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THE SITUATION ROOM

Trump Touts Economy But Payroll Tax Discussion Reveals Recession Fears; Trump Cools On Background Check Push; Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-VA) Is Interviewed On Trump Tax Cuts And The Resurgence Of ISIS; CNN Poll: Dems' Top Priority Is Beating Trump; Trump Calls Jewish Democratic Voters "Disloyal;" Trump: Jews That Vote Democratic Are Ignorant Or Disloyal; CNN New Poll: Biden Regains Double-Digit Lead Over 2020 Democrats; Scientists Fear Kremlin Cover-Up As Putin Denies Increased Radiation Risk After Deadly Blast. Aired 5-6p ET

Aired August 20, 2019 - 17:00   ET

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


[17:00:00]

ERICA HILL, CNN HOST: Thanks for joining us here on THE LEAD. You can follow me on Twitter @EricaRHill. You can tweet the show @TheLeadCNN. Our coverage on CNN continues right now.

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BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN HOST: Happening now, breaking news: another tax cut, hours after a White House denial, the president said he's weighing a payroll tax cut even as he insists the economy is great. Amid recession fears, the president said he's prepared to stick with his China trade war even if it brings a recession.

Reinstating Russia: President Trump said the G7 should once again become the G8, calling for Russia to be let back in to the elite group of industrialized nations even though it was kicked out for invading a neighbor. And also tonight new evidence Russia may be trying to cover up a nuclear explosion.

Biden's bouts: Joe Biden launches a new ad in Iowa, touting his electability even as he surges in a new CNN poll and voters say it is important to pick someone to beat President Trump.

And ISIS heats up: Secretary of State Pompeo admits the terror group is stronger in some places now than it was years ago as the Pentagon reveals an ISIS resurgence months after the president proclaimed a 100 percent defeat of the ISIS caliphate.

Wolf Blitzer is off. I'm Brianna Keilar and you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

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UNIDENTIFIED MALE (voice-over): This is CNN breaking news.

KEILAR: Breaking news: as concerns grow about an economic downturn, President Trump confirms he's considering a payroll tax cut and is again slamming the Fed, saying it should cut interest rates. But with a top financial firm saying that his tariffs could cost

American families $1,000 a year, the president insists he's not ready to make a deal with China, saying he would stick to his trade war even if the U.S. falls into a recession.

Also tonight, secretary of state Mike Pompeo concedes ISIS is stronger in some places than four years ago following a Pentagon report that ISIS is resurging in Iraq and Syria just months after the president declared the terror group's caliphate 100 percent defeated.

I'll be speaking with Congressman Gerry Connolly of the Foreign Affairs and Oversight Committees and our correspondents and analysts are standing by with full coverage. Let's go to CNN Chief White House Correspondent, Jim Acosta there on the North Lawn.

And Jim, for someone who said the economy is great, the president sure seems worried.

JIM ACOSTA, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Seems that way, Brianna. The president danced around a lot of tough topics, from the economy to gun control and sounded open to the idea of a payroll tax cut, despite his own aides knocking down that idea.

But the president insisted any potential tax cuts are not needed because of a possible recession. The president also began to parrot the talking points of the National Rifle Association on whether to tighten the nation's background check system.

And then on the topic of Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib, the president said Jewish people may be showing what he called "disloyalty" if they vote for Democrats.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ACOSTA (voice-over): President Trump is ripping into forecasts from economists that the U.S. could be headed toward a recession.

TRUMP: I think the word recession is a word that is inappropriate because it is just a word that the -- the -- certain people, I'm going to be kind, certain people in the media are trying to build up because they would love to see a recession.

ACOSTA (voice-over): Still the president revealed he's considering some proposals to boost the U.S. economy, including a payroll tax cut.

TRUMP: Payroll tax is something we think about and a lot of people would like to see that. And that very much affects the working -- the workers of our country and we have a lot of workers. I've been thinking about payroll taxes for a long time. Whether or not we do it now or not is -- it is not being done because of recession.

ACOSTA (voice-over): But the president contradicted his own aides, who had just batted down the idea a few hours earlier in the day.

(CROSSTALK)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: -- being considered?

