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Interview With Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse; Rex Tillerson Confirmed as Secretary of State; Lawmakers Clash Over President Trump's Cabinet Picks; Trump Attends Return to Navy SEAL's Remains. Aired 4-4:30p ET

Aired February 1, 2017 - 16:00   ET



JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: It's the Super Bowl of political battles. I will bring the queso.

THE LEAD starts right now.

Bad blood on Capitol Hill, Democrats boycotting President Trump's nominees and the Republicans therefore changing the rules. Is this a sign of dysfunction to come for President Trump's Supreme Court pick?

Just days into the Trump administration, Putin's buddies across the border sparking new violence in Ukraine, soldiers killed, families, including dozens of children, on the run. How will President Trump respond, if at all?

Plus, New York state of mind, new information on whether the first lady, Melania Trump, plans to take you up residence in the White House.

Welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper. We are going to begin with some breaking news.

There is President Trump on your screen making an unannounced visit to Dover, Delaware, to witness the dignified transfer of the remains of the Navy SEAL killed in a raid of Yemen. We will have much more on that in a moment.

Also just into CNN, one of President Trump's most controversial Cabinet picks just confirmed by the Senate. Legislators OKed Rex Tillerson, former ExxonMobil CEO, as secretary of state. The vote was 56-43. Tillerson will take over a State Department where currently hundreds of employees are objecting to President Trump's ban on immigration from some countries and a temporary suspension of the refugee program.

The Trump White House is hoping for similar success as they had with Tillerson for the president's pick for the Supreme Court, Judge Neil Gorsuch.

But on Capitol Hill, Supreme Court nominee means one thing for certain, a confirmation battle. And today President Trump is urging Republican lawmakers, go nuclear if you must to confirm Gorsuch. That means change the Senate rules so a Supreme Court pick would need just 51 votes to be confirmed instead of a supermajority of 60.

That's as some Democrats are deciding to wait and see how to play this after the president played his Supreme Court nomination pretty much by the book, picking a widely respected judge, one who is a darling of conservative lawmakers. It all forces Democrats to decide whether they should build on the grassroots anti-Trump sentiment and anger to block Gorsuch, or maybe hold their fire in case a more controversial pick comes along later.

Lots of decisions to have.

CNN's Sara Murray is at the White House for us.

Sara, what is the Republican strategy to get Gorsuch confirmed?

SARA MURRAY, CNN NATIONAL POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Jake, in today's briefing, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said they are hoping that it will not go to the nuclear option, that they are hoping they will be able to get an up-or-down vote without a filibuster.

But one thing Donald Trump is making clear today is that while they are working behind the scenes to make that happen, he is not going to stop short of pressing his Senate allies to invoke this nuclear option to ensure his guy gets on the court.


MURRAY (voice-over): After a polished rollout for his Supreme Court pick.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Today, I am keeping another promise to the American people by nominating Judge Neil Gorsuch of the United States Supreme Court -- to be of the United States Supreme Court.

MURRAY: Donald Trump is encouraging his Senate allies to prepare for battle and ensure federal appeals court Judge Neil Gorsuch is confirmed. The president urging Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell today to prevent Democrats from filibustering his pick by invoking the nuclear option if necessary.

TRUMP: If we end up with that gridlock, I would say, if you can, Mitch, go nuclear, because that would be an absolute shame if a man of this quality was caught up in the web. So, I would say it's up to Mitch, but I would say go for it.

MURRAY: Trump administration officials are looking to rebound from the tumultuous implementation of their travel ban. And after a chaotic start to Trump's presidency, now they're aiming for a more disciplined approach.

When it comes to the president's Supreme Court pick, the White House is trying to ensure a smooth process with the help of its conservative allies. TRUMP: I really think he's a very dignified man. I would like to see

him go through a dignified process. I think he deserves that and hopefully it will go quickly.

