Return to Transcripts main page


Bloomberg Qualifies For Debate, Will Face Off With Rivals; Federal Judges Hold Emergency Meeting After DOJ Intervention. Aired 1- 1:30p ET

Aired February 18, 2020 - 13:00   ET




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

Underway right now, Bernie Sanders wants to take on billionaires and now he'll do it face-to-face as they compete for the same job.

And pressure builds as thousands of former justice officials call for the resignation of the attorney general.

Plus, who gets credit for the economic boom? The president and his predecessors spar is over who did it better.

And as he doesn't exactly jump at the chance to speak to Congress and the press, he wants to tell all to sell his book. And now, John Bolton is accusing the White House of censoring him.

But, first, the stage appears to be set for tomorrow night's Democratic debate. And for the first time, billionaire candidate Michael Bloomberg will be on it. The former New York mayor was able to qualify for the debate following a last-minute DNC rule change and a brand new nationwide poll that shows Bloomberg in second place at 19 percent. This is over Vice President Joe Biden. While Senator Bernie Sanders holds a solid lead over the pack at 31 percent.

CNN's M.J. Lee is in Las Vegas ahead of tomorrow's debate. So, M.J., tell us how Bloomberg is preparing.

M.J. LEE, CNN POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Brianna, there is no question that this is a huge moment and a test for Michael Bloomberg. This is a candidate who made a late entry into the 2020 race and decided to skip the early states altogether and have been focusing his efforts on the Super Tuesday states and beyond.

And now for the first time tomorrow night, he will confront his Democratic rivals on the debate stage, and those preparations are well underway. We have spoken with his advisers and his aides and we know he has been in practice sessions, mock debate sessions with some of his top aides, playing the roles brought by Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Pete Buttigieg. And we also know that in order to sort of make this sort of a more real experience for the mayor, these aides have even been using podiums as props.

We also know that there is some expectation setting ahead into tomorrow night. When you talk to his advisers and aides, they will point out that Michael Bloomberg has not been on a debate stage for many years, whereas some of these other Democratic candidates obviously have had multiple opportunities over the course of this cycle to compete on the debate stage. They also expect that Michael Bloomberg is going to have a huge target on his back, whether it is on various policy issues or his record as a New York City mayor.

We also are told that he expects to potentially confront questions about the alleged sexist comments that he has made, that he has been criticized over. So, again, no question that this is a huge, huge moment for Michael Bloomberg.

And just to let you know where we are right now, we are in Las Vegas. I actually can hear that Elizabeth Warren is about to take the stage behind me. This is the state where many of the candidates are making their final pitches ahead of the Nevada caucuses on Saturday. Elizabeth Warren, of course, has been one of the most outspoken critics of Michael Bloomberg. She has said over and over that this is a billionaire who is trying to buy himself the presidency. Brianna?

KEILAR: All right. M.J., thank you so much for that, from Las Vegas.

And I'm joined now by Jason Schechter. He is Communications Director for the Michael Bloomberg campaign. Thank you so much for joining us, Jason.


KEILAR: I'm sure you've noticed that your candidate is entering this debate, his first debate, with quite the target on his back. We've seen a lot of stories lately, many revelations. I want to address one -- let's move beyond stop-and-frisk just for purposes of this interview and talk about something else. There is an allegation, or several allegations, we should say, that he presided over sexist and hostile work environment -- actually plural, work environments. How is he going to address this, because this is something that we would expect to come up in the debate?

SCHECHTER: Yes. So a couple of things, Brianna. So, first, that's just not true. There have been comments attributed to Mike that go back probably 30 years, certainly things that he has said that I know he regrets. On the other hand, Mike has run a company and a foundation and a city hall that has promoted women and has been all about equality.

At his company, he has advanced women in the workplace. At his philanthropy, he has promoted maternal health and family planning. He's been a big supporter of Planned Parenthood. He supported Emily's List. He helped get 18 women elected in 2018 to Congress. And voters understand that record, and our job is to make sure that we're out talking about that. You know, anybody can kind of cut up words that he has said over 30 years, but, ultimately, we think voters will see that actions are what matters the most, and we feel very good about where we stand on that.

KEILAR: Well, you just said he has said things he regrets.


