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THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER

Putin and Trump to Talk; President Trump Meets with British Prime Minister; President Trump About to Attend Mattis Ceremony at Pentagon. Aired 4-4:30p ET

Aired January 27, 2017 - 16:00   ET

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


[16:00:08]

JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: In his first big test on the global stage.

THE LEAD starts right now.

The special relationship, President Trump welcoming the British prime minister to Washington, what they agreed on, and what they don't.

President Trump also giving us a preview of a critical phone call coming up with Russian leader Vladimir Putin. He said it was too early to discuss lifting sanctions, but will the hacking of political secrets come up on the call?

Plus, with just days until President Trump announces his Supreme Court pick, Vice President Pence firing up thousands flooding D.C. for the March For Life.

Welcome to the lead. I'm Jake Tapper.

President Trump came to Washington to disrupt the regular way of doing business here. And so far, in many ways, he is accomplishing just that. His first week in office set off fire alarms throughout the foreign policy establishment as he ignited something of a diplomatic crisis with Mexico and revealed that his White House might drop sanctions against Russia, which is generally considered the United States' number one geopolitical foe by that same Washington foreign policy establishment.

Now, all this while also adhering to tradition in many ways. Today, the president welcomed British Prime Minister Theresa May to honor the "special relationship" between the two countries.

And right now President Trump is on his first visit to the Pentagon, where he will preside over the ceremonial swearing-in of retired Marine General James Mattis as secretary of defense, Mattis a widely respected officer who was confirmed by the Senate by a vote of 98-1.

But even as President Trump does that, he is also expected to sign an executive action to limit the immigration of refugees into the United States. That's a further change not only in American policy, but in a broader sense in what the United States has traditionally stood for.

At the United Nations today, new Ambassador Nikki Haley putting the world on notice, cross us at your peril, she suggested. Haley said this about nations that don't have the United States' back -- quote -- "We're taking names and we will make points to respond to that accordingly."

First, let's start with today's White House state visit, both President Trump and Prime Minister Theresa May recently swept to power amidst rising populist and nationalist sentiments. And for both world leaders, today's state visit is being seen as something of an early test of their governing ability.

CNN White House correspondent Jim Acosta joins me now.

Jim, there were some clear disagreements if you read between the lines between Prime Minister May and President Trump on this thorny issue of sanctions against Russia. Prime Minister May saying that she would not even entertain a notion of dropping sanctions until Russia abides by its agreement and gets out of Ukraine. President Trump says he's keeping an open mind. He just wants to have a good relationship with Russia.

JIM ACOSTA, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Absolutely, Jake.

President Trump certainly seemed to leave the door open to lifting the sanctions on Russia, something British Prime Minister Theresa May flatly rejected today. It's also worth noting, Jake, Prime Minister May said President Trump told her he was 100 percent behind NATO, an alliance the president has called outdated in the past.

Now, this change from the Obama era could be felt immediately here at the White House at today's news conference. While Barack Obama spoke in paragraphs, this new president speaks in sentences. But in his brevity, it was clear the Trump agenda is taking hold.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ACOSTA (voice-over): The focus at President Trump's news conference with British Prime Minister Theresa May was less about the special relationship between the U.S. and Britain and more about the frayed relations between his administration and Mexico.

DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We had a very good call. I have been very strong on Mexico. I have great respect for Mexico. I love the Mexican people.

ACOSTA: The president revealed only a few details about his morning phone call with Mexico's President Enrique Pena Nieto one day after the Mexican leader abruptly canceled his trip to the White House next week, in response to Mr. Trump's plan to build a wall on the border.

During a remarkably brief 18-minute news conference, the president still had no details on who is paying for the wall.

TRUMP: We are going to be working on a fair relationship and a new relationship, but the United States cannot continue to lose vast amounts of business, vast amounts of companies and millions and millions of people losing their jobs. That won't happen with me. We're no longer going to be the country that doesn't know what it's doing.

ACOSTA: The readout of the call from the Mexican government stated that had both leaders will now negotiate over the wall in private, saying the two men agreed at this point not to speak publicly about this controversial issue.

