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THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER

Rush Limbaugh's Homophobic Rant Against Pete Buttigieg; American Justice Under Assault?. Aired 4-4:30p ET

Aired February 13, 2020 - 16:00   ET

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


[16:00:05]

JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: So, at this point, if I see President Trump on Fifth Avenue, I'm crossing the street.

THE LEAD starts right now.

President Trump's former chief of staff unloading, saying working for him was a killer and that his request for dirt on Biden from Ukraine was illegal. What was General Kelly's last straw?

He's trashing Trump, throwing around millions, trying to become a cool meme. But Mike Bloomberg's surge is coming with serious questions about his record.

Plus, Rush Limbaugh, President Trump's most Medal of Freedom recipient, says that manly President Trump will have fun with Pete Buttigieg because Pete Buttigieg is gay and has a husband.

You can try to take a guess which one of these three guys volunteered to serve in the military in a war zone.

Welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

We begin today with the politics lead, with President Trump continuing on his post-impeachment campaign to throw caution to the wind and elbows to his enemies, firing officials who testified against him, attacking the faith of folks who voted against him, smearing judges and prosecutors and anyone who may question him.

The president is today targeting his former chief of staff, retired Marine General John Kelly, after Kelly told an audience in New Jersey that it was -- quote -- "a killer" to work for President Trump, and Kelly insisted that Lieutenant Alexander Vindman was right to be concerned and to report President Trump's call with Ukraine's President Zelensky, which deviated from years of U.S. policy and Kelly considers illegal.

As CNN's Kaitlan Collins reports, Kelly may have been motivated to speak out based on how Vindman was treated, but that did not stop President Trump from attacking Vindman again today.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: He will do a spectacular job, I have no doubt.

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): President Trump is lashing out at his former chief of staff after he publicly defended a prominent impeachment witness Trump fired, Lieutenant Colonel Alex Vindman.

TRUMP: Vindman was a guy that, when we took him out of the building, the building applauded.

COLLINS: The president making that claim as he attacked Kelly on Twitter, writing: "When I terminated John Kelly, which I couldn't do fast enough, he knew full well that he was way over his head. He came in with a bang, went out with a whimper, but like so many exes, he misses the action and just can keep his mouth shut."

Trump is falsely claiming the retired Marine general has a military and legal obligation to stay quiet, as his press secretary says she's disappointed Kelly is speaking out.

STEPHANIE GRISHAM, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: I thought it was a little disingenuous. I -- it's interesting that he's starting to poke his head out and speak a little bit more, just like John Bolton, as we're getting close to an election.

COLLINS: As Trump slims his longest-serving chief of staff, he's welcoming back another former staffer with open arms. Hope Hicks is returning to the White House after nearly two years.

Once the president's closest confidante, her homecoming includes a new title. Instead of communications director, Hicks will now be counselor to the president and report to Trump's son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner, as sources say Trump wants more people he trusts around him.

The president is also promoting another recently returned staffer who left under Kelly's reign. Johnny McEntee was forced out over a security clearance issue, but will now had the Office of Presidential Personnel.

As one staffer returns, another is resigning. Sources tell CNN that Jessie Liu, the former U.S. attorney who headed the office that prosecuted Roger Stone, quit her job last night after Trump abruptly yanked her nomination for a top Treasury position.

CNN is told the move was directly linked to Liu's old job. After he praised the Justice Department for intervening in Stone's sentencing recommendation, Trump said today he wished he'd picked Bill Barr as his attorney general sooner.

TRUMP: My life would have been a lot easier, but I might have been less popular.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

COLLINS: Jake, also in that interview today, the president suggested he might stop aides from listening in on his calls with foreign leaders, saying -- quote -- "I may end the practice entirely."

Now, he's repeatedly cited how many people were on his July call with the Ukrainian president as justification for why he did nothing wrong on that call. But we are told by sources that essentially he's become preoccupied with the idea that something he may say on a future call may leak as well.

TAPPER: All right, Kaitlan Collins, thank you so much.

