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THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER

Interview With Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse; Preparing for Super Tuesday; GOP Implosion?; Some Republicans Rebel Against Supporting Donald Trump. Aired 4:00-4:30p ET

Aired February 29, 2016 - 16:00   ET

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


[16:00:07]

JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: Our long national nightmare is over. Leo finally has his Oscar.

THE LEAD starts right now.

Donald Trump today blaming his earpiece for the refusal to condemn the Klan, and David Duke, and white supremacist groups, as things get angry and physical, as Black Lives Matter protesters interrupt a Trump rally.

Also, with fewer than 24 hours to go until the biggest day in this campaign yet, Republican officials in Washington in desperation mode, trying to save the party as they know it. What will it mean to be a Republican if Super Tuesday becomes Trump Tuesday?

Plus:

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I made the worst mistake of my life.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: First on CNN, an American college student detained in North Korea sobbing as he pleas for mercy. Does he look like a spy working for the CIA? Pyongyang thinks so.

Welcome to THE LEAD. I am Jake Tapper.

Everything is on the line for Republicans tomorrow, Super Tuesday. And if the polls are to be believed, at this time Wednesday, we will be talking about Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee. But instead of party leaders trying to get comfortable with this idea, they're today in full panic mode.

That's because of an interview Trump did right here on CNN yesterday. He wouldn't offer an unequivocal condemnation of David Duke, the Ku Klux Klan, or white supremacist, and said -- Trump said he knew nothing about Duke or white supremacist groups.

Mitt Romney called refusal to condemn those groups disqualifying and disgusting. Marco Rubio said the comments make Trump unelectable. John Kasich said they're just horrific. But -- but few observers seem to think the comments will have any impact whatsoever on voters tomorrow.

A new CNN/ORC national poll shows Trump with nearly a majority of Republicans in his corner. In Alabama and Oklahoma, two of the 11 states where Republicans vote in just under 24 hours, Donald Trump is poised to win by wide margins, according to new polls from Monmouth University today.

Let's start with Sara Murray. She's in Valdosta, Georgia.

Sara, does the campaign seem at all worried about the impact of this controversy in the primaries or maybe more pointedly in the general election?

SARA MURRAY, CNN NATIONAL POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Jake, they sort of feel like they answered this question today, that Donald Trump has now come out and disavowed the KKK and David Duke. But maybe more importantly now, they feel really strong going into Super Tuesday.

But there's no doubt between his comments on the KKK, as well as an awkward run-in with protesters today, Donald Trump is off his message heading into Super Tuesday.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

MURRAY: Donald Trump's latest firestorm?

DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I know nothing about David Duke. I know nothing about white supremacists.

MURRAY: Adding fuel to the panic that is roiling the GOP. And establishment Republicans look for one last hope to stop Trump.

SEN. MARCO RUBIO (R-FL), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: He is unelectable now.

MURRAY: The celebrity candidate is in the midst of another raucous day on the trail, marred by protesters, and a physical altercation between a photojournalist and Secret Service agent assigned to Trump, all of this as some Republicans launch an open revolt, refusing to support Trump even if he wins the nomination.

MARGARET HOOVER, CNN POLITICAL CONTRIBUTOR: There's real chance that the party splinters if Donald Trump is nominated.

MURRAY: The Republican rift on full display, as Chris Christie and Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions line up behind Trump, and argue it is time for others to do the same.

SEN. JEFF SESSIONS (R), ALABAMA: We need to make America great again.

MURRAY: Even before Trump's boisterous rally, he was already doing damage control today.

TRUMP: When we looked at it, looked at the question, I disavowed David Duke. So, I disavowed David Duke all weekend long on Facebook, on Twitter. And, obviously, it's never enough.

MURRAY: That's after failing three times to denounce support from white supremacist and former KKK leader David Duke in an interview on CNN's "STATE OF THE UNION."

TAPPER: Would you just say unequivocally you condemn them and you don't want their support?

TRUMP: Well, I have to look at the group. I mean, I don't know what group you're talking about.

You wouldn't want me to condemn a group that I know nothing about. I would have to look. If you would send me a list of the groups, I will do research on them.

BALDWIN: His opponents were quick to pounce.

RUBIO: You say David Duke to me, I say racist immediately. Why wouldn't he condemn the Ku Klux Klan? There's no room in the conservative movement and there's no room in the Republican Party for members of the Ku Klux Klan or for racists like David Duke.

