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THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER

Trump Fighting Release of Tax Returns; Interview With Sen. John Kennedy (R) Louisiana; Joe Biden Jokes About Physical Contact Controversy; Trump Visits Border; Trump Attorney Attempts To Head Off Democratic Tax Return Demand; Sen. John Kennedy (R) Louisiana Reaction To President's Legal Team Letter To The Treasury Department; Biden Jokes About Accusations 2 Days After Attempted Apology. Aired 4-4:30p ET

Aired April 5, 2019 - 16:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


[16:00:02]

BROOKE BALDWIN, CNN ANCHOR: I'm Brooke Baldwin. Thank you for being with me.

We're going to go to Washington now. "THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER" starts right now.

JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: Joe Biden makes some wisecracks, and his critics say he just doesn't get it.

THE LEAD starts right now.

President Trump right now is visiting the southern border, after blindsiding his own administration by ditching a key nominee to lead ICE moments before the guy was supposed to fly with Trump to the border.

The former vice president, Joe Biden, stumbling out of the gate in his first public speech since women complained about his handsy behavior. The bad jokes that the 2020 world are buzzing about today.

Plus, buy now, pay later? President Trump being accused of packing the Federal Reserve Board with his cronies. These are the folks that could decide the future of your money.

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

TAPPER: Welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

Right now, President Trump is in California to visit the border with Mexico. Any minute, he is expected to take a tour of a new section of border fencing. It's a replacement border fence that officials say has been planned dating back to 2009, before Donald Trump was even running for president.

And there's a real divide within the Trump administration about whether this fence is actually the Trump border wall, as it says on that plaque bolted into it, reading that it is -- quote -- "first section of President Trump's border wall." This barrier has been planned, in some way, shape, or form for at least a decade, but Trump is, of course, the one who pushed for funding and made it a priority. Thus, the money was finally allocated in 2017 with a design that the president approved.

And border agents do give the president credit for making this a priority, which, in their view, neither Obama nor Bush did significantly. Now, detractors, however, they can point out that this is not being paid for by Mexico.

And a running joke among border agents, I'm told by a good source, is that the self-congratulatory plaque will serve as a decent foothold for those looking to hop the fence.

And then there's this. This fencing is decidedly not an immense concrete wall, as Trump promised it would be on the campaign trail. The president was convinced by experts in his administration that bollard fencing was smarter than a wall, so he went with that. And you can give him credit for that.

But at the end of the day, we have a fence with a plaque on it calling it a wall, which, however you slice it, it's kind of strange.

Perhaps, in a similar vein, the president's visit today comes after he retreated from his threat to close the southern border altogether and after he suddenly withdrew his pick for ICE director.

CNN's Kaitlan Collins is in San Ysidro, California.

And, Kaitlan, why is the president now backing off this threat to close the border?

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Jake, the president says it's because Mexico is apprehending more people, preventing them from coming up to the U.S. border.

But, also, he's heeding warnings from not only business leaders, but also Republican officials, who have been telling the president for days that closing down the border would be devastating economically to the United States.

It was going to affect ports of entries like the one behind me, San Ysidro, one of the busiest in the Western Hemisphere and responsible for hundreds of thousands of dollars in trade and also thousands of people crossing back and forth every day, going to their homes, going to their offices, responsible for communities like this. It would greatly affect them.

Right now, Jake, the president seems to be heeding those warnings, for now.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I never changed my mind at all. I may shut it down at some point.

COLLINS (voice-over): President Trump on the border today after backing off his threat to close it.

TRUMP: I would rather do tariffs.

COLLINS: Though officials insisted he'd follow through...

KELLYANNE CONWAY, TRUMP SENIOR ADVISER: It certainly isn't a bluff. You can take the president seriously.

COLLINS: ... the president now says he will give Mexico a year to stop the surge of Central American migrants and drugs crossing the U.S. border.

TRUMP: If they don't, we're going to tariff their cars at 25 percent coming into the United States.

