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The Lead with Jake Tapper

Trump A Target Of Special Counsel's January 6 Criminal Probe; DeSantis Reacts To News Trump Is Target Of Special Counsel's January 6 Investigation; Trump's Lawyers Attend Hearing In Classified Docs Case; Michigan Attorney General Charges Participants In 2020 Fake Elector Plot; One-on-One Interview with Governor Ron DeSantis. Aired 4-5p ET

Aired July 18, 2023 - 16:00   ET



JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: Welcome to THE LEAD. I am Jake Tapper and I am live on the campaign trail here in beautiful Columbia, South Carolina, where earlier today, I sat down for an interview with Republican presidential candidate, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis.

DeSantis was here in South Carolina to roll out a major policy announcement about the U.S. military, but, of course, I asked him about the big breaking news that his key competitor, Republican front- runner and former President Donald Trump announced earlier today that he'd been told he is the target of the special counsel's criminal investigation into efforts to overturn the 2020 election. Trump also said that he's been told to appear this week, Thursday at the latest, before the federal grand jury in D.C.

Trump wrote on Truth Social today, quote: Deranged Jack Smith, the prosecutor with Joe Biden's Department of Justice sent a letter, again it was Sunday night, stating that I'm a target of the January 6 grand jury investigation and giving me a very short four days to report to the grand jury which almost always means an arrest and indictment, end quote.

Trump's revelation comes as we learn of several important new developments in the January 6 investigation. One, a Trump adviser is expected to appear before that grand jury this week. Two, sources say that the special counsel team has contacted former Arizona Governor Doug Ducey, a Republican whom Trump also pressured to overturn the 2020 election. Three, we've learn special counsel investigators have interviewed Wisconsin officials.

And, four, in fact, CNN has learned that the special counsel's office has interviewed officials from all seven 2020 battleground states, all seven states where Trump and his allies tried to overturn the 2020 election results. The seven include Michigan, Georgia, Arizona, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, New Mexico, and Nevada.

All of this as a hearing is wrapping up involving the special counsel's other criminal case involving Mr. Trump, the classified documents case in Florida, where a judge told prosecutors a trial date in mid-December would be too soon, the prosecutor said. Then my exclusive interview with Florida Governor DeSantis which we're

going to bring you in full this hour, touched on, as I said, his new military policy as well as Ukraine, China, social issues, the state of his campaign and more.

But, of course, with perhaps curious timing, Mr. Trump's announcement of his likely pending third indictment came minutes before Governor DeSantis and I sat down.


TAPPER: So I do have to ask about the breaking news today.


TAPPER: Your chief competitor, the front-runner right now, Donald Trump, says he was informed that he is the target of special counsel Jack Smith's investigation into efforts to overturn the results of the 2020 election, and Mr. Trump has until Thursday to report to the grand jury.

If Jack Smith has evidence of criminality, should Donald Trump be held accountable?

DESANTIS: So, here's the problem. This country is going down the road of criminalizing political differences. And I think that's wrong.

Alvin Bragg stretched the statute in Manhattan to be able to try to target Donald Trump. Most people -- even people on the left acknowledge if that wasn't Trump, that case would not have likely been brought against a normal civilian.

And so, you have a situation where the Department of Justice, FBI, have been weaponized against people they don't like and the number one example of that happened to be against Donald Trump with the Russia collusion. That was not a legitimate investigation. That was being done to try to drive Trump out of office.

And so, what I've said as president, my job is to restore a single standard of justice to end weaponization of these agencies. We're going to have a new FBI director on day one. We're going to have big changes at the Department of Justice. Americans across the political spectrum need to have confidence that what is going on is based on the rule of law, not based on what political tribe you're in.

And the second thing I would say is this country needs to of a debate about the country's future. If I'm the nominee, we'll be able to focus on President Biden's failures, and I'll be able to articulate a positive vision for the future. I don't think it serves us good to have a presidential election focused on what happened four years ago in January.

And so, I want to focus on looking forward. I don't want to look back. I do not want to see him, I hope he doesn't get charged, I don't think it will be good for the country, but at the same time, I've got to focus on looking forward, and that's what we're going to do. [16:05:01]

TAPPER: Jack Smith has prosecuted Democrats, too. I mean, he prosecuted or at least was part of the prosecution of Senator Menendez, Senator John Edwards. Are you saying that he if finds evidence of criminality, he should not charge Donald Trump anyway?

DESANTIS: What I'm saying is when you're going after somebody on the other side of the political spectrum, if you're stretching statues to try to criminalize maybe political disagreements, that is wrong.

Now, look, this is all speculation. But I think we've gone down the road in this country of trying to criminalize differences in politics rather than saying, okay, you don't like somebody, then defeat them in the election rather than trying to use the justice system.

So we don't know what's going to happen. But I could tell you, with the Bragg one, that was stretching criminal law. The evidence of criminality was very weak and even if that existed, other people would not have been charged under those circumstances. That's the problem.


TAPPER: And we'll have much more with Governor DeSantis in a minute.

Of course, an indictment in the January 6 case might be in Mr. Trump's future but the indictment in the classified documents case is very much Mr. Trump's present.