MURRAY: Trump met with a group supporting his Supreme Court pick at the White House today and the administration is working in tandem with Republican leadership in the Senate, the National Republican Senatorial Committee, the Republican National Committee, and other outside groups to put pressure on Democrats and avoid a filibuster.

SEN. CHUCK SCHUMER (D-NY), MINORITY LEADER: We Democrats will insist on a rigorous, but fair process.

MURRAY: Senate Democrats appear divided on how hard to fight the Gorsuch nomination, and some red state liberals like West Virginia's Joe Manchin already appear inclined to play nice.

SEN. JOE MANCHIN (D), WEST VIRGINIA: I'm anxious to sit down with the new nominee to find out more about him.


MURRAY: But despite almost half a day of establishing relative normalcy in the White House, the president couldn't set aside his ongoing grievances, Trump marking the first day of African-American History Month with a so-called listening session with supporters.

TRUMP: We honor the tremendous history of the African-Americans throughout our country.

MURRAY: And complaints about the media.

TRUMP: And turned out that that was fake news.


TRUMP: Fake news.


MURRAY: Speaking with someone who is working on the Gorsuch confirmation process earlier today, they did point to this glimmer of hope, the fact that Democrats do not appear to be on a united front about whether or not to filibuster.

They are working behind the scenes to ensure that some of these Democrats in red states and certainly Democrats that are up for reelection in 2018 are hearing an awful lot from their constituents on this matter, Jake.

TAPPER: Interesting. Sara Murray, thank you so much.

Joining me now for more on the upcoming Senate battle over President Trump's Supreme Court pick, we have with us Nebraska Republican Senator Ben Sasse. He's member of the Judiciary Committee.

Senator Sasse, it's been a long time. Thanks so much for joining me.

SEN. BEN SASSE (R), NEBRASKA: Thanks for the invite. Good to be here.

TAPPER: So, Senator, you have been a critic of President Trump, but you are applauding his pick of Judge Gorsuch.

SASSE: This is a great day for America. I do applaud the president on this selection, and frankly every American should be applauding Judge Gorsuch. This isn't about where you are on the political spectrum. This is about the fact that the guy knows what a judge's job is. Everybody should applaud this.

TAPPER: And it looks as though, I have to say, that the rollout of Gorsuch has been well coordinated with Congress, with agencies, with advocacy groups. It's almost like exactly the opposite of what we saw with that ban that was -- the executive order from Friday when it came to banning immigration.

SASSE: Well, the White House did a great job. President Trump and his team did a nice job of reaching out to a number of us, taking seriously the constitutional requirement that we have to provide advice and consent on the lifetime appointments to the Article 3 branch, and obviously last night's event was well done.

The president had a number of us over there. But what was the center of the night frankly was Judge Gorsuch. If you think about the kinds of things that he said, he said when I advise law students, if you want to be a judge some day, when you go home at night after a day on the bench, you take off your black robe, if you love every outcome that you got to rule on that day, you're probably a bad judge because it isn't your job to get to specific outcomes.

It's to defend the law and uphold the Constitution and fight for the individual rights of Americans against overreach. It is an impressive guy and he knows what a judge's job is.

TAPPER: And speaking of fighting, there is probably going to be a fight over Judge Gorsuch in the Senate. You said that Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer would probably tell people that Gorsuch -- quote -- "kicks puppies and heckles piano recitals."

Last night, I hosted a town hole with Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. I want to play for you what the Democratic response actually was in real time. She focused on decisions that Judge Gorsuch having to do with regulating corporations. Take a listen.


REP. NANCY PELOSI (D-CA), HOUSE MINORITY LEADER: If you breathe air, drink water, eat food, take medicine, or in any other way interact with the courts, this is a very bad decision, well outside the mainstream of American legal thought, not committed to Supreme Court precedents.

(END VIDEO CLIP) TAPPER: How do you respond to that, Senator?

SASSE: Well, honestly, this is the first time I have heard it, but I have read that Leader Pelosi had made comments like that. Honestly, I thought it was from the Onion the first time somebody told me about it.