MURRAY: As candidates like John Kasich push for a campaign beyond insults and outlandish behavior.

[16:05:02]

GOV. JOHN KASICH (R-OH), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I am sort of tired of what I see, the name-calling, and what I consider to be childishness, when we are running for president of the United States. This is like every day. It's like a circus.

MURRAY: Ted Cruz is still hoping to head off Trump in delegate-rich contests on Super Tuesday.

SEN. TED CRUZ (R-TX), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: At the end of tomorrow, Donald Trump is in all likelihood going to have a big chunk of delegates, and we are, I believe, going to have a chunk of delegates. And I think everyone else will be way, way, way behind.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

MURRAY: Now, Jake, the reality is even though we might be seeing this panic, this uprising among the Republican establishment, actually voters are getting more used to the idea of Donald Trump as the GOP nominee; 70 percent in that CNN/ORC poll of Republican voters said they think Trump is likely to be the Republican nominee -- Jake.

TAPPER: Sara Murray, thank you.

If you paid close attention to the presidential race yesterday, it is far from the first time Donald Trump has been questioned about white nationalists or white supremacist support for his candidacy. He retweeted many folks with some pretty horrific views.

White nationalist super PACs have robo-called voters, telling them to support Trump.

Phil Mattingly is in Jenks, Oklahoma. He's digging into all this.

Phil, Mitt Romney, the 2012 Republican nominee, he called Donald Trump's response "coddling of repugnant bigotry." Why doesn't Trump just come out and say all of these groups are vile, I don't want their support?

PHIL MATTINGLY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Jake, it is the question that has been confounding and really rattling top Republican officials in these final days leading up to Super Tuesday.

But the reality, as you just said, this isn't a new thing with Donald Trump or his campaign, and his lack of response is leading to some to wonder if this is actually an explicit strategy.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

MATTINGLY (voice-over): Some white supremacists such as former Ku Klux Klan grand wizard David Duke may suggest support for Donald Trump.

DAVID DUKE, FORMER KU KLUX KLAN MEMBER: Running against Donald Trump at this point is really treason to your heritage.

MATTINGLY: But after a weekend back and forth...

TRUMP: I disavow, OK? I don't know anything about David Duke, OK?

MATTINGLY: ... we still don't know if the Republican front-runner wholly rejects that controversial support. It is a question Trump has been struggling to answer clearly for months.

TRUMP: What I heard was various groups, and I don't mind disavowing anybody. And I disavowed David Duke.

MATTINGLY: Yes, he has disavowed Duke, but the Republican front- runner has yet to plainly condemn Duke's ideology or that of the KKK and other white supremacist groups.

The Anti-Defamation League has called for Trump to do just that, to no avail.

MAGGIE HABERMAN, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Not answering this directly has some risks, but I think has more rewards, which is that he is hoping to just go into Tuesday evening and win a lot of states and a lot of delegates, and then that will be what people are discussing.

MATTINGLY: This rally supporter recently made the controversial issue hard to ignore. But after taking a hard look at the message, Trump focused on the security response time instead.

TRUMP: You see, in the good old days, law enforcement acted a lot quicker than this.

MATTINGLY: When asked directly about white supremacist support this summer, Trump's response was one of confusion.

TRUMP: That, I don't know about. You're telling me something. I didn't know about that. Somebody else mentioned it also. I don't know about that.

MATTINGLY: So, on this divisive issue, is he playing a game of ignore and conquer?

HABERMAN: I think that there's a real chance that what's actually happening is he is creating sort of another news dust storm. We're not talking about some of the other negative news flow items that Senator Ted Cruz and Senator Marco Rubio are injecting into the conversation.

MATTINGLY: Whether Trump welcomes them or not, the pro-white support continues.

JARED TAYLOR, AMERICAN RENAISSANCE: It is I am supporting Donald Trump, not Donald Trump who is supporting me.

MATTINGLY: White nationalist leaders even released robo-calls backing Donald Trump in New Hampshire this month.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We don't need Muslims. We need smart, well- educated white people.

MATTINGLY: Trump doesn't shy away from questionable Twitter followers either. He's repeatedly retweeted support from Twitter users clearly expressing racist and/or anti-Semitic views, including a Jeb Bush joke from @whitegenocidetm.

So, as other candidates and pundits attack, the question becomes this. Will the strategy, whatever it is, ever actually hurt him? Up to this point, the answer has clearly been...

