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STATE OF THE UNION

Interview With U.S. Secretary of Veterans Affairs Robert Wilkie; Interview With Vice Presidential Candidate Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA). Aired 9-10a ET

Aired September 6, 2020 - 09:00   ET

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


[09:00:30]

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

DANA BASH, CNN HOST (voice-over): Race to the finish.

With just over eight weeks until Election Day, both sides are stepping up their campaign stops.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We are going to win four more years in the White House.

JOSEPH BIDEN (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: We can do better. We have to do better.

BASH: As vice presidential candidate Senator Kamala Harris prepares to hit the trail, she joins me for an exclusive interview next.

And supporting the troops? The president strongly denies a report he called fallen American heroes losers and suckers.

TRUMP: I have done more for the military than almost anybody else.

BASH: But do his many public comments about veterans back that up?

Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie is here.

Plus: falling behind? Americans celebrate the unofficial end to a very long summer, but with a new projection saying COVID-19 deaths could double by year's end, will the fall be even more difficult?

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BASH: Hello. I'm Dana Bash in for Jake Tapper in Washington, where the state of our union is bracing ourselves.

It is Labor Day weekend, the unofficial start to the final stretch of the presidential campaign. And it's 2020, so we are heading into a period that will almost certainly be like no other, as both President Trump and Democratic nominee Joe Biden try to navigate multiple crises facing the nation, the coronavirus pandemic, which has killed more than 188,000 Americans already and which experts are warning may only get worse this fall. A critical new model says the virus could kill up to 400,000 people in

the U.S. by the end of the year. The fight for racial justice with protests across the country over videos showing the deaths of black men at the hands of police. And the economy, which is improving, but still faces an unemployment rate of 8.4 percent.

With eight weeks to go, I sat down with the Democratic nominee for vice president, Senator Kamala Harris. We talked in an exclusive interview.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BASH: Senator Harris, thank you so much for sitting down and welcoming us to your alma mater...

SEN. KAMALA HARRIS (D-CA), VICE PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Yes.

BASH: ... to Howard University.

HARRIS: The mecca.

BASH: And we're going to talk about that later.

But, first, I want to talk about what's going on right now in the news...

HARRIS: Yes, of course.

BASH: ... especially coronavirus.

HARRIS: Yes.

BASH: If you win, your administration is going to inherit a really dire situation.

A key model is projecting deaths could reach 3,000 a day by December, in part because of declining vigilance of the public.

So, as you know, President Trump has promised a coronavirus vaccine by the end of the year or maybe sooner. Would you trust that vaccine?

HARRIS: I think that we have learned since this pandemic started, but really before that, that there's very little that we can trust that can comes out of Donald Trump's mouth.

From the beginning of this pandemic, he has called it a hoax. He has muzzled the public health experts. He has minimized the seriousness of it. He has created false expectations for the American people and American families, even though, if he had listened to the scientists and the experts, he would have understood the gravity of it and the power that he, as president of the United States, has to actually save lives.

And none of those were his priorities. His priority was to do whatever he thought was politically expedient. And so, no, I would not trust his word. I would trust the word of public health experts and scientists, but not Donald Trump.

BASH: But do you trust that, in the situation where we're in now, that the public health experts and the scientists will get the last word on the efficacy of a vaccine?

HARRIS: If past is prologue, that they will not, that will be muzzled, they will be suppressed, they will be sidelined, because he's looking at an election coming up in less than 60 days, and he's grasping for whatever he can get to pretend that he has been a leader on this issue, when he has not.

BASH: So, let's just say there is a vaccine that is approved and even distributed before the election. Would you get it?

HARRIS: Well, I think that's going to be an issue for all of us.

I will say that I would not trust Donald Trump. And it would have to be a credible source of information that talks about the efficacy and the reliability of whatever he's talking about.

I will not take his word for it. He wants us to inject bleach. I -- no, I will not take his word.

BASH: Dr. Fauci said a vaccine wouldn't be approved unless the American people had, really, assurances that it was safe and that he feels that it was safe, and that, if that happens, he would take it.

[09:05:11]

Do you feel more comfortable hearing someone like Dr. Fauci say that?

HARRIS: No, I think Dr. Fauci has proven, for anyone who's been watching him for years and years, to put the public health of the American people as the highest priority in terms of his work and his reputation and his priority.

Yes, I trust Dr. Fauci.

BASH: So, let's look down the road.

At some point, hopefully, there will be a credible and a safe vaccine for coronavirus.

HARRIS: Yes. Yes.

BASH: If and when that happens, should all 50 states require students to get that vaccine before entering public school?

