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THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER

Calls Increase For Attorney General Bill Barr to Resign; 14 Americans Test Positive for Coronavirus. Aired 4:30-5p ET

Aired February 17, 2020 - 16:30   ET

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


[16:30:03]

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Now, Dana, the president is behind closed doors today, but we are expecting to hear from his former National Security Adviser John Bolton, who's slated to make a speech at Duke University here in the next hour, one of two appearances he's scheduled to have this week.

And while he's not expected to address impeachment in those remarks, he is slated to take questions. So we will be waiting to see what he says, though we should note he still has not commented publicly on all of these events surrounding Ukraine yet.

DANA BASH, CNN HOST: He will be coming up with the book next month.

Kaitlan, thank you so much. Appreciate it.

And joining me now is Preet Bharara, the former U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York.

Preet, thank you so much for joining me on this President's Day.

So you didn't sign on to that letter, but tell me how significant a statement this is.

PREET BHARARA, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: Yes, so I agree with the sentiments expressed in the letter. I didn't sign it. I tend not to sign letters that other people have written. I can express myself here and in other places.

I have a -- I'm fortunate enough to have a platform to do that. Look, 2,000 is a lot. And the number is going up. And they're people who served both in the Democratic -- when there are Democratic presidents and Republican presidents.

And I will tell you, just from my talking with people who are inside and outside the department, but especially outside the department, over the last week, what they have seen in the last number of days has alarmed them more than anything else that has gone on before.

What you have here is not just two-tiered justice or a double standard of justice, but a specialized, unique kind of justice just for one person in the country, Donald Trump, and that, I think, rightly makes people very upset and makes people worry about the fitness of Attorney General Barr for the job. BASH: You understand the politics of the moment. And there's no

indication that the attorney general is going to step down.

So, short of that, is there anything that can be done, given the grievances that you're hearing, to review his actions within the government.

BHARARA: Well, there's this thing called Congress, which just concluded an impeachment proceeding that went a certain way in the House and a different way in the Senate.

There's certainly oversight hearings that can happen. The attorney general has apparently just agreed to come testify before Congress at the end of March. I think there's a lot of tough questions that should be asked.

In the letter that you refer to, what's interesting about that letter is, there's a call to the professional career people in the department to come forward if and when they hear word that these kinds of things are happening, if they're being forced to do things that are against their conscience or against their oath or in favor of one side or the other that is not equal before the law.

They're being asked to come forward. So that's another way that you might have a check on the attorney general also.

BASH: So there's been a lot of kind of, yes, but, they did this, they did that kind of statements from Trump administration officials. But so let me ask you this.

You were a U.S. attorney. When you had that job, or any job in government, in the Justice Department in particular, did the attorney general, then Eric Holder or Loretta lynch, did they involve themselves in any of the cases you were prosecuting?

BHARARA: Oh, yes. No, sure, there are cases of very significant national importance.

We charged a lot of huge cases, including terrorism cases, including multibillion-dollar settlements with banks and with auto companies. So there was a basis for people to be advised. And we would let folks know about the things that were going on.

But I never once, ever, ever, ever saw or heard of a case where, at the last minute, the attorney general of the United States would sweep down and intervene and overrule a consensus decision that we made in a case that involved a confidant, former adviser of the sitting president of the United States. That's unheard of.

That's what people are complaining about, not the fact that there's some back-and-forth between the attorney general and the prosecutors' offices. That's normal, and it happens all the time.

BASH: So, listen to what the vice president's chief of staff, Marc Short, said to me defending Barr and President Trump yesterday.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MARC SHORT, CHIEF OF STAFF TO VICE PRESIDENT MIKE PENCE: I think that the president's frustration is one that a lot of Americans have, which feels like the scales of justice are not balanced anymore.

The reality is that Barr is being independent. He did come into this decision on his own. It was not something he was influenced by, by the president.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BASH: What's your reaction to that, as somebody who served with lots of career prosecutors?

BHARARA: Yes.

