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Latest Election News; Russian Fighter Jets Bomb Civilian Targets In Syria; Hatch Last Week: Merrick Garland "A Fine Man". Aired 4:30-5p ET

Aired March 16, 2016 - 16:30   ET


SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS, CNN: -- Donald Trump, like many other and thousands of women out there and across the country that are supporting him.


So, I think that people are looking for someone that will break up the Washington-to-Wall Street axis of power and that isn't a wholly owned subsidiary of the D.C. establishment. And he's the only candidate left in the race that does that.

TAPPER: One housekeeping issue, Sarah. Mr. Trump has said he would release his tax returns, but he hasn't. When will he?

HUCKABEE SANDERS: You know, I think he's been extremely clear on this issue. He's under an audit.

And, as soon as that's completed, he will release his tax returns. And there have been quite a few people that have come out and said that there's no reason he should do that while he's in the middle of an audit and have plenty of people picking through.

So, I think, as soon as that's completed, he will follow through on his word and we will see those tax returns released.

TAPPER: But he could release previous years' tax returns. That's what Mitt Romney did earlier than now at this point in 2012.

HUCKABEE SANDERS: Again, I think that he will release those, you know, as things progress and certainly by the time he becomes the nominee.

TAPPER: Sarah Huckabee Sanders, thank you so much. Appreciate your time.


TAPPER: Hillary Clinton cleaning up in a big way last night. Now her campaign says Bernie Sanders is -- quote -- "without a clear path to catching up."

So is it time to break out the broomsticks for Bernie? We will do the math next.



TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD.

Staying with our politics lead for now, Hillary Clinton has both the math and the momentum on her side. She swept last night, going four for four, and it looks like she will win Missouri too when that final vote tally is official.

And though Bernie Sanders picked up lots of delegates, Clinton's campaign manager says Sanders now has -- quote -- "no clear path to catching up."

Our panel is here to talk about it all, former Obama administration official Van Jones, former policy director for Hillary Clinton's 2008 campaign Neera Tanden, former communication director for Ted Cruz Amanda Carpenter and Republican strategist Ana Navarro.

Van, let me start with you. Do you agree with Clinton's campaign manager, Robby Mook, who says Sanders is without a clear path to catching up? They're pressuring him in way, vaguely, to try to get him to drop out.

VAN JONES, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, first of all, he should not drop out.

He has a lot of good states ahead of him, where you have got a lot of people who feel that passion and who love his message. I think it's good for the party to keep this going. He's made Hillary Clinton better and he's made the party better.

But the reality is, if you look at the math, the math unfortunately is not partisan and the math says you have got to win 55-45 or maybe 60- 40 every contest going forward. Is it possible? It is possible, but that is very, very difficult.

TAPPER: And, Neera, Hillary Clinton taking more of a general election message when she speaks. She did that before Michigan and it kind of backfired on her. Do you think that she needs to focus still on Bernie Sanders and less on Donald Trump and the Republicans or is she doing what she needs to be doing?

NEERA TANDEN, PRESIDENT, CENTER FOR AMERICAN PROGRESS: I think she should definitely be focusing on both. Democrats are really concerned about Donald Trump and the kind of rhetoric, hate-filled rhetoric he has.

So she's speaking to Democrats when she gives a very strong rebuttal to the kind of campaign and politics he's doing. But at the same time, the issues that Senator Sanders has raised are really important issues not only in the primary, but in the general electorate.

And she has to address those issues as well. So, I think it's talking about both, as she did last night. TAPPER: Donald Trump posted a video on Instagram, I think, on social media somewhere, targeting Hillary Clinton, painting her as a punchline. Take a look.

"We don't need to be a punchline," it says. It's interesting, a little Karl Rove jujitsu going after your opponent for what might be your perceived biggest weakness. Do you think it will work?

AMANDA CARPENTER, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: I'm not sure. It's kind of funny. It gets some attention.

