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Moderate and Progressive Divide on Display in Democratic Debate; Beto O'Rourke Declared He Would Take AR-15, AK-47; Pete Buttigieg Opens Up About Coming Out as a Gay Man in the Military; Top 10 Democrats Clash on Healthcare, Immigration and Foreign Policy; President Trump Offers No Clarity on Support for Gun Policies; Sen. Chris Coons, D-DE, Interviewed on Gun Control. Aired 9-9:30a ET

Aired September 13, 2019 - 09:00   ET



POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: It's been that long a week, Sciutto? That long a week we're back together?


HARLOW: Good Friday morning, everyone. I'm Poppy Harlow in New York. And wow, a hot night in Houston and that was just inside the Democratic presidential debate hall. Moderate and progressive wings of the party clearly drawing battle lines as candidates taking aim at one another, pointing out differences in policy, clearly, and even getting incredibly personal at times.

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN ANCHOR: Yes, those were noticeable moments. One moment in particular, some calling it a cheap shot. Former Obama HUD secretary Julian Castro where he questions frontrunner Joe Biden's memory. Have a listen.


JULIAN CASTRO (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: But the difference between what I support and what you support, Vice President Biden, is that you require them to opt in. And I would not require them to opt in.

JOE BIDEN (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: They do not have to buy in. They do not have to buy in.

CASTRO: You just said that.


CASTRO: You just said that two minutes ago.

BIDEN: You do not have to buy in if you can't afford it. The Medicaid is automatic --

CASTRO: Are you forgetting what you said two minutes ago?

(CHEERS AND APPLAUSE) CASTRO: Are you forgetting already what you said just two minutes ago? I mean, I can't believe that you said two minutes ago that they had to buy in and now you're saying they don't have to buy -- you're forgetting that.


SCIUTTO: You heard the crowd's reaction there. Julian Castro's comments causing an audible groan in the room.


SCIUTTO: As well as pushback on the stage.


MAYOR PETE BUTTIGIEG (D-IN), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: This is why presidential debates are becoming unwatchable.



KLOBUCHAR: A house divided cannot stand.


HARLOW: All right. Jessica Dean is with us live from Houston. There was that which was fascinating. But the difference in the wings of the party was just so stark and so clear last night.

JESSICA DEAN, CNN WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: Yes. Yes, good morning to both of you. Yes, we really started to see these policy differences start to shine through. In fact, a senior adviser for the Biden campaign was talking about that yesterday saying that at this point in the race, you do get to kind of see those crystallize. And we certainly saw that on the stage last night. As you saw Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren talking about their proposals, but some of the more moderate candidates, you know, Pete Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar, giving Vice President Biden a little cover, a little bit of help on his health plan there.

For the longest time he's really been out there kind of as the sole voice saying that we should keep the Affordable Care Act, the one that's been the loudest, let's say, keep the Affordable Care Act, build on it, while Medicare-for-All has also floated around out there from Warren and Sanders as really the other strong contender as the other option moving forward. And last night you heard Buttigieg and Klobuchar chiming in about that, talking about that.

So, it was interesting to see as you said the different wings of that party, the different approaches. Health care, of course, if not the major issue in this race for Democratic voters. This is what they want to be hearing about. And there are some very different ways forward from all these different candidates. And another person, Elizabeth Warren, all eyes on her. This was the first time she and Joe Biden were sharing a stage. She really put in a solid performance, was able, you know, to clearly articulate where she stands on all of this. But really kind of faded out of the debate there for a while. Some of that by virtue of the fact she wasn't getting a lot of questions addressed to her. But a very solid performance from her as well.

SCIUTTO: Now this morning, Julian Castro, he's not, Jessica, backing down from those comments this morning despite reaction from those on stage and those in the audience last night.

DEAN: Yes, that's exactly right. So you guys played that exchange back and forth. We did a fact check on that here at CNN. It turns out Castro is partially correct on that. They are kind of talking at each other and around each other. The facts are that Castro supports a Medicare-for-All policy that would automatically enroll everyone. Biden's policy would allow for people to buy into a public option if they wanted to, but would automatically enroll people who could not afford it, who would otherwise be on Medicaid.

So that's what they were kind of getting at. Julian Castro was on air earlier this morning. Here's what he had to say.


CASTRO: I wouldn't do it differently. That was not a personal attack. I don't care who you are on that debate stage. I'm going to ask you why you're forgetting that you said two minutes ago that people would have to buy in. And now you're explicitly denying that. The vice president is -- you know, I mean, he's been around for a long time, OK? When we're up there, we're up there to debate.