SCHECHTER: Look, there are things over 30 years that he has said. Almost everything that has been out now attributed to him, he has denied. There is this thing, I think you're referring to from The Washington Post, this joke book that was given to him 30 years ago, something he didn't write, the quotes that were attributed to him, he denied those quotes --

KEILAR: And so why doesn't he release the marketing -- the chief marketing officers and under an NDA to discuss it?

SCHECHTER: So, can I just finish word? These are allegations that have been surfacing for 30 years. In Mike's 2001 mayoral race, his opponent at the time, Mark Green, ran ads attacking him on this. Mike was elected. Mike was re-elected and he was re-elected again, because, ultimately, what we see is that voters now might --

KEILAR: Jason, this is the presidency and it's 2020. So that's not going to do it for just dismissing this topic. This is important, as you know, times have changed and I understand, but you said he has said things that he regrets. I wonder what those things are and I wonder how you respond to candidates, how he's going to respond to candidates who are increasingly going to call on him to release women who have sued him for nondisclosure agreements. Elizabeth Warren certainly has, and also depositions that he has undergone in relation to these cases.

SCHECHTER: So he's going to talk about his work record, Brianna. He's going to talk about what he has done to fight for gender equality for 30 years. He's going to talk about the work that his foundation has done around the world to provide access to reproductive services, make sure that women have the right to choose. He's going to talk about what he has done with Congress, helping to elect women to higher positions of power. He's going to talk about his company and make sure women are treated equally.

Mike has never tolerated discrimination or harassment at his company. There are thousands and thousands of people who have worked for him over the years who will tell you that. Unfortunately, what we're seeing now is what happens when you're in second place in the polls. The knives come out. The opposition research drops. And that's fine, by the way. It is your job to cover that, it is our job to respond to that.

But what we hear from voters on the ground, Brianna, is very different. We hear that they see somebody who has a track record of accomplishment, who has a track record of getting things done. We want to run on that. We want to be on the debate stage talking about that, because, ultimately, voters are going to go to the polls, they're going to choose the candidate that they see --

KEILAR: But why doesn't he release these women from NDAs?

SCHECHTER: So he has answered this question, Brianna. He has said that the NDAs are agreements between two parties. They are confidential agreements. He has lawyers at the company who manage those NDAs, and he has addressed that. What he has also said is that --

KEILAR: I don't think -- I hear what you're saying, but he said, for all he knows, maybe they don't want to be released from it.

SCHECHTER: Well, look, here is the point. Those are legal agreements that he has already addressed and he has already answered. That's not the point though. And we think what voters care about ultimately is what has he done for 30 years, what is his track record. His track record is all about elevating women in the workplace. His track record is all about promoting gender equality. His track record is all about fighting for maternal health and family planning. He supports Planned Parenthood. He's one of the biggest supporters of Planned Parenthood. That's, Brianna, what we think ultimately that voters care about.

And, by the way, that's why we are where we are at the polls. I think voters see that anybody can slice up anybody's comments over 30 years, and that's fine, by the way. Again, that is your job. Our job is to go out and talk to voters and tell them what his record of accomplishment is and what he's going to do for them.

KEILAR: I feel that you're stressing, but I want to make clear, and you've seen this Washington Post story. There is another track record that a number of women say is a different kind of track record, and this is something obviously that Michael Bloomberg is going to have to contend with. And we're certainly waiting to see how all of that plays out. And, Jason, we really appreciate you coming on. Jason Schechter with the Bloomberg campaign, thank you.

SCHECHTER: Thanks, Brianna.

KEILAR: Socialism is a big buzz word in the Bernie Sanders 2020 campaign. His supporters love it.


KSHAMA SAWANT, SEATTLE CITY COUNCILMEMBER: We need a powerful socialist movement to end all government oppression and exploitation.


KEILAR: Now, for other socialism and its connotations are a cause for concern, and that is what President Trump is banking on. It may also explain why Team Trump have become cheerleaders for Bernie Sanders.

We have John Avlon with our Reality Check.


JOHN AVLON, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, it turns out a very unlikely fan of Bernie Sanders is Donald Trump.

DONALD TRUMP, U.S. PRESIDENT: Bernie looks like he's doing very well. I think people like message. He's got energy. His people have energy. But they like his message.