HOGAN GIDLEY, WHITE HOUSE SPOKESPERSON: It is not being considered at this time.

ACOSTA (voice-over): Mr. Trump is still touting the U.S. economy as the best in the world but there are signs of possible trouble. U.S. Steel announced up to 200 temporary layoffs in the critical battleground state of Michigan. That news came less than a week after the president said the steel industry was humming along.

TRUMP: We're doing steel. Steel industry is high. The steel -- they were dumping steel all over. They were destroying our companies. U.S. Steel now -- all of them, they're all expanding. The steel industry is back. It is doing great.

ACOSTA (voice-over): On gun control, the president also seemed to downplay the need for tighter background checks. Sources tell CNN the president has soured on the idea of new gun laws after talking with lawmakers and the NRA.

TRUMP: We are in very meaningful discussions with the Democrats and I think the Republicans are very unified. We are very strong on our Second Amendment, the Democrats are not strong --

[17:05:00]

TRUMP: -- at all in the Second Amendment. And we have to be very careful about that. You know they call it the slippery slope. And all of a sudden, everything gets taken away. We're not going to let that happen.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ACOSTA (voice-over): But listen to what the president said earlier this month, when he claimed he didn't agree with the notion of a slippery slope and NRA talking points.

TRUMP: NRA has, over the years, taken a very, very tough stance on everything. And I understand it. You know, it is a slippery slope. They think you approve one thing and that leads to a lot of bad things. I don't agree with that.

ACOSTA (voice-over): The president also attacked Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib, who gave a tearful rebuke of Israel's decision to ban the Michigan Democrat along with Minnesota Representative Ilhan Omar, tweeting, "I don't buy Tlaib's tears. I've watched her violence, craziness and most importantly words for far too long. Now tears? She hates Israel and all Jewish people. She is an anti-Semite."

TRUMP: All of a sudden she starts with tears. Tears. And I don't buy it. I don't buy it. I don't buy it for a second. I think any Jewish people that vote for a Democrat, I think it shows either a total lack of knowledge or great disloyalty.

ACOSTA (voice-over): And just days away from the next G7 summit, the president resurrected his own talk of allowing Russia back in after the group of world powers gave Moscow the boot over its annexation of Crimea.

TRUMP: We're talking about Russia because I've gone there, numerous G7 meetings and I guess President Obama, because Putin outsmarted him, President Obama thought it wasn't a good thing to have Russia in. So he wanted Russia out. But I think it is much more appropriate to have Russia in.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ACOSTA: Now getting back to the president's comments about Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib, the Jewish Democratic Council of America has released a statement in the last few minutes saying, quote, "This is yet another example of Donald Trump continuing to weaponize and politicize anti-Semitism."

Meanwhile Tlaib's colleague Ilhan Omar also has released a tweet just in the last several minutes. She simply said, quote, "Oh, my," -- Brianna.

KEILAR: Jim Acosta at the White House, thank you.

We have more breaking news. Just days before the group of top industrialized nations meets for its annual summit, President Trump says he's like to see the G7 become the G8 again by reinstating Russia. Let's turn to CNN National Security Reporter, Kylie Atwood.

And Kylie, it bears reminding, Russia was kicked out for invading a neighbor, something the U.S. was -- condemned.

KYLIE ATWOOD, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: Right, not just the U.S.

KEILAR: That is right.

ATWOOD: All of the member nations, the majority of the G7, were supportive of the move to kick Russia out of the G7, then the G8 back in 2014. President Trump reiterating what he said before today, it is notable today however because he's heading to the G7 in just a few days to meet with the world leaders who were on board with then President Obama, who was effective in getting Russia to get out of the group.

But President Trump didn't say he will push for it. He said he would see any motion as being favorable so we'll see if there is traction there.

KEILAR: And also secretary of state Mike Pompeo today downplayed the ISIS threat. He acknowledged it in a way but he was also very much downplaying it and this is not long after the Pentagon said actually they're making a resurgence.

