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Labor Secretary Nominee in Danger?; Out Like Flynn?; Did Trump Break National Security Protocol? Interview with Congressman Peter King of New York; Conway: Flynn has 'Full Confidence of the President". Aired 4-4:30p ET

Aired February 13, 2017 - 16:00   ET



JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: Nothing like a North Korean missile launch to save you from dinner party small talk.

THE LEAD starts right now.

Out like Flynn? The president's national security adviser increasingly under pressure after he may have conveyed to Russia that Obama sanctions could possibly be lifted by President Trump and misled everyone from voters to the vice president about it.

The situation dining room? President Trump facing a major test on the global stage as North Korea fires a missile, the commander in chief setting aside his wedge salad to handle the crises out in the open at a Mar-a-Lago restaurant with dozens of diners within earshot. Was classified information discussed?

Plus, 200,000 Americans told to get out. The tallest dam in the country in grave danger, full to the brim, holding back a wall of water. Are the waters finally receding today?

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

The Dow right now closing at a record high. Lots to cover today.

First, we will begin with the politics lead as we head into week four of the Trump administration. The last man in the ear of the commander in chief in a crisis situation may now himself be facing a crisis, one of his own making.

The national security adviser, the retired three-star General Michael Flynn, has been described by various government officials as having discussed with the Russian ambassador back in December then President Obama's sanctions against Russia, suggesting even, officials say, that those sanctions would be revisited under President Trump.

Now not only did Flynn originally claim he did not do this; he apparently even misrepresented the matter to the vice president of the United States.

CNN White House correspondent Sara Murray joins me right now.

And, Sara, General Flynn, as it turns out, is not the only top White House official under some pressure.

SARA MURRAY, CNN NATIONAL POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: That's absolutely right. There are questions about a number of officials in the White House, but I think the heat is really on General Flynn today.

He was an early and ardent supporter of President Donald Trump throughout his campaign. Now the question is whether his job may be in jeopardy.


MURRAY (voice-over): In a White House where staff turmoil is becoming the norm, today it's Michael Flynn's turn in the hot seat. Unease is spreading among Trump allies and White House aides over whether President Trump's national security adviser misled administration officials, including the vice president, when he insisted he didn't discuss sanctions with the Russian ambassador.

GOV. CHRIS CHRISTIE (R), NEW JERSEY: I think now he's saying that he doesn't remember whether he did or not. So, that's a conversation he is going to need to have with the president and the vice president to clear that up.

MURRAY: A U.S. official tells CNN that Flynn did discuss sanctions with the Russian ambassador before Trump assumed office. That contradicts past statements from White House officials, and now Flynn is unable to discuss that he discussed those sanctions. Flynn endeared himself to Trump with his staunch support on the campaign trail.

MICHAEL FLYNN, NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER: You know what the people want? The people want change.

MURRAY: But a source says the president privately expressed frustration with Flynn over the weekend. Flynn isn't the only aide catching flak. On Sunday, one of Trump's friends, the CEO of Newsmax, told CNN that Chief of Staff Reince Priebus isn't up to the job.

CHRISTOPHER RUDDY, CEO, NEWSMAX: I think there's a lot of weakness coming out of chief of staff. I think Reince Priebus, good guy, well- intentioned, but he clearly doesn't know how the federal agencies work.

MURRAY: Now Ruddy is watering down his critique, saying the president doesn't necessarily share his concern.

RUDDY: I'm not speaking for him. I'm speaking for Chris Ruddy, as I always have and will continue to do so.

MURRAY: Meanwhile, multiple sources close to Trump insist Priebus' job is secure.

One person the president is clearly pleased with, his top policy adviser, Stephen Miller. Trump heaped praise on him Sunday, tweeting: "Congratulations, Stephen Miller on representing me this morning on the various Sunday morning shows. Great job." With Trump's travel ban blocked by the courts, Miller took aim at the judicial system and touted the powers of the presidency, seeming to question the constitutional system of checks and balances.

STEPHEN MILLER, SENIOR TRUMP POLICY ADVISER: Our opponents, the media and the whole world will soon see, as we begin to take further actions, that the powers of the president to protect our country are very substantial and will not be questioned.

MURRAY: But he also served up some glaring falsehoods, insisting the only reason Trump lost New Hampshire was because people were bussed in to vote illegally.

MILLER: I can tell you that this issue of bussing voters into New Hampshire is widely known by anyone's who's worked in New Hampshire politics. It's very real. It's very serious.

MURRAY: There's no evidence of widespread voter fraud in New Hampshire, and Miller didn't provide any to support his claim.


MURRAY: Now, this is the day when the White House had hoped to be focused on diplomacy. President Trump welcomed his third world leader here, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. But instead, the questions are still swirling about what is going to happen to Trump's top national security adviser, General Flynn.


He did not address that in a press conference today with Trudeau -- Jake.

TAPPER: Sara Murray, thank you so much.

President Trump is also facing criticism on how he handled the serious international test while he was enjoying dinner with Japan's prime minister. That's where he learned that North Korea had launched its first ballistic missile of the Trump presidency, turning his dinner table at Mar-a-Lago into something of a makeshift Situation Room, where he discussed highly sensitive national security issues in this crowded dining room.

Let's bring in CNN senior diplomatic correspondent Michelle Kosinski.

Michelle, is there anybody at the White House or the State Department acknowledging that in retrospect they should have stood up and gone to a private room to discuss this?

MICHELLE KOSINSKI, CNN SENIOR DIPLOMATIC CORRESPONDENT: No. In fact, they're not responding at all to how this was handled or the criticism that has followed.