COLLINS: Today, Trump praised Mexico after blasting the country last week.

TRUMP: Because Mexico has been absolutely terrific for the last four days. They're apprehending everybody.

COLLINS: A DHS official tells CNN Mexico has apprehended 1,000 migrants a day, double the levels from last week. On his flight to the border town of Calexico, Trump tweeted he will be visiting a portion of the new wall being built.

But what he will see is a far cry from what he promised on the campaign trail.

TRUMP: I will tell you what it's going to be made of. It's going to be made of hardened concrete.

COLLINS: Trump will be standing in front of an upgraded section of fencing that already existed. That fencing is now 30-feet-height, and bears a plaque with the president's name.

KIRSTJEN NIELSEN, U.S. SECRETARY OF HOMELAND SECURITY: I think part of that's just a -- it's an optic. To have the president stand in front of the wall indicates immediately to any viewer that he's at the border.

[16:05:01]

COLLINS: Trump's visit coming just hours after the White House suddenly withdrew the nomination for the director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

TRUMP: Ron's a good man, but we're going in a tougher direction. We want to go in a tougher direction.

COLLINS: Three sources tell CNN senior adviser Stephen Miller directly lobbied the president to pull Ron Vitiello's nomination, arguing he was soft on closing the southern border.

The move blindsided DHS officials, who until Friday morning thought it was a clerical error. A source telling CNN, even DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen was unaware the nomination was being pulled and still hasn't officially been told.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

COLLINS: Now, Jake, Ron Vitiello is a 30-year veteran of Border Patrol and he was scheduled to be with the president on this trip today, but yesterday he was told he was not going to be coming any longer and now today he finds out he is no longer going to be the ICE director either.

TAPPER: And, Kaitlan, one source close to the White House even noted that they had just burned a lot of political capital for his nomination, apparently for nothing.

COLLINS: Yes, DHS officials weren't the only people blindsided by this.

Republican lawmakers were, too, people who have been trying to get this guy confirmed to this position. And, also, this is someone who's been leading the ICE agency since last summer. And now they're deciding to withdraw his nomination at a time when enforcement officials say that their system is at a breaking point.

That's the confusion here. But, also, there's some inside the White House, too, Jake, because officials are wondering, if Stephen Miller is telling the president this guy isn't hard-line enough to deal with the president, to represent him in this capacity, then who is going to be able to do that? Who is hard-line enough to meet the White House's standards that can also get confirmed by Congress, Jake?

TAPPER: All right, Kaitlan Collins traveling with President Trump, thank you so much.

Joining me now is Republican Senator John Kennedy of Louisiana.

Senator, thanks so much for joining us. We appreciate it.

As Kaitlan just reported, the White House suddenly withdrew the nomination of Ronald Vitiello to lead ICE. He was all set to go. His nomination was on track. The Senate Judiciary Committee was set to vote on him next week.

But senior adviser Stephen Miller at the White House convinced the president to pull the nomination because he didn't think Vitiello was tough enough. What's your take on all of this? The president apparently did this without consulting Congress, without consulting Secretary Nielsen.

SEN. JOHN KENNEDY (R), LOUISIANA: Well, the president, Jake, is entitled to surround himself with advisers of his choice.

I don't want us to take our eye off the ball here. We're at the breaking point at the border. In March, we had 100,000 people come into this country illegally. That's the most in 10 years. We're on track to set records here.

And I -- look, personnel, that's up to the president. But the new head of ICE alone can't solve this problem. The United States Congress is going to have to help. And, frankly, we need help from our Central American friends and from Mexico as well.

TAPPER: Well, you're kind of making my point, because this is, obviously, a time there's a humanitarian crisis at the border. It is a difficult time. The U.S. government is facing this very challenging situation.

And then, for whatever reason, this nominee, this -- to be head of ICE is kind of ignominously just thrown by the side of the road. Doesn't that concern you? Doesn't that -- yes, the president has every right to do it. He can -- he's the chief executive. He can do whatever he wants.

