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Cruz Puts Pressure on Trump as Rubio Fades; Flint Water Crisis: EPA's Handling of Issue Now Under Investigation; Four Judges Vetted for Supreme Court. Aired 7:30-8a ET

Aired March 6, 2016 - 07:30   ET

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


(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[07:30:22] VICTOR BLACKWELLL, CNN ANCHOR: We had a look at the Whiting, an historic building here at Flint, Michigan.

You see the two podiums there. Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton will face of tonight at 8:00 p.m. Eastern, in the next primary debate. Anderson Cooper will moderate, again, only here on CNN. Proves, of course, as we've seen every debate, will possibly move the needle here as we move through the primary calendar.

Let's talk about the Republicans, though. A disappointing night for Marco Rubio. Ted Cruz building his case to be the best alternative to Donald Trump.

Joining me is CNN senior media correspondent Brian Stelter.

You know, Brian, I want to start with the Trump news conference we're seeing. While others are having rallies, he's having these news conferences, first in Mar-A-Lago, and in Palm Beach yesterday in West Palm, at the golf course. What are you taking away from those?

BRIAN STELTER, CNN SENIOR MEDIA CORRESPONDENT: Every single step along the way of his campaign, he tries something new. He changes what is supposed to be and how things are supposed to be in election cycle -- so in this case news conferences after primary nights.

I think he's doing it partly because it's unpredictable. It's unscripted and that guarantees him free television coverage. It guarantees headlines the next morning.

He also last night brought in a lot of supporters. His club members in the first seven or so rows. The reporters were actually further back. So that was the cheering you were hearing sometimes during the press conference. So, it still has the sort of a vibe of a rally perhaps. But it's unpredictable and it gives Trump an opportunity to really sets him up, to either criticize his opponent, or set the tone for today's news coverage.

For example, last night, talking about Marco Rubio, encouraging Rubio to get out of the race. And it gave Trump the opportunity to set the agenda for today. BLACKWELL: Ted Cruz had a strong night. And the Cruz camp says that

the media does not give Cruz or the Cruz campaign enough credit for what they're accomplishing.

STELTER: I think there has been some truth to this along the way.

If you think about conservative media, it's either Trump on one side or Rubio, the establishment choice on the other side. Cruz has been underestimated some of the time during this campaign, often times when Rubio would have a second or third place win -- or a loss, ranking in the primaries. It would be portrayed more as the win -- the idea of momentum from Marco Rubio.

Well, it's really hard right now to suggest there is momentum from Marco Rubio. And I think if Cruz had been underestimated until now, after Super Tuesday and then Super Saturday, there is no way to underestimate him anymore. He's going to earn more and more attention as a result of these wins he's racked up.

BLACKWELL: I understand than you went to a Sanders rally yesterday. What was there? What was your takeaway?

STELTER: It was eye opening for me just to take it in, to hear the roar of the crowds. Sometimes you don't fully get the sense through television how intense the fans are, whether it is for Trump or Rubio or Cruz or Bernie Sanders or Hillary Clinton.

You know, what's striking to me is you have a lot of people shouting, hooting and hollering but in a respectful manner. None of the disruption that we've seen at Trump rallies. That's because protesters are not going to Sanders or Clinton rallies the way they are at Trump rallies. You don't see the sort of tension.

We've heard from reporters at Trump rallies at the times, it can see him even a little scary, when they are at these protesters and when there's this reaction from the crowd. You don't see that at a Sanders or Clinton rally. So, it is a difference between the Democratic electorate and Republican electorate right now.

BLACKWELL: All right. Brian Stelter, thank you so much.

STELTER: Sure, thank you.

BLACKWELL: We appreciate it.

And be sure to catch "RELIABLE SOURCES" with Brian Stelter today, every Sunday at 11:00 a.m. Eastern, right here on CNN.

When we come back the Flint water crisis, of course, will be front and center at today's CNN Democratic debate. We have details on why some families say the Environmental Protection Agency knew how dangerous the water in Flint was. They knew for months, but they remain silent.

Plus, Justice Scalia's seat remains vacant at the Supreme Court. We'll discuss who the White House could nominate to fill that seat.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[07:37:53] BLACKWELL: A look at Flint River here, passing just behind me. I'm sitting on the campus of the University of Michigan here in Flint.

