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AT THIS HOUR WITH BERMAN AND MICHAELA

Rubio Tees Up Foreign Policy Attack on Trump; Can Anyone Knock Trump Down; Romney Claims Bombshell in Trump Tax Return; How Trump is Preparing for Debate; Lindsey Graham Backs Up Romney Call. Aired 11:30-12a ET

Aired February 25, 2016 - 11:30   ET

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


[11:30:00] JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: Let's talk about that. You're a Democrat. I'm going to ask you to give advice. What do you think the smart move is for Trump? Not the move he'll make. We never what he'll do. Would it be smart to play it play it safe tonight? Would it be smart to be above the fray?

BAKARI SELLERS, FORMER SOUTH CAROLINA STATE REPRESENTATIVE: I think he just needs to show up. Donald Trump doesn't have a whole lot to gain from tonight. He really doesn't have a whole lot to lose because there's no one on stage that has proven themselves worthy enough to take him on and on. The last time Rubio engaged in a head-on attack was with Chris Christie. And he left with a bloody nose.

BERMAN: Yeah.

SELLERS: It didn't go well. Rubio has a problem that no one on this stage can point to a state that Rubio can win.

EDWARD ESPINOZA, FORMER DEMOCRATIC NATIONAL COMMITTEE OFFICIAL: That's his biggest issue.

(CROSSTALK)

ESPINOZA: I agree with you. Including Florida.

SELLERS: Including Florida. Right. I think he goes after Cruz. He's branded Cruz as a liar. And that has stuck. I think he goes and needles Cruz. I think he'll lay off of the Bushes a little bit because 41 is in the building tonight. I expect a good --

(CROSSTALK)

BERMAN: That's a good point.

SELLERS: I think he does have some honor and dignity.

BERMAN: We have 45 seconds left. I want one question about Mitt Romney, on Donald Trump. He on a phone call to FOX News yesterday says he thinks there's a bomb shell inside Donald Trump's taxes. Is this fertile ground for going after Donald Trump and is Mitt Romney, Matt Lewis, the right messenger?

MATT LEWIS, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: No, no, and no. (CROSSTALK)

BERMAN: Three "nos" to one question.

(LAUGHTER)

LEWIS: That's how bad it is.

(CROSSTALK)

LEWIS: Mitt Romney shelters income and carried a lower rate interest. If that comes out that Donald Trump did the same thing, he's like yeah, of course I did. I'm a smart businessman. I don't think see how anything in the taxes could hurt Donald Trump.

BEN FERGUSON, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: I disagree. I disagree.

BERMAN: Ben, go ahead.

FERGUSON: I disagree for one reason. He says his tax returns are complex. They're already done, though, so all we care about is the bottom line. This is not complex to make a copy of your tax returns. There is, obviously, something in there that I think Donald Trump does not want people to see. Why would you --

(CROSSTALK)

FERGUSON: Right. But he could have lied about how much money he made. For him to say his tax returns are complex, they're already filed and done. There's nothing complex about making copies.

(CROSSTALK)

BERMAN: -- is what you're saying.

All right, guys --

(CROSSTALK)

FERGUSON: I'm sure he has someone that can make copies.

BERMAN: We'll wrap it up there. Gentlemen, this was fun having you there. We'll all be enjoying the debate tonight.

Matt Lewis, Bakari Sellers, Ben Ferguson, Ed Espinoza, thank you to you all.

All right, he has slammed his rivals. He's gone after protesters. He's even talked about the pope in not-too-flattering ways. Right now, he's the front runner by a lot. Is there something, is there anything that could hurt Donald Trump? We're going to speak to a man who says there are some things that could knock him off his game.

Plus, he's a former Trump rival who is standing beside Mitt Romney on the issue of Trump's tax returns. We just spoke about them. Senator Lindsey Graham, a man who does not mince words, will be with us live. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[11:37:31] BOLDUAN: Just hours from now, the big Texas showdown, the Republican presidential rivals will face off in the final debate before Super Tuesday. And for everyone on the stage not named Donald clear, the mission it clear, outshine him or take him down.

Joining me now, Alex Burns, political correspondent for "The New York Times," and Barry Bennett, former campaign manager for Ben Carson, now advising the Donald Trump campaign.

Guys, it's great to see you.