But it's worth noting that line does not appear in the White House statement on the call.

TRUMP: This was your choice of a question?

(LAUGHTER)

[16:05:03]

TRUMP: There goes that relationship.

ACOSTA: The president needled Prime Minister May from a question from a British reporter over Mr. Trump's support of the use of torture. President Trump said he would defer to Defense Secretary James Mattis, who said torture doesn't work.

TRUMP: I don't necessarily agree, but I would tell you that he will override, because I'm giving him that power.

THERESA MAY, BRITISH PRIME MINISTER: There will be times when we disagree on issues on which we disagree.

TRUMP: This is the original in many ways.

ACOSTA: Even though both the president and the prime minister were talking up relations between the U.S. and Britain, there was some distance evident over the sanctions on Russia over its invasion of Ukraine.

TRUMP: We will see what happens as far as the sanctions. Very early to be talking about that.

MAY: We believe the sanctions should continue.

ACOSTA: But the president and prime minister do have one thing in common, both riding into office after populist movements in their country, though President Trump tried to push back over perceptions of his hard-charging persona.

TRUMP: So, I'm not as brash as you might think. And I can tell you that I think we're going to get along very well. It's interesting because I am a people person. I think you are also, Theresa. And I can often tell how I get along with somebody very early and I believe we're going to have a fantastic relationship.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ACOSTA: Now, the White House says the president will have other phone call this weekend with French President Francois Hollande and German Chancellor Merkel. Along with Britain, those two countries have been instrumental in keeping a lid on Vladimir Putin in Europe, so it's no surprise they will be all on the phone the same day President Trump speaks with the Russian leader. And, Jake, we will have to wait for those readouts to see just how brash Donald Trump is on those phone calls, Jake.

TAPPER: All right, Jim Acosta, thanks so much.

That brings us to our world lead, of course. And during the news conference, as you heard, President Trump also addressed a call he will take tomorrow with Russian President Vladimir Putin. So far, the two have had nothing but flattering words for one another since Mr. Trump won the 2016 election and beforehand as well.

That was, of course, an election Putin really wanted him to win, according to the U.S. intelligence community. President Trump will be on the phone with one of the most cunning world leaders at a time when top-level State Department posts sit empty, including secretary of state. Today, the president avoided answering a question about whether he will lift sanctions on Putin.

Jim Sciutto is back with us live now from the Pentagon.

And, Jim, the president didn't put this talk of lifting sanctions to rest at all today. He's clearly leaving the door open.

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: No question. And a sharp contrast between the American and British leaders on this key national security issue.

You heard Theresa May there saying definitively no change to sanctions until Russia is out of Ukraine, out of Crimea. Donald Trump noncommittal really on the question of sanctions, saying that he hasn't made a decision, it's too early, in his words, to make a decision either way.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

TRUMP: I don't know the gentleman. I hope we have a fantastic relationship. That's possible and it's also possible that we won't. We will see what happens.

SCIUTTO (voice-over): Just one day before his first phone call with the Russian leader, President Trump expressing indifference about Vladimir Putin, a man he has repeatedly praised in the past.

TRUMP: I have had many times where I thought I would get along with people and I don't like them at all. And I have had some where I didn't think I was going to have much of a relationship, and it turned out to be a great relationship.

SCIUTTO: Still, in a press conference with the first foreign leader to visit him, British Prime Minister Theresa May, Trump said he is looking to work with Russia, a U.S. adversary, in the battle against ISIS. TRUMP: If we have a great relationship with Russia and other

countries, and if we go after ISIS together, which has to be stopped, that's an evil that has to be stopped, I will consider that a good thing, not a bad thing.

SCIUTTO: This although both his defense secretary, James Mattis...

GEN. JAMES MATTIS (RET.), SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: I have very modest expectations about areas of cooperation with Mr. Putin.

SCIUTTO: ... and CIA Director Mike Pompeo told lawmakers during their confirmation hearings that Russia has done little to nothing to combat the terror group.

REP. MIKE POMPEO (R), KANSAS: Russia has reasserted itself aggressively, invading and occupying Ukraine, threatening Europe, and doing nothing to aid in the destruction and defeat of is.