ATWOOD: That is right. So this inspector general report from the Pentagon just earlier this month said that ISIS is resurging in both Iraq and Syria and this comes on the heels the U.S. pulling down their troops numbers in Syria and also on the heels of questions about where the Trump administration is going with Syria policy. But as you said, Secretary Pompeo sought to downplay the fact that

this is a real threat, saying that they have actually decreased threats in areas and increased in others. Let's listen to what he said.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Is it gaining strength in your opinion?

MIKE POMPEO, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: It is complicated. There are certainly places where ISIS is more powerful today than they were three or four years ago. But the caliphate is gone and their capacity to conduct external attacks has been made much more difficult. We've taken it down significant risk. Not all of it. But a significant amount.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ATWOOD: So we know that one of the areas where ISIS has started to resurge is in the internally displaced people's camps, the Syrians without a home and there is about 70,000 in this camp in northeastern Syria.

This inspector general report out from the Pentagon said the ISIS ideology in that camp is uncontested and nobody is pushing back against it. And this is becoming a potential breeding ground for the next generation of ISIS fighters because a lot of them are young and under 18 years old.

KEILAR: And certainly very unhappy with their circumstances and perhaps vulnerable to messaging.

ATWOOD: Exactly.

KEILAR: Kylie, thank you so much for that report.

[17:10:00]

KEILAR: Joining me now is Democratic Congressman Gerry Connolly of Virginia, a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee and the House Oversight Committee as well.

Sir, thanks for being with us.

REP. GERRY CONNOLLY (D-VA): Great to be with you.

KEILAR: I do want to talk to you about this resurgence of ISIS here in just a moment. But first, let's get to the president's comments on the economy because he confirmed today he would be open to a payroll tax cut.

Is that something that you would consider as well?

CONNOLLY: Not at this time. Congress, the Republican Congress, passed an enormous tax cut that overwhelmingly benefited large corporations and the wealthy 1 percent. They promised that that would lead to a resurgence of business investment and it would pay for itself.

And instead we've seen the largest red ink in an expanding economy in American history and that investment dried up. And most of that money in corporations went to stock buybacks, very unproductive.

So if we're going to look at a tax cut, A, the economy has to be in some real trouble and, B, it will require frankly recalibrating the tax cut that the Republican Congress passed just two years ago.

KEILAR: I was asking one 2020 candidate earlier about this. John Delaney would not say definitively that he would not support a payroll tax cut because -- you bring up the Republican tax overhaul --- but this is a payroll tax cut, the idea being that this might help a lot of people who support Democrats, who have -- who have your ear.

What would you say to them, especially considering President Obama signed a payroll tax cut in 2020 and he thought it was a good idea then?

And why isn't it a good idea now?

CONNOLLY: Well, not all tax cuts are the same. And you have to look at the current state of the economy. Mr. Trump can't have it both ways. An additional stimulation to an economy that is continuing to grow makes no sense. A stimulation to an economy that is contracting, that is a different matter.

But it is still requires revisiting the wealthy giveaway tax cut that the Republicans passed two years ago. We can't continue to simply hemorrhage red ink because revenue shrinks in the tax system. We have to have a balanced tax code that does a better job of balancing revenue and expenditures.

KEILAR: To your point, there are some economists who think that a recession is looming and this is something that is -- while the president is being rosy publicly about the economy, privately he's expressing concern about a recession.

Are you worried about that?

CONNOLLY: I think there are warning signs for sure. We see Germany's economy, the largest economy in Europe, has contracted two quarters in a row. We have Trump's trade war with China, which is badly affecting both consumer items in the United States but particularly the agricultural sector by drying up markets for American farmer goods.

We have manufacturing under some real assault in America. And we don't have very great wage growth in the United States. We're kind of chugging along at an anemic level, which Mr. Trump promised would be double what it is right now.

So I think there are some warning signs. And then we have a sign on the markets, the inverted yield curve for bonds, which has accurately predicted about 18 months out every recession over the last six.

KEILAR: I do want to get your reaction to something else the president said in the Oval Office today when he was speaking about his recent feud with Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib over her canceled visit to the West Bank.

He said, quote, "I think any Jewish people that vote for a Democrat, I think it shows either a total lack of knowledge or great disloyalty."

That is President Trump.

What do you make -- of the president -- the reaction?

