Return to Transcripts main page


Rivals Turn Up Heat On Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) Ahead Of Critical Debate Tonight; Trump Says, Coronavirus Very Well Under Control In U.S.; Trump Says, Sotomayor, Ginsburg Should Be Recused From Cases Involving Him. Aired 1-1:30p ET

Aired February 25, 2020 - 13:00   ET




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

Underway right now, a critical debate night during critical week, and rivals are turning up the heat on Bernie Sanders.

A key Republican senator warns the Trump administration that if they low-ball the coronavirus outbreak, they'll pay for it. But is the president doing just that to help himself politically?

Plus, after a liberal Supreme Court justice her conservative colleagues are putting their thumb on the scale to benefit the Trump administration, the president says, she and Ruth Bader Ginsburg should recuse themselves from cases involving him.

And President Trump admits the purge is real, as he describes who is looking bounce from his administration.

But, first, the stage is set and the battle lines are drawn. Tonight's critical debate, it's frontrunner Bernie Sanders against everyone else, and this comes only days before the South Carolina primary on Saturday and one week before Super Tuesday. Sanders is still fending off criticism over his remarks about former Cuban leader Fidel Castro's literacy program.

After Sanders defended himself at last night's town hall, Pete Buttigieg took the opportunity to pounce.


SEN. BERNIE SANDERS (I-VT), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: You know what, I can keep teaching people to read and write is a good thing. The truth is the truth. And that's what happened in the first years of the Castro regime.

PETE BUTTIGIEG (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: As a Democrat, I don't want to be explaining why our nominee is encouraging people to look on the bright side of the Castro regime when we're going into the election of our lives. (END VIDEO CLIP)

KEILAR: Our Jessica Dean is in Charleston, South Carolina, which is the site of tonight's Democratic debate. And, Jessica, tell us what is on the line for these candidates.

JESSICA DEAN, CNN WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: Well, Brianna, you laid it out right there. Look, it's Bernie Sanders right now with so much momentum coming out of Nevada with that blowout win, and what he is looking to do here is really lay on the critical blow and then move into Super Tuesday and really amass an incredible amount of delegates where no one can catch up to him.

Well, of course, all the other candidates want to stop that momentum, and they want to stop that from happening. So then enter tonight's debate, where they will all be there on the stage. You can certainly anticipate that we're going to be hearing a lot of criticism and attacks directed toward Bernie Sanders, the undisputed frontrunner at this point.

We didn't hear as much of that in the last week's debate. So this will probably be a little bit of a different dynamic. So, for Bernie Sanders, how does he stand up to those attacks? Is he able to continue to make his points that he wants to make to people?

So the other candidates, someone like Joe Biden, that he's really counted on South Carolina as his firewall, the Biden campaign really wants this to be a win that then boomerangs them into Super Tuesday to perform really well across a number of states. Can Joe Biden deliver a line of attack that is effective against Bernie Sanders?

And then you also have Michael Bloomberg on the stage. We've heard from him. You heard Pete Buttigieg. A lot of these other candidates have been going after Bernie Sanders in the last couple of days over a host of issues from his comments on Cuba, also how he's going to pay for all of his plans. But you also have Elizabeth Warren on the stage, who has telegraphed that she's going to be going after Michael Bloomberg, as she did last week in Nevada.

So, Brianna, there's going to be a lot of dynamics at play. We know we had some reporting from my colleague, Dan Merica, about Michael Bloomberg's campaign. His adviser kind of summing it up and saying, look, at the of the day, this debate tonight is the last time they believe that they can really attack Bernie Sanders' ideas, his records, before everybody heads into Super Tuesday. So for anybody not named Bernie Sanders, Brianna, that's what they are setting out to do tonight. For Bernie Sanders, he hopes to just keep pushing forward with his momentum.

KEILAR: All right. Jessica Dean, it is a critical night. Thank you for that preview of it.

I want to bring in Ari Rabin-Havt. He is the deputy campaign manager for Bernie Sanders. Welcome, Ari. Thank you for coming on.


KEILAR: So this is a big night and there are a number of issues that you know Democrats are going to be aiming Bernie Sanders' way. So let's talk first about his comments about Castro's literacy program, because this is worrying some Democrats, like Congresswoman Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, who said this last night on A.C. 360.


REP. DEBBIE MUCARSEL-POWELL (D-FL): Look, there is a saying here in South Florida by many Cubans, that they say Castro may have given us healthcare and education, but he didn't give us breakfast, lunch or dinner. So the reason why the Cuban people have not been able to rise up is because he has targeted any of its dissidents by jailing them and many times even murdering them. So that is why the Cuban people continue to be oppressed.



