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Former Pence Staffer Denounces President Trump; Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-MI) is Interviewed About FBI Director Saying that White Supremacist Are the Largest Group of Racially Motivated Domestic Terrorists and Russia is Actively Working to Hurt Biden's Campaign.. Aired 4-4:30p ET

Aired September 17, 2020 - 16:00   ET



ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: And welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

And we begin with breaking news today.

The chorus of voices criticizing President Trump for his inadequate handling of the coronavirus pandemic just grew one voice louder, a stunning new rebuke of President Trump from a former official in his own White House.

Breaking right here on THE LEAD: She accused President Trump of failing to protect American people. Olivia Troye was the top homeland security adviser for Vice President Mike Pence, who heads the Coronavirus Task Force. She was on the task force from day one, she says.

But, now, Troye left the White House in late July, and she is leveling some tough charges against President Trump in a new video.


OLIVIA TROYE, FORMER U.S. HOMELAND SECURITY OFFICIAL: Towards the middle of February, we knew it wasn't a matter of if COVID would become a big pandemic here in the United States. It was a matter of when.

But the president didn't want to hear that, because his biggest concern was that we were in an election here, and how is this going to affect what he considered to be his record of success?

The truth is, he doesn't actually care about anyone else but himself.


TAPPER: Troye goes on to say that President Trump made a statement that she will never forget, because, in her view, it defines who President Trump is.


TROYE: When we were in a task force meeting, the president said: "Maybe this COVID thing is a good thing. I don't like shaking hands with people. I don't have to shake hands with these disgusting people."

Those disgusting people are the same people that he claims to care about.


TAPPER: Troye goes on to say that, if the president had taken this virus seriously, he would have saved lives.

A lifelong Republican, Troye says she's now endorsing Joe Biden.

We asked the White House for comment on this breaking news story. A senior White House official told me on background -- quote -- "I have known Olivia for two years. She was proud to work in this administration until things went sour, when she departed at the end. Despite her playing a largely administrative role on the task force, she and I talked near daily early in the virus, and she never once expressed any concern about the administration's handling and routinely claimed she 'just wanted to do right by the vice president and the president.'"

This is yet another example, the official says, of someone who had proximity to power, yet didn't use their voice to speak up at horrors they allegedly witnessed. The official says that the president would never say any such thing about the not wanting to shake hands with disgusting people.

Troye joins former Homeland Security official Miles Taylor, whose criticism of Trump and endorsement of Biden we broke here on THE LEAD several weeks ago. She also joins former White House Communications Director Anthony Scaramucci.

They're all part of a new group launching today. It's called the Republican Political Alliance for Integrity and Reform, also known as REPAIR. They bill themselves as more than two dozen conservatives, former and current government officials dedicated to ensuring the president from is not reelected in November.

Let's bring in our political panel to talk about this news.

Let me start with you, Abby Phillip.

This is a former White House Coronavirus Task Force member and Homeland Security aide to Pence saying that the president does not care about Americans; he could have saved lives if he took the pandemic seriously.

Now, Olivia Troye's not somebody that the average person out there knows. Do you think this will have any impact?

ABBY PHILLIP, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: It is one of many such examples of people who worked for this president who have left his employ and are now sharply criticizing him.

But I think what makes this so extraordinary is that she was just there. She was in the middle of this current crisis. She's not looking on at this from -- fully from the outside. She was in it at some point.

And I think that that is a totally different level of criticism coming from inside the house. And it is one of many from President Trump. We're talking former defense officials like Jim Mattis, his former chief of staff like John Kelly, who have come out of that building and said virtually the same thing about they their belief that the president is unfit for office.

TAPPER: And, Nia-Malika, this aide, Troye, says that President Trump, when he got the news of the virus, didn't seem to care. In her view, he was only concerned about how it would affect his reelection.

And then she also has this story about him not wanting to shake hands with -- quote, unquote -- "disgusting people," which a White House official denies the president said. What do you make of this?

NIA-MALIKA HENDERSON, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL REPORTER: Well, listen, I mean, that quote, in and of itself, is fairly memorable and certainly tracks with what we know about this president.


This president is very much a germaphobe. And so, in many ways, it's not really surprising to hear him say that. We actually don't often see the president interacting face to face with his supporters, whether it was before COVID, and certainly not at this point.

This is powerful and I think memorable stuff we're hearing from someone, as Abby was laying out, was in the room, was in the room just recently. And it also, I think, underscores what we have heard from Bob Woodward, this bombshell book, this idea that the president really only cared about his reelection, that, at times, he knew that the coronavirus was incredibly deadly, but publicly he was saying something different.

I was also reminded of what the president said just yesterday, which is essentially that the deaths in blue states don't really count, right? And, remember, in blue states, coronavirus has killed independents. It's killed Republicans. It's obviously killed Democrats. It's killed Americans, more generally.

