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THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER

Trump Under Fire Over Corruption Allegations; Booker Asking Supporters To Help Raise $1.7M To Stay In Race; Feds: U.S. Soldier Discussed Bombing Major News Network, Other Targets; Trump Makes Brief, Unscheduled Stop At U.N. Climate Summit. Aired 4:30-5p ET

Aired September 23, 2019 - 16:30   ET

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


[16:31:29]

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: There was no pressure put on them whatsoever. I put no pressure on them whatsoever.

I could have. I think it would probably, possibly have been OK if I did.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: President Trump this afternoon claiming he did not pressure the president of Ukraine to investigate the Bidens on a July phone call, but then insisting that, if he had, it -- quote -- "probably, possibly would have been OK" -- unquote.

I want to bring in former Senior Adviser to President Obama, David Axelrod.

And, David, one of the things that so bizarre about this latest controversy, scandal is that so much of it is playing out right in front of our eyes.

In May, Rudy Giuliani goes to Ukraine, says he wants the investigation of the Bidens because it could help his client. In June, the president tells George Stephanopoulos that he would take information, dirt on a foreign -- on an opponent from a foreign country.

And now all this stuff having to do with the phone call that the president is just admitting.

DAVID AXELROD, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Yes.

No, he's becoming increasingly brazen. Listen, this was either implicit or explicit extortion in plain sight. We know what happened because he's told us what happened.

And here's the thing. Donald Trump, this has been true throughout his life, throughout his business career, and it's true with him as president of the United States. He does not believe in rules and laws and norms and institutions. And he doesn't believe they apply to him. The words that never pass from his lips are, we could do that, but it

would be wrong.

The only thing that he thinks is wrong is if you don't take full advantage of every situation to pursue your self-interests.

Does anybody really believe that Donald Trump is concerned about corruption in Ukraine and that that was what motivated him? Or was it the fact that he's trailing Joe Biden by double digits in the polls right now, and understands that, if he can't destroy him, and has to run against him, that he will probably lose?

I mean, the whole thing is transparent.

TAPPER: So you have been in the room when President Obama made phone calls, had conversations with foreign leaders.

What comes up when it comes to the domestic politics of either the foreign country or the United States?

AXELROD: Well, zero, I mean, other than there are times when the president might speak to another leader about human rights.

But understand these calls are very much scripted out in advance, in consultation with aides, and delivered in that -- according to that script. They're monitored. And then they're discussed after the calls.

That's not what happened here. The president leaned on this -- on the president of Ukraine to do his bidding, with the threat of this aid hanging over him. He was the loan officer essentially threatening, threatening the customer.

And he sent his henchman over there to make the point. So this is -- there's -- this is not to be confused with diplomacy. OK? This is extortion. It's politically motivated.

And, to use the president's favorite and a generally misused term, it's a disgrace.

TAPPER: But the president says -- and, obviously, the president tells a lot of lies, but the president says that he did not issue any sort of ultimatum, any sort of explicit quid pro quo.

Are you suggesting that there doesn't need to be one because he's the president and the Ukrainians wanted desperately $250 million in military aid?

[16:35:06]

AXELROD: I don't think there's any question about it.

I mean, it was wrong. On the face of it, it's wrong to ask another government to try and drum up corruption charges against your political -- your domestic political opponent, absent the aid. But with the aid being held up for reasons we still don't understand,

there -- the implicit threat was there. Nothing had to be said. And we don't really know what Rudy Giuliani said to them and why it was that the president sent Giuliani to deliver a message for him that perhaps he didn't want to deliver on the phone.

But, look, the whole thing stinks. There's nothing that can make it -- that can make it all right.

I heard Senator McConnell on your air a few minutes ago go to the usual mattresses here and declare this all a partisan thing.

It's not a partisan thing. It's a really serious abridgement of the Constitution and the role of the president. And that should be of concern to everyone.

TAPPER: And what should House Democrats do, then? Do they begin an impeachment inquiry, in your opinion?

AXELROD: Jake, I have been one who's been really reluctant on this. And I heard Keith and very passionately say earlier on your panel, torpedoes be damned, I don't care if we lose every seat, I don't care about the politics of this.

But think about this for a second. We're a deeply divided country; 40 percent of the country will immediately be told that this is a bloodless coup. It is like -- it is certain to fail in the Senate. It might fail in the House. And it could actually improve the president's chances of winning reelection and improve the Republican chances of winning the House.

So you could have Donald Trump returning to office in January of 2021 with the House and the Senate, unfettered by the prospect of reelection, and probably pretty confident that no one's ever going to impeach him or hold him accountable for any of his judgments.

