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The Lead with Jake Tapper

Congress Debates Censuring Trump Over Racist Tweets; Mitch McConnell Defends Trump's Racist Attacks on U.S. Lawmakers. Aired 4- 4:30p ET

Aired July 16, 2019 - 16:00   ET



JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: Was it LBJ who said, if I have lost Scaramucci, I have lost Middle America?

THE LEAD starts right now.

President Trump today digging in again, defending his racist tweets about minority Democratic congresswomen and possibly revealing why he's going to keep this fight alive until at least, say, November 2020, while a former top White House aide calls the tweets racist. He will join us live this hour.

A different story for House Republican leaders, refusing to condemn the president's tweets, as Democrats are about to be force them to go on record with a vote. Will any House Republicans defect?

Plus, a new CNN poll out of the first primary state showing Joe Biden may not be alone at the top anymore.

Welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

We begin today with our politics lead.

This hour, President Trump will meet behind closed doors with Republican congressional leaders ahead of what could be a symbolic rebuke of the commander in chief. In just a matter of hours, House Democrats will vote on a resolution to condemn the president's racist "go back where you came" from tweets to four Democratic House freshmen, all of them women of color, three of them born in the United States, all of them American citizens.

The vote will force House Republicans to come down in support or in opposition to the proposition that the president should be denounced for making racist comments.

Mr. Trump responding on Twitter, saying -- quote -- "Those tweets were not racist. I don't have a racist bone in my body. The so-called vote to be taken is a Democrat con game. Republicans should not show weakness and fall into their trap," to which one of the four congresswomen in question, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, responded -- quote -- "You're right, Mr. President. You don't have a racist bone in your body. You have a racist mind in your head and a racist heart in your chest" -- unquote.

Republicans are largely standing by President Trump. Today, the leaders of the House and Senate Republican caucuses attacked the four congresswomen for various positions and comments they have made, especially some that were anti-Israel and in some cases even anti- Semitic.

When our own reporter, CNN's Manu Raju, asked Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, whose wife, Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao, came to the U.S. from China at age 8, asking him if it would be racist if someone told Chao to go back where she came from if she were being critical of the U.S., McConnell responded that he supports legal immigration.

And McConnell called on everyone on all sides to dial down the rhetoric.

The president, who McConnell would not specifically criticize in any way, is not dialing anything down, however. He continued to attack the four congresswomen today.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: It is my opinion they hate our country. And that's not good. It is not acceptable.


TAPPER: CNN Abby Phillip starts us off from the White House today.


ABBY PHILLIP, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): President Trump demanding loyalty from his party as he moves to rebrand his racist attacks against four American lawmakers of color who he told to go back to their countries.

TRUMP: It is up to them. Go wherever they want, or they can stay. But they should love our country. They shouldn't hate our country.

PHILLIP: Trump now shifting the debate to past statements of some of the freshman progressive Democrats.

TRUMP: You look at what they have said. I have clips right here, the most vile, horrible statements about our country, about Israel, about others.

PHILLIP: While, on Twitter, Trump denying the tweets were racist, adding, "I don't have a racist bone in my body," and telling his party not to show weakness by voting in favor of a resolution in the House condemning the comments.

While some Senate Republicans, like Iowa Senator Joni Ernst, have called Trump's attacks racist, the majority leader offered a generic call for a return to civility. SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY): From the president to the speaker, to

freshman members of the House, all of us have a responsibility to elevate the public discourse. Our words do matter.

PHILLIP: McConnell refusing to say if he would use the phrase go back, but insisting Trump isn't racist.

MCCONNELL: The president is not a racist. And I think the tone of all of this is not good for the country.

PHILLIP: In the House, lawmakers following suit and falling in line.

QUESTION: Were the president tweets that say go back racist?

REP. KEVIN MCCARTHY (R-CA): No. I believe this is about ideology. This is about socialist vs. freedom.

PHILLIP: But Trump's tweets never mentioned socialism at all. Instead, he claimed the four Democratic women who originally came from other countries should go back to the "corrupt, crime-infested places they came from."

