. Some of this is why I think he doesn't care if he's seen as inconsistent. Trump always sees these things as a work in progress, and if nothing gets done on this, that may not be in his political calculation a loss because he puts out this word salad that perhaps in his analysis looks like action, when indeed it's words and no action.

SCIUTTO: Michael Shear, I was in El Paso, I was Dayton, people suffering there, as they have in so many communities after this. They asked the question will this time be different. And whenever they ask that question, the answer seems to be no. From a serious perspective, are there any serious proposals that have come from this White House that are going to be actively considered by Republicans on Capitol Hill?

MICHAEL SHEAR, WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT, THE NEW YORK TIMES: I mean, look, you never say never in these situations, especially with the president who is this unpredictable. But, look, we have seen this movie before. And while I hesitate to suggest that there's a lot of strategery oftentimes behind what the president does and the people in this White House do, there is a sense that -- and this comes from history that the further away you get from incidents like this, the further that time passes, the less urgency there is in the political system, not only at the White House, not only on Capitol Hill, but around the country.

People move on, unfortunately. I mean, It's a terrible thing. But that's what happens. And I think there is a sense that, as Lynn said, he's throwing sort of all this stuff out, you never quite know where he is, but there is some strategic value to that if you are a member of the Republican Party who really doesn't want to confront, you know, your base and organizations like the NRA with anything different than what those -- you know, what you've done in the past.


And so the more you can delay, the more you can push it off.

I fear that what you're likely to see is that neither side is going to offer serious proposals that can really pass and that will be back here discussing this again the next time it happens.

SCIUTTO: I mean, do we exaggerate the base issue on gun control? Though, Lynn, I mean, the polls show a vast majority of Americans, vast majority of NRA members support universal background checks. That's not a base issue. It seems to me that it's an NRA leadership issue. They're the ones that have been the most vocal opponents of these kinds of measures.

SWEET: Well, I've been covering this since the first -- what was seen as the first mass killing of our era, the Columbine shootings. And I wrote then and I'll never write again. Surely something now will happen in the horror of this killing and the need for some kind of measure over who gets guns and then later on, it evolved in ammunition and semi-assault.

The idea here is that the people who want this the most may not be the people who are seen in Trump's base. And it always goes back to the NRA's ability to identify where the votes are, and that's why nothing gets done. So when Wayne LaPierre talks to Trump, it's not just the argument that the public you know, as you just said, is for this. It's the political argument that you may damage yourself more by doing something than by doing nothing.

SCIUTTO: Goodness gracious. If I can ask you, Michael, before we go, some stories out now that former administration officials are concerned that the president is becoming more erratic. I feel like I've seen those stories eight million times over the course of the last couple of years. Sort of like that and a token will get you on the subway.

But is there something to it? Does it reflect in your view nervousness from the president, particularly because his main selling point for re-election is a strong economy? And there are some signs, not dominant signs, but there are some signs of a he slowing down. Is that the issue here?

SHEAR: Well, look, I mean, it's hard to get inside his head and to respond to sort of some of the wild claims about him being out of control and whatever. There are people who make these claims. But what I do know is that when the president feels under pressure, when this president feels under pressure, when he feels like the political situation around him is closing in, what he does is talk. He sees himself as the best press secretary that a president has ever had. He talks endlessly. He feels like he can kind of bend the political narrative to his own will by simply continuing to sort of put words out there that we, of course, in the media and in the political world, we all consume and devour endlessly.

It's something that we have never seen before in a president of modern times because presidents are so normally disciplined about their messaging, both themselves personally and the White House, which sort of jealously guards the words that a president says. And this president does exactly the opposite. And so I think that the tighter the pressure gets around him, the more concerned he is about the economy and about other -- about the re-election campaign coming forward, I think we're going to see more of that. And that looks increasingly erratic, because as Lyn said at the beginning of the conversation, it's never consistent. He'll say one thing one moment and then seem the flip-flop the very next.

SCIUTTO: Well, if you're not used to it yet, get used to it, all of us. Lynn Sweet, Michael Shear, good to have you both on this morning.

SWEET: Thank you.

SCIUTTO: This morning, the 2020 Democratic field is just a little bit smaller after Washington Governor Jay Inslee announced that he is pulling out of the race. Inslee had struggled to break out of the bottom of the pack. He leaves behind a still-crowded pack of presidential hopefuls, still 22. Those are all the names and faces there in the running.

