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State of the Union

President Trump Defends North Korea After Missile Tests; Interview With New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio; Interview With Sen. Joni Ernst (R-IA); Trump, Abe Visit To Include Talks On Trade And North Korea; President Trump Plays Down North Korea's Missile Test; More Democrats Are Starting To Call For Impeachment; Buttigieg To Democrats, Don't Vote For Who You Think Is Less Risky; New Poll Shows Sanders Still Second But Support Slipping; Warren And Harris See Favorability Increases; Record Number Of Black Female Cadets Graduate West Point. Aired 9-10a ET

Aired May 26, 2019 - 09:00   ET




DANA BASH, CNN ANCHOR (voice-over): Global threats. In Japan, President Trump splits with his advisers and defends North Korea's dictator after missile tests. Is the president's America-first policy helping or hurting the U.S.?

I will speak with Republican Senator Joni Ernst next.

And grinding to a halt. The president grants his attorney general sweeping new authority on the Russia probe, as a partisan squabble...

REP. NANCY PELOSI (D-CA): Another temper tantrum.

BASH: ... takes a nasty turn.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: You think Nancy's the same as she was? She's not.

BASH: A constitutional battle leaves Washington at a standstill.

Plus, now or never? House Democrats debate impeachment while 2020 candidates rally behind it.

JULIAN CASTRO (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I actually believe that it's a mistake not to move forward.

BASH: But are they pushing a policy that could hurt them at the ballot box?

PELOSI: Impeachment is a very divisive place to go.

BASH: We will ask 2020 candidate New York Mayor Bill de Blasio in moments.

(END VIDEOTAPE) BASH: Hello. I'm Dana Bash, in for Jake Tapper in Washington, where the state of our union is not sure we could handle another infrastructure week.

President Trump just kicked off his Memorial Day weekend by attending a sumo wrestling match in Japan on a diplomatic trip that was supposed to be largely ceremonial. That lasted about 15 hours, before the president undermined his national security team and his Japanese hosts by downplaying North Korea's recent short-range missile tests.

He tweeted: "North Korea fired off some small weapons, which disturbed some of my people and others, but not me. I have confidence that Chairman Kim will keep his promise to me and also smiled when he called swampman Joe Biden a low I.Q. individual and worse. Perhaps that is sending me a signal."

Now, there's a lot to unpack there. The tweet appears to contradict his own national security adviser John Bolton, as well as the Japanese government currently hosting him. Both have said North Korea's missile tests, which landed off Japan's shores, violated U.N. resolutions.

And the president's slap at Biden while on foreign soil capped a stunningly hostile week here in Washington, after he walked out of a meeting with leading Democrats and questioned Nancy Pelosi's competence.

Well, joining me to talk about all of this is a member of the Senate Republican leadership who sits on Armed Services and Judiciary committees, Iowa Senator Joni Ernst.

Thank you so much for joining me. I appreciate it.

SEN. JONI ERNST (R-IA): Thanks, Dana.

BASH: Let's start with the president's tweet. He's in Japan, as I mentioned, as we speak, right across the sea, well within the striking range of any missile. And yet the president says North Korea test- firing missiles earlier this month did not disturb him.

Do you find those missiles disturbing?

ERNST: I find them very disturbing and certainly wouldn't trust Kim Jong-un.

So, I think we need to keep our eyes on North Korea. I understand the president wants to maintain a relationship with North Korea, so that we can work with them. However, those strikes are disturbing.

BASH: And the fact that the president says they're not while in the region, does it disturb you that that is the president's action or maybe reaction?

ERNST: Certainly.

I think Japan does have reason to be concerned. And I am concerned as well. We need to see North Korea back off of those activities. And we need to take a very strong stance on that.

So, understanding the president has a job to do in negotiating, but we do need to push back on North Korea and make sure that they are following U.N. guidelines. And that's very, very important. We can't -- we can't continue to let them further develop any type of weapon systems.

BASH: OK. I want to turn to Russia and the fact that the president gave really broad new powers to his attorney general, Bill Barr, this week to declassify information about the origins of the Russia investigation, saying -- quote -- "We are exposing everything."

But I'm sure you heard the director of national intelligence, Dan Coats, appeared to warn that could endanger national security.

You're a veteran. You're on the Judiciary Committee. You're on the Armed Services Committee. Why not keep control of America's most classified, important secrets in the hands of the intelligence community?

