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THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER

Interview With Florida Senator Marco Rubio; North Korea Fears; Battle for South Carolina; Donald Trump vs. Pope Francis?; . Aired 4- 4:30p ET

Aired February 18, 2016 - 16:00   ET

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


[16:00:00]

JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: Hope the pope has a good lawyer.

THE LEAD starts right now.

Just two days until the critical South Carolina Republican primary, and Donald Trump going off on His Holiness after Pope Francis suggests that he's not Christian. But could this only help Trump in the Bible Belt?

Senator Marco Rubio taking his new big-time endorsement out for a spin today, as he responds to another trick, he says, by the Ted Cruz campaign. What did Rubio tell me about this terrible Photoshop?

Plus, it's nuclear, unpredictable and unstable and now intelligence officials are warning that North Korea is plotting terrorist attacks.

Good afternoon, everyone. And welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

If it feels like every day at this time, I come to you and I say you thought the race for president was crazy, wait until you hear what just happened today., and today is no exception. Today, I bring you a war of words between the Republican front-runner and His Holiness, the pope.

Our politics lead today, His Holiness vs. his Trumpiness. Pope Francis suggesting that Donald Trump is not Christian because Trump wants to build a wall to keep undocumented immigrants out of the United States. Trump called the pope's remarks disgraceful.

Let's go right to CNN chief political correspondent Dana Bash in South Carolina, where Republican voters head to the polls in just two days.

Dana, Donald Trump a long time ago said that the pope's candor was refreshing. Mr. Trump striking a far different tone today.

DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: That is an understatement, Jake.

You and I have covered politics to know to expect the unexpected, especially when it comes to South Carolina politics, especially when it is just 48 hours until the intense primary here.

But this, this is a new one.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BASH (voice-over): Just when you thought 2016 couldn't get weirder, Donald Trump got in a war of words with the pope, Pope Francis pontificating about Trump.

POPE FRANCIS, LEADER OF CATHOLIC CHURCH (through translator): A person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be located, and not building bridges, is not a Christian. This man is not a Christian if he has said things like that.

DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: He actually said that maybe I'm not a good Christian or something. It's unbelievable, which is really not a nice thing to say. For a religious leader to question a person's faith is disgraceful. I'm proud to be a Christian.

BASH: As unusual as it is for the pope to question a presidential candidate's Christianity, almost as unusual, that candidate's response.

TRUMP: If and when the Vatican is attacked by ISIS, which, as everyone knows, is ISIS' ultimate trophy, I can promise you that the pope would have only wished and prayed that Donald Trump would have been president, because...

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

TRUMP: It's true.

BASH: As for the pope's core criticism about Trump's call to build a wall between the U.S. and Mexico:

TRUMP: The Mexican government and its leadership has made many disparaging remarks about me. See, the pope was in Mexico. He doesn't see how Mexican leadership is outsmarting our president and Obama and our leadership has no clue as to the negotiation or anything else.

BASH: In an instant, this mano a mano between Trump and the pope overshadowed everything on the campaign trail. Jeb Bush, a devout Catholic and the GOP candidate most critical of Trump, in this case came to the billionaire's defense.

JEB BUSH (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I think his Christianity is between him and his creator. I don't think we need to discuss that. And as it relates to his policies related to ISIS, he's not the right guy to be commander in chief. The Swiss Army Guard is probably taking pretty good care of the pope, so I'm not worried about it.

(on camera): You think the pope was wrong to question his Christianity?

BUSH: I don't question anybody's Christianity because I honestly believe that that's a relationship that you have with your creator. And it only enables bad behavior when someone from outside of our country talks about Donald Trump.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BASH: Now, the other Republican candidate who has really been getting into it with Donald Trump, of course, is Ted Cruz. He also declined to step into this one, Jake. He said: "That's between Donald and the pope, I'm not going to get into the middle of that. I will leave it to the two of them to work out" -- Jake.

TAPPER: We will talk with Marco Rubio about this in just a few minutes.