But Donald Trump, if he wants to start taking on Hillary Clinton now, I think it starts to scare people in some respect and this is why. If it's a Trump vs. Hillary Clinton race, it will only come down to which side hates the other side more. It will be the most bitter, angriest election I think we have ever seen, which, hey, might be appropriate for the year of the angry voter.

But I think that's hard to envision. I think that's hard to go through November and should be part of the argument of stopping Donald Trump at the convention.

TAPPER: Ana, what did you think of the video?

ANA NAVARRO, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Look, I think here we go again.

Donald Trump dominating the media cycle. He is a brilliant, brilliant master of how to do that. I think he's turning it on Hillary Clinton. He's trying now to portray himself as the presumptive nominee and going after who he thinks is going to be his opponent in a general election.

But I think it's a little bit of -- a little premature. Certainly, this is red meat for the base. His folks are going to love it. It is amusing. It is somewhat funny. Let's see, you know, how he goes from here, though.

TAPPER: Go ahead.

CARPENTER: Here's the thing. He wants to pretend he's the presumptive nominee. I'm not doing debates anymore. He canceled on FOX News. That is over and now he wants to pivot to the general election and say, picture me vs. Hillary, forgetting about the whole convention thing.

TAPPER: I want you to listen, Neera, to something that Secretary Clinton said Sunday night when she was asked how she would defeat Trump in a general election. Let's play that clip.


HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I'm not going to spill the beans right now. But suffice it to say, there are many arguments that we can use against him.

(END VIDEO CLIP) TAPPER: Do you have any idea what she's talking about, what the arguments are? Because nobody has found a silver bullet against Donald Trump yet. Nobody -- that's just a metaphor, people. That's not violent imagery. It's about the only way you can defeat, I think, a werewolf, right?



TAPPER: So, how can you defeat Donald Trump? He seems unbeatable, by the Republicans at least.

TANDEN: I just want to be clear. The Republican electorate is very different from the independents and Democrats from the country.

You see that in the general electorate polling. It's not like he's doing very well in general electorate polling against Hillary or anyone else. So a lot of people are already turned off by Donald Trump. Lots of women who voted for Mitt Romney are already turned off by Donald Trump.

So I think one of the reasons why other Republicans want to have to stop Trump, because he's such a weak general electorate candidate.


NAVARRO: Listen, I have been turned off by Donald Trump from day one, but I have learned. This is what I have learned in the last nine months. Do not underestimate Donald Trump. Do not overestimate Hillary Clinton.

TANDEN: I totally agree never to underestimate him. Absolutely, don't underestimate him. But Republicans have not been able to take him on. I think Hillary will be different.

TAPPER: And , Van, in Florida, media trackers say campaigns and super PACs spent at least $16.5 million on anti-Trump advertising. He won by 19, shellacking the home state senator, Marco Rubio. You are worried as a Democrat about what Donald Trump might be able to do in November.

JONES: This is Trumpzilla. This guy is just crunching through the village, stepping on villagers who used to be called governors and senators, and this is bad, OK?

And you have liberals who have been like, hah, hah, hah, he can't win a general election. Hah, hah, hah. I think the laughing needs to stop and I think people need to figure out what you could do to stop this guy because I think he could beat Hillary Clinton on his present trajectory.

CARPENTER: And the big challenge with Trump is that he rewrites the map and he rewrites all the rules.

Ted Cruz thought he would get all the evangelical voters. Donald Trump said no. If Donald Trump is the nominee, he will get a lot of the lower-income white working-class voters that used to be Reagan Democrats and union workers. That's who he's going to pull from.

So this will challenge all conventional wisdom if it does indeed come down to that.

TAPPER: Ana, I want to ask you before we go. You are friends with Marco Rubio. Believe it or not, it was only last night that he dropped out of the race. It seems like a lifetime ago.

What's he going to do now? He's not running for reelection for his Senate seat. Whither Marco?

NAVARRO: He could have chosen to run for reelection. He could have gotten the legislature to change it. I think he chose not to.

I remember Marco telling me a week after he got elected, I'm not going to be a lifer in the Senate.