ERNST: Certainly.

If we do see this move forward, and the attorney general has the opportunity to declassify, which it sounds like he does, what we want to do is make sure that he is redacting anything that might endanger national security and the folks that we have working in those intelligence areas.

It is a very, very sensitive issue. And we do need to make sure that we are protecting ourselves, our country, and those that are working for our country.

BASH: Should the president have given his attorney general these broad, seemingly unprecedented powers?


ERNST: Well, I think that that is up to the president to make those types of decisions.

BASH: As somebody with oversight on these issues?

ERNST: But, certainly -- but, certainly, we need oversight of these issues.

And I do hope that, in future -- in the future, the president continues to reach out to Congress.

BASH: More broadly, what do you think about Barr's investigation? There are people who say that this is essentially weaponizing the Justice Department on behalf of the president.

ERNST: Well, I would say that there has been a lot of back and forth with the Department of Justice so far, whether it was, as the attorney general has termed it, spying on campaigns, whether it is the Mueller investigation, whatever it may happen to be. We do tend to be pushing and pulling our Department of Justice.

BASH: What do you think?

ERNST: Well, I do think that, if the FBI and other federal agencies were misused, whether it was looking into campaign activities or otherwise, we do need to get to the bottom of that, because we should not be using those federal agencies to go after political opponents.

So, I think we do for the American people have to find out what went on there. But, at some point, we need to move on from this issue.

BASH: OK, I want to turn to a very big issue for you and your state of Iowa.

The president announced this week $16 billion to help farmers hurt by the tariffs that he has imposed in this trade war with China. But it doesn't seem like this is going to be over any time soon, Senator.

You have been saying that you speak to your farmers. They are overwhelmed right now. But you also have said we do need a deal with China.

At what point are you willing to say, time's up, Mr. President, remove these tariffs, we're not going to get a deal, help my farmers?

ERNST: Well, this is a really difficult situation that the farmers are in.

And just to remind the viewers that one in five jobs in Iowa is tied directly to trade. Most of that is around the farming sector, our agricultural sector. So, it is very tense times.

But, as we have heard from our farmers, they do want us to find a path forward with China. The tariffs are hurtful right now. But the president will continue negotiating. We hope that we can get a deal soon.

But, to put it best, I think it came from a farmer in Iowa after one of our farmer roundtables. He stood up and he said: I get why the president is doing this. What I don't get is why we didn't have a president that would stand up for us before this.

BASH: So, that's understandable. And you are hearing that your farmers are giving -- have been giving running room, despite the fact that it's hurting them economically.

But what is that? How much time does the president have?

ERNST: Yes, and that is difficult, because every farmer will have different circumstances.

BASH: What do you think the answer is?

ERNST: I think we need to see a deal done. I would love to see it this summer. I don't see that happening this summer. BASH: So, should he say, enough, I will roll -- relieve these


ERNST: Well, at what do you point national security, the interests of our country, that's enough?

I think that our trade rep, the president, they understand the implications. They know better where we are with those negotiations. The president has asked those farmers to hang on just a little bit longer.

It is tenuous. It is hurting in the Midwest. It's hurting all over the country with the tariffs. But, at the same time, we do have to get China to the table. We have to stop them from stealing intellectual property. We have to stop them from forced technology transfers.

All of that is detrimental, not only to our economy, but to our national security. So the president has called our farmers patriots. It doesn't pay the bills. It doesn't pay the bills. But we will see in the upcoming months how long we can sustain.

BASH: OK, want to turn to something that you will deal with on the Armed Services Committee, potentially.

President Trump says he is considering pardons for Navy SEAL Eddie Gallagher and other troops who are accused of war crimes.

And Gallagher is -- just so our viewers know -- I know you know -- he's charged with murdering a wounded teenage ISIS soldier and posing for a photo with his body, as well as shooting innocent civilians.

You're the first female combat veteran in the United States Senate. Do you support a pardon for Gallagher and anyone else who engaged in these alleged war crimes?

ERNST: And I will just be up front and say, I don't know the details of what went through the prosecution, that particular case.

But I would say that, if our soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines, if they are accused and found guilty of war crimes, we need to be very careful in that, because it is not OK to perpetrate war crimes. It is not OK.

BASH: What signal would the president send with a pardon, then?