HARRIS: Well, first, Dana, I would say that there is a huge distinction between creation of a vaccine and then peer-reviewed, and to the point that it is actually viable. Big difference between vaccine and vaccinations.

BASH: Absolutely.

HARRIS: And one of the issues that I think is very critical on this plain about whether people are actually vaccinated is whether there's a national plan.

Joe Biden and I have a plan, a national plan. Donald Trump does not. And so, when we start braking down different populations, there has to be an overall plan that thinks about those who -- and will administer vaccines to those who have been hardest hit, who are most vulnerable and most in need.

And that's the kind of approach we need to have.

BASH: When you get to the point of vaccinations, would that plan include requirement for public schools to take the coronavirus vaccine?

HARRIS: I will listen to the public health experts and hear what they have to say.

BASH: Early on, the former Vice President Joe Biden appeared to support a federal mask mandate. And now he says he would put a lot of pressure on governors, on mayors, on local officials for them to issue the mandate.

So, can you clear this up? What exactly is the Biden/Harris stance on this? Would a Biden/Harris administration support a federal mask mandate?

HARRIS: So, the Biden/Harris position on this is that leaders must lead.

And one of the ways leaders lead is, they set standards. And so what Joe has been very clear about in his personal behavior, much less in what he is admonishing and requesting of the American people, is that we all make the sacrifice to wear a mask, in the interest of love of our neighbor, in the interest of defeating or at least reducing the health risks and the number of deaths in America.

So, it's about a national standard. Everyone should wear a mask. And here's the thing about this. None of us likes wearing a mask. Nobody likes to wear a mask.

BASH: Right, but there's a difference between a standard...

HARRIS: But it's about sacrifice.

BASH: Right. There's a difference between a standard and a mandate.

Would it be a federal mandate under the Biden/Harris administration?

HARRIS: It would be a standard.

No, listen, this is not about -- in terms of the priorities of Joe Biden and myself, this is not about punishment. It's not about Big Brother. It is simply about saying what a leader -- what a leader says in times of crisis.

And this is -- you look at World War II. You look at the Great Depression, where leaders said, we each have to sacrifice for the sake of the nation and the collective. And that's what this is about.

BASH: Right. And I get that.

But how do you enforce a standard, especially when, as you know, there are governors who are in -- who just don't agree with that, and they're not mandating it on the more local level? How do you enforce that?

HARRIS: But I think that part of the issue here is that we have a president of the United States who made this a partisan issue and made it a political issue. And he had governors who fell in line with him on his politics.

BASH: And you don't think it will still be a partisan issue if you win?

HARRIS: I hope not. I pray not, because this -- the COVID, the virus, could care less who you voted for in the last election or who you plan to vote for in the next election.

And we need leadership that appreciates that, on certain issues, they should not be partisan. And wearing a mask certainly shouldn't be one of them.

BASH: I want to turn to Kenosha.

HARRIS: OK.

BASH: You believe that the officer who shot Jacob Blake should be charged.

You were the district attorney in San Francisco. I'm wondering if you put yourself in the position of DA and how you would feel if you got pressure from the Democratic running mate to be the vice president of the United States to put criminal charges in, without necessarily knowing the facts that the DA knows?

HARRIS: You're absolutely right.

And that's why I have been very clear. I'm not in full possession of the facts of the case. But, based on what I have seen, I think that charges very much should be considered and should be considered in a very serious way, and that there should be accountability and consequence.

But I think the bigger point here is also that we have to agree that we can't have a system that does not require accountability and consequence for everyone who breaks the rules or breaks the law. And that includes police officers.

[09:10:05]

But I -- everyone is entitled to due process, everyone, including police officers. And I encourage that. I support that. I think our democracy and our system of justice requires that. BASH: The way I took what you said, I think it was last week, was

much more -- was much more forward-leaning, that they should be charged.

HARRIS: No, I think he -- I think that, based on what I saw...

BASH: That he should be charged.

HARRIS: I think, based on what I saw, he should be charged. But I am not in full possession of the facts and the evidence.

BASH: OK.

HARRIS: And I'm clearly not the prosecutor in the case.

And the prosecutor in the case must make a decision based on all of the evidence and all of the laws that include giving everyone, and in particular those who might be charged, due process in the process.

BASH: I'm sure you have been following the story in Rochester, New York...

HARRIS: Yes.

BASH: ... who had another incident.

Seven officers were suspended after the death of another black man, Daniel Prude.

So, should those officers be charged, based on what you know?

HARRIS: I'm going to give the benefit of the doubt to the prosecutors who are involved in that case.

