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Trump's Power Grab Levels Assault on American Justice; Buttigieg Lands First Endorsement from Black South Carolina Lawmaker; Limbaugh says, U.S. Not Ready To Elect Gay Guy Kissing His Husband. Aired 1-1:30p ET

Aired February 13, 2020 - 13:00   ET



JOHN KING, CNN HOST: That part is true.

KAROUN DEMIRJIAN, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: So that's -- they're hoping this will land a little bit better.

KING: OK, we'll see. Please vote (ph) next hour. Stay with us. And thanks for joining in Inside Politics today. See you back here noon time tomorrow. Don't go anywhere, Brianna Keilar starts Right Now. Have a great afternoon.

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN HOST: I am Brianna Keilar live from CNN's Washington headquarters.

Underway right now, the president's unprecedented influence over the Justice Department and his retaliation against subpoenaed witnesses in his impeachment are amounting to a stress test on America's justice system. How far can it bend before it breaks?

And one of the president's former chiefs of staff criticizing his ex- boss on immigration and his handling of Ukraine and North Korea, defending a key impeachment witness. And now the president is firing back, not only at General John Kelly, but his wife.

Plus, as the 2020 race intensifies, is the president's biggest fear Michael Bloomberg? The actual billionaire is clearly getting under the self-described billionaire president's skin.

And we start with an agency on the edge amid divisions in the Department of Justice. On one side, non-partisan career prosecutors who are pursuing justice, some of whom have resigned, the other led by Attorney General William Barr and his allies acting a little bit like the president's personal legal team.

The New York Times reports that prosecutors across the country already feared getting caught in President Trump's crosshairs if they were to take part in a case that drew his attention. And now they also fear that their boss, Attorney General Barr, will not have their backs in politically charged prosecutions.

We're learning from sources that on the heels of four federal prosecutors walking out over Barr's interference in the Roger Stone case to downgrade his seven to nine-year sentence recommendation walking off this case. That more could soon be on the way out.

I want to bring in our Sara Murray to discuss this. Tell us what you're hearing about that. Are there going to be more resignations, Sara?

SARA MURRAY, CNN POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Brianna, it's certainly possible. There's a lot of unhappiness and a lot of uneasiness at the Justice Department right now over the way that this Roger Stone case was handled. As you pointed out, there were four prosecutors who pulled themselves from the Stone case, one who resigned from the Justice Department entirely. And people are looking at that situation very warily. And we could see some additional resignations. I mean, you pointed out that they are looking at what Bill Barr did and there are concerns about main justice intervening in politically sensitive cases. So that's part of what's fueling this.

And we're also learning about other resignations that are going on in the Trump administration right now. Jessie Liu resigned. She was at the Treasury Department. She had moved over there after leaving the U.S. Attorney's Office in Washington, and she had been nominated for a top job at the Treasury Department and that nomination was yanked because her former office, the D.C. U.S. Attorney's Office oversaw the Roger Stone case. You know, that nomination no longer on the table, she opted to resign.

So I think we're beginning to see some of the fallout of this and there could be still more to come, Brianna.

KEILAR: All right. Sara, thank you so much for that.

Now, Donald Trump is trashing his former White House chief of staff, General John Kelly, after Kelly criticized Trump at a public event last night. At Drew University in New Jersey, Kelly made his most pointed comments so far about the president, about a year after his leaving the west wing. And the president did not react kindly to this.

He tweeted, when I terminated John Kelly, which I couldn't do fast enough, he knew full well that he was way over his head. Being chief of staff just wasn't for him. He came in with a bang, went out with a whimper, but like so many exes, he misses the action and just can't keep his mouth shut, which he actually has a military and legal obligation to do. His incredible wife, Karen, who I have a lot of respect for, once pulled me aside and said strongly that John respects you greatly. When we are no longer here, he will only speak well of you. Wrong.

Well, the president is responding to Kelly's comments, including his defense of Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman, who was fired as retribution for his testimony in the impeachment investigation, testimony that was given under subpoena. Kelly said that when the president raised the Biden issue on the phone call with Ukraine, it amounted to, quote, an illegal order. He said, we teach them, don't follow an illegal order. And if you're ever given one, you'll raise it to whoever gives it to you, that this is an illegal order, and then tell your boss. Quote, he did exactly what we teach them to do from cradle to grave. He went and told his boss what he just heard. Gloria Borger is here with me now. We also have Elliot Williams. I really wonder what you think just about everything that John Kelly has said.