Alex, you wrote a great piece in "The Times," laying out where Donald Trump can be hurt, where he can lose still even though he has all of this momentum. One of the things you point out is if debates like tonight turn against him, that could be part of his town fall. Explain.

ALEX BURNS, POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT, THE NEW YORK TIMES: There's this idea across the party that Donald Trump is this invincible figure that nothing hurts him. We actually saw in South Carolina that's not the case. He won the state comfortably, but after that final debate where he was sort of red faced and shouting, going at Bush, talking about 9/11 in terms of really turning off conservatives, there was a drop in his support. You saw among voters who decided late in the race, they tended to support other candidates rather than Trump. The final debate including, especially, maybe the one tonight are opportunities for Trump's rivals who have shied away to strip the bark off.

BOLDUAN: In your thinking, do you think it's more going to be a misstep on Trump's part or somebody landing a punch.

BURNS: A month, it could have either/or. Now, it might have to be both. He's built a commanding position. It might not be enough for Rubio to really go at him finally. He might have to trip himself up as well.

BOLDUAN: What do you think, Barry?

BARRY BENNETT, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: I don't think the debate format lends itself to moving numbers much at all.

BOLDUAN: Come on.

(CROSSTALK)

BOLDUAN: What do you think happened to Marco Rubio in that debate before New Hampshire?

BENNETT: Well, but did it last? No. A week later it was gone. Carly Fiorina did really well in Cleveland and got a big bump. Six days later it was gone. It affects the news cycle but doesn't affect the polling.

BOLDUAN: But Donald Trump rules the news cycle. There's where a lot of his rivals say he's doing so well. Can it be both?

BENNETT: You know, I mean, some people buy into the notion that people are voting for Donald Trump. I think they're aligning with Donald Trump. They want to burn Washington to the ground, and they're sure he's going to do it. They're not buying into he's the most handsome or the most elegant. They don't care. They want somebody to go to Washington and burn it down.

BOLDUAN: Barry, I want to get your take on the two latest polls. We have a poll out of Florida that looked good for Trump, 44 over Rubio at 28. And then the poll out of Texas, just came out, Cruz leading with 38 percent. And then the fight for number two between Trump and Rubio, 23 to 21. Do you think Trump could pull it out in Texas? Cruz is very confident of his operation there.

[11:40:23] BENNETT: I don't know. We'll find out. The difference is that this Tuesday it's kind of a complete absence of television advertising for the first time. We're all just living off the news cycle. Tell me what's been on the news every night, and I can tell you where I think the electorate decided. But I don't see anything that's going to reverse an 18 point in Florida. Texas, some polls have Cruz up. Some people have it very close. I don't know which is correct.

BOLDUAN: Real quick, what do you think of the one thing that Cruz and Rubio need to do tonight?

BURNS: I think Cruz needs to play to his core strength and make sure Trump doesn't undercut his basic level of support with evangelicals and conservative activists. Look, if we come out of Super Tuesday -- because the Republican establishment is trying to push Cruz out of this race. If we come out of Super Tuesday and he's the only candidate besides Trump who has won states, won Texas and one or two others, it's hard to get him out of the race.

BOLDUAN: Absolutely.

On this issue, Mitt Romney says there is now, in his words, good reason to believe there's a bombshell in Donald Trump's taxes. Trump has rejected that. He's taken to Twitter to take them on, calling Romney a dope.

Barry, will Donald Trump release his tax returns?

BENNETT: I have no idea.

BOLDUAN: Should he?

BENNETT: It's up to him. I think that it is a little bit disingenuous for Mitt Romney, who was Harry Reid'ed on his own tax returns.

(CROSSTALK)

BOLDUAN: Focus on the here and now. Even if Mitt Romney is the wrong messenger, does it look like Donald Trump has something to hide if he doesn't release the tax returns? It's become the standard among Republican candidates.

BENNETT: I think he's very wealthy and wealthy people don't like to show their numbers very often.

BURNS: It has been the standard practice for presidential candidates forever to release them. Whether or not Romney is taking this criticism late enough for it to make a difference in this Republican race, this is just a tiny preview of what the Democrats would do to Donald Trump in a general election, the questions they would raise about his business dealings and about honesty and his character.

BOLDUAN: Americans have become accustomed to having this amount of transparency with presidential candidates.

