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THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER

Putin Echoes GOP Arguments Against Trump Impeachment; Source: Key Impeachment Witness Told to Leave Ukraine Post Before Pompeo's Visit; New CNN Poll: Biden Holds Lead Ahead of Debate. Aired 4:30-5p ET

Aired December 19, 2019 - 16:30   ET

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


(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REP. BRAD WENSTRUP (R-OH): When they didn't win at the ballot box, they pursued a Russian collusion narrative with special counsel Robert Mueller had to waste time and taxpayer dollars to prove false.

[16:30:10]

When the Russia collusion malicious deception didn't work, Madam Speaker, Democrats sought a new path forward to impeach President Trump.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: And now, we are hearing that line again, except it's coming from Russia.

CNN's Fred Pleitgen joins me now live from Moscow.

Fred, the Russian President Vladimir Putin was quite chatty about impeachment today.

FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, he certainly was, Jake. This came during his annual very big press conference which went on for over four hours. You are absolutely right. He was almost mimicking the talking points from the GOP and essentially saying he believed from the very beginning when President Trump took office, that the Democrats were out to get him. Just listen to this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

PRESIDENT VLADIMIR PUTIN, RUSSIA (through translator): This is just the continuation of the internal political battle. One party that lost the elections, the Democrats, is now trying to find new ways by accusing Trump of collusion with Russia.

But then it turns out there was no collusion. This can't be the basis for the impeachment. Now they came up with some pressure on Ukraine. I don't know what is the pressure, but this is up to your congressmen.

(END VIDEO CLIP) PLEITGEN: It certainly does sound very similar doesn't it, Jake? Also, some words of support actually for President Trump coming from Vladimir Putin as well. Putin saying he does not believe that President Trump will be removed from office because, of course, the trial has to go to the Senate first. He also said he believes that President Trump was being impeached for what he called made up reasons, Jake.

TAPPER: Hmm. And, Fred, we just learned the Trump administration is pushing back on legislation from Congress trying to deter Russian aggression. What are you hearing about that?

PLEITGEN: Yes, very important piece of legislation, trying to deter Russian aggression in the future. Of course, possibly also meddling in the 2020 election as well, and continuously punishing Russia for meddling in the 2016 election. And CNN has obtained a letter that's dated from last Tuesday or was sent last Tuesday from the State Department, by a senior State Department official, saying that that legislation was, quote, unnecessary, and required, as they put it, significant changes, that they had major problems with that legislation.

The interesting thing about that, Jake, that letter was sent exactly one week after President Trump met in the Oval Office with none other than the Russian foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov -- Jake.

TAPPER: All right. Fred Pleitgen, thanks so much.

Also in the world lead today, the State Department may be pushing out, in some ways, attacking U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, Bill Taylor. Taylor's testimony in the impeachment inquiry led President Trump to call Taylor a never Trumper.

Now, a source tells CNN the timing of Taylor's departure from the embassy in Kiev may be more than a coincidence.

Let's bring in CNN's Alex Marquardt.

And, Alex, Taylor is set to leave Ukraine just as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is heading over there for a visit. Coincidence?

ALEXANDER MARQUARDT, CNN SENIOR NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes. So, we understand that Bill Taylor has been asked to hand offer his duties and is set to leave the embassy on January 2nd. This request, according to a source telling CNN, coming from a close aide to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

Now, the State Department has not yet released or revealed, rather, when Pompeo is going to be over there in Kiev, according to the "Wall Street Journal", citing Ukrainian officials.

He is going to be there on the 3rd and 4th of January. So, Taylor will be leaving the day before Pompeo is due to show up.

Now, of course, this puts Pompeo in -- this would have been put Pompeo in a tough position politically. He doesn't want to be seen with a guy who testified against President Trump saying there was quid pro quo. He wants to stay in Trump's good graces both for his current job and if he runs for Senate.

But this is someone -- you know, Taylor did go in front of Congress and said in no uncertain terms there was quid pro quo that the White House was holding back a meeting and aid unless President Zelensky of Ukraine launched those investigations.

TAPPER: Pompeo is the one who personally drafted Taylor to take the job and now doesn't even want to be seep in a photograph with him, according to this reporting.

Alex Marquardt, thanks so much.

