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THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER

Attorney General Barr Really Thinking of Resigning?; Rod Blagojevich Speaks Out; Bloomberg Set For First Democratic Presidential Debate. Aired 4:30-5p ET

Aired February 19, 2020 - 16:30   ET

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


[16:30:00]

M.J. LEE, CNN NATIONAL POLITICS CORRESPONDENT: Now, the Bloomberg campaign's overall pushback to these kinds of allegations has been to point out that Michael Bloomberg himself does not condone this kind of behavior.

So, I just want to read a part of the statement that we got from Bloomberg campaign chairwoman Patti Harris.

She says: "In any large organization, there are going to be complaints, but Mike has never tolerated any kind of discrimination or harassment, and he has created cultures that are all about equality and inclusion. Anyone who works hard and performs well is going to be rewarded, regardless of gender, race, sexual orientation, or anything else" -- Jake.

JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: All right, M.J. Lee in Las Vegas, thanks so much.

Coming up: new questions today about whether Attorney General Bill Barr was really thinking of resigning. We will talk to a former top Justice Department official who has known Barr for decades.

That's next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:35:12]

TAPPER: And we're back with the politics lead.

Attorney General Bill Barr may be at a breaking point. A source tells CNN that Barr has considered resigning over the president's tweets that involve himself in Justice Department matters, particularly prosecutions.

The White House and Justice Department are denying the story.

As CNN's Kaitlan Collins reports for us now, President Trump insists he's well within his rights to comment on any legal matter, including those involving his friends.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

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

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): As President Trump declares himself the nation's top law enforcement officer, his attorney general is telling people he's considering resigning if Trump doesn't stop getting involved in Justice Department affairs.

The warning has prompted widespread skepticism over whether Barr is serious about stepping down or sending a calculated message.

WILLIAM BARR, U.S. ATTORNEY GENERAL: I cannot do my job here at the department with a constant background commentary that undercuts me.

TRUMP: Yes, I do make his job harder. I do agree with that.

COLLINS: So far, Trump has ignored Barr's appeals to stop tweeting. Instead, he's demanding a new trial for Roger Stone and lashing out at the federal judge who will sentence Stone tomorrow, despite the Justice Department saying there's no need for a retrial.

TRUMP: I think Roger Stone has been treated unfairly.

According to a DOJ spokesman, Barr has -- quote -- "no plans" to resign. And White House officials are downplaying the tension between the two.

HOGAN GIDLEY, WHITE HOUSE DEPUTY PRESS SECRETARY: He absolutely respects the attorney general. He appreciates his service. They have a good relationship.

COLLINS: That same official adding, the president also doesn't plan to stop tweeting.

GIDLEY: The president still has a right to defend himself, and he uses social media, as you guys well know, to get out his message directly to the American people.

COLLINS: Skeptics have questioned the extent of Barr's irritation with the president. He is seen by many as a calculating figure, and talk of his potential resignation comes amid a strained relationship with the Justice Department rank and file over the appearance of political influence on the department.

TRUMP: We have a great attorney general. He is a very fair man. He is a great gentleman. And we have a great attorney general, highly prestigious man, a very honorable man. I have a lot of faith in Bill Barr.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

COLLINS: Now, Jake, one look at the president's Twitter feed today, and you can see he's not heeding these calls from Bill Barr to stop tweeting. So what Barr has essentially done here by telling people he's

considering resigning over the president's constant interference is, he's got to essentially decide if he's going to make good on that threat or if he's going to back off of it.

TAPPER: All right, Kaitlan Collins, thanks so much. Appreciate it.

Joining me now at the table, former federal prosecutor Laura Coates and Donald Ayer, who served alongside Bill Barr in the George H.W. Bush administration as deputy attorney general.

Thanks so much for being here.

DONALD AYER, FORMER U.S. DEPUTY ATTORNEY GENERAL: Thank you.

TAPPER: Donald, let me start with you.

You have known Bill Barr for four decades, though I know you haven't talked him in a bit. You have called on him to resign. What's your read on this situation? Do you do you think -- do you take it at face value he's frustrated with the president's tweets, and he wants him to stop?

AYER: Yes, I'm probably not the best person to ask. I know about as much as anybody else does.

And, obviously, it is frustrating if you're doing what I think it's fair to say he is doing, which is essentially trying to carry out plans that will make the president a virtual autocrat, to have the president complimenting you because he likes what you're doing and he likes that you're intervening on behalf of friends of his who are now up to be sentenced.

