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Obama Unleashes on Trump and GOP Ahead of Midterms; Trump Wants AG Sessions to Investigate Op-ed Author; Interview with Sen. Chris Coons. Aired 1-1:30p ET
Aired September 7, 2018 - 13:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
BARACK OBAMA, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: And speaking as a Democrat, that's when the Democratic Party's always made the biggest difference in the lives of the American people. When we led with conviction and principle and bold, new ideas.
The antidote to a government controlled by a powerful few, a government that divides is a government by the organized, energized, inclusive many. That's what this moments about, it has to be the answer.
You can not sit back and wait for a savior, you can not doubt because you don't feel sufficiently inspired by this or that particular candidate. This is not a rock concert, this is not Coachella, we don't need a messiah, all we need are decent, honest, hard working people who are accountable and who have America's best interest at heart. And they'll stop up, and they'll join our government and they will make things better if they have support. One election will not fix everything that needs to be fixed but it will be a start and you have to start it.
What's going to fix our democracy is you, people ask me what are you going to do for the election, now the question is what are you going to do? You're the anecdote, you are participation and your spirit and your determination, not just in this election but in every subsequent election and in the days between elections. Because in the end the threat to our democracy doesn't just come from Donald Trump or the current batch of republicans in congress or the Coke brothers and their lobbyists or too much compromise from democrats or Russian hacking, the biggest threat to our democracy is indifference.
The biggest threat to our democracy is cynicism, now cynicism led to many people to turn away from politics and stay home on Election Day. To all the young people who are here today, there are now more eligible in your generation than in any other, which means your generation now has more power than anybody to change things. If you want it, you can make sure America gets out of its current funk.
If you actually care about it you have the power to make sure we seize a brighter future. But to exercise that cloud, to exercise that power you have to show up. In the last mid-term election, in 2014, fewer than one in five young people voted. One in five, not two in five or three, one in five. Is it any wonder this congress doesn't reflect your values and your priorities? Are you surprised by that?
This whole project of self government only works if everybody's doing their part, don't tell me your vote doesn't matter. I've won states in the presidential election because of five, 10, 20 votes per precinct. And if you thought elections don't matter, I hope these last two years have corrected that impression.
So, if you don't like what's going on right now and you shouldn't, do not complain, don't hash tag, don't get anxious, don't retreat, don't binge on whatever it is that you're binging on.
Don't lose yourself in ironic detachment, don't put your head in the sand, don't boo, vote. Vote. If you are really concerned about how the criminal justice system treats African Americans, the best way to protest is to vote. Not just for senators and representatives but for mayors and sheriffs and state legislators. Do what they just did in Philadelphia and Boston, elect state attorneys and district attorneys who are looking at issues in a new light. Who realize that the vast majority of law enforcement do the right thing, in a really hard job.
And we just need to make sure all of them do. If you're tired of politicians who offer nothing but thoughts and prayers, after a mass shooting, you've got to do what the Parkland kids are doing, some of them aren't even eligible to vote yet. They're out there working to change minds and registering people and they're not giving up until we have a congress that sees your lives as more important than a campaign check from the NRA, you've got to vote.
If you support the Me Too Movement, you're outraged by stories of sexual harassment and assault aspired by the women who shared them. You've got to do more than retweet a hash tag, you've got to vote. Part of the reason women are more vulnerable in the work place is because not enough women are bosses in the work place, which is why we need to strengthen and enforce laws that protect a woman in the work place, not just from harassment but from discrimination and hiring and promotion.
And not getting paid the same amount for doing the same work. That requires laws, laws get passed by legislators, you've got to vote. When you vote, you've got the power to make it easier to afford college and harder to shoot up a school. When you vote you've got the power to make sure a family keeps its health insurance, you could save somebody's life. When you vote you've got the power to make sure white nationalist don't feel embolden to march with their hoods off or their hoods on in Charlottesville in the middle of the day.
Thirty minutes, 30 minutes of your time, is democracy worth that? We have been through much darker times than these and some how each generation of American's carried us through to the other side. Not by sitting around and waiting for something to happen, not by leaving it to others to do something but by leading that movement for change themselves.