M.J. Lee following the latest political headlines from New York. So you're beginning to see a couple others. Of course, you had Hickenlooper come out last week. Do we expect the field to trim more before the next upcoming Democratic debate?

M.J. LEE, CNN POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, at least that's the trajectory that we're on right now, Jim. Jay Inslee, the governor of Washington, saying last night that he's going to drop out of the 2020 race. This is a candidate who had made climate change the focus of his campaign. And he said last night that it had become clear to him that he is not going to be the next president and sources telling CNN that he is going to seek a third term for governor in the State of Washington.

And then some news about a different Democrat, as you mentioned, who had already dropped out of the 2020 race, Jock Hickenlooper saying that he is going to run for Senate in the State of Colorado.


He is going to be challenging Republican Cory Gardner. This is a candidate who is seen as being one of the most vulnerable heading into the 2020 election cycle. So this could be a major pickup opportunity for the Democrats in the Senate. And already, Democrats are sort of celebrating Hickenlooper's decision to seek election in the Senate with Kamala Harris just now Tweeting with Mitch McConnell blocking pretty much every good idea in the book, taking back a Senate majority has never been more critical. So, yes, Jim, we are slowly but surely seeing the 2020 Democratic field get a little bit smaller.

SCIUTTO: Yes. And folks are encouraging Steve Bullock, for instance, to do the same in Montana. He's still in the race now.

Bernie Sanders, he has released a $16 trillion climate plan. What is he calling for exactly?

LEE: Yes. This is a hefty price tag for Bernie Sanders' new climate change plan that was released today. This is sort of Bernie Sanders putting the meat on the bones of the Green New Deal blueprint. He says that he is declaring climate change a national emergency to begin with and his plan plans to cut U.S. emissions by 71 percent by year 2030. It also wants to direct some $200 billion to helping developing nations tackle the issue of climate change. And according to the campaign, this is a plan that could create around 20 million new jobs.

The timing, of course, again is interesting because of Inslee's decision to drop out, again, a candidate who had focused so much on the issue of climate change. And, Jim, I think we can expect this topic to come up at the DNC summer meetings, which is kicking off today in San Francisco. Jim?

SCIUTTO: We were in Brazil a few moments ago showing the fires there, enormous effect on climate change. M.J. Lee, great to have you on the story.

Still to come, President Trump says he is seriously considering ending birthright citizenship in the United States. But there's a problem there. The 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution stands in his way. The legal challenges that he will face, that's coming up.

Plus, we're learning the White House claims it's preparing new proposals on how to deal with gun violence and mass shootings. What are those proposals? How serious are they? Will the president get behind them? Crucially, will Republican lawmakers get behind them and others? Senator Patrick Leahy is going to join me live.

Plus, some families in Michigan say they were being poisoned by the water flowing out of their faucets. Sound familiar? Traces of the same manmade chemicals in that water may be in your bloodstream today. We have that report ahead.



SCIUTTO: President Trump claims he is taking a serious look at ending the Constitutional right of birthright citizenship.


TRUMP: We're looking at that very seriously, birthright citizenship, where you have a baby in our land, you walk over the border and have a baby, congratulations, the baby is now a U.S. citizen. We're looking at it very, very seriously.


SCIUTTO: Here is the problem. The 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution grants citizenship to anyone born here in the United States.

For more on this, I'm joined by immigration attorney David Leopold. David, first, just very quickly, the president, can he sign an executive order to change what is written in the Constitution in the 14th Amendment?

DAVID LEOPOLD, CHAIR OF IMMIGRATION LAW GROUP, ULMER AND BERNE: You know, of course, not. He may think he's god now, but he can't change the Constitution, and thankfully he can't change it. And he can't change it by executive order.

This whole birthright citizenship thing that he's talking about yesterday, it really is a diversion. But if you look at it, it's a diversion from what they're doing to the children, locking the children up, the migrant children.

But what really is going on is the birthright citizenship, getting rid of the right of somebody -- the birth of somebody in the United States as a citizen, that's a really white nationalist dream. And those are the people who are really advising this president, people in the White House, allies of the White House.

SCIUTTO: And explain the history here, because you told me this during the break. The origin of this was so that freed slaves would be treated as citizens, right? Explain that just briefly.

LEOPOLD: Sure. The 14th Amendment to the Constitution is where the guarantee of citizenship at birth is, what we call birthright citizenship. There was a case called the Dread Scott decision, and that was a case about a freed slave and the Supreme Court ruled that this man who was born in the United States who happened to be black, happened to be African-American, a former slave, was nothing more than chattel, nothing more than property to be bought and sold.

