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THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER
Will Trump Declare National Emergency?; Trump Reportedly Spending 60 Percent of Working Hours in 'Executive Time'; Democrats Call on Virginia Governor to Resign. Aired 4-4:30p ET
Aired February 4, 2019 - 16:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
BROOKE BALDWIN, CNN ANCHOR: "THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER" starts right now.
JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: The Virginia governor is now saying he doesn't want to leave office as a -- quote -- "racist for life."
THE LEAD starts right now.
A commonwealth with a very ugly racial history and a state of disarray over that blackface photo and a governor who is either defiant or clueless asking for more time. This hour, brand-new reporting on why Ralph Northam has not just gone away yet.
It cost over a million Americans, but did it cost him? A brand-new poll showing President Trump's approval rating after the shutdown with another shutdown possibly on deck.
He's accused of being loose with prescription meds and drinking on the job, but President Trump now has new plans for his old doctor, Ronny Jackson, right before the president's next physical.
ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.
TAPPER: Welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.
We begin today with the national lead and some breaking news for you.
The Commonwealth of Virginia and the political world in general have been thrust into chaos. Virginia's embattled Democratic Governor Ralph Northam begging aides today to give him more time to decide whether he will resign.
The controversy erupting Friday after this photo showing a man in blackface and another in a KKK outfit was discovered on Northam's medical school yearbook page.
CNN has just learned that in a meeting with his Cabinet this morning, Governor Northam said if he resigns now, he would be doing so as a -- quote -- "racist for life," and that Northam wants time so he can clear his name, and the only way to do that is to stay in office, according to a source inside that meaning. This is all despite near universal calls for him to step down from top Democrats across the country, from Schumer to Pelosi, Warner to Kaine, Biden to Clinton. In fact, we cannot find any current Democratic officeholder who has called for Northam to stay put in his job.
Northam initially apologized for appearing on the offensive image, but then changed his story Saturday, saying it's not him in the picture. He did, however, in that same press conference admit to having used blackface to dress up as Michael Jackson during a dance contest in San Antonio that same year, 1984, marking, I believe, the first time in American political history that a politician attempted to explain away one racist blackface incident he says he does not remember by pointing to another one that he does remember.
CNN's Sara Sidner joins me now live from Richmond, the capital of Virginia.
Sara, we have got brand-new reporting. What can you tell us about this meeting between Northam and his cabinet earlier today?
SARA SIDNER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, from sources that basically saying, look, no one from the cabinet decided to resign, no one threatened to resign.
We're hearing from our Ryan Nobles that indeed there was struggling inside there. And here's something else they said, that, look, we love the governor. We don't think he has a racist bone in his body. However, he can't seem to explain this, and it's making it very, very difficult for us to stand by him.
That's from a source who was inside that meeting describing how difficult this meeting has been for those who are very supportive of the governor, but again saying they can't -- he can't really explain away some of these pictures and obviously the nickname that he was called in 1981. He is certainly under fire tonight.
SIDNER (voice-over): After multiple meetings with his closest advisers and staff, Virginia Governor Ralph Northam says he needs more time to decide whether he will stay in office or resign, according to a source.
Northam under fire all weekend after this picture surfaced from his personal page in his 1984 medical school yearbook. It shows a man dressed in blackface and another in Ku Klux Klan regalia, which Northam says is not a picture of him, after initially saying the photo was of him, though he did not say which person he was.
GOV. RALPH NORTHAM (D), VIRGINIA: I was appalled that they appeared on my page, but I believe then and now that I am not either of the people in that photo.
SIDNER: Another picture also surfaced of Northam in 1981 with the racist nickname "Coonman" below it, which the Democratic governor addressed at a press conference on Saturday. NORTHAM: There were two individuals, as best I can recollect, at VMI.
They were a year ahead of me. They called me Coonman. I don't know their motives or intent. I know who they are. But that was the extent of that and it ended up in the yearbook. And I regret that.
SIDNER: Today, the man who would replace him, Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax, appeared in front of cameras for the first time since the scandal broke. And unlike the long list of political heavyweights calling for Northam's resignation over the past three days, Fairfax took a more diplomatic tone.