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: I think John Kelly is spot on, but I also wish that John Kelly had said it a little bit sooner. We have just been through a very divisive impeachment in this country. The president has been tweeting about Colonel Vindman saying terrible things, as we all know, and he put himself at some risk, as we all know, because he's lost his job over at the NSC, he's been moved to another job.


And so it's kind of odd that Kelly at a paid speech, I presume it was, is now talking about this. When, in fact, I think early on, he might have been able to have some impact on the debate in Congress.

KEILAR: I wonder what you think, Elliot.

ELLIOT WILLIAMS, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: It's this, look, an extension of that. Look, every public servant, as we saw this week with four people, has to have an uncle point at which they say, the morals of the place at which I work are so corrupted I can't serve there anymore. And let's be clear, John Kelly, number one, was in the room when the president made the shitholes countries comment, number one. Number two, was standing in the in the room when the president made the Charlottesville comment. He took the nation's top immigration job after knowing what the president saying that they announced that Mexicans are all rapists. And so the notion that the moral epiphany has come on February 12th, 2020, or whatever, is a little bit ludicrous.

Now, certainly, he has a long career as a military public servant and we should be grateful and thankful for that. We should all be grateful for that service. But at a certain point, the idea that you just didn't know what you were getting with Donald Trump is preposterous.

BORGER: And his notion is that he tried to rein him in. But it didn't work.

KEILAR: Yes, he does say that. I wonder what you think about Donald Trump saying that John Kelly has a legal and military obligation -- first off, the military thing. I mean, it's a matter of whether you even think he should have taken the job, right, which is so politicized, as a member of the military. That's an entire discussion to have. There's nothing in the military or being a veteran or being retired officer that says you can't speak freely. In fact, once you're retired, maybe you can. But I wonder what you think about this legal obligation to be quiet.

BORGER: Did he sign an NDA?

WILLIAMS: No. But to be fair to the president, executive privilege does exist for certain communications that happen within the White House. We want a president, even the crazy one, but you want a president to be able to have protected conversations with his most senior staff on sensitive national security matters and so on.

Now, the idea, as the president seems to be saying that everything that he said to John Kelly --

KEILAR: It's not even what he -- but some of this isn't what he said, right? Some of this is is stuff that happened after John Kelly left. So that's what I just want to be clear about. Is there a legal obligation John Kelly has to not weigh in on anything that has to do with the president?

BORGER: No. And, look, and just to add to what Elliot is saying, that Kelly himself did not have a perfect tenure at the White House when he was there. Don't forget, under his watch, Rob Porter got a security clearance and Rob Porter had been accused by two of his ex-wives of abuse. And he was somebody who tried to rein in the president and the president bristled under it, and he wasn't successful. I think the one thing he did was get Omarosa fired, if you'll recall that. But it was uneasy, and it was difficult.

And I think you can see if you read these remarks, that this is somebody who is still reeling from his tenure there. Now, we hear today that Hope Hicks is coming back, and you kind of wonder, why would anyone go back?

KEILAR: OK. I want to talk about Hope Hicks. But, first, I want to ask you, Elliot, just to sort of close out this conversation about the DOJ. You saw this report from The New York Times that there are a lot of people who are fearful, not just that they don't want to touch these cases that the president would hate, but that they also think the attorney general completely does not have their back.

WILLIAMS: Literally, let me tell you about it. I mean, I mentioned it earlier, but let me tell you about a text that I got, verbatim, from a former prosecutor friend I started with. He said, I'm glad that the DOJ took this step this week, because it confirms why I was right to get the hell out when I did. People do not feel supported there. And it's just the Justice Department seems to have thrown its back on the rule of law.

And the problem, again, is far more the president than William Barr. The president created the conditions that allowed Barr to behave in the way he did with his views about the Justice Department.

KEILAR: Elliot, Gloria, thank you so much to both of you.

President Trump and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, they're both New Yorkers, they're both billionaires, well, one verifiably, the other, self-described. And now, they're going after each other on the campaign trail.

Plus, just a week after being awarded the Medal of Freedom, Rush Limbaugh launches an offensive rant about Pete Buttigieg's sexuality.