And if you do that, if you get involved and you get engaged and you knock on some doors and you talk with your friends and you argue with your family members and you change some minds and you vote, something powerful happens. Change happens. Hope happens. Not perfection, not every bit of cruelty and sadness and poverty and disease suddenly stricken from the Earth, there will still be problems but with each new candidate that surprises you with a victory that you supported as a spark of hope happens.
With each new law that helps a kid read, or helps a homeless family find shelter or helps a veteran get the support her or she has earned. Each time that happens, hope happens. With each new step that we take in the direction of fairness and justice and equality and opportunity, hope springs. And that can be the legacy of your generation, you can be the generation that at a critical moment stood up and reminded us just how precious this experiment in democracy really is. Just how powerful it can be when we fight for it. When we believe in it, I believe in you, I believe you will help lead us in the right direction and I will be right there with you every step of the way. Thank you Illinois, God bless you. God bless this country we love, thank you.
WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: I'm Wolf Blitzer in Washington. We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world.
We've just heard from the former president of the United States, Barack Obama. He did not mince words. It was a campaign event, the first of its type for the former president, but he went after President Trump and his policies and his statements on point after point after point.
We've got a great panel here to assess what we've just heard. And Dana Bash, it was very dramatic. I thought he was going to be held back a little bit. He didn't hold back at all.
DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: No, not even a little bit. A couple things. One is, Democrats who are, you know, in and part of the resistance I've heard and seen on social media for almost two years now since Donald Trump has been in office, where is Barack Obama? Why isn't he out there? He's a leader. He should be talking, some, you know, concerned about the fact that at the beginning at least we saw Instagram photos of him on boats and water skiing and, you know, having -- living his best life. That's not the Barack Obama we saw here.
He clearly is trying to -- he understands the power that he has to gin up the base. He had the same kind of message but in a very much more pointed way that we heard him give at the McCain funeral last Saturday.
But the thing about it is that what I'd heard from people around the former president is one of the reasons why he was reluctant to do this is because he understands that Donald Trump loves a foil. That just was an hour of foil material that President Trump is going to use in a big way to gin up his own base. But clearly President Obama realizes that the stakes are really big and he wants to do whatever he can. I will also just point out that he gave these kind of speeches in the fall of 2016 when he was still president, saying please do this for me, and it didn't work.
ABBY PHILLIP, CNN WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: I think it's also a big moment for Obama as someone who, I think, held on for a long time to this idea that former presidents don't attack current presidents. Former presidents don't weigh in on current affairs in this way. He has now abandoned that and it may be a reflection of where we are as a country and in the moment we're in and the importance of this, and maybe some of the nudging and pushing that he's been getting from Democrats. And that's a big moment.
I mean, that was a precedent that President Obama really believed in, that we know that President Trump probably doesn't believe in, but the fact he's doing it is an indication that he thinks we have crossed that Rubicon. And I think he left Democrats today with a message today about how to attack Trump. He started off with the economy. He continued on to talk about temperament issues. And then he went on to talk about corruption, about the idea that this administration is, in his view, not doing things in a way that is consistent with democracy.
I think he left bread crumbs for the Democratic Party for how they can go forward and deal with this.
JOHN KING, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: And who he was speaking to is important in the sense that he go back to Dana makes a key point. Barack Obama has never been successful in motivating his coalition in an election where he is not on the ballot. He was wiped out in his own midterm elections in 2010 and 2014. He could not deliver at the end for Hillary Clinton in 2016.
He does know that like 2008, he senses this is a big Democratic year. He senses it in the primaries. We already see evidence that that coalition is coming out even before he gets involved. So who is he talking to here? College students on campus. Young people don't vote in midterm elections. For Democrats to take back the House and be competitive in the senate races, they need younger voters to come out.
African-Americans not only in the cities but in the suburbs. More college educated African-Americans. He needs them to turn out.
And he also spoke to Republicans. He went after the tribalism of Trump. He went after the corruption of Trump.