And CNN's Paula Reid is presently outside a federal court house in Fort Pierce, Florida, for that one.

And, Paula, the hearing just wrapped up with the judge giving some strong indications of how she wants the trial to proceed. You were in the courthouse. Tell us what the judge had to say.

PAULA REID, CNN SENIOR LEGAL AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: Well, Jake, all eyes were on Judge Aileen Cannon. She is the Trump appointed judge who's going to oversee this case through its completion and we're particularly looking for how receptive she would be to the former president's efforts to try to delay this, possibly even delay until after the 2024 election.

Now it was clear from her questions and her comments in court today that she is not likely to go along with a plan that has been proposed by the special counsel to take this case to trial in just a few months, in December. She called that timeline, quote, compressed. She told the lawyers, she said, look, cases like this just take more time than that. And she really challenged prosecutors to explain to her exactly how this was not what is called a complex trial or something that could not be completed quickly.

Defense attorneys also got up and they continued to insist that former President Trump is unlike any other defendant and that they believe it would only be fair to delay this until after the election. Now, it did not appear that the judge would agree to that. We need at least some kind of timeline, at least tell me when you might know when you'd be ready t go to trial, specifically, defense lawyers said that in early November, they might be done going through discovery. They said they have over a thousand days worth of surveillance footage, they have tens of thousands of relevant documents to look through.

What was interesting, Jake, is both sides made a big issue of Trump's status at a candidate. The special counsel opened one of the arguments saying, look, just because he's a former president, he's not a president any more. He said, even though he's running for office again, he should be treated like any other busy important person and his lawyers, of course, really took issue with that.

But, Jake, the judge didn't seem interested at all in those arguments. She said, look, let's focus on the process, let's focus on discovery and at least getting a schedule down on paper to deal with the mechanics. Now we don't have the schedule yet. But some good news for former President Trump here out of federal court, this judge definitely appears open to delaying this a little bit longer than Jack Smith would like.

TAPPER: Paula, on the other big news of the day, the special counsel and the letter to Donald Trump, has the special counsel confirmed they did send him this letter on Sunday that suggests he's a target and he has until Thursday to speak before the grand jury?

REID: They have not confirmed this. I've been trapped in federal court for two hours but I know prior to that we were able to confirm with multiple sources that he did, indeed, receive this letter and, in fact, his lawyers confirmed this in open court, referencing this January 6 target letter, and the likelihood of additional charges.

And they used that, Jake, as part of their argument. They said, look, we're representing the former president in a lot of different matters, that takes a lot time both for us and also coordinating with our client and they used all of this together to really push the idea that they're not going to be ready for this criminal case to go to trial any time soon.

TAPPER: All right. Paula Reid in Fort Pierce, Florida.

And we're going to bring you more of our interview with the governor of Florida in just a moment. But let me also bring in the former U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Florida, Jeffrey Sloman. Also with us, CNN chief legal analyst Laura Coates to discuss this big momentous news in the race regarding Donald Trump.

Laura, let's talk about the news from the classified documents hearing. Are you surprised with Judge Cannon's thoughts on the mid- December trial date being, quote, a bit rushed?

LAURA COATES, CNN CHIEF LEGAL ANALYST: I am surprised it's going to be an indefinite nature of when there will actually be a trial, given the speedy trial rights of defendants to have their cases resolved in a timely fashion and at least proceed in that course.

[16:10:04] The complexity of the case, though, on the one hand, does inure in the benefit of special counsel Jack Smith and that is about documents in the possession of a person who he claimed is not entitled to be in possession of it, obstruction charge before the grand jury.

On the other hand, the sheer volume of documents may be at issue here, as is the security clearance needed to review the documents, their surveillance close footage of the actual Mar-a-Lago estate and beyond. By the end of the day, Jake, how extraordinary to think that one's candidacy could determine when you actually might have a trail. Normally, the DOJ is concerned about not wanting to interfere or be seen as doing so. But an indefinite trial date is not in line with what any other defendant would ultimately have.

TAPPER: Right. The right to a speedy trial is a right that the defendant has, not the prosecution.

Let me ask you, Jeffrey, this Trump news could very well, he could be very well be facing three indictments over the span of just six months. How do you think this case into his interference in the 2020 election stacks up against the other two, the Alvin Bragg case and the national -- and the security documents, specifically what charges do you think he could be facing in the 2020 -- in the election interference one?

JEFFREY SLOMAN, FORMER U.S. ATTORNEY FOR THE SOUTHERN DISTRICT OF FLORIDA: So, I think what's going to happen is Judge Cannon may be calling the judge in the Manhattan case and if former President Trump gets indicted in the near feature on the January 6 case, then I think there may be some communication between the judges as to how best to schedule this.

Obviously, she's concerned about balancing former President Trump's rights to review all of the discovery. It's hard to get a sense as to how voluminous it is. The defense says it's very voluminous. The prosecution says it's a straight simple case that we've been providing documents to the former president's team since June 21st. There was another discovery production recently, of non-classified material and the special counsel has gone out of its way to inform the parties that there's only approximately 30 classified documents. So, there is a limited scope.

