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THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER

Toxic Water; The Other American; Trump vs. Cruz; Democrats Spar in Final Debate Before Iowa; Navy: Equipment Missing After U.S. Sailors Captured. Aired 4-4:30p ET

Aired January 18, 2016 - 16:00   ET

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


[16:00:08]

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN ANCHOR: His bromance with Ted Cruz is over, but Donald Trump says he is still tight with God.

THE LEAD starts right now.

Jawing at each other like two New York City cabbies fighting for the same fare, Donald Trump and Ted Cruz clawing for every last God- fearing vote in Iowa with just 14 days until the election gets going for real.

One American who is not coming home. Why wasn't Robert Levinson included in a prisoner swap with Iran? His family, they will join me live for their first interview here on CNN.

Plus, people including small children, drinking poisonous water for more than a year. Did politicians know? Did they commit a crime? Did they cover it up?

Welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jim Sciutto in today for Jake Tapper.

And we begin with our politics lead. Two weeks from today, Iowans will weigh in on the race for the White House and perhaps shed some clarity on the most unusual, unprecedented, unpredictable, you pick the adjective, presidential race in recent memory.

The political team is, as always, crisscrossing the country covering all the latest twists and turns in the political campaign as we count down to those first votes.

So, first, we're going to go to CNN chief political correspondent Dana Bash, who is as Donald Trump's rally in Concord, New Hampshire.

So, Dana, Trump, Ted Cruz, they have been escalating attacks on each other, although it was interesting we noted this morning that at both events Trump had this morning he did not attack Ted Cruz. What's the latest? And did you notice that change as well?

DANA BASH, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Absolutely.

In fact, Donald Trump just wrapped up his second event of the day, his first here in New Hampshire. And it was noticeably absent, any discussion about Ted Cruz. But it is definitely quite a different speech than he gave earlier today. The twice-divorced brash billionaire was invited to speak at a place where you don't see people like him very much, and that is an evangelical university.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BASH (voice-over): Appearing at Virginia's Liberty University is a rite of passage for GOP presidential candidates, even Donald Trump, who drew a big crowd beyond students required to attend.

DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: We're going to have some fun, right?

BASH: He stumbled a bit, quoting Scripture.

TRUMP: I hear this is a major theme right here, but 2 Corinthians, right, 2 Corinthians, 3:17, that's the whole ball game. Where the spirit of the lord, right, where the spirit of the lord is, there is liberty.

BASH: It's 2nd Corinthians, not 2, a moment showing sharp contrast with Ted Cruz, who comfortably weaves Bible verses into speeches.

SEN. TED CRUZ (R-TX), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: How can you know that I will follow through on those promises on the first days in office and every day afterwards? As the Scripture has said, you shall know them by their fruits.

BASH: But, so far, polls show evangelicals like Trump.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BASH: And they do like Trump. That is definitely true.

But the bottom line is, at this point, Jim, we're not sure if the fact Trump decided not to go after Cruz today is a result of the fact that we have had some prominent conservative voices come out and say wait, wait, wait, at Mr. Trump. It's one thing if you're going after people who the conservative movement consider establishment Republicans, but to go after Cruz is a whole different thing.

So we will see in the days to come whether he's backing off or not. One other interesting note, we are here in New Hampshire where Donald Trump is doing pretty well. He has a pretty comfortable lead in most polls. He brought with him today his daughter Ivanka, who he introduced, who just gave a couple of brief remarks on the stage behind me, but they also released a radio ad here in New Hampshire with her speaking talking about how much encouragement her father has given her throughout her life.

Clearly, a sense that, as he is doing well, they also feel the need to kind of soften the edges as much as they can around Donald Trump, Jim.

SCIUTTO: No question we saw him introduce her earlier at that Liberty University event as well.

Dana Bash, great to have her there. Turning to the Democrats now, Hillary Clinton found herself in an

unusual position at last night's Democratic debate. She was not the center of attention because she is no longer the front-runner in Iowa and New Hampshire. The former secretary of state has ceded the lead and some of the white hot spotlight to Senator Bernie Sanders.