So, I can see that it would be frustrating. I just have no way to evaluate it if he's seriously thinking of resigning or not. I hope he is, because, for reasons I have written about at some length, I think there's lots of reasons he ought to resign.

TAPPER: Laura, what do you think? Do you think Barr is seriously considering stepping down over the tweets that put him in a light where it looks like he's being pressured by the president, and no matter what he does, will be seen through that light?

Or do you think this is all just Kabuki theater?

LAURA COATES, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Kabuki theater.

Not for a second do I think that Bill Barr is going to step down over a 2,000-plus signature-based letter from former prosecutors or the president's tweets.

You notice what he did not say. He didn't give you the reasons for why those tweets bothered him, other than it made his job harder, as you alluded to, the notion of, it's now going to be in the light, as opposed to cover of darkness.

But the real issue of the president's tweets is that it misinforms one thing in particular. He's not the chief law enforcement executive.

TAPPER: The president.

COATES: Yes, the president. That's Bill Barr's job, attorney general.

Number two, he is undermining the career prosecutors, the line prosecutors who are supposed to work autonomously and without political pressure.

So, if Bill Barr is actually concerned about the reputation, not of itself, but of the prosecutors who day in and day out go into court, have to have their credibility of their line and their colleagues, then that should be his main concern, not simply a tweet. That is simply a smoke and mirror. The core of the issue is the problem.

TAPPER: So, one of the things that's interesting is that President Trump, especially in the last couple of weeks since he was acquitted, but generally since he started his political career, has shown a real denigration of prosecutors.

[16:40:10]

He's constantly attacking prosecutors, or the FBI, Comey, the people who sought the sentence for Roger Stone, et cetera. And he's constantly talking up criminal defendants, whether it's Michael Flynn, or Roger Stone, or Rod Blagojevich.

As somebody who worked in the Justice Department, as a Republican, what do you make of it?

AYER: Well, it's exceptionally unfortunate. It's one of many things that are unfortunate about what this president is doing.

And I think it's corrosive of the morale of the people in the department. One of the things that he says that I think is the most telling as to the job that Bill Barr is doing is that this statement that he keeps making, that he's the chief law enforcement officer and he can interfere if he wants to, that is a statement that Bill Barr told him is the law in the memo that Bill Barr submitted back in June of 2018.

He literally wrote there that the president oversees the entire government, including the Justice Department, and can't be denied the right to supervise all criminal cases, including ones where he's the defendant or where he's the subject.

And so this is the problem with the Justice Department now. It's not just sort of a recent inconvenience and an embarrassment by the president tweeting. It's that department has been run for the last year by someone who wants to make Donald Trump someone who is beyond the law.

And there are all these steps that have been taken. And the latest ones are just the most disturbing, because they're in the criminal area.

TAPPER: And one of them, of course, having to do with Roger Stone, who will be sentenced tomorrow by Judge Amy Berman Jackson.

President Trump has attacked the judge. He's attacked the prosecutors. He's attacked the sentencing recommendation.

What do you anticipate is going to happen? The prosecutor said they recommended seven to nine years. The Justice Department undermined that. The four prosecutors resigned from the case. Seven to nine years, under, over? What do you think?

COATES: Well, they are according to the guideline range. Didn't come at it from the sky. They didn't just say, that sounds like a good number. Let's see if that sticks.

It's based on a chart that's also developed and actually added up by the pretrial services, whose job is to figure out, based on your criminal history, any aggravating factors, like the crime spanned over a course of years, you did not comply with orders during the court, for example, a gag order by the judge.

TAPPER: Which he did not, Which he did not, yes.

COATES: Which he did not.

Tamper with witnesses. All those things add on. It's not that they were trying to be preferential and against him. That's the president, what he's doing.

So he will be sentenced tomorrow. Any new trial, well, that will come later, but he will be sentenced. I'm probably thinking in the five- year range, but I can't predict Amy Berman Jackson.

TAPPER: Quickly, any prediction?

AYER: I don't.

I mean, I think what's important is that the judge is going to do what she thinks is right. And what's so sad is that all of this conversation about people trying to influence it make it very hard to do that in a way that the public looks at it and feels like it's...

(CROSSTALK)

TAPPER: Will have any faith in it, absolutely.

Donald Ayer and Laura Coates, thank you both for your expertise and for being here. Appreciate it.

There's a common green thread linking several of the people who were granted clemency by President Trump.

