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Interview With Florida Governor Rick Scott; SeaWorld Change; Stopping Trump; White House Denies Report Obama Told Donors to Unify Behind Clinton; Conservatives Plot to Deny Trump the Nomination. Aired 4-4:30p ET

Aired March 17, 2016 - 16:00   ET



JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: I'm just filling out my brackets myself. I got Trump University upsetting Duke in the Sweet 16.

THE LEAD starts right now.

The plan to stop Trump -- today, details of a secret backroom meeting, conservative leaders plotting to deny Trump the nomination in Cleveland no matter how many millions of people vote for him.

Liberal leaders now calling the Trump campaign a -- quote -- "five- alarm fire for democracy," but will a new plan of attack against Trump backfire, just like every single other one before it?

Plus, the "Blackfish" effect, SeaWorld announcing a major change, saying this generation of killer whales will be the last at their parks.

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

Desperate conservative leaders huddled together in a secret meeting in Washington today trying to figure out if there is any possible way to block Donald Trump from the Republican presidential nomination and, if not, whether they will mount a third-party challenge to Trump this fall.

CNN's correspondent Sunlen Serfaty joins me now live from Houston, Texas, where Ted Cruz has his campaign headquartered.

Sunlen, who are these conservative leaders?

SUNLEN SERFATY, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Jake, they're not the establishment types within the party. Sources tell CNN that this meeting was mostly of longtime die-hards of the conservative movement.

Coming out of that meeting today in Washington, D.C., they called for a unity ticket, potentially even of Ted Cruz and John Kasich teaming up and, yes, the possibility of potentially launching a third-party candidacy all in an effort to stop Donald Trump.


SERFATY (voice-over): Paul Ryan today brushing off the idea that he could be drawn into the presidential race.

REP. PAUL RYAN (R-WI), SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE: It's not going to be me. It should be somebody running for president. People are out there campaigning.

SERFATY: But the House speaker is not stepping away from the prospect that his party might be heading towards a contested convention.

RYAN: It's more likely to become an open convention than we thought before. So we're getting our minds around the idea that this could very well become a reality.

SERFATY: This comes as conservatives belonging to the stop Trump movement are huddling in Washington today. Sources tell CNN there was absolute consensus in the closed-door meeting on trying to stop Trump from getting the number of delegates needed to clinch the nomination, but that there was a real division about launching a third-party challenge if Trump ultimately becomes the nominee.

Trump's team encouraging Republicans opposed to Trump to rethink their strategy.

BARRY BENNETT, TRUMP CAMPAIGN SENIOR ADVISER: When we get to Cleveland, he's going to be our nominee. And, you know, some of these guys are going to have to decide how much damage they're willing to do to the party because they don't like that.

SERFATY: The potential for a contested convention is now pushing the GOP candidates into effectively waging two campaigns side by side, still working to win outright.

SEN. TED CRUZ (R-TX), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Look, if Donald and I come in and we're neck in neck and neither of us are at 1,237, then it's a battle for the remaining delegates. Then that's actually how a convention operates.

SERFATY: But also scrambling to prepare their backup plans if the nominating fight is still unsettled before Republicans gather in Cleveland this July.

GOV. JOHN KASICH (R-OH), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: It is unlikely that anybody is going to achieve enough delegates to avoid a convention.

SERFATY: The campaigns making their calibrations from the sobering reality they face when it comes to the math. Candidates need to get to 1,237 delegates to clinch the nomination before the convention.

Based on the current delegate counts, Donald Trump would need to win a little more than 50 percent of the remaining delegates to reach that mark. Ted Cruz would need roughly 80 percent. And for John Kasich, it would be mathematically impossible. He would need about 108 percent.

South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham today telling CNN's Dana Bash that he sees Cruz as the best hope for stopping Trump. SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: I think the best alternative

to Donald Trump, to stop him from getting to 1,237, is Ted Cruz. And I'm going to help Ted in every way I can.


SERFATY: Senator Graham will work to raise money for Cruz as well. He is set to headline a fund-raiser on Monday in Washington, D.C. That is the same day that all three candidates will speak in Washington before the AIPAC Conference -- Jake.