AVLON: And that's despite the fact that Bernie Sanders' message is --


SEN. BERNIE SANDERS (I-VT), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: We must and we will defeat the most dangerous president in the modern history of America.

AVLON: But that hasn't stopped Donald Trump from consistently pumping up Sanders' chances.

TRUMP: Crazy Bernie, I don't know, maybe he is really surging. He really is. Bernie is surging, there's no question about it. And Bernie seems to be the one the party wants.

AVLON: Yes. It's a message he's also backed up on Twitter.

Another surprising Sanders defender is Donald Trump Jr. He re-tweeted this video, former New York Mayor Mike Bloomber, appearing to consult farmers (ph). Now, Bloomberg claims it was misleadingly edited, but also tweeting it out was, you guessed it, Bernie Sanders' people. But it's not the first time that either Donald rushed to Bernie's aid with both repeating the charge that the Democratic primary is somehow rigged against him.

Speaking of primaries, conservative radio show host Hugh Hewitt went so far as to announce that he would vote for Bernie.

HUGH HEWITT, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, because it's Virginia, I get to vote in the Democratic primary. I'm voting for Bernie Sanders.

AVLON: And that movement has picked up steam with South Carolina Republicans pushing their people to vote for Sanders in their primary.

So why are all these Team Trump folks suddenly feeling the Bern? Well, as Admiral Ackbar might say.

ADMIRAL ACKBAR: It's a trap.

AVLON: And the reason is the S word, socialism. (INAUDIBLE) wrote under the headline, Bernie can't win, in The New York Times, the central message of the Sanders campaign is that the United States needs a political revolution. It may very well need one, but most people don't think so. And the numbers would seem to back that up.

Donald Trump does best running against a hypothetical socialist, beating him or her by an average of six points, according to a poll taken last summer. But he loses to top tier Democrats, including Sanders, who actually calls himself a Democratic socialist, the recent CNN poll. But according to Gallup, only 39 percent of Americans have a positive view of socialism. Gallup also found that more Americans said they would vote for a gay, Muslim or atheist candidate than a socialist.

Meanwhile, the Quinnipiac poll around the same time finds that less than a quarter of Democrats call themselves very liberal. Democratic voters are more moderate, blue collar and older than you think just by looking at Twitter.

So given all of this, some are surprised that Donald Trump wants to run against Bernie Sanders. But don't take my word for it, as an unnamed Trump adviser told Axios, quote, we're trying to promote Bernie's rise. The campaign has been pumping up the national messaging behind Bernie, when you attack his policies, it gets the media to talk about him.

But this isn't subtle, folks. Sanders deserves credit for firing up the base and shifting the debate within the Democratic Party, but Team Trump understands their path to

re-election will be demonizing Democrats as radical socialists to distract from the president's broad unpopularity. That's why they want to run against an actually radical and self-described Democratic socialist, Bernie Sanders. It's a trap. And that's your Reality Check.


KEILAR: I am now joined by Briahna Joy Gray. She is the National Press Secretary for Bernie Sanders,

And thank you so much for being here. We appreciate it.


KEILAR: I covered Bernie Sanders a bit in 2016. I covered the Democratic side of things. And I wonder, as we saw back then as well, do you, do your campaign -- does the campaign feel that they're being treated unfairly?

GRAY: Look, I think there are moments during which every campaign doesn't get quite the media coverage that they'd like. But what is really inspiring about this time around the track --

KEILAR: By the party though.

GRAY: By the party. Well, look, the reality is that Bernie Sanders has, in a lot of ways, lived his life as an outsider. He's from the State of Vermont, which is known for having an enormous population of independent voters. And, in fact, one of Bernie's real strengths when we're talking about electability is the fact that he does better with independent voters, which, again, is the largest political constituency in America than any other candidate in this race.

So there are at times when Bernie has, yes, identified as an independent, because he wanted to bring the Democratic Party closer to what its actual roots were, to put workers, to put human beings back at the center of it and have a more humanistic approach to politics. And I think that his advocacy for these issues over the past three years, the whole party has moved in that direction. KEILAR: What do you think? Some of the party has not, as you are aware, with some of the friction that your campaign is getting. Why do you think Donald Trump has chosen Bernie Sanders as the candidate that he wants to build up?