We will explain next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:47:13]

TAPPER: President Trump took to Twitter today to defend the list of pardons and commutations he granted, including one for former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich.

And when you look at the 11 men and women granted clemency by the president, there are some common themes, friends in high places and money, lots of it, flaunted by those with connections to the White House.

CNN's Tom Foreman is following the money for us.

And, Tom, let's start with construction company owner Paul Pogue. His family made donations to Trump's campaign?

TOM FOREMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Jake.

This is a guy who underpaid his taxes, was sentenced to three years' probation. Then federal election records show his family kicked more than $200,000 into Trump's reelection. Now he's off the hook.

And he's not the only big money player who the president has favored with his power to pardon.

Michael Milken, the junk bond king of the 1980s, has long been a poster child for violating securities laws. He was sentenced to 10 years, served less than two. Since then, he's been a champion of cancer research.

And some of his friends in the world of finance thought his record should be cleared, including huge Republican donor Sheldon Adelson, Fox magnate Rupert Murdoch, and Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin.

Eddie DeBartolo Jr., former owner of the San Francisco 49ers, he was connected to a bribery scheme, agreed to pay a million dollars in fines, and eventually had to give up his NFL team. But he did not give up his friends. Among those who wanted clemency for him, several NFL stars and the billionaire owners of the Patriots and Cowboys, Robert Kraft and Jerry Jones -- Jake.

TAPPER: Kraft and Jones had something to do with it.

And, Tom, the president's clemencies also have a number of celebrity connections, it seems.

FOREMAN: Yes.

Former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich, you mentioned just a short while ago. In Blagojevich's case, he tried to sell a Senate seat vacated by Barack Obama. He was sentenced to 14 years. Trump cut it off at eight, saying he should go home to his family, the conviction was ridiculous.

Trump says he doesn't know Blagojevich well. But the former governor was on "Celebrity Apprentice" with Trump. And, notably, Blagojevich's wife was on Fox News repeatedly and directly asking the president to set him free. And Bernie Kerik, he was the former commissioner of the New York

Police Department, charged with tax fraud and lying about it, sentenced to four years. But now his record is clear as well. What helped him? Ties to and support from Fox News, combined with his long association with the president's lawyer Rudy Giuliani -- Jake.

TAPPER: All right, thanks so much, Tom Foreman.

Remember when Rudy Giuliani and the president, Republican senators were telling us, were really invested in rooting out corruption? They hate corruption, Abby. They hate it.

(LAUGHTER)

ABBY PHILLIP, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: I mean, Rudy Giuliani is the greatest corruption fighter in the history of the country, according to the president.

(LAUGHTER)

SEUNG MIN KIM, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Crime fighter.

PHILLIP: Crime fighter and corruption fighter.

(CROSSTALK)

[16:50:00]

PHILLIP: I mean, it is so amazing that it all it really takes is a few friends in some high places, some money, and maybe an appearance or two on FOX News, and you can get clemency or a pardon.

And then I noticed a lot of Trump allies tweeting, well, Trump hasn't pardoned that many people. And that's true, but it's why he pardons them that is the problem.

Other presidents have a process that they go through. People submit applications, it gets reviewed by the Department of Justice. None of that is happening here.

TAPPER: And, also, we should just point out, as Rod Blagojevich celebrated his freedom, President Trump tweeted today: "Rod Blagojevich did not sell the Senate seat. He served eight years in prison with many remaining. He paid a big price. Another Comey and gang deal."

OK, first off, let's start with the did not sell the Senate seat. He didn't. He tried to.

(CROSSTALK)

KAREN FINNEY, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: He couldn't find a buyer.

TAPPER: The criminal complaint against him in 2008 accuses him of -- quote -- "conspiring to sell the Senate seat." And, second of all, this idea -- and we heard this during -- from the

president's defenders in the Ukraine scandal -- the idea that somebody attempts to commit a crime fails, therefore, it's not a crime.

KIM: Exactly.

I mean, what -- I mean, there's no question what former Governor Blagojevich did here. And the other thing to understand Trump about -- and we have reported this in the past when he rolled out kind of his first batch of pardons -- is that he really relishes that pardon power, because it is kind of a singular power, this authority that a president has, where he is virtually unchecked.

Congress can't do anything about it. Obviously, even with the process at the Justice Department, he can circumvent that and commute and pardon all the sentences that he wants, and that's why he's really enjoyed this power.