But isn't the way this is being done, without consulting you and your colleagues in the Senate, without consulting Secretary Nielsen, doesn't that kind of undermine the whole argument that this is a real crisis that we're in?

KENNEDY: Well, Jake, I'm hesitant to comment, because I just don't know why the president did it. I don't know the background.

I mean, you -- if it's Mr. Miller had second thoughts, he probably should have expressed those thoughts as first thoughts a little while ago. But the world's not going to spin off its axis here. We do need a competent person, an aggressive person, who's head of ICE.

But we have got bigger problems than that, frankly, right now at the border. And I know we have been through this the last six months, where the Democrats say, we don't have a problem at the border, and the Republicans say, we do. We have got a problem at the border.

TAPPER: Absolutely.

KENNEDY: It's not like the problem we used to have.

TAPPER: Yes, absolutely.

KENNEDY: But we have got a serious problem.

TAPPER: Sure, especially with all of these families coming and there isn't the housing to take them all in and keep them.

I want you to take a listen to the secretary -- go ahead, sir.

(CROSSTALK)

KENNEDY: Well, I was just going to say, there are two problems. Number one, our asylum laws need to be changed.

And, number two, you know, rather than cutting off the money to El Salvador and Guatemala and our other Central American countries, I would like to see the president call an immigration summit with the president of Mexico and El Salvador and Guatemala and Nicaragua and Honduras, and let's say, how can -- let's say, how can we solve this problem? [16:10:13]

Similar to what we did with Plan Colombia, when we had a lot of problems with the drug cartels and cocaine coming out of Colombia in the late 1990s and in 2000, into the next decade. We sat down with the president of Colombia. We put up some of the money in return for specific commitments.

But I think that would help a lot. But the thing that would help the most is to design some asylum laws that looks like somebody designed them on purpose. All you have to do right now, Jake, as you know, is make it to American soil, say the magic words, you're turned free into the country, you're told to come back in two years to court.

And, of course, nobody ever turns back up.

TAPPER: Well...

KENNEDY: You know, you could -- you could drive over -- around D.C., pick the first person sleeping under the interstate and say, can you draw up some asylum laws, and theirs would make better sense than the ones we have right now.

TAPPER: I know you're speaking hyperbolically.

I think statistics show most people do show up for their hearing. But I take your point. Central American and the asylum laws, that is the situation.

You talked about a summit. Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen actually had a summit, I think it was last week, in Honduras.

(CROSSTALK)

KENNEDY: I know. I know. It's not enough. The president needs to do it.

(CROSSTALK)

KENNEDY: She was on Chris Cuomo's show last night. I want to see what you think about something. Let's roll that sound.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

CHRIS CUOMO, CNN ANCHOR: In this environment right now, where you want focus on the kids and the families, why is the president going down to view fencing and not going to see the kids?

NIELSEN: Well, I think part of that's just a -- it's an optic.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: Now, I know you're talking about the humanitarian crisis. I'm talking about the humanitarian crisis. Both of us have been talking about it for a long time. The president is very fixated and focused on the wall. Now, I

understand, in his view, the wall is part of the solution to the humanitarian crisis, because it will deter people from coming. But don't you think there's also this other side of it, and if the president went and met with these refugees, that might also help get something done?

KENNEDY: Well, yes, the short answer, yes.

Look, we do need a wall. But a wall alone is not going to stop the problem. We do have some unsavory people coming across the border, gang members, drug dealers. But we have got a lot of people coming from Central America out of fear, not hunger, fear. Their countries are being run by gangs.

I saw a recent survey done by Vanderbilt University, something like, depending on the country, between a third-and-a-half of the people in our Central American countries have been victims of crime within the past year. And, usually, it's extortion. And so they're leaving.

And that's why I want to see -- and I'm glad that the homeland secretary, homeland security secretary went down there, but the president -- this is a job for the president. He needs to call a Central American immigration summit, invite the president of Mexico, the presidents of the Northern Triangle countries, say, look, let's sit down.

