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THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER

Calls Increase For Attorney General Bill Barr to Resign; 14 Americans Test Positive for Coronavirus; Early Voting Begins in Nevada. Aired 4-4:30p ET

Aired February 17, 2020 - 16:00   ET

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


[16:00:00]

BROOKE BALDWIN, CNN HOST: The lower prices are predicted to last up to three years. So, bottoms up to that.

I'm Brooke Baldwin. Hope you have a wonderful holiday Monday.

So, let's send it to Washington, Dana Bash in the big seat.

"THE LEAD" starts right now.

DANA BASH, CNN HOST: In Nevada, you don't even see lines this long for slot machines.

THE LEAD starts right now.

The Democrats hungry to vote showing a surge of enthusiasm and hoping that the system does not unravel like it did in Iowa, as the candidates focus on a much more diverse group of voters in Nevada.

They are telling the attorney general to quit for the good of the country, more than 2,000 people who worked at the DOJ blasting Bill Barr after he went easy on President Trump's former consigliere.

Plus, hundreds of Americans now back in the U.S., freed after being trapped on a cruise ship contaminated with the coronavirus, but not all of them made it out healthy.

Welcome to a special edition of THE LEAD. I'm Dana Bash, in for Jake.

And we begin with the 2020 lead on this President's Day.

This week is the third Democratic presidential contest of the year. And, right now, early voting is taking place in Nevada, with some 26,000 people already turning out over the weekend.

As CNN's Jeff Zeleny reports, Senator Bernie Sanders is looking to Nevada to cement his front-runner status, and his opponents are training their attacks on the Vermont senator.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS (I-VT), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: With your help, we're going to win here in Nevada.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): The fight is on for Nevada.

SEN. AMY KLOBUCHAR (D-MN), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: It is so wonderful to be out of the snow and in this beautiful sunny state of Nevada.

ZELENY (voice-over): The first 2020 Democratic contest in the West.

PETE BUTTIGIEG (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I know that people in Nevada are taking your responsibility, your influence, your power, that thumb on the scale that you have so seriously.

ZELENY: Five days before the state's caucuses, early voting is already under way, in the most diverse test yet for the Democratic field.

Front and center is a familiar debate over health care, but with a new twist. The state's powerful Culinary Workers Union strongly opposes Medicare for all, saying abolishing private insurance would take away their hard-fought health insurance plans.

It's one of the biggest challenges facing Bernie Sanders, whose support for Medicare for all is at the heart of his candidacy. His rivals are trying to capitalize on the divide, hoping to slow his surge.

JOSEPH BIDEN (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: No one should be able to tell them they can no longer have that plan. And I'll be damned if we're going to erase the unions' effort.

ZELENY: Joe Biden is trying to revive his campaign in Nevada, after lackluster showings in Iowa and New Hampshire.

BIDEN: Ninety-nine-point-nine percent of the African-American community hasn't voted yet, and 99.8 percent of the Hispanic and Latino community hasn't voted yet.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: A turnaround is coming.

ZELENY: One candidate not competing here is still hanging over the race, former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. His Democratic rivals are piling on the self-funded billionaire.

SANDERS: The simple truth is that Mayor Bloomberg, with all his money, will not create the kind of excitement and energy we need to have the voter turnout we must have to defeat Donald Trump.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

ZELENY: Bloomberg is one qualifying pull away from joining his fellow Democrats on stage for the first time at a debate this week in Las Vegas. KLOBUCHAR: Yes, I think he should be on the debate stage, because I

can't beat him on the airwaves. But I can beat him on the debate stage.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ZELENY: And we will find out if Mayor Bloomberg is on that debate stage. The deadline is tomorrow night at midnight to see if he qualifies for that.

So his aides tell me he is planning to be on the stage. So we will see if he makes that.

