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THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER

Walmart Changes Gun Policy; Trump and Pence Under Fire; Biden Campaign Lowering Expectation For Early States; O'Rourke Defends Plan For Mandatory Buyback Of Assault Weapons; Chaos Engulfs U.K. Parliament After Brexit Showdown. Aired 4:30-5p ET

Aired September 4, 2019 - 16:30   ET

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


[16:30:02]

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: After Short has already spoken and the vice president has already appeared on camera over it.

JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: But, Laura, why would the president want to deny this, given the fact that he has publicly said that all of the people in his administration should stay at his resorts and properties?

He even a week or two ago suggested that the next G7 take place at one of his properties. I mean, the idea that he's trying to push people into stay at his hotels is not a secret.

LAURA BARRON-LOPEZ, POLITICO: Right. It wasn't a surprising revelation that he potentially suggested this to Pence, because, as you just said, he has been advocating for everyone to stay at Doral.

So I'm not sure why the president became so agitated about it, other than just that there was well-documented "New York Times" reporting about the extensive trip that this would cause Pence to take, as well as, you know, conversations about, well, this makes it easier for the Secret Service if Pence stays at this resort, because Trump has been there before, even though, actually, that doesn't really make sense, because the trip would then be longer across the island to carry out the state visit.

TAPPER: Yes, it's 180 miles away. I mean, I don't know exactly -- that's like...

COLLINS: And Dublin is a big city, where there are multiple hotels that the president, that the vice president could pick to stay in.

TAPPER: Yes.

COLLINS: It's the negative coverage that is bothering the president.

(CROSSTALK)

KIRSTEN POWERS, CNN COMMENTATOR: Well, at some point, don't you think he wants people to think that people just want to naturally stay there? (CROSSTALK)

TAPPER: But not that he's ordering them too.

POWERS: Well, because by all accounts, business is down at Trump properties since he's become president, because there are a lot of people that are unhappy with the way he's running his presidency.

So to make it seem more organic, like, oh, people just -- they just love my hotels because they're so amazing. I just -- it seems like he's trying to just constantly sell this idea of trying to get people to go to his hotels.

TAPPER: And, Bill, the left-leaning watchdog group CREW, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, tweeted -- quote -- "It's impossible to imagine that there was no place closer and more convenient and cheaper in essentially all of Ireland than this. It's clearly not convenient. It's clearly not efficient. There's really no explanation besides promoting the president."

And we should point out that when President Obama went to Belfast and Dublin, he stayed at hotels near Belfast and Dublin. And when Vice President Biden stayed at -- went there, he said at the ambassador's residence in Dublin. So this is ridiculous.

BILL KRISTOL, DIRECTOR, DEFENDING DEMOCRACY TOGETHER: It is. It is interesting.

So Marc Short is the vice president's chief of staff. In the first year of the administration, he had been the director of legislative affairs for the president. He is very well respected, I would say. He's very savvy and used to dealing with the media.

And he's very well plugged in with the entire White House. Some of us vice presidential chiefs of staff are a little bit on the outs occasionally with our colleagues in the West Wing, but Short is very -- so, Marc gave an amazingly detailed account, I would say, actually very rare.

Maybe he shouldn't have. He should have said, I'm not going to talk about conversations between the president and the vice president, but he gave an account, which I -- when you read it, it sounds like he was in the room. There was a meeting about the trip.

And they were going through the stops. And the president said, hey, you should stay at my place. It's not an order. It's just a suggestion. It wasn't a command.

TAPPER: Not a direction, right.

KRISTOL: Not a direction, which I think actually, legally, it probably was important for him.

I think Short thought he was doing his best to take the president off the hook of actually ordering the vice president to channel an awful lot of taxpayer money -- an awful lot of people accompany the vice president on a foreign trip, Secret Service, et cetera.

Channeling that money to the president's pockets. So, Short thought he was doing a good deed for the president. But it didn't play well. And now they have turned on Marc Short. But, again, Marc Short, just is -- you know this better than I do.

But he is a senior and well respected, right, and well liked person in the White House.

COLLINS: I mean, also the larger -- well, not by the president right now, because of what he said, but the larger point of this is, this trip was supposed to be about diplomacy.

The vice president is making multiple stops in several countries. He's going to London tonight. He's going to be dealing with Boris Johnson, who's got this problem of his own going on.