That is what Nancy Pelosi has to weigh against what is clearly at this point something that requires -- that should demand an impeachment investigation.

It's not an easy -- it's not an easy choice. It's not a clear-cut, pristine matter. We can get on our high horse and stand on principle, but it's not that easy.

TAPPER: David Axelrod, thank you so much. Appreciate it, as always, sir.

AXELROD: Good to see.

TAPPER: Just moments ago, Joe Biden responding to Donald Trump's latest allegations with a request of his own.

Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:42:11]

TAPPER: Breaking news in our 2020 lead.

Democratic front-runner Joe Biden moments ago responding to President Trump, who, without any evidence, of course, has accused Joe Biden and his son of wrongdoing in Ukraine.

Biden tweeting: "Release the transcript of the call."

Let's talk about all of this.

And it is true, Margaret, that if there really was nothing untoward that happened on that call, releasing the transcript would prove it.

MARGARET HOOVER, CNN POLITICAL CONTRIBUTOR: It's hard to argue against just more information and transparency for the American people.

I mean, if you're arguing against that, then -- and which -- which some people are. They're saying, ah, this would be going past precedent and if every single call isn't private -- uh-uh, nobody's asking for every single call between a foreign leader to be revealed.

They're asking, in the extraordinary case that a whistle-blower report comes out and says something dearly and extremely wrong happened to this call, then it should be exposed. That's perfectly reasonable.

(CROSSTALK)

TAPPER: And that's not even to be released to the public, the whistle-blower complaint. That's just to the...

S.E. CUPP, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Congress.

TAPPER: Yes, leaders of the House and Senate and the leaders of the House and Senate Intelligence Committee.

(CROSSTALK)

JOHN AVLON, CNN POLITICAL CONTRIBUTOR: That's right.

And that's what they're required to do by law. That's the first precedent that's being broken, the only precedent that is being broken. Release the whistle-blower report to Congress. Release the transcript of the call, full stop.

TAPPER: And, Keith, take a listen to Joe Biden very, very passionate over the weekend about this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JOSEPH BIDEN (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Trump is doing this because he knows I will beat him like a drum, and he's using the abuse of power and every element of the presidency to try to do something to smear me.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: Is that the right way to handle this?

KEITH BOYKIN, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: I think so.

Trump is trying to muddy the waters. And he's trying to confuse people about Joe Biden's trip to Ukraine or his pressure on Ukraine. But that was a wholly different situation. Joe Biden was acting in part of an international effort to put pressure on Ukraine to stop corruption.

What Trump did is, he dispatched his personal lawyer, his personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, to try to put pressure on Ukraine. That is unfathomable that he's doing that. And you can't compare the two.

CUPP: I don't know. Margaret and I were kind of debating earlier whether this was good or bad for Joe Biden.

And I think, on the one side, he certainly looks fiery, he looks energetic. This is personal. On the other, Joe Biden doesn't want to be talking about any of this. It's really not to his advantage to go down the rabbit hole of any of this.

So I think there's maybe a short-term benefit for him, but, long term, he's got to be hoping that this goes away.

TAPPER: And this is also an issue for the other Democrats to embrace, Elizabeth Warren, who over the weekend in the new Iowa poll by "The Des Moines Register" and CNN, is actually slightly ahead, but within the margin of error, with Biden, 22 percent and 20 percent.

Elizabeth Warren calling for impeachment proceedings, tweeting -- quote -- "By failing to act, Congress is complicit in Trump's latest attempt to solicit foreign interference to aid him in U.S. elections. Do your constitutional duty and impeach the president."

[16:45:00]

We have also heard a similar call for impeachment proceedings from Kamala Harris, Cory Booker, Beto O'Rourke, Julian Castro.

HOOVER: I think that's going to be the gold standard. I mean, that's just going to be the default position of all the Democratic candidates for the next debate is to immediately call for impeachment hearings to do your duty. I just -- this is a Democratic primary competing for the Democratic progressive base of the party.

Iowa is one of the most progressive caucus going states. What are they competing for? They're competing for the base and the enthusiasm of the party. That has to be their default position.

TAPPER: And Cory Booker pleading with supporters for fundraising.

AVLON: Yes.

TAPPER: He says he needs $1.7 million by the end of the month in order to stay in the race. A new poll out of his home state of New Jersey has him polling at only nine percent among Democratic candidates in New Jersey. There you see 26 percent Biden, 20 percent Warren, 18 percent Bernie Sanders, nine percent Cory Booker.

That's in New Jersey the state he represents and has been elected to the Senate twice for. If he -- I mean, should he get out do you think based on that numbers?