CONNOLLY: I think that is a profoundly anti-Semitic statement by the president. To suggest that Jewish Americans in their preference in voting are disloyal is an old anti-Semitic trope. It is disgusting. It ought to be condemned by Republicans as well as Democrats. And I condemn it here.

KEILAR: Let's talk about ISIS because, according to a new report from the Pentagon, the terror group is actually staging a comeback in Iraq and Syria here in recent months. You sit on the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

How should the Trump administration and how should Congress respond to this apparent resurgence?

CONNOLLY: I think we need to take it very seriously and it is tied in with some of other things as well. Protecting the Kurds in Syria and parts of Syria they liberated and dismantled the ISIS caliphate is very important because if we don't, they hold thousands of ISIS prisoners. And those prisoners will be let go if the Kurds lose their territory in Syria. So this is a complicated --

[17:15:00]

CONNOLLY: -- matter but there is no question that ISIS, despite the fact that it has lost its geography has not lost the will to exist and to inflict damage.

KEILAR: Congressman, thank you so much. Congressman Gerry Connolly with us.

CONNOLLY: My great pleasure.

KEILAR: Always good to see you.

KEILAR: And up next, Joe Biden surging in a new CNN poll, regaining a double-digit lead over Democratic rivals.

Why is Kamala Harris slipping?

And the president seems to backpedal on the idea of new gun laws, saying they are already very strong, these background checks that are in place.

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(COMMERCIAL BREAK) [17:20:00]

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KEILAR: A new CNN poll reveals intriguing trends in the 2020 presidential race. It is out just as former Vice President Joe Biden is putting a big emphasis on his electability. CNN's Arlette Saenz is in Iowa for us.

So tell us more about this.

ARLETTE SAENZ, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Brianna, this new CNN national poll shows that Joe Biden is still holding on to that front- runner status. This new poll now has him up ahead of his rivals by double digits.

Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren battling it out for second place and followed by Pete Buttigieg and Kamala Harris, both coming in at 5 percent. But Kamala Harris has dropped by 12 points since June, since our poll in June taken after the debate where she sparred with Joe Biden over the issue of school busing.

Another interesting figure from our new CNN poll is that the majority of Democrats want to see a candidate who they believe has a strong chance of defeating President Trump.

And this new poll comes as Joe Biden is homing in on the issue of electability as he's airing his first TV ad of the presidential campaign here in the state of Iowa. Take a look at part of that advertisement that is starting to run today.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

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UNIDENTIFIED MALE (voice-over): We know in our bones this election is different. The stakes are higher. The threat more serious. We have to beat Donald Trump. And all of the polls agree, Joe Biden is the strongest Democrat to do the job.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SAENZ: So it is interesting there that the Biden campaign even pointing to the head-to-head match-ups where they see the former vice president potentially beating Trump in a general election match-up.

And this is really something that you've heard Joe Biden stress over and over during his campaign, that what Democrats need to do is elect someone that can beat -- or pick someone as the nominee that can beat Trump in the general election.

KEILAR: And Joe Biden is making this argument and -- and so is his wife, Jill Biden. Tell us about that.

SAENZ: Yes, it is not so often you hear these candid statements from the presidential candidates' spouses but Jill Biden was in New Hampshire yesterday, speaking to a group of teachers, who were not necessarily committed to her husband's candidacy.

She even noted at the beginning of her remarks, saying, I know many of you in this room may not be committed to Joe Biden but take a listen to the argument that Jill Biden was making yesterday in New Hampshire.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JILL BIDEN, WIFE OF JOE BIDEN: Your candidate might be better on, I don't know, health care than Joe is. But you've got to look at who is going to win this election. And maybe you have to swallow a little bit and say, OK, I sort of personally like so and so better. But your bottom line has to be that we have to beat Trump.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SAENZ: Now Joe Biden was asked about the comments here in Prole, Iowa, and he emphasized what his wife had to say, saying that issues that voters care about wouldn't go into effect if Donald Trump is re- elected so they need to home in on electing someone or picking a nominee who can defeat him come November 2020.

KEILAR: Those were some extraordinary comments. Arlette Saenz in Iowa, thank you so much.

