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THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER

Republican Hypocrisy?; Election Day. Aired 4:30-5p ET

Aired August 7, 2018 - 16:30   ET

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


[16:30:35]

JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome back.

In politics, today is the final election test for the Trump administration before the all-important midterm elections determine which party will control Congress.

Voters in Ohio's 12th Congressional District or at the polls right now in a special election. But this congressional race isn't even supposed to be close. It's a district that Trump won by 11 points in 2016.

It's one that hasn't had a Democrat representing it in decades. But CNN's Ryan Nobles explains why Republicans are today scrambling to keep this Trump stronghold.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

RYAN NOBLES, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Voters are casting ballots Tuesday in five different states. And President Trump is directly inserting himself into the two biggest contests on the map.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We must elect Troy Balderson.

NOBLES: Republicans have held this seat in Ohio's 12th Congressional District for more than three decades.

But this special election is surprisingly close. The state's governor, John Kasich, who once held this seat, blames the president for the tight race. But the GOP candidate, Troy Balderson, has embraced Trump's support.

TROY BALDERSON (R), OHIO CONGRESSIONAL CANDIDATE: It has brought so much enthusiasm out to have both the vice president United States and the president United States here within six days of each other. It's just huge.

NOBLES: But Democrat Danny O'Connor has gone out of his way to avoid the topic of Trump.

(on camera): Does that extend to like the Russia investigation and Robert Mueller? You don't hear that over and over again?

DANNY O'CONNOR (D), OHIO CONGRESSIONAL CANDIDATE: Barely ever comes up.

NOBLES (voice-over): The president's decision to go all in on a Republican rescue mission in Ohio's special election comes as the president enjoys a winning streak of sorts in the primaries.

Since June, he's picked winning candidates in 12 straight GOP primary contests, a rally that could be at risk in Kansas. That is where the president broke with many and his party tweeting his support of Kris Kobach, a longtime ally challenging the incumbent governor, Jeff Colyer.

KRIS KOBACH (D), KANSAS GUBERNATORIAL CANDIDATE: At the end of the day, he went with this guy. And President Trump's gut is almost always exactly spot on. So I'm happy he did.

NOBLES: Kobach led the president's effort to investigate voter fraud and failed to come up with any significant evidence of the widespread abuse that Trump claimed.

If he becomes the Republican nominee, Democrats believe it opens the door for them to take control of the Kansas governorship for the first time since 2011.

But, while both sides will attempt to glean a broader message from the results, unique special elections and primaries in August are much different than general elections in November. And the candidates in these races believe local issues are what will determine the winners and losers.

O'CONNOR: What's at stake here cannot be understated.

BALDERSON: This is what matters. It's the 12th Congressional District that matters. So that's who I'm running for.

NOBLES: But the looming presence of the national political conversation is inescapable and bound to resonate beyond Central Ohio.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

NOBLES: And despite all the national attention this race is getting, there is a very local issue that could have a big impact tonight.

Last night, during a rally, Troy Balderson, the Republican candidate, said -- quote -- "We don't want someone from Franklin County representing us."

His opponent, Danny O'Connor, is from Franklin County. It's where we are tonight. It makes up a third of the district, that significant swathe of voters that are impacted.

And tonight Democrats are specifically targeting those voters, making sure they heard what Balderson had to say. Jake, they are hoping in a very close race this could be the difference between who wins and loses tonight -- Jake.

TAPPER: All right, Ryan Nobles, thanks so much. Appreciate it. Let's talk about this.

OK, so this is a district Trump won by 11 points. A Democrat hasn't represented it in literally more than three decades. This is John Kasich's old congressional seat.

Why is it competitive?

JOSH HOLMES, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: Well, for one, there is literally no more difficult task for a party in power to try to get their voters out in the middle of August in a special election two-and-a-half months before a midterm.

I mean, you have discrepancies in voter enthusiasm no matter what. You have huge discrepancies when it comes to the middle of traditionally a vacation month that in all reality the member would serve for basically 30 days.

