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The Lead with Jake Tapper

Bernie Sanders' Chances?; More Questions About Acting DNI; Democratic Debate Fallout. Aired 4:30-5p ET

Aired February 26, 2020 - 16:30   ET



ALEXANDRA ROJAS, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: And so this is going to be the third state that Joe Biden has not won.

And I think, at the debate last night, he set the bar so high. He said, I am going to win South Carolina, and that he is going to win by a huge margin.

So, I think that is an expectation that now voters have, right, I think, especially heading into Super Tuesday states. He's probably very concerned about stopping the momentum for Bernie Sanders, who I think, either way, again, like just within what -- looking at the polling among African-American voters, but obviously the entire electorate, he's continuing to rise.

And so I think the question is after -- when it comes to Super Tuesday, after South Carolina and the results, is there going to be anyone to stop Bernie Sanders?

ANGELA RYE, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Just a friendly -- really quick, this is actually going to be the fourth contest. If he were to not lose this fourth contest in the first very black primary, then he has a real problem, so just that it's the fourth contest.

JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: And, David Urban, we should point out you're an adviser to Trump for 2020.

It seemed a while ago, before Ukraine scandal and impeachment and everything, that the president was most worried about Joe Biden. Do you think that Biden still is the biggest threat to his reelection?

DAVID URBAN, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Listen, I mean, you look at the hundreds of millions of dollars that Michael Bloomberg has spent to date.

Obviously, you can't discount that. It doesn't seem to be moving the needle much. I am more concerned about the durable coalition that Bernie Sanders has built that is continuing to grow, that is continuing to rake in money and to spread all across America.

It's like the flip side of the Trump coin is the Sanders coin, right, folks who will wait in line and snow and rain, that will fill a stadium, that will show up no matter what the weather's like. There's a real passionate enthusiasm for Bernie Sanders. I don't see -- I mean, Pete -- Pete Buttigieg has some energy as well.

But I think that the Sanders coalition is pretty energized. And so those -- those are the two folks, if you're asking me, who are the most problemsome.

Bloomberg because of his money and...


TAPPER: Bernie because of his passionate supporters.

LANHEE CHEN, FORMER POLICY DIRECTOR, MITT ROMNEY CAMPAIGN: I think Sanders has the possibility to create a new coalition. And I don't think the old rules apply anymore.

We think about politics in this traditional way, sort of, well, you need someone who's more centrist. You need someone who appeals to this population or that.

It's clear Bernie Sanders appeals to some people and appeals in a very significant way. He's going to be able to motivate potentially younger voters. Now, I know we don't -- we never like to rely on younger voters.

If you're a political operative, you say, that's fool's gold. But the reality is, there is something there, in the same way there was for Donald Trump with certain populations in the Midwest, people who felt aggrieved, people who felt the establishment was not working for them.

Now you have Bernie Sanders speaking to a new population that could potentially be dispositive for him. So I just think we have to think about this a little bit differently. The traditional notion that, because he's extreme, which he is, on issues, I just don't know that that matters as much.


TAPPER: Let's just take a -- we need to squeeze in a quick break.

And we're going to still talk about this when we come back.

A former presidential candidate just called Bernie Sanders' positions disastrous for Democrats. But is that how voters see it?

Stay with us.




MICHAEL BLOOMBERG, PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: If you keep on going, we will elect Bernie. Bernie will lose to Donald Trump. And Donald Trump and the House and the Senate and some of the statehouses will all go red. (END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: That was 2020 Democratic candidate former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg suggesting that, if Bernie Sanders, the front- runner, is the eventual nominee, it will hurt not just the presidential race, but all down-ballot Democrats.

Let's discuss.

And, Alexandra, let me start with you.

Just moments ago, CNN's Manu Raju caught up with Congressman Tim Ryan. He was a former Democrat running for president. He represents like a working-class area of Ohio. He's now a Biden supporter.

And he called Sanders' policy positions disastrous for Democrats. And then he said this:


REP. TIM RYAN (D-OH): I think having Bernie Sanders at the top of the ticket, I don't think there's any chance of taking out Mitch McConnell or Lindsey Graham. I think it complicates things in places like Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona. It makes it harder.

