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Sanders Secures Frontrunner Status Ahead Of Debate In Las Vegas Tonight; Bloomberg To Face Rivals For First Time On Debate Stage; Obama & Trump Face Off Over Claims Of Strong Economy; Top Pentagon Policy Official, John Rood, Resigns; Sources: A.G. Barr Considered Resigning Over Trump Interference At DOJ; David Laufman, Former DOJ Official, Discusses Why He Signed Letter Calling For A.G. Barr To Resign. Aired 11-11:30a ET

Aired February 19, 2020 - 11:00   ET



POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: But sources tell CNN that branding is now being reviewed. And while discussions are still underway, an aide to the queen says she will likely forbid them from using the word "royal."

More reason to watch "THE WINDSOR" series on CNN.

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN ANCHOR: Yes, interesting. Really interesting.

HARLOW: Thank you for joining us. We'll see you back here tomorrow. I'm Poppy Harlow.

SCIUTTO: And I'm Jim Sciutto.

"AT THIS HOUR" starts right now with Kate Baldwin.

KATE BOLDUAN, CNN ANCHOR: Hello, everyone. I'm Kate Baldwin. Thank you so much for joining me.

It is debate day in America once again. But in many ways, it's another race. A new frontrunner, the new candidate, and a different set of voters that the candidates are speaking to.

As the six Democratic presidential candidates take the place in tonight in Nevada, new national polls show Bernie Sanders securing his frontrunner status. He's now surging ahead of his Democratic rivals with a double-digit lead.

And then, there's the newcomer on the stage tonight. Michael Bloomberg qualifying for the first time. And if the past two or so days have been an indication, he has a target on his back.

Here's just from last night.


SEN. BERNIE SANDERS (I-VT), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: All of the candidates, we did town meetings and we talked to thousands and thousands of people. We've been working hard. He said I don't have to do that. I'm worth $60 billion. I have more wealth than the bottom 125 million Americans. I'll buy the presidency.

UNIDENTIFIED DEBATE MODERATOR: Do you think Michael Bloomberg is trying to buy the Democratic nomination for president?



BUTTIGIEG: I mean, what else do you call it when you dip into your endless reserves of millions and billions?

SEN. AMY KLOBUCHAR (D-MN), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I don't think you should just be able to buy your way to the presidency.


BOLDUAN: CNN Political Correspondent, Arlette Saenz, is in Las Vegas where tonight's debate is.

Arlette, what are you hearing there?

ARLETTE SAENZ, CNN POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Kate, the Democrats are getting ready to engage in a Democratic brawl right here on the Las Vegas strip as they're going to face off against Michael Bloomberg face to face for the first time.

The former New York City mayor could take quite a bit of incoming fire on a number of issues relating to criminal justice, allegations of sexist and misogynistic comments.

And as you heard in the clips, a lot of the candidates taking issue that he's spending hundreds and millions of his own fortune blanketing the air waves across the country with the television ads.

Take a listen to some of the critiques Bernie Sanders lobbed against Michael Bloomberg last night.


SANDERS: There are a number of things about his record that I think the American people may not know. As the mayor of the New York City, he was very aggressive in pushing so-called Stop-and-Frisk.

His policies humiliated and offended hundreds and hundreds of thousands of people. And I think that is something that is worthy of discussion.


SAENZ: Now, Bloomberg's team has been bracing for him to become the focus of tonight's debate as he's preparing to face off for the first time against his rivals. There's questions about candidates whether try to go after Bernie

Sanders who, as you mentioned, has a double-digit lead in national polls over his closest rivals.

And there's also Joe Biden. He needs a strong commanding performance coming out of this debate. His past debates have been a bit shaky. And after the disappointing finishes in Iowa and New Hampshire, he's looking for a turnaround in Nevada with those caucuses just three days away.

For all the candidates, this is one of their last opportunities to make their case to Nevada voters as they're looking to secure a win -- Kate?

BOLDUAN: That's right.

Arlette, great to see you. Thanks.

Something that might come up tonight and another sign that things are getting ugly, a new battle erupting just this morning between Bernie Sanders and Michael Bloomberg. Specifically the Sanders' campaign leveling a false claim about Bloomberg and team Bloomberg not letting it slide.

Here's what the national press secretary for Bernie Sanders told CNN's John Berman this morning when he asked about Sanders saying he isn't releasing more of his health records.