And it's not just the Justice Department in chaos, why the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, who was ousted by President Trump, warns that the State Department is in trouble. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)


KEILAR: President Trump is ramping up his attacks on former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg. On his Twitter feed, the president is just hurling insults and leveling some pretty low blows at the Democratic presidential candidate. He has repeatedly labeled Bloomberg Mini Mike and he's mocking his height. In one tweet, he writes, Mini Mike Bloomberg is a loser who has money, but can't debate and has zero presence. You will see, he reminds me of a tiny version of Jeb Low Energy Bush, but Jeb has more political skill and has treated the black community much better than many. So that last part refers to controversy surrounding New York City's stop and frisk policing, which, P.S., Trump supported himself.

This doesn't though seem to have fazed Bloomberg at all.


MICHAEL BLOOMBERG (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Somebody said, you know, that he's tall and he calls me Little Mike and the answer is, Donald, where I come from, we measure your height from your neck up. I am not afraid of Donald Trump. Donald Trump is ahead of us -- afraid of us. And that's why he keeps tweeting all the time.


If he doesn't mention you, you've got a big problem.

But 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 is scared because he knows I have the record and the resources to defeat him.


KEILAR: To bring in CNN Political Correspondent Abby Phillip to talk about this. I mean, this would be a pretty interesting pairing. And I wonder, it's pretty clear from the tweets, Donald Trump is scared of this.

ABBY PHILLIP, CNN POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: We need to check the FEC reports next quarter to make sure there isn't a donation to Mike Bloomberg from one Donald J. Trump, because this is exactly what Bloomberg wants and has wanted for a long time. Trump just constantly, day after day after day, elevating him, and the same way that he did almost a year ago with Joe Biden basically saying to the whole world, this is the guy I'm worried about, and this is how Bloomberg is using it on the campaign trail.

And for the Democratic primary, that's a really powerful message. Democrats respond to the idea that Trump is afraid of you as -- you know, as a political opponent. Because that's what they want to know, is which one of these people actually will do well up on a debate stage with Trump. Which one of these people actually is a threat to the guy in the oval office?

So, on the one hand, this is all, for Bloomberg, really great. But on the other hand, as you pointed out, in the intro, I mean, he has some real problems. And a lot of video and quotes and photographic evidence and things that are going to come out about his record and about his past, his very long political history, that I think he will have to contend with, whether it will be an issue or not, I think it's a little too soon.

KEILAR: So you're talking about things that are going to affect his support from black voters, like stop and frisk, but kind of fact check that for us, considering the president is taking him on for that issue, which is a vulnerability for Bloomberg. But President Trump has many vulnerabilities of his own, including that he still hasn't apologized to the Central Park Five, who were exonerated in the rape of the Central Park jogger.

PHILLIP: And very recently, President Trump was not only defending stop and frisk but he was urging other cities like Chicago to use exactly the same tactics. He, at one point, said that cops should not worry about suspects' rights and bang their heads up against the police cruiser. This is the record that is out there.

KEILAR: Or the death penalty for drugs recently.

PHILLIP: The death penalty for drugs. I mean, look, it is going to be very difficult, if not impossible for President Trump to make stop and frisk a liability for Bloomberg and not a liability for him. It's just not to say that stop and frisk is not a real problem for Bloomberg. His description of it in explicitly racist terms is a problem. But for the president to make those arguments, I think it's going to be pretty tough, because to this day, it's not clear to me that President Trump even thinks that stop and frisk is bad policy. He said that he wanted Chicago to utilize it, you know, within the last two years.

And then beyond that, I mean, I think that, as you pointed out, the Central Park Five, he has not apologized for that. He still thinks that he was right on that issue, and we all know that that is -- that's something that I think we all know is not correct and the president hasn't apologized and hasn't walked it back.

KEILAR: Yes, exonerated by DNA evidence, we should point out, after their lives were arguably ruined. Abby, thank you so much for that.

And as the primary contest turns to more diverse states, Democratic Candidate Pete Buttigieg has picked up his first endorsement among South Carolina black voters. State Representative J.A. Moore has announced he is backing Mayor Pete. Moore recently introduced Buttigieg at a campaign event last month and he is joining me now from Columbia.

Sir, thank you so much for joining us. And I want to point out, you originally supported Kamala Harris, who has dropped out of the race. What drew you to Buttigieg?

J.A. MOORE (D), SOUTH CAROLINA STATE HOUSE: I'll tell you what. Thank you so much for having me, first of all. What it was is right now in this country, in this election cycle, what we need is generational new leadership in D.C. and quite frankly all over the country. And what was so great about Pete is that ever since Kamala withdrew from the race, I've been very actively advising a number of different campaigns and one thing I can say about Pete and his campaign, they were very, very receptive to constructive criticism. And that went a long way for me. It showed me how he will be as president.