And coming up, a stunning comment from President Trump, who said that, quote, "Any Jewish people that vote for a Democrat show either lack of knowledge or great disloyalty."

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[17:25:00]

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KEILAR: Breaking news: just a short time ago in the Oval Office, President Trump took another shot at Democratic Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib as well as Congresswoman Ilhan Omar. The president went on to say that he thinks any Jewish people that vote for a Democrat show, in his words, quote, "either a total lack of knowledge or great disloyalty."

Let's get reaction now from our political experts.

This was stunning, what he said. Even by the measure of President Trump saying things that are out there, this was stunning.

ABBY PHILLIP, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: It was. And it was counter to the entire argument that Republicans have been making about Congresswoman Tlaib and Congresswoman Ilhan Omar and their comments about Israel.

The president is essentially saying here that American Jews owe loyalty to Israel and that they are disloyal if they vote for Democrats here in the United States. That is the trope that Republicans accused Rashida Tlaib of using toward Jewish Americans.

And the president here is now utilizing it in the Oval Office. So it seems that this kind of opens up and reveals some of the disingenuous nature of these attacks, that the president believes that American Jews ought to vote Republican for whatever reason when they are in fact American and can vote however they want to vote.

(CROSSTALK)

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: I could say it is intellectually insulting to people to say that if you want to vote for somebody, then you're disloyal or stupid you're or you're dumb or whatever you are. That it is the old divide and conquer strategy that we've seen Donald Trump use.

[17:30:00] But this notion that if you, say, disagree with Netanyahu over certain things, then you are, therefore, disloyal to Israel, well, that's ridiculous too. I mean, Jews are allowed to have opinions like everybody else. And Donald Trump is just using this, and it's -- it is insulting.

KEILAR: The Jewish Democratic Council of America has put out a statement, and they're accusing Donald Trump of weaponizing anti- Semitism. There -- I mean, we have to be clear, there are a lot of Jewish Americans who vote for Democrats more than vote for Republicans.

PHILLIP: By a large --

MARK PRESTON, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, he is certainly weaponizing the whole idea of Israel as a political issue, right?

So not only does he attack these two sitting congresswomen, right -- and let's go back a day where he was congratulatory to them being excluded, at least one of them being excluded, from actually going to Israel which, in of itself, is amazing -- but what he's trying to do is to try to talk to all Jewish folks across the country and say that that is not someone you can support.

And you can't support Gloria, let's say, because she supports one of these other women. And the whole idea is to try to win in 2020, and he's doing it in a very, very dirty way.

KEILAR: How would Jewish Americans who are on the fence or don't support Donald Trump be swayed by that, I wonder? Is he also -- is he also speaking just to his base to try to, you know, throw some red meat their way?

REBECCA BUCK, CNN POLITICAL REPORTER: That could certainly be a part of it. I think if the President had been more artful or tactful about this, he could have tried to make the point that if you are a supporter of Israel, if you want the United States to be a stronger supporter of Israel, here is why you should be voting Republican.

Because right now, there is legitimate debate on the left among Democrats about how much the party should be supporting Israel, how much the United States should be supporting Israel, disagreements about the two-state solution. And so, I think there is an argument, politically, to be made for, are Republicans or Democrats a better party to support if you are a strong supporter of Israel, but the President is making this instead into something anti-Semitic, frankly.

KEILAR: Let's talk now about some of the -- what the polls are showing us in this 2020 race as Democrats are trying to take on Donald Trump. Our CNN poll, Mark, what does it tell you about Joe Biden's durability as a front-runner?

PRESTON: Well, he's got staying power. Look, he had eight years with Barack Obama, people forget he was first elected in 1972. Joe Biden is not new to people. If you are a Democrat, and you're somebody who has voted in the past couple of elections, you pretty much have made your opinion of Joe Biden.

And if you look deeper into these numbers, it goes to show that not only does Joe Biden do better with self-identified Democrats, also does well -- better with conservatives and moderate Democrats, but what is also interesting is that he's actually tied with Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren when it comes to liberal Democrats.

PHILLIP: Right.

