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THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER

Democrats Set To Debate; Crisis In Syria; Hunter Biden: I Did Nothing Improper But Had Poor Judgment; Warren Preps For First Debate Since Becoming Frontrunner. Aired 4:30-5p ET

Aired October 15, 2019 - 16:30   ET

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


[16:30:00]

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BORIS SANCHEZ, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Ripples of bipartisan outrage through Washington.

Vice President Mike Pence insisting to reporters, the administration's moves did not lead to violence.

MIKE PENCE, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Well, the United States of America did not give a green light to Turkey to invade Syria. Opportunities for us to bring troops home, to have American forces come out of harm's way has always been a priority for this president.

But that didn't mean that this president in any way, in any way encourages violence anywhere in the world, let alone along the border between Turkey and Syria.

SANCHEZ: But Trump's tweets last week struck a very different tone, saying -- quote -- "The Kurds fought with us, but were paid massive amounts of money and equipment to do so. They have been fighting Turkey for decades. We will fight where it is to our benefit and only fight to win. Turkey, Europe, Syria, Iran, Iraq, Russia, and the Kurds will now have to figure the situation out and what they want to do with the captured ISIS fighters in their neighborhood."

As the White House tries to take back the lead on Syria, an extremely rare bipartisan congressional push to impose much stronger sanctions is moving ahead.

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SANCHEZ: Despite this frantic push from the White House, two congressional sources tell CNN that Senators Lindsey Graham and Chris Van Hollen are still planning to move forward with their own package of sanctions against Turkey that are reportedly much harsher than those put forth by the administration -- Jake.

JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: All right, Boris Sanchez at the White House for us, thank you so much.

We also have some breaking news in our world lead, a close call for U.S. troops in Syria earlier today, when Turkish-backed forces came dangerously close to American service members.

Let's go to CNN's Nick Paton Walsh. He's in Iraq.

Nick, what happened?

NICK PATON WALSH, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Extraordinary, that possibly for the second, maybe even third time in a matter of days, we're talking about U.S. troops being close to harm, frankly, because of actions of Turkey or those forces that are representing it.

Now, this appears to involve Turkish-backed forces coming near a base west of Ain Issa. There are a number of bases there, some large ones actually for the Americans near the town of Kobani. Unclear which one this occurred near.

But this force was large enough and approach near enough, in violation of the agreements that the U.S. official I spoke says they have with Turkey and its forces to stay away from them, that they in fact, the U.S., had to call an airpower in a show of force, which they said de- escalated the situation.

Shots weren't fired, but the channel they used with Turkey, it seems, had to be used as well to get these forces to pull back. In the past, U.S. officials have described some of these Syrian rebels fighting for Turkey on the ground as mostly extremists, former ISIS, former al Qaeda.

One person I spoke to, a U.S. official, said it's fair to talk about this particular group approaching the base as something like that, suggesting perhaps they were trying to chase them out of town. Everyone knew the Americans leaving. This was added pressure -- Jake.

TAPPER: And ,Nick, the void left in Syria by U.S. service members is being filled by those who are clearly hostile to the United States, the Russian army, Assad's Syrian army, even ISIS.

WALSH: Absolutely.

I mean, ISIS, we know, will be looking for the vacuum, looking for its detainees to be released, looking for displaced to get out of camps, and be trying to congeal around whatever mess is left in their wake.

But things have been moving incredibly fast. We heard today that Turkish-backed forces have moved down the main highway which seemed to separate the territory they want to that which the Syrian regime now with their new allies the Syrian Kurds taking on.

And Russian military police seem to be acting as the buffer in between these two forces to try and de-escalate things. The U.S. leaving and no longer having influence in areas they used to have free range in -- Jake.

TAPPER: All right, Nick Paton Walsh in Northern Iraq, thank you so much. Stay safe, my friend. Elizabeth Warren and Joe Biden facing off tonight for the first time as 2020 front-runners, co-front-runners. Will they target each other or find themselves the targets of the rest of the field?

You're watching THE LEAD live from the Democratic debate in Westerville, Ohio.

Stay with us.