ERNST: Well, and -- and, again, depending on what the circumstances were and the legalities involved there, I would hesitate, because we need our young men and women in uniform to understand that we operate under a code of ethics.

Even though they may serve in armed services, they still are human beings. And we do have a code that we have to operate under.

So, I would just advise the president to be very careful, scrutinize, of course, each case individually, and, if it's warranted, grant a pardon. If it is not, and someone has committed a war crime, then a sentence should be served.

BASH: You have been working very actively on trying to deal with the very rampant issue of sexual assault in the military.

And you have a new plan that tries to bridge the divide on finding an answer on this, keeping -- thread the needle between keeping the chain of command intact and giving enough independent oversight.

This is personal for you. You revealed in the last couple of months that you were raped in college.

ERNST: Mm-hmm.

BASH: So, how much does that go into what you're trying to do here? And how successful do you think you're going to be here?

ERNST: Well, as a combat veteran and as a survivor, this is an issue that is very, very important to me.

And now people, I think, understand even more so why these issues are important to me. So, we do have to find a path forward. And, in my circumstance, prevention is always better.

But if a crime or a sexual assault cannot be prevented, then we do have to make sure that the prosecution is going forward and that justice is found. So, this provides an additional check, an outside independent review of each case.

And so, if a commander is determining not to move forward with a particular crime, then it can be reviewed by an independent reviewer.

BASH: You already -- just real quickly, you already had credentials as a combat veteran. But the fact that you reveal that you are a victim of rape, has that gotten your colleagues to listen even more carefully to your recommendation on how to deal with this?

ERNST: Well, I think they do.

One thing that has always been very important to me, though, is allowing a survivor to come out at a time that is -- is right for them. And that wasn't necessarily my case.

But certainly allowing those checks and balances within the system is very, very important. But the emphasis does need to be on prevention. And anything that we can do to prevent a sexual assault or sexual harassment, we need to do that.

And if it can't be prevented, then we need to make sure that that survivor can find justice.

BASH: One last thing I have got to ask about, something else that you're involved in on Capitol Hill.

You met with Ivanka Trump this past week about paid parental leave. And your bill that you're working on would give parents paid leave to be with their child in exchange for delaying retirement up to six months.

So, the question is, if paid leave is so important, why would it require somebody to give up or to short -- or to lengthen their time working, to give up six months of retirement, in order to pay to have a child and work?

ERNST: Well, this is a discussion draft.

And the plan that I have put forward, it's also co-sponsored by Senator Mike Lee of Utah. And what it is, is a voluntary program. It is not a mandatory program. And that way, a parent can decide what is right for them. They can tailor the need and make sure that they are asking for the appropriate amount of time off to spend with their child.

But what we don't want to do is impose an additional tax. And I have heard from small business owners all across Iowa that say, if -- if there was an additional tax, I wouldn't be able to have as many workers or so forth.

But we do find that many moms and dads, they would take that time off. They have said simply delaying a couple of months at the tail end of retirement to allow them to spend time, those first few precious weeks of time with their child, and those children often show better development as well, better outcomes, health and educational outcomes, if they're able to spend that time with mom and dad up front.

BASH: Senator Joni Ernst, thank you so much.

And, as we observe Memorial Day weekend, you are a combat veteran, and we want to -- we always say thank you for your service, but especially so this weekend.

ERNST: Yes, and thank you.

And God bless all of our Gold Star families.

BASH: Thank you. Thank you, Senator. Appreciate it.

And up next: New Yorkers certainly have a lot to say about my next guest.

I will talk to the newest Democratic presidential candidate, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, about why he's running for president.



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

The 2020 Democratic field is out in full force this weekend, with just a month to go until the first Democratic debates.

Now, the newest of the 23 candidates, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, hopes to catch up with his progressive pitch and his ability to get under President Trump's skin.

Joining me now from the campaign trail is New York Mayor Bill de Blasio.

Thank you so much for joining me.

First, you entered a very crowded Democratic primary race. You have pitched yourself as one of the most progressive candidates in the field.

But prominent progressives are already out there, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren. They're already pulling in double digits. So what do you offer that those and the other 20 candidates do not?

BILL DE BLASIO (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Dana, there's lots of good candidates, but I want to be very clear.

You know, I run the largest, toughest, most diverse city in America. I'm the chief executive of that city. And I have made things happen for working people.