And, in particular, I know that the attorney general of California -- of -- excuse me -- the attorney general of New York is reviewing the case, and I expect that they will review all of the evidence and make the appropriate decision.

BASH: Because this is where you come from, law enforcement.

HARRIS: Yes. Yes.

BASH: And top cop is where you come from.

HARRIS: Yes.

BASH: I want to ask you about something that you wrote in a 2009 book...

HARRIS: OK.

BASH: ... which is, "If we take a show of hands of those who would like to see more police officers on the streets, my would shoot up."

And then, in June of this year, you said to "The New York Times": "It is status quo thinking to believe that putting more police on the streets creates more safety. That's wrong."

So, my question for you now, in retrospect, looking at your time as DA and as attorney general of California through the lens of 2020, did you help contribute to what you describe as a status quo thinking that more police equals more safety?

HARRIS: I am very clear that we have got to, in America, reimagine how we are accomplishing public safety.

And what I believe now and what I believed then remains true and consistent, which is, if you look at the communities that have no or very little police presence, as compared to those who have a high degree of police presence, you will see stark differences.

And one of them is this. If you go into any upper-class suburb in America, you will not see police presence, but what you will see are well-funded public schools, high rates of homeownership, small businesses that have access to capital. You will see families who have jobs where they don't have to worry about getting to the end of the month and feeding their children.

And so, if we want to create safe communities, one of the smartest ways we can do that is invest in the health of those communities, because healthy communities are safe communities.

BASH: Would your hand still shoot up if somebody asks if you would want more -- more police officers on your streets?

HARRIS: What I would say now is what I would say then, which is, I want to make sure that, if a woman is raped, a child is molested or one human being murders another human being, that there will be a police officer that responds to that case and that there will be accountability and consequence for the offender, yes.

BASH: Attorney General William Barr said on CNN that he does not believe there are two justice systems in the United States for black and white Americans.

He added: "I think we have to be a little careful about throwing the idea of racism around. And I don't think it's as common as people suggest."

What do you think?

HARRIS: I think that Donald Trump and Bill Barr are spending full- time in a different reality.

The reality of America today is what we have seen over generations and, frankly, since our inception, which is, we do have two systems of justice in America.

But here is the thing that gives me a sense of optimism and a sense of belief in who we are as a nation. We also have an ideal that is inscribed in marble on the Supreme Court that we all hold dear, which is that ideal of equal justice under law. And so, while we have two systems of justice, we also fight for equal

justice under law. And that means doing what Joe Biden and I are proposing, which is having a criminal justice system that, yes, bans choke holds and carotid holds, make sure that we're going to require accountability for police officers who break the rules and break the law, that we are going to invest in communities and the economic strength of those communities, but doing it all recognizing that there are huge disparities in our country based on race.

And it does us no good if we want to solve those disparities to pretend they don't exist.

BASH: And that exists in police forces across the country?

HARRIS: There's no question that we have seen an unacceptable incidence for generations of unarmed black men being killed. Nobody can deny that.

[09:15:05]

You look at the numbers and proportion it to the population, a black man is exponentially more likely to be stopped without probable cause, arrested. You can look at, for example, marijuana offenses, equal use between white population and black population, but black people are exponentially more likely to be arrested and prosecuted for those offenses.

So, I don't think that most reasonable people who are paying attention to the facts would dispute that there are racial disparities and a racial -- a system that has engaged in -- in racism.

BASH: I want to ask about Russia.

HARRIS: Yes.

BASH: The Department of Homeland Security bulletin said that Russia is trying to amplify claims that mail-in voting will lead to widespread voting fraud and undermine the public's trust in the upcoming election.

Are you worried that Russian interference could cost you the election?

HARRIS: I am clear that Russia interfered in the election of president of the United States in 2016.

I serve on the Senate Intelligence Committee. We have published detailed reports about exactly what we believe happened. And I do believe that there will be foreign interference in the 2020 election, and that Russia will be at the front of the line.

BASH: Could it cost you the White House?

HARRIS: Theoretically, of course, yes.

BASH: And that's based on what you're hearing publicly, or -- you mentioned you're on the Senate Intelligence Committee. HARRIS: I mean, I -- listen, let me just tell you something. I -- we have to be a realist. And I'm a realist about it. Joe is a realist about it.

We have classic voter suppression at play in this election coming up, where, after the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act with Shelby v. Holder in 2013, dozens of states passed laws that were designed to suppress the black vote, to suppress students from voting, to suppress our indigenous people from support -- from voting, so much so that, in North Carolina, a court of appeals said it was -- the law was passed with surgical precision to get in the way of black voters from voting.