PRESTON: So it's not as if he is bleeding support from liberals, it's just that he has more support elsewhere. And most importantly, he has support, a strong support, from Democrats who want to defeat Donald Trump.

KEILAR: That's exactly right. So 54 --

BORGER: That's not (INAUDIBLE).

KEILAR: Fifty-four percent of Democratic voters say it's more important --

BORGER: That's right.

KEILAR: -- that a candidate has a strong chance of beating Trump than shares their position on the issues. However, Gloria, that is down a little bit. That's down 61 percent, which is where we saw that in June. I mean, that's significant. So does the electability argument -- is that sustainable?

BORGER: Well, right now, it's good for Joe Biden, but the interesting thing to me, as you look deeper into the -- into our polling is the generational issue here. Because if you're younger, ages 18 to 49, you think -- 43 percent of you think what's most important is that you can beat Trump, but 53 percent say you've got to share my positions. That's young people, share my positions.

Older people, 60 percent almost say -- and this is 65 and over -- you've got to beat Trump. So older voters are much more inclined to vote for a candidate whom they believe can win. And that's where Joe Biden gets his sustainability, from those voters.

KEILAR: Let's listen to Jill Biden make the case for why electability is so important.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JILL BIDEN, WIFE OF JOE BIDEN: Maybe you have to swallow a little bit and say, OK, I sort of personally like so and so better, but your bottom line has to be that we have to beat Trump.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KEILAR: I think it's always a treat for us, as we are political observers, for something that is so unexpected that a spouse of a candidate would say something like this. It's just sort of a treat to talk about, in a way. I mean, what do you think?

BUCK: Right. Just making such a starkly pragmatic --

KEILAR: That's right.

BUCK: -- argument, it's basically, like, put "settle for Joe" on a bumper sticker. It's not a totally inspiring campaign slogan.

[17:35:00] But one of the challenges for Joe Biden moving forward, as he and his campaign try to make this purely electability argument, is that when you look at the polling right now on these potential match- ups between Democratic candidates and Trump, Joe Biden isn't the only one who wins. In fact, every single top tier Democrat right now would beat Donald Trump if you're looking purely at the national polling.

So it's difficult to continue to make that argument when Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders can all say, well, look, we would beat Trump, too.

PHILLIP: But I think, to me, the honesty in the statement is also just a fact of voting, right? You don't always share all your views with the candidate that you vote for. I think what she's saying to them is, don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

And in this case, I think the Biden campaign knows there is a subsection of the Democratic Party, that could be up to 30 percent, who believe that Joe Biden is taking the wrong approach to health care. Those people can probably still vote for Joe Biden because they are still Democrats.

KEILAR: All right --

PHILLIP: I think that's what Jill Biden is saying.

KEILAR: All right. I need to get in a quick break. You guys stand by for me. We have much more ahead including a dip in the polls for Kamala Harris. How does she rebound from that? We'll discuss.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[17:40:45] KEILAR: And we're back now with our political experts.

Let's talk, Gloria, about what the polls, our latest poll, is saying about Kamala Harris because this was one of the big headlines aside from Joe Biden's durability in the poll.

BORGER: Right.

KEILAR: Oh, my goodness, dropping 12 percent.

BORGER: Ah! Yes, it's sort of like --

KEILAR: That's right, that's the sound.

(LAUGHTER)

BORGER: It's -- it was -- I was talking with Brooke Baldwin earlier about this today. It's kind of like a souffle that can't rise again, and it just -- that just sunk, and the question is why. And I think what happens is when you rise that quickly, you get under a magnifying glass, and people start wanting to know a little bit more about you.

And she's been questioned about, well, were you tough on crime? Were you not tough on crime? You're criticizing Joe Biden on the crime bill. Well, what about you in the state of California?

So she has had trouble with durability, and I think in the next debate, she's going to have to really -- she's going to have to up her game a little bit because she just hasn't been able to sustain where she was. She got that -- she had that moment, and then it kind of got squandered. And I'm not quite sure exactly why.

KEILAR: Can she -- can she make the souffle rise again tomorrow?

PHILLIP: Right.

BORGER: Right. Well, it's hard to make a souffle rise.