And, ultimately, that led to the Constitutional right of birthright citizenship, people born on the soil of the United States. There are a couple of exceptions, children of diplomats and so forth.

But Donald Trump in all of his delusions, he can't simply, by fiat, change the Constitution, thankfully.

SCIUTTO: Yes. And it's good that you made (ph) that the Dread Scott decision frequently seen as, if not, one of the worst decisions by the Supreme Court and often mentioned.


Let's turn to this administration's treatment of families of children at the border, this change now to allow for longer detention. Tell us the significance of that.

LEOPOLD: Well, look, decades ago, there was an agreement called the Flores Agreement. And the Flores Agreement, as a class action case based out of California, in which the agreement was that children, migrant children, should be given special care. Their safety, they should be kept in a safe environment, in a hygienic environment and a clean environment. That is the essence of the Flores Agreement.

And what this administration does, and I think to myself, where is the end? Where is the end to the punishment of children by this administration? When is Donald Trump going to say enough, I've punished children enough? Apparently, the appetite for locking children up and punishing them is insatiable, so insatiable that they're willing to throw out a decades' old agreement which provides for the safety of children. And what they want to do, that agreement provides, Jim, that children cannot be held -- cannot be detained by immigration for more than 20 days. And what Trump wants to do is change that to an indefinite detention, essentially.

SCIUTTO: Do you -- administration -- Trump administration officials have said explicitly that the intention of policies such as this is straight-up deterrence, that it is purposeful, intended to deter people or discourage them from attempting to go come into this country. Do you see that in these policies and the extension, for instance, of detention limits?

LEOPOLD: Well, you know, it's ham-handed, because, first of all, it's not working. People are coming from these -- fleeing horrific violence, fleeing failed governments that cannot protect them, gang violence, cartel violence, women being raped, children being raped. That's what they're feeling. They're fleeing horror. So they're going to continue to flee no matter what scheme Donald Trump and his folks come up with, point one. So it doesn't work. It's not a deterrent, an answer to your question.

Number two, Jim, it's brazenly cruel. It's punishment of children. My God, these are kids. And this is the same administration that the ninth circuit court of appeals had to rule, I believe it was last week, that, yes, hygiene is something that must be provided by the government. Yes, toothbrushes, clean water, edible food. And that's what the Trump administration had to be told to do. This is the same administration that wants to get rid of Flores, which guarantees those things so that it can please (ph) itself. This is a scheme and the courts are going to throw it out.

SCIUTTO: David Leopold, I appreciate your analysis.

LEOPOLD: Anytime, thank you.

SCIUTTO: President Trump says he now has an appetite for background checks. He claims it, this just a day after telling the head of the NRA that universal background checks were off the table. Where does he really stand?

We're going to discuss with Senator Patrick Leahy, who is on the judiciary committee. That's coming up. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)


SCIUTTO: New this morning, we are told that White House aides are preparing a range of options to address mass shootings. A White House official tells CNN that President Trump has been briefed on those options, some of which could be unveiled when Congress returns from recess. But there's no firm timeline, no details as to what those options are.

And to be clear, the president has reversed himself again repeatedly on gun control, specifically on background checks.

Let's speak about all of this with Democratic Senator from Vermont, Patrick Leahy. Senator, thanks so much for taking the time this morning.

SEN. PATRICK LEAHY (D-VT): It's good to be with you. I appreciate it.

SCIUTTO: So you and I have seen this story before, not just from this president, but in the reaction on the Hill following mass shootings, discussion of measures that go nowhere. Are there, in your view, any viable gun control measures that are alive on Capitol Hill that could get the president support and Republican support?

LEAHY: Well, I think the first thing we ought to do is have the courage to actually vote on things. Mitch McConnell has refused to allow so far any gun control measures come up for a vote. The House of Representatives has passed numerous gun control issues. Let's vote on it.

That's going to be a tough vote for some people. So what? Why would you want to be in the United States Senate if you're afraid to actually cast a vote? They ought to stand up, cast it, do it, have the courage of it.

What's happened now is that here you have the NRA that's facing all kinds of problems. They're losing popularity in the country, they're being investigated by two attorneys general for misuse of funds.

Now, when I was a youngster and when I was in college, I was an NRA member. I was on the rifle team.


I'm a gun owner. They taught gun safety and things like that. Now, they've become a lobbying group and the second the president --