But, Dana, as for Bernie Sanders, there is a sense his campaign certainly is strong. He ran here four years ago, but he's not in Nevada today. He's having a rally in California. He, like others, are looking ahead to Super Tuesday. Of course, they will be coming back here, Dana , but as that early voting that's under way right now, 24 more hours of it, a lot of worry here in the sense of Nevada how that vote is going to go, so a sense of the mechanics of the election, as well as who's leading -- Dana.

BASH: Jeff, thank you so much for that report. Appreciate it.

And we're here with our panel.

Let's talk about Bernie Sanders' front-runner status that he has right now generally, which he is trying to cement in Nevada. As somebody who was on the other side of him four years ago, when you look at this and what he's doing now, I mean, people shouldn't underestimate him.

KAREN FINNEY, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Absolutely not.

I mean, he is a very strong competitor. He is -- while Buttigieg is pretty close behind in the count so far, he has a very enthusiastic base of support. He is a very good organizer. And he's also had the benefit he's been through Nevada before.

So he know -- he and his team know a lot about how to organize there. And now that they have had -- they have expanded access, I think they had something like 26,000 people already who've early voted.

[16:05:08]

I mean, they're -- Nevada is on track to actually exceed turnout from 2016. And I have every confidence that Senator Sanders' team knows exactly where their votes are, and how to get those people out.

MELANIE ZANONA, POLITICO: You're also seeing the Democratic moderates and centrists really start to ramp up their attacks on Sanders, which they hadn't really done before. They were mostly turning their fire on each other, especially in New Hampshire.

And so Bernie Sanders had the benefit of being able to sit back, let them attack each other. The question is, though, is it a little bit too late now? There's some people who are saying he might be too much of a force to stop at this point.

JANE COASTON, VOX: I think it's worth recognizing that occasionally when we talk about Sanders, we talk about him as someone who needs to be challenged, not necessarily the front-runner in this race. That's who he is right now.

And I think until someone can challenge him -- we're seeing efforts by Bloomberg, by Buttigieg and a bunch of others. That is who the front- runner in this race is. That's who we should be starting to think about what the nomination process is going to look like later this year.

BASH: Yes.

And you talked about the fact that -- you talk about the moderates kind of hitting each other, trying to kind of one-up one another in that lane for a while. But what I'm hearing from some people in those camps now is that, well, wait a second. We have got the moderate vote splintered right now in a way that Bernie Sanders doesn't so much -- Elizabeth Warren is still in the race.

She's still taking a lot of those votes, but maybe not as many as you see on the counterside of the lane, if you will.

CHARLIE SPIES, FORMER CHIEF LEGAL COUNSEL, REPUBLICAN NATIONAL COMMITTEE: We went through this in 2016. I was working for Jeb Bush's super PAC, and we were competing in the moderate lane.

And everybody was worried about the unelectable extremist, Donald Trump. And it was in everybody's self-interest to keep fighting with each other and let him get through the -- through in his own lane. So that's what happened.

And, by the way, our whole thinking he was unelectable didn't turn out to be right.

COASTON: I think that if there's anything we can learn from 2016 -- and I have been really trying to push against Donald Trump-Bernie Sanders comparisons, because, at a certain point, it's like apples and a very strange form of pineapple -- but I think it's really worth noting that the idea of being unelectable -- even our entire conversation we're having about electability, it doesn't work anymore.

And, especially, you're starting to see voters responding to that. And they're voting not how they want to, but how they think their next- door neighbor is going to vote. And we're hearing a lot of, well, I don't think this way, but this person I heard of vaguely thinks this way.

No, vote how you want to vote. But the question of electability, that went out the window in November 2016.

BASH: right.

FINNEY: But people are certainly voting -- I mean, it's particularly interesting. Like, African-Americans are trying to figure out who white voters will support and white voters are trying to figure out who African-American voters and Latinos will support.

The thing about Sanders, though, his challenge as a front-runner is his coalition online, as Mike Bloomberg, I believe, was pointing out, is not very friendly and not very welcoming. And when you are the front-runner, you have to show that you can bring together a broad coalition, the attacks on him, that down-ballot races are going to be nervous about, how do I defend Democratic socialism?