KEILAR: What do you say to that, Ari?

RABIN-HAVT: Look, Bernie Sanders' comments are really similar to something Barack Obama said, and I'm wondering if all these Democratic candidates are willing to go out and make the same critique of our former president, who was right when he made them, but also let me say this.

KEILAR: What comment are you talking about?

RABIN-HAVT: Sure, when Barack Obama was in Cuba, as we opened up relations, he talked about Cuba's education system and praised it.

But here's the main point, Brianna. When it comes to taking on authoritarians, and there is nobody, there is not a single candidate on that stage who has a better track record than Bernie Sanders, while Washington was praising MBS, Bernie Sanders was out there attacking his war in Yemen, attacking MBS, and only after the murder of Jamal Khashoggi did the rest of Washington realized what Bernie Sanders had been saying all along, that MBS is a murderous thug.

While other candidates on the stage are profiting from authoritarian regimes like China, Bernie Sanders has been calling out Xi of China as an authoritarian. And, by the way, Bernie Sanders --

KEILAR: I just want to focus, Ari, because MBS --

RABIN-HAVT: -- also called out Castro as an authoritarian.

KEILAR: Let's talk about Castro. Because he said in 1961 of his literacy campaign, and I do want to remain focused on this, when these illiterates have learned to read and write, they will realize what it means culturally, politically and materially for our nation. He's talking there about education solely for the sake of indoctrination. And that's a context that I think -- that's why many people are looking at what Bernie Sanders is saying, and they have problems with it. What do you say to that?

RABIN-HAVT: There is no candidate on that stage who has been harsher on authoritarians than Bernie Sanders, including Fidel Castro. And you have to ignore the first half of his statement where he criticized the authoritarian nature of that regime. You have to ignore the comments that have been made by other Democrats. You have to ignore a lot, and you have to ignore a better track record of going after authoritarianism around the world that Bernie Sanders has compared to every other candidate on that stage, Brianna.

KEILAR: But he praised the literacy program, right? He said, I think teaching people to read and write is a good thing. The truth is the truth and that's what happened during the beginning of the Castro regime.

RABIN-HAVT: Do you think teaching people to read and write is a bad thing?

KEILAR: I think if I asked you if the method for doing that was someone who closed Catholic schools to essentially force high school students out of the city and into rural areas, I would posit that question to you and what do you say.

RABIN-HAVT: Fidel Castro was an authoritarian. Bernie Sanders has said he was an authoritarianism. Bernie Sanders has opposed authoritarianism in his entire career. Bernie Sanders has spoken out more against authoritarianism than anybody on the entire stage. And what we're in is the spaghetti throwing portion of this contest. We think because the other candidates think they're going to try to throw every piece of spaghetti at the wall.

But here is the thing. With our working class campaign that unites across generations, across races, across ethnicities, it's not going to work.

KEILAR: But having criticized the authoritarian nature of the regime, how do you uncouple that from the literacy program that was carried out in an authoritarian manner?

RABIN-HAVT: Look, you have -- things are complicated. You can say something is authoritarianism and X. But you critique that authoritarianism. Does Bernie Sanders want people to live under dictatorship? No. Is Bernie Sanders willing to call out dictatorships and authoritarians when nobody else in Washington is? Absolutely. In fact, that is his track record. Unlike every other single candidate on that stage, Bernie Sanders has a track record of it. And that's what we're going to say.

KEILAR: I want to ask you about something he said during the town halls last night. He really dismissed the idea that he had considered seriously primarying President Obama in the 2012 election. Here is what he said.


SANDERS: In 2012, I was very busy running for re-election for the United States Senate from the State of Vermont. That's what I was focusing on. In fact, I ended up campaigning for Obama and I'm a strong supporter of all that Barack Obama has accomplished.


KEILAR: He said basically this was silly season that it's gotten to a discussion of this. But "The Atlantic," and I know that you take issue with some of this reporting, but it's extensive and it's well-sourced that Bernie Sanders had told the senior senator from Vermont, Patrick Leahy, that he was planning to primary Obama. And then Leahy told Jim Messina then, the campaign manager for Obama, who confirmed this to The Atlantic, same with David Plouffe, the top adviser.

So in that regard, it doesn't sound as half-baked as Sanders makes it sound where he is just outright dismissing this, even though at the time he said that he thought there should be a primary challenge to the president.


RABIN-HAVT: As Harry Reid said, it would be a fool to challenge Barack Obama and Bernie Sanders is no fool. The fact is Bernie Sanders never considered challenging Barack Obama. Bernie Sanders never considered running for president before 2015, and the fact is --

KEILAR: Then why did he tell Senator Leahy he did?