And so I think what is so damning about this is, it adds to the portrait of this president that we have been hearing time and time again, when it comes to his lack of empathy and his overall handling of the coronavirus.

TAPPER: Ron Brownstein, White House tell-alls and White House disgruntled employees, ex-employees, are -- it's not new, but I can't recall in American history such a long list of officials, ranging from General Mattis and Secretary Tillerson and General Kelly, Miles Taylor, now Olivia Troye Is this without precedent?


I mean, it makes this doubly unique. I mean, I wrote a few weeks ago that, if you look at the broader degree of crossover support that Joe Biden is getting from former officials in the other party, it's clearly the most of any presidential nominee since Nixon and the Democrats for Nixon in 1972, which was run by John Connally.

And we have seen dozens of former House members, senators and governors. We have seen literally hundreds of former executive branch officials in Republican administrations, particularly national security officials, who have endorsed Biden.

And, of course, we have seen top officials to each of the past three Republican nominees, Romney, McCain and W. Bush, endorse Biden. But -- and, in some ways, that is a parallel to '72.

But, in '72, you did not have this procession of former people inside the room at the very top of the government who have been watching the president up close and coming out and saying he's not fit for office.

I don't think there really has been anything like this. And you can say, well, does it move voters? Voters are kind of locked in. Yes, this is a very kind of stubborn and sticky electorate.

But the fact is that Donald Trump is on track to run more poorly with college-educated white voters than any Republican nominee ever; 15 states out over the weekend, he trailed among college-educated white voters in all of them, except South Carolina.

And I do believe this drumbeat of former officials saying he is not fit for the job is part of the reason he's staring at that deficit.

TAPPER: And, Abby, these former Trump officials that I mentioned, including Olivia Troye, who just now came out, join Republicans such as Colin Powell, former Governors John Kasich, Christine Todd Whitman, former members of Congress Charlie Dent of Pennsylvania, Susan Molinari of New York, Meg Whitman, who ran for governor of California, Carly Fiorina, all backing Biden.

This is not even an exhaustive list.

I have to say, there were a lot of Republicans endorsing Hillary Clinton last time, but, obviously, it is a different scenario, because these are individuals who have actually seen up close and personal the Trump presidency.

PHILLIP: Yes, you read my mind when he said that because, as you were going through that list, I was thinking to myself, man, I remember around this time four years ago, this was the exact same kind of exercise that the Hillary Clinton campaign was engaged in, trying to recruit Republicans in to give, as they called it, a permission structure for Republicans to come over and vote for her. This is of a similar type of exercise. But the difference now, for the

American people, I think it's not so much about the difference between the Republicans then and the Republicans now. The difference for the American people is that they have experienced four years of Donald Trump as president.

And I think that that's what the Biden campaign is counting on to make this matter a little bit more, that it's no longer a theoretical exercise, how he -- what kind of President Donald Trump might be. We are living in the presidency of Donald Trump.

And I think the Biden campaign thinks that is really the most valuable asset that they have in their campaign right now.

TAPPER: Also, I have to say, I mean, Olivia Troye's description of the president's attitude towards this virus squares with how the president has behaved during this pandemic.

Ron, there's another interesting story. President Trump's former Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, who's obviously cooperated with the Woodward book and obviously had a lot of concerns about Trump, he's out today with a "New York Times" op-ed.


He's calling for Congress to create a bipartisan commission to oversee the election. He writes, in part -- quote -- "Our democracy's enemies, foreign and domestic, want us to concede in advance that our voting systems are faulty or fraudulent, that sinister conspiracies have distorted the political will of people. If those are the results of this tumultuous election year, we are lost no matter which candidate wins. No American and certainly no American leader should want such an outcome."

Obviously, Coats never says Donald Trump's name.


TAPPER: But he's describing Donald Trump.


And I think that the article is well-intentioned, but I think a little disingenuous in that way. I mean, there's not a symmetrical threat to this election. The core of the threat to the stability of the election are Trump's efforts to disparage mail-in voting, to discourage the counting of the ballots, and possibly to contest the election afterwards, if he loses.

And the core issue really is whether Republican elected -- how far down that road are Republican elected officials going to be willing to go? How far will the Republican appointed justices and judges be willing to go in allowing him to pursue that?

I mean, the commission is an effort to try to enlist some of them into defending the election. But I think you got to face the issue squarely.

By the way, Jake, in 1876, they appointed a commission to settle the disputed electors from three states in the South. And every member on the commission, House, Senate and Supreme Court justice, voted with their party, including the justices voting with the party that appointed them.

TAPPER: Oh, yes.

BROWNSTEIN: So it's not clear that a commission gets us around the core issue of whether the president's party will defend democracy, even if that means he loses.

TAPPER: The famous election of "Rutherfraud" B. Hayes.

Ron and Abby and Nia-Malika, thank you so much.