Well, that's hard to swallow, because you're talking about a particular decision made by the attorney general about a confidant, adviser of the president, who, by the way, was convicted of a crime that related to the campaign of that president.

So you can't get a closer connection between the president and one of a small number of criminal defendants in this country out of tens and tens of thousands that the attorney general decides to come in on, after the president makes it clear that he didn't like the prosecution, he doesn't like the sentencing recommendation, and tweeted about it.

Whether or not he had an independent conclusion about what the sentence should be, to come in then looks shabby. It looks shabby and it looks unethical, which is different from saying that the seven to nine years is appropriate.

I have said publicly a number of times it seems a little bit high to me. The question is not whether or not seven to nine years was an appropriate recommendation. People can differ about that. The question is, this is a former adviser and friend of the president of the United States, with respect to whom the attorney general uniquely came in to try to get leniency on his part.

[16:35:08]

That cannot stand.

BASH: Let me ask you real quick about the judge overseeing the Stone case.

Amy Berman Jackson is set to sentence Stone this week. She has called a conference with the attorneys tomorrow. What do you read into that? Do you read anything into it, given all of the exterior and external issues surrounding this?

BHARARA: Yes.

So the four lawyers who are assigned to the case of Roger Stone on the government side have all withdrawn from the case, pretty dramatically. One of them has resigned from the department completely.

And so I had suggested and others had suggested that it may be that the judge would want to find out and probe behind those withdrawals and ask, well, what's the reason for this? What's the discomfort you have? What's the case going forward? Who's going to be representing the government?

I looked at the very short order. It's a little bit cryptic. It says counsel for the parties must appear. Unclear to me that all the four attorneys who have withdrawn and asked for permission to withdraw, I should say, will be present.

I hope and expect that she will ask questions about the nature of the withdrawal and why the change in the sentencing recommendation. It's within her power. And I hope she does that.

BASH: And real quick, she has the power to do the sentencing, regardless of the recommendation.

BHARARA: Yes, correct. It's all up to her.

There was once upon a time when the sentencing guidelines were mandatory. They're now only advisory, which is another odd thing for the attorney general to have waited on.

The prosecutors make a recommendation. Judges frequently ignore it and do what they want.

BASH: Preet Bharara, always good to see you and get your insights. Thank you so much.

BHARARA: Thanks. Happy Presidents Day.

BASH: You too.

And a campaign ad that some say could define the state of the Republican Party, that's next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:41:12]

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

WILLIAM BARR, U.S. ATTORNEY GENERAL: It's the attorney general's responsibility to enforce the law evenhandedly and with integrity. The attorney general must ensure that the administration of justice, enforcement of the law is above and away from politics.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BASH: Oh, how times have changed.

Yes, that was Bill Barr when he was up for attorney general the first time under George H.W. Bush. A White House official says that the president still has confidence in Bill Barr, despite the now more than 2,000 calls for him to resign from former DOJ officials.

That's what really matters here, right, the president's opinion, because he's the guy in charge.

So this is my question for you. Go ahead.

CHARLIE SPIES, FORMER CHIEF LEGAL COUNSEL, REPUBLICAN NATIONAL COMMITTEE: This hand-wringing about politicization is really disingenuous.

Every attorney general is politicized. It's just that, with the Obama administration, they were much more sophisticated in how they talked about it. I represent dozens of nonprofit organizations. We all remember when they discriminated against them.

And the Obama Department of Justice with Eric Holder wouldn't give nonprofit organization exemptions specifically to conservative organizations.

The difference between then is -- now is that they did it with a wink and a nod, and President Trump's doing it with a tweet.

BASH: But isn't there -- you go ahead.

KAREN FINNEY, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: I was just going to say I feel like there's more to that story that I wish I could...

BASH: Well, what I was going to say is -- I don't want to relitigate what happened in the Obama years, but I think the big picture question is, isn't there a major difference between anything that happened in the Obama two terms and what we're talking about now, which is the president's consigliere, somebody who he has worked with for decades, being up for sentencing, and the president with a tweet getting involved?