And you see just the influence that a FOX News appearance can have over Illinois Republicans, who know Blagojevich's crimes very well. They had been pleading with him for the better part of a year.

TAPPER: Don't do it. Yes.

(CROSSTALK)

KIM: Don't do this.

And then he did. And they kind of just released a tepid statement saying, eh.

(CROSSTALK)

TAPPER: And here's something I want you to take a look at.

So here's Blagojevich after he was released from prison.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ROD BLAGOJEVICH (D), FORMER ILLINOIS GOVERNOR: I'm a Trumpocrat.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: A Trumpocrat, that's right.

BLAGOJEVICH: Up until now, in the history of our country, no one has done more or is currently working to do more to fix this broken and racist criminal justice system than President Trump and Jared Kushner.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: That's right.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(LAUGHTER)

TAPPER: I mean, if I were with the Illinois Democratic Party, I would grab that Trumpocrat image and then put it all on Illinois televisions, yes. AMANDA CARPENTER, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: A hundred percent.

TAPPER: Yes.

CARPENTER: That is one of the most disgusting statements to come out of the whole Trump presidency. I'm a Trumpocrat? I vote for him. But, oh, by the way, I can't because I'm a felon.

I mean, we can laugh about this, but, I mean, these charges, it's just a complete carousel of corruption, lies, fraud. And there's -- it's just completely random.

The only through line is like, oh, well, they sucked up to the president. That is what's so destructive about this. There's no statement here that Trump is sending, other than, if I like you, I do nice things for you. But if you're bad to me, lock her up.

FINNEY: Right.

I also have a real problem watching Rod Blagojevich talk about racism in the criminal justice system? I'm sorry.

(CROSSTALK)

KIM: He's not a political prisoner?

FINNEY: He's not, it turns down. Bet he hasn't been stopped and frisked either.

But, look, this is a preview of a second term of Donald Trump. He now feels like he has unchecked power. Didn't he just say he's the top law enforcement person of our country now?

He's also said he's the chosen one. I mean, he's just decided, if they're not going to stop me, then I'm going to just keep pushing forward with everything I want to do, and whether I'm going to pardon the people I want to pardon and you can't do anything about it.

And he also sort of relishes saying, well, of course, I can do this, I can do whatever I want to remind us, I'm in charge. I have got the power and there's nothing you can do about it.

TAPPER: So, one other thing.

Lawyers for Julian Assange say that the WikiLeaks founder could have -- he could have also been pardoned. Perhaps he will be pardoned. Who knows.

They say former Republican Congressman Dana Rohrabacher offered Assange a pardon -- quote -- "if Assange would say Russia was not involved in the 2016 DNC e-mail hack."

We should note the White House calls this a total lie. But, I mean, that's another possible pardon? I mean, pardons don't only come in February. They could come any time.

PHILLIP: And, as Seung Min pointed out, he can pardon whoever he wants.

I mean, there's really no restriction on it. So, I mean, I don't know if there's really any truth to that at all, frankly. But it just goes to show that there is an unlimited list of people who could be pardoned by the president, especially those who have some bearing on these political investigations that the president wants retribution for.

Anything related to Russia, anything related to Comey, anything related to Roger Stone, these are all on the list of possibilities.

TAPPER: A lot for us to cover going forward.

Stay around, everyone.

A stunning development for NASCAR driver Ryan Newman, after thankfully surviving this fiery crash.

Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:59:10]

TAPPER: In our world lead: a dramatic retaliation against journalists in China, after the communist country received criticism for our how it has been handling the coronavirus outbreak.

Three "Wall Street Journal" reporters had their press credentials revoked, and have been told they have five days to leave the country, this after an opinion piece ran in the newspaper titled -- quote -- "China is the Real Sick Man of Asia."

The Chinese government called the essay racist and demanded that "The Wall Street Journal" apologize. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said -- quote -- "Mature, responsible countries that -- understand that a free press reports facts."

This, of course, from a secretary of state who kicked NPR off his plane because he didn't like how an interview went.

Finally, in our sports lead, that's NASCAR driver Ryan Newman walking out of the hospital just days after a horrific crash on Monday during the final lap of the Daytona 500. His wife tweeted -- quote -- "Best sight ever," as he left with his two daughters in hand.

We agree.

Follow me on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter @JakeTapper. Or tweet the show @THELEADCNN.

Our coverage on CNN continues right now. Thanks so much for watching.

See you tomorrow.