And I think she literally said that if you breathe air or drink water, you should regard this guy as a threat. I mean, it's laughable. I have been reading the guy's opinions over the course of the last three weeks. I don't think you can discern what his policy preferences are on anything.

He's the kind of person that the founders envisioned on the Supreme Court because he knows what a judge's job is. I went over to the Supreme Court last night because I was coming back from the White House and I heard a protest over there. And I decided to go out and see what the protesters were screaming about, and it turns out they had all these fill in the blank signs.

It said, oppose in pre-printed text, and then there was a big white line that you could fill in the name and they had sharpies and they were going to protest whoever the guy was. And it turned out Leader Pelosi was apparently leading those protests.

TAPPER: President Trump says Republicans should use the nuclear option if they need to, changing the Senate rules so the Democrats can't filibuster if they decide to get Gorsuch confirmed. Do you agree?

SASSE: Honestly, I think it's bizarre that we're even having a conversation about people preemptively filibustering a guy when they hadn't yet looked at any of his opinions.

I reject the premise. I think this is the kind of person we should use as an occasion to teach our kids civics. Our founders envisioned a world where we distinguish between legislative, executive and judicial functions and our kids should know that not everything is about politics.

There aren't Republican and Democratic seats at the court. And frankly all their robes are black. They're not blue or red for partisan policy preferences. This is the kind of guy every American ought to celebrate and I urge my Democratic colleagues to go read his opinions. He's an impressive guy.


TAPPER: A lot of Democrats would say that the words that you use to describe Judge Gorsuch, not just you, that some Democrats do as well, he's very highly regarded and respected, that it's the same words that were used to describe Merrick Garland, who was President Obama's nominee, who never got a hearing and never got a vote.

Can you understand why Democrats are still so angry about that decision by Republicans in the Senate to not even give Judge Garland an opportunity for a hearing?

SASSE: You know, I'm new around here. I think I'm only one of five people in the Senate who has never been a politician.

But sometimes when you're around here, it feels like people are always nurturing a grievance from centuries ago or millennia ago. It's like Middle Eastern politics about there will always be blood forever more.

We can have an infinite theoretical debate about the Schumer and the Biden rule and the first term rule and the lame duck last year of a second term presidential rule. Here is what's actually on the table now.

We have a vacancy on the Supreme Court and the guy that the president nominated is the kind of person that should be on the court because he knows his job is to be a judge, not to be a super legislator. If you want to be a super legislator, don't seek a lifetime appointment. Run for office so the American people can hire or fire you.

Judge Gorsuch is the kind of guy that should be confirmed and I predict will be confirmed.

TAPPER: Pride of Nebraska, Senator Ben Sasse, thanks for joining us. We always appreciate it.

SASSE: Thanks for the time.

TAPPER: A break in the wall. Two Republican senators say they will vote no on President Trump's pick for education secretary, Betsy DeVos. What might that mean for her confirmation chances? That story next.


[16:15:34] JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome back to THE LEAD.

Continuing with our politics lead -- today, late this afternoon, the U.S. Senate confirmed former ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson to be the nation's next secretary of state. Democratic Senators Joe Manchin, Heidi Heitkamp, Mark Warner, along with independent Angus King voted in favor, along with all of the Republicans in the Senate. That brings the total number of confirmed cabinet and cabinet level positions in the Trump administration to six. That is half as many as President Obama had at this time in 2009.

CNN's Phil Mattingly is following all the chaos on Capitol Hill.

Phil, Democrats are doing whatever they can it seems to stall a few targeted members of President Trump's cabinet team.

PHIL MATTINGLY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, that's exactly right, Jake. Whether it's personal problems with specific nominees or just broader frustration about the direction the Trump Team has headed over the course of the last 10 or 11 days, they're trying to pull out all the stops and that's been problematic in the U.S. Senate.


SEN. ORRIN HATCH (R), UTAH: They ought to be embarrassed. It's the most pathetic treatment I've seen in my 40 years in the United States Senate.