TAPPER: Sunlen Serfaty, thank you.

After Donald Trump's overwhelming victory in Florida, the Sunshine State's governor just became the newest Trump backer and he wants the rest of his party to fall in line behind Trump.

Joining me now, Florida Governor Rick Scott.

Governor, thanks so much for coming.

GOV. RICK SCOTT (R), FLORIDA: Sounds like 2010 in my race.

I was not the establishment candidate. I was a businessperson, never having run for office. All the Republican establishment said, oh, get out of the race, we have got our candidate already. You're going to hurt our ability to win. I waited and I listened to the voters.


I worked hard. We won. We have turned our state around. A million more jobs in five years. Paying down debt. It's the same thing. Donald Trump is the will of the people. We need to listen to the people, back his candidacy and win in November.

TAPPER: But, Governor Scott, let me get your reaction to this meeting among conservative leaders to find anyone but Trump. You're urging the party to fall in line behind him. What are you saying to the Republicans, including your home state Senator Marco Rubio, who think that Trump is out, unlike the way you are, Trump is out there appealing to Americans' baser instincts and sullying the party's good name?

What's your response to them? That was not the charge made about you in 2010.

SCOTT: Well, there's always going to be something.

If you're not the establishment candidate, they're going to attack you some ways. Look, I will never agree and none of us will ever agree with any candidate out there. But let's listen to the -- let's -- I would have always told people listen to the voters and let's think about where we want to be.

In November, we want to win so we can turn this economy around, have a president that believes in job growth. We can't have four more years of Barack Obama. Donald Trump is either going to have the number of delegates he needs or be very, very, very close. Let's listen to the will of the people.

TAPPER: All right, obviously, we're not going to have four more years of Barack Obama. But I assume you're speaking metaphorically.


SCOTT: That's Hillary Clinton.


I want you to listen to Mr. Trump talking to my colleague Chris Cuomo yesterday about the possibility of a contested convention. Take a listen.


DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: If we're 20 votes short or if we're 100 short, and we're at 1,100 and somebody else is at 500 or 400, because we're way ahead of everybody, I don't think you can say that we don't get it automatically. I think it would be -- I think you would have riots.


TAPPER: Now, House Speaker Paul Ryan today said in response, "Nobody should say such things, in my opinion, because to even address or hint to violence is unacceptable."

What did you make of that comment?

SCOTT: I'm not going to agree with how everybody says anything, but let's think about where we are this year.

This year, people don't trust party leaders. They don't trust the establishment right now. They don't trust our political leaders. So we are going to go to a convention where Donald Trump is going to be -- either have the delegates or be very close, and then party leaders are going to choose somebody else?

I think that would make sure we don't win in November. We have got to win in November. We have got to have a president that's going to win or a nominee that is going to win, so we turn this economy around.

TAPPER: I put out a request on social media for questions that people, that voters would like to ask you. I got a couple.

Here's one from a constituent of yours who wanted to keep his or her name out of it -- quote -- "As a Florida Muslim-American Republican who has supported you and many GOP candidates, why haven't you done more to condemn anti-Muslim statements by candidates you support at a time when anti-Muslim hate crimes in the state of Florida have doubled? Words and statements have consequences" -- unquote.

Governor, your response? SCOTT: Well, what I have tried to do is make our state a state where

people are welcome. We had 105 million tourists last year; 365,000 people moved here.

We're at a 44.5-year low in our crime rate. I have tried to make sure everybody that wants to be here feels comfortable living here. And, by the way, if you're here, you can get a job. Your kids get a great education. This is a wonderful state to live in.

TAPPER: Well, this is a Republican who supports you or has supported you in the past saying that by not condemning things that Donald Trump has said about Muslims, you are basically being complicit in animosity towards Muslims, including Muslims who live in Florida.

SCOTT: Jake, people say a whole -- candidates say a whole bunch of things that I might disagree with. I'm not going to agree with everybody.

But if you listen to what I talk about, is, I'm trying to make this the state that people want to visit, they want to live here, they can get a job here, their kids can get a great education, they can live in safe communities.