TRUMP: We're going to make our country great again.

MATTINGLY: ... no.

TRUMP: I love you. Thank you very much, everybody.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

MATTINGLY: And, Jake, whether he's been strategic, or just oblivious, it won't surprise you to know I reached out to a number of different campaigns today, asking whether they thought this have an impact on Super Tuesday. Across the board, the answer was no, Jake.

TAPPER: Phil Mattingly, thanks so much.

Either way, it seems increasingly likely that in November voters will be choosing between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. At least, that's what it looks like now. But after Trump's comments to me on Sunday, a Republican senator made it clear that he will not vote for Trump or Clinton no matter what.

Joining me now, freshman Senator from Nebraska Ben Sasse.

Senator, thanks so much for joining me.

SEN. BEN SASSE (R), NEBRASKA: Thanks for having me.

(CROSSTALK)

TAPPER: Good to see you.

And for people who don't know you, you're a freshman, you're a conservative. You're not some squish out there who doesn't want a conservative in the White House.

[16:10:06]

SASSE: I'm one of two people in the U.S. Senate that's never run for anything before until being elected to the Senate.

TAPPER: What was your reaction to the interview yesterday?

SASSE: Well, obviously, there's no place in American life for the KKK, or David Duke, or just a passivity about condemning racism. So, it is absurd.

TAPPER: I know you don't have -- you're not privy to his thoughts, but what do you think is going on? Do you think that he is ignoring it on purpose? Do you think -- why would he not just come out and say those are vile views, I want nothing to do with any of them?

SASSE: The most extraordinary marketer who has ever run for office in American life, but I don't think any of us really know what Donald Trump's core beliefs are on any issue. So, no, I can't read the guy's mind.

TAPPER: And you don't know. But do you think he is like playing a game or do you just think...

SASSE: This country is in crisis. And I think he thinks that almost all of it is a game. I think it is a reality TV show for him. And our country deserves better than this.

TAPPER: So, if the election were to end up being between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, what would you do?

SASSE: I reject the premise of the question on February 29.

We are nine months away from an election. I think 4 percent of the delegates have been cast. And the nation that put a man on the moon can't do any better than nominating two fundamentally dishonest New York liberals? I think the American people deserve a better choice than that and I think they will get a better choice than that.

TAPPER: OK. But this is not a hypothetical based on nothing. Those are the two front-runners. And it looks as though they're likely to be the nominees. If that were -- I understand you reject the premise. But given that

most people out there know those two are the front-runners, what would you do?

SASSE: Sure.

I am not going to vote for Hillary Clinton. And given what we know about Donald Trump, I can't vote for that guy either. I believe in the Constitution. I have taken an oath to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution. And if you got to a place where those are the two major party nominees, and I certainly hope they're not, I would have to look for a third-party option.

TAPPER: Do you have somebody in mind? Is there somebody you would...

SASSE: No, but I believe that there will be more candidates that enter this race if the only choices that we get are two dishonest New York liberals.

TAPPER: And you haven't endorsed anybody, but you have appeared at events with both Rubio and Ted Cruz.

SASSE: Correct. I think they're both two great choices who believe in the American Constitution.

TAPPER: Have you spoken with any of your other Senate colleagues? Is there anyone else who feels the way you do, in other words -- quote, unquote -- "I will not vote for Donald Trump nor Hillary Clinton"?

SASSE: I live in Nebraska. We have three little kids, and we commute every week. The Senate will be voting again tonight.

This weekend's issues have not -- I have not been with any senators since this happened. I have been spending my time talking to Nebraskans. And Nebraskans want to make America great again. And that isn't by one guy saying give me more power and I will play a reality TV show with your kids' future.

TAPPER: In order to defeat Donald Trump, which is what you want to do, you don't want him to be the nominee, do some of the other candidates need to drop out?

SASSE: I have never been in politics before. I'm not going to play political prognostication and speculation.

But I believe in American greatness. And American greatness is about limited government, where Washington exists for public servants to try to preserve a framework for ordered liberty, so American families and small business people can build a future.

And right now, we are not talking about what makes America great again. And we should be doing a lot better. I am not going to do political prognostication, but there's so much in this country that needs to be celebrated, and right now we are distracted by the sideshow that is this guy.

TAPPER: All right, Senator Sasse, always good to see you. Thanks for coming on. Appreciate it.

