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THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER

Alabama Senate Race Heats Up; President Trump Defends Roger Stone Commutation; Florida Outbreak; Reopening Schools. Aired 4:30-5p ET

Aired July 13, 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]

DR. RICHARD BESSER, FORMER ACTING DIRECTOR, CENTERS FOR DISEASE CONTROL AND PREVENTION: The upside of this pandemic, Jake, is that most children who get this will do fine, not all, but most will do fine.

But that's not true for staff. That's not true for teachers. And so you need to make sure that schools are safe, not just for children, but for everyone who's working there.

And children go home. And they go home to grandparents. They go home to other people who may have underlying conditions. And so you want to make sure that children aren't bringing something home.

And the other piece of this, Jake, is that we fund schools in America in a way that is actually cruel. We fund them based on property taxes. So, it means that wealthy communities may be able to make the changes, so that schools are safe for their kids. Lower-income communities are not going to be able to do so.

So, the same disparities we have seen play out in terms of who's dying from this pandemic, with more black and Latino and Native American kids getting -- adults getting hit hard, you're going to see it play out in schools and what schools can open and which ones can't.

JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: And President Trump has said that the CDC guidelines for schools are too tough and too expensive.

The president has pressured the CDC to change the guidelines. If you were CDC director right now, and you had the situation that we have, which is case numbers are going up in 35, 36 states -- I think they're only going down in three -- what would you tell the president? What should he be doing? And do you think that the CDC guidelines are too tough?

BESSER: Well, I would say that the CDC guidelines are expensive.

And the reason they're expensive is that you actually have to make physical changes to the school to make it safer. You have to hire additional staff to be able to do the kinds of cleaning that's necessary. You have to hire staff to be able to screen all the children who come into the school and screen staff and screen teachers.

You have to be putting in place these systems if you want them truly to be safe. But you never change the science in a guideline. The science says what should be done to protect people's health. And if they're expensive, that means that federal funding has to come down to ensure that every school in every community has what they need to keep children, staff and teachers safe.

And I'm worried that schools are not ready in most places to be able to do that.

TAPPER: Well, what does it say about a society that we're willing to give hundreds of billions of dollars to huge corporations in order to try to keep the economy alive, but this money that you're saying schools need in order to safely reopen, we are not giving?

BESSER: It's not just schools, Jake.

The supports to families, the protection from eviction, the protection from mortgage foreclosures, all of those supports are going away. And so you're going to be seeing lower-income communities hit harder. You're going to be seeing workers having to go back to work to pay the bills, to avoid eviction, at a time when disease is ramping up in so many communities.

We need the federal government to step up and make sure that everyone has what they need to be protected here. These things cost a lot, but so does losing a loved one. And that needs to be foremost in people's minds.

TAPPER: All right, Dr. Richard Besser, thank you so much. Appreciate it.

We're finally getting a look at the staggering number of people hospitalized in Florida, after the Republican governor's attempts to keep those numbers under wraps have unraveled.

That's next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:37:56]

TAPPER: An American tragedy, that's what Democratic Florida Congresswoman Donna Shalala, the former health secretary in the Clinton administration, said after her state reported more than 15,000 new infections just on Sunday, more than any other state on record.

CNN's Randi Kaye is live for us in Palm Beach County.

And, Randi, nearly a quarter of all of Florida's coronavirus cases are from Miami-Dade County. What are the hospitals there seeing?

RANDI KAYE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: We're now seeing, Jake, more than 8,000 people hospitalized around the state of Florida, 8,072 at last check. And they really are beginning to get overwhelmed. If you look at the numbers in the last two weeks just for Miami-Dade, the hardest-hit county, hospitalizations there, Jake, are up 65 percent, patient ICU beds are up 67 percent, and ventilator use is up 129 percent.

The mayor of Miami, speaking just a short time ago, saying that the hospitals are at 91 to 92 percent capacity. He's very concerned about that. He hopes to improve that, maybe get that up even about 50 percent, if he can, in the next couple of weeks.