To all of you, tonight, you don't want to miss a special presidential town hall, Democratic presidential nominee joining -- Joe Biden joining Anderson Cooper for a live drive-in town hall in Scranton in the great Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, only on CNN 8:00 p.m. Eastern this evening.

President Trump's rejection of science about to be on full display, as he hits the road again.

Then: The parents knew and still sent a COVID-positive kid to school, and now dozens of children are paying a price.

Stay with us.



TAPPER: In our politics lead, the White House struggling to respond to Olivia Troye, until recently the former coronavirus task force member, who just announced her view that President Trump did not care about the public, only his reelection when confronted with the pandemic, and she endorsed Joe Biden.

President Trump continues to dispute what scientists say about the race for a vaccine, yesterday claiming the CDC director was confused when Dr. Redfield said there would not be enough vaccines for the general public until late 2021.

As CNN's Ryan Nobles now reports, Dr. Redfield today talked about his future on the job.


RYAN NOBLES, CNN WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: President Trump on the road to the battleground of Wisconsin with plans for another packed rally, with very few precautions in place to prevent spread of coronavirus. The rallies which are picking up in frequency symbolized the

president's approach to the virus, contradicting specific guidance set out by his administration's centers for disease control, like wearing masks.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Masks have problems, too. When I talk about the masks have to be handled very gently, very carefully.

NOBLES: The president continues to doubt the benefit of masks, despite CDC Director Robert Redfield telling a congressional panel in explicit terms just how valuable they can be to stopping the spread.

DR. ROBERT REDFIELD, CDC DIRECTOR: I might even go so far as to say this face mask is more guaranteed to protect me against COVID than when I take a COVID vaccine.

NOBLES: The disconnect on masks emblematic of the ongoing clash between the president and those tasked with containing COVID, especially when it comes to when a vaccine could be ready.

Redfield warning Congress a reliable vaccine will take time.

REDFIELD: I think we're probably looking at third, late second quarter, third quarter 2021.

NOBLES: But Trump claiming the doctor had it wrong.

TRUMP: No, I think he made a mistake when he said that, it's just incorrect information.

NOBLES: Even though Trump's handpicked member of the task force, Dr. Scott Atlas agreed a widely distributed safe vaccine won't be ready by Election Day.

DR. SCOTT ATLAS, WHITE HOUSE TASK FORCE MEMBER: It is anticipated there will be several hundred million doses by end of Q1.

NOBLES: Redfield did not back down, making it clear in a statement he meant what he said about the vaccine time line and promising that he has no plans to step down. At the same time, President Trump blamed blue states or states with Democratic governors, for the high death toll.

The standoff prompting swift criticism from Democrats.

SEN. CHUCK SCHUMER (D-NY): If you close your eyes and pretend that half of the country doesn't exist, maybe some might think you didn't do such a spectacularly awful job.

NOBLES: And the battle to contain the virus happening while Russia continues to wage an information cyber war. FBI Director Christopher Wray telling Congress the Putin regime has a clear goal in mind.

CHRISTOPHER WRAY, FBI DIRECTOR: I think the intelligence community has assessed this publicly to primarily denigrate Vice President Biden and what the Russians see as kind of an anti-Russian establishment, that's usually what we're seeing in 2020.

NOBLES: But just like the science, President Trump rejecting the FBI's analysis, instead accusing China of working to elect Biden, but without intelligence agencies to back up his claim.


NOBLES: And as we get closer to Election Day, it's pretty clear that President Trump is going to continue to fan flames of America's culture war. In a speech today, he hammered what he called the liberal indoctrination of America's youth, specifically attacking racial sensitivity programs in American schools.


We expect to see more rhetoric here tonight in Wisconsin where the president is expected to speak. A big crowd already forming five hours before the president's speech tonight. Very little social distancing, and almost no masks here in Wisconsin -- Jake.

TAPPER: All right. Ryan, in Wisconsin, thank you so much.

In addition to saying the Russians are trying to denigrate Joe Biden, today, the FBI Director Christopher Wray also told lawmakers white supremacists are the largest chunk of racially motivated domestic terrorists, accounting for the bulk of the bureau's work on domestic threats.


WRAY: Within the domestic terrorism bucket category as a whole, racially motivated, violent extremism is I think the biggest bucket within that larger group. And within the racially motivated violent extremist bucket, people ascribing to some white supremacist type ideology is certainly the biggest chunk of that.


TAPPER: Joining me now to discuss this and much more, Democratic Congresswoman Elissa Slotkin of Michigan. She's on the Homeland Security Committee and she's a former CIA analyst.

Congresswoman, good to see you. Thanks for joining us.

You asked the FBI Director Wray directly about this issue.

Were you surprised by his answer?