Counselor to the president Kellyanne Conway defending her boss by taking a page from his playbook.




CONWAY: Because I'm asking a question.

My ancestors are from Ireland and Italy.

FEINBERG: Kellyanne, my own ethnicity is not relevant to the question I'm asking.



CONWAY: No, no, it is, because you're asking about -- he said originally. He said originally from.


PHILLIP: Meanwhile, her husband, George Conway, writing in a new op- ed that: "Sunday left no doubt. Naivete, resentment and outright racism roiled in a toxic mix have given us a racist president."


PHILLIP: Later on Twitter, Kellyanne Conway tried to clarify what she meant in that exchange with the reporter Andrew Feinberg.

She said: "This was meant with no disrespect. We're all from somewhere else originally" -- Jake.

TAPPER: All right, Abby Phillip at the White House, thank you so much.

Let's chew over all of this.

Tara, let me start with you.

House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy said today the tweets were not racist. McConnell, the Senate majority leader, when he was asked, he said the president is not racist, trying to split hairs there a little bit.

Telling people of color or really anyone to go back where you came from is just pretty much textbook racism. What would President Trump have to say for Kevin McCarthy or Mitch McConnell to say, yes, that's racist?

TARA SETMAYER, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: I think we're at the point where I think anything short of the N-word, they're going to make excuses for it, because, at that point, I mean, there's really no question about it. Right?

So it's obvious to everyone else. It's amazing to me how many of these Republicans are going out there, and I said this yesterday, trying to whitesplain to people of color what racism is and what it feels like to deal with that every single day, or what it's like to be told -- I don't think Kevin McCarthy was ever told to go back to wherever the hell he came from.

I don't think that he's ever experienced that. So I don't think Mitch McConnell's ever experienced that. Maybe his wife passed, and she's not of American descent. She's Chinese American.

So these people are just trying to trip over themselves and change the subject and deflect from the fact that the president of the United States is a racist.

And I was reticent, just like George Conway, and God bless him for coming out, finally, over these last months, and just being honest and truthful about what's going on here. He's 100 percent right in what he said in that op-ed, what really resonates, because he talked about it as being someone who was half-Filipino, that he experienced someone back when he was a kid telling them to go back to the Philippines.


SETMAYER: This is a very powerful thing. And I think that the Republicans trying to sweep this under the rug, thank God for a few that came out, but not enough. Where are the 200 other of them, the rest of them?

But them trying to sweep this under the rug and act like this was about ideology is ridiculous. We're talking about a president who doesn't even know what Western-style liberalism is. You're expecting this to be -- us to believe this is about ideology for him? No, it's about race.

TAPPER: Have you ever been told go back, go back where you came from?


TAPPER: Seriously? On Twitter?

CARDONA: Especially -- yes, on Twitter, sometimes even in person, especially since the president came down that escalator and called Mexicans rapists and criminals.

What's so interesting is, you know, I was born in Colombia. I get told to get back -- to go back to Mexico every day, so they can't even get their xenophobia right.

But the bottom line is...

TAPPER: It's funny how often they're not very smart.

CARDONA: Right? Stunning. Stunning.

TAPPER: Anyway...

CARDONA: But there is -- it's not just something that we should all be incredibly worried about.

But the repercussions of this, Jake, you have kids, I have kids, we have all been a kid, is what the president said something that we would ever allow our kids or would our parents have ever allowed us to utter those words and have it be OK?

When the president was running for office, my children said to me (SPEAKING SPANISH) which means, "Mom, if Trump wins, are we going to be deported?"

These are -- these are children.

TAPPER: American citizens.

CARDONA: American citizens. Exactly.


SETMAYER: The four congresswomen that he went after, American citizens, but apparently he otherized them.


TAPPER: All four of them.

SETMAYER: All four of them.

CARDONA: Bingo. All four of them.

TAPPER: Astead, let me ask you. There are people who say that this is part of a strategy. This isn't the president just spouting off being racist because he has racist views, that he actually -- there's a plot going on here.