We should point out, of course, that General John Kelly has largely stayed quiet since leaving the Trump administration, though now he is going farther than he ever has before, seemingly distressed at how President Trump and the White House have been attacking Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

TAPPER (voice-over): At Drew University in New Jersey, President Trump's former White House chief of staff retired Marine General John Kelly told a crowd that Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman was just following his training.

"The Atlantic" magazine and "The New Jersey Daily Record" newspaper reporting the Kelly extolled Lieutenant Colonel Vindman, whom the president fired last week and had ignominiously escorted off White House grounds.

[16:05:09]

"The Atlantic" reporting that Kelly described Vindman as having seen something -- quote -- "questionable" in the call, Vindman notifying his superiors and complying and telling the truth when subpoenaed by Congress.

Said Kelly -- quote -- "He did exactly what we teach them to do from cradle to grave. He went and told his boss what he just heard," adding: "We teach them don't follow an illegal order. And if you're ever given one, you will raise it to whoever gives it to you that this is an illegal order and then tell your boss."

On talks with North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un, Kelly said -- quote -- "He will never give his nuclear weapons up. I never did think Kim would do anything other than play us for a while. And he did that fairly effectively."

As secretary of the Department of Homeland Security before he was Chief of Staff Kelly was once in charge of executing the president's hard-line immigration policies. But, Wednesday, he said illegal border crossings are not as bad as the president says they are and that a wall does not need to be built from -- quote -- "sea to shining sea."

Kelly criticized how Trump talks about undocumented immigrants.

TRUMP: They're rapists, and some, I assume, are good people.

TAPPER: Quote: "They're not all rapists and they're not all murderers," Kelly said, "and it's wrong to characterize them that way. I disagreed with the president a number of times."

Kelly also criticized the commander in chief for intervening in the Navy decision to discipline Navy SEAL Eddie Gallagher, acquitted of war crime charges, but convicted for illegally posing in a picture with a dead ISIS fighter's corpse.

The president's intervention prompted the resignation of the secretary of the Navy -- quote -- "The idea that the commander in chief intervened there, in my opinion, was exactly the wrong thing to do," Kelly said. "Had I been there, I think I could have prevented it."

TRUMP: General Kelly is doing a fantastic job.

TAPPER: Last October, Kelly suggested he served as a guardrail against the president's worst instincts, having warned the president about picking an obsequious chief of staff as his successor."

JOHN KELLY, FORMER WHITE HOUSE CHIEF OF STAFF: I said, whatever you do, don't hire a yes-man, someone that's going to tell you -- won't tell you the truth. Don't do that, because, if you do, I believe you will be impeached.

The White House today pushed back on Kelly.

GRISHAM: I was in the room with him when he actually backed the president on many of the things that he's now saying weren't great. I thought it was a little disingenuous.

TAPPER: Their one point of potential agreement? Disappointment in Kelly, but for very different reasons.

Quote: "I'm disappointed in myself for leaving," Kelly said, "but it was a killer, I mean, no joke."

(END VIDEOTAPE)

TAPPER: And a source close to General Kelly disputes White House Press Secretary Stephanie Grisham's suggestion that she was ever in the room when anything of importance was being discussed.

Let's talk about this.

Jen Psaki, let me start with you.

White House Press Secretary Grisham calling Kelly's comments disingenuous.

What do you think?

JEN PSAKI, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Of course she is, because she wants to delegitimize them. She's speaking on behalf of the president.

I don't know how impactful it will be. I'm not sure what the John Kelly constituency is out there, because, for supporters of Donald Trump, he's a traitor. For Democrats, it's a little bit too little too late. So I don't know how much of an impact it will have. But either way, they don't want somebody out there who was close to

the president, close in the inner circle, questioning the president's ability to negotiate globally, ability to do his job, his naivete. I think that's some of the most damaging stuff that General Kelly was saying.

TAPPER: And what do you make, Jeremy, of his basic argument that he served as guardrails and Mick Mulvaney, the acting White House chief of staff, is basically anything goes?