But, Dana, let's get down to brass tacks here. The South Carolina Republican primary in just two days, how is this back and forth between Donald Trump and the pope, how might it play out among the South Carolina Republican electorate?

BASH: You know, you never know, but I have talked to some really grizzled veterans here in South Carolina about the answer to that question and most think that this actually could at least not hurt Donald Trump and potentially help him, because -- for lots of reasons, but first and foremost because there are a lot of Republicans here who don't agree with the pope, who is -- this pope in particular, obviously, who is pretty aggressively political, as popes go.

[16:05:08]

So they may like the idea that Donald Trump is standing up to the pope. I know it's kind of hard to wrap your head around that concept, just that we're having this conversation, but the sort of early analysis among Republicans is that it could only help Donald Trump here.

TAPPER: Sure. And there are some anti-Catholic people in South Carolina as well, as we have seen in years past. Dana Bash, thanks so much.

Don't forget we are just hours away from part two of CNN's Republican town hall. Tonight, South Carolina voters will get to ask questions of John Kasich, Jeb Bush and one Mr. Donald J. Trump. It all starts right here on CNN at 8:00 p.m. Eastern.

But let's talk more about the back and forth between Donald Trump and His Holiness, the pope.

I'm joined by Father Timothy Kesicki, who is president of the Jesuit Conference. As you may know, Pope Francis is a Jesuit.

Father, thanks so much for joining us.

FATHER TIMOTHY KESICKI, PRESIDENT, JESUIT CONFERENCE: Good to see you again, Jake.

TAPPER: Now, I want to make sure that we get the translation right. Is it that the pope said that Donald Trump, if he believes what he believes in terms of building a wall, is not a Christian or is not Christian, because there is a difference there?

KESICKI: Yes. I would say is not a Christian.

And I would also say, I think we need to look at the entire statement. You have to look at the question that was asked of Pope Francis and how he framed his response. So, he was asked if he was being a political pawn, a political pawn of Mexico.

And he said, well, as to the political question -- and he became very philosophical -- he said Aristotle teaches this all human beings are political animals, so I suppose, yes, I'm human, therefore, I'm political. As to whether or not I'm a pawn, well, let the people decide that.

But then he did a -- what we called philosophy a syllogism, something in logic, which said the Gospel teaches us that anyone who builds walls and not bridges is not a Christian. Therefore, if one, and I would say a person, not this individual, if a person only builds walls and not bridges, therefore, he is not a Christian.

So that's how I read and interpret Pope Francis' answer.

TAPPER: Of course, Donald Trump is the one pushing for this big wall to be built on the border, although other Republicans have joined in that cry.

How unusual is it for any pope to not only criticize a policy, but specifically a politician promoting a policy?

KESICKI: Well, first of all, the pope's criticism of the policy is not necessarily his own. He always takes the lead from the local bishops.

And in 2003, the bishops of Mexico and the United States wrote a letter called "Strangers No More," where, amongst other things, they said they wanted the abandonment of what they called the border blockade enforcement strategy.

So, he's getting the condemnation of the wall from the local bishops in Mexico and the United States. To take on -- he rarely -- I don't know him ever to have attacked a person, but he will attack an individual's ideology or beliefs.

And so I think he's attacking an issue more than a person, but I think it's hard for us not to equate the two. And that's why we're seeing the reaction from the pope's statements.

TAPPER: A senior adviser to Trump responded on Twitter -- quote -- "The Vatican is 100 percent surrounded by massive walls."

That's the pushback from the Trump campaign, basically, hey, the pope is perfectly safe and the people in Texas are not.

KESICKI: Well, I think it's an interesting interpretation, but actually the Vatican is completely open. You walk into Saint Peter's square, the public is welcome of all faiths and all denominations. They're allowed in the basilica. So the public is allowed in the Vatican every day.

So I don't know that that wall analogy holds. And then the pope comes out to the people twice a week, so I would question that analogy.

TAPPER: This pope especially very accessible to the public.

Father Timothy Kesicki, thank you so much. Appreciate your time.