LT. GOV. JUSTIN FAIRFAX (D), VIRGINIA: I know that there are many others who have called on him to resign. I believe that I'm in a unique position, obviously, as lieutenant governor and someone who would have to assume that office in the event that he were to resign. And so I have to be very circumspect. I have to think about the people of the Commonwealth of Virginia.
SIDNER: A few Virginia constituents in the town where Northam went to medical school are split over what they want the governor to do and their feelings about the image on his yearbook page.
DAVID WRIGHT, VIRGINIA RESIDENT: I'm not going to put a lot of weight on it. If he's leading our state pretty good, and we coming out on top, that's the only thing I'm going to look at.
SIDNER (on camera): Can he still lead?
WRIGHT: But is it reflected in how he treats African-Americans now? Are we benefiting from him?
I mean, that's mostly what I would want to look at him. I'm not going to really grade the picture that much, because I know, to me, white people, it's not a new thing. It's just everybody's coming out in the open.
SIDNER: Should he resign?
MELISSA BROOKS, VIRGINIA RESIDENT: I think he should. I really do, because he's supposed to be a limelight. He's supposed to be the guy, the figure that we all look up to. And if he's going to be my governor, then I want him to be top-notch.
SIDNER (voice-over): Lieutenant Governor Fairfax is also facing some potential trouble after a conservative Web site which first reported Northam's yearbook page published an allegation by a woman who said Fairfax sexually assaulted her in 2004.
Fairfax, who denied the allegation in an overnight tweet, says the encounter was consensual.
FAIRFAX: This thing was not only from left field (INAUDIBLE) because it didn't happen. QUESTION: But you did have a sexual relationship with her in the room, but it was consensual, is that a correct description of what happened?
FAIRFAX: Just as I described to "The Post."
SIDNER: Now, his reference to "The Post" is "The Washington Post."
And "The Washington Post" has said that in 2017, they were contacted, they did talk to a woman making an allegation about sexual misconduct. They also talked to Mr. Fairfax at the time. And both of their stories were divergent. They did not match and they were unable to corroborate the story.
And they haven't been able to get in touch with a woman since. CNN has also tried to reach out, but we have not heard from the woman -- Jake.
TAPPER: All right, Sara Sidner in Richmond.
Let's talk about all this with my experts.
Let me start with you.
What do you make of this new explanation that he doesn't want to go out now, Governor Northam, because if he did he would be labeled a racist for life and he wants to be able to stay in office and show that he's not and prove himself?
ASTEAD HERNDON, "THE NEW YORK TIMES": I mean, it certainly seems like him trying to buy time for what is the firing squad circling around him calling for him to resign.
But it kind of defies logic here. The governor could try to clear his name, but that does not require him to be in office. That does not require him to respond to the Black Caucus, to the constituents who have said that not only it's the photo, but it's the lack of trust that he now has in those communities.
There's no way that -- they say there's no way that trust can be rebuilt. And so that seems to be a separate question than was it just him in that photo or not him in that photo, things like that nickname, things like the controversy...
TAPPER: Coonman from high school, yes.
HERNDON: Coonman, right, exactly.
Things like the controversy surrounding him. That goes farther than just questions of fact. That's about whether folks can trust you or not. And that can be something that he may not be able to answer. TAPPER: And I don't know if you were satisfied with his explanation about that nickname, that racist nickname from high school. But like I keep believe that he doesn't remember why.
CHRISTINE QUINN (D), FORMER NEW YORK CITY COUNCIL SPEAKER: Right.
And if these people were calling you an offensive name and you didn't know why, why didn't you ask them? Why didn't you confront them? How did it end up on your page if it really wasn't your nickname? That just doesn't happen by accident.
I mean, his answers are just absurd and only kind of add insult to injury. These are -- the picture is outrageous. It's racist. It's a very serious situation . And he keeps coming back with these absurdities, which only, to me, show he doesn't take this at all seriously.
And he's really only thinking about himself and not about Virginia and not about the communities and people he's hurt.
TAPPER: I misspoke. VMI is obviously college, not high school.