I think Marco is going to discover that there is life after politics. He's got a very strong, loving family and he's got a lot of faith in God. Losing an election is hard. It's hard as hell. It hurts, it's bruising. I think you're going to see an optimistic Marco come out of this, a stronger Marco.

I was very glad that he went back to the decent guy that I have known always at the end of this campaign. I was even more glad to see that he withdrew the challenge against John Kasich today in Pennsylvania, the ballot challenge. I think it was an important signal of unity. And I think, you know, he had a very classy exit last night.

TAPPER: All right, thanks to our panel. Great job.

Republican Senator Orrin Hatch did not seem to have a problem with Judge Merrick Garland in 1997.


HATCH: To my knowledge, no one, absolutely no one disputes the following. Merrick Garland is highly qualified to sit on the D.C. Circuit. His intelligence and his scholarship cannot be questioned.


TAPPER: What does Hatch have to say now that Garland is up for the highest court in the land? We will ask him next.


JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: Welcome back to THE LEAD. Let's turn to our World Lead now. After starting to withdraw its troops from Syria, Russia now insist that it will keep hitting terrorist targets from the air.

Moscow's military campaign is all part of Vladimir Putin's effort to prop up the Assad regime in his fight against the rebel forces. CNN's Clarissa Ward is one of the only western journalists to travel to parts to rebel-held Syria in the past year. She recently returned from the frontlines.

Clarissa, welcome back. You've done some incredible reporting. What was it like traveling in Syria?

CLARISSA WARD, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Jake, it was incredibly tough. This is a trip that took six months to plan because it is so dangerous. There is a strong jihadist presence in the areas that we were moving through, so we had to wear always the hijab head covering but often also a facial veil.

We were there for less than 24 hours before we saw our first air strikes. We were filming the devastation in a small town in Idlib and suddenly we heard the noise of fighter jets overheads.

And I have to tell you, Jake, when you hear that noise, you just get a pit in your stomach because you know what's coming afterwards, but you don't know where it's going to land.

In this case the strike hit a fruit market, a fruit market that was full of civilians. Our cameras on the scene captured the absolute carnage and chaos in the aftermath of that.

We saw a woman killed. We saw a young boy brought into hospital with serious injuries. He later died and it's just horrifying. It really gave you a sense of what it has been to live under this relentless regime and Russian bombardment which to people on the ground feels very much like a war on everyday life -- Jake.

TAPPER: Clarissa, you spoke with a doctor and asked him why he doesn't just leave Syria. What did he tell you?

WARD: Well, hospitals have been real targets in this war. This doctor, Dr. Feras Al-Jundi, is now working in the only hospital that is still operating in the city. So we asked him, why do you stay? You have a medical degree, you have the means. You could easily leave. You could go to Turkey. He was incredibly moving in his response. Take a listen.


DR. FERAS AL-JUNDI (through translator): If I did that, I would abandon my conscience. This is our country, we can't desert it. If we left, then we have sold our morals. Who would treat the people?

[16:50:05]I can very easily leave, but we will remain steadfast. I am prepared to die rather than to leave. I will carry on, no matter what.


WARD: You know, we use the word "Heroes" sometimes, Jake, but these really are the true heroes of the war in Syria, the civilians who are braving the bombardment to keep on going, to keep trying to create some semblance of normal life.

Obviously people like Dr. Jundi are optimistic and hopeful that this Russian withdrawal will have a positive impact, but they're also very skeptical and they look at what's happening in Geneva and the peace talks that are going on there and the negotiations, and they don't feel that their needs are being represented.

They don't feel that their voice is being heard. They believe very strongly that any negotiation that doesn't have in it that President Bashar Al Assad must leave is destined for failure ultimately, Jake.

TAPPER: So sad, so tragic. Great reporting, Clarissa, thank you so much. You can see the rest of the Clarissa's ongoing undercover series tomorrow and Friday right here on CNN. For even more content, visit Clarissa Ward, thanks again so much for your incredible work.