SCIUTTO: President Trump's conversation with Putin will come amid growing speculation on Capitol Hill that Trump may ease or lift U.S. sanctions on Russia imposed by the Obama administration for its invasion of Ukraine in 2014 and interference in the 2016 presidential election.

TRUMP: As far as the sanctions, very early to be talking about that. But we look to have a great relationship with all countries, ideally. That won't necessarily happen.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SCIUTTO: Speculation on Capitol Hill, I should say as well, Jake, consternation, this from both Democrats and Republicans, concern about the possibility that Donald Trump seemed to leave the door open to lifting those sanctions, concern that in this phone call between Putin and Trump this weekend they might discuss lifting those sanctions.

[16:10:00]

Senator John McCain, as you know, a Republican, a strong Russia hawk, saying, in his words, it be reckless to do so and scolding really to some degree, it sounded, or warning President Trump, in his words, it would be naive and dangerous to consider Vladimir Putin a possible partner -- Jake.

TAPPER: All right, Jim Sciutto, thank you so much.

In their news conference today President Trump and Prime Minister May both emphasized the special relationship between the U.S. and U.K. That relationship of course often depends upon how the two countries' leaders get along.

Nile Gardiner is a former aide to British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher after she left office. And he joins me now.

Nile, thanks for joining us.

NILE GARDINER, MARGARET THATCHER CENTER FOR FREEDOM DIRECTOR, HERITAGE FOUNDATION: My pleasure.

TAPPER: There is obviously this tension, even though they played very well in front of the cameras, about how much of a threat Russia poses and whether or not these sanctions should be lifted.

Just as somebody who advised Thatcher, how much more is the threat of Russia or then the Soviet Union felt by the U.K. rather than here in the U.S.?

GARDINER: Well, I think that British Prime Minister Theresa May was absolutely right to point out the Russian threat, to warn against any lifting of sanctions and to send a very, very clear message, not only today, but also in speech yesterday in Philadelphia, that Vladimir Putin's Russia poses a fundamental threat to the NATO alliance, to Great Britain, to the United States and their allies.

And this is a very important message to be sending. But she also reiterated that both she and President Trump believe firmly in the importance of the NATO alliance, the fundamental heart of the transatlantic alliance. And I think that was made very, very clear in today's meeting.

TAPPER: Well, I know that Prime Minister May believes in it, but obviously President Trump has been very critical of NATO, and I don't know that he believes that Russia is a threat.

How will Prime Minister May deal with that, given that there do seem to be very clear areas of disagreement?

GARDINER: I think the White House does understand very clearly that Russia poses a tremendous threat to the NATO alliance, the United States, and to the West.

TAPPER: Where do you get that from? I know that General Mattis does and I know that CIA Director Pompeo does. And I'm sure there are plenty of others, but I'm specifically talking about President Trump.

GARDINER: Yes, I think there is an awareness of that.

And I think it's very, very important that in the coming weeks, the message is sent to Moscow that the United States and the NATO alliance will resist any kind of Russian aggression. That message has to be sent loud and clear, not only from the Pentagon, but also from the White House as well.

And I also think there is going to be an emphasis upon urging NATO allies, especially in Europe, to spend more on defense. And that's the message that both the White House and Downing Street will need to be sending very, very clearly in the coming months, because far too many NATO members are not investing enough in their defense.

They are purely relying of course upon the U.S.-British security umbrella. They need to step up to the plate and resist any kind of potential aggression faced by the alliance.

TAPPER: There was a fun moment when Prime Minister May -- traditionally, what happens is the president calls on two reporters. The prime minister calls on two reporters usually from the U.K. and each reporter asks questions of both leaders.

One of the British reporters had some rather -- had a rather edgy question for President Trump about all the things he believes that might scare people in the U.K., including support and a belief that torture works.

The president said he doesn't -- he thinks it works, but he's going to leave it to Mattis, who doesn't think it works. It's unusual to hear a president talk so openly about torture, which is, by definition, against international and national law.