Look, we're not going to agree -- no one is going to agree on everything. I have tried to make this the state, though, we have two languages spoken here. People are welcome in our state.

TAPPER: On Twitter, a man named Dustin Moody asked me to ask you, "What policy of Trump's do you like the most?"

SCOTT: I think the thing that I like the most about it is, he's got a business background. He understands how to get along with people. He's very focused on how we grow our economy.

If you think about it, if we want to build up our military, you can't do it without a good economy. I have gone -- in our state, we have gone from a multibillion-dollar deficit to multibillion-dollar surplus because we have focused on our economy. And now we are fully funding education.

We have record funding for education. We're funding the environment. We're funding all sorts of agencies for people that have needs because we have focused on our economy. That's what Donald Trump will do.

TAPPER: So no specific policy, but just the fact that Trump is promising to focus on the economy?

SCOTT: Well, it's part of what you do. You focus on reducing taxes, reducing regulation, streamline the permitting process.


But one thing about bringing a businessperson in, they know the problems that businesspeople have. Often, government reduces your reduces your ability to bring in jobs and succeed. TAPPER: All right. Florida Governor Rick Scott from the beautiful

state, the beautiful Sunshine State, thanks so much for taking our questions. We appreciate it.

SCOTT: See you, Jake. Have a great day.

TAPPER: More now on our politics lead.

Bernie Sanders says his revolution still has time, but Hillary Clinton's campaign says he does not have a path to the nomination. Now President Obama may, according to one report, be taking sides.

Stay with us.


TAPPER: Staying with our politics lead, President Obama is, according to one report, saying behind closed doors what Hillary Clinton shouted out loud, that Democrats need to start focusing on Donald Trump now.

"The New York Times" is reporting that the president told some of the Democrats' biggest money men and money women that his party needs to close ranks around Hillary Clinton to deny Trump any opening to get a head start.

Well, they are. The Democratic campaign machine coined a brand-new term for vulnerable Republican senators who promised to support Trump. Retrumplicans, they call them, Retrumplicans. Get it?

Jeff Zeleny is with me here in Washington.

So, Jeff, Bernie Sanders isn't going anywhere, and this rally-around- Clinton call could potentially alienate Sanders supporters.

[16:15:04] JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: It could, of course. But, first, the White House is pushing back a little bit on this "New York Times" report. They're saying the president did not suggest Sanders should get out of the race.

One other person you're not going to hear that is Hillary Clinton. She will not call him to get out. Six million reasons why. Those are the number of voters who supported him in the primaries so far. That number is only growing as Sanders is staying in, winning votes and delegates. But Democrats are growing increasingly eager to start taking on Trump.


ZELENY (voice-over): Donald Trump was one of the best Democratic punch lines around.

HILLARY CLINTON (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: He's making the most out of it. I'm having a good time watching it.

ZELENY: The Democratic Party is no longer laughing.

Even as the primary fight between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders goes on, the party is quickly turning its focus to Trump.

CLINTON: Our commander in chief has to be able to defend our country, not embarrass it.

ZELENY: Liberal groups are sounding the alarm. Suddenly taking Trump seriously as a general election foe.

Republicans, led by Trump, have dramatically surpassed Democrats in voter turnout this year. Some Democrats worry Trump is tapping into anger and discontent that's coursing through the Democratic electorate too. From labor unions to environmental groups, the Democratic machine is spinning into action, trying to do what the Republican establishment could not.

SEN. HARRY REID (D-NV), MINORITY LEADER: Most of us cannot fathom how he rose so far and so, so fast. His vile rhetoric is embarrassing, his proposals are dangerous.

ZELENY: Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid delivered a speech today, focused solely on stopping Trump.

REID: Republican leaders created the drought conditions. Donald Trump has simply struck the match.

ZELENY: Nearly two dozen progressive groups signed a letter this week, saying it's time to unite. They're calling this moment "a five- alarm fire for our democracy".

Sanders is trailing Clinton significant low in delegates, but he's far from folding. He's back on the campaign trail tonight in Arizona, five days before the state's primary. He's launching a new wave of TV ads.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He's a change agent. Has been for 33 years. He represents a change and a message that many of us have been longing for awhile.