Guys, it's great to see you. We'll see if what happens tonight and if it matters.

(CROSSTALK)

(LAUGHTER)

BOLDUAN: I think it does.

Great to see you both.

Coming up for us, no question Donald Trump is the target in tonight's CNN GOP debate. How is the front runner preparing for the onslaught? A Trump supporter and former political director for Ronald Reagan will be joining us to talk strategy.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[11:46:54] BERMAN: Just about nine hours from the CNN Republican debate here at the University of Houston in Houston, Texas. This is really the last chance for Cruz, Rubio, Kasich, and Carson to face off with Donald Trump before super important Super Tuesday. Donald Trump riding a surge of momentum into the debate tonight.

I want to show you a live look inside the debate hall. That's the stage where all the magic happens, or perhaps the mayhem happens.

Joining me now, former White House political director, Jeffrey Lord.

Jeffrey, I want to know what you think Donald Trump should do tonight. What is a successful debate for him? The answer cannot be just do what he's always done. I want to know if you think it makes sense for him to try to play it a little bit safe. Maybe not have that demolition derby we had at South Carolina.

JEFFREY LORD, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: You looked at my notes ahead of time, didn't you? That's what I was going to say. Really, at this point, honestly, John, we've had so many debates. There's only a hand full of these people left. He's undented. I mean, since we began this process, he's now come in a close second in Iowa, won New Hampshire and South Carolina and Nevada in blowouts. I mean, this is the last gasp for the other guys on the stage. The question is going to be are they going to try and savage him. I don't think at this point it's productive. I don't think it works. And a subtle game that's going on, and it's called can I be your vice president. You have to do this very fine dance here between holding your own as a presidential candidate or perhaps positioning yourself to be his running mate.

BERMAN: Is he constitutionally capable of restraining himself if someone comes after him?

LORD: Sure, but I think he'll choose his spots carefully. You know, I mean, if they're going to come after him, he'll do his deal. I'm sure of that. I'm sure of that. At this stage, I mean, the American people have watched Donald Trump for 30 or 40 years, something like that. They know who he is.

BERMAN: Let's talk about his tax returns. Donald Trump has been very active on Twitter now for the last 40 minutes or so sending out at least five tweets about the issue that Mitt Romney brought up yesterday, the fact that he thinks Donald Trump should release his taxes. Donald Trump put out a picture of him where he says he's signing a recent tax return that looks to be three feet high. He says, "Isn't this ridiculous"?

(LAUGHTER)

You're laughing. He appears to be having fun. Is there any risk here for Donald Trump?

LORD: I don't think so. People know him. They know in case you haven't heard, he's rich. He's very rich.

BERMAN: What if he's not as rich as he says?

LORD: Are the American people really going to care? I don't think they care. They know who he is and he's wealthy. That picture right there, that image with that stack, I mean, how many Americans are going through their own version of that every year, and they're really not happy about it? Really not happy about it.

[11:49:51] BERMAN: If they're going through a stack that high, god bless them.

(LAUGHTER)

Jeffrey Lord, great to have you with us. Thank you so much.

LORD: Thank you.

BERMAN: Enjoy the debate tonight.

Mitt Romney is not the only one calling on Donald Trump to release his tax returns. One of Donald Trump's fiercest critics, a former presidential rival, joins us next, Senator Lindsey Graham, who throws a lot of Trump bombs, just ahead.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) BOLDUAN: This morning, Donald Trump is not happy with Mitt Romney. And in true Donald Trump style, here's how Trump responded. He said, "Mitt Romney is one of the dumbest and worst candidates in the history of Republican politics and is now pushing me on tax returns." And Trump then calls him a dope. And then this just moments ago, a picture of Donald Trump, he says, signing a recent tax return, next to, as you can see, a pile of papers that looks at least three feet high.

This started after Mitt Romney, the 2012 Republican nominee, who Trump endorsed back then, called on Trump and all of the candidates in the race to release their tax returns. Romney says that there could be a bombshell hidden in those returns for Trump, since Trump has resisted releasing his returns to this point.

Let me bring in right now Senator Lindsay Graham, a former Republican presidential candidate, a man who has no love lost with Donald Trump, as we well now.

Senator, it's great to see you.