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[16:38:30]

TAPPER: We have breaking news for you in our politics lead.

President Trump's personal attorney Rudy Giuliani reacting just moments ago after announcing he's not going to cooperate with a congressional subpoena for documents in the impeachment investigation.

Giuliani tweeting -- quote -- "I will not participate in an illegitimate, unconstitutional and baseless 'impeachment inquiry.' Jon Sale, who is a lifelong friend, has represented me for the sole purpose of analyzing the request and responding at this time. I do not need a lawyer," he said.

Let's turn now to our 2020 LEAD.

Moments ago, the 12 presidential candidates taking the stage behind me finished their final walk-throughs. It will be a night of firsts, the first time for this many candidates to be on one debate stage at the same time in American history, as far as we know, the first time the Democratic presidential hopefuls face off since the impeachment inquiry began, and the first time Elizabeth Warren is taking the stage in such a strong position, leading the field in a virtual tie with Joe Biden.

Let's chat about this.

Karen, let's start with the Warren-Biden dynamic. Do you expect them to draw sharp contrasts with each other?

KAREN FINNEY, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: I do, although, if I were Biden, I would not worry about Warren and just try to focus on my message and Trump, because, given that she's coming in as the front- runner, you can expect -- we already know that Mayor Pete wants to take her on and have this conversation about Medicare for all.

Stay out of the way of that. Let that happen. And you just stay in your lane and do your thing.

TAPPER: And I know that your group hasn't endorsed, although you personally both like both Warren and Sanders.

Is there concern -- we're all obviously wishing Bernie Sanders the best in his recovery from a heart attack. And, arguably, he's in better health, now that he's had the procedure, than two or three weeks ago.

[16:40:07]

But is there concern about his performance tonight, his stamina, how he's going to do?

ALEXANDRA ROJAS, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, JUSTICE DEMOCRATS: Well, I think he absolutely needs to bring energy.

But I think he needs to do the same thing that Bernie Sanders has always done, which is, for the past 30 years, he has been the most consistent and authentic voice on that stage, fighting for solutions, and has the sort of clarity around the scale, scope and urgency of them.

So that's what he needs to bring. I think he needs to show that he's still in it. And we can't forget that he's -- it's not just small change, as Pete Buttigieg puts it. He's got $25 million on hand, with an average contribution of less than 20 bucks.

And that's an army of people behind him, and people need to take that seriously.

TAPPER: A lot of fund-raising.

And, Paul, Elizabeth Warren has really not been hit in any of these debates. You have seen Pete Buttigieg and others have criticized her here and there for things like not being open about the fact that her plan for Medicare for all would raise taxes, although the overall costs would go down, because premiums, et cetera, would be eliminated.

Does she need to show that she can take a punch?

PAUL BEGALA, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Yes. But, so far, she has shown that she can slip a punch.

The moderators have done their jobs, including you, Jake. Sorry to suck up, but they have come at her with some very tough questions.

TAPPER: You never have to apologize for that.

(LAUGHTER)

BEGALA: But she's just got a lot of talent. She does.

And I do think that she's in a really interesting position, because I don't think she needs to go after Joe Biden, because they draw from a different well.

It's very hard to go after Bernie. As Alexandra points out, he's recovering from a heart attack. So that's going to be kind of tough. I actually -- free advice to Bernie. Perfect opportunity for Bernie to humanize both himself and his issues.

He's great talking about the policy, but sometimes I think...

TAPPER: He's uncomfortable talking about himself.

BEGALA: ... he should say, I put the me in Medicare, right?

TAPPER: Right.

BEGALA: I'm all heart, right? So a little bit of humor and humanizing.

And I'm so glad he's doing better. But that's a moment. I think everybody's rooting for him.

MAEVE RESTON, CNN NATIONAL POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: But I don't think that we should underestimate how big a deal this is for voters. Just being out the last couple of days running around Ohio, talking to voters, there are a lot of questions about his stamina, whether he can make it through the long haul.

And especially as voters are getting more and more concerned about President Trump, the question of really who is the most viable person to take on Donald Trump next year.