DEAN: All right, guys. So there Julian Castro this morning. We'll see if we hear more from Vice President Biden on that exchange as well as the day continues -- Poppy and Jim.

SCIUTTO: Jessica Dean in Houston, thanks very much.

HARLOW: All right. We've got a lot to talk about. Ron Brownstein is with us, senior editor at the "Atlantic," Jackie Kucinich joins us, Washington bureau chief for the "Daily Beast."

Good morning to you both. So, Jackie, Julian Castro would do this again. He says it's not personal, although I mean I don't know what world -- in what world attacking someone's memory is not personal, but OK.


Was that -- was that a "Hail Mary" that just didn't make it to the end zone?

JACKIE KUCINICH, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Perhaps. But as you said, he's doubling down. And, of course, that was personal. Just ask the Biden campaign. They thought it was personal. And last night, they made the point that, you know, these sort of haymakers haven't been landing on Joe Biden. And now, there is the argument that when he finally -- if Biden ends up the nominee and he ends up facing President Trump who is not going to be nice to him. But we're still talking about a Democratic primary where voters haven't taken kindly to these personal attacks on Joe Biden or anyone else for that matter.

SCIUTTO: Ron, when you look at this big picture, Biden, in all the polls, remains the frontrunner. Lead tightening a bit. But our Stephen Collinson had an interesting take on this. I'll read it. "Biden is no longer the wise-cracking vibrant politician that he was in the 2008 Democratic race where he was a sparkling debater who fell at the first hurdle in Iowa, but he is still there. Unbowed and decent," keyword decent, "and that may be an asset in a bitter political era when such qualities seem quaint."

Decent. Particularly when you talk about a general versus a sitting president.

RON BROWNSTEIN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, look, I think there are a couple of things. It is pretty clear from all of these debates that Joe Biden -- this is not Joe Biden's strength. Right? I mean, he had very rough moments last night. The answer at the end about when he got into the record player and kind of tangled up and kind of talking about reparations and Venezuela. He's not that good at this. I mean, he's clearly not that strong a candidate thinking on his feet in a multicandidate situation. But that is not the only thing that voters are measuring by any means.

SCIUTTO: Is it even the main thing?

BROWNSTEIN: It is not -- you know, pretty clearly not. Right? I mean, if you look at the way -- first of all, there are a couple of things. If you look at the way the race is dividing, Biden is putting together the historic coalition that won in the late 20th century. He is very strong among working class white voters, older, moderate white voters and a big lead among African-Americans.

SCIUTTO: Big lead.

BROWNSTEIN: For all the gain that Elizabeth Warren has shown and momentum she's shown this summer, she is still concentrated largely among college educated white voters. And that has not been enough historically to win. You have to show that you can break out beyond that. And I thought, you know, last night, look, having those three 70-year-old plus white Democrats at the center of the stage does none of them I think any good to sort of look at them altogether.

I think in many ways the second-tier candidates had stronger nights. Beto O'Rourke, Cory Booker, Amy Klobuchar, even Buttigieg and Harris. I know that you didn't like Harris as much, but the fact is that it is pretty clear by now that this kind of unsteady performance does not seem to be enough to cause Democratic voters to say, uh-uh, you know, Biden is too wobbly for me. There are other factors for at least part of the electorate that outweighs it. KUCINICH: Well, it's not that I didn't like Harris. Let me just

correct that.


KUCINICH: I was surprised that she sort of faded into the background when she -- some of the one-liners she had obviously practiced didn't really land.

SCIUTTO: A lot of practiced one-liners.

KUCINICH: Yes. And it didn't really land. And we've seen her, obviously, that first debate performance, she came out swinging. She came out strong. And that candidate wasn't on stage last night.

BROWNSTEIN: Yes. I mean, the big question is whether there's room for somebody else to get another look. Right? Because you're talking about three candidates in Biden, Sanders and Warren who are usually somewhere in the 60 percent-plus range of the total polling. And as I said last night, you know, you look at that you say Cory Booker is pretty good on stage with other candidates. Beto O'Rourke has found a voice again.

You know, but part of the thing that's happened is that if you are a more moderate Democrat and you are -- for all of Elizabeth Warren's strengths as a campaigner and as a communicator, you are looking at the positions that she's taking on, you know, ending private health insurance. How are you're going to pay for that? You're going to allow the undocumented into your health plan. You're going to decriminalize the border.


BROWNSTEIN: You know, Biden seems a safer choice to a lot of Democrats, not only because of who he is, not only because the intrinsic demographic characteristics of a 70-year-old.


BROWNSTEIN: But he's the only one taking some of those positions in the top tier of the race.