It's personal. It's not about policy.

JANE COASTON, VOX: Especially since this is coming from the same Bill Barr who that same day gave a speech that morning talking about how progressive district attorneys are sentencing -- are being too lenient in sentencing.

And I think that that's -- the message that you're hearing from a lot of people who are supportive of criminal justice reform efforts, both Republicans and Democrats, which I think is important to remember, is that this is -- we already have -- you have heard some conservatives talking about how, oh, this shows we have a two-tiered justice system.

I think Kalief Browder could speak more to a two-tiered justice system than Roger Stone could. And I think that that's the sense that I think a lot of people are objecting to.

It is not so much -- the president has every right to have a supportive attorney general. There was kind of talk of Eric Holder being his wingman during the Obama years. But I think that the extreme dichotomy between protecting Roger Stone and being totally opposed to changing sentencing guidelines for low-level offenders is what's really getting people now.

Have you followed the STEP Act?

COASTON: Yes, the FIRST STEP Act...

(CROSSTALK)

SPIES: President Trump has done sentencing reform.

(CROSSTALK)

SPIES: I couldn't care less about Roger Stone.

(CROSSTALK)

BASH: But the president could.

(CROSSTALK)

SPIES: I don't care about him.

But I would argue that systemically discriminating against free speech with political organizations is worse than one crazy buddy.

(CROSSTALK)

COASTON: But it's not one crazy buddy.

FINNEY: But that story is more complicated than I think you're representing it to be.

Having come from the Clinton administration, I mean, one of the differences that I see is Janet Reno was very independent on many occasions from Bill Clinton. God knows there's plenty of things she did he didn't love, right?

But she stayed in office. There was never a threat. There was never a -- any kind of suspicion that she could be fired for doing what she thought was right. And there were similarly times in the Obama administration when Eric Holder was at odds with many inside the White House.

And so the point is, Bill Barr is not in any way, shape or form independent from this president. I don't think we will ever see him take a step that this president doesn't like. And it started when the Mueller report came out, and he presented us with a two-page summary that had four real sentences in it.

[16:45:01]

And everybody sort of jumped in decided that that was the truth. And then we saw the report and realized it wasn't.

BASH: So this is about fealty to the president within his own administration, including and especially the Justice Department, which historically has been a bit more independent. Let's talk about that in the context of the Republican Party and the

elected officials. You have to see this ad that is now out by Bradley Byrne, who's running for Senate in the Republican primary in Alabama, and he's basically saying to Jeff Sessions, his opponent down there, who was the president's attorney general, you didn't protect him enough.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Jeff Sessions?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: He let the president down and got fired.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And Hillary still ain't in jail.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What about you, Bradley?

REP. BRADLEY BYRNE (R-AL): Ninety-seven percent pro-Trump voting record.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BASH: I mean, that's -- if you want to look where the Republican Party is, that's exhibit A, B, and C.

COASTON: Especially in Alabama.

BASH: Right.

COASTON: Let's keep in mind that this is a contest taking place among Republicans in Alabama, which also involves Tommy Tuberville, who talks a lot about Sharia law, but couldn't get a drive started when he needed it when he was Auburn's football coach. Let's not forget about that.

(LAUGHTER)

COASTON: But I think that there's a real sense that, within the Republican Party, it's important to remember that Trump has much higher approval ratings with Republicans than any member of Congress.

So it's not -- there was a lot of talk, I think, before Trump took office that he might move the -- he might move closer to the Republican Party. The Republican Party has moved far closer and surrounded him.

And I think, for Republicans, and I think that especially because Trump is acting in ways that they -- he's become more Mitch McConnell- esque than I think Mitch McConnell has become more populist. So I think it works for them.

But this is what Republicans want right now. And I think Bradley Byrne is trying to respond to that.

MELANIE ZANONA, POLITICO: I was just going to say, Jeff Sessions was the O.G. Trump. He was Trump before Trump, beloved figure on the right. It's just remarkable the turnaround that we have seen.