So, I do think he -- Sanders will have to do a lot to make it clear to people that he's being forthcoming about his health, and there not being any issues in the future.

I mean, you remember this being such an issue with McCain, for example, where it kind of creeps into the back of voters' minds, and they start to think more about age, and who's the best person to take him on.

TAPPER: Let's talk about another topic that's definitely going to come up tonight, which is Joe Biden's son Hunter, who's been the target of President Trump's attacks for weeks.

First of all, before we get to what Hunter said to ABC News today, we should note, President Trump's attacks against Hunter Biden and Joe have been full of lies. And so that's just a fact.

But it also is just the fact that this kind of board appointment to the son of a sitting vice president is something that a lot of good government groups take issue with.

So Hunter Biden did an interview with ABC News. He tried to dismiss any questions about his time on the board of a Ukrainian gas company during his father's vice presidency. Take a listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

QUESTION: What do you say to people who believe this is exactly why people hate Washington? A vice president's son can make money in countries where your father is doing official government business.

HUNTER BIDEN, SON OF JOE BIDEN: Well, by the way -- well, I don't know what to tell you.

I made a mistake, in retrospect, as it related to creating any perception that was wrong. And so, therefore, I'm taking it off the table.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: Ukrainian prosecutors have said that they know of no evidence of any criminal wrongdoing by Hunter or by Joe.

But Amy Robach in that interview is right. This does look swampy.

Dare any Democrat bring this up in the debate?

FINNEY: I don't think so.

And I think what Democrats have done in the last couple of weeks has been smart, which is drawing the contrast between the kind of administration they would run in terms of ethics and what role their children might play, either inside or outside, vs. with Trump.

And Hunter, I thought, was fine in that interview. He was himself. It was unpolished, which I think that's who he is, which I think was a good thing.

And his point about, you're right, it may seem swampy, but can we also remember this happened years ago? And people at the time did express some concern.

But I think there's a difference between what is happening right now, in this moment, with impeachment, with what we're learning every single day, and the very real questions we have about the Trump children, than something that happened years ago, where there's been no wrongdoing proven.

Biden now has a whole talking point on his ethics plan that he can talk about.

TAPPER: So, on the subject of the Trump children, Donald Trump Jr. tweeted in response to Hunter Biden's interview -- quote -- "Dumpster fire at Biden H.Q.

[16:45:00]

TAPPER: It is impossible for me to be, or any of the boards I just mentioned -- on any of the boards I mentioned without saying that I'm the son of the Vice President for the U.S. I don't think that there's a lot of things that would have happened in my life that if -- that if my name wasn't Biden, Hunter Biden.

So Donald Trump Jr. quoting Hunter Biden, acknowledging that things came his way because of his father. Your response.

BEGALA: I just got blessed, Trump Jr. Just bless his little heart. And it just -- because it's just -- it's indescribably stupid for him to inject himself into this story, when he has business deals all around, when he has traveled and promoted his company, his father's company, his eponymous company. It's just -- it's just maddening.

I think what his father does that's very ingenious and evil is he finds where you're most vulnerable. You know, I don't need to tell you. Joe Biden has (INAUDIBLE) a daughter and a son and a wife, and family is the most important thing in his life. And so he takes -- picks on a member of Joe's family. Joe has got to resist answering in kind.

I wouldn't advise Joe to attack Donald Trump Jr. Focus on the president. Joe's greatest calling card is I'm the guy that can beat Trump. So when you hear Hunter, there's seven things you do attack, attack, attack, attack, attack, attack, attack, but attack Trump, not his kids.

TAPPER: All right, everyone stick around. We got more to talk about. With 12 Democrats on the debate stage behind me tonight, who is most likely to throw a punch? We're going to go live inside the debate hall in Westerville, Ohio. Stay with us.

[16:50:00]

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TAPPER: We're here in Ohio just hours from the Democratic presidential debate hosted by CNN and The New York Times, the first debate with this brand new dynamic no clear front runner. Senator Elizabeth Warren and former Vice President Joe Biden are essentially neck and neck. Let's discuss.