So, we have classic voter suppression. We have what happened in 2016, which is foreign interference. We have a president who is trying to convince the American people not to believe in the integrity of our election system and compromise their belief that their vote might actually count.

These things are all at play. And I am very realistic. Joe is realistic about the fact that, until we can win and get in and put some teeth back in the Voting Rights Act, and bring back the public's confidence in the system, that there will be many obstacles that people are intentionally placing in front of Americans' ability to vote.

But we will surpass and surmount and get around those obstacles.

BASH: President Trump, Vice President Pence, they have been campaigning more and more on the issue of fracking, which is a process of oil and gas drilling.

They think that this is going to help them win votes in key states like Pennsylvania. Joe Biden has said -- quote -- "I am not banning fracking."

During your primary campaign, you said that you supported a ban. Are you comfortable with Joe Biden's position?

HARRIS: Yes, because Joe is saying, listen, one, those are good- paying jobs in places like Pennsylvania, and, two, that we need to also invest and put a significant investment in the good-paying union jobs that we can create around clean energy, around renewable energy.

And that is the kind of approach we need to have, but always understanding that it's a false choice to suggest that we either take care of jobs or we take care of our environment. We can do both, and we should do both.

BASH: On the economy...

HARRIS: Yes.

BASH: ... we have new jobs numbers out at the end of the week show that unemployment is at 8.4, and -- not great, but about where President Obama had it in 2012. And so my question is, are you worried, despite the fact that it's,

again, not great, that things are coming back to the point where Donald Trump could have more meat on the bone for his economic argument that it's coming back?

HARRIS: Listen, I want the American people to be able to work. I want that we have jobs that are filled by the hardworking people who want to work and want to have the dignity that comes with good work.

But there is no question that Donald Trump has been an abject failure and incompetent when it comes to addressing the severe job loss that has happened as a result of the pandemic, because he has failed to address the pandemic itself.

And when we look at this path, hopefully, at some point to recovery, his perspective cannot be our perspective, because his perspective for too long is to talk about how well the economy is doing based on how rich people are doing.

[09:20:02]

We need to talk about how the economy is doing based on how working people are doing. And, right now, working people are suffering. People are standing or sitting in their cars in food lines for hours.

Dana, we have -- I saw a number that one in five mothers in America is describing her children under the age of 12 as being hungry. That's America today.

And we need leadership that cares about that, instead of looking in a mirror, and then -- and professing greatness, when, in fact, there is abject despair.

BASH: Republican operatives have been helping Kanye West get on the ballot in several states, including Minnesota and Colorado.

It's being seen as an effort to win over potential Biden voters and help Donald Trump in the states where he's on the ballot or he's getting there. Are you concerned that these efforts are going to be successful?

HARRIS: Listen, Joe and I are going to work hard to earn every vote.

BASH: Kanye West doesn't scare you?

HARRIS: What is the biggest challenge and the biggest goal is to earn the vote of everyone.

And that's going to be about telling folks about how we will build back better. It's about telling folks that we're going to put science and public health concerns ahead of politics. It's about saying we're going to grow our economy and invest in the jobs of the future and in the American worker and the American family.

And that's how we're going to earn those votes.

BASH: Thank you, Senator.

HARRIS: You're welcome.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BASH: We talked to Senator Harris at her alma mater, Howard University.

We walked through campus, talked about her experience at that historically black college, how it shaped her. That is coming up.

And, later: President Trump is denying reports he called America's fallen service members losers.

The secretary of Veterans Affairs joins me on that later.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[09:26:37]

BASH: Welcome back to STATE OF THE UNION. I'm Dana Bash.

On a normal Labor Day weekend, a school like Howard University here in Washington, D.C., would be teeming with people settling into new routines. But for millions of American students this fall, learning is all virtual.

I visited Howard with one of its more prominent graduates, vice presidential candidate Kamala Harris, where we got personal, talking about her experience at that historically black university.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

HARRIS: OK, so here's my sorority tree.

BASH: I know. I know. I saw that.

HARRIS: That's my sorority, 1908.

And we would -- OK, so let me just tell you, on Friday -- so, you know the whole thing about dress-down Friday?

BASH: Yes.

HARRIS: No.

At Howard, this was called the Yard, and we would dress up on Fridays...

BASH: Uh-huh.

HARRIS: ... and then just promenade all -- everybody would promenade, hang out on the grass. All the Greek organizations would, like, step around their trees. So there's the Kappas.

BASH: Oh, yes. All of them are here. We're sitting here. You're giving me a tour, and it's empty.