JEREMY DIAMOND, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: I mean, it's true. It's true, because John Kelly was one of those guardrails at a time when there were several other guardrails, like Jim Mattis, for example, like several other officials.

Now we are at a point where the guardrails have essentially fallen away. And the president is especially following his own instincts at a time in his presidency perhaps more than more than ever before.

Mick Mulvaney, he has largely been neutered already in his position. He is not the strong chief of staff that John Kelly was at one point, not throughout his tenure, but at one point in his tenure.

TAPPER: He's not even the chief of staff. He's the acting chief of staff.

DIAMOND: He's the acting chief of staff.

And you have a series of officials around the president who frankly are more inclined to agree with the president, more inclined to be yes-men than perhaps John Kelly was during his tenure.

TAPPER: David, you're shaking your head.

DAVID URBAN, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: So much to unpack. Wow. Oh, my God.

So, listen, I know this is -- I'm speaking from self-interest, because both these gentlemen are friends of mine, but if I was picking teams, I'd pick Secretary Esper and Secretary Pompeo 10 times out of 10 over Tillerson and Mattis.

They are serving as guardrails. They are patriots. They have served downrange in combat. They have seen things.

(CROSSTALK)

PSAKI: They are yes-men.

URBAN: They are not yes-men. They are far from being yes-men.

(CROSSTALK)

TAPPER: What about Kelly, though? What about General Kelly, because that's...

URBAN: Listen, General Kelly is a great man, great soldier, served his company -- country nobly.

TAPPER: He's a Marine, not a soldier.

URBAN: But he's wrong, right? He's wrong. He's wrong on a lot of these things. Right?

(CROSSTALK)

[16:10:02]

DIAMOND: But there is not the same kind of pushback.

(CROSSTALK)

TAPPER: What is he wrong about?

URBAN: He's wrong about Vindman, OK?

There was no order here. The president didn't -- so military officers, right, have an obligation and a duty, right, to -- you don't have to obey orders that are illegal, right? There's no order here.

The president didn't order Lieutenant Colonel Vindman to do anything. He was on a call. He was a notetaker on a call, right? If he thought there was something wrong, he could do what he did. He reported it up his chain of command.

He also reported it outside of chain of command, breaking with military obligation.

TAPPER: How did he do outside the chain of command?

URBAN: Because he went to other people who allegedly, right, the whistle-blower and other people...

(CROSSTALK)

TAPPER: We don't know that to be a fact.

URBAN: Well, we don't know it to be absolutely the fact, but we do -- there are sources, right, that he reported outside the chain of command.

And then I would just add this. Another great soldier, Lieutenant General Keith Kellogg, right, distinguished servicemen, was on that call and didn't see anything wrong with it, didn't feel there was anything illegal.

So everybody's rushing that Vindman is some hero here. That's great. The people reading "The Atlantic" and General Kelly's article in there today will view it that way, not most of America.

TAPPER: And we should also point out there is a long line now here of individuals who President Trump extolled as his generals and his team, his A-team, when he started, who are now persona non grata, whether it is General Mattis, or General Kelly, or H.R. McMaster, or Rex Tillerson.

It goes on and on.

LAURA BARRON-LOPEZ, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Right, where you have seen these people who have worked for the administration, were picked by the president, who didn't -- who maybe internally pushed back here and there, but didn't publicly, and now, once they're out of the administration, pushing back.

And so it is notable what Kelly said. But, again, it also appears as though an attempt by Kelly that could be self-serving to distance himself from the administration now that he is no longer a part of it.

TAPPER: What do you mean by self-serving? Why could it be seen as self-serving?

BARRON-LOPEZ: Well, because of the fact that he didn't mention these things or as many of the concerns that he had when he was within the administration, and now he is doing it outside of the administration, in order to distance himself from it, rather than side with the president still.

TAPPER: Well, the argument would be made that these people were trying to do their patriotic duty, and they had their arguments inside the White House, instead of externally.

PSAKI: Well, but the notion that he went in there and didn't know what he was walking into is tough to believe.

I mean, President Trump had been out there making racist comments, criticizing immigrants, criticizing entire swathes of people and races before he went in there.