(CROSSTALK)

FINNEY: Is Hillary Clinton going to get a little money off all the money they're making off of her, I'll tell you?

(LAUGHTER)

BASH: All right, we can talk about that in the break.

Everybody, stand by.

A bittersweet homecoming. Hundreds of Americans return to the U.S. after weeks of quarantine overseas, but, up next, why they still might be stuck together.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:51:26]

BASH: In our health lead: More than 300 Americans from that quarantined cruise ship in Japan are back in the United States and facing another two weeks of quarantine.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

KAREY MANISCALCO, CRUISE SHIP PASSENGER: They have sent over a dozen e-mails assuring us that there would not be an additional quarantine. And they just told us that we'd be re-quarantined for 14 more days.

I have just lost a whole month of my life.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BASH: Fourteen of those Americans have tested positive for the coronavirus

And, as CNN's Ryan Young reports, they will join other American evacuees at bases in Texas, California, and Nebraska.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

RYAN YOUNG, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Hundreds of Americans back on U.S. soil today, after spending nearly two weeks quarantined on a cruise ship in Japan, more than 300 U.S. citizens and their family members landing at Air Force bases in California and Texas.

GAY COURTER, CRUISE SHIP PASSENGER: There's been a lot of silence on this. And now we know the silence has been putting together a brilliant plan.

YOUNG: The journey, no small feat.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: The buses are starting to line up. YOUNG: In the 10 hours it took passengers to disembark and make their

way to the airport, U.S. officials learned that 14 of them had tested positive for the coronavirus.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We don't do this every day, obviously, but...

YOUNG: The State Department making the rare decision to allow them to board the flights anyway.

Now, after 12 days under mandatory quarantine aboard the cruise ship, these evacuees will have to start the quarantine process all over again at the bases.

MANISCALCO: They just told us that we'd be re-quarantined for 14 more days. I have just lost a whole month of my life.

YOUNG: There are 15 cases of the coronavirus confirmed in the U.S., and, so far, officials aren't adding the 14 passengers who have tested positive to that count.

TEDROS ADHANOM GHEBREYESUS, DIRECTOR GENERAL, WORLD HEALTH ORGANIZATION: In the past 24 hours, China has reported 2,005 -- 2,051 new cases.

YOUNG: The virus not slowing down, nearly half the population of China, 780 million people, living under some form of travel restrictions or self-quarantine, as authorities try to contain the virus.

Streets still empty well after the lunar new year holiday. More than 71,000 people have been infected around the world, the vast majority of cases in China. The first death from the virus in Europe confirmed in France over the weekend.

MICHAEL J. RYAN, WORLD HEALTH ORGANIZATION: A majority of cases outside China have a direct link still back to China.

YOUNG: While officials warn against calling the virus a pandemic, they recognize its end is not yet in sight.

RYAN: The risk is high that the disease may spread further. And I think, at face value, that is true.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

YOUNG: Air Force officials actually tell us last night's plane brought 145 passengers here to the base. That brings their total to about 235 all facing quarantine.

One other number to think about, we have been told that 140 travelers have been denied access to the United States because of the coronavirus travel ban.

BASH: Ryan, thank you so much for that report.

Going to take a quick break. And up next, a very different kind of story, good news for wine drinkers that they can definitely toast to.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:59:25]

BASH: In our money lead, good news for wine enthusiasts. Prices are expected to be the cheapest in five years, thanks in part to a surplus of California grapes and a decreased demand for wine.

For the first time in 25 years, more Americans are drinking liquor and ready-to-drink cocktails, instead of a glass of vino. That could translate to cheaper wine prices for up to three years. Cheers to that.

Thank you so much for watching this special edition of THE LEAD.

I'm Dana Bash, in for Jake Tapper. Follow me on Twitter @DanaBashCNN, or tweet the show @THELEADCNN.

Our coverage on CNN continues right now.