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THE SITUATION ROOM

Potential Mass Shootings Averted?; Trump Downplays Recession Fears; NYPD Fires Cop Involved in Eric Garner Death; Interview With New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio; August on Track to Be Hottest Ever as Dangerous Heat Persists; U.S. Tests Ground Launched Missile. Aired on 6-7p ET

Aired August 19, 2019 - 18:00   ET

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


[18:00:07]

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN HOST: Happening now: police officer fired. The NYPD takes action against one of its own five years after Eric Garner's death in a choke hold helped spark the Black Lives Matter movement. Was justice served?

I will ask New York Mayor and Democratic presidential candidate Bill de Blasio.

Fed up. The president tries to act as though he's not scared of a recession, while blaming any downturn on his handpicked Federal Reserve chairman. As Mr. Trump claims new conspiracies, whose economic forecast can we believe?

Mass shooters stopped? Authorities say they thwarted potential gun massacres in three states. We will tell you what we're learning about an apparent white nationalist who was just in court on charges that he threatened to attack a Jewish center.

And summer scorcher. If you are sweating out the month of August, you are not alone. More than 60 million Americans are feeling the heat, as temperatures and humidity levels soar.

We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. Wolf Blitzer is off today. I'm Brianna Keilar. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Five years after Eric Garner told police, "I can't breathe," the New York police officer accused of fatally choking him has been punished, the NYPD commissioner announcing that Daniel Pantaleo has been fired and will not receive his pension.

Eric Garner's death while in an illegal choke hold help put a spotlight on police brutality against unarmed African-American men.

Also tonight, President Trump is trying to downplay the threat of recession, as he privately worries about the potential impact on his reelection campaign. He's also still obsessing about losing the popular vote in 2016. Mr. Trump is now claiming, without any evidence, that Google manipulated millions of votes for Hillary Clinton. This hour, I will talk with New York City mayor and Democratic

presidential candidate Bill de Blasio.

And our correspondents and analysts also are standing by.

First, let's go to CNN national correspondent Brynn Gingras in New York.

And, Brynn, it took five years for New York police to fire the officer accused in Eric Garner's death.

BRYNN GINGRAS, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes.

I mean, Brianna, you remember, I'm sure. This is a case that made this city erupt in protest. And it's a case that really made it all the way to the Democratic presidential debate state last month, if you remember. So it's been five years leading up to today, when police Commissioner James O'Neill made this decision.

It's one he says he made himself, and he recognized that this wouldn't go over well with the rank and file.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

JAMES O'NEILL, NEW YORK POLICE COMMISSIONER: It is clear that Daniel Pantaleo can no longer effectively serve as a New York City police officer.

GINGRAS (voice-over): More than five years after the controversial death of Eric Garner, tonight, the NYPD is firing one of its own.

O'NEILL: This was not an easy decision. It's not something that I could make over a few hours. And I have been -- I have been thinking about this since the day I was sworn in as police commissioner.

GINGRAS: An internal NYPD investigation found grave misconduct by officer Daniel Pantaleo. That report, which factored in the commissioner's decision, characterized Pantaleo's use of force in Garner's arrest as reckless and a gross deviation from the standard of conduct.

A federal investigation and grand jury proceedings began against Pantaleo in 2014. No charges were filed in either case. Tonight, Garner's family is praising the NYPD's decision, but says this isn't the end.

EMERALD GARNER, DAUGHTER OF ERIC GARNER: I thank you for doing the right thing. I truly, sincerely thank you for firing the officer.

Regardless to however you came up to your decision, you finally made a decision that should have been made five years ago. We will be going for the congressional hearings. We will be trying to reopen the case. We will be going after the rest of the officers involved, because it's not over.

GINGRAS: Pantaleo's attorney says he will appeal the firing. STUART LONDON, ATTORNEY FOR DANIEL PANTALEO: Obviously, he is disappointed, upset, but has a lot of strength. We're looking for him to get his job back.

GINGRAS: Garner was approached by Pantaleo and other officers for allegedly selling loose cigarettes in July 2014.

ERIC GARNER, DIED WHILE BEING ARRESTED: I can't breathe.

GINGRAS: The arrest was caught on camera, sparking citywide protests, as people took to the streets using Garner's last words as their rallying cry.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: I can't breathe!

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: You can't breathe!