He's got to help people understand how to do that. And that is an electability issue.

BASH: OK. So you mentioned Michael Bloomberg.

On "STATE OF THE UNION" yesterday, I asked Senator Amy Klobuchar about her record as a prosecutor, because, as people rise, people look, OK, well, what do you all about? And they look deeper into their records.

As part of her response, she mentioned Michael Bloomberg. Listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

KLOBUCHAR: I was not involved in some of the controversial issues in other states, like stop and frisk. I understand that that is unconstitutional.

But what I was focused on there is trying to go after crimes and making sure there's a consequence. But it does not mean that it always has to be prison time.

I have got to answer questions like I just did on my record, and he has to do the same thing. I don't think you should be able to hide behind airwaves and huge ad buys.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BASH: So there's a lot to unpack there.

There's the unlimited resources that Michael Bloomberg has, which is obviously scaring his opponents. And, two, it's the record that he has that these Democratic candidates are saying it needs to be explored and he needs to be challenged on it, and which he can't be challenged on it if he's just putting on paid advertising.

ZANONA: Right, these one-sided ads. He hasn't been in a debate. He hasn't been asked tough questions by journalists.

He hasn't been doing the Sunday news shows yet. He might be qualifying for the debate this week. So we will wait and see there. But I think it's a fair point for Klobuchar that it's not fair that he hasn't been challenged or tested yet and he hasn't been vetted.

One thing I will say about Bloomberg, though, is, he is a counterpuncher, much like another New York billionaire we know very well. So, if he is on that debate stage, I do expect that, if they come at him, he's going to be coming back with some attacks.

So candidates better be prepared to handle those.

[16:10:00]

FINNEY: But the thing is, they very been very able to control their message, right?

They control it by the way -- by their advertising by, the answers that they're putting out, by now hiring a firm to make him a meme, right? Who gets to do that?

So being on the debate stage, one of the things -- I mean, Mike Bloomberg, I lived in New York when he became mayor. He was a decent mayor. But off the cuff, when you're going back and forth, landing a punch, taking the punches, we have seen him in some interviews have some less than good, to put it kindly, answers.

And so to see how he reacts when you don't have a lot of time to answer, and he will -- remember, he will be starting out kind of from the beginning, whereas the rest of these guys have been going back and forth for some time.

He's not going to be able to get away with, well, nobody ever talks to me about stop and frisk, but I apologized.

COASTON: I think it's interesting, though, that there's so much of this that we think that, in order to beat Trump, we have to come up with our own version of Trump.

And I think that Bloomberg, that's the theory here.

BASH: Yes. Well, it is.

And I want to say, for the record, if I knew how to make a meme, I would do it for you.

(LAUGHTER)

BASH: All right, we're going to take a quick break.

The Nevada Democratic Party is hoping their caucus gamble pays off and they avoid an Iowa-like fiasco, but there are already concerns.

Then, as hundreds of Americans return home from quarantine overseas, word they might end up doubling the number of confirmed coronavirus cases in the U.S.

Easy for me to say.

(LAUGHTER)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:15:41] BASH: In our 2020 lead, the caucuses are not until Saturday, but Nevada is already facing voting issues. Volunteers are sounding the alarms saying they don't feel prepared to use the new technology to gather votes. Early voters this weekend waited in line for hours and caucusgoers struggled with tech problems, all raising fears that Nevada is another Iowa-grade disaster in the making.

CNN's Dianne Gallagher joins me now.

So, Dianne, what are the volunteers saying the issues are?

DIANNE GALLAGHER, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Dana. The reason what some of these volunteers are speaking out is because they want to avoid being in their words another Iowa. Their biggest concern is those early votes that are happening now, how exactly they're going to be transmitted to their precincts on caucus day. Early voting is new in Nevada. And they are not completely familiar with this calculator tool that they're expected to use.