And I was reminded that, in 2017, former adviser Steve Bannon said, "The longer they," meaning Democrats, "talk about identity politics, I got them. I want them to talk about racism every day. If the left is focused on race and identity, and we go with economic nationalism, we can crush the Democrats."

Now, Dave Weigel points out, that was 2017. In 2018, that didn't work out so well,. Trump was doing the caravan thing. Democrats took back the House.

But do you think this is part of a strategy?

ASTEAD HERNDON, "THE NEW YORK TIMES": I think it is partly, but I think we should be careful about that use of identity politics there that Bannon points out.

Democrats aren't the only ones who are engaging in identity politics.

TAPPER: Sure. This is identity politics.

HERNDON: This is identity politics. This is a strategy of white identity politics that we have seen Republicans kind of go to as kind of a base motivation.

And I do think that you have members of President Trump and that campaign who have taken the lesson from 2016 that what our base wants, what they want to see from this president is the evoking of that nostalgia.

Now, that nostalgia is often racially based. It's often based in the kind of beating back of the rise of a new multicultural America. But we have seen the Trump administration kind of -- even from things from make America great again and the like -- to evoke that kind of sense to motivate the base.


Now, just because that is a strategy that we're pretty sure they're going to employ, as they did in 2016 and 2018, we don't know about the success of that, right?

We don't know, in 2020, whether Democrats will be more motivated to come out, as they weren't in 2016. We don't know if a different nominee means the strategy may not have the same effectiveness.

But we do know that this has been the playbook since day one. But I think that point about white identity politics is clear...

TAPPER: It's a very important point.

HERNDON: ... in response to what Bannon is saying. TAPPER: No, it's a very important point that what Bannon was selling

was white identity politics, and maybe Democrats were doing a different kind.

Sara, let me ask you.

The president said today that: "The Democrats were trying to distance themselves from the four progressives. But now they are forced to embrace them. That means they are endorsing socialism, hate of Israel and the USA. Not good for Democrats."

He's -- whether it was originally strategy or not originally strategies, he's trying to make it seem like a strategy, even though those original tweets were not about socialism at all.

SARA MURRAY, CNN NATIONAL POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, I don't really that is what people are paying attention to right now. I don't think he can just tweet it and say, no, no, it's really about how all the Democrats are anti-Semitic. And everyone's like, oh, yes, that's right. This is a conversation about -- no, that is not what this is a conversation about.

TAPPER: Right. Chuck Schumer is really anti-Semitic.

MURRAY: No. Like, that is not how this is going to work out.

And I think, if anything, we have seen the Democratic Party sort of rally around one another and realize that we are taking on something bigger here, and that this is what we are trying to do, the Democrats, as a party, going into 2020.

I mean, I do think part of that will certainly entail for them calling out things the president does that are racist, like sending that tweet.

But the reason that they were able to win in 2018 is because they were able to sort of straddle that line and say, the president did something that is extremely out of line. It's racist, it's whatever, it's acceptable and whatever other way, but now let us tell you what we're going to do about health care in this country.

TAPPER: Exactly.

MURRAY: And that's going to be the challenge for Democrats again in 2020.

TAPPER: Everyone, stick around. We have more to talk about.

Only a fraction of Republicans have weighed in publicly on the president's racist tweets, but that will change in a matter of hours, when the Democrats in the House force a vote on it.

Plus, the shocking response from a white nationalist -- why he said President Trump is just playing a con game with the racist tweets.

Stay with us. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:16:12] TAPPER: And we're back with our politics lead.

Soon, every member of the House of Representatives will be forced to take a stand on the record on the president's racist tweets against four Democratic congresswomen of color in which he said they should go back where they came from, even though, of course, three were born in the U.S. and all four are American citizens.

Tonight, the House will vote on a resolution to condemn those tweets as racist.

CNN's Phil Mattingly is on Capitol Hill.

Phil, what exactly does this resolution say and are any Republicans in the House expected to vote for it?