A new CNN poll on the presidential race is out today, just hours before a crucial debate for several candidates is coming tonight. The story being told by the new numbers. That's next. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:38:38]

TAPPER: In our 2020 lead today -- hours ahead of the final Democratic debate of the year, a new CNN poll shows Joe Biden maintaining his lead nationally. The former vice president in front at 26 percent among Democrats or Democratic-leaning independents, followed by Senator Bernie Sanders at 20 percent, Senator Elizabeth Warren at 16 percent, and Mayor Pete Buttigieg at 8 percent.

And as CNN's Jeff Zeleny now reports for us, with a shrinking number of candidates on the debate stage, time is running out for them to make their case before the February 3rd Iowa caucuses.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): The battle lines are drawn for the final Democratic debate of the year tonight. It's the smallest lineup yet, with seven candidates on stage, all racing to define their opponents and distinguish themselves with the first votes of the 2020 race only 46 days away.

Joe Biden will be at center stage as he's been all year. But the center of attention may be Elizabeth Warren and Pete Buttigieg, who have been engaged in a contentious fight over health care and its transparency.

SEN. ELIZABETH WARREN (D-MA), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I think Mayor Pete should open up the doors so anyone can come in and report on what's being said.

ZELENY: With Warren and other progressives piling on, Buttigieg did just that, opened his fund raisings events, and released records from his time as a business consultant.

Bernie Sanders has also been turning up the heat on Buttigieg, criticizing his high dollar fundraisers in places like wine cellars. [16:40:05]

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS (I-VT), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Holds these fancy fund-raisers for wealthy people. That is not -- that is not what we do.

ZELENY: What the Democratic rivals are really fighting over is who is the most electable. At the heart of that question is health care, an issue dividing Democrats more than any other.

Biden, Buttigieg, and Amy Klobuchar are opposed to Medicare for all, pushing a public option. They oppose abolishing private health insurance.

While Warren has long argued --

WARREN: I'm with Bernie on Medicare-for-All.

ZELENY: Her petition for health care will likely face even more scrutiny tonight. She still supports Medicare-for-All but is suddenly telling voters they deserve choice.

WARREN: The choice is yours. Give a lot of them a choice. That's a choice for everyone to make.

ZELENY: Klobuchar has been gaining new attention, pitching what she calls realistic solutions on health care and other issues that appeal to a broader swath of voters.

SEN. AMY KLOBUCHAR (D-MN), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: And I'm telling you this: we better not screw this up, because the people are with us.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ZELENY: So, the biggest difference of all, Jake, will be the fact there are only seven candidates on stage. Cory Booker did not make the qualifications for this debate. He aired an ad saying he will air it one time only, he is not a billionaire, he can't air it more than that. He is going to stay in this race.

And, of course, Bloomberg also not on the debate stage.

So, Jake, the final chance for these candidates to make their points. My question, will candidates finally go after Joe Biden or will he also skate through this? But the biggest center of it all, Pete Buttigieg. Will Elizabeth Warren really use this as an opportunity to raise questions about him? Jake?

TAPPER: Jeff Zeleny in Los Angeles, thanks so much.

After the debate, Elizabeth Warren holding a meeting to tackle one of President Trump's favorite attack lines. We'll explain what that means, next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:46:38]

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

QUESTION: Joe Biden doesn't have the experience?

MICHAEL BLOOMBERG, PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: No.

He's never been a manager of an organization. He's never run a school system. The presidency shouldn't be a training job. You get in there, you got to hit the ground running.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: We are back with our 2020 lead.

Michael Bloomberg with a new and interesting attack on former Vice President Joe Biden, arguing that, because he hasn't been a leader, in Bloomberg's estimation, he's not qualified to be president.

Let's discuss.

I have to admit, Nia, this one took me by surprise.

NIA-MALIKA HENDERSON, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL REPORTER: This was weird.

TAPPER: A lot of stuff to go after Joe Biden for, but the idea that he doesn't have the experience in leadership to be president is...

HENDERSON: Yes, it's very strange.

Like, I had to sort of like read it a couple of times and make sure he was talking about Biden. And you can see the reporter there being surprised.

TAPPER: Well, he's never been an executive, is the point, I think.

HENDERSON: Right. Right.