So how did Sanders handle that stepped up scrutiny?

CNN senior political correspondent Brianna Keilar, she is tailing Sanders in Alabama today.

[16:05:00]

So, Brianna, why is Sanders in of all places Birmingham today? Especially, we have got only two weeks to go until the voting starts in Iowa.

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, you are not wrong, Jim. This is an odd place for a Democrat to be campaigning with Iowa and New Hampshire not too far off, but Bernie Sanders is really taking aim at Hillary Clinton's Southern firewall. In the Southern primaries, especially late February, early March, the black vote is so key. And so far, it's largely aligned behind Hillary Clinton.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Hello, South Carolina.

KEILAR (voice-over): Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders speaking in a unified voice today in South Carolina about Martin Luther King's legacy.

CLINTON: Dr. King died with his work unfinished. And it is up to us to see it through.

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS (VT-I), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: What is important is that we remember his vision.

KEILAR: But last night...

SANDERS: I think Secretary Clinton knows that what she says is very disingenuous.

KEILAR: ... a Democratic house divided, Clinton hammering Sanders on health care, accusing him of wanting to scrap Obamacare by providing Medicare for all Americans.

CLINTON: I want us to defend and build on the Affordable Care Act and improve it.

SANDERS: We're not going to tear up the Affordable Care Act. I helped write it.

KEILAR: With the ferocity that reveals just how competitive the race for the Democratic nomination has become in Iowa and New Hampshire, but belies Clinton's 25-point lead nationally, she's zeroed in on Sanders' moderate record on guns.

CLINTON: He voted against the Brady Bill five times. He voted for immunity from gun makers and sellers, which the NRA said was the most important piece of gun legislation in 20 years.

KEILAR: Sanders said he is willing to reconsider his vote on immunity and turned his attention to Clinton's ties to Wall Street.

SANDERS: I don't get personal speaking fees from Goldman Sachs.

KEILAR: Clinton hit Sanders for voting to deregulate credit default swaps, a move that paved the way for the financial crisis.

CLINTON: Senator Sanders, you're the only one on this stage that voted to deregulate the financial market in 2000.

KEILAR: But it was Bill Clinton who backed that bill, signing it into law, the Clinton campaign highlighting the former president's admission years later that it was a mistake.

Now Sanders is looking South for support from black voters who disproportionately support Clinton. Key African-American leaders like former Attorney General Eric Holder and most of the Congressional Black Caucus have endorsed her, but Sanders has hip-hop artist Killer Mike in his corner.

MICHAEL "KILLER MIKE" RENDER, MUSICIAN: You look at that picture of Dr. King that's been on your grandma's wall for all your life and say to yourself, whose policies best identify with that? Vote for that person. In my case, it's Senator Sanders.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

KEILAR: And we are awaiting Bernie Sanders here in downtown Birmingham. He will be holding a Martin Luther King Day rally. First, he will be touring civil rights landmarks first.

And it's interesting, Jim, because Hillary Clinton is in Iowa, so you look today at where the two Democrats, the two leading Democrats are campaigning and it reveals so much about what their major concerns are in these early contests.

SCIUTTO: No question. Brianna Keilar, she's in Alabama too.

Joining me now, Trump national spokeswoman Katrina Pierson, CNN political commentator S.e. Cupp and Democratic strategist Jamal Simmons.

I want to start with you with the Republican race. And I want to start now, if I can, S.E., with some sound we just got in from Donald Trump's most recent event in Concord, New Hampshire, where we had our Dana Bash. Not a hard news question here, but one of those powerful Trump moments.

We're going to play this clip. This is when a dog barked in the audience and the crowd responded. Have a listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TRUMP: Couple events like two weeks ago in New Hampshire, where the weather was so bad -- in fact, my pilot said, no, Mr. Trump, this is something -- what was that? Is that a dog?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Hillary.