PHIL MATTINGLY, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: So, Jake, Democratic leaders deliberately tailored it very narrowly to just about the tweets. Some of their members wanted to open it up, kind of air additional grievances. They tailored it narrowly because they want to attract Republicans to the proposal, including some of the Republicans, very few Republicans who have spoken out against the president.

Here is the reality I'm told at this point in time. House Republican leadership has told their members they should vote no. They have given them a list of reasons why they should vote no, saying it's a personal attack on the president, saying it's a distraction and my understanding, according to sources that are knowledgeable in these things, is those efforts have been effective. Right now, they say they are not expecting any more than five to eight Republicans to vote with the Democrats on this, keeping the numbers very low and underscoring yet again that Republicans, no matter what the president says, are the party of Trump -- Jake.

TAPPER: All right. Phil Mattingly on Capitol Hill, thanks so much.

Joining me now is former Obama senior adviser and CNN senior political commentator David Axelrod.

David, thanks so much.

You think that President Trump knows exactly what he's doing and this is a strategy to elevate these four congresswomen?

DAVID AXELROD, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, I think that's certainly part of it. I think that if you listen to what he and other of his strategists are talking about, they want to paint the portrait of the Democratic Party as a far left socialist party for open borders and so on. And they need to create, you know, iconic images to campaign against -- interestingly, Pelosi used to be that image and she's now too moderate for them to use.

And so, these women -- those young members of Congress have now taken that place. And I think he saw a chance in the fight between Pelosi and them to elevate them.

And the second virtue of this from his standpoint, if you could use the word virtue about a racist attack, is that it inflames his base and I think they believe there is still more votes out there that they didn't get in 2016 in their base and that if they turn up the temperature, that they can mobilize them even further.

So, you know -- now, the president is impulsive. He has kind of a feral genius for striking these chords. But he's -- so the word strategic isn't associated with him.

TAPPER: Right.

AXELROD: But, listen, you have to look at history. He's pushed a lot of buttons over the last three years. And he's had a lot of success doing it. So, yes, I think it was intentional.

TAPPER: What do you think Democrats should do? I mean, House Democrats right now are spending time and energy and effort to condemn these tweets that will obviously not happen in the Senate and even if it did, it is toothless. It doesn't really have any effect other than expressing a sentiment.

AXELROD: No, but I think it is smart because they have forced the Republican Party to go on record as embracing these racist tweets and the president's tactics. I think that will have some impact on him, particularly in suburban areas where voters drifted in 2018. There are a lot of people who may support some of his policies but find his behavior distasteful or worse and this will only accentuate that. So, he put the Republican Party in a bit of a jam here and I think he overshot the runway with these tactics.

TAPPER: And he's also -- I mean, he's also lied. I mean, you could find things that Congresswoman Omar said that are patently offensive, but he said that she praised al Qaeda. She never praised al Qaeda.

AXELROD: Yes, no.

[16:20:00] TAPPER: He stood at the White House and just told a blatant lie about it.

AXELROD: This is breaking news for you, Jake -- the president doesn't work within the boundaries of fact.

TAPPER: I'm aware.



AXELROD: And actually, when you asked me what Democrats should do, this is one of the challenges for Democrats.


AXELROD: Because he is going -- this is not going to be the last time this happens. We are going to be having this discussion a lot in the next 17 months because he thinks it is to his advantage to do it.

And, yes, it is important for us as a country to express our moral outrage about these tactics, but at some point, they have to be discussed as tactics. You have to kind of pull the curtain back or pull the sheet off, however you want to say it, and say these are tactics and we ought to recognize them as such and people ought to be aware just as these acid, pernicious social media posts are.

And by the way, it will be interesting to see what is going on on social media and what the Trump campaign is doing right now.

TAPPER: Let me ask you, also, how do Democrats deal with offensive comments, bigoted comments made within their own ranks because as I suggested a few minutes ago, Congresswoman Omar has said things that Jewish Democrats in Congress found blatantly anti-Semitic? Her and Congresswoman Tlaib.