And as beautiful as this is, cause some major problems for this community. And we know when Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton appear tonight in a Democratic debate in Flint, Michigan.

One critical issue tonight residents will be listening for is the role of the federal government in the city's ongoing water crisis, in particular, why the EPA did not sound the alarm right away. Instead, we're told it waited months eventually costing the regional EPA administrator her job.

Sara Ganim is back with us now for part two of her investigation into the federal agency's handling of the public health crisis.

So, is it the EPA that dropped the ball? Is it the state that dropped ball? I know there is finger-pointing back and forth.

SARA GANIM, CNN CORRESPONDENT: There is finger pointing back and forth. You know, the state definitely caused the problem. They've admitted to that.

The federal government clearly did not act soon enough, Victor. And as we're going to see in the second part of our investigation, the first part we showed you this morning, how it stalled here in Flint. There are employees at the EPA who say this was a pattern of behavior.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

REP. ELIJAH CUMMINGS (D), MARYLAND: I want the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

GANIM (voice-over): CNN has learned that the House committee on oversight is now investigating how the EPA's region five office handled the water crisis in Flint. A congressional research service report concluded recently that the EPA knew early on in the crisis that Michigan was in violation of federal water laws for lead and had the authority to step in but didn't.

The EPA's inspector general is also looking into the allegations of the mismanagement in the EPA region five office under the leadership of the Susan Headman, a culture that Carolyn Bohlen knows well. She says she was reassigned after raising alarms over how the office handled sexual harassment cases. She says she's not surprised at how the EPA's scientist preliminary report was suppressed.

CAROLYN BOHLEN, EPA EMPLOYEE: I thought well, here we go again.

[07:40:01] You have someone who's a dedicated employee, very serious about his work. Very effective employee, who presented the information very well and it was disregarded.

GANIM: On its website, the EPA now has a warning to the residents of Flint. "Do not drink unfiltered water. It's not safe."

(on camera): Looking back. What goes through your mind when you think about how all of this unfolded?

LEEANNE WALTERS, FLINT RESIDENT: I wish I would have protected my family better?

GANIM: It's not your fault.

WALTER: No, it's not. But they're my kids. And it's not just about my family. There are adults that have serious health issues now. There are teenagers that have serious health issues now.

So, no, it's not OK, because they didn't listen. No matter how much we screamed. No matter how much we cried. No matter whatever we showed them, we were not heard.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

GANIM: Now, e-mails show that the EPA did offer to bring in additional experts to the city of Flint but people here want to know why they didn't act sooner. Why not tell the people who were living here what they knew about their water.

The EPA declined to answer those questions on camera but did give us a statement. I want to read a little bit of it.

They said the ability to the EPA to oversee was impacted by failures and resistance at the state and local levels, goes right back to what we were talking about -- the finger-pointing.

BLACKWELL: And, of course, no tolerance of course for finger-pointing tonight. The people hear want to hear from the candidates' solutions not just sympathy.

All right. Sara Ganim, thank you so much.

GANIM: Of course.

BLACKWELL: Pamela, I'm going to send it back to you in Atlanta.

PAMELA BROWN, CNN ANCHOR: All right. Thanks so much, Victor:

And still ahead, the Supreme Court vacancy. We'll introduce you to four judges the White House might nominate to fill the seat. And after that, we'll talk Democratic debate strategy as we're hours away from Showtime in Flint, Michigan.

We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[07:45:37] BROWN: Well, the count is now at four. That is the number of judges who we can confirm are being vetted for a possible Supreme Court nomination. The latest names: Judges Sri Srinivasan, and Merrick Garland. They're joining Judges Jane Kelly and Ketanji Brown Jackson as possible nominees.

The FBI is interviewing their friends and colleagues, we've learned.

And Attorney Page Pate joins me here in Atlanta to talk about all of these nominees.

At this point, it is a guessing game. We know who the FBI is vetting. But we can make calculated guesses. Who would you consider the front runner?

PAGE PATE, ATTORNEY: I think Judge Srinivasan has to be the front runner. He's been unanimously confirmed recently by the Senate. He's got a lot of judicial experience having been now in the D.C. Court of Appeals for several years.

I think he is universally respected as far as a judge and a legal scholar. He worked in the Obama administration as deputy solicitor general. So he has a lot of experience.

BROWN: And the Bush administration.