So, I get a sense that Judge Cannon is going to try and balance and see exactly what's going to be needed for the defense in order tor them to be ready and then I think she'll probably issue an order or something, it sounds like not being in the courtroom, it sounds like that's what she intends to do. With regard to the special counsel's target letter, obviously, we have some type of a blueprint as to the other prosecutions, whether or not the special counsel is going to tailor down to a simple, you know, set of meetings that occurred that conspiracy theories evolved is unknown.

But obviously, these are momentous times. The fact that the former president is the defendant in a federal case is quite unusual. So, these are unprecedented times, Jake. TAPPER: Laura, our sources tell us that Trump's legal team was caught

off guard by the latest letter and they've been calling lawyers an allies to see if they've gotten a letter too. We hear that no one else has so far. What might that tell us?

COATES: Well, the fact that they're looking to find out who else might be there means that might have had an open line of communication with people who may have testified. The list of people who testified we've been told before the grand jury is quite long. It includes those in his inner circle. And so finding out whether he is the only person to have been charged is quite telling.

But also, the fact that there have been so many people who have been across different state lines, in different aspects. Remember, January 6 is obviously a day but it seems to be the culmination of the investigation events which include everything that took place beforehand, including potentially conspiracy theory to defraud the United States, the idea of the false slate of electors as alleged, the notion of leaning on Vice President Mike Pence and others to try to obstruct a congressional proceeding, all of these things seem to be within the orbit of what is being investigated here.

And you could better believe when you're talking about all of the different cases, some involving the state level of Manhattan, others involving a potential -- looming potential indictment in Georgia and, of course, a federal indictment in Florida and maybe one on the horizon for Trump, there is not the requirement of judges to coordinate between these cases, but a defendant is going to have to have the ability to prepare and adequately be a part of the defense.

This is not like the E. Jean Carroll lawsuit where Trump did not even appear in the courtroom. He would be required to be there and Jack Smith and at least the prior case has said they need about 20 days or so.


That means off the campaign trail, that means actually being present. And so there are so many different moving parts here. But the continuous thread here seems to be grand jury testimony, from those in the orbit of Trump, not a communication line open between so many others to figure out who has said what and we still don't know, of course, Jake, who has cooperated with the federal government.

TAPPER: All right. Laura Coates and Jeffrey Sloman, thanks to both of you. Appreciate it.

More here from Columbia, South Carolina, and my exclusive interview with the Florida governor and 2024 Republican presidential candidate Ron DeSantis who filed his South Carolina presidential paperwork just today.

And this just in, we've learned that the Michigan attorney general has just charged 16 so-called fake electors in the 2020 election. This is just coming in.

We're going to have more from Columbia, South Carolina, next.



TAPPER: Just into CNN, the Michigan attorney general has charged 16 so-called fake electors in the 2020 election.

CNN's Jessica Schneider joins us now with this breaking story.

Jessica, what charges are these fake electors is facing?

JESSICA SCHNEIDER, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Jake, there are eight counts in all. Sixteen defendants facing eight counts, really amounting to, if they were convicted in all of those, decades in prison. This is notable because this is the first time that these alleged fake electors are actually being charged criminally by state prosecutors. This is coming from the Attorney General Dana Nessel right here in Michigan.

This all stems from December 14th, 2020, when here in Michigan, 16 of those fake electors tried to storm into the capitol just behind me. They were actually stopped by police but they had fake certificates declaring Donald Trump the winner of the state of Michigan despite that Joe Biden had won this state by 554,000 votes.

The police stopped those electors from forcing their way into the Capitol, but they were prepared to try to argument that Donald Trump had won the election. And after a long investigation, by the attorney general, she actually initially referred it to federal prosecutors and DOJ but then actually started her own investigation back in January. She's now charging 16 of those defendants.

We've been watching the court proceedings happen throughout the day here. Those defendants are expected to that will turn themselves in, in the coming days. And I will note that there are some notable names among this 16 defendants.

One of them is Meshawn Maddock, the co-chair of the Michigan Republican Party. Another one, Kathy Berden, she's one of the Republican National Committee members here in Michigan. So, Jake, this is a notable move by the state's Attorney General Dana Nessel charging 16 of these fake electors.

Notably, there's also these investigations into the fake elector scheme in those six other states where those electors tried to submit those fake documents in favor of Donald Trump. Those investigations, particularly in Georgia and Arizona are ongoing.

And today, the first state charges against those fake electors for a number of different charges, including forgery, also conspiracy to commit election law forgery. So, Jake, a notable move coming from the attorney general here in Lansing, Michigan.

TAPPER: All right. Jessica Schneider with the breaking news for us in Lansing, Michigan, thank you so much. Appreciate it. In just a moment, my interview with Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, but, first, the other major news today involving Donald Trump, a target in special counsel Jack Smith's investigation into January 6 and the efforts to overturn the election.

Let's bring in Alyssa Farah Griffin, former White House director of strategic communications for Donald Trump.

Alyssa, thanks for joining us.

So, given your experience in the White House, what's your reaction to the special counsel apparently telling Donald Trump that he's a target in this investigation as they move closer to bringing charges related to the attempt to overturn the election?