AVLON: I don't but that's a brutal poll. I mean, look, his gambit was to say we're in a critical place and incredibly risky. The opposite of what John McCain did when he was running out of money in 08 but he's raised a half million dollars since then.

I think it's one of the mysteries of this campaign why Cory Booker hasn't been able to convert. He's a great retail politician, his inspiring order, maybe a uniter at a time of being device -- where dividers are rising but he's got to put some numbers on the board and he hasn't yet.

TAPPER: All right, everyone stick around. Thanks so much. A suspected enemy from within, how the feds say they stopped planes to bomb a major news network by a U.S. soldier. That's next.

[16:50:00]

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

TAPPER: In our "NATIONAL LEAD" now, breaking news, bombing a major American news network, targeting a Democratic presidential candidate, attacking Antifa. These are just some of the terrifying ideas the U.S. Army soldier discussed according to the feds.

Now, Jarrett William Smith is behind bars charged with distributing information about explosives and weapons of mass destruction. CNN's Jessica Schneider joins me now. And Jessica, this affidavit describes a man obsessed with weapons.

JESSICA SCHNEIDER, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: It does, Jake. And that alleged obsession dates back to June 2016. That was a full year before Smith enlisted in the military. The FBI says Smith started talking about his desire to fight with a mentor who actually fought with a far-right group in Ukraine.

And even after Smith enlisted in the U.S. Army in June 2017, prosecutors say he kept talking online about building bombs. Smith allegedly boasted about his skills making IEDs. He did this over a Facebook chat in 2018. And then the FBI finally moved in last month. They used an informant and an undercover agent.

Now, Smith allegedly to these two discussed his desire to bomb the headquarters of an undisclosed major American news network with a large vehicle bomb that an FBI bomb tech actually later said never would have worked anyway.

And Smith also allegedly talked about his desire to build weapons from everyday materials, including cell phones, and he spoke in-depth about constructing those bombs. The FBI actually determined that those could have been viable.

Now, Smith also allegedly reference Democratic presidential candidate Beto O'Rourke, when he was asked online by an undercover FBI agent, if you could think of any politician who would be a good target in Texas. Well, O'Rourke's campaign responded saying they've been working with the FBI in this case.

And Jake, the U.S. Army also says that it has cooperated with the FBI leading up to Smith's arrest this past weekend, Jake?

TAPPER: All right, Jessica Schneider, thank you so much. In our "MONEY LEAD" today, a travel nightmare for hundreds of thousands of people stranded around the world after the collapse of an iconic tour company. Nearly 600,000 vacation goers are figuring out what to do as their flights and vacations were canceled with no notice.

Thomas Cook has been struggling with finances for years and reported a loss of nearly $2 billion from late last year until March. Coming up next, how President Trump turning heads by showing up to one particular meeting. Stay with us.

[16:55:00]

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

TAPPER: In our Earth Matters Series today, a surprise if brief appearance today from President Trump, who for 14 whole minutes popped in on a climate summit at the United Nations after initially planning to skip it. But climate activists including former vice presidents are calling him out. Let's go to CNN's. Bill, Weir at the U.N. Bill?

BILL WEIR, CNN CHIEF CLIMATE CORRESPONDENT: Jake, fittingly, unceasingly warm day here on the east side of Manhattan as world leaders converge to talk about a climate in crisis. The President, as you mentioned, pulling a drive-by less than 15 minutes listening to the prime minister and chancellor of both India and Germany on his way to a meeting about faith protecting religious freedoms around the world.

One world leader who knows this topic well, and is back in familiar territory, former Vice President Al Gore.

AL GORE, FORMER VICE PRESIDENT, UNITED STATES: Thanks, Bill.

WEIR: Great to see you. Thank you for coming outside.

GORE: You too always. Thank you.

WEIR: What do you make of the lack of American leadership here today?

GORE: Well, I think that to focus on the good news side of it, Donald Trump being the face of global climate denial actually is motivating the kind of uprising and enthusiasm we saw last Friday with these millions of young people marching.

I'm optimistic. We're behind at the beginning of the second half, but we've got the tools we need to address this crisis.

WEIR: It's been over a decade since he tried to sound the alarm at Climate Paul Revere with an inconvenient truth. And after, of course, a lot of fanfare, Nobel Prize for the IPCC scientists behind those initial alarming reports.

Very little has been done. The world continues to burn carbon at an unsustainable relentlessly rates. But yet he continues to carry that message with unflappable optimism somehow. Jake?

TAPPER: Bill Weir, thanks so much. Our coverage on CNN continues right now.