[13:15:01] He went after the Republican Party saying they were afraid now to stand up to Trump. And he made an appeal to Republicans, suburban Republican women will be the key in this fall's elections if the other pieces of the Democratic coalition come out, for the Democrats to turn a small blue wave into a medium or big blue wave, they need to swing Republicans. And Trump was -- President Obama was saying this president and this party have let you down. You don't even have to agree with us on the issues.
Don't you want honesty? Don't you want integrity? Don't you want accountability in your government? We need your help. DAVID GREGORY, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Right. He even said let's get back to a good old ideological fight between Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives. We don't even have that now, there's a fundamental corruption in our politics that he's arguing.
I would add on one thing to what John said in terms of the coalition. He was speaking to his own electoral coalition. And the one piece you didn't mention is college educated men, you know, suburban men, more CEO types who Obama did attract for a variety of reasons.
The problem that Obama has is that he is trying to synthesize the argument against Trump. Obama has always been a singular sensation. He has not helped the Democratic Party. He wanted to push other people out. But even here he's talking about don't wait for the messiah. You know, it doesn't have to be -- what was the other word?
GREGORY: The savior. The implication was like, you had it as good as you're going to get it with me. I don't know who's going to be Democratic -- but I think that comes across and there's a danger in that. Right now the fundamental point is, just keep that energy going, and that's what he was trying to do.
BLITZER: You know, he went after -- Dana, he went after President Trump on point after point. Charlottesville, what the president said in the aftermath of Charlottesville. Puerto Rico, pointing out some 3,000 people were killed in that hurricane and the aftermath of the hurricane. Where was the federal government?
And he went after the administration on all the presidential lies, what's going on inside the White House. And he even raised the issue of this op-ed by an anonymous official in the New York Times.
BASH: Yes. And the -- one of the sort of summations is this is not normal. These are extraordinary times. We try to say that every time we're trying to decipher and explain what's happening on a minute-to- minute basis.
GREGORY: But of course don't want to hear it from us. And they don't want to hear from Barack Obama.
KING: He used the term dangerous times. He used the word, these are dangerous times. For a former president of the United States to say that the United States of America lives in dangerous times is a big deal. That's not normal.
PHILLIP: He spoke of things coming out of White House as crazy. That was his word. He said crazy stuff coming out of the White House.
GREGORY: And you said -- you talked about, you know, it was President Bush who we still really haven't heard from. I mean, you know -- because for a couple reasons. He really wanted to get out of the spotlight. And he also realized that his own base had kind of moved past him.
And -- but here with Obama, I don't think that's the case. I think he has not been able to deliver -- couldn't deliver for Hillary Clinton, but he still has this Obama base that's out there that could come out in the midterm race. And I think that's who he's speaking to.
BLITZER: Let me play that clip. This is President Obama speaking about the unnamed senior Trump administration official writing this very, very damning article in the New York Times. Listen to this.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
OBAMA: The claim that everything will turn out OK because there are people inside the White House who secretly aren't following the president's orders, that is not a check. I'm being serious here. That's not how our democracy's supposed to work.
These people aren't elected. They're not accountable. They're not doing us a service by actively promoting 90 percent of the crazy stuff that's coming out of this White House. And then saying, don't worry, we're preventing the other 10 percent. That's not how things are supposed to work.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: And then he adds these are not normal, these are extraordinary times, and they are dangerous times.
BASH: Right. Which really strikes me as thinking more about the fact that Barack Obama used dangerous times. The hope, change guy, the guy who was all about hope -- and he tried to talk, in fairness a lot about hope here that we need to be positive, we need to go out and vote to bring about everything that you want to bring about.
But it was a warning that was intended to strike fear in the hearts of those college students and everybody else who might not be sure if it matters to go out and vote. And that is a different kind of tone and tenor that we've heard from Barack Obama in the past. It does speak to where we are right now.
BASH: And to connect it to the congressional races which is what is front and center. Most important, 60 days from today, the midterm elections. Will the Democrats take back the House? Can the Republicans hold the Senate? Can the Democrats somehow get the Senate back (INAUDIBLE)?