You have got a problem in your country. It's causing a problem in my country. We're willing to put up some money in return for specific commitments. We did the same thing in 1999 with Plan Colombia with Colombia. Now, that's the root of this problem.

We also need to ask for some cooperation from our Democratic friends. We need to change the asylum laws. They make no sense.

TAPPER: OK.

Senator Kennedy, stay right there. We have some breaking news. And I want to get your reaction to it.

Some lawyers hired by President Trump have sent a letter to the Treasury Department after a key House Democrat demanded President Trump's tax returns.

CNN's Pamela Brown joins me now.

Pamela, what are you learning?

PAMELA BROWN, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, we're learning that lawyers that the president has hired to represent him in this tax fight just sent a letter moments ago to the Treasury Department, pushing back on this request from the House Ways and Means Committee chairman for the president's tax returns over the last six years.

These are lawyers from Consovoy McCarthy Park law firm, saying that the chairman does not have a legitimate purpose in requesting the president's tax returns and that this would set a bad precedent, saying this is all about politics.

Here's one of the sentences from the letters, Jake, saying: "His request is a transparent effort by one political party to harass an official from the other party because they dislike his politics and speech."

So, basically saying that, even if they do say they have legitimate purpose here, that, really, it's all about politics and not liking the president because he's in a different party.

It also notes the fact that the president's tax returns are under audit, according to the president. Now, as we know, Jake, tax returns can still be released even if they are under audit. And they also asked the Treasury Department to consult with the Department of Justice on this before doing anything, saying that this is an unprecedented request.

[16:15:00] And an administration official telling my colleague, Jim Acosta, that lawyers are willing to fight this all the way to the Supreme Court. It appears, Jake, this fight just beginning.

TAPPER: All right. Pamela Brown, thank you so much for that breaking news. Let me bring back Senator John Kennedy from Louisiana. Senator, your reaction to the president's legal team's letter to the Treasury Department?

SEN. JOHN KENNEDY, (R), LOUISIANA, JUDICIARY COMMITTEE: Jake, I will be very blunt. Chairman Neal, powerful man, head of Ways and Means, I know he's an adult, but I don't think he's like a real adult. He says that he needs Trump's tax returns. He says it's policy, not politics. He has said, I think on CNN, that the reason he needs them is that he needs to determine how well the IRS is auditing taxpayers.

I can't believe he really thinks the American people are going to fall for that. It must really suck to be that dumb. Look, this is very simple. Mr. Neal wants to screw with the president. He doesn't think the president ought to be president.

Well, you know, words can't express how much I don't care. It's not Mr. Neal's call. The American people have chosen Donald Trump as president. If you don't like it, in two years, you can vote against him. In the meantime, don't screw with him, let him try to be president.

Now, Mr. Neal is not in good faith. Nobody believes he's in good faith. This is wildly dishonest. This is thoroughly in bad faith. And I don't blame the president for pushing back. There's no requirement that he turn over his taxes. If I were running for president, would I turn over my taxes? Yes. But there's no requirement.

And trump said, I'm not going to turn over my taxes, they're being audited. The American people knew that when they voted for him or didn't vote for him. He won the election. And Mr. Neal, you know, I don't mean any disrespect, but he's not fooling anybody. He just wants to get these taxes to screw with the president.

TAPPER: Well, you say --

KENNEDY: You can vote against him, but enough is enough.

TAPPER: You said you don't mean any disrespect, but you said, "it must suck to be that dumb." Let me just take the opportunity to say to Chairman Neal, if he wants to come on the show, he is more than welcome to come and defend himself. But we're running out of time, Senator Kennedy, and I know you want to talk about this new legislation that would stop government employees from using NDAs, nondisclosure agreements from silencing workplace sexual harassment and sexual assault victims. You have an op-ed on this. You used Harvey Weinstein as an example o how NDA's hurt people. I should point out, your bill would just protect government workers. Does that go far enough?

