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THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER

Contentious Debate Sets Stage for Caucuses in Less Than 48 Hours; Members of Nevada's Largest Union Express Fear Over Sanders' "Medicare for All" Proposal. Aired 4:30-5p ET

Aired February 20, 2020 - 16:30   ET

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


(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. ELIZABETH WARREN (D-MA), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I'd like to talk about who we're running against, a billionaire who calls women fat broads and horse-faced lesbians. And no, I'm not talking about Donald Trump. I'm talking about Mayor Bloomberg.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

[16:30:02]

JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: Now, Bloomberg denies saying those things that were from a "Wit and Wisdom" book, a joke book from 30 years ago. Although some people say maybe he did say them.

In any case, I do wonder, do you think that ultimately the debate benefited Bernie Sanders? Because there was so much attention on Bloomberg and not any -- really, not much attention on the front- runner, Bernie Sanders.

PAUL BEGALA, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Astonishing. You're 72 hours before the Nevada caucuses, you're in Nevada, there's a front-runner standing next to you for Nevada and you're attacking somebody else.

TAPPER: Somebody who's not even on the ballot in Nevada.

BEGALA: Not even on the Nevada ballot. You'll never see a debate like this, where there's a clear frontrunner. Bernie might run away with it in Nevada. He certainly got a lead there, I think. I talked to people out there.

And yet, no one slowed his roll. I've never seen anything like that. I know they hate Mike Bloomberg, whatever, Bloomberg had a terrible debate, and Warren was terrific. Maybe this will get her some traction, but it was a bank shot. When you had -- Bernie skated on his pledge to release comprehensive medical records.

He skated standing in the shadow, of the spot where 68 people were slaughtered with assault weapon. He opposed the assault weapon ban. He wasn't hardly called on that at all. It's amazing, Bernie Sanders ought to be very happy today.

TAPPER: And, Mary Katharine, take a listen to Bloomberg today and his take on the debate. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MIKE BLOOMBERG (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Look, the real winner the debate last night was Donald Trump, because I worry that we may be on the way to nominating somebody that cannot win in November. And if we choose a candidate who appeals to a small base like Senator Sanders, it will be a fatal error.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: What do you think?

MARY KATHARINE HAM, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATATOR: I think he's right on the merits. Oh, this debate was so many things.

(LAUGHTER)

HAM: Democrats -- Democrats saw POTUS take "The Beast" around Daytona and they were like, how do we compete? "Wednesday night raw, that's what we do.

(LAUGHTER)

HAM: Klobuchar off the top ropes, Warren with several folding chairs, and then Bloomberg who was basically just getting pummeled for the first time comes in with the surprise arm bar on the socialist to make him list his ever loving houses --

TAPPER: Yes.

HAM: -- it was magnificent. And it may mark the degradation of the republic that I enjoyed that much and that's why I'm here for, but this "Real Housewives" dinner party was what I was here for.

TAPPER: And, Jackie, Buttigieg's campaign is out with the new memo today saying Bloomberg had the worst debate performance in the history of presidential debate.

JACKIE KUCINICH, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: The president said the same thing.

TAPPER: Not only did Bloomberg show that he cannot defeat Bernie Sanders, he showed he isn't capable of defeating Donald Trump.

KUCINICH: It's fun. But I -- so Buttigieg was the only one other than Bloomberg to try to take a shot at Bernie Sanders.

And -- but when it comes to Warren, I just wanted to say, the reason she didn't go after Bernie Sanders, there's no money in that. There's no fund-raising in going after Bernie Sanders if you're Elizabeth Warren. There certainly is with Michael Bloomberg.

And we saw that last night and she's reaping the fruits of it. She even got a super PAC that she didn't want after the fact.

TAPPER: Well, you know, what's interesting because I want to -- I'm glad you brought that up because Elizabeth Warren has been really talking about how evil super PACs are, she doesn't have a super PAC. It's all this unregulated money and all this stuff. But today, she basically said, super PACs are OK -- I don't have the exact quote. But it was -- she actually implied that was something almost sexist about it because the male candidates all have super PACs or access to billionaires, while she and Amy Klobuchar do not.

So, she's flip-flopped on super PACs.

TOLUSE OLORUNNIPA, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Yes, the purity test that were so in vogue at the beginning of this process are starting to fall by the wayside, as some of these candidates realize that they're running out time. If they don't show up in the next couple of races, they're going to have to drop out of this race. And whether it means having a super PAC, whether it means moving and modulating on some of their policy positions, they're doing whatever they can to stay in this race.