GARDINER: Yes, there has certainly been a lot of British press scrutiny of this issue. I don't think it was a major discussion between the two leaders.

I think that this was more of a big picture meeting about the larger importance of the Anglo-American special relationship. And I think this visit certainly succeed in doing so and we are going to see I think a very robust partnership between Theresa May and Donald Trump.

And to his great credit, Donald Trump did emphasize the, in his view, the tremendous importance of Brexit and why it was good for Britain and for America as well. And so a key part of these discussions, of course, focuses upon the development of the U.S.-U.K. free trade deal, which I think is going to become a reality and it is going to be a tremendous powerful symbol of the power of the special relationship, but some very, very encouraging words from the U.S. president today on Brexit, which will be extremely well received in the United Kingdom.

TAPPER: I want to play the sound from the new United States ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, and get your response. Let's play that sound.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

NIKKI HALEY, U.S. AMBASSADOR TO THE UNITED NATIONS: And the way that we will show value is to show our strength, show our voice, have the backs of our allies, and make sure that our allies have our back as well.

For those that don't have our back, we're taking names. We will make points to respond to that accordingly.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: "For those who don't have our backs, we're taking names."

That's how they do politics in South Carolina.

[16:16:01] How might that kind of language be accepted in the United Nations, do you think?

GARDINER: Well, first of all, I think Nikki Haley will be a tremendous asset to the United States. TAPPER: She's great, of course. But that's some edgy language for

the U.S.

GARDINER: Yes, it's -- you know, it may be very, very tough language, but this is the message I think the United Nations needs to hear. For far too long, I think the U.N., many actors operated in a deeply anti- American way and I think Nikki Haley is simply saying that the United States will strongly advance its interests on the world stage and that's the right message to be sending.

I think the U.N. has far too long been sort of, you know, a play thing for dictatorships and anti-American regimes. And so, she's sending a very robust message to the enemies of the United States they will be held to account.

TAPPER: Nile Gardiner, always a pleasure to have you here. Thanks so much for joining us. Appreciate it.

Let's go back to the Pentagon now where there is some action. We are expecting the ceremonial swearing in of General James Mattis as secretary of defense any second.

Mr. Sciutto, looks like it's going to start any minute now.

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: That's exactly right. You're seeing there in the hall of heroes already assembled the joint chiefs of staff, the chairman of each of the military, the armed services, really the chief military advisors to the president on all issues of national security and the armed services. They're standing there in front of those big medals kind of representations of some of the most coveted cherished medals in the U.S. military, one of them being the Medal of Honor, of course.

This as you mention, Jake, is really the ceremonial swearing in for James Mattis. He's already taken the job. He's been confirmed. He's been sworn in. This is -- will be in effect the second time he takes that oath of office, more for ceremony, but, of course, you know as well as me in the military, ceremony matters.

And this is President Trump's first visit to the Pentagon here face to face with many members and commanders of the U.S. military. His first visit as commander in chief at a time that the nation is at war, its two longest wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

So, this moment, this meeting with his defense secretary, this chance to meet here at the Pentagon with uniformed members of the armed services. It has enormous value, symbolic value.

At then at the bottom of the hour, we're going to have the president signing some of those executive orders. A couple of which deal with the military. They talk about military readiness, focus on increasing the size of the Navy, for instance. But I believe the ceremony is about to start now.

TAPPER: All right. We're going to take a very, very quick break. We're going to bring the ceremony to you live when it starts. Stay with us. We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:21:39] TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD.

You're looking at live pictures from the Pentagon. Any moment, we expect President Trump to walk in there with retired General James "Mad Dog" Mattis. He's already the secretary o defense. He's already been sworn in. But this is the official ceremonial swearing in at the Pentagon.

We also find CNN's own chief national security correspondent Jim Sciutto.

And, Jim, General Mattis was confirmed almost overwhelmingly, 98-1 in the U.S. Senate. He is highly regarded by both Democrats and Republicans, and his fellow members of the military. I think a lot of people in the building in which you are right now breathed a sigh of relief when they heard Mattis was being considered for the job.