So, a candidate -- there's a lot of candidates that are putting forward good ideas. But the real question I think the American people are asking is, who can get them done? Who can prove that these changes can be made?

And I talk about putting working people first. That is the kind of approach our government, our federal government hasn't had. Let's be very clear. Federal government has been on the side of the wealthy and the corporations for a long time.


We saw that with that huge tax giveaway just a few years ago. In New York, we have done the reverse.

We have put working people first. We have put money back in the hands of working people with things like paid sick leave, full-day, high- quality pre-K for all our kids, guaranteed health care for folks who don't have insurance.

These are things that are happening right now in the nation's largest city.

And the other point, you referred to. I know something about Donald Trump that's different from the other candidates, because I have watched him for decades. I understand his game plan. I understand his tricks and his strategies.

And I do get under his skin. I called him -- on the first day of my campaign, I called him "Con Don" because he is a con artist. That's how he's gotten ahead.

BASH: So...

DE BLASIO: And he immediately responded multiple times that day. We got to take that fight to him if we're going to disrupt him and ultimately beat him.

BASH: So -- OK, so I want to -- before you get there, I want to talk about one of the major hurdles that you have so far in your primary campaign, and that is, polls show that you have the worst favorability ratings of any Democrat in the 2020 race.

Three-quarters of voters in your city, New York, your constituents, say you shouldn't run. So how do you explain that kind of negativity to a voter who just heard about you for the first time?

DE BLASIO: Well, Dana, voters are going to get to know me, as is true in every election.

Look, I have had two elections in New York City, and won both overwhelmingly. So the people of my city decided that they wanted this leadership because it puts working people first. That's what I do. And people, ultimately, after they hear all the facts and look at all the choices, they want someone who knows how to support working people.

And I will tell you -- and I have found this with polls over and over again -- if I had believed the polls and listened to the polls in all my other elections, I might have just stayed home.

But it's not where you start. It's where you end. So much of the time, the polls don't tell us the truth. When people get to know you and see what you're about, that's what they respond to.

Now, I have been in Nevada yesterday talking to Democratic Party activists and immigrant activists and veterans. And I say to them, look, we can make big changes in this country, but we have to be blunt about one key fact, that there's plenty of money in this world and there's plenty of money in this country, but it's just in the wrong hands.

BASH: So...

DE BLASIO: When folks hear that kind of blunt reality and that honesty, they respond to it.

BASH: So -- yes.

DE BLASIO: And so, Dana, I would say, the more folks get to hear this message and look at the experience I have and what I have actually done for working people, the more they will come over to this side.

BASH: OK, that might be, but, in the short term, it's not just the question of the so-called horse race, where you are compared to the other candidates. It's -- it is likability.

So I'm going to ask you a question that is, frankly, often asked of women when they're running. Do you have a likability problem?

DE BLASIO: Well, again, Dana, I'm looking at real elections in, I would say, one of the toughest political environments in the entire country, the most diverse city in our nation. And I won overwhelmingly two times.

So I would argue, when you're talking about appealing to every kind of New Yorker and every kind of American, I have built those very broad coalitions. And folks had to have liked me to have made me mayor of New York City twice.


DE BLASIO: But more important than that is, they like the ideas, they like the policies, because it's so important. We can't accept the status quo we have now in our country.

BASH: So...

DE BLASIO: Working people are not getting ahead. And they need to see change, but it has to be from someone who knows how to do it.

BASH: OK, so let's turn to some of the issues that Democrats are talking about on the campaign trail.

One is what the president calls the I-word, impeachment. Nancy Pelosi says House Democrats, they're not there yet. They're not on the path to impeachment yet. Progressive voices on the Hill, though, are saying, we should be. They're becoming louder.

What do you think? Do you support beginning the impeachment proceedings now?

DE BLASIO: I think we should continue the investigations in the Congress, aggressively looking for the facts, more evidence.

But here's what I'm worried about, Dana. I don't hear Democrats talking about the issues of concern to everyday Americans enough right now. I hear a lot of focus and a lot of talk on investigations. And that's obviously important, and I believe they will eventually lead to impeachment.

BASH: So...

DE BLASIO: But, in the meantime, working people want to hear Democrats acting on health care, on infrastructure, on the things that will affect their lives.

And I don't think it's balanced enough. So, my advice to Democrats in Washington is, go ahead.