First of all, Alexandra, let me ask you, this is also the first debate since the Democrats in the House launch the impeachment inquiry. If you were advising a candidate, how much would you want them to talk about the impeachment inquiry and President Trump versus, I don't know, bread and butter issues, jobs, wages, healthcare?

ROJAS: Well, I think it's a moment for folks in the field that have been leading on this, right? Castro is the first to come out for it, Elizabeth Warren followed, Beto has been doing it for a while. So I think it's a moment for folks on stage that have been championing it and have had the foresight and I think vision of why we need to hold the highest level of office accountable.

And I think that they should bring it up because it's something that on voters' minds, right, is who is the best candidate to defeat Donald Trump. And one of the best ways I think that you're going to show that you're actually going to be able to do that is by talking about the very real investigation that's going on.

TAPPER: And Maeve, you've been talking to Ohio voters. This used to be a swing state. We have no idea if it's going to be any -- I mean, they went for Obama twice, they went for Trump by eight points, I think. What do you think? What do you think would benefit these candidates here more just based on having talked to voters? Do they want to hear about wages and health insurance and all that, or do they want to hear about who can beat Trump?

RESTON: Well, I think that they need -- a lot of veterans that I talked to seem to need more clarification on what actually happens on Ukraine. I mean, I went around talking to people and there seems to be -- still be a lot of confusion out there about whether this is somehow tied to the Russia investigation with many people thinking that that didn't yield much.

So clearly, the Democrats haven't had had a very clear message about this so far about why this moment is different in the impeachment inquiry. And I think also there's a lot of trepidation particularly in Ohio with people saying, I want someone other than Trump, but these guys, all of them seem so liberal to me. And ideas like Medicare for all seem so far out there that people feel uncomfortable about who they're going to support next year.

And so I think, you know, extending a bridge to those people in the middle would be something helpful that the candidates could do tonight, particularly for those independents who are increasingly peeling away from President Trump.

TAPPER: Do you agree?

BEGALA: Yes, and I think Mayor Pete is going to position himself to do that. He's sort of indicated that this week. And Maeve is exactly right. You hear that from voters a lot. I want to fire the president even if I voted for him, right? I want to change but I just give me somebody acceptable. And Mayor Pete has tried to drive into that length.

Joe Biden's been occupying it. And by the way, he started out at 28 percent the day he announced, today 28 percent. So he's got an endurance that I certainly underestimated and maybe others, but I think Mayor Pete is the one who's going to try to make that case that I'm actually the better acceptable alternative. I'm from the Midwest, and young. Did you know he actually served in combat?

TAPPER: He was in Afghanistan, not in combat, but in a war zone.

BEGALA: In a war zone.

TAPPER: Yes.

ROJAS: And I would just caution though, that I think electability isn't just about moderation, it's also about motivation. And a lot of the people that we need to turn out that did not turn out in 2016, but did turn out in 2012 and 2008 need to show up. And so I think part of that is by inspiring them to do that.

TAPPER: And that's the big debate about going after progressives versus trying to go after former Trump voters.

FINNEY: Absolutely. Look, Warren should be reminding people that a white woman has already beat Trump, right, once. Not -- they've already done it once, they voted for a white woman. It can be --

TAPPER: The popular vote.

FINNEY: Hey, I'll take it. But at the same time, she I think needs to do a better job and do more to explain Medicare for all. Because actually, a lot of the polling data shows that when people learn more about what it really means, they like it more. So -- and she's got big, bold ideas.

And I think part of what people are a little afraid of is are we ready for that kind of change, right? Because some people voted for Trump because they want to change and now they say that's not the kind of change I wanted.

[16:55:12]

TAPPER: Well, he certainly shake things up.

ROJAS: Well, I was going to say, I think to prove Elizabeth Warren's point, and I think the ascension there, she's building a movement to get it done.

TAPPER: All right, thanks one and all. I appreciate it. Don't go anywhere. The historic Democratic presidential debate hosted by CNN and The New York Times it's just a few hours away. 12 candidates facing off starting at 8:00 p.m. Eastern right here on CNN. Our live coverage from the CNN-New York Times debate site rolls on. Stay with us.

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