There is a way to go after Joe Biden's experience and label it as, well, maybe you need a fresh outsider who's led in the private sector, in the way that Bloomberg has.

TAPPER: Or a three-term mayor, yes.

(CROSSTALK)

HENDERSON: Or a three-term mayor in New York.

But, yes, this one just seemed an odd shot at Biden.

TAPPER: You liked it, though, kind of.

MIKE SHIELDS, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Yes, I mean, this is not what Bloomberg wants to hear. I completely agree with it.

(LAUGHTER) SHIELDS: Joe Biden has been in the government forever. He's never had a leadership position. He doesn't know what it means to create jobs.

And so I think Bloomberg is exactly right. Now, I don't want -- also don't want the leader to be someone who like takes away my Big Gulps and runs a nanny state like Bloomberg did in New York, but it's an interesting attack within the Democratic primary.

But it is interesting because people haven't been -- they have sort of laid off attacking Joe Biden straight on, right? And so I think he sees he has to have that lane. He's better -- he's got to start occupying the space that Joe Biden's in, in that lane in the primary.

JACKIE KUCINICH, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: But also a curious -- a curious attack in this current Democratic primary, to make the businessman experience attack, because that's the person they're running against and for -- and some of the populist messaging that's coming from some of the front-runners that you're hearing.

It's just -- it is curious, and it is a choice.

TAPPER: So, one other thing I think is curious is, Kirsten, one of the criticisms of what happened with the Democrats in 2016 is that they -- there wasn't really enough criticism of Hillary Clinton during the primaries for her to get roughed up enough to be a better general election candidate.

That certainly was not the case with Obama in 2008. But that's a criticism I have heard. Is Vice President Biden benefiting from a similar situation and that could come back to haunt him?

We haven't heard Democrats really talk about all the stuff that Trump and this Ukraine scandal is about and Burisma, Hunter, his brother Jimmy. I mean, there is stuff, his entire track record as a senator for decades.

KIRSTEN POWERS, CNN COMMENTATOR: Yes.

I mean, he's gotten attack on the criminal justice issues.

TAPPER: Sure, a little bit. Yes.

POWERS: And I'd also argue that Hillary got beat up pretty bad in 2008, so...

TAPPER: But not in '16, I mean.

POWERS: I know. But I think a lot of the stuff about her had come out.

So maybe if she'd gotten -- whatever. I don't want to -- let's not go back there about why Hillary lost. But I just think that this is a bad argument for Bloomberg to be making, because even bringing up he's never run a school system, I mean, the president doesn't run school systems. That's not what the president does.

The president is the head -- he doesn't even really run the government. Right? I mean, he's the visionary or she, someday, hopefully, is the visionary, as the person who sets the policy and hires people to do that.

So I don't think -- I just -- to me, it's sort of suggested like he doesn't completely understand what the president does. I don't think you need business experience to work in the government.

[16:50:05]

KUCINICH: But, to your point, I mean, Joe Biden hasn't had a good answer as to the whole Hunter Biden-Burisma situation. And you would think that at this point he would.

And I think that one of the reasons Democrats haven't been attacking him on it is because they don't want to lend credence to the Republican attacks on Joe Biden.

But I think, for sure -- and you have seen him be attacked on his Senate record in the early stages. I think that comes back, particularly if he keeps rising, because all the clearing seems to be in the lower tier.

Once we -- once the others start to rise and really get foundations, I think Joe Biden will again sustain some attacks.

TAPPER: And, Nia, I want to ask you. The number of voters who are very satisfied with the field of Democratic candidates has dropped from 38 percent in June to 31 percent now.

What does that say to you about the state of the race and also the potential of somebody like Buttigieg or Amy Klobuchar or someone else to actually emerged as the nominee?

HENDERSON: Yes, I mean, they have got a little bit of a window to do that, about 40 days or so before the Iowa caucus. We will see them on stage tonight at 8:00 from Los Angeles, yes.

And I think the question is, how do they get there? I mean, do all paths to the top tier and go through Biden. Folks have tried that. Kamala Harris, for instance, took him on in that first debate. Didn't work out too well for her.

So I think people are a little nervous about what it means to go after Joe Biden.

KUCINICH: But I do think Joe Biden, there's -- I mean, something like his handling and his involvement in the Iraq War ,you haven't seen a really...