You know, and in Florida, obviously, now with the Cuba stuff, I mean, that just totally puts us behind the eight ball in Florida.


TAPPER: What do you think?

ROJAS: I mean, I think that it's a reality right now that most Democrats, not just Bernie Sanders, running for president are far more progressive than the swing districts there.

And that's including someone like Joe Biden, right? The first two or three times he ran for president, he was staunchly against a public option. And what do you look at most of the Democrats that are running in these swing states? They support a public option.

And that is because -- and we're seeing it result after result on these early -- in some of these early states and saw it in Nevada -- people are hurting, right? And they want a health care system that is going to put them over profits.

And despite millions of dollars of disinformation here, Americans still overwhelmingly choose to go with a Medicare for all or a single- payer-type system.

I think the other thing that's important to point out is that we heard these same critiques about down ballot being lost with Barack Obama in 2008. And so that, again, solidifies the fact that I think Bernie Sanders is the front-runner, he's going to be taking these hits left and right.


CHEN: Or Donald Trump in 2016.

URBAN: I was going to say, in 2016, exactly.

CHEN: So, actually, there's research that talks about this and shows, when you have got an extreme -- a more extreme presidential candidate, you actually open up some running room for people down-ballot.

So they can take positions that then look more reasonable, whether on health care. I mean, look, the part of this, I think, is, Bernie Sanders is actually pitching -- I don't agree with any of the policy proposals, just to be clear -- but free health care, free college, free XYZ, after a while, it sounds pretty good to people who are aggrieved with the system, who don't believe that the establishment is doing the job it needs to be doing for them, who want to see the swamp drained.


This is stuff that is music to people's ears. So I agree that there's an extremism here, but I think potentially could benefit down ballot, but also could benefit people who are looking for something different.

TAPPER: What do you think?

Because, obviously, you're concerned about keeping the House of Representatives in Democratic control?

RYE: Yes, I think, first of all, we have to give voters a little bit more credit.

I think it is a lazy argument to say that, based on who's at the top of the ticket, you can't make a decision, an isolated decision, about this proposition or this particularly...

TAPPER: But people do vote more straight party line than they have in the past.

RYE: Sure.

But let me just give you another example. There was Amendment 4 on the ballot in Florida, which would re-enfranchise several people who are returning citizens from incarceration.

Those -- there were people who voted for that ballot initiative who were Republican. So it had 64 percent approval or whatever. So people are still able to decipher, this person is more in alignment with my positions, this person is not.

I just don't think it's a real thing.


URBAN: Listen, candidates matter as well, right?

RYE: Absolutely.

URBAN: So Democrats will be getting great House folks to run for House seats. It all depends on who the candidate is.

It's going to be a candidate-by-candidate race in these congressional districts. They're going to be more in play, right, if you have -- in these 33 Trump districts, right?

But those are all very localized.

TAPPER: So, I want to ask you about this, because if you look at the crosstabs of the most recent "Washington Post"/ABC News poll, where Sanders is doing really well, in the head-to-head matchups between Democrat vs. Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders does the worst with white college-educated women who are credited in many ways with helping the House become Democratic in November 2018, that Bernie Sanders is the weakest among white college-educated women.

Is that a concern at all, do you think?

ROJAS: Yes, I mean, I think there's two things here.

I think, one, to kind of fold into what we were all talking about, voters don't necessarily make decisions whether or not someone is a moderate or whether someone is a progressive. It's not necessarily ideological. It is about who is putting forward policies that are not only going to defeat Donald Trump, but are actually going to transform the lives of the poor and working people in this country?

And I think largely the voters are asking themselves that question. I think, number two, obviously that demographic is really important. They were critical to the House. But they also are -- there's a number of candidates in the race.

And I think it's also we have to talk about the new generation of Democratic voters that the Democratic Party has to pay attention to, and they are increasingly young, they are increasingly black, increasingly Latino. And if we want to be able to have a turnout that we did not get in 2016, where we saw a lot of those -- that demographic of people sit at home that cost us the general election, I think that we have to be concerned about also not just talking to the same voters that we always talk to.