SASSE: Thanks for having me.

TAPPER: Is it time for the Republican Party establishment to hit the panic button? The Republican establishment never thought Donald Trump would be the party's nominee. But after tomorrow, the party's so- called nightmare may be well on its way to becoming reality.

So what do they do besides tweeting #neverTrump? That's next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:17:36] JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome back to THE LEAD.

Donald Trump is poised to scoop many delegates in play tomorrow in Super Tuesday, and his growing inevitability perhaps is setting off alarms for many in his party. It's a slow moving collision of a scope that's been has rarely seen in modern politics.

Joining me to discuss the panic, I think it is fair to call it, Bill Kristol, editor of "The Weekly Standard", and Ramesh Ponnuru, senior of "The National Review".

And before we start, I should note, we did reach out to Trump campaign today to ask for Mr. Trump or to ask for somebody from the campaign to comment. They were not able to help us out there.

But let's start with you two.

First of all, to anybody watching, you are the Republican establishment. Why should voters out there or the viewers listen to you?

BILL KRISTOL, THE WEEKLY STANDARD: Ramesh?

(LAUGHTER)

TAPPER: Defend yourself.

RAMESH PONNURU, SENIOR EDITOR, NATIONAL REVIEW: Well, I don't know if we are the Republican establishment in the sense that we haven't usually gotten our way with the Republican Party, the Republican Party hasn't been as conservative as we'd like it to be. The Republican Party has been too eager to cut a deal on immigration in particular and we have been urging Republicans to be more responsive to their work across the border.

TAPPER: OK. So, you reject me calling you the establishment.

KRISTOL: But we both work for -- I and Ramesh are senior editors of two leading, I think it's fair to say, conservative magazines, and we're proud, I am proud of the American conservative movement, from Buckley, to my father, Ronald Reagan, Rudy Giuliani, making New York livable again in the '90s. Conservative policies are right. And Donald Trump isn't a conservative. I think we oppose Donald Trump, not because we think he is making, you

know, Republicans uncomfortable, it's because we have no assurance he would be a conservative president and also because temperamentally in terms of his character, he shouldn't be president.

Other than that, we've got no problems with Donald Trump.

TAPPER: Do you think if he wins the nomination, that he can win?

PONNURU: You k now, he has been underestimated so far. I think, though, it is a very risky proposition for Republicans. I think a lot of conservatives and a lot of Republicans would not vote for Donald Trump. We've already heard Senator Sasse make his point that he is not voting for him.

TAPPER: And, look, what do you say, too, when you hear Republicans say, like Mitch McConnell has said according to "The New York Times", that he would drop Trump like a hot rock? And as you know, there are signals being sent out to Republican senators up for re-election, feel free to run against Donald Trump, don't even go to the convention in Ohio if he becomes the nominee.

It seems like Republican officials are very worried.

KRISTOL: Well, they're worried, but their response is pathetic. Four states have voted so far. Mitch McConnell thinks that Trump would be disaster for the Republican Party.

[16:20:01] He has access to a lot of huge Republican voters. He could urge them to give money to groups that would go up against Trump in different states.

So, he doesn't have to commit to Rubio or Cruz or Kasich. He can help Kasich in Ohio. He can help Cruz in Texas. He can help Rubio in Florida.

This kind of passivity in the face of what's happened, it was understandable for awhile. A lot of us thought he would fall on his own accords. You know, the bubble would burst. That clearly didn't -- it was clear for awhile ago that wasn't going to happen. It's now clear.

But the idea that now, people should give up and give idiotic advice, make pretend that we can survive, Republican senators can distance themselves after the convention. That's ridiculous.

So, people who care need to step up now. There's plenty of time. Even if Trump does pretty well tomorrow, there will be -- he will have, what, a quarter of delegates need to get nominated. Fifteen states will have voted, 35 plus more still get to vote. People can step up an act instead of sitting around whining.

PONNURU: The Republican establishment went from thinking it was too early to do anything about Donald Trump. To think it's too late, without ever going through the intervening step of actually doing anything about Donald Trump. If he is the nominee, there is a good chance that Hillary Clinton runs the kind of ad campaign against him that Republicans haven't done, and puts this race away early. At that point, Republican senators can try to distance from him all they want, they are still likely to lose the Senate.