GRAY: Well, I'm old enough to remember the last time someone tried a Pied Piper strategy, when it was true that certain people in the Democratic establishment thought that pushing Donald Trump for it as the candidate in 2016 was going to make an easy win for the Democratic Party. And that's not how it turned out.

So I think we should not pay attention that what's going on in the mind of Trump or other people. I don't -- I know that I don't have the credentials to be qualified to know what's going on in Donald Trump's mind. What I do know is what the American people want.

And the American people are saying, according to the most recent polls, Bernie Sanders has a double-digit lead on the person who is number two. We're at 64 percent with Latino voters, a crucial block that you need to win, obviously, the electorate. We are the most diverse, the most working class, the most female-supported in terms of the number of donations we've gotten, campaign here.

And we're talking about what you need to beat Trump. What you need is the demonstrated ability to build that kind of broad-based coalition that can match his enthusiasm, crowd size, volunteer effort, because, certainly, you're not going to do it just by trying to fire a way out of an election.


KEILAR: The strides he has made on diversity compared to 2016, because, I mean, that was a very evident problem. You think it's enough to make the difference?

GRAY: Well, absolutely. You don't have to take my word for it. You can take the millions of volunteers, millions of supporters that are multiracial, diverse coalition that are contributing to this campaign.

Look, when you look at who it is that --

KEILAR: Not just who is giving but the other people who could be brought along.

GRAY: Most certainly. As I mentioned, we're number one with Latino voters. We secured another important endorsement from Ahente (ph), an important Latino advocacy group today. We are number two with black voters closing, rapidly with Joe Biden. We're only three points behind there with black voters. And we're seeing all kinds of people, including important politicians in South Carolina defecting from Joe Biden's campaign to ours because they see our message resonating more with their diverse constituencies.

KEILAR: South Carolina will certainly be the test. I do want to ask you because -- about the Bloomberg campaign and something that -- it has said it actually sent out a fundraising email highlighting rhetoric coming from Bernie Sanders' campaign, including you specifically. You have actually tweeted -- you called Bloomberg a racist authoritarian. What do you mean by that, and what do you say to this criticism that what you all are saying is offensive?

GRAY: Well, I would hope that we would vet these candidates before we put them up on a national election stage. And I don't think it's especially controversial that Michael Bloomberg, as mayor of New York, oversaw a racist police stop-and-frisk campaign. That was, in fact, declared unconstitutional by the Southern District of New York because it violated the rights of black and brown disproportionately Yorkers.

KEILAR: Is Bernie Sanders going to lean into that, because he has really emphasized the fact that he is a billionaire and sort of the advantage that's giving him. He said he's not going to take Bloomberg's money if he, Bernie Sanders, wins. You're emphasizing racism. You just heard me ask the communications director for the campaign about some of the sexism allegations. Is that going to be something that Bernie Sanders leans into, because -- and I am not equating things, but he has faced criticism himself in those departments?

GRAY: I don't think that there is any room to even suggest a comparison between someone like Michael Bloomberg, who has, as recently as last year, dismissively kind of mocked the idea of throwing black and brown people up against the wall and saying we need to -- and crisis of overpolicing that we need to police black and brown communities even more because that's who's committing crimes, that's who the criminals are. Someone who has that vision of who Americans are is not in a position where they should be trusting with the lives of a diverse country as the one that we have now.

And when it comes to these issues of sexual harassment, there have been 64 sexual assault allegations leveraged against Michael Bloomberg, which he could -- he has the power to get into and release these women from their non-disclosure agreements. The response that we've heard from the Bloomberg advocate just now who say, well, this a two-way agreement. In a previous life, I was a lawyer, and it seems that these women desire getting out of this agreement, and that the block here is on his end. So you have to ask the question, what is he attempting to hide.

These are important questions in the Me Too era, and especially when you look back at 2016, when you look at the kind of arguments that Donald Trump, despite his own sexual peccadilloes, was able to leverage at Hillary Clinton. Fair or not, and I would argue that a lot of that had to do with a lot of unfair sexism, but the reality was her husband's history ended up being fodder for him. He invited Bill Clinton's accusers to the debate. And so it didn't matter that Donald Trump was pulled down by more of that muck (ph) than anybody else. No one likes Donald Trump because he is pretending to be a good person.