PATE: Exactly. So, he has a lot of experience on both sides of aisle. In fact, I think he actually clerked for Republican appointed judges. So, he's the type of moderate consensus nominee you would expect when you have a divided Senate.

BROWN: And what about Merrick Garland, because he's the chief judge on the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals? He's been in the running in the past but a front runner we've learned? And obviously is a very impressive resume. He's considered to be a consistent -- consensus candidate here.

But court watchers say his age and the bottom line the fact that he's a white male might work against him. Why is that?

PATE: Right. I think the president is searching for diversity here on the court. We've seen that in his earlier selection. So, I would about anticipate he tries to do that again.

And while 63 certainly doesn't seem old to me --

BROWN: Right.

PATE: -- if you think about the Supreme Court justice trying to serve 20, 30 years on the court the president will probably pick someone a little younger.

BROWN: But then on the other side, there are some who argue, it may be more palatable to Republicans in the Senate to have someone who's a little bit older that is, you know, put forth by President Obama.

PAGE: Sure.

BROWN: But then you get to the hearing part and Republicans are saying to hold a hearing, which could be tricky for Chuck Grassley, who is the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, if Jane Kelly, who was on the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals in Iowa is appointed by the president, right?

PAGE: Exactly. Judge Kelly has been someone Senator Grassley has supported enthusiastically for a long time. So it is going to be very difficult, I think, for him to say, look, this is a qualified judge, we know this is a qualified judge, I've said this is a qualified judge, but I'm not still not going to consider her just for political reasons.

So, that will really force his hand and we'll have to see what he would do.

BROWN: And then, of course, Ketanji Brown Jackson. She's a U.S. district court judge, and in fact, he's related by marriage to Speaker of the House Paul Ryan. Also has an impressive resume as we right here. But some court watchers say she may lack the experience.

What's your take on that? Because I think the recent judges from the court of appeals not the district court.

PAGE: Right, right, it's been traditional at least recently to pick someone from the court of appeals, that is the next level below the United States Supreme Court and if you go another level below, you get to the district court.

I like this pick and I like it for a couple of different reasons. If the president says, I want Judge Jackson, he would be going outside of the mainstream, picking someone who does have judicial experience from the trial level. The president has said that that person's experience, life experience is important and this is a judge that deals with people, which is a little bit different than a circuit court of appeals.

She has clerked for Justice Breyer. She's been on the United States Sentencing Commission. So, she has a lot of experience in criminal law. And if the president is convinced that no nominee is going to get an up or down vote, this may be a good pick politically because then he has a diverse candidate which may motivate Democrats to come out and vote in November election.

BROWN: Right. Because there's a lot of talk about energizing the base.

PAGE: Exactly.

BROWN: All right. Thank you so much, Page Pate. It's really interesting to hear your insights. We're going to see what happens, word is in the next week or two.

PAGE: It will be interesting.

BROWN: So, keeping our eyes on it. Thanks so much.

And still ahead, how will Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders use tonight's debate to their advantage? We'll take a closer look at the strategies of two campaigns.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[07:53:20] BLACKWELL: I'm Victor Blackwell at the University of Michigan here in Flint. And we're just about 12 hours away from the CNN Democratic debate here in Flint, Michigan.

The candidates are set to take the stage as the lead water crisis looms large over the city. They're going to take that stage.

We know that Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have talked about in their stump speeches at campaign rallies.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

HILLARY CLINTON (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: A city of 100,000 people, mostly poor, mostly African-American, who were drinking lead- contaminated water for nearly two years, because the governor of Michigan wanted to save some money.

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS (I-VT), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: When you have that kind of dereliction, dereliction in duty, I think the governor should do the right thing and resign.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLACKWELL: But the people who live here, they, of course, are expecting some compassion, but they're also looking for content. How do they strike that balance?

Let's discuss with Emory University debate director Ed Lee.

Ed, good to have you this morning.

ED LEE, EMORY UNIVERSITY DEBATE DIRECTOR: Thank you.

BLACKWELL: Explain for us how you would advise one of these candidates to not only bring, as we've said this morning, sympathy, but some solutions as well? It's an interesting balance they have to strike.

LEE: Absolutely. It's an interesting balance, but also a very difficult one. But the first thing you need to think about in any communicative act is, who is your audience? Who are you trying to communicate with?