And it was supposed to highlight Pence's family ties in Ireland. Neither of those things are happening right now. The only focus is where he decided to stay in a hotel one night, because not only they made the decision to stay there and assumed they were not going to be questions about staying at one of the president's properties, but also the fallout from the reaction to it.

(CROSSTALK)

KRISTOL: Having been on some of these trips, it's nuts.

I mean, if you go to a foreign country and visit the president of that country, which is what Pence was doing, on an official state visit, you stay in the capital.

TAPPER: Right.

KRISTOL: You stay in a nice hotel in the capital. You don't stay 180 miles away at your boss' country club because you have some alleged connection to the town nearby, which you could stop at on the way out and make a courtesy visit.

But the idea that you're not staying in Dublin is kind of an insult really to the Irish.

TAPPER: Just one other thing I want to bring up on taxpayer dollars.

The secretary of defense, Mark Esper, has now authorized the use of $3.6 billion in military construction funds that will now be diverted and used for wall projects on the southern border with Mexico.

Defense Department officials say $127 million -- I'm sorry, 127 military construction projects will be put on hold in order to use that money for the wall.

BARRON-LOPEZ: Yes, in states across the country. And so this is just another example. They took from FEMA about a week or so ago. They're taking from the Pentagon this week.

[16:35:01]

It's all a part of the effort by Trump to really rush to try to say that he created some semblance of a border wall, when it's actually just reinforcing and making certain existing structures stronger, but so, that way, he can use that on the campaign trail heading into 2020.

TAPPER: Because he and the Republicans failed to be able to get that money through the normal process.

BARRON-LOPEZ: Through Congress, right.

TAPPER: And so now they're playing fast and loose with the appropriations.

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

Breaking news about the West Texas gunman and why he failed a gun background check years before the horrific massacre.

Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

TAPPER: And we're back with breaking news in our national lead.

[16:40:00]

Sources tell CNN that the Odessa, Texas, shooter failed a background check in 2014 when he tried to buy a gun because he had previously been adjudicated as -- quote -- "a mental defective." That's the legal term.

And he had been committed to an institution. The shooter later bought his gun through a private sale. Private sales do not require background checks, which gun reform advocates are trying to change.

Despite public pressure and three mass shootings since the beginning of August, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is once again signaling he will take no action to tighten restrictions on gun ownership or firearms purchases.

But, as CNN's Tom Foreman reports for us, Walmart is taking action.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

TOM FOREMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): The slaughter that left 22 dead in a Texas Walmart, along with other recent shootings, spurred the mega-retailer to action.

Walmart has been slowly pulling back from the gun market since the 1990s, eliminating sales of handguns and assault-style weapons and raising the purchase of age. But now the chain will stop selling ammunition for such guns too, and is asking customers to not openly carry their weapons into Walmart stores.

"It's clear to us that the status quo is unacceptable," the CEO said in a memo. The stores will keep selling shotguns and long-barreled rifles. But he added: "We encourage our nation's leaders to move forward and strengthen background checks and to remove weapons from those who have been determined to pose an imminent danger."

SEN. KAMALA HARRIS (D-CA), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: We have not had reasonable gun safety laws.

FOREMAN: Democratic presidential candidates who favor tighter gun controls called the Walmart move a step in the right direction and the right thing.

But on the Republican side, the trend is moving the other way. Less than a month ago, President Trump seemed ready for stronger limits on gun sales.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We need meaningful background checks, so that sick people don't get guns.

FOREMAN: Then he talked to the head of the National Rifle Association, and Trump's emphasis shifted to mental health.

TRUMP: It's not the gun that pulls the trigger. It's the person that pulls the trigger.

FOREMAN: Now the White House is preparing a so-called buffet of about 15 policy proposals, according to sources, none expected to pass, and it's talking about the death penalty for mass shooters.

It all stands in stark contrast to Walmart's pointed call for real change, which has been taken up by companies like Kroger and Dick's Sporting Goods.

Still, Republican leadership in the Senate says nothing will move until Trump says.

SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY): If the president is in favor of a number of times that he has discussed openly and publicly, I will put it on the floor.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

FOREMAN: So why isn't Trump making his position clear?

Because while polls show most Americans favor some kind of new gun controls, many Republican voters emphatically do not. And Trump has very little chance of winning reelection without them firmly in his corner -- Jake.