KENNEDY: I wish we could go further and maybe eventually, we will. It's real simple. It says, if you're a federal official or a state official and you're accused of sexual harassment and you settle the lawsuit, you can't keep it quiet, unless the victim wants to keep it quiet.

No nondisclosure agreement unless the victim agrees. If you're spending taxpayer money, taxpayers needs to know, even if they -- even if you're not spending taxpayer money, voters still need to know. Just because you're accused of something, doesn't mean you're guilty. But these facts -- or at least the allegations need to come out. And I think it will cut out a lot of people acting like pigs.

TAPPER: All right. Republican Senator John Kennedy from the great State of Louisiana, thank you so much for your time, sir. We appreciate it.

KENNEDY: Thanks, Jake.

TAPPER: Joe Biden making not one, but two jokes about getting permission to touch people in his first public event since allegations of inappropriate contact.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JOE BIDEN, FORMER VICE PRESIDENT: By the way, he gave me permission to touch him.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: Could this hurt the former vice president even before he jumps into the 2020 race? Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:23:20] TAPPER: In our 2020 Lead today, it was just two days ago that former Vice President Joe Biden sent out a video on social media addressing the fact that multiple women had accused him of touching them inappropriately, not sexually, but in their personal space in a way they them feel uncomfortable. I get it, Mr. Biden said. Today, she joked about it, not just once, but twice.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BIDEN: I just want you to know, I had permission to hug Lonnie. He gave me permission to touch him.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: As CNN's Arlette Saenz now reports, Biden is also insisting that his intentions have always been good.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ARLETTE SAENZ, CNN POLITICAL REPORTER (voice-over): Today, a partial apology from Joe Biden.

BIDEN: I'm sorry I didn't understand more. I'm sorry not sorry for any of my intentions. I'm not sorry for anything that I have ever done. I've never been disrespectful intentionally, to a man or a woman.

SAENZ: The former vice president still grappling with how to respond to claims that he made women feel uncomfortable in their interactions and acknowledging that more people could come forward.

BIDEN: I wouldn't be surprised, but I've had hundreds and hundreds of people contact me, who I don't know, and, you know, say the exact opposite.

LONNIE STEPHENSON, IBEW PRESIDENT: Joe Biden.

SAENZ: As he took the stage at his first public appearance since the allegations, Biden gave out a hug and made this joke.

BIDEN: I had permission to hug Lonnie.

SAENZ: And then did it a second time after calling a group of children up to the stage.

BIDEN: By the way, he gave me permission to touch him.

SAENZ: But shortly after, Biden scrambled into cleanup mode, telling reporters, he wasn't making light of people's feelings.

BIDEN: I hope it wasn't taken that way.

SAENZ: Biden's interaction with voters in the spotlight as he gets closer to that 2020 bid, hinting it's not a matter of if, but when.

[16:25:08] BIDEN: I think it's going to have to change somewhat how I campaign. It's not a bad thing. It's a new thing. It's important.

SAENZ: And saying he wants to be the last two announce.

BIDEN: Give everybody else their day, then I get a shot and then we're off to the races. SAENZ: Biden's already drawn the attention of President Trump.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: No, I don't see Joe Biden as -- no. I don't see him as a threat. I think he's only a threat to himself.

SAENZ: He's hitting back.

BIDEN: He doesn't have time to do his job, but look, everybody knows who Donald Trump is.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SAENZ: As he prepares to enter a crowded democratic primary field, Biden also made it clear how he'd brand himself in the campaign, saying he's an Obama/Biden Democrat and proud of it. Jake?

TAPPER: Arlette Saenz, thank you so much. Let's bring in the panel here. And I want to note that Lucy Flores, the former Nevada assemblywoman, reacted to the vice president's jokes. He got a lot of laughs, the vice president, when he talked about how he got permission to touch people. He was in a friendly union crowd, the electrical workers union. Lucy Flores was not laughing. She tweeted, "It's clear Joe Biden hasn't reflected at all on how his inappropriate and unsolicited touching made women uncomfortable. To make light of something as serious as consent degrades the conversation women everywhere are courageously trying to have." What do you think, Jen?