You know, when the president had his tantrum over that infrastructure bill, the House should pass a strong infrastructure bill that will say to the American people, we're going to invest in their communities and create jobs for them.

BASH: So...

DE BLASIO: The Senate Democrats should affirm it, and then we should show the American people we're acting, but Trump is standing in the way.

BASH: OK, so let me ask you about a pretty big issue on the campaign trail, and that is criminal justice.

Your fellow Democratic candidate Kamala Harris recently split with the front-runner, Joe Biden, over his vote in 1994 for the crime bill. Biden says that that did not generate mass incarceration. Harris disagrees.


Who's right?

DE BLASIO: Oh, it absolutely -- that crime bill was one of the foundations of mass incarceration and a very painful era in our nation's history.

And I think, look, the vice president and anyone else has to be accountable for every vote they take and what's on their record. And I think that was a huge mistake.

Look, we have a mass incarceration crisis still in this country. In our city, we have reduced our jail population about 30 percent already. We're going to close the infamous Rikers Island jail. We are ending the era of mass incarceration in New York City.

It's taking a lot of work to finally break free from that, but let's face it. Federal policies, including that crime bill, were a big part of why untold thousands of people and families had their lives entirely disrupted and in many ways destroyed, because folks who had done very little were sent to very long sentences.

We have got to break out of that. And anyone responsible has to be accountable and has to speak to it.

BASH: New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, thank you so much for joining me this morning. Appreciate it.

DE BLASIO: Thank you. Thank you, Dana.

BASH: Thank you.

And the president took in a sumo wrestling match in Japan this morning, but he saved the true heavy hitting for Democrats on his Twitter feed.

That's next.




TRUMP: Prime minister and I talked a lot today about trade and military and various other things. I think we had a very productive day and tomorrow likewise --


BASH: President Trump discussing his trip to Japan, his idea of a productive day, sending a tweet praising Kim Jong-un and undercutting his advisors and his Japanese host. Here's what he wrote, "North Korea fired off some small weapons, which disturbed some of my people and others but not me. I have confidence that Chairman Kim will keep his promise to me and also smiled when he called Swampman Joe Biden a low I.Q. individual and worse. Perhaps that's sending me a signal."

So much to discuss with our panel. Thank you so much for joining me, all of you. I mean, let's start with that, Scott Jennings. How do you feel -- how comfortable do you feel as a fellow Republican with -- just pick one of the things that he talked about?

SCOTT JENNINGS, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, on the issue of North Korea, I think the president has done something that he should have done which is to try something new and he's going to get credit for that, but he needs to be prepared to be disappointed by the North Koreans. I've believed that for a beginning.

I was all for a new tactic but these folks have never dealt with us in good faith. I don't anticipate that they are going to deal with us in good faith. I wish they would and I applaud the president's desire to ratchet down tensions on the peninsula as most Republicans do. But these guys are never going to -- they're never going to come (INAUDIBLE) to denuclearizing the peninsula and I think the sooner he prepares for that disappointment the better.

BASH: So there's that aspect of it and then, Kristen, there's just the notion that he aggressively directly undermined his own national security advisor saying don't listen to him, listen to me. I don't agree. It's not it -- it's not right (ph).

KIRSTEN SOLTIS ANDERSON, COLUMNIST, WASHINGTON EXAMINER: Well, President Trump is very focused on what people say. And I think that comes at the expense of holding countries accountable for what they do. And so President Trump whether it's thinking that he's somehow got this buddy-buddy relationship with Kim or whether it's sending out selfies from the golf course with Prime Minister Abe he's very focused on this sort of personal relationships, these friendships he, has but I think when it comes to North Korea, it is blinding him to the fact that this is not your buddy. This is someone with very dangerous weapons who needs to be taken seriously.

BAKARI SELLERS, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: I think that what we're seeing is another episode of the president of the United States being played by his own ego. Because what world leaders are doing, what Senate leadership is doing -- Mitch McConnell has done it extremely well -- is play to this president's personality, play to his ego and then you're able to manipulate him to do whatever you want.

I think most of us at this table, all four of us agree you probably trust Kim Jong-un as far as you can throw him, right? And we know that but the president of the United States because Kim Jong-un stroked his ego does not know that. And now you have a country who is contributing to the destabilization of the world and they are going and just flaunting and just saying we're going to develop missile systems but we're going to say I love you. And so because we say I love you, you're not going to do anything about it, Donald Trump.