HARRIS: I know. I thought about that, because school's supposed to start this week. Yes, I know.

BASH: Yes, and there's -- because they're not coming back.

HARRIS: I know.

BASH: It's all virtual.

HARRIS: It's so -- I was thinking the same thing, like, oh, my God, that I would be coming back to do this interview here, and if all the students were here.

But it's really -- it's a very special place.

BASH: You have fond memories, obviously, of Howard.

HARRIS: Oh, very fond memories.

BASH: How did this place shape you?

HARRIS: Oh, in profound ways.

Look, we were in Toni Morrison's, where she wrote in that room that we were in. Thurgood walked this campus. I mean, it's just the long legacy.

And it shaped so much of who I am. I -- my first office that I ever ran for, first office, was freshman class representative of the Liberal Arts Student Council.

BASH: And you won, of course.

HARRIS: I won. Uh-huh.

(LAUGHTER)

BASH: Yes.

HARRIS: And...

BASH: And, when you were running then, did you just think, oh, I want to be a leader on campus, or did you have in the back of your mind, truly...

(CROSSTALK)

HARRIS: I never had it in my mind that I would run for public office.

It was -- I mean, it was an exciting time. Reagan was in office. We would go up to the Mall and protest apartheid. And Howard has a long history and legacy of real student activism.

BASH: So, I have a quote here from your book, where you talk about Howard, the beauty of Howard. "Every signal told students that we could be anything, that we were young, gifted and black, and we shouldn't let anything get in the way of our success."

HARRIS: Yes. That's true. It's true.

BASH: So, what did that mean for you, particularly as a black woman?

HARRIS: It meant that you could do anything, and you didn't have to be confined by anyone else's idea of what it means to be black.

You could be a fine arts student and also be class president. You could be homecoming queen and be the head of the science club. You could be a member of a sorority and be in student government and want to go to law school. And it encouraged you to be your full self.

BASH: What did AKA mean to you, and what did it do for you, and AKA being...

(CROSSTALK)

HARRIS: It's a sisterhood. It's a sisterhood.

(CROSSTALK)

BASH: Yes. It had 1908 on the tree there. That was when it was founded.

HARRIS: Yes, 1908. We're the oldest black sorority.

And this is true for all the black sororities and fraternities, I mean, Kappa Alpha Psi, Delta Sigma Theta. I mean, you could go around -- Omega Psi Phi -- all of these sororities and fraternities known as the Divine Nine were founded on the principle of scholarship and service.

And so it was about what you do for the community, what you do with this education that you have that is about serving and giving back.

BASH: Your family.

HARRIS: Yes.

BASH: So, we're here on a college campus. We're not calling her a stepdaughter.

[09:30:02]

What do you call her?

HARRIS: My daughter.

BASH: Your daughter. OK.

HARRIS: Ella.

BASH: Your daughter Ella is in college. The fact that we're in an empty campus, you're -- you're dealing with that in your real life...

HARRIS: Yes, we are.

BASH: ... how college kids...

HARRIS: And she's a senior, and all of...

BASH: And so what is she doing?

HARRIS: ... her classes are online.

But she wanted to go back to school. So, she is in her apartment with her roommates. And they're learning online and kind of trying to figure it out.

You know, your heart breaks. You want your kids to be able to -- especially at that phase of life, to explore, and to not be cooped up in an apartment looking at a screen, right?

BASH: I can relate.

HARRIS: And they certainly don't want to do that.

BASH: I think it's really fascinating that you are -- I know you don't call yourself a stepmom. Your call yourself -- or they call you Mamala.

HARRIS: Uh-huh.

BASH: But, still, you came into their lives at a -- like, midstream, at a really critical time.

HARRIS: Yes. Yes. They were teenagers.

BASH: That must have been very hard.

HARRIS: You know what? I am a child of...

BASH: I know you gelled, but it was hard.

HARRIS: I am a child of divorced parents. My parents -- I was 5 when my parents separated.

One of the keys to my relationship with Cole and Ella is their mom.

BASH: You guys are good friends.

HARRIS: We are friends. We have a very modern family. I mean, there was...

BASH: And that kind of happened naturally?

HARRIS: It happened naturally. And so the thing about blended families, if everyone approaches with a

way -- in the way that there is plenty of love to share, then it works.

Early, in the beginning, I'd come home. I mean, it's still that I -- as soon as I get home, I put on my sweats, and I go into the kitchen, and I start cooking. Right?

And so, at one point, when we first got together, I said to Doug, I don't think the kids know what I do.

(LAUGHTER)

BASH: Did they?