AXELROD: Right, and the House voted on a resolution. There was a rebuke from the speaker about that. The resolution wasn't as strong as some wanted.

I do think that you have to call out your own. I mean, one of the things that's offensive here is to see the Republicans contort themselves into pretzels to try to -- you know, Senator McConnell today and, McCarthy, Kellyanne Conway asking a reporter what his ethnicity was and somehow indicating that that was a justification for what the president was saying.

So, Democrats need to be strong in condemnation of things that are viewed as anti-Semitic or any other way bigoted. But, you know, it was interesting to see McConnell say, well, everybody needs to tone things down, not everybody is the president of the United States, not everybody has issued blatantly racist tweets of this sort and to make this sort of like everybody does it is really missing the point.

TAPPER: Certainly, there's the bully pulpit and then there's everyone else.

AXELROD: Exactly.

TAPPER: Yes. David Axelrod, thank you so much. Appreciate it.

AXELROD: Good to see you.

TAPPER: Coming up, he's one of president Trump's most loyal supporters but now, Anthony Scaramucci, the former White House communications director, is calling the Trump statements racist. Would he put the same level on the president himself? We'll ask him that, next.

Stay with us.


[16:27:16] TAPPER: Back with our politics lead.

President Trump again today defending his racist tweets against the four freshman congresswomen of color.

Joining me now for his reaction is the former White House communications director under President Trump, Anthony Scaramucci.

Anthony, it's always good to see you.

Today, you called the president's tweets racist and unacceptable. Why do you think he's saying these things?

ANTHONY SCARAMUCCI, FORMER WHITE HOUSE COMMUNICATIONS DIRECTOR: Well, I mean, David Axelrod probably has a better read on that than me, he's a better political strategist. I mean, he's obviously trying to trigger people and maybe he's trying to engage his base. I mean, maybe that is a successful strategy for 2020.

But I think a more successful strategy would be to focus on the growth in the economy and policies and go after moderates and independents that I think he needs, if you look at the electoral college map, he needs those people to win.

So, the comments are reprehensible. The fact that more people are not speaking out about it, I actually find astonishing. It doesn't mean I don't like the president. I like the president, raised money for him and went to work for him for great sacrifice.

When I got fired and obliterated, Jake, I never lost my loyalty to the president or his team.

TAPPER: Right.

SCARAMUCCI: And I stayed right out there.

So when you are talking like that, my grandparents who, may their souls rest in peace, would be wickedly upset at me if I didn't speak out against it because when Italian Americans got here, as Irish Americans and others, this country is a mosaic. Many times in the 1920s, my grandparents were told to go back to the country that they came from.

And so, he's the leader of the free world. He absolutely knows better than that and he should have an intervention. There should be a group of people that really like him that sit around him, instead of listening to this nonsense tell him straight up, hey, you can't talk like that because you're going to alienate people that want to vote for you.

And so, David Axelrod mentioned suburban women, he got 52 percent of the white women's vote. That sort of language is very bullying. And so, women around the country of all colors are trying to teach their kids about anti-bullying.

You've got the leader of the free world saying bullying-ish, Neanderthal-ish, racist comments. Let's call it for what it is, OK? You could still be friends with a guy, but you can disagree with what he's saying. And for me, you know, at the end of the day, I hate this litmus test

where you've got to be 100 percent switched on for Trump or 100 percent in his camp, otherwise you're not in his camp. That's also a bunch of nonsense.

So, it reminds me of Mayor Koch, used to say, if you agree with me nine out of 12 times, vote for me. But if you agree with me 12 out of 12 times, you need a therapist. And so, the point being is that you're never going to be agree with everybody all the time.

But, you know, the leader of the free world, you know better. You're tweeting now that they are not racist comments, but, you know, you're snickering to yourself when you are tweeting them in the first place because you know it's going to trigger people on the left, and it's frankly going to trigger people that like you, like myself, that want to support you but are not going to stand there after.