Margaret, let me ask you. I want you to take a listen to former Congressman Democrat James Moran, who represented Northern Virginia in the House. He came to something of a defense of the governor.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
JIM MORAN (D), FORMER U.S. CONGRESSMAN: I don't think we have all the facts at our disposal. I don't like rush to judgment. Justice is never about a rush to judgment. I think there's the potential for Mr. Northam to be a very fine governor. And that's what matters in the long run.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
TAPPER: Former Senator Joe Lieberman said something similar. They are outliers, of course, when it comes to the Democrats right now.
MARGARET HOOVER, CNN POLITICAL CONTRIBUTOR: They are.
And both of their defenses don't make lots of sense. But what they do demonstrate is I think this other side of Northam. Many people have -- will go on the record and say, this is a wonderful man who in his medical practice has treated minority and children of color pro bono extensively.
I mean, there is this sort of -- we tend to make these things one- note, and, in this case, it should be. I mean, I don't believe that he should stay as governor. I understand that this is a very serious issue, but think about how he could have handled this separately.
What if he demonstrated contrition? What if he came out and was honest about the fact that, you know what, in 1984, Virginia -- we have a lot of legacies of racism in this country. And in 1984 in Virginia, it was a much more racist climate, especially the place where he was?
And what if he demonstrated a personal evolution of redemption? At least -- it doesn't mean he could hold on to his seat, but that could give the country something to hang on, and to demonstrate, we're getting better. Every generation, we get better.
This is still not acceptable.
RICH LOWRY, EDITOR, "NATIONAL REVIEW": Well, that's what he sort of started out doing, right? The first night, he said, yes, it was me, it was a different time.
And then he comes back and tries to undo the confession. I take your points that the story is now -- are shot through with implausibilities.
But if it's actually true that he is not in that image, I am sympathetic to him defying the world and vindicating his name. And the fact is, if he resigns and tries to do that, there will be zero interest in anyone's part whether he's actually in the image or not.
So it seems to me it matters what the facts are and what the truth is, in this case.
QUINN: But it's not just the image now.
His defense of allegedly not being in the photo was to tell us that he had done blackface on another time or other times. So we have moved beyond the picture. He's admitted another incident, or even more, perhaps, that disqualify him from being governor of a state in the United States of America.
LOWRY: ... dressing as Michael Jackson and doing that in blackface would be dumb and offensive. The question is, does it wipe out the entirety of your adult life and everything you have done, your civil rights record, the children you have treated, the alliances you have had with African-American Democrats?
And that's what makes me -- I have no use for Ralph Northam at all sorts of levels. But that's what makes me deeply uncomfortable with all of this.
TAPPER: I also want to just bring up Lieutenant Governor Fairfax, Justin Fairfax, who a lot of people were saying, oh, we have got this great guy as lieutenant governor, descendant of slaves, perfect person to become the governor after such a horrific episode.
And then there is this allegation against him from 2004. He denies it wholeheartedly. He says it's not true. The woman has not responded to CNN's requests. But there is this allegation out there and that kind of muddies the waters as well.
HOOVER: Well, it muddies the waters insofar as there is a rush to judgment. He's not a perfect person because of an allegation.
But again do we rush to indemnify, to criminalize somebody because of an allegation? I mean, I think we need to know more and we need to wait and we need to not have the mob win.
And we need to be prudent here.
HERNDON: I think it's important here who the folks who are calling for him to resign are, not on the...
TAPPER: Governor Northam, yes.
HERNDON: Governor Northam on the question of blackface.
I mean, he -- it is the African-American community in that state that is saying that that trust cannot be repaired. And so the question of, does this wipe out the relationship of the past, that is one that I feel that the whole community's response is important, not just his.
And so I do think it's a little more complicated than just, what are the facts here, because the community that would be the most hurt, the one that the actual offense caused, is the one that's very clearly saying that this has ruptured trust, that we want you to go.
And he's deciding to stay over their concern.
TAPPER: And one thing, just to address something that both of you have said about like does it ruin his career, this one horrible episode or whatever, I have heard members of the Virginia black community that you were just referring to saying, if he had done this on his own timeline, if he had come forward to us and said this, and apologized and talked about how he had grown, and people change, and, yes, he was a racist in 19 whatever, but now he's not, he's seen the error of his ways, that would be different from than being nabbed by right -- whatever it's called, Big League Politics, and the Virginia "Pilot" newspaper.