TAPPER: All right, Tom Foreman, thanks so much.

Polls suggest that former Vice President Joe Biden is the clear front- runner in Iowa. So, why is his campaign already lowering expectations there?

Stay with us.

[16:45:00]

COMMERCIAL BREAK)

JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: In our "2020 LEAD" today, polls show Joe Biden is the frontrunner in the Democratic race including in Iowa, but his campaign is now trying to lower expectations. One adviser is saying, "do we think we have to win Iowa?" No. Do we want to win Iowa? Yes, we do. We think we're going to win. We know it's going to be a dogfight."

Kirsten, why would the Biden campaign convey something like that? Is this just standard lowering of expectations or is there more going on.

KIRSTEN POWERS, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: I mean, I assume they're lowering expectations because they have a reason to believe that he might not win. That's the only reason that you would do that. And the reasoning behind it seems to be that they think he's going to do better in states that aren't -- that have more non-white voters because he still has a lot of support among black voters primarily probably because of his association with Barack Obama.

And so looking at the first two states, you know, they may be looking at it and saying these aren't going to be our voters.

TAPPER: Do you think this was anything more ominous? I mean, like he's still a front-runner by a lot but I think people think he has a glass jaw.

BILL KRISTOL, EDITOR AT LARGE, THE WEEKLY STANDARD: Yes, we'll see. I mean, people have fought that for a while and so far it hasn't really manifested itself too much. But look, whatever it is, the history, you have to be in the top three in Iowa and the top two in New Hampshire to win the nomination I think in modern times in both parties. And you really need I think with one -- only one exception to win one of the two.

And so you know, you can talk all you want, so I'm waiting for -- you know, I'm waiting for South Carolina where my voters show up. And I think if you don't win one of the first two primaries, if you're the former eight-year vice president of the United States who served with Barack Obama, who's been ahead in the polls the whole time, then suddenly you're beaten in Iowa and New Hampshire, you're in deep trouble I think.

TAPPER: I want to bring the topic back to gun control which we talked about in the previous block because former Congressman Beto O'Rourke spoke to CNN this afternoon. He has a mandatory buyback plan for semi-automatic assault weapons, so-called assault weapons. Take a listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BETO O'ROURKE (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: We talk about mandatory buybacks of the AK-47s and AR-15s, millions of them on our streets, in our homes, too often used against us. 22 people killed by an AK-47, a racist white supremacist terrorist in El Paso on August 3rd. The only way we're going to -- we're going to make a dent in this kind of violence and fear is to buy them back.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

[16:50:19]

TAPPER: But Congress can't even pass universal background checks. That's a story I've literally been covering for 20 years, the idea of closing the so-called gun show loophole. I remember talking to John McCain about it in 1999. If they can't even close the gun show loophole as it's called, can a gun confiscation program, a gun buyback program really be discussed as a serious policy?

LAURA BARRON-LOPEZ, NATIONAL POLITICAL REPORTER, POLITICO: Well, that's a big question with proposals like this. But this is a noticeable and significant evolution for O'Rourke, you know, in his campaign which is attempting to come back, I guess claw back into the lead.

And he during his Senate run last cycle supported -- he supported no more sales of assault weapons but he said, we'll have a voluntary buyback if anyone wants to sell the government back their gun, then then we'll do that but I will not do a mandatory.

And so now he is taking since El Paso a very sharp line to go in a different direction and say that this is where I'm going to try to forge ahead of other Democrats by saying that it needs to be mandatory.

TAPPER: But beyond Beto O'Rourke's kind of YOLO address to this that he's just like you know, he's going to do anything, there has been some real conservative backlash to this proposal. Take a listen to -- we talked about John McCain, it's like we're going to take a listen to Meghan McCain this week.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MEGHAN MCCAIN, CO-HOST, THE VIEW: He wants to have a mandatory gun buyback. The government didn't own the guns, to begin with. How do you think you're going to come to somebody's house and what are you going to pay it? This is a ground-level issue for me. If you're going to be a gun-grabber, you don't get my vote. We got to have a different kind of conversation.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: What do you think?

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: And we talk so much about how Republicans aren't sure where to go on this, what to do. There's reasons like this is because they are -- they have constituents who fear that when people start talking about strengthening background checks, red flag laws, that the next step or things like what Beto O'Rourke is proposing. And these are people who do abide by the law so that's why you do see that pushback.