HARRIS: I don't know if they fully appreciated it, because, literally, I'd go in the kitchen. They would come in. We would talk about school, their dating life, whatever, and -- because that's who I was at home.

BASH: Well, they certainly know now.

HARRIS: And now they do know.

(LAUGHTER)

BASH: And, on that, I got to ask about your husband, Doug.

HARRIS: Yes.

BASH: He, if you win, will be the first second man.

HARRIS: I know.

(LAUGHTER)

BASH: How does he feel about that?

HARRIS: Doug is just -- he is -- he has the best sense of humor. He is so incredibly supportive.

BASH: It takes a certain kind of man...

HARRIS: Yes, very special.

BASH: ... to feel comfortable in the shadow of a woman.

HARRIS: It's very -- but I don't -- he and I, we don't think of it as shadow, right? We are partners.

BASH: Well, in terms of the public eye. I get that, but in terms of the public eye.

HARRIS: In the public eye. And, also -- but we're also challenging, right -- each one of us, as we move forward, we're challenging notions of gender and who does what and what that looks like. Right? BASH: And he's obviously comfortable with that.

HARRIS: Yes, he's so comfortable in his skin, yes. No, and that matters.

BASH: What would your mom say about where you are right now?

HARRIS: I think she'd be really, extremely proud, and she would say, beat Trump.

(LAUGHTER)

HARRIS: My mother was a scientist.

She had two goals in her life, to raise her two daughters and end breast cancer. She was one of -- all five feet of her, one of the strongest, most loving and toughest people you have ever met. And she raised us to live a life of service.

And she would look at the suffering right now, she would look at the denial of science right now, and it would piss her off. Excuse my language.

BASH: Do you think she would be surprised that her daughter was the first woman of color on a ticket?

HARRIS: I don't think -- I don't think she would. I think she would be immensely proud.

But she always encouraged us to go for it. She encouraged me to never listen to no, except if she said it, you know?

(LAUGHTER)

HARRIS: Yes.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BASH: And up next: President Trump denies calling service members killed in action losers, but he's standing by his attacks on prisoner of war, a very famous one, the late John McCain.

I will ask the president's secretary of Veterans Affairs to respond next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[09:38:16]

BASH: Welcome back to STATE OF THE UNION. I'm Dana Bash.

The White House responded with unusual force this week, denying a report in "The Atlantic" that President Trump called the service members who died during World War I -- quote -- "losers and suckers."

And now a former senior administration official confirms to CNN the president did use crude and derogatory terms to refer to Marines buried in a French cemetery.

Joining me now, the secretary of Veterans Affairs, Robert Wilkie.

Mr. Secretary, thank you so much for joining me this morning.

ROBERT WILKIE, U.S. SECRETARY OF VETERANS AFFAIRS: Thank you. Thank you, Dana.

BASH: So, as you know, as I referred to, just referred to, "The Atlantic" broke a story this week saying that the president...

WILKIE: Yes.

BASH: ... privately called Americans who died in war losers and suckers. And, on a 2018 trip to Paris, that is where it allegedly happened.

CNN has confirmed the president referred to fallen U.S. service members as crude and derogatory. Have you ever heard the president disparage U.S. service members or veterans?

WILKIE: Well, absolutely not.

And I would be offended, too, if I thought it was true. Again, I think anonymous are the same people that brought you fake heart attacks, fake strokes, Russian collusion.

So, I am -- I am very proud that this president has led to a renaissance at Veterans Affairs. And one of the reasons I'm glad to be on CNN is that it was CNN and Jake Tapper that blew the lid off the scandals in the last administration when it came to Veterans Affairs.

And your own polls, in 2014 and 2015, had a 37 percent approval rating for the Obama/Biden administration. We are at 90 percent approval in terms of veterans for our services.

[09:40:05]

BASH: So, Mr. Secretary...

WILKIE: We have completely turned around Veterans Affairs.

BASH: And, Mr. Secretary, we're going to talk about that in a minute, but I just want to stay on this topic.

First of all, what you just alluded to...

WILKIE: Yes.

BASH: ... strokes and so forth, I have not reported that. To my knowledge, nobody at CNN has reported that.

But, on the topic of the "Atlantic" reporting, the Associated Press...

WILKIE: Yes.

BASH: ... "The Washington Post," FOX News, and now CNN have corroborated parts of that story.

So, my question for you is, given that, and given the fact that nobody is backing down from the sourcing on that, how can you be sure that that is not true, especially since you weren't there?

WILKIE: Well, nobody is backing down from these anonymous sourcing on it.