So now he's saying that he's outraged by his positions or his approaches on immigration? That's a little -- it doesn't sit well.

TAPPER: OK, everyone, stick around. We got a lot more to talk about. And we have a lot of panel this show.

We have some breaking news now, though. Attorney General Bill Barr just criticized President Trump, believe it or not, what did he say?

TThat's next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:16:58]

TAPPER: Breaking news, Attorney General Bill Barr just criticized President Trump's tweets about the Justice Department in an interview with ABC News' Pierre Thomas that we just got a piece of.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

WILLIAM BARR, ATTORNEY GENERAL: To have public statements and tweets made about the department, about our people in the department, our men ask women here, about cases pending in the department, and about judges before whom we have cases, make it impossible for me to do my job and to assure the courts and the prosecutors in the department that we're doing our work with integrity.

I'm not going to be bullied or influenced by anybody. And I said whether it's Congress, newspaper editorial boards, or the president, I'm going to do what I think is right and, you know, the -- I think the -- I cannot do my job here at the department with a constant background commentary that undercuts me.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: That seemed aimed at one person in particular. This comes, of course, after that one person, President Trump tweeted calling the initial sentencing recommendation for his long time friend Roger Stone disgraceful. After that tweet, the Justice Department released a new memo suggesting far less time than the initial recommendation of seven to nine years.

Let's discuss this.

And, Jeremy, Barr in this interview tells ABC News I was going to recommend less time any way than President Trump tweets it in the middle in the night, and essentially Barr says, and that makes me look bad.

DIAMOND: Right. Barr is making the argument, though, we've heard many other administration officials make, which is that the president's tweets often undercut what they are trying to do. The difference in this case is that it's not a contradiction between the president and Barr. It's, in fact, Barr saying that the president agreeing with him publicly on Twitter before this decision is formally announced, undercuts his actions to do the exact same thing.

It doesn't really answer the question of why Bill Barr was reversing this decision by career prosecutors to recommend a specific sentence. That's not something that typically happens here. And, obviously, it's a high profile case and it's a case where somebody who's a long time adviser to the president. So, Barr here is saying the president didn't tell me to do this. It doesn't mean that Barr didn't do this because the president would have wanted him to.

TAPPER: There are people, even Trump critics, who have said, and we have been covering this since it happened, who have said this was a very, very harsh sentence. It was within the sentencing recommendations, but for what he did, even though he was found guilty on seven charges, it's really on the steep end.

So there's some credibility in Barr saying he thought this was a little harsh.

BARRON-LOPEZ: Right, but the question is whether or not as we just discussed the president's tweets and the president's letting his thoughts being known influence the Justice Department. And, of course, Barr is denying that in this interview. But again, it's interesting also the response by Congress so far,

which has been that Congress is offering a somewhat muddled response. Republicans like Senator Graham are saying that it isn't appropriate for Trump to be tweeting this.

[16:20:05]

But they aren't necessarily going to bring Barr forward to answer any questions and they aren't sure if they actually want to dive into this at all. And again, when the judge ultimately gives their sentence, then that could help Congress get around this.

TAPPER: And, David, let me ask you. You are an adviser for the Trump campaign. You know the president well. Do you think that it's possible Barr would have given this interview without telling the White House he was going to do this and say this?

URBAN: Yes.

TAPPER: Yes?

URBAN: I think he probably could have given him a heads up that it's coming. But, look, Bill Barr is his own man. He said, I'm not going to be bullied by the Congress, by the media, by the president, by anybody, it makes my job tougher. He's going to say to the president, look, Mr. president, I got your back, just let me do my job, I got your back. You don't need to tweet and tell me what to do. I've got your back. I think that's what he was saying.

PSAKI: You know, I think it's not just the tweets. The problem is that the lead prosecutor was also moved and nominated for a job at the Department of Treasury which reportedly was because of concern about the period of time where the sentencing guidelines were going, or the sentencing was going to be determined. That's not just about tweets or that's not just about recommending different things.