But he said that staffing is actually the biggest issue, Jake, not the beds, as you said, one-quarter of all new cases coming out of Miami- Dade. They are seeing a positivity rate in that county of greater than 26 percent.

So it's very concerning to see what's happening in Miami-Dade -- Jake.

TAPPER: More evidence that this is not just a result of more testing. It is actually spreading, and it is getting at crisis levels in some parts of the country.

Thank you, Randi Kaye. Appreciate it.

Longtime Trump friend Roger Stone speaking out after President Trump commuted his sentence. And he's already promising to do anything to get Mr. Trump reelected, with one exception, he claims.

We will explain. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:43:48]

TAPPER: President Trump this afternoon praising his own decision to commute the sentence of one of his most loyal and infamous supporters, Roger Stone.

Stone told Axios -- quote -- "I will do anything necessary to elect my candidate, short of breaking the law" -- unquote.

Democrats and even a few Republicans are accusing Mr. Trump of grossly abusing his power by issuing a commutation for someone accused of covering up for the president himself, as CNN's Jessica Schneider now reports.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I'm getting rave reviews for what I did for Roger Stone.

JESSICA SCHNEIDER, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): President Trump's first comments on his commutation for Roger Stone at the same time Stone is speaking out, reflecting on the deal that spared the 67- year-old more than three years in prison.

ROGER STONE, FORMER TRUMP CAMPAIGN ADVISER: I believed the whole matter was in God's hands, and that God would provide. And he did.

SCHNEIDER: Stone saying he promised President Trump nothing in return.

QUESTION: Did you tell him that you were going to work for him?

STONE: I did not.

SCHNEIDER: But Stone says he is set to write a book debunking any Russian collusion during the 2016 campaign, telling Axios: "I will do anything necessary to elect my candidate, short of breaking the law."

[16:45:00]

Stone was convicted last November on seven counts, including witness tampering, obstructing Congress, and lying to Congress about his communication with Trump campaign officials about the WikiLeaks release of DNC e-mails, which prosecutors say Stone hid in an attempt to protect Trump.

The man who led the prosecution team, special counsel Robert Mueller, writing a rare rebuke over the weekend, saying in a "Washington Post" op-ed: "Stone was prosecuted and convicted because he committed federal crimes. He remains a convicted felon, and rightly so."

So far, only two Republicans have renounced the president's move, Utah Senator Mitt Romney calling it unprecedented historic corruption, and Pennsylvania Senator Pat Toomey writing in a statement that commuting Roger Stones sentence is a mistake.

The president punched back over the weekend, calling Romney and Toomey RINOs, Republicans in name only. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is promising the House will pass legislation that prevents a president from offering clemency to anyone convicted of a crime connected to a president's behavior.

REP. NANCY PELOSI (D-CA): It's staggering corruption. But I think it's important for people also to know that it's a threat to our national security.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SCHNEIDER: And Speaker Pelosi did not answer when she was asked if Trump's grant of clemency was, in fact, an impeachable offense.

And in the meantime, the Justice Department just releasing the exact details of the president's executive order of clemency, the president not only erasing Roger Stone's month-sentence, but the president also getting rid of all the terms of his home confinement, also his two- year supervised release that was supposed to happen.

And, Jake, the president also erasing completely the $20,000 fine that Stone was supposed to pay.

TAPPER: All right, Jessica Schneider, thank you so much. Joining us now to discuss is Preet Bharara, the former U.S. attorney

in the Southern District of New York, who was fired by President Trump.

Preet, thanks so much for joining us.

You heard President Trump there defending the commutation, saying that it wasn't a fair trial. Presidents do have, constitutionally, tremendous latitude in their authority on matters of pardons and commutation.

You think this is different, though?