RABIN-HAVT: We dispute that. It's not true.

KEILAR: So you're saying he never had that conversation with Senator Leahy?

RABIN-HAVT: Absolutely.

KEILAR: Okay. Well, I certainly appreciate, Ari, having you on and hearing your side of this. Ari Rabin-Havt with the Bernie Sanders campaign, thank you so much for joining us from Charleston.

RABIN-HAVT: Thank you for having me, Brianna.

KEILAR: And good luck tonight. It is going to be a big one for Bernie Sanders and all of the candidates as well.

Meantime, the president is downplaying the threat of the coronavirus. So is he minimizing this outbreak to help himself politically?

Plus, he also admits there is a purge happening within his administration. Hear who is allies are hunting.

And in an extraordinary moment, President Trump says two liberal Supreme Court justices should recuse themselves. Hear why.


KEILAR: President Trump is claiming today that the coronavirus, which has killed some 2,700 people and sickened more than 80,000 others, is, quote, going to go away. The president seeking to calm economic fears as stock markets plunge touted the strengths of the market and downplayed the virus' impact on the U.S.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: You may ask about the coronavirus, which is very well under control in our country.


We have very few people with it, and the people that have it are -- in all cases, I have not heard anything other than the people are getting better. They're all getting better.


KEILAR: Okay. So despite this rosy assessment, CNN has learned that the president has privately expressed has frustration, pardon me, about his administration is confronting the coronavirus. This includes this decision to allow some Americans infected with the virus back into the U.S. The President reportedly telling those around him he wants to see people fired over this.

Susan Glasser is Staff Writer at "The New Yorker" and she is our CNN Global Affairs Analyst. She is here with me to talk about this.

And I wonder just what's your assessment of what the president is saying, what is the reality and what is the problem with even, you know, Republican Senator Shelby has basically said, you lowball this at your own peril?

SUSAN GLASSER, CNN GLOBAL AFFAIRS ANALYST: Well, as I was walking in here, right, there was an alert on my phone from The New York Times that says that the CDC is warning Americans that they should be prepared for an outbreak of the coronavirus.

So, you know, we're all, to some extent, in the dark. There was a briefing for senators today, which some senators came out expressing a serious degree of alarm. And, you know, the president, again, it's the same thing in general with his obsession with the stock market, it goes up, and you claim credit. What do you do when it goes down? And so there is a high risk to the political strategy of embracing that when you don't know what's going to happen.

A lot of people have pointed out, Brianna, that this is a situation where the president's enormous staff turnover, his refusal to support the conclusions of his experts and the U.S. government staff and the fact that there are so many acting officials here, it was the acting Homeland Security secretary who was up on Capitol Hill giving a briefing to the senators. We're talking about controversies involving the acting director of National Intelligence.

So the question is what's the capacity of the government to respond to this.

KEILAR: No, that's a very good point. I also want to ask you about something the president was asked about, which was if he believes the Intel Community's assess that Russia is meddling in the 2020 election. He wouldn't really give a straight answer on this. He was asked by CNN's Jim Acosta about this, if he pledge not to accept help from a foreign country and this was his answer.


TRUMP: Okay. First of all, I don't want help from any country. And I haven't been given help from any country.


KEILAR: That does not square with what he has said in the past, but he seems to be wanting to put that out there now.

GLASSER: Well, you know, it is a notable contrast when Senator Sanders was asked the other day about reports that Russia was also seeking to meddle in the election on his behalf. He came out with a very strong statement saying, you know, basically, I condemn Putin. I don't want anything to do with this. President Trump has never said that.

Obviously, it's factually challenging, the conclusions of the government's own intelligence agencies to suggest that Trump has never been given any help, when, in fact, the efforts were well-documented and extensive in 2016.

KEILAR: And this is actually something the president said. Well, you mentioned how Bernie Sanders addressed this. When asked about Russian interference, instead of answering, he turned to reports about Bernie Sanders being the focus of Russians. Here is what the president said.


TRUMP: Schiff leaked it, in my opinion. And he shouldn't be leaking things like that. That's a terrible thing to do. But, basically, they would like to see that Bernie as probably winning, and it looks like he's winning I and he's got a head of steam, and maybe they don't want him for obvious reasons. So they don't want him, so they put out a thing that Russia is backing him.


KEILAR: What do you make of that answer? And also it just strikes me the setting he's in as he's talking about these things and he's on this trip that's very important.