URBAN: It's a completely prosecutorial different view. Look, I have never been a prosecutor. But I have watched lots of folk here's on this network to have this debate and talk to friends who are prosecutors. And especially in high profile political prosecutions, there is a lot of discussion that takes place as to exactly what the appropriate sentence should be from the attorney general on down in these cases.

So I don't believe there's anything magical about how it was somewhat bungled. To Jake's point, seven to nine years for something that was probably should have been on the lower end made it much easier to kind of blow that up. But at the end of the day, the judge is still going to make the decision. This is all --

(CROSSTALK)

TAPPER: Sure. A judge who President Trump has been attacking on Twitter --

URBAN: And Roger Stone had a gag order against her.

TAPPER: He has posted an image of her within the crosshairs.

URBAN: Let's not forget the judge makes the decision.

TAPPER: Let's also point out the four prosecutors who were actually prosecuting the case, assistant attorney, U.S. attorneys -- or attorneys general and others, I said U.S. attorneys, resigned after this happened. They all resigned from the case, and one of them from the Justice Department completely.

DIAMOND: Right. And our colleagues are reporting that there's a possibility of additional walkouts from the Justice Department from career federal prosecutors over this issue. So, again, you can argue whether or not this is a fair sentence or not. But the fact of the matter is it's extremely unusual for the Justice Department to issue one memo and the next day saying, never mind, scratch that. This is the orders from Washington, D.C.

TAPPER: So, it's possible that this interview is aimed not just at President Trump but also Justice Department employees to try to keep moral.

PSAKI: I will say though that watching this, it's the same with Secretary Pompeo. How ludicrous it is to have these people going out and saying, you're being so harsh to my department when they are taking actions and mistreating their own employees at the same time.

TAPPER: Yes, quick thought and we have to go.

URBAN: I'll say, at the end of the day, the president could pardon Roger Stone anyhow. You got a tempest in the teapot, right? He could have waited.

(CROSSTALK)

TAPPER: People want him to. People want him to rather. The view from experts we've had is go ahead and do that. Don't corrupt the sentencing process.

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

Coming up, he's got billions along with snappy comebacks for the president's insults. But President Trump isn't the only one going after Michael Bloomberg right now.

Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:28:25]

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MIKE BLOOMBERG (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: The president attacked me again this morning on Twitter. Thank you very much, Donald. He sees our poll numbers and I think it's fair to say he's scared because he knows I have the record and the resources to defeat him.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: That's Democratic presidential hopeful Michael Bloomberg standing up to President Trump's attacks, fighting back in a way few the Democrats have by taking increasingly personal jabs at the president at rallies and on Twitter.

And as Bloomberg rises in the polls and looks likely to make the next debate stage, CNN's Jeff Zeleny takes a closer look now at the massive campaign fueling Bloomberg's climb, as well as the controversies about Bloomberg giving some Democratic voters pause.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BLOOMBERG: I'm not afraid of Donald Trump and he knows it.

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Michael Bloomberg is taking delight at suddenly being the center of the attention in the Democratic presidential race.

BLOOMBERG: That's why he keeps tweeting about me. Thank you, Donald. Keep sending it in. I love it.

ZELENY: And trying to win the nomination as it's never been done before.

BLOOMBERG: Now, you don't see many presidential candidates here in Greensboro. They are spending all their time in South Carolina. But I think the voters here in North Carolina deserve just as much attention.

ZELENY: The former New York City mayor didn't just happen to be in the neighborhood. He breezed through North Carolina today as early voting opened for the primary on March 3rd, also known as Super Tuesday. When he finally plunges into a race, he's already reshaping.

The first true test of Bloomberg's candidacy comes that day when voters in 14 states coast to coast weigh in. He spent nearly $130 million on Super Tuesday ads, and $381 million overall, trying to make the point he's the strongest candidate to challenge President Trump.

AD ANNOUNCER: By an angry, out of control president.

ZELENY: No matter where you live in America, Bloomberg is inescapable, at least on television. That has allowed him to shape his own narrative until now.

He's suddenly on the defensive over the controversial stop and frisk policing policy in New York.

[16:30:00]