Sticking with our politics lead, what does the rest of the Republican field think about Donald Trump calling the pope disgraceful? We will ask Trump rival Marco Rubio, who's in South Carolina.

Also today, they fought for their -- our country, but when they called for help, they got voice-mail. A new report showing dozens of veterans calling the suicide crisis line and never being able to speak to a real person. They were told to leave a message, and that's just the beginning of the scandal.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:13:15]

TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

Let's stay with our politics lead.

For the Republican establishment, he is the great right hope, Senator Marco Rubio. And after his momentum short-circuited in New Hampshire, Rubio has rebuilt his stump speech and started to surge again, this time in South Carolina, where he is currently in the thick of a nasty back-and-forth with his rival Senator Ted Cruz.

The charges and countercharges are flying. And in the middle of all this, Rubio scored a huge endorsement in the state.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

TAPPER: Senator Rubio, thanks so much for joining us.

SEN. MARCO RUBIO (R-FL), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Thank you. Thanks for having me on.

TAPPER: So, first off, I want to congratulate you on picking up Governor Nikki Haley's endorsement.

Jeb Bush, before the endorsement was given, called it the most powerful, most meaningful one in the state of South Carolina. So, you now have Governor Haley, Senator Tim Scott, and Congressman Trey Gowdy all in your corner. Ted Cruz's campaign says that, with those endorsements, you have to win South Carolina, and if you don't come in first, it's a loss.

RUBIO: Well, we're going to do well here, obviously.

This is a very unique election. We have six people out there competing. And, you know, Donald has been consistently the leader in the polls here. And unless something dramatic changes, that will be hard to change.

But we feel good about the momentum it gives us. We have to remember that these are still states that are giving out delegate support in an apportioned way. It's not winner-take-all. So, we feel great about this is going to add to the number of delegates we're going to leave here with.

We have a great team. And , by the way, they're a great team for us not just in South Carolina. Trey Gowdy, Tim Scott, Governor Haley, these are national leaders. They are going to be able to help us in other states as well. So we're excited about it. We're going to keep growing. Our campaign has real momentum here. We will see what that turns into on Saturday, but it most certainly isn't going to hurt, and I believe it's going to help.

TAPPER: Governor Haley, when she endorsed you yesterday, had a lot of great things to say. She did have some choice words for you last month after she criticized Donald Trump and said that that criticism wasn't so out of the ordinary.

[16:15:07] Here's what she had to say.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GOV. NIKKI HALEY (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: I have disagreements with other presidential candidates. You know, Jeb Bush passed Common Core and Marco Rubio believes in amnesty, which I don't.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: Governor Haley walked that comment back a bit saying she was tired, she didn't mean to say you supported amnesty, but she did mean you supported the "gang of eight" bill and she did not. But she did pick up on something a lot of conservatives don't like, that support for the "gang of eight" bill. What's your message to those conservatives?

RUBIO: Well, first of all, I've heard that. I mean, she's not new. A lot of people didn't support that effort. And my message is we tried to do the best we could in a Senate controlled by Harry Reid. They were going to do an immigration reform bill with or without me.

So, my goal was to try to make it as conservative as possible so that we could send it to the House and have the House take it up and make it better. That's not something I'm saying now. I said that during that process.

I repeatedly said this bill is not strong enough. There still have to be improvements made, and the house is going to make those improvements. It didn't work out that way.

My message is, the way the Senate bill is not going to be the law when I'm president. That's not going to be the way we address this issue. That's the best we could do in a Harry Reid-controlled Senate. When I'm president, we're going to do it our way and that means before we do anything, we are going to secure our border and enforce our laws. And until we do that first, we won't be able to do anything else on immigration.

After we've done that, we'll see what the American people are willing to do with someone who's been here for a long time and passes a background check, learns English, pays a fine, starts paying taxes. We'll see what people are willing to support. But right now, the priority has to be to secure our border.

TAPPER: Big campaign dispute in South Carolina today. The Cruz campaign pushing a flyer and a website that has a photoshopped picture of you and President Obama shaking hands.

Your campaign is objecting. Why?