TRUMP: It's Hillary. Only in New Hampshire.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SCIUTTO: Well, smiles there. A new low?

S.E. CUPP, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: It's a classy campaign. It really is. It's a classy campaign. And we're all so thrilled that we get to talk about these kinds of things.

Look, I don't know how you react in the moment to sort of that spontaneous event, but I think someone like maybe Marco Rubio or Jeb Bush or Ted Cruz would probably have handled it differently. I don't know.

SCIUTTO: Jamal.

JAMAL SIMMONS, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: Yes, I don't think that Trump really -- he didn't lean on it. It wasn't as if he sort of jumped on it and said something else positive. I don't know.

I'm not sure this is...

(LAUGHTER)

SCIUTTO: We will let sleeping dogs lie on that one.

SIMMONS: Yes.

SCIUTTO: Katrina, I want to go to you, because early on today, of course, we had a key event for Mr. Trump and that was his appearance at Liberty University, a chance for him to appeal directly to an evangelical audience.

Now, during that time, he had a moment where he quoted from the Bible. And I just want to play that clip if I can for you. Have a listen.

[16:10:08]

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TRUMP: Two Corinthians, 3:17, that's the whole ball game. Where the spirit of the lord, right, where the spirit of the lord is, there is liberty.

Who has read "The Art of the Deal" in this room? Everybody. I always say -- I always say a deep, deep second to the Bible. I have great relationship with God. I have great relationship with

the evangelicals. In fact, nationwide, I'm up by a lot. I'm leading everybody.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SCIUTTO: Now, that last clip, just to remind our viewers, that was from an interview that Mr. Trump did earlier with Jake Tapper.

Now, some of these comments, Katrina, raised eyebrows because they're not how evangelicals typically speak about their religion. For example, just they're more likely to say 2nd Corinthians rather than 2 Corinthians. Does this -- just from your perspective, was this a missed opportunity? Was this an uncomfortable moment for Donald trump?

KATRINA PIERSON, TRUMP CAMPAIGN SPOKESPERSON: No, not at all, Jim.

You got to give him credit. He's out there, he's campaigning, he's never been a politician before. And Donald Trump doesn't say many things the way most people have been conditioned to hear them. But what I will say is that he is up among evangelicals and he has support from black pastors and evangelical pastors all over the country.

He's doing very well among evangelicals. And the fact that he's out there campaigning the way that he is, you got to give him credit.

SIMMONS: But, Jim, I got to tell you...

SCIUTTO: Go ahead, Jamal.

SIMMONS: ... the way he says the evangelicals is kind of the way that we say the blacks. There's a certain amount of distance that it seems like he's putting between himself and this vibrant really community in the Republican Party.

It just doesn't seem like he has the ease, the facility with his community that one would need to be competitive.

SCIUTTO: S.E., one thing we noticed in both those events earlier in Concord and at Liberty University is that Donald Trump did not go after Ted Cruz...

CUPP: Yes.

SCIUTTO: ... to the degree we have certainly seen virtually right up until today. Is that a noticeable strategic shift on his part?

CUPP: Yes, I would assume so. I would assume he's noticing that specifically in Iowa, that's just not having the effect that I think he wanted it to. Questioning Ted Cruz's eligibility to be president, questioning Ted Cruz's evangelical bona fides, not really having the effect he wanted in Iowa.

Those Iowa voters, they like Ted Cruz. And certainly they like Donald Trump too, but I don't think he's going to win any points, close that gap by tearing Ted Cruz down.

SCIUTTO: S.E., Jamal, stay here.

Katrina, you as well, because I want to get your thoughts on that strategic change. We are going to have an opportunity after this break.

The gloves were off at last night's Democratic debate with Bernie Sanders, suggesting he is the only one who can beat Donald Trump. That's right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:17:02] JIM SCIUTTO, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome back to THE LEAD.

We are back with our panel for more on our politics lead. Let's get to the Democratic debates, but I do want to come back to Katrina Pearson, a Trump supporter -- just on that issue that we went to just before break, Katrina. That is Donald Trump no longer at least in these events today going after Ted Cruz in the events we saw virtually up until today. Is that an intentional strategic change?