SCIUTTO: No question. Deep respect for General Mattis, and that is up and down the ranks, at the highest levels, but also enlisted men and women who served with him in Iraq, earning that nickname "Mad Dog" during the fight for Fallujah. As you know, a much deeper experience in mind, really, military mind, he's an educated man, he's a big thinker, he's an historian.

So, that kind of wisdom really and experience, that weight gives the people in this building great, great confidence, right, in light of the fact that they don't have experience or great deal of knowledge about Donald Trump's direction going forward. And big topic of conversation today, we know between Mattis and President Trump is strategy for ISIS. He's asked for new options to become more aggressive, more forward-leaning, and some of those options are going to put U.S. troops in greater danger if the president were to choose to take them, for instance, deploying attack helicopters in Syria, this kind of thing.

But again, it's -- you know, this is a big moment for the U.S. military. How big of a change does he take going forward? And I will say that after the ceremony, you do have the signing of executive orders here, two of which relate to the military. They talk about military readiness, doing thing like increasing the size of the Navy.

Of course, the military is never going to say no to spending more money, but there has been a great deal of consternation here in the Pentagon in the age of sequestration, makes it very difficult for them to make long-term decisions, strategic decisions. But one of those executive orders he's going to sign different, this is the one that relates to immigration from Muslim majority countries, and that's one that even General Mattis, at least in the broad topic of a Muslim ban that came up during the campaign, not one that he has been comfortable with.

So, that -- you know, when those executive orders are signed, you're going to have General Mattis there next to President Trump as he takes these decisions, two relating to military which General Mattis will be happy with, one relating to immigration less comfortable, I imagine.

TAPPER: And the president has said he will defer to General Mattis on the subject of torture. President Trump has said that he thinks torture works. General Mattis has told the President Trump that it doesn't. Give me a pack of cigarettes and a six pack and I'll be able to get the information that way.

SCIUTTO: That's exactly right. General Mattis is someone, listen, he is not alone among military commanders that I've spoken with who say, listen, torture doesn't get you good information. But also, as a commander in the field, he knows there are a whole host of other reasons not to torture.

[16:25:01] He knows in Iraq and Afghanistan and elsewhere, these are battles for the hearts and minds of people.

Listen, I was in Iraq during Abu Ghraib when those photos were released. The damage that did to U.S. standing there at a time it was trying to earn the confidence of the Iraqi people, these things make a difference in that part of the world in the views of military commanders such as General Mattis.

So, it's not just about whether it works or not and many military commanders believe it doesn't work, but it's about what it means for U.S. standing in the world. What it means for the standing of the U.S. military. What it means to danger to U.S. troops deployed in the field. I mean, these are all factors and no one is going to be more aware of those factors than a general such as Mattis who has served and commanded troops in battle in Iraq and elsewhere.

TAPPER: It looks like an aide is putting up prepared remarks on the podium right now. We're going to squeeze in one more quick break. Stay with us. We're going to back with the ceremonial swearing in of the new secretary of defense by President Trump.

Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

TAPPER: We're back with breaking news.

We are waiting for President Trump to arrive and conduct the ceremonial swearing in of his newly minted secretary of defense, retired Marine General James Mattis. You're looking at live pictures from the Pentagon right now.

We were talking to CNN chief national security correspondent Jim Sciutto.

And, Jim, I might have to rudely interrupt you as soon as I see movement there. But we're also expecting President Trump to sign some executive orders about immigration, specifically cutting off at least temporarily immigration from Syria, for Syrian refugees, and also putting a hold or freeze on immigration from -- of individuals from seven majority Muslim countries.

SCIUTTO: That's exactly right. A few of them Iraq, Iran, Somalia, Libya.

The thing is these are countries that have a lot of Americans, people who hold dual citizenship, or they have wives or children who do. This is going to have a real effect on them and really the principle measure is going to be -- you know, the take away is this is a small form Muslim ban.

Now, it's temporary, 30 days for these countries, 120-day stop on all refugees. But that time period is meant as per the executive order to allow for greater restrictions. And it even recommends some that would ask people what their religious beliefs are. And that's, of course, a test that I don't have to remind your or our viewers that a religious test like that is one that's inconsistent --