PREET BHARARA, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: Well, yes, they certainly have that power. It's maybe the most unfettered power that a president has in the Constitution. It's not reviewable by a court. There's nothing Congress can do about it.

I don't even know if that piece of legislation that Nancy Pelosi is suggesting would, in fact, be constitutional, even if you could get it passed. And there had been bad pardons before.

Out of the Southern District of New York, Marc Rich was pardoned. And that was a notorious pardon by Bill Clinton. And he also pardoned his half-brother. So there have been bad pardons before and excesses, I think, in what rational people would say would be the useful value of a pardon.

This stands apart even from all of those, I think, because not only is it someone who has an association with the president. It's someone who committed the crime in order to benefit the president, as the judge in that case said.

And in any ordinary case, you would think that would be a tremendous and deep conflict of interests. It just so happens to be the case that our constitutional -- our Constitution provides for an unfettered right to pardon. Lawful doesn't mean it's right, doesn't mean it's not an abuse of power.

TAPPER: I have heard people say that it's not unlike when George H.W. Bush pardoned Caspar Weinberger and others that had been caught up in the Iran-Contra scandal because there are those who thought, including the prosecutor, Ken (sic) Walsh, that George H.W. Bush at the time was protecting himself or could have been interpreted that way.

BHARARA: Yes. Like -- as I said, there had been not good pardons before.

I think the degree to which President Trump is trying to undo the work of the special counsel, and the degree to which this was specifically in aid of Donald Trump and liability, potentially criminally or otherwise, for Donald Trump, takes it a step beyond.

But, by the way, those pardons shouldn't -- the fact that other people engaged in bad pardons or questionable pardons does not mean that what this president does should be celebrated. TAPPER: Were you surprised that the former special counsel Robert

Mueller came out so forcefully and publicly writing this op-ed, saying that Stone's conviction still stands, and rightly so?

BHARARA: I was.

Bob Mueller is a very quiet person, is not a public person, never was an FBI director, certainly wasn't as special counsel. And over the course of that investigation, time after time after time, you saw the president engaging in attacks on Mueller himself and members of his staff. And Mueller always kept quiet.

So it's kind of interesting to me that he would put this out. In part, he must be feeling some amount of anger or irritation -- he's a human being, now withstanding how quiet he is -- seeing the work of the special counsel's office case by case being undone, first Michael Flynn, then Roger Stone.

And so I guess he thought it was a wise thing to defend the work of his office. I think there's a risk there, because it makes him more open to not being able to reject an invitation from Lindsey Graham to come testify in front of the Senate, which is something, I predict, he does not want to do.

[16:50:03]

Here's what the White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany had to say about all this, this morning. Take a listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

KAYLEIGH MCENANY, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: What did Robert Mueller have to do to justify his investigation and waste of taxpayer dollars and waste of America's time? He had to come up with process crimes, which is exactly what was done in the case of Roger Stone.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: Just to be clear, process crimes in this case were lying to Congress, obstruction of justice. Do you consider these process crimes? You're a former U.S. attorney. Is that how you see it?

BHARARA: We didn't refer to crimes as being process crimes or other kinds of crimes. Crimes are crimes. And these are very serious matters and very serious violations of criminal law.

They go to the core of what the criminal justice system is and the integrity of the criminal justice system and law enforcement. If you didn't have crimes like this, you wouldn't be able to in good faith investigate anything.

If you gave carte blanche to people to be able to obstruct Congress, obstruct justice, lie to federal investigators, then that would be lawlessness on an unparalleled scale. You need these crimes on the books to prevent the perversion of justice. And he perverted justice here. And, by the way, there are other people who were swept up in the

special counsel's investigation as well. Paul Manafort was convicted of, among other things, bank fraud. So, even using their terms, which they use to try to make something sound innocuous, when it's not, doesn't really carry the day when it comes to other defendants as well.

TAPPER: All right, Preet Bharara, thank you so much. Really appreciate it.