BASH: I want to turn to what happened before the president went abroad, which was an explosion of trust. Not that there ever was very much but, you know, the whole theater inside the White House from the meeting with the Democrats and Republicans, of course, to the president's remarks in the Rose Garden saying, I'm not going to work with anybody because you're investigating me.

A lot of differences of opinion within the Democratic caucus in the House about impeachment. Listen to some of them.


REP. STEVE COHEN (D), TENNESSEE: I'm straight with the American people. Donald Trump needs to be impeached.

REP. JACKIE SPEIER (D), CALIFORNIA: I believe that an inquiry into impeachment is required at this point in time.

REP. ALEXANDRIA OCASIO-CORTEZ (D), NEW YORK: Choosing to not impeach when there's an abundance of evidence could also be construed as politically motivated as well. And we can't be scared of elections.

REP. NANCY PELOSI (D-CA), SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE: The House Democratic caucus is not on the path to impeachment.


Alexandra Rojas, what's your sense in talking to your friends in the caucus?

ALEXANDRA ROJAS, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, JUSTICE DEMOCRATS: I mean, I think we're all on board for impeachment for exactly the reason that we just saw with the tweet. We saw once again the president of the United States when his ego is stroked decides to put millions of people in danger, not just in the United States but from around the world. And there's absolutely no excuse that every single day he's in the White House is in violation of some of our core democratic values.

And so I think that we're all on board on pursuing the process of inquiry towards impeachment. And it's absolutely necessary if we want to uphold democratic values and legitimacy in our institutions.

JENNINGS: Alex here speaks the truth. She's willing to tell you the truth. These Democrats would love to impeach Donald Trump.


If you put it on the floor, there's not one that would vote against it. If you look at all the polling vast majority of Democrats think impeachment ought to be a top priority. And I think it looks disingenuous for the speaker of the House to say, the president is criminal, he's engaged in a cover up, but we're not and the path to impeachment.

What's the average voter to think? You're telling me this man is breaking laws and covering them up, but you're not willing to use the only constitutional tool you have to stop him? I think it hurts her own credibility to talk out of both sides of her mouth, frankly.


SELLERS: Go ahead. I'm sorry. No, no. Please.

ROJAS: No -- I was going to say I think it hurts Donald Trump's credibility for going on the world stage and using basically the excuse and the same tweet going after Joe Biden because Kim Jong-un decided that he was going to put him there. And then again cozying up with totalitarian dictatorship. So there is this sort of tension within the Democratic Party, I think, around impeachment but we're all on board with pursuing the fact that the president has --


SELLERS: Outside of the -- outside of the slight to Nancy Pelosi, because I believe that Speaker Pelosi has run circles around this president of the United States. Scott Jennings on this Sunday morning actually made extremely good sense.


SELLERS: So let's just say we agree for one of the few times on national TV. But the reason he does is because Democrats -- we actually do have to give the American public a message and a unifying message simply saying that no one is above the law.

Not Bill Barr -- Mueller laid out 12 instances of obstruction of justice. Those need to be fleshed out. There was an investigation.

Now let's go have the articles of impeachment. Let's have these hearings. The public deserves to know.

And even more importantly to my Republican colleagues, Donald Trump deserves his day in court. If he wants this to be aired, let's have go and have this full airing, let's have it public and he can defend himself in front of the American --


BASH: A day in court but you're the pollster at this table. What about those who say his day in court is Election Day and that this actually could help your fellow Republicans could help Donald Trump.


ANDERSON: And I think that's why to the point of Nancy Pelosi running sort of political circles, I think she is savvy and knows that there is nothing President Trump would love more than to be able to say Democrats are doing everything possible to make me fail. If means that if the economy turns down in the next 18 months, he can say, well, it's not my fault. It's Democrats have been trying to hurt me.

Anything bad that happens in the next 18 months. He's very good at setting up situations where when things go well he tries to claim credit and when things go badly he can blame other people. And if Democrats are focused on impeaching and investigating and that seems to be their main message coming out of Congress it makes it easier for him to make that case. That's why you saw Bill de Blasio in that interview just now say, I wish Democrats were back to talking more about health care and these other issues. Because those are the ones in the polls that I'm seeing where Republicans really are the most vulnerable.

SELLERS: That's not true though. I mean, Democrats have been walking and chewing gum at the same time. There's this theory that Democrats can't do both.