To that very point, after saying that, he criticized not only the president but he said the Republican Party in Congress is doing every -- ignoring all this, trying to forget this is happening to protect itself, protect its power, even if it hurts the country he said so. He's trying his case against President Trump with where is today's Republican Party?
[13:20:06] BLITZER: And Abby, you make a good point. It isn't really protocol. It isn't really tradition that a former president attacks his predecessor in a way like this. When President Obama talks about the current White House and the crazy stuff that's coming out of this White House. He uses the words, crazy stuff.
PHILLIP: That's literally what you hear on Twitter from Democrats who are livid about this situation. You're hearing it from the former president of the United States. But it's worth noting, I mean, Obama is not just any former president. He also just happens to be the favorite punching bag of the current president. President Trump uses Obama as the person to lay blame on for virtually everything that is going on or that might go wrongly.
And so in some ways, Obama has been sitting and taking that for 18 months now. And now suddenly we're hearing his rejoinder to that. And it is not by accident that we heard Obama saying, oh, and by the way, this economy that Trump is touting as his own, these long streaks of economic growth that he's touting as something solely brought on by his governance is something that I started. He's finally taking credit for something that as president he was very hesitant to do.
GREGORY: There also might be -- there's an argument here, reaching out even to Republicans to say, look, you may support Trump on some things, but at least there should be more of a check on him given some of the things that have happened. That's an argument that could be made without a full takedown of Trump. And I think it may have an audience among supporters of Trump who may feel this is gotten way too dramatic, this is, you know, kind of unhinged behavior or there simply incompetence.
I made the point this morning, there is no president who would not get withering scrutiny from these circumstances where somebody in the cabinet, you know, or senior officials writing an anonymous op-ed saying that we have to make decisions for him or to keep him from making decisions. Anybody would face withering scrutiny under these circumstances.
BASH: But remember -- that's true, but remember there is -- in politics, there's always a ying to the yang. And just as when Donald Trump goes out and tries to go -- even goes to a place like Montana where he won by 20 points, he was there last night, to energize the Republican base, you're also, by definition, getting the Democrats all fired up because they can't stand him.
That is the same kind of dynamic we are going to see with Barack Obama. Because there is such deep resentments still among the Republican base, the Republican base that is not enthusiastic right now. He might have just fired them up.
BLITZER: I want to read a tweet from Republican Senator Lindsey Graham. He just posted this and it's a quote. The more President Obama speaks about the good old years of his presidency, the more likely President Trump is to get re-elected. In fact, the best explanation of President Trump's victory are the results of the Obama presidency.
You know, those are strong words from Lindsey Graham.
I want to bring in S.E. Cupp, the host of CNN's "Unfiltered". S.E., let me get your reaction first of all to what we just heard from Senator Lindsey Graham. But on a broader basis, that one-hour plus speech that former President Obama just delivered.
S.E. CUPP, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, look, being generous, let me say I think that President Obama was trying to do the right thing. Or as he would say maybe try to make it better if not perfect. Appealing to common ground, trying to get that audience engaged without getting them angry. As Dana mentioned, there was a little fear trafficking there, but I think he really was trying to do the right thing.
But, in ticking off all of the Republican Congress' ills and the Trump administration's ills and saying none of this is conservatism, what happened to the Republican Party. Believe me, conservatives like me have the very same laments and ask the very same questions but it's pretty darn wretch.
One of the most conservative, moral, decent men we know is Mitt Romney. And Mitt Romney was a guy that President Obama called him a, quote, bullshitter. He mocked Mitt Romney for his Russia warnings. The Democratic Party painted Mitt Romney as a sexist monster.
So call me a little skeptical when President Obama seems a bit nostalgic for not the good old days of his presidency as Senator Graham said, but the good old days of good conservatism. There was a little self-righteousness in there that I think specially those suburban Trump voters in 2016 that John was talking about are going to hear very, very clearly.
BLITZER: S.E., I want you to stand by. We're getting some more news coming in right now.