KATRINA PEARSON, NATIONAL SPOKESWOMAN, TRUMP CAMPAIGN: Well, I don't think you've seen Senator Cruz go after him today, and that's the most likely reason. Donald Trump will go after Senator Ted Cruz whenever he's gone after him. And the reason why you've seen him continue to go after him over the last couple of days is because the senator has been going after Mr. Trump in the media, whether it's in the papers or even online. That's what we've been seeing.

SCIUTTO: OK. Jamal, moving to the Democrats if I can, in that debate, we certainly saw Hillary Clinton treating Sanders clearly as a real rival here. You and I were talking before, you were talking about not the likelihood but the real probability of Sanders as the nominee. Have you sensed a fundamental shift?

JAMAL SIMMONS, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: I think something is happening that the Clinton campaign is detecting. We're seeing some of it in the polls. These polls are tightening up. I think it may show up even worse somewhere, because the way she reacted to him yesterday showed that she takes him seriously as a threat. The very fact they had Chelsea Clinton delivering negatives on Bernie Sanders, he spent 20 years telling people not to go after Chelsea Clinton and they let Chelsea go out in the fray.

Something else is going on inside that campaign that I think we don't know and that tells me Sanders may be doing better than people --

SCIUTTO: Something going on, meaning they're seeing something worrisome in the polls --

SIMMONS: Correct.

SCIUTTO: -- regarding his support and her support.

It sounds like you're agreeing with that, S.E. S.E. CUPP, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: No, on Bernie's call (ph) like panic. It looks like panic attacks. You know, I thought she was really aggressive. And I'm been bemoaning Senator Sanders' lack of willingness to really go after her decisively. And that doesn't mean getting negative like her, it just means pointing out her total lack of integrity on this campaign, deploying all of these surrogates to call him racist, sexist, to try to paint him as a gun nut who's going to end Medicare. I mean, all of this stuff I thought is ripe opportunity for Sanders to say, "Have you no sense of decency, madam", and he just won't do it.

SIMMONS: Here's the thing: I think Hillary Clinton does very well, her campaign does very well fighting it out day by day. But then there's an overarching message narrative that doesn't seem to work. We saw this in 2007 and 2008, they were great day today beating Barack Obama, but he just made a fundamental case about his candidacy. The question is whether or not Bernie Sanders has the political stills to be able to capitalize on this dynamic.

SCIUTTO: Katrina Pierson -- quickly, go ahead.

PIERSON: Hillary is definitely in trouble. Yes, Hillary definitely is in trouble. But at the top of this show, you heard her say that Martin Luther King Jr. died before he could realize his dream, but what we've seen is black Democrats constantly voting for Democrats since the '60s and we have to look at what's happening today.

There's a reason why many African-Americans today are coming over to team Trump. He has a message of prosperity. He wants to fix the public education system, push it down to the local level, which is -- that is the solve -- it will resolve poverty.

[16:20:06] We're talking about leveling the playing field so that people can compete in the economy. And that's one of the things like we saw with Donald Trump today. He's not the son of a preacher but he still goes out there and he still campaigns with his message and his vision for America.

SCIUTTO: Jamal, do you buy that African-Americans are going to vote for Donald Trump?

SIMMONS: I think that's a pipe dream. I think what's more likely to happen is that Bernie Sanders who is now around 20 percent with African-Americans might be able to inch that number up to 40, 35 percent, 40 percent. If that happens, that's a very tough number for Secretary Clinton.

So, she's got to keep him town in the 20s with African-Americans so she can win in that SEC primary and all the Southern states afterwards.

SCIUTTO: Quick final thought, S.E. I saw you agree --

CUPP: Yes. I think that's part of the reason she talked the way she did in South Carolina to a primarily black audience. She knows South Carolina is the state she has to win. Maybe she gets away without winning Iowa and New Hampshire, but if she gets to South Carolina and Sanders gets it, I think that's over.