HOOVER: I mean, right now, this is just crisis communications 101.
This is a political...
TAPPER: What not to do.
HOOVER: Yes, precisely.
HOOVER: So it's a tragedy for Ralph Northam and the Democrats in Virginia.
And, by the way, it's not the first one this week.
QUINN: But it's not a tragedy for Ralph Northam.
If he loses his seat, he should. He decided to act in racist ways by putting on blackface. He had all the time in the world to see the error of his ways and admit them in a way that wouldn't have caused political fallout.
He made all of those decisions on his own. No indication of a gun to his head. It's not a tragedy for him. It's coming due what he is due for him.
TAPPER: All right, everyone, stick around.
Will President Trump declare a national emergency to get his border wall right in front of Speaker Pelosi during tomorrow night's State of the Union? A White House source giving new information on his thinking.
And then wait until you hear how the White House is justifying the fact that President Trump spends most of his day in executive time.
Stay with us.
[16:18:43] TAPPER: And we're back with our politics lead.
President Trump falsely claiming he cannot be impeached because he's, quote, doing the best job of any president in the history of our country, unquote. Also, a questionable assertion at least if you ask the American people who in a new CNN poll out today give the president a thumbs down, with 40 percent of Americans approving of the job he's doing as president, 55 percent disapproving. The president will address the nation tomorrow night.
But as CNN's Pamela Brown reports, regardless of what the president says tomorrow night, the federal government may still be headed towards another partial shutdown.
PAMELA BROWN, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): CNN has learned early drafts of President Donald Trump's State of the Union speech will not include a national emergency declaration for border wall funding according to a senior White House official. But with another possible shutdown looming in less than 11 days, Trump has said he is leaving all options on the table.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Would you shut down the government again?
DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Well, we're going to have to see what happens on February 15th.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: You're not taking it off the table?
TRUMP: Well, I don't take anything off the table. I don't like to take things off the table. It's that alternative. It's national emergency. It's other things and, you know, there have been plenty national emergencies called.
BROWN: But the president is feeling confident about his chances in 2020, saying there's almost no way Democrats can be done.
TRUMP: The only way they can win because they can't win the election is to bring out the artificial way of impeachment.
[16:20:05] BROWN: A new CNN poll shows Trump's approval ratings slightly up after the lengthy government shutdown last month.
TRUMP: The problem is you can't impeach somebody for doing the best job of any president in the history of our country for the first two years.
BROWN: And as the Mueller investigations seemingly nears an end, President Trump wouldn't weigh in if the report should be released to the public.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: You wouldn't have a problem if it became public?
TRUMP: Excuse me, excuse me, it's up to the attorney general. I don't know. It depends. I have no idea what it's going to say.
BROWN: And looking ahead to the State of the Union speech tomorrow evening, we were told that President Trump has been busy today meeting with aides going over that speech, including with Stephen Miller. And White House officials say he'll be making changes up to the very last minute.
Now, White House officials are saying, Jake, that this is going to be a speech that will be bipartisan in nature, but it's worth knowing that at last year's State of the Union speech, the president's theme was unity and then he quickly undercut that by going after Democrats on Twitter and elsewhere -- Jake.
TAPPER: All right. Pamela Brown at the White House, thanks so much.
So, Rich, obviously, you and I are old enough to remember this -- President Trump says you can't impeach because he's doing such a good job. In 1997, just before the House voted to impeach President Clinton, a CNN poll found 63 percent of the American people approved of the job he was doing.
RICH LOWRY, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Probably went up after that, right?
TAPPER: I'm just saying like the job performance actually has nothing to do with whether or not the House can impeach you.
LOWRY: Yes, this will not be one of the counts against him.
But I do think -- even though that I think that Nancy Pelosi and other leaders are genuinely reluctant to go down this route, I think they're going to end up crab walking their way into impeaching President Trump sometime this year.
TAPPER: After the Mueller report comes out?
LOWRY: Yes, I mean, I don't expect bombshells, who knows? But I think we'll be just damning enough that'll be very hard for Democrats to explain to their base why they're not starting an impeachment inquiry. And then once they start an impeachment inquiry and get into it, it's going to be very hard to explain to the base why they're not actually going to go through and impeach him. So I expect it to happen.