JEN PSAKI, FORMER OBAMA WHITE HOUSE COMMUNICATIONS DIRECTOR: Well, clearly even those of us who love Joe Biden will admit the humor today was a miscalculation. And you saw him come out and work to clean that up quickly afterwards. He's not always going to get it right. And that element of today was not right.

But what we're seeing him work through publicly is what I think even a generation of men is working through. And maybe even men younger than that, which is what is appropriate, what isn't appropriate, and how to deal with it in public. And I think he does deserve credit for being a part of the conversation, to acknowledging he was going to do wrong, to saying he's going to do better, and to saying he's going to change how he campaigns. We'll see.

I also believe that saying he'll change the way he campaigns takes away pat of how Joe Biden operates not obviously touching makes people feel uncomfortable but he's a tactile guy. That's how he's always operated in politics, and that's going to be more challenging for him, too.

TAPPER: Simone, what was your reaction when you saw the vice president joking about this?

Symone Sanders, Former National Press Secretary, Bernie 2016: I cringed, much like, I'm sure, many people at the table today cringed. And I agree with Jen. But look, I think that -- I do believe the video was sincere, his comments after today were sincere, and he is publicly working through this. Voters are going to have to decide if this and the many other things that are deal breakers for them. But breaking news, Joe Biden has not even announced his candidacy for president yet, if he is going to announce it. So I think this is something that will continue to come up. And I have confidence that the vice president is going to get it right.

Donald Trump, though, on the other hand -- look, I've always said people that live in glass houses should not throw stones, rocks, or bulldozers. And Donald Trump definitely has no room in this conversation, when he has not worked through being credibly accused of actually sexual assault. Nobody is accusing Joe Biden of sexual assault. So, I think this is a worthwhile conversation to have about the spectrum of what is and is not appropriate and about consent and what not, but this is not the same thing as Donald Trump and I just think we have to make sure we have nuance in our conversation when discussing that.

TAPPER: Amanda?

AMANDA CARPENTER, FORMER COMMUNICATIONS DIRECTOR FOR SEN. TED CRUZ: I think the thing that's been missing as it rightly asked is, why can't Joe Biden just apologize? And I think he can't apologize because, A, he doesn't think he's done anything wrong, and he's not going to change. He is the person that just doesn't have a filter.

I think in the glow of the Obama presidency, people forgot how gaffe- prone he is. Well, hi, here's your reminder. And he's actually recognize that they're not going to change it. But perhaps they should institute a Biden rule, don't touch someone unless they touch you because unless someone nuzzles your neck first and sniffs your hair, you will get in trouble if they do it first.

TAPPER: And Jen talked about Bill how the vice president is clearly working through all of this rather publicly. He made those jokes on stage and then he went outside and repeated that it's on him to be aware of how he treats others. Take a listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BIDEN: If you embrace someone, if you touch someone, it's with their consent, regardless of your intention, even if you're trying to bring solace, if you're trying to welcome them. And it's my responsibility to do that.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BILL KRISTOL, DIRECTOR, DEFENDING DEMOCRACY TOGETHER: I just think Joe Biden is a decent man. Our current president is not -- has not behaved decently towards women, one or two former presidents did not behave decently towards women. Joe Biden is not like Bill Clinton, he's not like Donald Trump. I think this will fade away, because there's no real ill intent there.

And whatever you think of Joe Biden and whether he should be the next president of the United States, this is really, I think -- it's not a bum wrap, people are entitled to say that he made them feel uncomfortable. Obviously I'm not going to sit here and second-guess other people. But the idea that Joe Biden in some fundamental way is disqualified from public office because of this, I think, is not the case.

TAPPER: Yes, I mean I don't know that there aren't that many people saying he's disqualified for public office. Lucy Flores doesn't think he should be the nominee, either.

CARPENTER: Yes. And do think there's a thing with younger women.

[16:30:00]