(END VIDEOTAPE)

GINGRAS: Now, the police union accused Commissioner O'Neill of choosing politics and self-interest over the police and added that, over the weekend, Brianna, there were meetings between the PBA president and a high-ranking member of the NYPD to work out a way for Pantaleo to resign and still keep his pension, but that that offer was pulled in the final hours.

The mayor, who I know you're going to talk to, essentially responded at his press conference to that claim, saying don't believe anything the PBA president says.

But it is clear that there was a lot of emotion and possibly even politics that were really wrapped up in this entire case -- Brianna.

KEILAR: Brynn Gingras, thank you so much for you reporting on this all day and on this story now for quite a long time.

[18:05:04]

Now to the White House, where the president has been lashing out as he attempts to convince voters that recession fears are overblown and not his fault.

Let's go to CNN chief White House correspondent Jim Acosta.

And, Jim, the state of the economy is clearly weighing on the president, and he wants someone to blame.

JIM ACOSTA, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That is clear, Brianna.

And President Trump is playing the economist in chief this week, insisting there is no recession the horizon. But one of the president's top economic advisers, Larry Kudlow, is scheduled to hold a call this week with business leaders and other state and local officials to offer some reassurance on the economy. And as the president is trying to get the message across that he has a

firm handle on the economy, he is spreading some wild conspiracy theories.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ACOSTA (voice-over): Amid growing concerns about a looming economic downturn, President Trump and his top aides are busy swatting away the R-word, recession.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I don't see a recession. I mean, the world is in a recession right now, and although that's too big a statement.

ACOSTA: A new survey the nation's fiscal health finds most economists do expect a recession by the end of 2021.

LARRY KUDLOW, DIRECTOR, NATIONAL ECONOMIC COUNCIL: Everybody wants to talk about pessimism, recession. What's wrong with a little optimism?

ACOSTA: One of the president's top advisers, Larry Kudlow, insists there's no recession to fear. But Kudlow is defending his own record of economic predictions.

Less than one year before the 2008 financial crisis, Kudlow wrote in "The National Review": "You can't call it a recession. This sort of fiscal and monetary coordination will continue the Bush boom for years to come."

KUDLOW: I don't know that anybody saw that kind of crash. But, look, this is not then. This is not then.

ACOSTA: The president and administration officials are blaming the Federal Reserve.

WILBUR ROSS, U.S. COMMERCE SECRETARY: I very much hope that Chairman Powell goes forward and does lower the rate this next time around.

ACOSTA: The president is also suddenly downplaying talk of new gun control.

TRUMP: I'm also very, very concerned with the Second Amendment, more so than most presidents would be. People don't realize we have very strong background checks right now.

ACOSTA: The momentum for gun control may be slowing as new GOP talking points are emerging, coaching Republican lawmakers on how to answer questions about the gun show loophole, high-capacity magazines, and whether white nationalism is driving mass shootings.

Iowa GOP Senator Joni Ernst faced a testy town hall when she tried to blame the shootings on mental illness.

SEN. JONI ERNST (R-IA): A lot of the incidents that we see do come back to mental illness.

(SHOUTING)

ACOSTA: The president is still fighting with his former communications Director Anthony Scaramucci, tweeting: "He's a highly unstable nut job. I barely knew him until his 11 days of gross incompetence," despite bragging that he only hires the best people.

TRUMP: We're going to get the best people in the world.

ACOSTA: Scaramucci is talking about the idea of a GOP challenger for Mr. Trump in 2020.

ANTHONY SCARAMUCCI, FORMER WHITE HOUSE COMMUNICATIONS DIRECTOR: This is not a never Trump situation. This is not just screeching rhetoric. This is, OK, the guy is unstable. Everyone inside knows it. Everyone outside knows it. Let's see if we can find a viable alternative.

ACOSTA: The president is out with a new unproven conspiracy theory, accusing Google of manipulating more than two million votes in 2016, adding his victory was even bigger than thought.

But that's not true. There is no evidence of a Google conspiracy to change votes, and the search engine is denying any manipulation of its data.

The president also thinks FOX News may be out to get him too, after one of the network's polls found Mr. Trump's approval ratings sagging.

TRUMP: FOX has changed. And my worst polls have always been from FOX. There's something going on at FOX, I will tell you right now, and I'm not happy with it.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ACOSTA: Now, there are new White House talking points predicting the economy will stay strong, claiming it'll be the best in the world through the 2020 election.