ALYSSA FARAH GRIFFIN, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Listen, I'm not surprised that the special counsel has decided to move forward. We all saw what happened on January 6. We knew what was leading up to it. We heard the different efforts to defraud Americans by overturning the election results, the incitement of the violence at the Capitol.

So, I think it's prudent as the right decision but what I'm still stunned by in the year of our Lord, 2023, most Republicans even those running against Donald Trump, are not willing to just say the God's honest truth of what we know about January 6, and actually use what may be end up being a third indictment to try to chip away at his support and try to move ahead in the polls.

TAPPER: Well, that's my next question for you, because you said we all saw what happened on January 6 and in the months leading up to it, of course. But with the exception of Chris Christie, Will Hurd and Asa Hutchinson, the Republicans running against Donald Trump aren't really acknowledging what you acknowledge, what I saw with my own eyes. You heard my interview, the excerpt of my interview with Ron DeSantis, Governor DeSantis, talking about this issue and he repeated a now common Republican talking point about the weaponization of the Justice Department using the legal apparatus to score political points. He also said in his view it would be bad for the country if Trump were indicted for his role in and around the insurrection. We played all that earlier in the show.

How do you see those arguments? What did you think of his response?

GRIFFIN: Listen, as Republicans, we can't say where the party of law and order and turn a blind eye to both the classified documents mishandling, but also the egregious actions around January 6. Most Republicans, elected Republicans in Washington, D.C. knew what happened on January 6. Kevin McCarthy said I'm done with this guy. We remember the denunciations. We remember Nikki Haley going down to the RNC meeting and saying it's time to move on.

Most common sense sane Republicans knew how bad that was. But they went back to Donald Trump, I don't know if it was the fundraising that he carries, the name recognition with the base.

[16:25:03] But we know what the reality is. And for us to be a forward-looking party that's going to be able to win a general election nationally, we cannot deny reality.

To Governor DeSantis' point, I would simply say this, let's put the shoe on the other foot. If this was Barack Obama or Joe Biden who incited January 6, I assure you every Republican congressional committee would be investigating it and call for him to be charged.

TAPPER: Alyssa Farah Griffin, thanks so much.

Today, I sat down here in Columbia, South Carolina, with Florida Governor Ron DeSantis for this exclusive interview. This was just minutes after he had unveiled a sweeping new military policy. DeSantis said in that announcement speech that his proposals are intended to, quote, rip the woke out of the U.S. military.


DESANTIS: It's a military that has been ordered by civilian officials to pursue political ideology, to pursue social experimentation, to be yet another institution in American life that gets infected with the woke mind virus.


TAPPER: So the DeSantis plan includes ending all groups and positions in the Pentagon that focus on diversity, equity and inclusion or DEI; banning transgender service members from serving as they identify; ending funding for what DeSantis calls, quote, activist climate change programs, unquote.

DeSantis also wants to reinstate all service members who were removed for refusing the COVID vaccine and he wants to punish any retired generals and admirals who speak out harshly against the sitting president or Congress or other officials. DeSantis says the things he wants to eliminate are harming the readiness of the U.S. military.


DESANTIS: This is changing the character of the military. It's changing the culture of our services and it's creating a situation in which great warriors have been driven away and recruiting is at an all-time low post-abolition of the draft in the Vietnam conflict.


TAPPER: It is true that recruitment is at a low. But we should note that Pentagon officials repeatedly reject almost all of those accusations and that's where Governor DeSantis and I started our discussion today.


TAPPER: Let's talk about this sweeping new military policy you proposed that in your words will rip the woke out of the military. The Pentagon's response is that Army and Marines' readiness is the best it's been in years, and reenlistment in the Army is the best it's been in years.

So their argument might be in response, what problem are you trying to solve?

DESANTIS: Well, why do we have the worse recruiting that we've had since the Vietnam conflict? Why have great warriors been driven off such as with the COVID-19 shot mandates?

These are people that had been performing admirably. A lot of them had had COVID, they have natural immunity. They were told take the shot or leave.

So I think you've had a big problem with morale. You clearly have a problem with recruiting. And at this level, everybody has acknowledged these recruiting levels are at a crisis.

Why is that the case? I think it's because people see the military losing its way, not focusing on the mission and focusing on a lot of these other things which, man, we see that in other aspects of society as well.

People want to join the military because they think it's something different and I think some of the civilian leaders in the military are trying to have the military mimic corporate America academia. That's ultimately not going to work.

TAPPER: So, I hear you. Recruitment, without question, is a problem. The Army did this survey -- I'll give you a copy of it if you want. They haven't released it, but I've got my hands on a copy.

And it looked at -- it surveyed, I think, 16 to 28, barriers to service and beyond the ones such as don't want to die, don't want to be injured, don't want to be away from my family. The biggest issues were, the number two, issue women and racial or ethnic minorities are discriminated against in the Army.

Wokeness is listed here but it's only -- it's only number nine.

So that would suggest that wokeness is not as big --

DESANTIS: Well, but I think there's an issue about -- like not everybody knows what wokeness is. I mean, I've defined it but a lot of people would rail against wokeness can't even define it.

So I think it's a sense of, you know, this is not something that's holding true you to the core martial values that make the military unique.