MATTINGLY (voice-over): On Capitol Hill, dissent into confirmation chaos, the first cracks in the Republican wall. Two GOP senators throwing a scare into Trump officials over the nomination of Betsy DeVos for education secretary, both opposing the pick.

SEN. SUSAN COLLINS (R), MAINE: I simply cannot support her confirmation.

MATTINGLY: All Senate Republicans urging changing committee rules to move forward to other crucial Trump cabinet nominees.

HATCH: I intend to get the committee back to where it once was.

MATTINGLY: Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price and Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, circumventing a two-day boycott by Democrats frustrated by what they allege were flat-out lies from the nominees.

SEN. RON WYDEN (D), OREGON: They met as a rump committee, in violation of Democratic principles in order to advance the interests of two ethically flawed nominees. I think that's very troubling.

MATTINGLY: Meanwhile just two floors above in the same building, a second group of Democrats launching a second boycott.

SEN. CORY BOOKER (D), NEW JERSEY: I cannot participate in any way possible.

MATTINGLY: This time to slow EPA nominee Scott Pruitt.

The moves underscoring the sharply negative turn, Democrats standing firm in recent days, the scope of the power Republicans now hold.

(on camera): What are the ramifications in this chamber, in this body if that anger sustains?

SEN. TED CRUZ (R), TEXAS: Well, we have got to deliver on our promises. The most consistent message that I'm conveying to President Trump, to the new administration and to leaders in both Houses of Congress is this election was a mandate for change. And now, we've got to deliver.

MATTINGLY: But you need Democrats presumably on some issues --

CRUZ: Well, listen, I hope Democrats are willing to work together. But we've actually got a lot of tools that enable a majority to act even if the Democrats continue in extreme obstruction.

MATTINGLY (voice-over): Democrats unable to block GOP nominees and increasingly frustrated by the administration striking back with every procedural lever they can pull. And when those run out, lambasts the nominees on their way to approval. SEN. AL FRANKEN (D), MINNESOTA: For this committee to advance this

nomination, it is important that we know whether Senator Sessions is able or willing to separate fact from fiction. And speak truth to power. I am not confident that he is, and I will be voting against him and I want to thank the chairman for his indulgence.

MATTINGLY: Senate Republicans on a party line vote advancing the nomination of Jeff Sessions for attorney general, and the full Senate confirming President Trump's top diplomat, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, underscoring a harsh truth for Democrats -- Republicans stay together, every single cabinet nominee will be confirmed.

(on camera): What do you think this means for the Senate going forward?

SEN. CHUCK GRASSLEY (R), IOWA: It just takes more time, and have to put more hours, but we're going to get the job done.


MATTINGLY: And, Jake, the big question right now on Capitol Hill is, is Betsy DeVos' confirmation in danger? Two Republicans deciding to oppose her nomination. I'm told according to officials familiar with this nomination -- no, it is not endangered, but it is going to be as close as it can possibly get. Jeff Sessions, the attorney general nominee, will be voting in favor. That makes it a 50/50 tie. That means they're going to have to call in Mike Pence, the vice-president for out of the pen, the bull pen, if you will, to break that tie confirming Betsy DeVos probably as soon as later this week, Jake.

[16:20:10] TAPPER: That's a close narrow vote.

Phil Mattingly on Capitol Hill -- Phil, thanks.

Be sure to tune in to CNN next Tuesday night. CNN chief political correspondent Dana Bash and I will moderate a town hall debate with Senators Bernie Sanders and Ted Cruz on the future of Obamacare and health care in America. It all starts Tuesday, February 7th at 9:00 p.m. Eastern, and, of course, that is only on CNN.

Right now, President Trump is making an unannounced visit to Dover Air Force Base to honor the Navy SEAL who lost his life in that raid in Yemen over the weekend. This, as we learn new information about that Special Ops raid. More on that story when we come back.


[16:25:10] TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD.