So he is able to run to the to (INAUDIBLE) candidates. He will be able to paint Michael Bloomberg as a Wall Street candidate with sexual exploitation, with all the things we should have a lot of fire power to attack him on. Those arguments will once again be neutered if we have a candidate that is as vulnerable and as compromised in these ways as Michael Bloomberg is.

KEILAR: I do want to add, I do not have that number that you stated about the numbers of sexual harassment allegations at my fingertips, so I just want to make clear, we don't --

GRAY: It's The New York Times' reporting.

KEILAR: Okay. I do not have that on my fingertips, so I just want to be clear. Briahna Joy Gray with the Sanders campaign, thank you so much for coming in. We appreciate it.

GRAY: Thank you. My pleasure.

KEILAR: And this week, CNN is hosting five town halls ahead of the next critical vote. You can watch the first three tonight. That will start at 8:00 P.M. Eastern, then two more on Thursday starting at 8:00 P.M. right here on CNN.

Is the president testing Bill Barr? He keeps tweeting on active cases, which is exactly what the attorney general asked him not to do.

Plus, President Trump and his predecessor sparring over who gets credit for the economy. We will fact-check.

And calls to boycott John Bolton's book grow after he teases it and says the White House is censoring him.



KEILAR: When Attorney General Bill Barr intervened in the Roger Stone case, it unleashed a political firestorm. USA Today reports that a group of more than a thousand federal judges is calling an emergency meeting because they found the crisis at the Justice Department so alarming.

We have CNN Legal Analyst and former counsel to the U.S. Assistant Attorney General, Carrie Cordero, here to discuss this.

I'm so glad you could be here to talk about this with us, because there is this statement where you have more than 2,000 former Justice Department officials, more than 2,000, just to emphasize again, and they're calling for Barr to resign. You've got more than a thousand federal judges meeting about it. Is this something that could really have a big effect?


How big of a deal is this?

CARRIE CORDERO, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: I think it's a really big deal. And I think that the attorney general is under a tremendous amount of pressure from -- probably from within the building, so from within the work force, and I think that's what you see reflected in the statement from the Department of Justice Alumni which span attorneys, prosecutors, senior officials, mostly career non-partisan people who had served across many administrations, those of us who work in the department, you work across many, many administrations if you're there for a while. And so I think that's important.

This judges' conference, I think, is also extremely significant, because the attorney general might be able to withstand the criticism from alumni of the Justice Department. What he will not be able to withstand is a loss of confidence from the judiciary. If he no longer has credibility based on his actions, his statements, his -- what the president is now doing with continuing his tweets about cases and judges, if the attorney general loses the confidence of the judges, he's done.

KEILAR: To that point of his tweeting, Bill Barr, one of the major push-backs that we've seen Bill Barr actually say was that the tweets don't help. He doesn't want the president to weigh in on these cases, and yet that's exactly what the president is doing. Is he testing Barr?

CORDERO: I think that's a very fair interpretation of what's happening. I mean, Bill Barr gave an interview on Thursday saying that the tweets were unhelpful and making his job harder. On Saturday, the president's Twitter feed was active about a case that had been decided last week, the dropping of the case against former Deputy Director of the FBI, Andrew McCabe.

And then just today, the president is tweeting again about active matters within the Justice Department. So he's making a fool of the attorney general who said that it would make his job impossible if the president continued to do this because the president is continuing to do it.

So the question now for Attorney General Barr is, what did he mean when he said it made his job impossible? Did he mean that it was just sort of a nuisance and he's going to keep doing his job and just we'll continue, or did he mean that it meant his job was really impossible and he will not stay in it if the president continues?

KEILAR: He's getting squeezed by both sides, and that's what's becoming clear. Carrie, thank you so much, Carrie Cordero, we appreciate it.

Two presidents sparring over who gets the credit for the economy, President Obama touting his record on job creation, President Trump says that's a con job. So who did it better?

And growing calls to boycott John Bolton's book after the former national security adviser says to read chapter 14 in response to a question about Ukraine.