BRIAHNA JOY GRAY, NATIONAL PRESS SECRETARY, BERNIE SANDERS PRESIDENTIAL CAMPAIGN: Not the same concern is demonstrated for Michael Bloomberg, who is the same age as Bernie Sanders, who has suffered heart attacks in the past.


BOLDUAN: Heart attacks, plural, in the past.

CNN's Cristina Alesci joins me with more.

Cristina, what's going on here?

CRISTINA ALESCI, CNN POLITICS & BUSINESS CORRESPONDENT: Well, the Bernie Sanders campaign in damage control on debate day right now. That same spokesperson just issued a tweet saying, "I misspoke when I said Bloomberg had a heart attack. Rather, he underwent the same stent procedure as Bernie. Bernie released three detailed medical reports in December."

Here are the facts, Kate. There's no evidence, based on our reporting so far that Michael Bloomberg has ever suffered a heart attack.

Back in 2000, we know that he did undergo stent replacement. But that was not a result of a heart attack. That was after routine cardiac testing. We do have testing results from last year, cardiac testing results that show that his cardiac condition was normal.


Look, the politics of this is not good heading into the debate for the Bernie Sanders' campaign, because Bloomberg campaign shot back immediately, basically calling this a lie, in very stark terms.

And this is also against the backdrop of Bernie Sanders taking some heat for not doing enough to stand up against some aggressive tactics that his supporters have employed online and in social media posts.

So this feeds the Bloomberg narrative about Bernie Sanders, that he is employing Trump-like tactics on debate day, Kate. This is not something the Bernie Sanders' campaign really wanted to deal with. That's probably why we saw the walk back that we just saw right now as I was about to get on air with you.

BOLDUAN: Yes. We'll see if team Bloomberg and Michael Bloomberg when he gets on stage tonight lets it stay right there.

Good to see you, Cristina. Thank you so much.

ALESCI: Thank you.

BOLDUAN: Joining me for more on all of this is CNN political commentator, Dan Pfeiffer. He was one of President Obama's longest- serving advisers on the campaign and in the White House. He's the author of "Un-Trumping America, A Plan to Make America a Democracy Again."

It's great to see you, Dan.


BOLDUAN: You have been busy.

PFEIFFER: Very busy.

Do you even know what time it is?

PFEIFFER: I don't know what day it is. I know we're on CNN.


BOLDUAN: This is going to be a great conversation and maybe your last on CNN.

Let's start with the debate and where things are going to be. Bloomberg on the stage. As I said at the top, it's almost like a new race we're looking at. Sanders, the clear frontrunner. Bloomberg on the stage. And the attacks that are -- he's got to be prepared for tonight. We've seen foreshadow of it. Trying to buy the election. His Stop-and-Frisk policy. Allegations of sexual harassment.

He has offered answers and apologies. They don't seem adequate enough for the Democratic candidates. What can he do about that tonight? PFEIFFER: This is going to be an interesting debate. Bloomberg has a

lot of questions he has to answer and owes the Democratic voters answers around Stop-and-Frisk and some of the other issues. And to tell people what kind of president he's going to be. Other candidates have been doing this for a year.

But every time Elizabeth Warren and Joe Biden and Amy Klobuchar and Pete Buttigieg haves attacked Mike Bloomberg, that is an in-kind contribution to the Sanders campaign.

Sanders is the frontrunner and has a clear path to nomination. We're two weeks away from Super Tuesday where the bulk of the delegates will be decided, and so there's been -- everyone is focused on the new shiny object. Over here, Bernie Sanders is marching toward the Democratic convention.

BOLDUAN: It just will be a very interesting choice in how they -- because it is a strategy on how you go when you go on the debate stage, go hard against Bloomberg because of the wall of money he has coming at you for Super Tuesday or go at the frontrunner.


BOLDUAN: On the money front, he's poured, Bloomberg has poured hundreds of millions into political ads. At least two of the ads coming out, he is highlighting, touting, emphasizing a relationship with your former boss, with Obama.

I have heard you say that a cozy relationship is not how you remembered it between those men. I think you said it's complicated. Do you think these ads are misleading?

PFEIFFER: Well, I mean, in fairness to Michael Bloomberg, he's simply quoting things Barack Obama said --

BOLDUAN: Using his words.