TAPPER: You got that turnout, just not in the right states.

But, everyone, stick around. We got more to talk about.

Keep it here for the night. Two of the CNN Democratic presidential town halls tonight live from Charleston, South Carolina, Michael Bloomberg is up first at 7:00, followed by Joe Biden at 8:00, Senator Amy Klobuchar at 9:00, Senator Elizabeth Warren at 10:00.

That's all right here on CNN, the Democratic presidential town halls round two.

Breaking news: President Trump's frustration with his top officials on the coronavirus.

Stay with us.



TAPPER: Breaking news: sources telling CNN that White House officials are considering appointing a coronavirus czar to lead the administration's response to the growing outbreak.

The sources say President Trump is privately frustrated with the secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, Alex Azar, who has been so far leading the efforts.

CNN's Kaitlan Collins is live for us at the White House.

And, Kaitlan, the White House was denying this earlier today. What's the latest and what changed?

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Jake, actually, they were saying that the president was pleased with the way Alex Azar was leading all of this.

But that is not what we are being told by sources, who say, actually, the president has been pretty frustrated with him in recent days, has been lashing out at him privately, because he feels like he's being left out of some critical decisions, only finding out about them later after people are complaining to him about them.

And two of those decisions are, one, to let those Americans who were on the cruise ship that tested positive for coronavirus back into the United States, a decision the president later acknowledged was the right one, and, two, that decision initially to put those patients at a FEMA facility in Alabama, which, of course, the president later faced blowback over from the state's representatives.

He later changed his mind. They are no longer going to be housed there. But this all comes as the president has been questioning whether or not Alex Azar is really up to the task of handling this and leading this crisis.

Now, the White House has denied this. They have said they're not looking for anyone. But we are being told they have been considering this. And, Jake, we should also note it comes as Azar was on Capitol Hill testifying earlier today, believing he does not need to believe that there is a need to a point any other point person to this, saying that he believes it belongs at Health and Human Services, that that should be the agency that is leading this response, though there are questions about whether or not that's going to change.

And one more person we should point out that the president and other White House officials have also been frustrated with in all this is that CDC official who warned yesterday that it is not a question of if, but when this outbreak is going to start to spread in the United States. TAPPER: All right, Kaitlan Collins, thank you so much. Appreciate it.

Democrats are raising new questions today about the acting director of national intelligence, Richard Grenell, and his qualifications for his new job.

This morning, the Senate minority leader, Chuck Schumer, asked the Justice Department to investigate reports that Grenell failed to disclose payments he received on behalf of foreign countries.

Grenell's attorney told "The Washington Post" that his client has never been paid to express a foreign policy opinion.

Joining me now is the former counsel at the Office of Director Of national Intelligence Carrie Cordero and the former FBI senior intelligence adviser Phil Mudd.

So, just to be clear, one of the foreign entities Grenell worked for includes a Moldovan -- Moldovan. How do I -- how do you pronounce that?



TAPPER: Moldovan, somebody from -- a politician from Moldova sanctioned by the U.S. for corruption who has ties to Putin.


TAPPER: And Schumer wrote: "If the reports regarding the nature of Mr. Grenell's undisclosed work with foreign entities are accurate, he may be subject to potential civil and criminal liability, as well as vulnerable to blackmail, in his new position in the intelligence community. Any illegal activity would obviously disqualify him."

What do you make of this?

MUDD: I think this is pretty straightforward.

Look, I had to fill out a bunch of financial disclosure forms. Let me give you a simple question. If a staff official from the government has to fill out a financial disclosure form about contacts with foreign officials, in my case, did you take a pen worth more than 200 bucks from a foreign government?

And this individual, that is, the acting director of national intelligence, didn't fill out the forms, filled them out improperly, or did something improper, if he's got standards that don't match what the work force has to do, that's a problem.