Those same talking points also take issue with Democratic contenders calling the president a racist, accusing those candidates as essentially labeling Mr. Trump's supporters as racist as well.

But getting back to the president's bogus conspiracy theory that Google manipulated votes in the 2016 election -- we can put this up on screen -- Hillary Clinton, his opponent in 2016, she's chimed in on Twitter.

She is claiming -- or I should -- I guess we should say she is noting that the claim has been debunked. It says: "The debunked study you're referring to was based on 21 undecided voters. For context, that's about half the number of people associated with your campaign who have been indicted" -- a pretty strong response from Hillary Clinton -- Brianna.

KEILAR: Jim Acosta on the North Lawn of the White House, thank you.

And joining me now is New York City Mayor and Democratic presidential candidate Bill de Blasio.

Mayor, thanks for coming on.

MAYOR BILL DE BLASIO (D-NYC), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Thank you, Brianna.

KEILAR: I want to begin with the Eric Garner case and today's firing of the officer involved in his death.

You said today during your public remarks that justice has been done. But the Garner family is calling for more action, as you know.

I want to be -- I want to dig in here to specifics. Can you be specific? What comes next in New York and also on the national scale to stop this from happening to someone else?

[18:10:00]

DE BLASIO: Yes, Brianna, the whole core point I made today is, this needs to be a never again moment.

This needs to be the last time we see one of these tragedies. And that can be done, because after the tragic loss of Eric Garner, we changed a lot of things in New York. And now every officer on patrol has a body camera. They have gone through de-escalation training, so that, in an exact same situation as that, they would actually try and tone it down, wait for more backup, handle it differently.

And on top of that, implicit bias training. We're all humans. We all have bias. It helps to get training to weed it out, to make sure any one of us public servants makes our decisions for the bigger reasons, the right reasons.

So that's all changed. And I believe, if we do that consistently all over this country, that we can end this horrible history that's holding us back and actually start to bring police and community closer together.

This was justice today. This was -- Brianna, it's really important to note the United States Department of Justice did nothing. The local district attorney did nothing.

The first time there was a full public trial in this case was the New York City Police Department doing its own trial. And one after another, officials of the police department said, based on the facts, this officer needs to be terminated.

That's an immense show of impartiality and justice, that the police department itself said something has to change here. That might not have happened not so many years ago, but it's happening today because a lot of reforms have been made, which gives me hope that we can do that all over this country.

KEILAR: You -- before this decision was announced today, even before that announcement of that internal investigation of the judge's finding inside the police department, you had indicated publicly at the debate that you wanted this officer to be terminated.

Did that impact Commissioner O'Neill's decision?

DE BLASIO: No, I said -- I want to be very specific, Brianna.

I said I believed justice would be served because I knew there would be a fair and impartial process. I never opined on what exactly should happen. I tried to be very, very careful to say I believe that there will be justice because the NYPD will do things in a fair and impartial manner, and that there would be a public trial for the first time.

One of the most painful things...

KEILAR: But was there -- you publicly made it clear that you wanted justice. I mean, it's not a giant cognitive leap to figure out what that would mean, that something needed to happen, right, that this is -- this was the question.

DE BLASIO: Brianna, I -- no, it's -- I want to be very specific about it.

I believed there had to be accountability. Someone died who shouldn't have died. There had to be accountability.

But what was most important was to have a public and fair trial. And I believed that unto itself would yield justice. And it did...

(CROSSTALK)

KEILAR: Was there any -- I'm just...

DE BLASIO: Yes.

KEILAR: Was there any private communication between you or someone else in City Hall on your behest in the commissioner's office about what your preferred outcome was, what you saw as justice? You said, this is justice today.

DE BLASIO: No, the idea here, the way the law works in New York, the police commissioner is the only person that can make that decision. We honored that.

And, in the end, look, I think Commissioner O'Neill was really honest, I thought that statement today was extraordinary in its openness and its honestly. This was not an easy decision. But he looked at the facts that were developed very clearly, and the fact that a choke hold is not allowed. It's just not allowed in New York City by our police officers.

And there it is on video. And someone died because of it. And he followed those facts and made that decision.

KEILAR: And the judge also found the Pantaleo was untruthful when he was talking to internal affairs. And that was cited as well in this decision. Would you have considered replacing the police commissioner if this

had not been the decision that was made?

DE BLASIO: Brianna, look, I had faith in the process. I also have faith in my police commissioner. He's led extraordinary reforms and changes in the city.