ZELENY: But Clinton is running a dual track strategy, airing new ads of her own today in Arizona.

AD ANNOUNCER: Hillary knows our kids deserve better.

ZELENY: Keeping one eye on Sanders and another on Trump.

CLINTON: I've gotten more votes than he has. I think he has -- if you really analyze it, a pretty narrow base. But we'll find out. If he gets nominated, we're going to have a very vigorous general election if I'm the nominee.


ZELENY: And that vigorous general election isn't here just yet but Trump has his hands full with his own primary and looming convention fight. But Democrats are beginning to invest time and money into defining Trump early or at least trying to, something they believe Republicans have failed to do starting last summer when Trump jumped in.

But, Jake, it is a tall order for them because Donald Trump so far has defied every single odd.

TAPPER: Yes, every rule. Every political rule has gone out the window.

Jeff Zeleny, thanks so much.

Panicked conservatives gathered in Washington trying to figure out how to stop Trump if possible, even suggesting maybe a third-party candidate is the only way to do it.

And then, SeaWorld's killer whales will soon be history. Why the park is now making major changes three years after that damaging documentary, "Blackfish."


[16:22:52] TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD. We're going to stay with our politics lead.

For the first time since bowing out of the presidential race, Senator Marco Rubio spoke publicly just over an hour ago on Capitol Hill. He said he is not interested in being anyone's vice president and he took this shot at the front-runner, Donald Trump.


SEN. MARCO RUBIO (R), FLORIDA: Hopefully, there's time to still prevent a Trump nomination, which I think would fracture the party and be damaging to the conservative movement.


TAPPER: Talk about this and everything else with former Republican Congressman Vin Weber who is supporting John Kasich, senior writer for "The Federalist", Mary Katharine Ham, and campaign director at the Center for American Progress Action Fund, Emily Tisch Sussman, who is supporting Hillary Clinton.

So, Congressman Weber, let me start with you.

If Rubio really wanted to unite conservatives or Republicans around the task of defeating Donald Trump, wouldn't it make sense to endorse either Kasich or Cruz to get some momentum?

VIN WEBER (R), FORMER MINNESOTA CONGRESSMAN: Yes, yes, or at least campaign around the country for both of them or something -- something other than vacating the field. Too many people including the candidates have vacated the field on this Trump issue and now we're on the eve of him maybe having a majority. I don't think he'll get there. All of a sudden, they're saying, oh, my God, the house is burning down.

We should have done something before it got this far. Yes, I would like to see him come forward, I would prefer him to see them support Governor Kasich but if he's for Cruz, he should be for Cruz. But I think people can't just sit on the sidelines now and then complain the house burned down in July.

TAPPER: Mary Katharine, let's talk about this meeting of conservatives in D.C. today to try to come up with a way to stop Trump from getting the nomination or have a third party.

Erick Erickson, who's a conservative writer and donor who called into the meeting, he said conservatives are, quote, "about ideas, not necessarily parties". That sounds like there's a ground swell among some for a third party.

MARY KATHATINE HAM, SENIOR WRITER, THE FEDERALIST: There's two things here. It's not just the establishment that does not like a Donald Trump nomination. It is these grassroots conservatives and activists who have been doing this for a long, long time and that's what this is working on.

I do think there is an appetite for a third party. You see it in exit polling. You see 38 percent to 40 percent of Republicans in exit polling saying, yes, I would consider a third party.

[16:25:05] What I worry about and I do think that's a possibility here. What I worry about is a lot of these solutions as you were pointing out seem a little too clever by half sometimes, that they require a lot of strategy and they require a lot of it coming together really fast. So --

WEBER: But the case has to be made, regardless of whether we defeat Trump, start a third party or whatever, the case against him substantively hasn't been made because we've had so much focus for eight months on just the horse race. Trump is doing so well. He's winning on polls.

We need to focus on why he is objectionable.

EMILY TISCH SUSSMAN, CAMPAIGN DIRECTOR, CENTER FOR AMERICAN PROGRESS ACTION FUND: Well, I say that's actually longer than eight months. I say it's actually longer than that. I think really since the Tea Party wave in 2010 and the Republican Party embracing the Tea Party wave, it really wasn't a natural fit for the party, bringing them in.