And I can tell you, the veterans, you don't have to look for and wide, go to a VFW hall, go to American Legion, there's huge amount of concern about the direction that the military is going with all of this.

And here's thing, things like DEI and all that stuff, it hasn't worked in other aspects of society. It very well may be on the constitutional chopping block in light of the Supreme Court's decision on racial discrimination in higher education. And so, it's not a model that I think is going to be successful in the military.

And so, we're going to do what has been successful in the past and I think you're going to see better recruiting as a result.

TAPPER: So, the Pentagon says that they do try to achieve diversity in recruiting but not when it comes to promotions. That's all merit based. [16:30:03]

DESANTIS: Well, I mean, I think that we have seen standards watered down in different situations. I think that that's probably not accurate.

Obviously, they're going to say they're doing a good job. I mean, we get that. That's going to be their thing. But I don't think that that's in tune with reality.

TAPPER: So, let's turn to foreign policy because obviously that goes hand in hand with military policy in many ways. As a congressman in 2015, you strongly backed arming Ukraine after Russia invaded and seized Crimea. As a presidential candidate, you said that conflict is not a vital national interest.

So, as president, what will your policy be? Will you want to stop arming Ukraine? Will you stop financial support for Ukraine?

DESANTIS: So, first, vital national interests to me means we would potentially send troops there and I don't think anybody wants to see troops in Ukraine and I would believe that in 2015 as well. It's more of a secondary or tertiary interest.

So my policy is going to be very simple. Our number one threat to our country is from China in terms of foreign threat. We also have a threat of being able to not secure our own border. Tens of thousands of people are dying every year because the cartels are running fentanyl.

And so, you've got to be strong at home if you want to be strong abroad. We are going to approach the world -- instead of Europe being the focus like it has been since World War II, and it was understandable why it would be after World War II, NATO, stopping the Soviets, I get it. But now, the Asia-Pacific really needs to be to our generation what Europe was to the post-World War II generation.

And so, what we're doing is how much hard power can we marshal as much as possible to deter China? I think we're in a situation now with how weak we've been that we are going towards maybe having a conflict with China. I think the way to deter that conflict with China is to be strong.

So I would have the Europeans do more in Europe. That's more in their backyard. That's more of an interest for them. You know, I would be willing to be helpful to try to bring it to a conclusion there, but I'm not going to diminish our stocks and not send to Taiwan.

I'm not going to make us less capable to respond to exigencies and you got to care at least as much about your own border as do you about foreign borders.

TAPPER: So, when you talk about trying to bring -- bring an end to the conflict, would you push Zelenskyy to make concessions to Russia, to cede land that Russia seized in its attack?

DESANTIS: So what I would say is, what -- the goal should be a sustainable and enduring peace in Europe but one that does not reward aggression. And there's going to be different levers that you're going to be able to pull.

We will pull some levers against Russia. We're going to be much more aggressive on energy and export because I think that's been Putin's lifeline. I want the Europeans dependent on the United States for that, not him.

We're also going to turn the screws on the Iranians. The Iranians have been one of Putin's biggest benefactors and they benefited from Biden's approach there.

So we'll use the leverage that we have, but the goal is going to be a sustainable peace that does not reward aggression.

TAPPER: What do you say to the argument that Xi Jinping is watching the U.S. response to Ukraine to game out how the U.S. would respond if China invaded Taiwan? President Biden has said that U.S. forces would defend Taiwan if China invaded.

Would you do the same? Would you order the U.S. military to defend Taiwan?

DESANTIS: Well, two things, so first, how does China view this. I mean, it's speculative.

I think what they would like to see in Russia is a multi-year stalemate and quagmire where the West is pouring hundred billion, another two hundred billion dollars of weapons, our stocks continue to decline. They don't really care about the Russians. Russia will be more dependent on China as a result of that. So I think that's what Xi would like to see ideally.

Now in terms of Taiwan, that is a significant interest of the United States. Taiwan is a strong ally. Taiwan is important for us economically and for a variety of other reasons. Also, a potential Chinese attack on Taiwan successfully would have big reverberations in the Asia-Pacific.

But our policy is going to be very simple. We're going to deter that from happening. China respects hard power. If you have hard power, if you have strong alliances with the Japanese and -- I visited there a few months ago.

The Koreans and the Japanese are getting along now. They never used to get along because they both see the threat posed by China. So we're going to work together. We're going to be much stronger. We're going to project power and we're going to deter that from happening.

TAPPER: Let's talk about some issues here in the United States. You've been asked about this by a number of members of conservative media and you have yet to give a yes or no answer. You recently signed a six- week abortion ban in Florida.

Yes or no, would you support that as a nationwide ban?

DESANTIS: So, I said I'm a pro-life. I will be a pro-life president and we will support pro-life policies.

At the same time, I look at what is going on in the Congress and, you know, I don't see them, you know, making very much headway. I think the danger from Congress is if we lose the election, they're going to try to nationalize abortion up until the moment of birth.


And in some liberal states, you actually have post-birth abortions and I think that that's wrong.

Also with respect to the military thing that we talked about, we're going to reverse the abortion tourism policy in the Department of Defense. They're actually paying people to go and get abortions with American tax dollars as part of the military. They won't even pay you -- you lose a loved one, you don't get that type of time off to be able to go to do funerals.