I don't deal with hypotheticals. I believed all along there would be a fair process and there would be accountability.

So, look, I think what people all over this country are seeing is the most revered, renowned police department in this nation just had the strength and had the sense of justice to say, you know what? One of our own did the wrong thing. It was proven. It was factual, and there's going to be accountability and action.

That actually happened. I think that's important for showing that we can move forward, not just as this city, but as this whole country.

KEILAR: An attorney for Officer Pantaleo said that there was actually an offer on the table, a way that he would have resigned, but he would have kept his pension. His attorneys say that offer was later revoked at the last minute.

Is that true?

DE BLASIO: I don't know which conversations each person had with another person.

I just know that any inference that something was agreed to obviously was false. I'm used to hearing a lot of statements that are false from that union, unfortunately. I'm someone who believes in labor, but...

KEILAR: Was it in discussion? Was it possibly in discussion, though? Do you know if it being discussed?

DE BLASIO: Again, I don't know who talked to who. I don't know what they talked about.

But I do know that, unfortunately -- and you saw it today, a very divisive, negative statement from that union, literally trying to encourage officers not to do their job.

[18:15:05]

Unfortunately, that union leadership has been divisive for a long time. But New York City police officers are professionals. They have proven time and time again they're going to do their job because they believe in serving the people of this city.

And we're going to move forward as a city, Brianna.

KEILAR: Would it have been justice if Pantaleo was allowed to resign, but keep his pension? DE BLASIO: Again, you will forgive me, but as someone who leads the

nation's largest city, I don't get into hypothetical situations. I never have. I never will.

What happened here for everyone to see was an actual fair and impartial process. And now we have an opportunity to actually move this city forward and get police and community closer.

We -- the job now is to make sure this never happens again. And with this finally behind us, we can get back to work bonding police and community for the good of all, for the safety of all. That's what I'm focused on.

KEILAR: I do want to talk to you about another important issue.

Obviously, you are running for president. And so, as you're watching the president, President Trump, backing away from calls for universal background checks for gun purchases, do you think, if elected -- and, of course, you may not have a Democratic Congress to work with -- it's extremely unlikely the Democrats would have a filibuster-proof majority of 60 votes in the Senate.

What would be your first executive order to address gun violence?

DE BLASIO: Well, look, I think, right now, in this country, we have a clear majority of Americans and a shockingly high number of NRA members who believe in more extensive background checks, waiting periods, banning assault weapons.

This is a majority American view right now. So I think it's two things. I think it's using every executive power of the presidency to move a gun safety agenda.

And here in New York -- I'm speaking from experience -- we're the safest big city in America, and our law enforcement officers are a lot safer because we have tough gun laws. I want to see every executive tool used.

But, at the same time, Brianna, we're sitting on top of a situation where a majority wants these changes, and a small number of senators on the Republican side, if they flip, we get those changes.

And they're sitting on top of states where they're under tremendous pressure from their own citizens, their own constituents to address this issue.

I think part of this is for a president to lead. yes so, if I were president, I would go to those states. I would go to those swing states. And I would energize the people of those states to demand their senators switch their position.

I actually don't think it's impossible to get to 60 votes, given how angry people are in this country. And, Brianna, now it's people, everyday people, worried about their child going to school. This wasn't true a few years ago. But now I hear it from parents here in my city and all over the country. Now it's gotten so bad, parents are worried about their kids going off to school in the morning and, God forbid, there's a mass shooting.

Something's changing, and those senators are going to have to answer that. Remember Florida. In Florida, they said nothing could change. But, after Parkland, those young people spoke up, and, actually, the Florida legislature did make major changes.

It can happen in Washington, too.

KEILAR: All right, Mayor, thank you so much, Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York City. We really appreciate you coming on.

DE BLASIO: Thank you, Brianna.

KEILAR: And just ahead: A suspect faces charges in Ohio, one of three states where authorities say they just prevented potential mass shootings. We're going to tell you what we're learning.

And the cold hard facts about the long, hot summer of 2019.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[18:23:00]

KEILAR: In Ohio tonight, an apparent white supremacist has pleaded not guilty after he allegedly threatened to open fire at a Jewish community center.

Let's bring in CNN justice correspondent Jessica Schneider on this story.

And, Jessica, police say that the Ohio suspect is actually one of three potential mass shooters who have been arrested here in three states.