GLASSER: Well, that's right. Actually, he said something at the beginning. He said, I'm not going to make any news today. I flew two days here. I'm only here for two days. If I say something controversial, it will overshadow my trip. And then, of course, he proceeded to accuse the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee of leaking classified information.

So the president is obsessed with Adam Schiff. This has continued after his impeachment. It is a long running theme, as is a long running theme the president's attacks on his own Intelligence Community. So, in a sense, it represents continuity by Trump, and we've become inured to how significant that charge would be if it was launched by somebody who hadn't made it a thousand times or had more credibility to make it.

But, look, it's deflection. That's exactly the kind of deflection they want. Remember, in 2016, actually, the U.S. intelligence actually found that there had been intervention by the Russians in the primary season as well on Sanders' behalf, as well as on Trump's behalf.


So, again, this represents continuity.

Could you imagine, Brianna, that you and I would ever be sitting here talking about a U.S. presidential election in which both the Democratic and the Republican nominee would apparently be favored by Russia over any of their opponents? How extraordinary that is.

KEILAR: It really is.

Let's listen to what the president said, because there's been this talk of a more centralized White House purge going on, and this is how the president addressed that.


TRUMP: Yes, I don't think it's a big problem. I don't think it's very many people. I think we had a whistleblower who is a fake, because if you look at the whistleblower as an example, if you look at his report and then you compare that to the transcripts, it bore no relationship. So that was a very sad situation and a lot of time, a lot of time wasted.

We want to have people that are good for the country, are loyal to our country, because that was a disgraceful situation.


KEILAR: Obviously, this is a real thing, this purge, right? He's basically confirming that. What do you make of just this idea -- it's extraordinary, again, that this is going on, and that the president is talking about it.

GLASSER: Well, okay, first of all, just in the sort of quick fact- check level setting thing here, the whistleblower's original complaint was, in fact, quite notably accurate when the record of the phone call that the White House released and with subsequent testimony gathered in the House. And so rather than it being some sort of out there, disgraceful hoax, in fact, what was striking about the complaint was that it really bore up under the subsequent investigation when it came to the facts. So that's important to note.

When it comes to the purge, Donald Trump has been obsessed with the loyalty of those around him from the very beginning of his administration. He spoke of snakes within the administration, according to reporting before impeachment. What's different, I think, after impeachment is his willingness to act on a big scale, and in that regard, he reappointed to the White House a 29-year-old new personnel chief who had previously been fired and walked out of the White House by former Chief of Staff John Kelly. He brought him back in with a directive to essentially oversee a series of -- a loyalty test, There is no other word for it.

What's interesting about Trump is that he's turning on people who have been given political appointments in his own administration. It's not just the permanent bureaucracy. But, in fact, he is concerned that even those Republicans who have been appointed to jobs in his administration aren't sufficiently loyal to him.

KEILAR: Susan, thank you so much, Susan Glasser, we really appreciate your insights on this.

President Trump is once again taking aim at America's rule of law, this time, Supreme Court Justices Sotomayor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg. We'll talk about why, next.

Plus, as President Trump launches this purge of disloyal staffers inside his administration, how the wife of one Supreme Court justice is involved.



KEILAR: President Trump is renewing his attacks on Supreme Court Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg today. His jabs come after Justice Sotomayor sharply criticized the government for repeatedly asking the court for stays in cases related to Trump's policies but denying applications for non-Trump cases. She also questioned the court's conservative majority for being too eager to side with the White House in such requests, and here's what the president said today.


TRUMP: I just don't know how they cannot recuse themselves for anything having to do with Trump or Trump related.

Her statement was so inappropriate when you're a justice of the Supreme Court. And it's almost what she's trying to do is get the people who do feel a different way and get them to vote the way that she would like them to vote.


KEILAR: Irin Carmon is the author of the book, Notorious RBG. She is a Senior Correspondent for New York Magazine. Irin, thank you so much for joining us.

And I want to start first with Justice Sotomayor and what has happened here, and the president just criticizing her. But let's talk about this volume of requests that's she's complaining about clogging up the court. Just give us a sense of what's going on there. IRIN CARMON, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: I think the context here is really important, because Justice Sotomayor is using exactly the outlet that a Supreme Court justice is supposed to use. Her dissent, she's clearly in seven pages laying out the facts of what she sees here as objectively extraordinary, and what was a 5-4 decision to deny a stay in a so-called public charge regulation that the Trump administration asked the court to stop a lower court's decision on.

So for your context, Steve Vladeck, who is the Professor at the University of Texas Law School, recently published a study that shows that during the Obama and Bush administrations, so in 16 years, there were only eight extraordinary requests to block the lower court's sort of --