SIMMONS: And then we see Joe Biden.

(LAUGHTER)

CUPP: Bloomberg, right?

SCIUTTO: As we said earlier, the unpredictable campaign.

S.E., Jamal, and Katrina, thanks to you as well for joining us as well.

PIERSON: Thanks, Jim.

SCIUTTO: In our world lead, new questions about the American sailors who were detained by Iran, including what happened to two pieces of their equipment that are still missing from their boats.

Plus, a crime scene and a cover-up. Those are the new allegations about the poisoned drinking water in Flint, Michigan. So who knew what and when? That's ahead.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:25:32] SCIUTTO: Welcome back to THE LEAD.

Today's world lead: ten American sailors detained by Iran last week are back safe with their Navy units, but two small but important pieces of equipment are nowhere to be found.

Today, the Navy revealed just how quickly the sailors got off course and veered into Iranian waters. Within minutes, the sailors were confronted by Iranians and detained. Now, an inventory of the boats show the two SIM cards from their satellite phones which could hold some key information are now missing.

Let's bring in CNN's Barbara Starr. She's at the Pentagon today.

Barbara, the treatment of the sailors while they were in custody, that's a key question. And that's still unknown at this point.

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Right now, it is publicly unknown. But I have to tell you finally today, the administration's key point man on Iran is speaking out.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

STARR (voice-over): Now that the Americans detained in Iran are released and nuclear agreement is in place, the first public anger at Iran for filming U.S. sailors on their knees at gunpoint.

JOHN KERRY, SECRETARY OF STATE: I was very, very frustrated and angry that that was released. I raised it immediately with the Iranians.

STARR: The Iranian captors, part of the hard line revolutionary guard corps, opposed to nuclear negotiations with the U.S. The U.S. showing a dramatic shift in tone from the initial reaction about the sailors' treatment.

JOSH EARNEST, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: We've received assurances from the Iranians, both that our sailors are safe, that they're being sort of afforded the proper courtesy that you would expect.

STARR: The Pentagon is still waiting for a full investigation.

ASHTON CARTER, DEFENSE SECRETARY: I think we need to give these guys the opportunity to tell us what was really going on.

STARR: Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz says Iran exploited the U.S.

SEN. TED CRUZ (R-TX), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Within hours of that, John Kerry and President Obama are profusely thanking Khamenei for letting our sailors go after they had wrongly captured them and tried to humiliate them.

STARR: The Navy investigation were focused on the sailors treatment while in Iranian custody, including any interrogation, according to an initial Navy review that revealed there was a verbal exchange when the sailors were surrounded at gunpoint but no shots were fired.

It started January 12th at 9:23 in the morning when the boats left Kuwait. At some point, they changed course and entered Iranian waters. The sailors may not have even known where they were. At 2:10, the Navy received a report the sailors being queried by Iranians approaching them in four armed boats. At 2:29, the Navy has trouble reaching its sailors. By 2:45, there is total silence.

The U.S. Navy began an immediate search and radioed Iranian authorities looking for information. But it was three hours before the USS Anzio got a message from Iran that the sailors had been taken.

The sailors still could face some type of discipline for their navigation error, but the administration is focusing on the diplomatic victory.

JOHN KIRBY, STATE DEPARTMENT SPOKESMAN: If our sailors, those ten sailors had been taken a year ago, they would still be in Iran. We would not be able to get them out because we wouldn't have a direct way to communicate with the Iranian authorities to negotiate that release.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

STARR: And what about those two SIM cards for the satellite phones, if the Iranians do have them, it could give them access to some U.S. military phone networks, but it may be safe to assume at this point that the U.S. Navy has already changed some of those already -- Jim.

SCIUTTO: For sure. Barbara Starr in the Pentagon.

Five Americans held in Iran now released in a prison swap, but there was one American who is not part of that deal or any deal. And his family is asking why. Where is Robert Levinson? His wife and son, they'll join me live right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)