[11:55:21] SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM, (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: I think Donald Trump will be the gold standard for stupid Republican candidates. I just want to be on the record for that.

BOLDUAN: You are on the record saying that, Senator.

So to the issue at hand right now. Mitt Romney says there is reason to believe there could be a bombshell in these returns. What do you know?

GRAHAM: Well, I know that he's not going to turn them over, and in 2015, February, he said he would turn over his tax returns. We're not asking him to prepare a new tax return. We're asking him to give the American people and the Republican voter his tax returns, because I find it highly unusual that you can get more information about buying a house or the homeowner than you can for Donald Trump. He claims to be worth $10 billion. "Forbes" says he's worth 4.8. That's still a lot of money, but is he exaggerated. Share with the American people your tax returns. How hard is that?

BOLDUAN: Now, to be clear, I mean, Donald Trump has said it's complicated. That's how he's described it.

(CROSSTALK)

BOLDUAN: He says he has a team of accountants working on it. But to be clear, I think it's kind of obvious for all of us who file their taxes every year, it's only complicated maybe on the front end, not on the back end. You guys -- you're talking about, of course, releasing tax returns. There doesn't seem to be much complicated about that. Is it just the simple fact that is there a delay, if you will, or the fact that he has resisted that's raising suspicion in your mind?

GRAHAM: I think he's probably hiding something. He would be embarrassed by what he showed us. Have you filed taxes for the last five years?

BOLDUAN: Yes, sir, I have.

GRAHAM: Could you find your tax returns in a couple of days?

BOLDUAN: It's in the filing cabinet.

GRAHAM: I think he could, too. And the reason he's not doing this is clear to me, he doesn't want to show us his financial situation. He's either exaggerated his wealth or there is some transaction in there that he may be embarrassed about. I don't know. But we should not as Republicans accept this from a man who has such a tainted past and background when it comes to finances. A man who has filed bankruptcy four times. We should not accept him at his word. I would not accept Hillary Clinton at her word about her e-mails. Why should we accept Donald Trump at his word about his taxes, given his financial past?

BOLDUAN: Now, Senator, maybe folks do want to see -- and it has become kind of the -- it has become a standard for, and expected of presidential candidates to lease their tax returns. But Mitt Romney, he was hurt pi a similar line of attack back then. Is he the right messenger for this?

GRAHAM: Well, he eventually released his tax returns.

BOLDUAN: That's absolutely right.

GRAHAM: And that was the right thing to do. But we're talking about a man who has been bankrupt four times. Who inherited $50 million to $100 million from his dad. That if he invested it in the stock market, he would have more money than he claims today. So his whole image is some great successful business guy. Well, show us your tax returns. Because why should we vote for somebody who won't show us their tax returns after they have been bankrupt for times? That makes no sense for any voter to feel comfortable doing that. Give us the information we need to make an informed decision. Maybe your tax returns help you. But at the end of the day, it's something we should see.

BOLDUAN: Now, I just talked earlier this hour with Congressman Trent Franks. He's pushing for either Marco Rubio or Ted Cruz, one of them to basically drop out so they can join forces, one would run as president, the would run as a running mate to narrow the field and more successfully, in Frank's mind, take on Trump. Do you support that idea?

GRAHAM: Well, consolidation of the field, Kasich-Rubio would be the most winning ticket, I think. Rubio/Kasich would be second. If Cruz joins up with Rubio or Kasich, it would be problematic, but would probably work.

The one thing that's going to happen, if you don't do something, like Trent suggested, is that Trump is going to win the Republican nomination. He's going to get creamed in the general election. There's a poll out today of 80 percent disapproval among Hispanics for Mr. Trump's candidacy. And my question is, who are the 20 percent, and what do they like?

BOLDUAN: Senator, you -- after ending your candidacy, you supported Jeb Bush. He has since left the race. Are you going to throw your support behind another candidate?

GRAHAM: Maybe what I should do is support Trump. That seems to be the kiss of death.

(LAUGHTER)

No, I haven't made that decision. The bottom line is what Mr. -- what Mitt Romney is asking should be asked by everybody on the stage tonight. The Republican Party should not accept a candidate to be their nominee that won't release their tax returns, given his shady financial past, Mr. Trump. It should come from every corner of the party, not just me and Mitt Romney.