PFEIFFER: -- and meant about Mayor Bloomberg. Elizabeth Warren, Joe Biden have also run similar ads. I think they both have closer working relationships with President Obama over the years.

But it's the ubiquity of Bloomberg's ads that make it apparent. He's spent -- I was sitting in my hotel room the other night. I saw the ad five times in an hour on television.


BOLDUAN: Help folks understand that. What's complicated about the relationship?

PFEIFFER: They worked together on climate change, gun control and issues around New York, including Hurricane Sandy. Bloomberg did not endorse Obama in 2008. It was in 2012. Five days before the election. And it was damning being praised, to say the least. It was --

(CROSSTALK) PFEIFFER: At the time, a lot of us thought, like, not endorsing would have been more constructive, right? Because there was very -- supporting Obama on climate but a long-time critique about other things.

But they have worked together. And I am confident that Barack Obama will be behind -- 100 percent behind the Democratic nominee, whoever it is among the people on stage tonight.

BOLDUAN: Let's talk about the book. You have literally written a book on how to beat Trump. What's the message to Democrats on this?

PFEIFFER: Two points. One is, don't be obsessed with Trump. Right? Our entire political conversation, the entire media ecosystem, everyone is obsessed with Trump. That's what Trump wants. Trump wants to starve the Democratic nominee of oxygen to convince to tell voters about themselves.

Trump will make a case against himself. There will be debates about these things but spend time and energy making this a choice, not a referendum. A lot of people think we should make this a referendum.

Second thing is we have to take on --


BOLDUAN: If it's not a referendum, then what is it?

PFEIFFER: A choice between two candidates with two different visions.


BOLDUAN: More traditional --


PFEIFFER: Like an open-seat race.

BOLDUAN: Yes, an open-seat race, not an incumbent race.

PFEIFFER: Right. And because Trump is this ubiquitous political figure, the negative information about him is known to voters. You're going to do some of this that.


The second thing, it's so important that you have to take him on in the economy. Everyone says that's his strength.


PFEIFFER: Some would say focus on other issues, maybe issues of his conduct or demeanor. If you don't win the economic battle, you won't win the election. I say we frame it from a question of, how good is the economy to how fair is the economy. Trump has this massive vulnerability that he is proposing cutting

Medicare and Social Security to pay for a massive tax cut for Wall Street. That's political gold. We have to take advantage of it.

BOLDUAN: Are you seeing any of the candidates employing this strategy?

PFEIFFER: Yes, I have. I mean, they --

BOLDUAN: They talk a lot about him.

PFEIFFER: They have a different set of in incentives in the primary.


PFEIFFER: They're working on politically engaged voters. Sure Democratic voters. They're not targeting the less likely voters or swing voters we need in states like Wisconsin, Michigan, Arizona.


PFEIFFER: Exactly. But in their economic messaging, you can see the seeds of -- among all of them, in different parts, what would be an effective message. I do believe that whoever the nominee is will get there.

BOLDUAN: Obviously, this is -- this is a strategy session for Democrats. But is there anything in there for the disaffected Republican?

PFEIFFER: I think yes. I think there needs to be. You have to tell people about why we can do better than this. We're living in a world of chaos and corruption under Trump. It doesn't have to be this way. That's why it's important to create a Democratic alternative.

Like there's a view that Trump is trying to exhaust us into submission.

BOLDUAN: Right. Yes.

PFEIFFER: And the Democrat has to give people hope and inspiration that will can be something better.

BOLDUAN: You were one of Obama's longest-serving advisers. I thought of you when I saw the tweet from him on Monday, marking the anniversary of the Recovery Act. The picture he tweeted out with the quote caption, whatever, that the act "was paving the way for more than a decade of economic growth and the longest streak of job creation in American history."

That obviously, as you saw right after, that set President Trump off. What was Obama trying to do? You might not have spoken to him about it. You know the mind of the man.


BOLDUAN: What do you think he was trying to do? PFEIFFER: I think Obama getting out of bed every morning sets Trump

off. Trump's greatest accomplishment is not screwing up Barack Obama's economy. And it's clear the last three years of Barack Obama's economy were stronger than the first three years of Trump's. So --

BOLDUAN: Again, on the economy, things that Trump has done has not --

PFEIFFER: Not screwed it up.

BOLDUAN: You can say not screwed it up or been good for the economy.