And some of these sources that you cite are general officers.

I was born in khaki diapers. I have spent my entire life around the military. And I have never known any general officers to hide behind stars.

So, what I am looking at is the Donald Trump that I know, the Donald Trump who has turned around Veterans Affairs from a place that, in the Obama administration, was 16 out of 17 in terms of best places to work. We're now under -- up to six.

BASH: OK. We're going to...

WILKIE: I presented the two largest -- I know, but you have got to put it in perspective. And that's what I want to do.

BASH: But we're going to talk about that. I understand. No, I understand. But we're going to talk about that.

But I really want to stay on topic, because this is dominating the news, in large part because the president is trying to be so aggressive in pushing back.

The issue that he has is that this is consistent with a pattern of public statements by the president.

I want you to listen to what then candidate Trump said about John McCain in 2015.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TRUMP: He lost. So I never liked him as much after that, because I don't like losers.

(CROSSTALK)

TRUMP: But, Frank, Frank, let me get to it.

FRANK LUNTZ, REPUBLICAN POLLSTER: He's a war hero. He's a war hero.

TRUMP: He hit me. He is not a war hero.

LUNTZ: He's a war hero. Five-and-a-half years as a POW.

TRUMP: He's a war hero -- he's a war because he was captured. I like people that weren't captured, OK, I hate to tell you.

(END VIDEO CLIP) BASH: Listening to that, the way he disparaged, not just John McCain, but all prisoners of war, do you understand why people might find the details of these stories we're hearing now believable?

WILKIE: Well, I understand that, in the passion of a campaign, with two powerful personalities -- and I'm a friend -- I was a friend with John McCain.

His family and my father -- my mother's family grew up in the same county in Mississippi. He was very much responsible for my career and advancing it. And President Trump has been the same.

I -- I understand politics. I understand name-calling when it comes from both sides. But all I can say is, all -- the proof in the pudding for us is what has happened to veterans in the last three years, a renaissance...

BASH: But, Mr. Secretary, this isn't about politics.

This is about -- he denigrated not just John McCain, but he said, "I like people who weren't captured." He denigrated prisoners of war.

As somebody who just described yourself as you were born wearing khaki -- or when you were little, you were wearing khaki diapers...

WILKIE: Sure.

BASH: ... and somebody who was close to the McCain family, is that acceptable?

WILKIE: Well, it's -- it's politics. It's the heat of a campaign.

BASH: Do you wish he didn't say it?

WILKIE: I judge a man by his -- I judge a man by his actions.

And the actions have been beneficial for veterans all across this country in ways that we have not seen since the end of World War II. And I would also say the same for the United States military.

I was the undersecretary of defense. I -- for personnel and readiness. I watched this president sign letters of condolences to those who have fallen in Afghanistan and Iraq. I was on the front lines then.

So, I'm judging the president by what he's done as president. And I can also say that I find -- I find those...

(CROSSTALK)

BASH: OK. And I want to -- I want to move on.

But I take it you do think John McCain was a war hero?

WILKIE: Oh, absolutely.

BASH: OK. I want to also ask about the president also reportedly questioning the point of military service at all during a visit to Arlington National Cemetery with former Chief of Staff and retired Four-Star General John Kelly, whose son, of course, is buried there.

I want you to listen to what President Trump said about John Kelly just on Friday.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TRUMP: I know John Kelly. He was with me, didn't do a good job, had no temperament, and, ultimately, he was petered out.

He got -- he was exhausted. This man was totally exhausted. He wasn't even able to function in the last number of months. He got eaten up in this world.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BASH: I know you worked with John Kelly when he was at the White House, chief of staff, and elsewhere.

WILKIE: Certainly.

BASH: Do you agree? Do you agree with the president?

WILKIE: Well -- well, I agree that both men are doing the best that they can for the armed forces and veterans of the United States. I'm not going to get into a he said/she said with the president and the former chief of staff.

[09:45:00]

BASH: He said he didn't do a good job.

WILKIE: All I can say is, as the head -- all I can say is, at the head of Veterans Affairs, I'm concerned about making sure that we redress all the wrongs that were left over from four years ago in giving veterans the best service possible.

I see the proof in the pudding. And the proof in the pudding is, our military is stronger, and our Veterans Affairs Department is in a place that it has never been. This is the renaissance. And it's all because of one man.

BASH: Well, you say that, but I have to ask you about the VA in particular and something that President Trump has consistently done, which is misleading the public about his record for veterans.