RUBIO: Because it's not real. I mean in essence it's called the real Marco Rubio or something like that. It's not real. It's a photoshopped picture of something that never happened which is now par for the course for the Cruz campaign. They make things up.

In this case, they literally made up a picture. And more importantly, they're criticizing me on an issue that Ted Cruz was a supporter of. They're attacking me for the fast track authority for negotiating trade. Ted Cruz wrote an opinion piece with Paul Ryan in "The Wall Street Journal" supporting TPA, supporting fast track authority.

And he only flip-flopped when he got a lot of pressure. And even the reason why he flip-flopped was not the substance of it. He flip- flopped because he made up some excuse not to be for it.

So, again, look, this is now a pattern. I mean, every day there is something new that they are making up. And I think voters are beginning to notice.

You know, you do it once, it happened. You do it twice, disturbing. You do it every single day, it becomes a very disturbing pattern of misleading voters and saying things that just aren't true.

TAPPER: On that subject, last night at the town hall, Senator Cruz had the following to say. Take a listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. TED CRUZ (R-TX), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: He went on Univision and in Spanish said that he would not rescind the president's illegal executive amnesty on his first day in office. If I am elected president, in the first day in office, I intend to rescind every single illegal and unconstitutional executive action.

Now, in response to that, Marco followed the same strategy as Donald. He just screamed liar, liar, liar. He didn't dispute any of the substance.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: I want to give you an opportunity to respond, Senator.

RUBIO: Yes. Well, that's not what Univision says. In fact, Univision is consistently reported. In fact right after that interview, Univision reported that I said that DACA has to go away and it will. I will on my first day in office get rid of it because it's unconstitutional.

I was against it when the president did it. I remain against it now. It cannot be a permanent policy and I've said that repeatedly.

And even Univision who conducted the interview said that after the interview, that the interview was about me saying that DACA was going to go away. So, again, another example of him misleading people.

Look, this is -- I understand in politics that there are shades and people push back and forth, but when you do this every single day, it began in Iowa with a robocall to supporters basically telling them to tell people at the caucus site that Ben Carson dropped out. It wasn't just a tweet.

He obviously now denies he's gotten into a dispute with your own network, with CNN about what CNN said or didn't say. He, in fact, is being untruthful about what CNN did.

And then now, you saw today. I mean, it's every day there's something new. I think it's incredibly disturbing that someone is willing to go out every single day and make something up thinking no one is going to notice.

TAPPER: Can I ask you why you seem more focused on Senator Cruz than you are on the front-runner, Donald Trump?

RUBIO: I'm not focused on Senator Cruz but I have to respond to the things he says. Every single day he makes something up about me. If I don't respond to it, people might assume that it's true.

So, you can't leave things that aren't true unchallenged. And so, every day, he's doing that. Donald Trump is not out there every day making stuff up about me. I have differences of opinion about Donald Trump and we can get on to those debates.

On Saturday night at the debate, Donald Trump said that 9/11 happened under George W. Bush's watch and I challenged him on that.

[16:20:06] But Donald Trump is not out there every day making stuff up about me. Ted Cruz is. And so, we can't leave that unchallenged. If you do, then basically you're admitting that it's true in the eyes of some voters. This election is too important to allow that to happen.

TAPPER: Let's turn to the vacancy on the Supreme Court. Twenty-eight years ago, this month, in Ronald Reagan's last year in office, the U.S. Senate voted to confirm his Supreme Court nominee, Anthony Kennedy. How do you see that as significantly different from the timing for this potential nomination? President Obama still has 11 months left in office.

RUBIO: Well, a couple of things. You talk about the Reagan example, the nomination happened in the seventh year and the confirmation process went into the eighth year. But it actually happened when he still had over a year left in his term. This is a tradition that both parties have lived by for over 80 years where in the last year, if there was a vacancy in the last year of a lame duck president, you don't move forward.

The president can most certainly nominate someone, but the Senate has already said we're not moving forward on it. Mitch McConnell has already that clear, that the next president should have the opportunity to fill this vacancy. I agree with that.