SCIUTTO: A lot of digest there. And Poppy, and you've seen, to Ron's point, you've seen in each debate a lot of these more marginal candidates try to break through.


SCIUTTO: And fail in effect.

HARLOW: Right. All right. Let's talk about Beto, guys. Let's go to Leyla Santiago. She is our correspondent following the Beto O'Rourke campaign.

You know, for such a long time, Leyla, Democrats have tried very, very hard to fight back against a line from Republicans who will attack them on, you know, Democrats want to take away our guns. Beto O'Rourke didn't do that last night. He went the opposite direction.

LEYLA SANTIAGO, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Exactly. And he went into that debate last night with that as a plan to say, look, I'm going to push the envelope when it comes to the gun issue because, for him, this is so personal now. He's always had the lines that most Democrats use on the campaign trail since he's declared his candidacy. But after El Paso, he really took it on with a different priority.


I want you to watch that moment that he had last night.


BETO O'ROURKE (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I am, if it's a weapon that was designed to kill people on a battlefield.


O'ROURKE: When we see that being used against children, hell, yes, we're going to take your AR-15, your AK-47.


O'ROURKE: We're not going to allow it to be used against our fellow Americans anymore.


SANTIAGO: Well, so we saw the response there from the crowd. But how else is everyone else responding? Well, Beto O'Rourke not backing down. This morning he told Alisyn Camerota on "NEW DAY" that he doesn't regret it all and that he plans to continue along those lines. But then there was this off the debate stage. Beto O'Rourke tweeted about what he considered a death threat from a Texas state representative, Briscoe Cain, in which he says, "My AR is ready for you, Robert Francis."

Robert Francis being Beto O'Rourke's full name. Beto being the nickname for Robert in Spanish. So that got a lot of attention on Twitter once it was tweeted and then once Beto O'Rourke tweeted it saying he considers that a death threat.

Now I've spoken to the campaign. They said that they have already filed a report with the FBI. I asked if there was any possibility that he was going to start using security. They do not want to talk about that for, well, security reasons. But the tweet itself has been taken down from Mr. Cain in which he said, "My AR is ready for you."


SANTIAGO: So, really, kind of paints the picture as to how some see that his stance and comments on guns.

HARLOW: OK. Leyla, thank you so much for that reporting. Jackie and Ron are back with us. Jackie, when you look at the polling, public sentiment is moving, but

you don't have an overwhelming majority of Americans, at least not yet, who agree with certainly mandatory buybacks of assault weapons or a ban on assault weapons. You've got it on the background checks. But Beto O'Rourke is clearly betting here that in a Democratic primary, that is going to help him. And you do have a majority of Democrats on that side.

KUCINICH: You do, but you also heard the other candidates, some other candidates on the stage talk about a more incremental move. Joe Biden, for example.


KUCINICH: Talking about what was actually possible versus from a legislative perspective, from a constitutional perspective, versus what Beto O'Rourke and, you know, even Kamala Harris was talking about using an executive order to -- I believe, to limit the importation of some of those weapons because it has to actually be able to get done no matter what, you know, the policy proposals, you know, are presented.

SCIUTTO: The fact is that a majority of Americans do support a ban on assault weapons.


SCIUTTO: They do. Republicans and Democrats. What is more difficult is the taking back, you know, the buyback of folks who already have these weapons.


SCIUTTO: That's --


BROWNSTEIN: I think a majority does support an assault weapon ban.

SCIUTTO: And we -- this country has had an assault weapons ban, by the way.

BROWNSTEIN: It did in 1994 when a lot of Democrats voted against it and a lot of Republicans voted for it. Look, clearly, there's a majority for the assault weapon ban. It is somewhere around 60 percent. It's been consistent. But the reality check is that House Democrats are not going to push it to the floor even though they're very close to 218 because there are still enough Democrats in Trump country, Trump won districts that are uneasy about voting on it.

Assault ban is a big step beyond the background checks. Eventually I think it's striking every candidate I think on the stage that's not support the ban, and it is clearly, if a Democratic president will try to do that. The buyback has polled reasonably well surprisingly for an idea that kind of came out of nowhere. It's in the low 40s to mid- 40s. But it is -- SCIUTTO: The FOX's poll it's about even, 45-46.

BROWNSTEIN: It's about even. And I think a little below even in some of the others. But it is still, obviously, a huge step. And again I thought Beto O'Rourke probably had the best night than anybody on the stage last night. I thought he was forceful, passionate, energetic. Kind of re-establishing why, if people want to make a general --


SCIUTTO: He represents El Paso. El Paso had a horrible tragedy. He's decided to make this a position --

BROWNSTEIN: But he's in a tough position. In a tough position.