And when you have Michael Bloomberg coming in with hundreds of millions of dollars, it makes him a big target, and it's part of the reason that they spent so much time focusing on him and not the frontrunner Bernie Sanders, the person who is in the poll position to at least go into the convention with a lead in delegates if not the outright majority.

TAPPER: Do you know who is upset about this flip-flop by Elizabeth Warren? Democrats who ran for president, did not have super PACs because they were afraid of Elizabeth Warren's purity test, failing it, and then ultimately had to drop out. How do you think a Kamala Harris, or Cory Booker --

BEGALA: Yes.

TAPPER: -- or Tim Ryan or Seth Moulton, whatever, how are they taking the news today?

BEGALA: Yes, that's a really good point. I suppose Senator Warren is thinking, sometimes in politics, you have to rise above principle. And that's what she's doing.

Look, I -- she's terrific. I don't have a candidate in this race, but if anything, she seemed to stand for reform. And I used to help run a super PAC. I advised one. I'm not -- I don't think they're per se immoral at all.

TAPPER: Is it Priorities USA?

BEGALA: Priorities USA Action. I've no longer -- I haven't been with them for a couple of years. But they're -- they're not per se evil in my view. But I'm not Senator Warren telling everybody else that you have to meet my standard of purity.

I doubt actually it's going to hurt her very much. I think she'll plow ahead. I just thought her debate performance last night was so impressive that I think, you're right, Jackie, she'll probably raise some money off of that. [16:35:00]

But I don't know if it's going to be enough to claim back --

KUCINICH: It could be a sugar high.

BEGALA: -- the liberal lane from Bernie who has a commanding lead. Nobody among the moderates has sort of lead among moderate voters that Bernie has among liberal voters.

TAPPER: Elizabeth Warren used to have that lead.

BEGALA: Yes, she did.

TAPPER: And then it changed last fall.

Everyone, stick around. We've got more to talk about.

Coming up, it's not just Democratic members expressing concerns about Bernie Sanders. Members of one very powerful group are raising questions ahead of Saturday's caucuses.

Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

TAPPER: And we're back with our 2020 lead.

And while Senator Bernie Sanders seems to have emerged from last night's debate relatively unscathed, it's a battle with Nevada's largest union that could hurt his chances in weekend's caucuses.

[16:40:03]

As CNN's Kyung Lah reports from Las Vegas, even a promise on last night's stage may not be enough to calm fears about what Sanders' Medicare-for-All proposal might mean for union members who have generous health insurance plans.

(BEGIN

KYUNG LAH, CNN SENIOR NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Just hours to the Nevada caucuses --

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Who's got the power?

LAH: The 60,000-member Culinary Union, including casino worker Alicia Sosa --

ALICIA SOSA, UNION MEMBER: I'm fighting for my health care.

LAH: -- is fighting on the picket line to unionize more workers at another casino.

SOSA: My husband has asthma. We fought for that, because we couldn't afford it. Now I can, and he can. And he can be with me longer. We should be able to have that. Our choice. It's our choice.

LAH: She's talking about her union health care. In one building, she gets doctor's visits, prescriptions and eye care, all covered. The Culinary Union warned its members a vote for Bernie Sanders and his Medicare-for-All plan would mean an end to union health care.

GWYN BROTHERNS, UNION MEMBER: I'm not sure about the Medicare-for- All, if that's a good idea or not. You know, it sounds good. It always sounds good. But I'm not sure.

LAH: The union battles spilled onto the debate stage.

PETE BUTTIGIEG (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: You're the one who is at war with the Culinary Union right here in Las Vegas.

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS (I-VT), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: We got more union support than you have dreamed of.

LAH: Sanders when addressed the union members.

SANDERS: To my good friends in the Culinary Workers Union, a great union, I will never sign a bill that will reduce the health care benefits they have.

LAH: On the picket line, the courting of the union vote was in full swing, one by one, every top candidate on the Nevada ballot, except for Sanders, marched with workers.

But while Medicare-for-All is not a deal breaker for every union member --

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We're not going to leave him out yet.

LAH (on camera): You're not going to leave him. You're open to him?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes, yes, for sure.

LAH (voice-over): It is weighing on Suzanne Poquiz. She met Amy Klobuchar at the culinary health care center.