So describing how that's really live or die to a voter is extremely difficult. And I think that's what -- one of the problems that we're seeing in this race.

The other thing is, you know Democrats are coming, right? We know. We have the evidence in Pennsylvania. You have the evidence in Alabama and Virginia and all the things over the last year-and-a-half.

There is no question about the enthusiasm of Democratic voters. They are showing up. The question is whether the enthusiasm of Republicans can match it. And this one's close because it's the middle of August. Difficult to match.

[16:35:08]

TAPPER: And yet the Republican voter registration is much higher than the Democratic voter registration. You have to think that Balderson, the Republican, has an advantage going into it.

KRISTEN SOLTIS ANDERSON, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: Certainly.

While the polls have been kind of closing and looking slightly more favorable toward the Democrat as we have gotten closer to Election Day, it still is a race that I think narrowly favors the Republican.

The makeup of the district tends to be a more kind of affluent, suburban Republican district. So, while in some of these special elections, you have seen big swings, big drop-offs from Trump's numbers in places like Pennsylvania, where voters typically voted Democratic, but swung to Trump and then kind of swung back in these specials.

This is sort of traditional Republican territory. And so the question really is, are traditional Republican voters who have a habit of turning out, will their turnout pattern match that of the Democrats or exceed that of the Democrats, who are now seeing the surge of enthusiasm with low-propensity voters? TAPPER: And you heard about Troy Balderson kind of bad-mouthing Franklin County, which is one-third of the district. It's the more suburban, as opposed to the more rural part of the county.

It's where there are a number of people who might have voted for Trump and might actually not like Trump anymore, white women voters who are highly educated, suburban voters, that sort.

JEN PSAKI, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Right.

And, look, to win a special election or any election, you just need to have more votes. So if the Democrat, if he can use this -- if Danny O'Connor can use this to get a few more people out who are proud of their -- the place they're from, then perhaps he could swing it.

Ultimately, the problem Republicans have at a national level here is that they have spent a lot more money on this race in this district. It's no doubt it's a race they should win. And if they don't win, or even if they come close, they have to look at their resources for the next two-and-a-half months and try to figure out what the heck to do, because this is a race they should win.

There are a lot more competitive races than this.

TAPPER: Perry, I want I want to ask you about Kris Kobach, because he's the Kansas secretary of state. He's running for governor and has a primary today.

Republicans nationally were very fearful that President Trump was going to endorse him, because he's been a big Trump supporter. He was part of that voter commission, the vote fraud commission thing that they formed to try to find a way to make it true that three to five million illegal vote for Hillary Clinton happened. Of course, they weren't able to do it because it didn't happen.

And then, of course, he did it. President Trump endorsed Kris Kobach.

Democrats also were excited about that. Why?

PERRY BACON, FIVETHIRTYEIGHT: So, I understand why the president endorsed Kobach, because Kobach was Trump before Trump on some level.

He's very hawkish on immigration. So I'm not surprised. Also, Trump being told not to do something was almost like, of course he did it. So I'm not surprised that he always ignores their political advice.

But I do think it's a Republican state. I think Kobach would still probably win. But he's a much more controversial figure even in pretty conservative Kansas. I think the Democrats think it's more a chance they can win this state. Remember, Brownback, the ex-governor, also fairly unpopular in Kansas.

I think this makes this a more winnable race for the Democrats. Still, I would think Kobach would have the advantage. And I get why Trump likes to endorse governors, because then they become loyal to him once win, if when they do win. TAPPER: This is a obviously a pattern with President Trump.

The party advised him please stay out of the primary, don't get involved, and then he gets involved. In the Florida governor's race, primary race, he picked Congressman Ron DeSantis over front-runner Adam Putnam. In Georgia, he endorsed Brian Kemp for governor, who won.

South Carolina, obviously, he went against Mark Sanford, and he lost his congressional seat in the process.

Why do you think he does this and how frustrating is this for the establishment?