SCIUTTO: To break himself out, Poppy, it seems.

HARLOW: Guys, I'd like to just take the last minute that we have and listen to Mayor Pete Buttigieg. They were all asked what I thought was a very interesting and important question at the end. You know, the biggest sort of personal challenge or struggle that they have faced. Listen to this from Mayor Buttigieg.


BUTTIGIEG: I came back from the deployment and realized that you only get to live one life. And I was not interested in not knowing what it was like to be in love any longer. So, I just came out. I had no idea what kind of professional setback it would be. When I trusted voters to judge me based on the job that I did for them, they decided to trust me and re-elected me with 80 percent of the vote. And what I learned was that trust can be reciprocated.


HARLOW: Jackie, can we just talk about how big of a moment it is here to have an openly gay man make it this far in a race?


KUCINICH: And to have him talk about it so powerfully during the debate. He reads his book, he also talks a lot about how meeting his husband and how much he's learned from his husband and how that enriched his life. And but you're right, Poppy, this is a reminder of how far we've come from talking about the possibility of civil unions and gay marriage.

And just a few years ago to having this man on stage talking so powerfully about his personal experience --

JIM SCIUTTO, CO-ANCHOR, NEWSROOM: Powerful, no question, thanks to -- one word that was not mentioned on the stage if at all --

HARLOW: Impeachment --

SCIUTTO: Much, impeachment. HARLOW: Yes --

SCIUTTO: On the same day that House Judiciary Committee voted to progress that. That shows you the difference between probably the vast majority of the voting public at least at this point --

HARLOW: Sure --

SCIUTTO: Ron Brownstein, Jackie Kucinich, thanks so much to both of you. Still to come, friend and colleague of Joe Biden, Senator Chris Coons joins us next. What does he make of attempts to go after the former Vice President personally?

HARLOW: Also ahead, Cory Booker waited until after the debate to make quite an attack on Biden, why? We'll ask his campaign manager. And today, will actress Felicity Huffman be sent to jail for her role in the college admissions scandal? We'll find out, her sentencing is in just a few hours.



HARLOW: All right, top ten candidates sparring over a lot last night, namely healthcare and gun control at the debate. But many of them also took aim at the former Vice President Joe Biden, some on stage, some off stage.

Joining me to talk about it and a lot more including guns, is a man who has endorsed the former Vice President, a good friend of his, Senator Chris Coons; Democrat from Delaware who of course filled Biden's seat. Good morning, sir, thanks for being with me.

SEN. CHRIS COONS (D-DE): Good morning, Poppy, always good to be on with you.

HARLOW: You are obviously very close and have been for years to Joe Biden. Your children referred to him as like a grandfather to them. You're very close to his son -- the widow of his son, his late son, Beau. What -- when you heard attacks on stage last night about his memory, about his age, we heard it from Julian Castro and then we heard this from Cory Booker right after the debate.


SEN. CORY BOOKER (D-NJ): I think that we are at a tough point right now because there are a lot of people who are concerned about Joe Biden's ability to carry the ball all the way across the end line without fumbling. And I think that Castro had some really legitimate concerns about, can he be someone in a long, grueling campaign that can get the ball over the line? And he has every right to call that out.


HARLOW: He did lament the tone that Castro used, but what do you say to those in his own party on the stage who are worried that Biden can't get the job done for the party?

COONS: Well, frankly, I thought Joe was sharp and compelling last night. I thought he had one of the most inspiring closings at the end of what was a grueling three-hour debate, where he was taking incoming from all sides. And frankly, Julian Castro's mishandled personal attack on Joe is, as Mayor Pete Buttigieg said exactly the reason why Americans change the channel from this kind of debate free-for-all.

It is perfectly legitimate for candidates to go after each other's policies and plans, their voting record, their vision for the country. But that kind of needless and groundless personal attack out of Julian Castro, I think will be promptly rewarded with a drop in the polls as Kamala Harris saw after the very first debate.

Julian got it wrong.

HARLOW: Well, are you saying --

COONS: He was not just attacking Biden's policy position, he was suggesting he couldn't remember what he'd said two minutes earlier.

HARLOW: So, there are two different things --

COONS: And fact-checkers say Julian got it wrong.

HARLOW: There are two different things, right? I mean, you're talking about the personal --

COONS: Yes --

HARLOW: Attack from Julian Castro was personal. Whereas Kamala Harris' attack was about policy, right? Was about his record as the senator decades ago. But you're saying both, you think, result in poll drops for both candidates. Are you essentially saying no Democratic contender can go after the Vice President without it hurting them in the polls, even if it's just strictly on policy?