PHILLIP: Yes, a little.

KEILAR: Right. Is it -- is it a balloon? What --

BORGER: I'm never correct (ph), but --

KEILAR: You know, what is -- what can she do?

(CROSSTALK)

PHILLIP: It is a long primary. And we haven't really even started, so there is time. But the problem seems to be that -- is closing the sale.

You know, a lot of people seem to like Kamala Harris. Voters are very interested in learning about her, but when you ask them who they prefer, she's not their number one choice. And that's why she's losing out to Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. Because she's falling somewhere pretty far down actually on people's list of their top tier candidates.

And some of that can be -- could be because she's trying to carve out a lane that's occupied already, somewhere between a Joe Biden and an Elizabeth Warren. And -- but she's neither of those people. She is not the clear moderate nor is she the clear progressive, and I think Democratic voters don't quite know what to do with that. So there is a lot of work for her to do to kind of make clear to voters what she's running for and what her message is.

KEILAR: Let's talk about Julian Castro because he became the 10th persons -- I mean, this is important, right? He became the 10th person to qualify for the September debate. Is this life or death, qualifying for this? How significant is that?

PRESTON: Oh, it is. Not only did he qualify for the debate, but he qualified for the CNN climate crisis town hall where all 10 candidates are going to appear on September 4th. Why that's important is because they're going to speak directly to Democratic voters on Democratic issues that are going to create moments that go viral that they're going to want to push out to their supporters.

It really is life or death now because it is coming down to closing the sale. You don't have to close the sale to actually have somebody make the purchase, you just have to keep them still interested you -- in you right now. And I think Abby is right about that, but you need to start making that close now.

KEILAR: How do candidates stay in if they aren't going to be elevated to talk to voters in this way? Can they?

BUCK: Many of them won't is the reality of it. I think the deadline is August 28th, the end of this month, for candidates to qualify for this next debate. And if they don't, they have some really tough decisions to make. If they are self-funding like John Delaney, they have millions of dollars at their disposal, maybe they can try to keep going and make that October debate.

But if you're a Kirsten Gillibrand, if you're one of these lower-tier candidates who isn't using their own money to fund their campaign, they're going to have to make a tough decision. Do you keep going? Can you afford to keep going? Can you afford to keep paying your staff?

That's going to be a really pressing issue for a lot of these campaigns, is can they continue to make payroll for their -- for their staff because their fundraising, in a lot of cases, is drying up?

KEILAR: What do you think? What are you watching for?

PHILLIP: You know, expectations matter. So polls are not everything, but they do signal to donors and to just rank and file Democrats about your ability to persevere through this primary. And they build on each other. And if you're not doing well now, it gets progressively more difficult to raise money. It's a little bit like a ball rolling down a hill.

[17:45:04] So for a lot of these candidates, it's really do-or-die to change the narrative as early as possible, so they don't end up in a death cycle before they even get to the Iowa caucus. BORGER: Yes, it's like the "Hunger Games." You know, it's not

pretty. And you'll see these people on stage -- whether you have one debate or you end up having two debates, you'll see these people on stage, and you have to figure out who you have to knock off in order to survive yourself.

And, you know, for Kamala Harris, to get back to her, she had to grab an awful lot of the African-American voters from Joe Biden. And when she was so effective talking about busing, as that little girl, you know, she thought that was going to really do it for her, that was going to help her out. But it didn't help her out.

What's going to happen in the -- in these upcoming debates? Julian Castro going off -- after Beto O'Rourke. Will that happen again? Because those two are in the same lane. And so, as -- it's just -- it's not pretty.

PHILLIP: The stakes are getting high.

KEILAR: The stakes are high in this "Hunger Games" 2020 episode.

BORGER: Right, yes.

KEILAR: You guys, thank you so much. Rebecca Buck, Abby Phillip, Gloria Borger, and Mark Preston -- thank you, guys.

Coming up, Vladimir Putin puts his spin on a mysterious explosion involving a nuclear missile and raises more questions than he answers. Are we witnessing a Chernobyl-style cover-up?