And I think there are two different audiences that we have. For Bernie Sanders, I think that this is a perfect place and a perfect opportunity for him to start connecting some of the dots with the African-American community that he's had some difficulties with by using Flint to talk about the relationship between race, poverty and powerlessness in America.

[07:55:05] And I think that for Hillary Clinton, that there's a different audience that I think that she is communicating with, where she'll start to try to a little bit more and contrast the tone of the Republican debate, which at times feels more like vaudevillian political theater than an attempt to have a competitive discussion about policy.

BLACKWELL: You know, it's easy to do that when Secretary Clinton is the only person there at a rally or at a dinner and she's the only person speaking to a group, but I'd imagine there are some complications when the person you're running against in the primary is on stage with you.

Can it seem a bit dismissive if you take, you know, something that's lobbed out by Bernie Sanders and then turn and talk about the Republicans?

LEE: Well, I think that she could make some arguments along that speaks to the issues of concern that Bernie Sanders is speaking to. But also indicate that someone like Donald Trump is unable to address the issues and concerns that are going on in Flint.

That I wholeheartedly expect her to speak about what's going on in Flint because the moment of being there, the issues that are at hand, what the audience demands will require her to do so. But she will also probably and probably should speak to it in terms of the Republican Party being unable and/or unwilling to address the issues that are of primary importance to the people in that theater.

BLACKWELL: Bernie Sanders prides himself in his campaign on having never run a negative ad. Now, some Clinton supporters would question that. But possibly tonight we'll see him be a little more aggressive, a little more assertive. How does he balance that with his positive campaign mantle?

LEE: Well, it's a question of whether or not in my mind is that something that the audience wants? I think there is some value to anger and some value to attending to the anger of the audience that you're trying to speak to. And that you can see that on the Republican side that they've actually tapped into the discontent, the morass, the anger on the side of many people in the Republican primary and that it will probably serve Bernie Sanders to identify that there are some issues and concerns that are worthy of us being frustrated and angry about while simultaneously trying to identify that there are policy solutions and choices that we have to deal with them.

BLACKWELL: Hey, Ed, you mentioned the Republican debates. Just as a refresher, let's take a look, and we'll talk about their debates on the other side.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. MARCO RUBIO (R-FL), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: We are not going to turn over the conservative movement or the Party of Lincoln or Reagan, for example, to someone whose positions are not conservative. Someone who thinks the nuclear triad is a rock band from the 1980s.

DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: This little guy has lied so much about my record.

RUBIO: Here we go.

TRUMP: The real con artist is Senator Marco Rubio. The people of Florida can't stand him. He couldn't get elected do dogcatcher.

SEN. TED CRUZ (R-TX), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: You know, Donald has a tenuous relationship with the truth.

TRUMP: You're the liar. You're the lying guy up here. You're the one. You're the one.

CRUZ: Release the tapes.

TRUMP: You're the one.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLACKWELL: So, Ed, how do you explain what we're seeing on the Republican side? We hear the boos in the crowd and of course, those are from supporters of certain candidates, but Donald Trump has been the front-runner in this race from nearly the moment he entered it.

LEE: Yes. Part of the issue is that it gets back once again to what are the advisers expecting the audience wants to hear? It is very clear to me that what the candidates are being coached to do is to be attentive to the politics and not the policies that are at hand and strive to be extremely sensitive to the emotional needs of the audience and not necessarily the logic of the arguments that they need.

And so, we have politics and emotive, the affect of the presentation being elevated to being extremely important over the logic of it. And I think that Donald Trump's campaign has done a fantastic job of analyzing that that's what the audience desires, at least at this particular point in time in their run for the presidency.

BLACKWELL: Yes, certainly on the Republican side, we've seen the audience take a larger and larger role as we get to, I guess, now the 11th debate on Thursday night. Ed Lee, we've learned a lot. Thank you so much.

LEE: Thank you for having me.

BLACKWELL: Certainly. And the past couple of days, our CNN crew in Flint, Michigan, worked to set the debate stage. Look at this. Time lapse here for you.

Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders will take -- will face off on stage tonight at 8:00 p.m. in the CNN Democratic debate live from Flint, Michigan. Anderson Cooper moderates tonight's debate. It starts at 8:00 p.m. Eastern only on CNN.

BROWN: Thanks so much for starting your morning with us.

BLACKWELL: "INSIDE POLITICS WITH JOHN KING" starts right now.