We're back with the national lead now and a special honor for the first service member killed under orders from the new administration. After leaving the White House about an hour ago, President Trump is now in Dover, Delaware. That's where the remains of fallen Navy SEAL Chief Petty Officer William "Ryan" Owens have just returned to the United States after that deadly raid led by American forces.

Let's bring in CNN senior White House correspondent, Jim Acosta.

And, Jim, this is the first of its kind for President Trump, and it's a very solemn ceremony for him and for everyone attending this dignified transfer.

JIM ACOSTA, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Jake. And the White House kept this under wraps, kept it quiet throughout the day today. There was some confusion as to why the president was leaving the White House for this unannounced trip, but we're told from a source that the family of Chief Petty Officer William "Ryan" Owens had requested that this be kept private.

You could see those pictures right now, President Trump and his daughter Ivanka leaving the South Lawn of the White House boarding Marine One to head up to Dover Air Force Base for the dignified transfer of remains. As you said, Jake, this is the very first time the president has been up to Dover for such an occasion.

And what we heard during the press briefing today is that President Trump made a phone call to the widow of Owens and expressed his condolences obviously, but she mentioned during that phone call, Jake, that this life that her husband led meant very much to him. And that message was communicated, that he had this life of service to his country because that's exactly what he wanted to do and that's how he should be remembered -- Jake.

TAPPER: Jim Acosta at the White House -- thank you.

We're also learning new information about how that U.S. raid in Yemen went down aside from the death of Chief Petty Officer William "Ryan" Owens. Today, Yemeni officials also said seven women and six children were among those killed in the raid.

We also learned today that Pentagon planning for the mission, including minor details, down to the illumination from the moon, those were carefully crafted during the previous administration.


TAPPER (voice-over): The new commander-in-chief made his first phone call to a grieving family on Tuesday. The family of Chief Petty Officer William "Ryan" Owens who was killed in Yemen during a weekend raid targeting al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

SEAN SPICER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: He went back, deployed 12 times, because he loved this country and he believed in the mission. And knowing that we killed an estimated 14 AQAP members and that we gathered an unbelievable amount of intelligence that will prevent the potential deaths or attacks on American soil is something that I think most service members understand that that's why they joined the service.

TAPPER: White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer appeared to clarify a White House statement on the raid issued Sunday. That Sunday statement said, "In a successful raid against al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula headquarters, brave U.S. forces were instrumental in killing an estimated 14 AQAP members and capturing important intelligence."

Today, Spicer sought to qualify the definition of successful.

SPICER: It's hard to ever say something was successful when you lose a life. You never want to call something a success 100 percent when someone's hurt or killed.

TAPPER: It was the first covert operation that we know of under President Trump. CNN has learned planning for the operation began months ago during the Obama administration, but for operational reasons, including the schedule of moonless nights needed to obscure the approaching missions, they could not be done before Obama left office.

According to a U.S. official, President Trump approved the order fairly quickly.

MAJ. GEN. JAMES "SPIDER" MARKS (RET.), CNN MILITAR ANALYST: In order for an operation like this to be planned as thoroughly as you need to plan it, you often create a cell of contrarians who are poking holes in every one of your steps along the way.

TAPPER: But the team ran into trouble almost immediately, with drones overhead the whole time, Navy SEALs working together with UAE special ops, approached the site, but the special ops team was spotted and a fire fight ensued. The terrorists, which included female fighters to cover in the nearby building, an airstrike was called in against the building. Yemeni officials say 13 civilians were killed in the raid, including 8-year-old Nora al-Awlaki. Her father was Anwar al-Awlaki, the notorious U.S.-born cleric who directed attacks against the U.S. and was killed in a U.S. drone strike in 2011.

Three U.S. service members were wounded and Navy SEAL Owens was killed. Ospreys were launched from the USS Makin to retrieve the wounded. One of the Osprey made a hard landing due to technical problems. The aircraft was deliberately destroyed by the U.S.


TAPPER: So, what is next in the fight against al-Qaeda, ISIS and other terrorist groups? We will ask the deputy assistant to the president, next.