HENDERSON: Sanders a little bit.

KUCINICH: Sanders a little bit, but you haven't seen that really be vetted. And that's an opening for someone.

SHIELDS: Well, there's a dynamic in these multi-candidate primaries in both the Republican and the presidential primaries in the past where people are reluctant to go after the front-runner, because they get hurt too.

Until Missouri pulls a Dick Gephardt to Howard Dean and just says, I'm not going to win, so I'm taking this guy out with me. We haven't seen that yet.

(CROSSTALK)

TAPPER: That was vicious.

KUCINICH: Brutal.

TAPPER: Everyone, stick around.

You don't want to miss, by the way, the final debate of 2019, the "PBS NewsHour"/Politico Democratic presidential debate live from Los Angeles.

You can see it right here on CNN or on your local PBS station. The coverage starts at 8:00 p.m. Eastern.

A message to Democrats they may not like from voters in a commonwealth that they're trying to win back in 2020, that's next.

Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:56:53]

TAPPER: In our 2020 lead today, with less than a year until Election Day, will impeachment hurt President Trump's reelection chances or help it?

Back in 2016, one of the ways Trump won the key state of Pennsylvania was by boosting support in small towns in rural areas, places such as Blair County, Pennsylvania, which Romney won 66 percent of the vote in 2012. Trump won by five points more, 71 percent.

CNN's Martin Savidge talked about the impeachment vote with Trump voters there.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

MARTIN SAVIDGE, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): In Blair County, Pennsylvania, the impeachment of Donald Trump isn't hurting the president.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: No, I love him.

SAVIDGE: Supporters say it's helping him. BONNIE PFEFFER, TRUMP SUPPORTER: I think what they're doing is completely wrong. And I will vote for him in the coming election.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's going to help him get reelected, actually.

SAVIDGE: Voters here are predominantly white, working class, strong in their conservative beliefs.

(on camera): What do you think this will do for Democrats?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I think just put a nail in their coffin.

SAVIDGE (voice-over): Trump won more than 70 percent of the vote in this blue-collar county about two hours east of Pittsburgh, significantly outperforming Mitt Romney in 2012.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: To make America great again.

SAVIDGE: But the Republican county chair says, had I asked him a year ago if Trump could repeat his success in 2020, he would have said unlikely. Now?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I think he will turn out that percent and more.

SAVIDGE (on camera): He will do as good as that, maybe even better?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Maybe even better.

SAVIDGE (voice-over): How's that possible? Two reasons. Trump voters we talked to here like the economy and loathe impeachment. They credit Trump for the former and blame Democrats for the latter.

(on camera): And how would you say the economy here is in Altoona?

PHILIP DEVORRIS, PRESIDENT AND CEO, BLAIR COMPANIES: It's good. It's not people celebrating boom days, but it feels like the kind of long- term steady growth.

SAVIDGE (voice-over): At Blair Image Elements, they make signs all of us see. But what critics see as clear evidence of presidential abuse of power, CEO Philip Devorris sees as just the same old polarized Washington politics that moved him to vote for Trump in the first place.

DEVORRIS: If it did anything, it would make me want to support him more.

SAVIDGE: It's pretty much the same story down on the farm.

PHIL KULP, KULP FAMILY DAIRY: This location, there's about 1,500 cows being milked.

SAVIDGE: Milk from the Kulp Family Dairy goes into Hershey chocolate and Land O'Lakes butter. Kulp's business is improving, but his attitude toward impeachment is not. He doesn't follow it much. KULP: No, I work too many hours to pay close attention.

SAVIDGE: The way Kulp sees it, voters should elect more like Trump to Congress.

(on camera): Is the impeachment process in any way going to change your outlook or support of this president in 2020?

KULP: No. It just makes me, I guess, more convinced that we need more outsiders in Washington.

SAVIDGE: Not all the Republicans I spoke to here support President Trump. Some object to him for what they call his personal flaws, and that they will likely do in 2020 what they did in 2016, which is simply not vote, because, unlike other Trump strongholds in this area, when I ask people if there were any Democrats they might possibly consider, the answer was unanimous: No -- Jake.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

TAPPER: Martin Savidge in Altoona, thank you so much.

You can follow me on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter at @JakeTapper. Tweet the show @THELEADCNN.

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