PFEIFFER: Right --


BOLDUAN: I mean, this gets to the political debate of what economic numbers of.

PFEIFFER: Right. I think that's the point. The question of who gets credit for the economy, which I think is an open-and-shut case, is a question for the historians. That's where we should fight that.

On the election, it should be about who the economy is working for and who it isn't. That's the better question.

BOLDUAN: Is this tweet emblematic of a game-plan strategy of when Obama gets involved in the race? You said he's not going to get involved in the primary.


BOLDUAN: Once there's a nominee, is this part of the game plan? Push the buttons --


PFEIFFER: I don't think that's -- that's a little small ball for Barack Obama. What I think Obama will do is what he does best, which is raise the stakes on the election, show people why it matters, show why the Democratic nominee, whoever they are, is a better alternative for all Americans, for a better, brighter future and give people hope.

Because if we give people hope, then we can -- we say swing voters and think of Wisconsin. When Obama thinking about it, he thinks about the people who may not vote. How do you persuade them to vote? He can raise the stakes in the election, unify the party, and offer a message that gets people out of their chairs and to vote.

BOLDUAN: As you mentioned, rightfully so, probably the easiest thing would be setting off a rage tweet.


BOLDUAN: That's not the hardest thing to do when your name is Barack Obama and Donald Trump.

It's good to see you, Dan.

PFEIFFER: Thanks a lot.

BOLDUAN: Congratulations on the book, and another great book, from Dan Pfeiffer.

PFEIFFER: Thank you.

BOLDUAN: Again, he's now written two books and I'm yet to even begin one.

Good to see you, man.

Just coming into CNN, the Pentagon's top policy official has officially resigned. Resigning at the request of President Trump. His name is John Rood.

Until just now, he was the head of policy and he oversaw aspects of Pentagon's relationship with U.S. allies. He was also, an important note, one of the officials thrust into the spotlight during the Ukraine scandal and impeachment investigation.

Let's get to the Pentagon. CNN's Barbara Starr is there.

Barbara, you have some great reporting on this. You have your hand on the resignation letter. What does it say?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Let's get to what John Rood has said in the resignation letter this morning. It is a letter to the president of the United States.

It says, quote, "Mr. President, it is my understanding from Secretary Esper that you requested my resignation from serving as undersecretary of defense for policy. Senior administration officials appointed by the president serve at the pleasure of the president. And, therefore, as you have requested, I am providing my resignation, effective February 28, 2020."


John Rood has been the policy chief at the Pentagon. That's a name and a job not well known outside of national security circles. But inside national security circles, a very influential post, overseeing policy on everything from Russia to China to Ukraine, as you mentioned.

And why it's so important, of course, is U.S. relations with the allies and also U.S. defense and national security policy, especially as it relates to China today, which is a big priority at the Pentagon and where, in the future, U.S. troops may be deployed.

Rood had run afoul, according to officials, in several quarters. He was seen by some officials that Jim Sciutto, my colleague, has spoken to, as not being in sync with the president. Perhaps being skeptical of the peace talks with the Taliban, and wanting to see that stronger relationship with Ukraine as a pushback against Russia -- Kate?

BOLDUAN: And, Barbara, remind folks why Rood was thrust into the center of the impeachment inquiry.

STARR: As policy chief at the Pentagon, he would have been involved in all the approvals and discussions for that military aid package for Ukraine. He was in favor of it. He very much thought that the corruption part of any part of the equation in Ukraine was well in hand and he wanted to see the sale of military aid going forward with Ukraine being an important ally. It's important to remember that was the Pentagon position at the time.


STARR: There was no discussion here, even by Secretary Esper, of there being any political overtone by the president. No quid pro quo. None of that. The defense secretary has never said any acknowledgment of that.

So I'm not sure he was afoul of the Pentagon. He may have run afoul of the White House.

BOLDUAN: Great point, Barbara.

Thank you very much.

Coming up for us, what should we make of reports that Attorney General Bill Barr considered resigning over President Trump's tweets? Especially with the reality that President Trump hasn't stopped since?

Plus, it's a power that only the president holds. What does the president's pardonings for yesterday mean?



BOLDUAN: New questions this morning about the relationship between President Trump and Attorney General Bill Barr. According to sources, Barr has told folks he's considered resigning over the president's interference in the Justice Department. There's no evidence that's currently under consideration.