JESSICA SCHNEIDER, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: That's right.

And in all three cases here, Brianna, officers were able to move in and then make those arrests after tips from concerned citizens and people in close to the defendants.

And the arrests really show law enforcement is moving quickly to thwart threats and they're really looking to the public for help.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SCHNEIDER (voice-over): Tonight, 20-year-old James Patrick Reardon is behind bars, being held on $250,000 bond.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And that's going to be 500 feet of any Jewish places of worship.

SCHNEIDER: He's charged in connection with what police say were threats to carry out a shooting inside a Jewish community center. He's pleaded not guilty.

Reardon allegedly posted his proposed plan on Instagram. Police say an Instagram account belonging to him shared a video of a man firing a gun, and Reardon labeled himself as the gunman in a potential shooting at the Youngstown Jewish Community Center.

A police officer out on an unrelated call was shown the Instagram post by a girl, which set Reardon's arrest in motion.

JAMES PATRICK REARDON, SUSPECT: I consider myself a white nationalist.

SCHNEIDER: Reardon attended the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017, and spoke about his white nationalist stance in this "Nat Geo" documentary.

REARDON: I want a homeland for white people. I think every race should have a homeland for their own race.

SCHNEIDER: Reardon's arrest Friday night was one of several around the country in recent days where authorities were tipped off to young men in their 20s seeming to stockpile weapons and allegedly plot mass attacks.

In Connecticut, Brandon Wagshol was arrested after an anonymous call to the FBI tip line revealed he was allegedly trying to purchase large-capacity magazines from out of state. Police say he also expressed interest on Facebook in committing a mass shooting.

And in Florida, 25-year-old Tristan Scott Wix was arrested in a parking lot after his ex-girlfriend alerted police that he had sent her several texts allegedly threatening a mass shooting.

[18:25:08]

Experts say the arrests show the power of people paying attention.

KATHERINE SCHWEIT, FORMER FBI SENIOR OFFICIAL: They're stockpiling ammunition. They are getting more and more, larger magazine holders. And, most importantly, they're telling people about it. They're bragging about it, and that's where we can catch them. That's where we need people to help us.

SCHNEIDER: Reardon is the only one arrested in recent days who is a self-described white nationalist.

There are no indications the others share those beliefs. But FBI Director Christopher Wray has warned that there have been almost as many arrests this year of domestic terrorists as international terrorists.

CHRISTOPHER WRAY, FBI DIRECTOR: I will say that a majority of the domestic terrorism cases that we have investigated are motivated by some version of what you might call white supremacist violence. But it includes other things as well. SCHNEIDER: Tonight, terror expert Katherine Schweit is warning that

while young white men seem to fit the prime profile for mass shooters, people should be on alert to anyone collecting weapons and talking about violence.

SCHWEIT: It's the behaviors that we're looking for, because it isn't -- if you just look for who you think, you probably have the wrong information. And we know that these shooters are 12 to 88 years old. They come from all demographics across the country.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SCHNEIDER: And that terror expert, Katherine Schweit, also made the point that even the tiniest tip can be crucial in helping police secure an arrest warrant or a search warrant, and it could eventually help crack a case or, in these cases, Brianna, put people behind bars with these potentially dangerous plots.

KEILAR: It really does illustrate that.

Jessica Schneider, thank you so much for that.

Just ahead, the president walks back his recent talk about tighter background checks for guns. Should anyone be surprised, though?

And with his reelection on the line, do the president's attempts to downplay recession fears ring true?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[18:30:00]

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN THE SITUATION ROOM: President Trump is now backtracking on tougher gun restrictions that he initially seemed to support after mass shootings in El Paso and Dayton and following the arrests of three potential mass shooting suspects in three different states.

Let's dig deeper now with our correspondents and analysts, and, David Swerdlick, to you first. We see the president backpedaling. We've seen this before though. So should we really be surprised?

DAVID SWERDLICK, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: No, we shouldn't be surprised, Bri. And the president telegraphed this, I think, two Fridays ago when he gaggled on the White House lawn and said he was only thinking about meaningful background checks.

The meaningful was the tell, letting everybody know that the NRA had been in his ear. They reminded him and Senator McConnell have reminded him that he relies on exurban and rural voters that resonate stronger with gun rights than with gun control. And now, he's done almost the full walk back and this suggests that when Congress comes back, we're not going to get a lot done.