[13:25:01] Breaking news, President Trump now says he wants the attorney general of the United States, Jeff Sessions, to investigate the op-ed author in the New York Times to find out who that individual was and if necessary to go ahead and prosecute that individual. Yesterday the president suggested that that individual may have engaged in treason.
I want to bring in our Senior White House Correspondent Jeff Zeleny. The president is not letting up at all on this article in the New York Times.
JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, he's not. The president is away from the White House today. When he was flying from Billings, Montana, to Fargo, North Dakota where he's doing a Republican fundraiser, he talked to reporters aboard Air Force One and said in the most explicit terms yet, he's calling on his attorney general, Attorney General Jeff Sessions to investigate and look further into the author of the essay in then New York Times that really has shaken and rocked this White House.
He's saying specifically on the grounds of national security reasons. He says this, I think so because it's national security. I said that Jeff should be investigating who the author of this piece is because I really believe it's about national security.
Now, reporters on -- aboard Air Force One pressed him on that. What he means by national security isn't just someone who's just, you know, essentially assailing his presidency, critiquing his presidency. He says this. If I have someone who's at a high-level meeting with China or Russia or some other country, how can I know that they are not the author of this?
So he said he wants to investigate who it was first and foremost and find out if this person could be violating national security perhaps by leaking other things. But Wolf, the reality here is the president we know still fuming about this. On the one hand, he's trying to, you know, essentially act like it's not bothering him, saying -- blaming it all on the New York Times. But that, we know, is not true because his sheer fact of asking the Department of Justice to look into this is a sign that it certainly has rankled him.
He went on to say a variety of other things on that flight from Montana to Fargo, and he'll be away from the White House all day today, Wolf. But the Justice Department has not given an indication, at least as of yet, that they plan to take up this investigation. Wolf.
BLITZER: Yes, clearly the president is obsessed with finding out who this individual who wrote that article in the New York Times is. Jeff, stand by.
Delaware Senator Chris Coons is joining us right now. He's a Democrat. He sits on the Senate Judiciary committee.
Senator, let me get your reaction first of all to what the president said, he wants the Attorney General Jeff Sessions to investigate, to find out who was responsible for that article. And remember last night the president suggested whoever did that may have engaged in treason. If you're convicted of treason, that potentially carries with a capital punishment, the death sentence.
SEN. CHRIS COONS (D), DELAWARE: Well, Wolf, I've just stepped out of day four of the Kavanaugh hearings here in the Senate and I just heard this. My initial reaction is that President Trump, given his recent history of tweeting about who he wants the Attorney General Jeff Sessions and the Department of Justice to investigate or prosecute or not based on his own political calculation -- I'll remind you, he was recently sharply criticizing the attorney general for the Department of Justice prosecuting two Republican incumbent Congressmen.
I think it would be wise of the president to stop acting in ways that suggest he thinks the Department of Justice is the in-house legal department of the Trump organization and recognize that they have an independent role here in protecting the country and upholding the constitution. The attorney general and the professionals at the Department of Justice swear allegiance to constitution not to a particular president. So if there are legitimate national security concerns here, I think the president would be well advised to hang back and -- rather than directing there be a prosecution or an investigation here, trust that they'll take it up in an appropriate way.
BLITZER: The president also is now saying that he doesn't want any interview he may grant to Robert Mueller, the special counsel, to become a setup for what he calls a perjury trial. It doesn't sound like he's ready to sit down with Mueller at all. Maybe -- according to Rudy Giuliani, his personal lawyer, they may be willing to answer some questions on the issue of collusion during the campaign, but he's not ready to talk at all about this whole issue of -- if there was any obstruction of justice after he became president.
COONS: Well, the best way to avoid being charged with perjury is to not lie. So frankly, it's striking to me if the president's team is coming to the conclusion that they just don't think they can have the president, despite his repeated public protestations that he is eager to testify, that he's eager to provide testimony to the special counsel. If they're coming to the conclusion that they just can't put the president on the witness stand in front of Special Counsel Mueller or even have him provide written testimony, that suggests something that reinforces some of the more disturbing allegations in the recently released --