He claimed credit more than 150 times -- 150 times -- for the Veterans Choice Act. That was signed into law by President Obama. Listen to President Trump.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TRUMP: We passed Veterans Choice and Veterans Accountability for our great vets. Nobody's done for the vets what I have.

We also passed VA Accountability and VA Choice.

Look at how the VA's doing. It's doing incredibly well. We got all sorts of things done, from Accountability to Veterans Choice.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BASH: Now, this is an important law that allows some veterans to get health care from outside the VA system.

Now, I know President Trump expanded it in 2018. But why does he insist on repeating that he's responsible for passing it, when it was President Obama?

WILKIE: Well, you just -- you just answered your own question by saying that this Trump initiative, which is the MISSION Act, actually expands Choice to all veterans.

The Obama -- the Obama initiative was designed to fail. It only gave few veterans choice. It had an expiration date. And it didn't pay their bills.

I have spent the last two years trying to pay the bills left over from the Obama administration. And, for the first time -- and the president is absolutely -- and the president is absolutely right on this -- all veterans have choice. It's permanent.

BASH: Right. But -- but he said, we passed the Veterans...

WILKIE: The Obama administration was temporary.

BASH: ... the Veterans Choice and Veterans Accountability Act.

That literally was signed by President Obama.

Do you wish you would...

WILKIE: Well, you -- that's right.

But you are talking about semantics. You are talking about semantics, as opposed to substance. We have given permanent choice. That's what the president is saying.

The Obama -- the Obama administration...

BASH: But shouldn't semantics matter when you're talking about the president trying to explain what his record is for veterans that obviously mean a lot to you?

WILKIE: Well, I think the -- I will tell you, you have been up on Capitol Hill a lot.

Choice is much easier to understand than the MISSION Act, which was the title that the Congress put on the president's program, because it's an acronym that has six or seven different words in it. But what we are talking about is permanent choice, not what the Obama

administration, Obama/Biden, foisted on the country, which was choice for a few veterans that expired in a few years.

And it was designed to fail, because the government unions didn't want it, and the president went along with it. And we were left paying the bills. But what this administration has done for the first time is that it has given veterans full choice. And that is revolutionary.

BASH: Secretary Wilkie, thank you so much for joining me this morning. I appreciate it.

WILKIE: Thank you.

BASH: And up next, a look at some of the moments that defined President Trump's first term, and what to expect if he's re-elected to another four years. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[09:50:00]

BASH: Will President Trump's four years in the White House help or hurt his chances to keep his job? Jake Tapper examines in a CNN special report, "Fight For the White House: Donald Trump's Presidency." Take a look.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

TAPPER (voice over): President Donald J. Trump, the unconventional, unpredictable businessman, was no different in his first term...

PRESIDENT DONALD J. TRUMP: I'm proud of the extraordinary progress over the last four incredible years.

(APPLAUSE)

TAPPER: ... shattering norms...

(UNKNOWN): It is completely disruptive and different than anything you've ever seen before.

TAPPER: ... breaking boundaries...

(UNKNOWN): He would turn on them in a really aggressive way, in a way that I've never seen or heard of presidents doing before.

TAPPER: ... and demolishing expectations of behavior for a president of the United States.

(on camera): Does working for President Trump ultimately mean you have to agree with him all the time if you want to keep your job?

(voice over): ... a president who seems to thrive in division.

(UNKNOWN): Donald Trump! (UNKNOWN): He's a racist!

(UNKNOWN): Donald Trump!

(UNKNOWN): He's a racist!

TAPPER: Whether those who hate him...

(UNKNOWN): Not my president!

TAPPER: ... or celebrate him.

(APPLAUSE)

A look now at the moments that defined President Donald J. Trump's first term.

The issues he vowed to tackle.

TRUMP: Build that wall.

Repeal and replace Obamacare.

These massive tax cuts will be rocket fuel for the American economy.

For those miners, get ready because you're going to be working your asses off, all right?

(APPLAUSE)

TAPPER: The crises he has faced.

TRUMP: We will defeat the virus and emerge stronger than ever before.

TAPPER: Hear from the people who were there...

KELLYANNE CONWAY, COUNSELOR TO THE PRESIDENT (?): I was in the early meetings in the Oval Office.

TAPPER: ... in the rooms where it happened.

(on camera): Why does he seem to like Putin?

(voice over): This is a CNN special report, "Fight For the White House: Donald Trump's Presidency."

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BASH: And "Fight For the White House: Donald Trump's Presidency," airs Monday night at 10 p.m. Eastern, following "Fight For the White House: Joe Biden's Long Journey," at 8 p.m.

Thanks for watching. Fareed Zakaria is next.

[09:55:00]

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)