And, as President Trump rewards Roger Stone, he is at war with his own former Attorney General Jeff Sessions. And Sessions is firing back, to a degree.

Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:56:16]

TAPPER: In our 2020 lead: President Trump has called former Senator Jeff Sessions disgraceful, weak, an idiot.

But Trump's fired former attorney general hopes that he will be able to shrug off these years of presidential insults to win back his old Senate seat in Alabama. First, of course, he will have to beat former Auburn football coach Tommy Tuberville in a run-off for the Republican primary, where Sessions is the underdog right now.

And, as CNN's Jeff Zeleny reports, President Trump has not been shy about doing everything he can to further humiliate Jefferson Beauregard Sessions.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Jeff Sessions has never lost a political race.

JEFF SESSIONS, FORMER U.S. ATTORNEY GENERAL: What I'm saying to the people of Alabama is, I can represent you best.

ZELENY: Yet, in the fight to get his old job back as senator from Alabama, he's the clear underdog.

A Republican primary against former Auburn football coach Tommy Tuberville would be hard enough.

TOMMY TUBERVILLE (R), ALABAMA SENATORIAL CANDIDATE: Jeff Sessions quit on the president and he failed Alabama.

ZELENY: But it's made even harder when the real enemy is President Trump.

TRUMP: Jeff Sessions was a disaster as attorney general.

ZELENY: The president still carries a grudge against Sessions for recusing himself from the Russia probe. He's been obsessively tweeting about the Senate race, including this weekend missive, with the president fuming: "We don't want him back in Washington."

The Alabama Senate race is all about Trump.

SESSIONS: And I will keep fighting for President Trump and his agenda.

TUBERVILLE: God sent us Donald Trump because God knew we were in trouble.

ZELENY: In deep red Alabama, loyalty to Trump is paramount.

SESSIONS: Donald, welcome to my hometown.

ZELENY: And Sessions reminds voters that, five years ago, he was one of the only U.S. senators to take seriously Trump's White House bid.

But through more than a million dollars in TV ads, Tuberville is blasting Sessions for being exiled from the administration and, in a bit of towel-snapping locker room talk, for being weak.

TUBERVILLE: You're either strong or you're not. And Jeff Sessions, he's not. He wasn't man enough to stand with President Trump when things got tough.

ZELENY: Sessions has returned fire.

SESSIONS: And, as far as Tommy Tuberville, where was he when President Trump needed him? What did he do for Trump?

ZELENY: The Republican run-off will test Trump's ability to influence a race or show whether old loyalties hold more value.

SESSIONS: Donald Trump is not on the ballot this time. Tommy Tuberville is. The choice is between Jeff Sessions and Tommy Tuberville.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ZELENY: Now, a short time ago in Alabama, Senator Sessions says the people of Alabama will decide this race, not Washington.

Of course, the voters will have their say tomorrow. He encouraged people to come to the polls. He said wear masks and vote safely. But, Jake, Republican leaders and officials we talk to in the state believes that -- believe that Tuberville has the upper hand here.

But it does depend on President Trump, what strength he has to carry him over the finish line. It's a test, no doubt, of his standing -- Jake.

TAPPER: All right. Jeff Zeleny, thank you so much.

As the United States marks more than 135,000 lives lost to coronavirus, we want to make sure to take some time to remember the victims.

For instance, Richard Rose, he was 37 years old. He served nine years in the U.S. Army. He did two tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. Rose died at his home in Port Clinton, Ohio, earlier this month. Those who knew him described him as kind and funny and caring.

Regrettably, in April, Rose posted on Facebook -- quote -- "Let's make this clear, I'm not buying a mask. I have made it this far by not buying into that damn hype" -- unquote.

Rose's family says he tested positive COVID-19 on July 1 and died just three days later. His family said he had no known preexisting health conditions.

May his memory be a blessing.

Our coverage on CNN continues right now. Thanks for watching. I will see you tomorrow.

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