And so, we're going to continue to stand for -- to stand for life and we're going to make sure that everybody knows that.


TAPPER: So I asked the DeSantis campaign what exactly the governor was referring to when he referred post-birth abortion. They said it was a reference to when an infant survives an abortion procedure and lifesaving medical care is not provided.

Much more of my interview with Governor DeSantis coming, including my asking him what he makes of the perception from politicos out there that he might be less electable at this state in the 2024 race. We're going to have more from Columbia, South Carolina, next.



TAPPER: That is right behind me. I could see it.

Welcome back to THE LEAD, live from Columbia, South Carolina, the second half of my sit-down with Florida Governor Ron DeSantis started with the second half of his campaign as he has as of yet failed to catch up to the leading candidate former President Trump. So what is DeSantis strategy to make up lost ground? That's what I

asked him right after we discussed his support for a six-week abortion ban.


TAPPER: So this issue gets into the state of the race because some of your supporters are disappointed that you're campaign has yet to catch fire the way they would want in terms of polling. One Republican pollster, one who is sympathetic to you, I was asking her about your campaign and she said she thought that the issue was you bumped up at beginning because voters, Republican voters saw you as a more electable conservative like Trump, like Trump without a baggage.

But then they say as you go further and further to the right on some of these divisive social issues, they could alienate moderates, suburban moms, et cetera, Republican voters see you as less and less electable.

What do you say to that analysis?

DESANTIS: Well, I don't think it's true. I mean, the proof is in the pudding. I mean, I took a state that had been a one-point state and we won it by 20 percentage votes, 1.5 million votes.

Our bread and butter were people like suburban moms. We're leading a big movement for parents' rights, to have parents be involved in education, school choice, get the indoctrination out of schools.

Of course, there's bread and butter issues that matter, too. Inflation, and more economic opportunity. Florida's economy is ranked number one of all 50 states. We've worked hard to make that happen.

Crime -- you see crime in all these different communities that is now even going into suburbs and some areas. So I think there's a lot -- I don't think that's the reason.

I think the reason is, is I was being a lot of media attention at the time, coming off the victory. I had to do my job as governor with my legislative session and we had a great legislative session and we did a lot of great things, actual things that appeal to huge majorities of the population. So I think that analysis is wrong.

But I had to do that. And so, I was basically taking fire really nonstop since then because a lot of people view me as a threat. I think the left views me as a threat because they think I will beat Biden and actually deliver on all of this stuff, and then, of course, people that have their allegiances within -- allegiances on the Republican side, you know, have gone after me.

But the reality is, this is a state by state process. I'm not running a campaign to try to juice, you know, whatever we are in the national polls. I mean, I -- whatever we did in the CNN compared -- whatever, it's fine. I'm definitely doing better than everybody else.

TAPPER: But state by state obviously. DESANTIS: It's state by state.

TAPPER: Right.

DESANTIS: So we're focused on building an organization. You've got to get the people to come out in the middle of January in Iowa to caucus for you. That requires an organization. It requires to know where those votes are.

Now, that is not going to make the same type of splash as if you were trying to run ads nationally or do these other things. And so, we've been making, you know, really good progress. I think this weekend was really good in terms of the Family Leader and some of the other things we were doing in Iowa.

Of course, we're here in South Carolina. We're going to do a lot of in New Hampshire. But that's going to be our focus -- focusing on those early states, continuing to build our coalition and going forward.

And I would note, Jake, there is a narrative that they're almost trying a little too hard with this to try to say, because they've been saying that I've been doing poorly for my whole time as governor basically.

This is always the case during COVID. Oh, you know, he has state open. He's going to lose. And then he fought Disney, he's going to lose and then this.

So they always want to get there and it never quite works out. And, in fact, I actually remember you did -- you did the debate with us in '18.


DESANTIS: And before we did the debate on CNN, and you didn't have anything to do with this, CNN released a poll saying I was down by 14 or 15 points. Now, that was the narrative at the time. He's going down.

So, I think some of this is motivated reasoning, but I kind of get a kick out when they say he didn't fundraise well when I did more than Biden and Trump in the second quarter, and I'm just the governor.

TAPPER: So I didn't believe that poll was accurate for the record.

Your new policy that you announced today about the military would ban transgender Americans from serving in the military regardless of their ability and this comes on the heels of your campaign retweeting a video that the Log Cabin Republicans, which is a conservative LGBTQ group, said, quote, ventured into homophobic territory, unquote.

There are more than a million trans adults in the U.S. What are their lives and the lives of the people who love and support them going to be like under a DeSantis administration?

DESANTIS: Look, in the military, it's all about the mission first. So, there's a whole bunch of reasons why you focus on mission first. People's individuality, it does take -- you do have to check that at the door.


And that's not the only example. There's a whole host of other examples. So, I think the military culture is unique in terms of that.

Now, in terms of the larger issue, the question is, you know, what role does someone that's man have in women's activities, even if they conceive themselves to be a woman? I think it's wrong to have men in women's sports. And I understand some of those men conceive of themselves differently but it's not fair to the girls who are competing. It's not fair to the women athletes.