And the fact is the House Democratic caucus has passed a number of pieces of legislation dealing with equality, dealing with fair elections. I mean, Nancy Pelosi in this Congress have done yeoman's work in pumping up legislation where they're not passed to the Senate is a whole different ball game. And also I don't get caught up in this whole thing that somehow this is a -- first of all, this should not be a political calculation. This is a mechanism of --

BASH: But impeachment is inherently political.

SELLERS: That's fine. It should be inherently constitutional but even if it's -- even if it's a political calculus -- I mean, Bill Clinton got impeached, right? Bill Clinton won the presidency. However, Republicans did extremely well in both the House, the Senate, gubernatorial elections and state legislatures. So I don't understand why the House Democratic leadership is afraid of the Republican base.

That bothers me. I think we should do what's best for the country.

BASH: Everybody stand by because it is lonely at the top, it turns out. Another 2020 Democrat is taking aim at front runner Joe Biden.

Are presidential candidates starting to change their strategy? That's next.




MAYOR PETE BUTTIGIEG (D-IN), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Democrats sometimes outthink ourselves a little bit on this topic of what's called electability. Sometimes we pick somebody who is less inspiring that we think will also be less risky. And we wind up getting somebody that's needed.


BASH: South Bend mayor, Pete Buttigieg, on the campaign trail taking a failed shot at the front runner former Vice President Joe Biden. Is it time for the rest of the Democratic field to take Biden on more aggressively?

We're back with our panel. Alexandra, what do you think?

ROJAS: I think we're already starting to see that it's not just Mayor Pete, but Kamala Harris also came out in strong opposition of Joe Biden's architecture of the 1994 crime bill.

BASH: Right.

ROJAS: And so I think that they're starting to see that one of the ways that he's going to lessen the poll numbers is if they highlight his very, very public record and the fact that he comes from a generation of leadership that has frankly failed. They failed to stop Donald Trump from becoming president of the United States and fundamentally address some of the biggest core issues that we're facing like rising income inequality, combating the pressures of Wall Street and obviously mass incarceration and so much more.

BASH: And, Bakari, before you weight in I should let our viewers know that you have endorsed Senator Kamala Harris.

SELLERS: I have. And I was listening to Alex talk and I agree with some of what she was saying in that, yes, I think individuals -- and I actually don't think Mayor Pete was taking on Joe Biden head on. I think he was taking on with the media, portrays to be this falsehood of electability.

I always remind people that the last Democrat to win the White House in the last two decades was a black man. He won Indiana, he won Ohio, he won Iowa.

And so there isn't this theory that you have to be this old white man to be president of the United States. I think we're debunking that.

However, I think that there are a lot of issues I have with Joe Biden and his record. I mean, people look at him through an Obama curve or an Obama halo and they forget he served for 40 something years. But the fact is that he does have that record with Barack Obama and they -- Barack Obama and his White House did not attribute to income inequality et cetera as you were saying. But all of this is going to be played out.


And Barack Obama even said himself that the primary made him better. And so it's going to be a clash of ideas.

BASH: So you mentioned that it's not just Mayor Pete of course others including and especially Bernie Sanders who is next in almost all the polls, pretty far behind but next after Joe Biden, here's what he said in a fundraising notice on Friday.

These are not talking about Joe Biden's fundraising events, "These are not grassroots fundraising events. These are high-dollar functions hosted and attended by corporate lobbyists, health care executives, a Republican casino CEO, and a union-busting lawyer among others."

And I should say keep going to the context of this why he potentially did this. He has a slide in the polls. In March he was 25 percent, April 20 percent. Now 15 percent. That was all from Monmouth University poll.

JENNINGS: Yes. This is setting up to be Joe Biden as protecting and continuing the Obama legacy and Bernie Sanders and others who are saying they didn't go far enough in the Obama years, that we should have gone even further. And I find it a really interesting argument the Democrats are going to have.

Bernie Sanders is essentially running to get rid of Obama's signature achievement, which was Obamacare. He wants to throw it out and do something totally different. And so I find this debate to be fascinating.

It looks like right now Democrats prefer more of the Obama style politics and policies than maybe some of the more radical policies. It also strikes me that -- and something you said triggered this thought, that the last two presidents were not the safe choices.