(on camera): Do you believe Bernie Sanders when he says Medicare-for- All will replace this and take care of everybody?

SUZANNE POQUIZ, UNION MEMBER: No. I really don't believe that. I'm scared, because if he ends up, where are we going to go?

(END VIDEOTAPE)

LAH: Now, while the union made clear what they think about Sanders' health care plan, they specifically did not endorse a candidate.

And here's something else to know about this union, it is powerful. It is also majority Latino. Bernie Sanders has made significant efforts for the Latino vote here in Nevada. The question will be, Jake, is if this issue with the union will blunt his campaign's efforts -- Jake. TAPPER: All right. Kyung Lah in Las Vegas, Nevada -- thank you so much.

Obviously, the Nevada caucuses coming up on Saturday. Fresh off that last night's heated Democratic debate, presidential hopefuls, former Vice President Joe Biden and Senator Elizabeth Warren will join CNN for a live town hall this evening. It starts at 8:00 p.m. Eastern, tonight only on CNN.

Coming up, it's the one quality President Trump seems to value above all else, loyalty to him. We'll ask a former director of national intelligence how much that will help or hurt Trump's new acting intelligence chief.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:47:30]

TAPPER: President Trump has long been accused of priding loyalty to him above all other qualities, way above experience, way above independence.

His critics, such as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, today are arguing that the appointment of Richard Grenell to be the acting director of national intelligence is just the latest case in point.

Grenell, the current U.S. ambassador to Germany, is hardly known for his intelligence expertise. He is primarily known and beloved by conservatives for his outspoken defense and advocacy of the president and his policies.

As CNN's Alex Marquardt reports, Grenell also has a long history of rhetorical knife-fighting as a fierce, even vicious partisan.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ALEX MARQUARDT, CNN SENIOR NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT (voice- over): The director of national intelligence is a job that, by definition, demands experience, requires objective presentation of intelligence, and a non political approach.

In Ric Grenell, the president has chosen the direct opposite.

JAMES CLAPPER, FORMER U.S. NATIONAL INTELLIGENCE DIRECTOR: I found the position of director of national intelligence very tough. And so I can't imagine the challenge that somebody has in that position learning the ABCs of intelligence on the job.

MARQUARDT: Critics, like Democratic Senator Ron Wyden on the Senate Intelligence Committee, blasting the choice today as proof that President Trump "values unquestioning obedience over the safety of the American people."

That sentiment echoed by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi today, who said Grenell's "sole qualification is his absolute loyalty to the president." Senior Republicans, though, are silent over making Grenell the acting director, which, by law, is someone who "shall have extensive national security expertise."

Grenell has no intelligence or military experience. He's the current ambassador to Germany, a loyal attack dog for President Trump, who has a history of vulgar, sexist, now deleted tweets about women, including former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and former first lady Michelle Obama, saying: "Michelle Obama is working out on 'The Biggest Loser.' She is sweating on the East Room's carpet."

RICHARD GRENELL, U.S. AMBASSADOR TO GERMANY: There are times where what was intended to be humorous turned out to be not so humorous.

MARQUARDT: While many Trump allies want to see the president tweet less, Grenell supports it.

GRENELL: It makes my job so much easier. I like having a president who's willing to be very tough.

MARQUARDT: Grenell replaces acting Director Joseph Maguire, a retired admiral and former Navy SEAL, who has been leading the intelligence community's 17 different organizations since last August.

Maguire had stayed under the president's radar, rarely speaking in public, but he did voice his support for the whistle-blower who sparked the investigation that led to the impeachment of President Trump.

[16:50:11]

JOSEPH MAGUIRE, ACTING DIRECTOR OF NATIONAL INTELLIGENCE: I want to stress that I believe that the whistle-blower and the inspector general have acted in good faith throughout.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

MARQUARDT: So Jake, this now means that yet another player in this Ukraine investigation, Joseph Maguire, is being pushed out.

The news coming the same day that a top Pentagon official, John Rood, who was also involved, was asked to resign, truth-tellers and non- loyalists clearly not valued by the Trump administration.

Meanwhile, Ric Grenell tweeted today that this is a temporary appointment and that the president will nominate someone else to be director of national intelligence soon -- Jake.

TAPPER: All right, Alex Marquardt, thanks so much.

Joining me now to discuss is retired Four-Star Admiral Dennis Blair. He served as the director of national intelligence under President Obama.