Now, we've talked to volunteers who say they haven't seen anything about it. They've been asking the party for more information, have just been told to basically wait, we're going to get to you, don't worry about a thing. We actually observed a training session today and saw the screen grabs of what the calculator looks like. They were told kind of how to go through it, but we've spoken to any volunteers at all who've actually given this thing a trial run, they are concerned.

The party has said they are training volunteers right now on this, Dana. But, again, the concern by these volunteers is that they may be waiting until right before caucus day before they learn about something they're expected to use.

BASH: So, you mentioned that the party is trying to ease concerns, how are they doing that? How are they trying to get ahead of it?

GALLAGHER: So, they are projecting confidence at this point, the party has said over and over again that we are working to make sure that this is a very transparent process. We're working to make sure that this is a simple and successful process and that we will be ready.

But I can tell you, from talking to the campaigns and talking to volunteers, Dana, there is a lot of -- there is a lot of uncertainty about that as we get closer to the caucus day. They were willing to give the Nevada Democrats, cut them some slack when they had to get rid of those apps, but now they want the answers, and they want them now.

BASH: Which is understandable. Thank you so much, Diane. Appreciate that reporting.

Back with our panel. You know, just want to go to a quote that really struck us from "Politico" after a two-hour training session, somebody said that the caucus will be a complete disaster and this is a volunteer there, especially after Iowa. So, why is this happening?

Karen, I'm going to ask you since you're the only former DNC staffer at the table that I know of.

FINNEY: Sure.

BASH: But you also, you have the perspective of inside of the DNC but also the campaigns. You know how it works. Explain why all of the problems.

FINNEY: So, I actually have a lot more confidence in what's happening in Nevada right now than that particular person.

BASH: Why?

FINNEY: Well, first of all, they have the benefit of seeing what happened in Iowa. They're not using that app. My understanding is quite literally the calculator on the iPad. One of the mistakes that they had in Iowa was actually human error and bad math. So, the thought was to give people a calculator to do better counting. No technology is going to be used to actually transmit votes. It's all going to be -- and they have all sorts of redundancies in the system to try to make sure that that doesn't happen and they're doing early vote, which means if there are problems, they are finding out about them now, and they were -- and prepared for the early vote to end on the 18th, and the caucus itself is on the 22nd.

Look, the second side of it is from a campaign perspective, you know that all of the campaigns will be on their game, making sure or at least they should be, having their volunteers ready and prepared so that they have their own data so that if there are problems, again, there are redundancies and the ability to bring that forward and compare the data.

BASH: Listen to -- what are you going to say?

SPIES: As a former RNC counsel --

BASH: Yes.

SPIES: -- what's been remarkable to me is the lack of support the DNC has provided its state parties, watching Tom Perez to hang out the dry the Iowa state party chair was something that I never would have seen national chair do.

And I think that Nevada has kind of done this to themselves. They've added rank order voting in, and rank order choice voting is incredibly confusing, and then to have a brand-new app trying to calculate that --

[16:20:04]

FINNEY: They're not using an app. They're not using an app in app in Nevada. They're using a calculator.

SPIES: I'm sorry, the brand new calculator trying to do --

(CROSSTALK)

COASTON: It's an iPad and a Google (ph).

FINNEY: It's a calculator. So, let's just to be clear. And there are DNC staffers out there to help.

SPIES: However you try to figure it out, it is the same thing in Iowa where you had Bernie Sanders claiming that he won the popular vote, and whoever wins the first vote is going to claim they won and there's to be a lot of confusion once they start hitting down to the second choice.

FINNEY: At the end of the day, though.

BASH: Well, it is about the delegates, and at certain point, you do get delegates. But, you know this better than most, at the early stages, it's about the delegates, but it's about momentum, and it's about claiming the win, you're going to get the W on the board, which brings in lots of money, which brings in volunteers, so on and so forth, which Pete Buttigieg didn't get as, he got a bump, but he could have gotten by everybody's standards a lot bigger bump had he had a traditional Iowa win.