Coming up, he supported Judge Merrick Garland 19 years ago, but now Republican Senator Orrin Hatch says Garland should not get a Senate hearing for the U.S. Supreme Court. We're going to ask the senator what's changed, coming up.



TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD. Our National Lead now, the Department of Veterans Affairs is trying to fire three top executives at the scandalized Phoenix VA. This comes after CNN broke the national scandal in 2014 that 40 veterans died while waiting for appointments in Phoenix.

Many had been placed on a secret waiting list designed to hide the fact that as many as 1,600 veterans were forced to wait months before seeing a doctor. Officials say the three executives may fight their removals under a federal appeals process, which means it could take more than 700 days to fully fire them.

Turning back to President Obama's Supreme Court nomination, I'm joined by Republican Senator Orrin Hatch of the Judiciary Committee. Senator Hatch, good to see you. Thanks for joining us.


TAPPER: So Senator, I want to read you back something you told "News Max" on Friday. Quote, "Obama could easily name Merrick Garland, who is a fine man. He probably won't do that because this appointment is about the election so I'm pretty sure he'll name someone the liberal Democratic base wants." So theoretically you must be thrilled, President Obama followed your suggestion.

HATCH: It isn't a question of who he's appointed, it's a question of whether you could bring that up during this caustic, toxic presidential election process. It's something that hasn't been done before except in the case of -- in the last 75 years except in the case of Justice Kennedy, who after a long ordeal of Democrats going right down the line, everybody was happy to get that over with.

TAPPER: So when was the cutoff? I mean, you're saying this is because this is in the middle of a toxic election year. If this vacancy had emerged last November instead of last month, would it then have be OK to try to fill the seat?

HATCH: It probably would have. Now to make a long story short, Joe Biden when he was chairman of the committee said in 1992 a year before, he said you should not -- that Bush should not be able to bring up a president -- or the president shouldn't be able to bring up a Supreme Court justice during a presidential year.

Harry Reid has said that. You know, Senator Leahy, who was chairman of the committee, has said that. The fact of the matter is they're right. This is not the environment to bring up a Supreme Court justice. We've seen the toxicity that comes from Supreme Court justices.

Now, can you imagine bringing one up in the middle of this? I'd rather have it put over. It's fair to both sides. Whoever wins is going to be able to appoint the justice.

Frankly, yes, the president has the absolute right to recommend and to submit who he wants. But the Senate has an absolute right to determine when that should be brought up and I think almost all Republicans agree that should be brought up after the election --

TAPPER: Senator --

HATCH: -- to avoid the politics.

TAPPER: Senator, in 2010, you actually specifically addressed the possibility that President Obama would nominate Judge Garland. You said there was no question that he would win confirmation with bipartisan support.

HATCH: And he did. As a matter of fact, I led that fight for him. He's a fine man. I have no problem with liking the judge. I mean, he's a good judge. Now, I haven't looked at his decisions for 19 years and we're not talking about a circuit court of appeals judgeship.

We're talking about the highest court in the land, it's the court of final decision making -- it's a court of final appeal in this country. So it's a much more serious thing.

I can quote you Democrat after Democrat who when Republicans were in control said you can't do this. So now that the ox is gored, they of course would like to be able to run right over you and the Republicans aren't going to let them do that.

TAPPER: Of course, theoretically, if Hillary Clinton gets the nomination and wins in November, you might end up with a much younger and much more liberal Supreme Court nominee in front of your committee. HATCH: Well, that's a risk that you take. On the other hand, do we want the process to be right? Do we want it to be a sophisticated, good process with a minimum of politics involved or do we want to just throw it into this cauldron that's called the presidential election right now.

I think we ought to -- we ought to salute the Supreme Court and show the kind of -- the kind of support for the court that it deserves and that is keep it out of the political arena as much as you can.

Right now, the political arena is toxic, difficult, and terrible to bring this nominee up at this time and it hasn't been done before and frankly, it shouldn't be done now.

TAPPER: Senator Orrin Hatch, thank you so much. That's it for THE LEAD. Turning you over to Wolf Blitzer in "THE SITUATION ROOM." Thanks for watching.