KEILAR: I wonder, because when you look -- I mean, you've seen the poll numbers on how Buttigieg does with black voters. He does not do well. That is a majority segment of the voting bloc, Democratic primary voting bloc there in South Carolina. What do you believe that he can do in the South Carolina primary?


MOORE: Well, I think what Iowa and New Hampshire has shown us is that, you know, look, I mean, quite frankly, polls are just that, they're polls. They give us a guideline of what's going to happen, but people are actually voting now.

And so I was very, very encouraged by the coalition that Pete was able to put together in Iowa, in New Hampshire, he has a lot of momentum coming into Nevada and South Carolina. So I'm very encouraged by what we've seen so far from Pete. And I'm very, very excited to see what happens here in South Carolina.

KEILAR: You said that the Buttigieg campaign was very open to constructive criticism, and that was something that drew you in. He also was set to skip a rally that commemorated -- it was a commemoration of the South Carolina dome. And it was brought to the campaign's attention -- you brought this to their attention, that he needed to be there and he did end up attending. I wonder if you think, was that a wake-up call for the campaign? What more do they need to do so that it's automatic to make those choices that were guiding them on?

MOORE: Well, look, I mean, to be fair to Pete, he was -- he had already previously made commitments in his hometown, in South Bend. And what I simply did was pointed out to him how important in this campaign, quite frankly, how important it was to be here in Columbia. And I was encouraged by that. So it wasn't that he was doing the wrong thing. He was definitely celebrating the legacy of Martin Luther King. I just encouraged a campaign that it would be great for him to be here and he was.

KEILAR: How does he need to bolster his support with African-American voters, who thus far have been pretty skeptical of him, especially considering that he's faced some heat because of his handling of race relations in South Bend?

MOORE: Look, I mean, I think the thing about Pete is he's new on the national scene. And I think as people get to know him, just like I, once I got to know him, studied his Douglas Plan, and like I said, listened to him and realized what I first noticed about Pete, you know, before I endorsed is that he's a person that likes to listen first and then respond. So, you know, I think that we have a really big opportunity here in South Carolina. We have a really big opportunity in Nevada and then going into Super Tuesday.

So, look, does he have some challenges in a number of different sectors? Yes, but he's new on the national stage. And people are getting to know him and they're very excited and fired up about him.

KEILAR: Representative, thank you so much for joining us.

MOORE: Thank you so much for having me.

KEILAR: J.A. Moore joining us from Columbia, South Carolina there.

And in this run-up to the election, CNN is taking a look back at some of the most hard-fought presidential races throughout history. This CNN original series, Race For the White House returns Sunday at 9:00 Eastern on CNN, and it is fabulous, so check it out.

Speaking of Buttigieg, Rush Limbaugh attacks the candidate's sexuality in an offensive rant. And now Joe Biden is defending Mayor Pete.

Plus, Democrats say the president's actions are how democracies die. But what will they do about it? I'll ask one who will be grilling the attorney general.


KEILAR: Just a week after receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom, right wing radio personality Rush Limbaugh is making offensive and what you could easily call homophobic remarks, they are homophobic, about Pete Buttigieg, the first openly gay presidential candidate. This is what Limbaugh said.


RUSH LIMBAUGH, THE RUSH LIMBAUGH SHOW: They're sitting there and they're looking at Mayor Pete. 37-year-old gay guy, mayor of South Bend, loves to kiss his husband on the debate stage. And they're saying, OK, how is this -- a 37-year-old gay guy kissing his husband on stage next to Mr. Man, Donald Trump? What's going to happen there? And they got to be looking at that. And they've got to be saying, that despite all the great progress and despite all the great wonkiness, and despite all the great ground that's been covered, America is still not ready to elect a gay guy kissing his husband on the debate stage president.

They have to be saying this, don't they? Now, there may be some Democrats who think that is the ticket. There may be some Democrats who think that's exactly what we need to do, Rush. Get a gay guy kissing his husband on stage, ram it down Trump's throat, and beat him in the general election. Really. Having fun envisioning that.


KEILAR: I want to bring in S.E. Cupp. You have longtime been an advocate for gay rights, especially at a time when many conservatives weren't, S.E.


So I want to get your reaction to Rush Limbaugh's comments.