TAPPER: Of course, we don't know if we're going to be able to see Mueller's report.
Take a listen at the President Trump telling Margaret Brennan and CNN that he's not sure if he's going to allow it to be released.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
TRUMP: You have to get rid of the Russia witch-hunt, because it is indeed.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
TAPPER: A Russia witch hunt and he wouldn't commit to making sure that the report be made public. Do you think it should be made public?
MARGARET HOOVER, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: It should be made public. They spent how many, $25 billion? I mean, there's a bipartisan bill that Senator Grassley on the Judiciary Committee --
TAPPER: I think million not billion.
HOOVER: Twenty-five million. I said billion?
TAPPER: You said billion, but that's OK.
HOOVER: Twenty-five million dollars, well, that was even more reason.
LOWRY: You can build the wall with --
HOOVER: But, look, we've paid for this and we've been investing this. We've been following the story and this is public dollars have gone into looking at the presidency and, by the way, like this isn't just about whether it exonerates Donald Trump or not. This is actually about the degree to which foreign adversaries meddled in our elections. The American people need to know this.
TAPPER: President Trump also weighing in on the 2020 race. He couldn't resist Cory Booker, senator from New Jersey, who just threw his hat into the ring and President Trump who loves to talk politics had to weigh in.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
TRUMP: He's got no chance.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: No chance?
TRUMP: I say no chance.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Why?
TRUMP: Because I know him. I don't think he has a chance.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Who has a chance?
TRUMP: So far, I don't see anybody. I don't -- I'm not impressed with their group.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
TAPPER: Of course, he's a little biased.
ASTEAD HERNDON, NATIONAL POLITICAL REPORTER, NEW YORK TIMES: I mean, it's not surprising here at President Trump say that he doesn't think anybody has a chance. I think one thing that's going to be interesting -- he knew Hillary Clinton was kind of the known quantity. He relished going against up against someone that he could paint as a boogeyman at that point.
This crop of Democrats has a new fresh flavor. They are talking about policies that he may not like but these are going to be personalities that are have seen this playbook before, and we'll be less scared of moments like that.
TAPPER: What do you think?
CHRISTINE QUINN (D), FORMER NEW YORK CITY COUNCIL SPEAKER: I think that having seen this playbook before is critical, right? And I think they also saw how people reacted to the way Hillary dealt with it and people didn't like the way she dealt with it. So, I think they're not -- they'll be armed with that information and be more prepared to better respond to the bully that the president is.
HERNDON: Can I say one thing?
HERNDON: The Democrats in 2020 are trying to avoid talking about the president. When we were down in Iowa with Senator Elizabeth Warren, she barely mentioned him. You'll see that across the board the people trying to get voters to buy into their set of ideas, they're kind of big broader picture of the country and not go tit-for-tat with the president, basically because they saw what happened with Hillary Clinton in 2016 where they felt like she was being dragged into his mud.
TAPPER: I want you to take a look -- go ahead. HOOVER: Well, I just say that, you know, the point that the president makes there though that does the residence is he says the reason they have to go for impeachment is because all the ideas that they're going to run on aren't going to be winnable, right? The 70 percent tax rate, the Medicare for all.
What he's doing is he's saying if they run a far left progressive candidate, I am going to be the more tenable choice for the majority of Americans and he's not wrong about that.
TAPPER: You agree with that obviously, Rich?
LOWRY: Yes, I think there's a danger that the Democrats over the last year or so kind of signed up to the Bernie Sanders agenda, without thinking through what the consequences are when you're actually trying to sell it to the general public. And the starkest example that so far was your town hall with Kamala Harris where she says out loud what the Bernie Sanders bill that she co-sponsors says, which is we are going to eliminate all private health insurance.
[16:25:11] And that just creates shock through the system and now, we have other Democrats who are on that bill as well saying, no, we don't want to do that.
Everyone, stick around.
The White House force to defend what the president is doing for most of his day after a major leak from the White House reveals that his schedule is heavy on, quote, executive time. What's executive time?
Stay with us.
TAPPER: And we're back with our politics lead.