The swimmers who lost that national championship to the Penn swimmer, I mean, they've been training, too. So I don't think it's good for that and I think having things like locker rooms where they're having to share with somebody who's of the opposite sex, you know, I think is wrong.

So I would respect everybody but I wouldn't do is turn society upside down to be able to accommodate, which is a very, very small percentage of the population.

TAPPER: Last question about your military policy because your new military policy says that the Pentagon should never prioritize climate politics over national security. But this week, we heard from the associate director of military affairs of the CIA who told a roomful of National Guard leaders and allies from other countries that climate change supercharges almost every other global threat, because of refugees, because of conflicts, because of all sorts of reasons.

What's your response to that, the idea that climate politics isn't about politics, it's about national security?

DESANTIS: Well, here's the thing -- how are you going to equip your fighting force to win. Are you going to put those considerations in, are you going to create the most lethal force available?

I can tell you, China is not going to use those considerations. If they need to burn more coal to defend their country, they are going to burn more coal to defend their country.

So I just don't think it should be a factor in terms of how we project power in this country. Focus on how lethal we can be and focus on them getting the mission done. I don't want to force the Department of Defense to be using electric vehicles. I just don't think that that's something that makes any sense.

TAPPER: You entered your candidacy officially for the Republican contest here in South Carolina. Before you go, are you going to win South Carolina?

DESANTIS: Yeah, we are. I think this is a great setup for me. I'm the only veteran running. I'll be the first president-elected since 1988 that served in a war. There's very few states in this country with a stronger active military duty presence and veteran presence than here.

We've also got great support in the Upcountry in South Carolina that we're building. And, of course, my wife went to college at Charleston. So, we know the Lowcountry well, and I think we're going to be able to build a lot of support here.

So, this is a great state for us, and the way the calendar is working out, we're going to have New Hampshire in late July or January and then here in late February. So we're going to be spending a lot of time. You're going to be spending a lot time in South Carolina.

TAPPER: All right. Governor DeSantis, thanks so much for your time today. I appreciate it.

DESANTIS: All right. Thanks. I appreciate you.


TAPPER: So only about 15 minutes but we covered a lot of ground. Let's talk about all of this with our political panel, Scott Jennings, former adviser to George W. Bush.

This is a rare sojourn by Governor DeSantis to a, what he calls corporate media place, a non-conservative media. Do you think he set out what he wanted to do?

SCOTT JENNINGS, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, all the things that you talked about today, whether it's transgender policy or, you know, the things he had to say about the culture of the military or even sort of talking about the nature of the -- I mean, and all of these things are pleasure centers for Republican voters. And, you know, that's what he's trying to get done today.

He may not think that tons of Republicans are going to watch it live, but obviously, getting those things into the eco-system that they live in, which is Internet, Twitter, getting that after their people, I think -- I think he hit a lot of topics that they -- they think are going to work. And it obviously is his brand, this anti-woke stuff, it's his brand and I don't get the feeling he's going to come off of it just because he's talking to a non-conservative media.

TAPPER: So, Kristen Soltis Anderson, one of the questions I asked him was a concern among some of his supporters and a sympathetic Republican pollster, not you, I should note. It wasn't you, but somebody who said that he shot up in the polls early on because he was seen by Republicans as an electable Trump, and then since he staked out these more and more conservative positions on the right, his numbers have gone down in this pollster's view because they perceive him as less electable.

He kind of brushed that off. What do you make of that argument and his response?

KRISTEN SOLTIS ANDERSON, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, I somewhat concur with this unnamed pollster who you talked to. I do think that the big argument DeSantis had going for him initially was Trump without the baggage. And to the extent that the policies he's pursued in Florida since his blockbuster re-election has thrown some doubt on is he still the most electable guy, I think if you're thinking about who in the Republican Party is voting with her head and not they're heart and who is thinking strategically, that is potentially a challenge.

The problem for him, too, is that if you are a Republican voter who's still voting with your heart, you might still be voting either for Donald Trump or for someone who very much not Donald Trump.

And so for DeSantis, trying to be somebody who wins a little bit of everyone, as I think I he's trying to do in his interview with you today, it's a challenge because if you're everybody's second choice, that doesn't necessarily get you the nomination.


TAPPER: Well, it worked if Republicans have rank choice voting. Maybe in Iowa. Maybe in Iowa.

Bakari, what do you think? His argument very strongly that he is the candidate that the left fears the most, that they would rather have Donald Trump take on Biden because Biden could beat Trump and Biden cannot beat him. That's how he views --

BAKARI SELLERS, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: No, I still think that that is a decently ludicrous argument. I think that most Democrats fear, and this is probably going to be in an email blast soon, most Democrats still fear Donald Trump. Donald Trump got 74 million votes I believe last time.

There is no believe the Republicans and the silent majority or the silent core or wherever they maybe will leave Donald Trump. Donald Trump is a candidate that puts the most fear even with baggage in the hearts of Democrats. I think what we show today was that I was happy to see him sit down with, I forget what they call you now, corporate media.

TAPPER: Corporate media.

SELLERS: Yeah, yeah.

TAPPER: I'll take -- that's a nice version. That's a nice version.