ZANONA: Right, and Iowa is just starting the recount process that could take a few days, but in the short term, I don't believe it is going to matter. Maybe he picks up a delegate or loses one, but he was robbed, as you said, of that early momentum. However, we don't know how the delegate fight will be play out in the long term. Maybe it could down to the wire, so every delegate does matter.

COASTON: I think -- it's been funny to kind of watch this process a little bit more from the more removed status, because it seems to me that a lot of the momentum is how the campaigns spin it. Let's be honest, because you can lose and win and win and lose and we have seen that happen already with Iowa, and so, I think that the results will come out of Nevada.

I'm especially interested, because it's going to be the most diverse electorate that we have heard from so far, Iowa and New Hampshire are not exactly mirroring the electorate in 2020 in America, but I think it will be interesting to see not necessarily what the results are, but how the campaigns think about this. You know, you mentioned that Sanders is already in California. A lot of the campaigns are thinking ahead to Super Tuesday, because that I think for Biden, is where he sees a real chance for him to leap back in front in this race because he already is in front in some of the southern states as well.

And so, I think it's important to remember that like how the campaigns think about Nevada is almost as important as what actually happens in Nevada.

BASH: Yes. No, that's a really good point.

OK. Everybody, standby.

You should tune in to CNN tomorrow night and Thursday night, talk -- speaking of Nevada, with five town halls there. Sanders, Buttigieg, Klobuchar, Biden and Warren all making their case to voters ahead of the next critical vote. It all starts at 8:00 p.m. Eastern, right here, only on CNN.

And next, it's not exactly a love letter. Over 2,000 former federal prosecutors and justice officials have sent a public list of demands to Bill Barr and the DOJ. What they want, that's next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:27:48]

BASH: The politics lead. They want him out. Now it's more than 2,000 former DOJ officials demanding Attorney General Bill Barr resign. They have signed a petition calling Barr's history of political interference a grave threat to justice.

Their tipping point, Barr overruling prosecutors in the Roger Stone case.

CNN's Kaitlan Collins has the complaints from these DOJ alums.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

WILLIAM BARR, ATTORNEY GENERAL: Thank you, Mr. President.

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Attorney General Bill Barr is now facing more scrutiny after a week that strained his relationship with the Justice Department rank and file and an interview that threatened to upend his standing with the president.

KELLYANNE CONWAY, COUNSELOR TO THE PRESIDENT: I know people who are trying to bully Bill Barr out of his job.

COLLINS: More than 2,000 former federal prosecutors and Justice Department officials are calling on him to resign after he intervened to reduce Roger Stone's sentencing recommendations. Officials from both Republican and Democratic petitions have signed an open letter calling Barr's actions unheard of and outrageous, including the deputy attorney general from George H.W. Bush's White House.

Stone is a close confidant of Trump and is said to be sentenced this week after he was convicted on seven counts, including lying to Congress and witness tampering. Barr denied talking about the case with the president.

BARR: I have not discussed the Roger Stone case at the White House.

COLLINS: But comments like this from Trump have done little to combat allegations of political influence.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Roger Stone was treated horribly. I want to thank the Justice Department.

COLLINS: Trump is spending Presidents Day behind closed doors after a weekend in Florida where he headline the priciest fundraiser of his presidency at the home of billionaire Nelson Peltz and acted as grand marshal at the Daytona 500. TRUMP: Gentlemen, start your engines!

COLLINS: His campaign manager was forced to delete a tweet after he posted a photo of Air Force One flying over the racetrack from when President George W. Bush visited in 2004. Brad Parscale later tweeted a photo of Trump's Air Force I arrival in Daytona.

Trump ended the weekend in Washington in Washington, attending the weeding of his senior adviser, Stephen Miller, and Vice President Pence's press secretary Katie Waldman at his hotel in Washington.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

COLLINS: Now, Dana, the president is behind closed doors today, but we are expecting to hear from his former national security --

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