TAPPER: Is there a way, Carrie, that maybe he was paid for advising, and he argues, well, the comments I made that coincided with this -- people that were paying me these interests are not the reason why I did it?

Is that -- does that pass the smell test?

CARRIE CORDERO, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: There are differences. So there's a few different requirements he would have to abide by.

So the Foreign Agents Registration Act, which is what Senator Schumer is talking about, is a registration requirement. If you're doing lobbying activity, being paid from a foreign government, or a foreign principal is the word that's used, and then you're doing lobbying activity, you have to register with the Justice Department.

So that's one question. Was he doing that type of activity? And then, two, did he -- if he was, did he fail to register? So that goes to your question about what the nature of the activity is.

But then there's also questions, if he was receiving the payments, whether or not he was transparent about that during his confirmation process, and then, separately, whether he disclosed any of those foreign payments in his security clearance process.

All of those are potential areas where, if he was not transparent about it, he might have some issues now certainly in the position of director of the...


MUDD: Time-out. Time-out.


MUDD: Penalty flag here. I agree with this.

But let me make this simple. That is, you're going to deal with a mountain of red tape and regulations. The simple interpretation, as a former official, is appearance of impropriety. I don't know what the regulations say, I don't know what the law says, but if there's an appearance that you did something for pay from a foreign government, and you weren't transparent, I don't care about the law and regulations.

The sort of standard we had in government was appearance of impropriety. You cannot appear to do something wrong, regardless of whether it crosses a T. or it doesn't cross a T.

TAPPER: So, the other thing is that, even before this, people were questioning whether or not -- Democrats were questioning whether or not Ric Grenell was the best person for this job.

He doesn't particularly have any intelligence expertise, although he is an ambassador, was an ambassador to Germany. But people were -- Democrats are basically saying, this guy is just a partisan knife- fighter. He's not an intelligence professional, not a national security professional.

Here is the House Intelligence Committee chairman, Adam Schiff, talking about Ric Grenell.


REP. ADAM SCHIFF (D-CA): I think he has little to no relevant experience, except of being a Trump loyalist. And the level of confidence that we can have that we will get fully informed of the threats to our elections has just gone down to practically nil.


TAPPER: Do you buy that? I mean, that's pretty stark.


From the perspective of the intelligence community, in the director of national intelligence and in the intelligence community more broadly, there's only a few people who are political appointees.

Everyone else, like Phil, were career nonpartisan officials. So to have somebody who is an extreme partisan appointed as the head of the agency that is supposed to coordinate the whole rest of the intelligence community makes it seem like then information that the intelligence community is providing to Congress is going to be tainted in a political way. And the appointment of him falls into a bigger picture that we're seeing with this administration, which is that they are breaking down the institutions in the national security community.

So we see it in the leadership vacuum at DHS, where most of the leadership positions are not filled by Senate-confirmed individuals. And now they're starting to do it in the intelligence community as well.

And so what I think we're seeing is a breakdown of so many of the structures that we both worked in to build in the post-9/11 environment being undone and being broken down.

TAPPER: And we saw McConnell basically warn the president a couple days ago, please appoint a national security and intelligence professional to this job.

He didn't say, Ric Grenell does not fill that role. He didn't say, John Ratcliffe and Pete Hoekstra don't fill that role. But the implication I thought was pretty stark.

MUDD: It was.

And watch two different questions. There's a question of expertise, which I think is a little bit misleading. And there's a question of partisanship, as Carrie talked about. Look, not everybody knows the business I grew up in. It's complicated.

But you have to have somebody who, especially going to questions about election threats, will speak truth to power, not only in the Oval Office, but the American people. Separate out whether out somebody has a lot of experience with whether you trust them when they talk to us.

[16:55:03] The trust issue is more important.

TAPPER: All right, Phil Mudd, Carrie Cordero, thank you so much.

President Trump speaking soon, as health officials say now is the time to prepare for a coronavirus outbreak.

Stay with us.



We're standing by to hear from President Trump, as the coronavirus outbreak spreads here in the United States and around the world, moving closer to becoming a pandemic.

Sixty cases are now confirmed in the United States, more than