TAPPER: The Trump campaign would not provide a campaign surrogate or Mr. Trump. But let me play devil's advocate, because I asked Mr. Trump about Republican officials opposing him yesterday. Here's what he said.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: We have a lot of people. I'm representing people. I'm not representing myself. I'm representing a lot of anger out there. And there's -- we're not angry people, but we're angry at the way this country is being run. And a lot of them are angry at the way the Republican Party is being run, Jake.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: What do you say to people who say you sound like you think that party officials should rest control of the process away from Republican voters?

KRISTOL: No, they should persuade Republican voters that Donald Trump isn't the guy to implement the policies they want, and there are other candidates, none of whom really have been part of the governing of this country for the last several years. President Obama has been president. Ted Cruz has been fighting the Republicans in the state. Marco Rubio upset the sitting governor of Florida to win his Senate seat in 2010. So, yes, they need to persuade voters.

PONNURU: Don't give up on Republican voters is the message here. They're the ones who have the opportunity to choose an actual conservative who can win the election in November.

TAPPER: Voters are not only not giving up, they're voting in record amounts, but they're not buying what you guys are selling or Rubio or Cruz or Kasich and Carson. They are flocking to Donald Trump.

KRISTOL: So, either -- I mean, either inform more about Trump, informed about alternative to Trump, they'll change their minds. I mean, so far, he has gotten 24 percent of the vote, 35 percent of the vote.

TAPPER: Won three out of four states.

KRISTOL: He's won three out of four. But again, three out of four, there are a lot more to come. So, let's see and let's try to make a case to them.

Loo, occasionally, voters get it wrong and I myself couldn't support Donald Trump for president. I don't disparage those who do vote for him. I think they're making a bad mistake though.

TAPPER: Let me tell you something, Ramesh, I think that my interview with Donald Trump yesterday will actually help him win the nomination. What do you think?

PONNURU: I don't think so. I think there are people that might try to excuse the fact that he is unwilling to disavow the KKK and David Duke, and then comes up with ridiculous excuses for not doing that, which are yet more lies from him, where he pretends that he didn't hear the question he clearly heard. I don't think that Republicans, even Republicans who are looking for somebody who takes on political correctness are looking for someone who is cozy with the KKK or David Duke.

TAPPER: Last word?

KRISTOL: Yes. You should provide better earpieces for your guests. I mean, there's poor Donald Trump. He's sitting in Florida. You give him this defective earpiece, and he didn't understand the words "KKK" or "David Duke". You're just liberal media out to get him. That's something we --

TAPPER: Let the record reflect and the transcript that your voice is instilled with sarcasm right now.

Bill Kristol, Ramesh Ponnuru, thanks so much.

An American college student in North Korea making astonishing admission, saying he committed a hostile act. But are we hearing the whole story or just what Kim Jong-un wants us to hear.

And then, this maybe huge. A lot inside Donald Trump's inner circle and the one person who admits she does not always agree with him. Trump's wife Melania, next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:28:33] TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD.

Continue with the politics lead. We hear a lot from Donald Trump, but rarely hear from one of his closest advisers. His wife, Melania Trump, stays mostly to the side of her husband at rallies and victory speeches, but the former Slovenia model says she often gives her husband her opinion, and she admits she does not always agree with him.

In a conversation with CNN, Melania Trump told Anderson Cooper about some of those disagreements.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

MELANIA TRUMP, DONALD TRUMP'S WIFE: We are both very independent, and let him be who he is, he lets me be who I am. And --

ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: You don't try to change him?

TRUMP: I don't try to change him. He's an adult. He knows the consequences. And so, I let him be who he is. I give him my opinions many, many times.

COOPER: You do?

TRUMP: Yes, and I don't agree with everything what he says. But, you know, that's his normal. I'm my own person, I tell him what I think, standing very strong on the ground, on my two feet, and I'm my own person and I think that's very important in the relationship.

COOPER: Can you say something where you disagreed with him on?

TRUMP: Oh, many things, some language of course.

COOPER: Language?

TRUMP: Yes, some language I didn't --

COOPER: Language you hear him using on the campaign trail?

TRUMP: Especially, I was in New Hampshire when the woman was shouting out the inappropriate word.

COOPER: Right.

TRUMP: And I was there, and I'm thinking don't repeat it in my head, just -- for him, don't repeat it, just don't say it because the next day, media, all they will talk is about that. But he repeat it. He's with the momentum, he goes with the flow, he goes with the people.