REP. ELISSA SLOTKIN (D-MI): No. Actually, he was really a strong witness today up -- in this hearing on worldwide threats. He was very practical, and reasonable, and just laid it out in a very straight way, which I really appreciate as former national security person myself.

And, so I asked him directly, you know, there's this debate about sort of domestic terrorism, whether the rates are up. He confirmed they were.

I wanted him to say in plain terms what the greatest driver of domestic terrorism is right now, the number of cases that he sees. And he was very plain about it. And I just thought it was important for people to hear it on the committee and hear it in public because it sometimes gets distorted.

TAPPER: Yeah, the White House has made it very clear President Trump does not want that information shared with the public.

Acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf was supposed to attend this hearing, but he instead -- instead he defied a subpoena. The Department of Homeland Security is saying because Wolf is acting secretary who should not talk before the House panel. Of course, he has been in this position more than ten months. He says he wants to be confirmed. The president said he wants to nominate him.

What do you make of his refusal to show up?

SLOTKIN: Well, at a certain point a couple weeks ago, he said he was going to be here and then he pulled out. Listen, it's a briefing, an annual briefing that goes on on worldwide threats.

So, it shouldn't be a hard thing to see the acting director of homeland security come to that kind of event. And I just know a lot of us were discouraged from both sides of the aisle, and I know I'll be sending in clear questions for the record because I think under his watch, we've seen real, you know, politicization of use of federal forces, the use of Department of Homeland Security. And I want him to answer for that, if not in person, then certainly for the record.

TAPPER: Yeah, it seems to be a real dichotomy. Would you agree, it seems like Christopher Wray understands he works for the American people and maybe Acting Secretary Wolf doesn't quite get that?

SLOTKIN: I have no idea why some show up and some don't. I just really respect FBI Director Wray and also the head of National Counterterrorism Center. Chris Miller showed up to answer questions. And, you know, obviously, it's silly season right now, because of the presidential election.


SLOTKIN: There's a lot of political stuff going on.

But protecting the homeland should not be a political thing.

TAPPER: Right. I want reaction to our breaking news. Olivia Troye, a former Homeland Security aide for Vice President Mike Pence, somebody who served on the coronavirus task force from day one. She's come out to support Joe Biden in the 2020 election.

Here's one of the many charges she makes against President Trump. Take a listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) OLIVE TROYE, FORMER HOMELAND SECURITY AIDE: It was shocking to see the president saying that the virus was a hoax, saying that everything is OK when we know it's not. The truth is he doesn't actually care about anyone else but himself.


TAPPER: Now, the White House pushing back very forcefully.

Keith Kellogg, the retired general who is an adviser to Pence, saying that Olivia Troye couldn't handle her responsibilities. What's your reaction to what she's saying?

SLOTKIN: I mean, listen, I have no special knowledge of what goes on inside the White House, I just watch the press briefings the way everybody else does. I watch what they put out. And you can say you care about health but if you don't reinforce that, don't set that tone from the top by wearing masks, and talking about, you know, the importance of the CDC guidelines, it just -- it tells the country that it's okay to ignore those guidelines.

We shouldn't be surprised when we see people ignoring it on the ground in places like my district. So, I don't think it takes the staffer to tell us that the White House has pretty divided opinions how to handle the virus.


And the president himself through his leadership is sending a message that he just doesn't care about the CDC guidelines.

TAPPER: So, speaking of leadership, you have been taking on your own leadership. You're a part of the House Problem Solvers Caucus which worked with Republicans proposing -- I mean, it's a bipartisan group, 25 Democrats, 25 Republicans, proposing a compromise, $2 trillion stimulus package.

House Democratic leaders rejected the proposal right now. But now, President Trump says he is open to it. What do you make of this all and why are your leaders, Democratic leaders, not working with you and the Problem Solvers Caucus to help out these people who are in such dire need?

SLOTKIN: Well, I hope that they will. And I was obviously disappointed to see the reaction of some committee chairs and the speaker.

Listen, there's lots of blame to go around. There are three legs of the stool, the House, the Senate, and the White House. They all need to get back in the room.

But I just knew that I was not going back to my district, and walk around, and go to the grocery store, and have people ask me again about the state of the latest COVID emergency bill and tell them that because of politics, we couldn't get in a room together. So, the Problem Solvers, we got together, we started talking in mid-

August very quietly, you know, no staff in the room, to come up with this deal. It is a good starting place for negotiations.

And I urge all sides to get in a room and hammer this out. That's what people expect of us. It is our job.

TAPPER: This seems like desperate people out there would rather have $400 in their pocket than zero.

Democratic Congresswoman Elissa Slotkin of Michigan, thank you so much. Appreciate your time today.

One of the world's largest drugmakers is out today with a big update on its rush to create a coronavirus vaccine.

Plus, what one governor calls, quote, irresponsible and knucklehead behavior as his state tries to control the number of cases of coronavirus.

Stay with us.