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[17:50:59] KEILAR: Nuclear experts are openly worried about Vladimir Putin's attempts to brush off a deadly blast which is believed to have occurred during a test of a nuclear-powered missile. CNN's Brian Todd has been digging into this. What are you learning?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Brianna, we've been speaking with nuclear weapons experts and other analysts who are telling us tonight that they believe the Kremlin is engaging in a very dangerous cover-up akin to what happened with Chernobyl in 1986. This time, they're concerned that Vladimir Putin and his inner circle are holding back information from a key nuclear monitoring group in order to protect the secrecy of a dangerous new weapon they're developing.

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TODD (voice-over): Tonight, scientists are growing more concerned about a possible Kremlin cover-up as Vladimir Putin and his inner circle put their spin on what American officials believe was an explosion of a nuclear-powered missile. Putin said at an event in France that there is no danger.

VLADIMIR PUTIN, PRESIDENT OF THE RUSSIAN FEDERATION (through translator): There is no hazard there, and there is no background radiation increase. We have sent experts, including independent experts there, who have the situation under control now.

TODD (voice-over): Putin's pushback comes as officials from the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization, which monitors nuclear weapons activity around the world, tell CNN that at least four of the group's monitoring stations in Russia went silent, at least temporarily, in the days following the explosion. Scientists tell CNN that it's almost unheard of for the stations which measure radioactive particles in the atmosphere to stop working.

ANKIT PANDA, ADJUNCT SENIOR FELLOW IN THE DEFENSE POSTURE PROJECT, FEDERATION OF AMERICAN SCIENTISTS: I don't think it looks like a coincidence. The two stations that we know were closest to the site of the incident on Russian territory, two sites known as Dubna and Kirov, they were the first to go down.

TODD (voice-over): American officials say they first became alarmed shortly after August 8th when the Russian government downplayed a mysterious explosion off Russia's northern coast that killed at least five elite nuclear specialists.

The U.S. believes the blast came during the testing of a secret nuclear-powered cruise missile. Scientists believe the missile blew up on a platform and likely fell into the sea. The Kremlin has only said some kind of liquid fuel ignited, but experts say satellite images showed Russia moving a ship used to clean up nuclear spills to the area.

ALINA POLYAKOVA, DIRECTOR OF PROJECT ON GLOBAL DEMOCRACY AND EMERGING TECHNOLOGY, BROOKINGS INSTITUTION: They do seem to be testing a very dangerous weapon, basically a nuclear reactor on top of a missile. When Putin unveiled this in a speech he gave some time ago, some people called it Chernobyl on wings.

TODD (voice-over): Tonight, experts believe Putin may well be using what some call the Chernobyl strategy based on how the Soviet Union responded when a nuclear reactor blew up in 1986. The Soviet regime covered up the damage, didn't acknowledge it even happened until Western nations discovered higher radiation levels in Europe. A strategy of dodging, deflection, and denial depicted in the recent HBO series on Chernobyl.

DAVID DENCIK, ACTOR: Our power comes from the perception of our power. Do you understand the damage this has done? Do you understand what's at stake?

TODD (voice-over): Tonight, one nuclear expert says, in addition to concerns about the hiding of potential health risks to nearby residents, Putin's government is shielding the world from the dangers involved in developing that new missile.

PANDA: So, obviously, the Russians are trying to keep whatever weapon they were testing at this site a secret. So the data that they're obscuring here -- or at least preventing the transmission of that data back to the international organization -- keeps it out of the rest of the world's hands and helps them keep this a secret.

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TODD: In the meantime, the Kremlin has come out and condemned the United States for its recent test of a cruise missile off the coast of California. Analysts are now worried that Vladimir Putin and his inner circle are going to use that test as an excuse for them to develop and test a stable of much more dangerous weapons like that missile that just exploded and escalate a potential arms race with the United States -- Brianna.

KEILAR: Brian Todd, thank you.

Coming up, breaking news, a stunning comment from President Trump criticizing Jewish people who vote for Democrats.

[17:54:59] (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KEILAR: Happening now, breaking news. Unnerved. Even as President Trump denies a recession is on the horizon, he's conjuring ways to use the economy and blame everyone but himself if he's wrong. So would new tax cuts make a difference?

[18:00:04]