WEBER: Trump is not tea party.

SUSSMAN: No, that's true. He is not Tea Party but does tap into a lot of those emotions.

By bringing that into the party as a whole, I think it's been brewing. So the idea of a third party is not crazy in this sense, but -- I think we're seeing a fracturing that's been brewing for a couple of years.

HAM: I think with a third party run you have to decide is this just an ideological sort of put your flag somewhere and give people somewhere to go or are you actually trying to do something. TAPPER: Beyond election.

HAM: Yes, a colleague of mine wrote a piece saying, look, pick somebody who's regionally appealing who you can get on the libertarian party ticket and then maybe win a few states and see if you can throw it to the House of Representatives. I mean, we're getting into some really serious stuff here.

SUSSMAN: Some really --

WEBER: There's a long-term phenomenon we should think about. It has always been the case throughout polling history that there are more conservatives than there are Republicans. Not true on the other side. There's always more Democrats than there are liberals.

But there's always been a big block of people who usually voted Republican, thought of themselves as conservatives but resisted identifying with the Republican Party. Those are the people that may now be saying it's time for a divorce.

TAPPER: People who voted for Perot in '92 and '96.

WEBER: A lot of them, a lot of them. And a lot of them vote Republican but they are uncomfortable with the Republican Party.

TAPPER: They don't like the establishment. They don't like the trade deals. They don't like the softer stance on immigration.

WEBER: Or other issues maybe.

TAPPER: Three weeks ago, Lindsey Graham, who now says he's going to hold a fund-raiser for Cruz. Three weeks ago, Graham joked at a dinner, quote, "if you kill Ted Cruz on the floor of the Senate and the trial is at the Senate, no one would convict you." This is where we are in the Republican Party now.

SUSSMAN: I was actually surprised that graham came out for Cruz. I've never seen two words used so much together as "Cruz" and "detest". That is pretty much where his colleagues feel about him. Now he feels like he's the only possible alternative in terms of delegate vote (ph) to Trump, but he was running as an outsider and talking about burning the house down. He was ready to burn the house down to run as an outsider. And now the fact that people have to coalesce around him --

TAPPER: Congressman Weber, you say that the substantive case against Donald Trump has not been made. What do you mean? I've seen a lot of attacks on Donald Trump.

WEBER: We know what all the issues are, but no one has really prosecuted the case that he basically -- first of all, he's never been a Republican. I don't think he's a small D democrat.


TAPPER: They tried. Jeb Bush tried, Marco Rubio tried. WEBER: Nobody paid any attention to it.

But on some of the issues that he has that are popular with the grassroots are things you need to talk about anyway like trade and immigration. I don't know how a party goes forward basically offending everybody who comes into this country across the southern border, I still don't know how that works.

TAPPER: Mary Katharine --

WEBER: Or ripping up all the trade agreements that we've been negotiating by Republican presidents.


So, here's a question. Do the people who are trying to stop Trump, is their issue with Trump or is their issue with Republican voters? Because Republican voters are turning out, maybe they were conservatives and unaligned in the past, but they are turning out and they are, and he's dominating in the way that I haven't seen since George W. Bush ran in 2000.

HAM: Right. He is dominating. He's running the board in a lot of these states. He's also still at 35 percent, 40 percent of the vote and there is a large contingency against him, and there's a large contingency that says, "I would go third party".

Although she does have strong support, it is still a plurality, right? So, I think a lot of people are looking at and they're saying, if indeed he is the standard bearer, then I'm not with those standards, I'm not down with that, and I can't stick with it.

TAPPER: Very quickly.

WEBER: Thirty-five percent to 40 percent isn't bad if the rest of them say he's a good second choice. That's not the case with Donald Trump. The people that aren't for him are really against him.

HAM: Yes.

TAPPER: OK, got to end it there.

Mary Katharine, Vin, Emily, thank you so much. Great job.

Going door to door, that's what President Obama's pick for the Supreme Court is busy doing today. The question is, will all Republicans slam the door in his face or is there a small crack?

Stay with us.