HOLMES: Well, I will be honest.

I don't think that there actually is a whole lot of evidence that he has been totally unconventional in this area. I think we're talking about a few where there's been some disagreement within the party about who to endorse.

But the vast majority of particularly statewide Senate races and governors, he's pretty much endorsed exactly who the Republican Party would want him to endorse.

TAPPER: You would want him to endorse Kris Kobach over the incumbent governor?

(CROSSTALK)

HOLMES: I think this is an anomaly.

And I actually think it's his riskiest endorsement to date. I think that the Ron DeSantis endorsement in Florida, if you talk to most people in Florida, it sounds like he's got an awful lot of momentum, right? I mean, this somebody that...

TAPPER: Because of Trump, though. Doesn't he have the momentum because of Trump?

HOLMES: Potentially.

But I think, look, his campaign was working anyway. My point is, he's not going out and taking on a freight train here. I mean, he's endorsed a candidate that looks like they're going to win in almost every one of these races.

SOLTIS ANDERSON: And there have been times where he has taken advice from the political class.

(CROSSTALK)

TAPPER: Luther Strange.

SOLTIS ANDERSON: Luther Strange. You had Martha Roby, who is someone who came out, criticized Trump

over the "Access Hollywood" tape ,took a hit for it, wound up getting primaried, having to go to a run-off, and then in the end Trump sort of forgave, endorsed her and she made it through safely.

So there's been moments.

HOLMES: I was just going to say, that's a really good point, because what we're talking -- not talking about Tuesday is a Missouri primary for Senate, right, which the president very quickly put together the entire political apparatus behind Josh Hawley. That's now not a primary.

(CROSSTALK)

[16:40:06]

HOLMES: There's a ton of those stories around the country that we're not talking about that he's actually played a really constructive force in.

(CROSSTALK)

BACON: I do think he's endorsing people who probably are going to win the primary anyway. That's smart. That's good.

TAPPER: All right, everyone, stick around.

Coming up next: the moral argument to impeach the president. It seems Vice President Pence disagrees with Mike Pence on the matter. What am I talking about?

Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

TAPPER: We're back with the politics lead, and a call for higher moral standards for the president of the United States.

The charge reads -- quote -- "If you and I fall into bad moral habits, we can harm our families, our employers and our friends. The president of the United States can incinerate the planet" -- unquote.

Now, that's not from a critic President of Trump. It's actually from Vice President Mike Pence but he was talking in 1999 about then- President Bill Clinton. This was all discovered by Andrew Kaczynski in KFILE. When the person with questionable morals, of course, turns out to be Donald Trump, apparently Pence is more forgiving. Here he is days after the Access Hollywood tape dropped in 2016.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MIKE PENCE, VICE PRESIDENT, UNITED STATES: The Donald Trump that I have come to know, that my family has come to know and spent considerable amount of time with is someone who has a long record of not only, you know, loving his family, lifting his family up, but employing and promoting women in positions of authority in his company.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: But again, let's talk about this with the experts. I mean he -- this was a very, very strong moral stand from somebody we know is devout and serious about his faith saying if you and I fall into that moral habit, we can harm our families, employers, and our friends. The President of the United States, if can -- if he falls in bad moral habits he can incinerate the planet.

JEN PSAKI, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: And he also called for him repeatedly to resign or be removed from office.

TAPER: Bill Clinton.

PSAKI: Yes, Bill Clinton, exactly. The internet can be quite inconvenient. I think this is the right time to remind people if Mike Pence had not become the running mate for Donald Trump, he probably would have lost re-election and not had any political future. So, this is a guy was desperate to be in the good graces, he's had to be loyal to him because he's his Vice President and he's obviously put his own moral compass to the side in the process.

TAPPER: In 1998, Pence said, "in a day when reckless extramarital sexual activity is manifesting itself on our staggering rates of illegitimacy and divorce, now more than ever America needs to look to her first family as role models. Now, obviously again, that is writing about Bill Clinton. I think this gets at something that we've been seeing in the culture a lot which is very devout Christians who are conservative kind of willing to look away from Donald Trump's personal life.