SELLERS: Trust me, I know.

But I was glad to see him sit down outside of his bubble because then it helps them to look more electable. It is one thing to do a Joe Rogan interview or kind of the fringes. It's another thing to sit down with a consummate journalist. I think today, he was able to deal with those questions and deal them. And although I don't -- I don't believe in his policies per se, but he actually looked decently presidential today.

TAPPER: Yeah. SELLERS: I'm not sure it was a reset because everything is I'm anti- woke, anti-woke. Today, he just inserted in the military. But at least today, he started to give the vibe and just still a Scott Jennings' thing. It's about vibes.

JENNINGS: It's a vibe primary. It's a vibe primary.

SELLERS: He started to give the vibe that he could be president of the United States.

ANDERSON: There was one thing I though that was interesting though in this question of wokeness, is he actually acknowledged to you that a lot of people don't even know what being woke means.

TAPPER: A lot of people railed against it, don't know what it means.

JENNINGS: But it's a feeling, it's vibe.

You know it when you see it, and I think that's what he's getting at because Republicans believe under Biden, a softness has crept into the military and most major institutions have been invaded something. He calls it woke, they know it is something they do not recognize as traditional American values. That's the broad definition, even if you cannot specifically define the word, you know when you see it. And that's what he's speaking.

TAPPER: Let Kristen finish it. Yeah.

ANDERSON: Yeah, to that point, the phrase wokeness. I thought that it represented a good bit of self- awareness because, ah, you know, this is term that if you're on the right, you definitely know what it means.


ANDERSON: But I know I need to broaden my audience. Now, a couple sentences later, he use the acronym DEI, which again is something that conservatives know exactly what DEI is.

TAPPER: Diversity, equity and inclusion.

ANDERSON: Right, but for your sort of median voter, I don't know if that's like tip of their tongue, so there may still be some work to be done there to figure out how can you take the message more broadly from like conservative talk radio and that type of world to a broader audience. At least it showed self- awareness.

JENNINGS: But the voters in the Republican --

SELLERS: This is why I appreciate this discussion because my friends who's sitting from the left but who actually the right of me in most -- not most but everything, it is a troublesome word for them to define. But it's also --

TAPPER: Woke. SELLERS: Woke. And it's been -- even in his description today, is the furthest thing from what it is. But I do not go down that rabbit hole. But what I do want to say is that it is completely out of touch with what most Americans are feeling.

You know, Joe Biden is out here talking about Bidenomics. This disconnect is trying to make sure that Bidenomics meets people in their pockets.

Wokeness or whatever Ron DeSantis and Nikki Haley and everybody else want to say is so far away from the average every day American, that these people who are working in this, as you can probably hear in the background working on this hotel, across the street, they are not worried about wokeness. They are worried about insurance.


SELLERS: They are worried about making sure that their, you know, that their pocketbooks are filled. They are not worried about somebody being too woke in whatever aspect of the government it is.

And so, that is my point to Ron DeSantis. He is running against this fairy. He's running against an imagination. But at least Donald Trump is running on policies that I disagree with. But he has run on them before, which he can articulate help strengthen some part of the economy. That's the difference.

TAPPER: So, Kristen, very quickly, he said that criminal charges against Donald Trump would be bad for the country, and he hopes Jack Smith doesn't bring them, were you surprised by that answer?

ANDERSON: I was not surprised by that answer, but I also appreciated that he snuck in towards the end that it's time for us to look forward and not back. We should not be focused on what happened four years, ago. You know Donald Trump is going to be very focused on what happened four years ago.

That's the closest we saw to him trying to draw a contrast to the former president, I think he needs to draw some brighter lines. Not attacks, but brighter contrast lines. That was the beginning of moving in that direction.

TAPPER: He also said that it was speculative, so he left a small life vote for him if he decides to leap on whatever evidence there is on the criminal charges.

SELLERS: Good interview, though. Good interview, though.

TAPPER: Thank you so.

Everyone, stick around. We're going to have much more from the panel.

Coming up, in my exclusive interview, I ask Governor DeSantis, the Republican in Florida, repeatedly if special counsel Jack Smith, if he has evidence of criminality should Trump be held accountable. His response echoes a lot of what we have been hearing from others in the Republican Party, especially those running for president.

We're back in a moment from the campaign trail in Columbia, South Carolina.



TAPPER: Welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper. Coming to you live from the campaign trail in Columbia, South Carolina, where I just sat down for an exclusive interview with Republican presidential candidate, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis. We tackle the range of issues, including where he stands on a six-week abortion ban nationally, and his current standing in the polls.

Plus, he also weighed in on the legal troubles facing his chief opponent on the 2024 campaign trail, Donald Trump. This after Trump announced he is now a target of the special counsel's investigation into efforts to overturn the 2020 election.

Trump announced on Truth Social, his media app, that he received a letter Sunday from special counsel Jack Smith's office, informing him he was a target and that the letter requested that he go before the grand jury in D.C. sometimes before Thursday.

Trump's lawyers have not responded to the request, we're told. If Trump were to be charged in the January 6th probe, it would be his third criminal indictment since March of this year, something that has never happened in American history. But then again, neither has Donald Trump's behavior.