Donald Trump was the least safe choice. They told us in a Republican primary. Barack Obama was the least safe choice in 2008 but they both won their primaries and they both became president.

In 2012 which I think this looks a little bit like to me Mitt Romney was the safe electable choice for Republicans and he did not defeat an incumbent president. I think that's what Joe Biden reminds me of today as much as anything.

ANDERSON: This reminds me a lot of the debate that the Republican Party had actually after 2012 when Republicans were trying to figure out, OK, we did not defeat Barack Obama, we have the autopsy report, what are we going to do? And the divide was do we become more sort of moderate establishments, reach out to sort of suburb's moderate voters, or do we really pivot hard into the let's really activate our conservative base. That maybe they were let down by a Romney candidacy.

And Donald Trump sort of defied both of those. He wasn't interested in let's move to be more moderate or let's be more sort of Tea Party. He remains sort of, I think, vulnerable to this day by sort of having some positions that are not terribly conservative within the party.

SELLERS: Understood.

ANDERSON: But nonetheless, I mean, I think this idea of what electable is -- sure, right now in ballot test you have Joe Biden sort of matching up strongest against Trump but it's very early on and there are still a lot of sort of name I.D. games going on here. So I wouldn't say that there's really any clear cut answer to who's the most electable member of the Democratic --

(CROSSTALK) BASH: And then there's also the question that I was talking a bit about this with Bill de Blasio about likability. And one thing that struck us, again, in this recent poll this week, if you look on the screen about favorability increases, Joe Biden is ahead in everything. But look at Kamala Harris. She's at 49. She's a plus 49. Elizabeth Warren, plus 46.

And I mention that because it's not always the case that the female candidates are doing so well on the notion of likability, maybe electability, maybe being competent but not likability. Is that a shift, you think? A welcome shift for women in general?

ROJAS: I think we'll take what we can get. Yes I think it's definitely a welcome shift and I think it speaks to the fact that Elizabeth Warren is playing a slow but steady race. She's climbing in the polls. She's sticking to the fact that she's going big on policy. She's proposing solutions that match the scale of the crises we're facing. She's acknowledging, I think, every constituency including young people who I think are going to be the ones that are fuelling a lot of her grassroots movement.


BASH: I know -- no, you're good. Thank you so much for this conversation. We talked about shifts. We'll talk about that more after the break because at West Point this Memorial Day weekend (INAUDIBLE) to the history books, a record breaking moment for the newest graduating class. That's next.



BASH: Welcome back. This graduation season, West Point has even more to celebrate. A record breaking number of female African-American graduates.


BASH (voice-over): You might notice something different about the long gray line of West Point cadets accepting their commissions as officers in the United States army. Among the new officers are 34 black women, the most ever to graduate from the military academy in its 217-year history.

KATE CAMPBELL, WEST POINT GRADUATE: Every women to the left, right and behind me in that picture are a source of inspiration for me, to be able to be closing off with so many of us still making it to this finish line is extremely empowering.

BASH: This landmark class is part of a larger trend at America's oldest service academy. This was West Point's most diverse class ever.

MIKE PENCE, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I couldn't be more proud to stand before the graduating class of 2019 that includes the highest number of African-American women cadets in the history of the United States military academy.


BASH: And last year, the school appointed its first black superintendent. But members of this West Point class of 2019 see themselves as only the beginning.

NIKIAY COMER, WEST POINT GRADUATE: I hope that they can look at me and maybe think that they can do this, too, and they can definitely be in my shoes. Anything they want to do is possible and that there are no limitations on their dreams.

BASH: West Point was open to women in 1976, and the first black woman graduated in 1980.


GABRIELLE ALFORD, WEST POINT GRADUATE: I'm grateful for all the people who have paved the way for me to be a part of this historic class.

BASH: People like this three-star general Nadja West, the surgeon general of the army. Who told me in 2017 about overcoming her doubts.

LT. GEN. NADJA WEST, ARMY SURGEON GENERAL: If you told me when I was a plebe West Point that you are going to be a three star general, I would have laughed you out of the room because I just didn't see it. I couldn't see it in myself.

BASH: And what she learned that helped her become the highest ranking woman ever to graduate from West Point.

WEST: Believe that you can, and then don't take yourself out of the race before you even start running.


BASH: We hope you have a meaningful Memorial Day tomorrow. Up next is the United States gearing up for armed conflict in Iran? Stay with us.