KRISTEN SOLTIS ANDERSON, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: This is shown up in the polls. About once a month or so a new study comes out that takes a look at attitudes on something like extramarital affairs or other sort of moral behaviors that are typically condemned by the Evangelical Leaders and you have seen this shift, this pretty wild shift in the last year and a half, two years of the Evangelical Community writ large and especially those leaders saying this is something that I used to say was wrong but now, if a leader does it, well, I'm more willing to excuse it. Now there are some differences between younger evangelicals and those older evangelical leaders who have been more flexible shall we say on issues.

TAPPER: The older ones?

ANDERSON: Where the younger evangelicals I think sort of view their faith and what they expect out of leaders, they view it in a different way. And this is something that's shown up in poll after poll, this sort of newfound flexibility.

TAPPER: CNN spoke with a group of voters who all voted for Trump in 2016. I want you to take a listen to one woman's view of him now.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) BIANCA GARCIA, TRUMP SUPPORTER: I worked with a lot of Hispanic evangelicals who are very pro-life. Hispanics caring about God, family, jobs, education, top for us. President Trump is delivering on those things. So all this other rhetoric -- all this other rhetoric of oh, he tweeted this or he does this, I don't care about that.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: Is that where we are? It's about actions?

PERRY BACON, SENIOR POLITICAL WRITER, FIVETHIRTYEIGHT: As for words, Josh will know to Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh. I just thought that Evangelicals have rewarded Trump because he's governing in a way -- I didn't expect he's been more conservative on policy on like issues of abortion and expect -- you know, in 2016 of Trump sort of campaign is moderate in some ways. He's governed in a very conservative way. Also, Mike Pence is not -- has been loyal to Trump, he's been arguably the most loyal vice president I can remember that's been very little, considering how much Trump bungled in his last two years. I can't think off the record even Mike Pence objected to his -- he's been extremely loyal because I think Mike Pence's policies have enacted by Donald Trump, Mike Pence is not president, Donald Trump is doing everything Mike Pence agree with.

TAPPER: And I mean, just to remind our viewers in case they forgot, I mean, this is a president who is now lied about a payment to a porn star for an alleged affair, there this whole other scandal involving the 1998 playboy playmate of the year Karen McDougall. Does -- are we in a period now where the conduct of a Republican President's personal life, we could talk about Democratic Presidents at another time I suppose, the conduct of Republican President personally doesn't matter anymore to people for whom religion is very important?

JOSH HOLMES, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: Look, two observations to make. One, I think what we found out in late 90s that we're finding out now is the American people have not a lot of tolerance for moralizing, right? they don't care for it. And what they care much more for is what happens and what a president is actually doing. And with Bill Clinton in the late 90s, you saw Republicans take a bath as a result of moralizing with him and with Democrats you see perhaps something similar happening with those core conservative voters. Now, the second observation is what we're talking about these Evangelical voters, these are not flippant voters. They are -- they are -- they have core convictions. They vote on issues. And for time and time again, they have been told a lot of stories about things that don't happen. And what they're watching with this President --

[16:50:11] TAPPER: What do you mean by that?

HOLMES: Well, you'll have people that are pro-life or they're you know, whether it's marriage or pro-life or all kinds of different things that are core to that constituency they believe that a lot -- they've been told a lot of stories by a lot of politicians that have never really come to fruition. And what they've watched with this President in a year and a half is governed more conservatively than any Republican president before them. And so, they do -- they're not looking for a perfect messenger. They're looking for somebody who has results in the policy realm and that's what they vote for and that's I think almost perfectly articulated by that segment that you had.

TAPPER: And let me ask you just to put the shoe on the other foot. Are Evangelical voters not just what feminist voters were in the late '90s willing to vote for what somebody does rather than how they conduct their personal life is certainly I think that any feminist can look at Bill Clinton's life his personal life and find a lot that's rather wanting?