We're going to have an election in November. In that election, voters -- this is going to be an issue in the election where the candidates are going to say and describe the kind of justice they would appoint. Voters are going to vote for a new president and I think that's going to be one of the factors how they make their decision, and then the new president can appoint someone and the Senate should move forward on the confirmation process then.

But I don't think you should appoint someone to a lifetime appointment to the highest court in the land by a lame duck president who is no longer accountable to the American electorate.

TAPPER: Let's talk about the most important issues for voters, jobs. There's a viral video showing employees of Carrier air conditioning announcing -- employees are being told that the company is moving 1,400 jobs from Indiana to Mexico in 2017 because it will cut costs dramatically.

Do you think anything could have been done to keep those jobs in the U.S. or is this just reality because Mexico is willing to pay the workers, say, $3 an hour?

RUBIO: Well, I think, first of all, I don't know if that's the only reason why that's happening. It's always disturbing to see jobs leaving our country.

I think from a policy perspective, we need to look at the way we treat American companies. We have the highest combined corporate tax rate in the world. We have regulations that are incredibly burdensome. We have a health care law that puts burdens on business.

We're not fully utilizing our energy resources. The cost of powering a Carrier plant could be cheaper if we were a nation that more fully allowed our utilities to fully utilize our energy resources. We're moving in a wrong direction.

So, it's not just labor costs, it's all these other costs that are being imposed on American businesses and that's why American businesses leave. That's why you've seen all these inversions over the last few years. We are now in a globally competitive economy and this is going to continue to happen unless we pursue government policies that allow America to be a more affordable place to start a business, keep a business, keep a business and grow an existing business. Again, I think that's an example of that.

TAPPER: Senator, Pope Francis was at a border town by the Texas- Mexico border on the Mexico side and today he was asked about Donald Trump. And the pope said, quote, "a person who thinks only about building walls wherever they may be and not of building bridges is not Christian. This is not the gospel," unquote.

What do you make of those remarks?

RUBIO: Well, a couple things. Number one, I think the Holy Father recognizes or should recognize and I believe he does how generous America is. We accept every year a million -- close to a million or over a million people every year as permanent residents of the United States. No other country in the world even comes close.

So, when it comes to accepting both refugees and immigrants, no nation on this planet is more welcoming, more open or more compassionate than the United States.

But we also have a right to have a system of laws by which we choose who gets to come in, when they get to come in and how they come in. Sovereign countries have a right to do that. So, there's a balance here between being compassionate but also being responsible, especially in a world where today radical jihadists are seeking to use the immigration laws of countries to infiltrate fighters into foreign countries.

So, as a government in charge of protecting our people, we have a right to have immigration laws. No nation on earth is more compassionate.

And as far as building walls on the border, its wall is not just about immigrants, it's also about potential terrorists crossing that border, not to mention the drugs coming across that border and the human trafficking that's occurring because people know they can get people across the border. So, it's a complicated and complex issue.

But here's what's not complicated: The United States is a sovereign country. It has a right to have immigration laws and it has a right to enforce immigration laws. And the United States remains the most compassionate and open country in the world on legal immigration and certainly a lot more welcoming in our laws than Mexico is.

TAPPER: Senator Marco Rubio, stick around. When we come back, I'm going to ask you about the collapsing cease-fire plan in Syria.

[16:25:00] That's next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD.

Topping our world lead today, just hours after a deadly explosion that killed at least 28 people, including civilians and soldiers in the Turkish capital city of Ankara, another roadside bombing attack left six Turkish soldiers earlier today and Turkey is already hitting back. Turkish officials are blaming the attacks on a Kurdish separatist group.

And here's where it gets a little complicated -- that separatist group is affiliated with the Syria-based Kurdish YPG militia. And the YPG militia is America's main ally on the battlefield in the fight against ISIS in Syria. The YPG for the record has denied any involvement in the terror attacks. Turkey responded by launching air strikes in northern Iraq, close to the Turkish border, especially targeting the Kurdish fighting force.