And that's why it allows the White House Republicans to kind of languish after there are so many shootings about where it is that they're going to go next and that's what you're seeing right now. The President has not settled on any concrete proposal even though Congress is coming back to Washington from recess next week which is when they said they were going to make a proposal on this.

And essentially it's because lawmakers are waiting to see what it is that the President would support and so far he has not made that clear.

TAPPER: One other thing I wanted to talk about which has to do with the Inspector General for the Department of Health and Human Services put out a report today. The town that -- the migrant children who had been separated from their parents as part of the Trump administration zero-tolerance policy at the border last year experienced extreme anxiety, feelings of lost.

"Separated children exhibited more fear, feelings of abandonment, and post-traumatic stress than to children who are not separated including "acute grief that caused them to cry inconsolably." This was I think without question one of the lowest moments of the Trump administration.

POWERS: Yes, and it's also you don't -- I mean, I'm glad they did a report on it, but you don't need a report to know that if you take children away from their parents and they don't know what's going on that they're going to be traumatized.

I mean this is completely knowable. And so to treat children this way when they're most vulnerable, they're most impressionable, you know, the things that happen to you when you're at that age can take a lifetime to get over.

And so to take them away from their parents, and obviously, the parents were traumatized as well, but you're traumatizing children and it's just utterly shameful for the United States government to have behaved this way.

TAPPER: It is embarrassing on behalf of Americans. Thanks one and all for being here. It's being called a fight to the political death with at least one insult I promise you you've never heard before. Stay with us.

[16:55:00]

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

TAPPER: In our "WORLD LEAD" today. Chaos, confusion, name-calling, finger-pointing and a lot of yelling, the disarray unfolding in London today over what analyst are calling a fight to the death, the political death that is, over Brexit. Here's just a small glimpse of some of the turmoil.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JEREMY CORBYN, LEADER, LABOUR PARTY: He's desperate, desperate to avoid scrutiny. BORIS JOHNSON, PRIME MINISTER, UNITED KINGDOM: Call the election you

great big girl's blouse.

(CROSSTALK)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: You great big girl's blouse. I've never heard that insult before. CNN's Bianca Nobilo is live in London outside parliament. Bianca, explain for us what exactly unfolded today.

BIANCA NOBILO, CNN CORRESPONDENT: It's hard to know where to begin, Jake. In fact, it really begins yesterday which was Boris Johnson's first vote that he ever faced as prime minister and it came as a crushing defeat. He's now faced four votes as Prime Minister, all of them defeats, owing in no small part members of his own party rebelling against him and then fighting against the government in order to take control of the parliamentary agenda.

Usually, in the United Kingdom, that's something that the government of the day controls but not anymore. Parliament wrestled back control, taking control of business from 3:00 p.m. today in order to block Boris Johnson from his Brexit strategy. So they wanted to remove the option of him leaving the E.U. without a deal. So far they've been successful in that.

In response, Boris Johnson said that he wants to call for a snap election. He tried to do that and he failed. So now we're looking at a prime minister that not only lost his only one majority M.P. yesterday but then managed to lose four votes in the space of two days and then now cannot carry through any of his key legislation or even call an election, truly unprecedented political times, Jake.

TAPPER: And Bianca, President Trump said today no one should worry about Boris Johnson because Johnson knows "how to win." What does this all mean for Boris Johnson's future?

NOBILO: Well, the reason he was pushing for an election is because it was his least worst option. He had tried and exhausted everything else. The only thing he had left to do was to try and change up the numbers in the House of Commons so that he'd have a better chance of getting his key legislation through. But now Parliament had thwarted him in even doing that.

It's likely though because of the level of confusion that there will be a general election in the United Kingdom at some point over the next weeks and months. But the question is would he even win that election.

Yes, he's a lot more charismatic than his predecessor Theresa May, but the polls even though they're slightly in his favor, don't indicate that he would get a resounding majority. So President Trump might be a little premature to make that assessment.

TAPPER: All right, Bianca Nobilo in London, thank you so much. I appreciate it. You can follow me on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter @JAKETAPPER. You can tweet the show @THELEADCNN. CNN's unprecedented live town hall on the climate crisis with ten Democratic presidential candidates starts right now. Thanks for watching.

[17:00:00]