PSAKI: Well, look I think that's an interesting comparison. I'm wrapping my head around it.

TAPPER: Well, I'm just saying they're more happy with -- they're more focused on what President Clinton or President Trump are doing for them and less focused on his personal --

PSAKI: Sure. I think Josh is making a point which is that that I agree with actually. That people decide what they care most about and they decide what they're going to put to the side and there's rarely a perfect politician no matter what your interest is or what issue you care about so in this case, that may be it. Look, I think I have an issue with feminists perhaps universally voting for Bill Clinton just as I have an issue with Evangelicals universally voting for Donald Trump because if you're going to say your biggest issues are moral issues and you know, being a devout follower of the -- of Jesus then how can you follow this guy and you know, I think you can make the same argument fairly about people who followed a guy who have you know, had an affair with an intern. It's fair but I think we're in the present day and there's a -- there's a conflict -- like a conflicting morality issue with Evangelicals that I just can't get myself over.

TAPPER: What would Mike Pence make of this though? What -- how would he explain it? He hasn't been asked about this.

BACON: Comments in 1989 versus comments now, I mean, in public he would list Donald Trump's policies. He used to say he's you know --

TAPPER: No, no, Sodium Pentathol behind closed doors. How would -- how would he justify this? He was talking about the importance of a president being a good family person and leaving a moral Christian life.

BACON: He would say Donald Trump is delivering on policy. That's what he would say.

TAPPER: OK.

And if it were an SNL skit he would be in the room with his wife and he'd be saying one day that guy will be out and I'll be in and I will have been loyal.

TAPPER: Stick around. We're following breaking news in California where the state's largest wildfire ever is exploding in size. President Trump has weighed in but can anyone explain what he's been trying to say about it. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:55:00] TAPPER: In our "NATIONAL LEAD," 17 major wildfires roaring through the State of California including the largest wildfire in the state's history. Firefighters there are battling flames about the size of the city of Los Angeles. Just that one fire has grown more than 80 percent in three days. President Trump tweeting environmental laws making the fires worse but when asked, White House staffers cannot clarify what that means because they aren't quite sure what he's talking about and experts in the state say the President is way off. CNN's Stephanie Elam is on the ground for us in California.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

STEPHANIE ELAM, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Cataclysmic wildfires devastating California and breaking records. The Mendocino Complex Fire charring almost 300,000 acres, making it the largest wildfire in state history. So far it has scorched an area larger than all of New York City's five boroughs put together. Another fire erupting Monday in orange and Riverside counties, the Holy Fire has already burned over 4000 acres. Across the Golden State, 17 large fires are raging as more than 14,000 firefighters battle the fast-moving flames that are spurred on by dry and windy conditions.

President Trump assigning blame Monday linking California's long- running water shortage to the intensity and spread of fires in the state tweeting "California wildfires are being magnified and made so much worse by the bad environmental laws which aren't allowing massive amounts of readily available water to be properly utilized." Trump also incorrectly suggesting that California diverts water into the Pacific Ocean tweeting, "Governor Jerry Brown must allow the free flow of the vast amounts of water coming from the north and foolishly being diverted into the Pacific Ocean.

But CAL FIRE, the agency in charge of fighting these fires rebuking those claims in a statement saying, "There is nothing to release. There are no specifics to the tweet. We have plenty of water to fight these fires. The current weather is causing more severe and destructive fires." White House officials have declined to clarify the President's statements but for the people devastated and threatened by these wildfires, the concern is less political and far more personal.

SAM HARREL, SPOKESMAN, FERGUSON FIRE: We're working as best we can with the resources that we have to manage this but Mother Nature has taken its course and we've needed to adapt to it.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

TAPPER: And our thanks to Stephanie Elam for that report. You can follow me on Facebook and Twitter @JAKETAPPER, you can tweet the show @THELEADCNN. Our coverage continues now with one Mr. Wolf Blitzer in "THE SITUATION ROOM." Thanks for watching.