COONS: Well, Poppy, we'll see. I mean, that's up to the electorate whether they signal how much they dislike attacks, whether it's on something Joe Biden may have said 40 years ago or whether it's critiquing his quote-unquote fumbling on the stage. I thought Joe had a very strong opening.

I thought his exchange with Sanders and Warren about I'll stand with Barack if you stand with Bernie. I think I've got a bold plan for how to move us forward on health care to his closing about how when life has knocked him down, he's gotten up, and he sees heroes in the middle class, folks all over our country of all backgrounds who have gotten back up when life has knocked them down.

I thought he had a very strong performance last night --


COONS: And all I'm saying Poppy, is that, I think when those policy disagreements slide over into personal attacks, that's when I think we're frankly helping Donald Trump get re-elected, rather than showing --

HARLOW: Understand --

COONS: A strong vision for the future.

HARLOW: Let's talk about guns, you're very close in these talks in Washington, I think you just talked to Senator Manchin, you've talked multiple times with Ivanka Trump -- the front of the business section of the "New York Times" today is laying out that letter from 145 CEOs calling on you guys in the Senate to do something.

What is going --

COONS: Yes --

HARLOW: To happen? Are we going to see red flag laws here because we just still have no clarity from the president and the White House on this.


COONS: I really hope that our president will see this as an opportunity, a moment, that calls for real leadership from him. The Republicans in the Senate have clearly indicated they're not willing to take one step forward if they don't have cover from the president.

The House Democratic majority sent a bipartisan background check bill to us six months ago, we should take that up and vote on it, 93 percent of Americans, and that includes a majority of Republicans, a majority of gun owners supports strengthening background checks.

I have a bill with Republican Senator Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania that would say if you go into a gun store and you're a person prohibited by law from owning a gun, convicted felon, adjudicated mentally ill, and you lie on the background check form and try to buy a gun, state law enforcement should be promptly notified.


COONS: That's the sort of bill that has been embraced by folks, Republican and Democrat, I expect and hope --

HARLOW: Right --

COONS: It will be part of a White House package. I also think, to your question, Poppy, we may well see an emergency risk protection order proposal. That's the sort of thing Rick Scott; Republican senator from Florida, signed into law as governor, we have one here in Delaware.

I think we've got solutions in states like Delaware --

HARLOW: So, what about --

COONS: I recently met with Moms Demand Action, a group that gave the most powerful and compelling testimonies about how having their own children in school going through active shooter drills and the first week of school breaks their hearts. As parents, as Americans, we have to do better at protecting our country.

HARLOW: And what about senator, what we heard from Congressman Beto O'Rourke last night. I'll quote him, "hell, yes, we are going to take your AR-15, your AK-47." Are you supportive of a mandatory buy-back program for all of those weapons, all of those assault rifles on America's streets right now?

COONS: I am not. And I frankly think that, that clip will be played for years at Second Amendment rallies with organizations that try to scare people by saying Democrats are coming for your guns.


COONS: I'm a gun owner, my sons and I have gone skeet-shooting and hunting and, frankly, I don't think having our presidential candidates like Congressman O'Rourke did say that we're going to try and take people's guns against their will is a wise either --

HARLOW: Did he hurt the party --

COONS: Policy or political move --

HARLOW: Senator?

COONS: I respect and --

HARLOW: Did he hurt the party --

COONS: Understand --

HARLOW: And this fight with that statement last night? Was it irresponsible?

COONS: We'll have to see. I respect his passion. Anyone who has had to sit with the parents of victims of gun violence, parents who have lost their children, as I have, after the Sandy Hook shooting, after the Tucson shooting, parents -- someone who was a high school classmate of mine lost his daughter in that tragic shooting in Tucson where Congresswoman Gabby Giffords was also shot.

To sit with a parent who has lost a child and have no answer about how we're going to make the country safer is a very hard experience. So, I respect what is motivating Congressman O'Rourke, but I don't think as a policy position, that's going to stand muster.

I don't think a majority of the Senate or the country is going to embrace mandatory buy-backs. We need to focus on what we can get done, and we need to focus on the challenge here which is that Majority leader Mitch McConnell and the Republicans in the Senate and our president are refusing to listen to the 93 percent of Americans who want us to do something on background checks. Let's get that done first.

HARLOW: Senator Chris Coons, thank you for this. Come back -- COONS: Thank you, Poppy --

HARLOW: We'll keep talking about this issue. I really appreciate your time --

COONS: Thanks --

HARLOW: This morning. Soon, the first parent involved in that college admissions scandal that we know of will be sentenced. So, how much time could actress Felicity Huffman spend behind bars, if any? That's next.