The DOJ has faced intense scrutiny since Barr overruled prosecutors in his department, in his own department, in the sentencing recommendation for long-time Trump associate, Roger Stone.

Despite the fierce criticism that followed, it's clear President Trump has no plans to stop weighing in on Justice Department matters.

Listen to what he said yesterday.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I'm allowed to be totally involved. I'm actually I guess the chief law enforcement officer of the country.

(END VIDEO CLIP) BOLDUAN: So where exactly do things stand?

CNN's John Harwood is at the White House with more.

John, one source says the president and Barr are now in a, quote, unquote, "cooling off period." Help me. What does this mean?

JOHN HARWOOD, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, I'm not quite sure what exactly what it means other than that we've put a few days' distance between that ABC interview where Bill Barr spoke out rather strongly about the president's public communications and now we've had the story about him threatening to resign.

He has not resigned. But the longer you can live with the status quo, I think the more likely it is that the status quo will persist.

But there's no question that, as the president indicated yesterday, he recognizes that he's made Barr's job more difficult. Barr seeing his job as helping the president, vindicating the president's agenda by calling attention to the fact that Trump is trying to put his thumb on the scale.

We'll see how long he decides to do that, and how many more people complain about it, and threaten to force a change.

BOLDUAN: Yes. And it seems to be when it comes to President Trump, especially on this one, complain all you want. I'm doing it.

Good to see you, John. I appreciate it.

Joining me is someone with a unique perspective, David Laufman. He's a former Justice Department official under President Obama and Trump. He's also one of the now more than 2000 Justice Department alumni who signed the letter calling on Barr to resign and the concerns around all of this.

Thank you for being here.


BOLDUAN: You -- in signing the letter, you believe that Bill Barr should resign, but also in the letter that you all signed onto, you acknowledge that you think it is unlikely that he would.

Would it surprise you at this point, after all of this ,that he seriously is considering quitting because of Trump's tweets?

LAUFMAN: Well, the president's tweets about pending and criminal cases are certainly appalling. And I'm glad Mr. Barr is bothered by them. But the real issue, with respect to Barr, is not the president's tweets.

It's Mr. Barr himself and how he has performed his job as attorney general and Mr. Barr's own malfeasance exemplified by his politicizing of the criminal justice process in cases like the Roger Stone' sentencing, by his misrepresentation of the Mueller report, by his attacks on the I.G. report.


Those things are part of a pattern that reasonably give rise to a belief that Mr. Barr has weaponized the Department of Justice in the furtherance of the political agenda more than any modern attorney general in history.

BOLDUAN: I guess the question is, Barr said last week the president's tweets, the way he put it was, "makes it impossible for me to do my job." Is how he put it to ABC News.

The president hasn't stopped tweeting or talking about the case. Yesterday, we saw he says he's allowed to be involved and he's the new chief law enforcement officer of the country.

Short of resigning, what do you think Barr or anyone at the Justice Department should do with that?

LAUFMAN: Well, I think there are times when it's appropriate for the attorney general to speak out and criticize or rebut statements the president makes about pending criminal cases, how dangerous they are with respect to the impartial administration of justice.

But at the end of the day, he's the attorney general. He gets to run the Department of Justice until such time as he is no longer the attorney general.

And he should be implementing policies and procedures that provide buffers from any efforts of political interference by the president. And instill prosecutors and supervisory officials across the department an ethos that is committed to the impartial administration of justice without fear or favor of political considerations. And he has failed to do that.

BOLDUAN: And, David, that's something I'm curious on, right? Set aside the president on this. When you focus on Bill Barr, his actions, at the department, is there something -- is there something you could look to, or anyone could look to, to see that he hears this criticism and would be evidence of him making a change in the direction that you're talking about?

Is there something that we outwardly could see? I guess maybe it could be a statement, as you said, maybe.

LAUFMAN: How about something so basic as the types of statements that attorney generals have made throughout their tenures, committing themselves and applauding and lauding the daily work of the prosecutors and the FBI agents and analysts and all the individuals that comprise the law enforcement community in contravention to how the president demonizes them, just to instill in them a sense that, hey, this attorney general has our back.

BOLDUAN: Simple.

David, thank you for coming on. LAUFMAN: Good to be with you.

BOLDUAN: Coming up for us, Bernie Sanders surges to the top of the Democratic field in new national polling. What does that mean for the Nevada caucus?

We'll be back.