Admiral, thanks so much for being here. We appreciate it.

DENNIS BLAIR, FORMER U.S. DIRECTOR OF NATIONAL INTELLIGENCE: Good to be here, Jake.

TAPPER: What are the most important qualifications for this job? And this position was created after 9/11, right?

BLAIR: Right. Right.

TAPPER: So what do you need to do to be able to do it well?

BLAIR: The fundamental skill and mission of the director national intelligence is to integrate these 17 different agencies, each with matchless skills.

But the real challenge of intelligence is putting them together to steal the secrets of people and countries that are against us, and feed them to policy-makers and troops in the field who are trying to do their job and make sure they do it better.

TAPPER: Is it important to have a lot of experience or expertise even in intelligence?

BLAIR: Yes. Yes, it is.

I mean, like, all complicated big organizations, the person at the top ought to have some experience of what's going on down below in order to be able to make it better. We all try to leave it better than we found it. And you have to know something about it, rather than spend all your time in school when you're on the job.

TAPPER: So, Ric Grenell, he's the ambassador to Germany. He attended Harvard's Kennedy School. He worked at the U.N., served as the top American diplomat to Germany for some years.

Based on what you know about his expertise, is that enough to do this job?

BLAIR: It kind of depends whether he's a good manager, a good thinker, listens to his people, all of that stuff. And I don't know the gentleman, so I don't know.

But if you look at temporary appointment, but he's the fourth director of national intelligence we have had within the last year.

TAPPER: Yes.

BLAIR: And now we're heading into an election and all.

The place will be basically treading water for a while, no matter how good he is. And certainly without experience, even if he is good as a manager, he's got to take time to learn the issues.

And so it's -- it would be much better to get somebody who has experience in your organization, can move things as they need to do to give us better intelligence for the country.

TAPPER: It's hard to not look at this in terms of how President Trump picks people. BLAIR: Right.

TAPPER: He wants loyalty to him, not necessarily somebody -- not necessarily best person for the job. He wants somebody that he can trust 100 percent.

And I don't think it's any secret that Joseph Maguire, who's on his way out the door, by saying that the whistle-blower in the Ukraine scandal acted with integrity, and backing that up, and also ultimately getting the whistle-blower report to Congress, as he was required by law to do, that it's easy to see how that person could have run afoul, Joseph Maguire, of President Trump.

BLAIR: Right. Yes.

I mean, I know Joe Maguire, fine person. I think he can pass the big test, which I think most of us in -- served in uniform has, which, is can we look in the mirror when we're shaving the next morning and feel proud of what we see? And I think Joe can do that. And good for him.

But I think there is one thing that's important to note, is the national intelligence enterprise is a huge, over $60 billion worth of people, hundreds of thousands of people. And what they do with the president is only a tiny fraction of what they actually accomplish, which is providing intelligence to the troops in the field, to diplomats, to policemen, to the Department of Homeland Security.

So what we read about of this interaction with the president, the president's daily briefing, all of this stuff, is really just a tiny fraction. And 99 percent of the intelligence professionals are working with people who value intelligence, who want it to be good, who will tell the intelligence people if they get it wrong, work together to make it better, because that makes for better policy, better actions, fewer Americans killed and hurt and wounded.

So, don't be distracted by this sort of little froth at the top. It's what's going on with this huge organization, a big part of our national security apparatus, that is important.

TAPPER: Yes.

Well, we all certainly hope that Ric Grenell figures it out pretty quick.

Admiral, thanks so much for here. I really appreciate it.

BLAIR: OK.

TAPPER: Acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney taking a shot at his own party for something he's actually kind of in charge of.

That's next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:59:19] TAPPER: In our money lead, it is the morbidly obese, ever-expanding elephant in the room, one that even Mick Mulvaney cannot stand.

In a speech in the U.K. yesterday, the acting White House chief of staff, Mulvaney, said -- quote -- "My party is very interested in deficits when there's a Democrat in the White House. The worst thing in the whole world is deficits when Barack Obama was the president. Then Donald Trump became president, and we're a lot less interested as a party" -- unquote.

The deficit is expected to hit $1 trillion this year, again, something Mulvaney called -- quote -- "extraordinarily disturbing."

Experts say the deficit is increasing in part because of the president's tax cuts and a budget deal that boosted federal spending.

If only Mulvaney knew somebody powerful who might be able to work on solving the problem.

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