We haven't heard back from the Japanese government either, because they were doing the same thing. Granted, we don't know how sensitive the information was on those documents or what exactly they were saying there out in the open, but the unique weirdness of the situation was definitely not lost on the people who were watching it unfold, especially that officials were pointing cell phones, which are hackable, at the documents in an attempt to see them better.


KOSINSKI (voice-over): Tonight, Pentagon officials tell CNN North Korea's latest launch shows Kim Jong-un's missile program is moving forward.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: North Korea is a big, big problem, and we will deal with that very strongly.

KOSINSKI: As the president considers how to respond, questions about how the White House handled the chaotic hours after North Korea's leader celebrated test-launching a ballistic missile 300 miles off the Korean coast towards Japan.

It happened Saturday night just as President Trump, the Japanese prime minister, their wives and aides were settling into an opulent dinner at Trump's Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida, in full view of members and guests of the swanky club, a flurry of activity at Trump's dinner table. One posting it to Facebook: "Holy moly, fascinating."

Guests at the dinner describing to CNN the president making phone calls, talking with aides, reading documents in front with Prime Minister Abe, aides using cell phones to help them see in the candlelight, a potential security issue.

JAMES WOOLSEY, FORMER CIA DIRECTOR: That shouldn't happen in an uncleared facility. The basic problem here though is what do we do with crazy North Korea?

KOSINSKI: Eventually, the two leaders left the table and held an impromptu press conference.

SHINZO ABE, JAPANESE PRIME MINISTER (through translator): North Korea's most recent missile launch is absolutely intolerable.

KOSINSKI: President Trump's reaction? He cast aside prepared remarks seen on the podium, a joint statement with Japan. Instead, one sentence, 24 words.

TRUMP: I just want everybody to understand and fully know that the United States of America stands behind Japan, its great ally, 100 percent.

KOSINSKI: Not quite the same tone as when he tweeted a stern warning in January. "North Korea just stated that it is in the final stages of developing a nuclear weapon capable of reaching parts of the U.S. It won't happen."


KOSINSKI: So now comes the task of figuring out how to respond strongly as President Trump said he wanted to today. Keep in mind, last year, there were 24 such ballistic missile launch tests by North Korea, and finally the U.S. with the U.N. imposed unprecedented sanctions on North Korea.

Of course, that hasn't changed the country's behavior at all. So, today, in fact, there's a special session of the U.N. Security Council to get to work trying to figure out what is the next step here, Jake.

TAPPER: All right, Michelle Kosinski at the State Department for us, thank you so much.

We have some breaking news in our politics lead.

President Trump has had seven Cabinet positions filled so far, confirmed by the Senate. But now the president's pick for labor secretary may be in trouble, as four Republican senators may vote against Andrew Puzder.

Let's bring in CNN senior congressional reporter Manu Raju.

Manu, who are these four Republican senators and are they opposed or just wavering?


They're not saying they're opposed yet, because they're waiting for that all-important Thursday confirmation hearing. Those are four committee members, Republican Susan Collins of Maine, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Tim Scott of South Carolina, Johnny Isakson of Georgia.

I have spoken to all four of these senators in the last several days. And I can tell you, all of them are saying they want to hear more at this confirmation hearing before they decide what to do with their vote.

Importantly, one reason why is now this revelation that Mr. Puzder hired an undocumented immigrant as a housekeeper and then -- and failed to pay taxes, only later acknowledging that he did hire this housekeeper and did pay back taxes.

Even one committee member who a lot of Republicans think will be supportive, Richard Burr of North Carolina, had concerns with what happened with Mr. Puzder's hiring of this undocumented immigrant. Here's what he had to say.



SEN. RICHARD BURR (R), NORTH CAROLINA: He has gone back and tried to make it right with late payments and payments for taxes. It would have been preferable had he done that when he recognized it, but it didn't happen.

I would like to get through the hearing and see if there's anything else. This is not a disqualifier on its face, but if anything else matches with it, then it's something the administration might need to think about.


RAJU: Now, there are other controversies from his past, Mr. Puzder's past that have come up, Jake, including a messy divorce that he went through three decades ago and allegations of domestic abuse.

Now, his ex-wife has withdrawn those allegations and apologized for them, but she has appeared in the late '80s on "The Oprah Winfrey Show" in disguise to talk about this incident.

And I am told that senators on the committee are reviewing the tape of that "Oprah Winfrey Show," even Susan Collins herself telling our colleague Ted Barrett earlier today that she is still reviewing that tape of "The Oprah Winfrey Show" and determining whether or not that was a line of questioning she wanted to ask Mr. Puzder at his confirmation hearing.

A lot of these liabilities from the past expected to come up at that Thursday hearing, in addition to his own ideological views, which have prompted a lot of concerns from the left and from labor groups. But business groups, Jake, coming out very hard, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, very supportive, Jake.

TAPPER: All right, Manu Raju, thank you so much.

President Trump was at dinner in public when he learned North Korea had fired a ballistic missile, so that's where he and his team planned their response, we are told. We will talk to a key member of the House Intelligence Committee coming up next.


[16:15:35] JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome back to THE LEAD.

Sticking with politics now: President Trump is facing a serious test as commander-in-chief with North Korea launching a new missile. This comes, of course, as his national security adviser, General Michael Flynn, is facing some pressure over his relationship in communications with Russia.

Joining me now is Congressman Peter King of New York. He's a member of the Homeland Security and Intelligence Committees.

Congressman King, as always, nice to have you here. Thanks for joining us.

REP. PETER KING (R), NEW YORK: Thank you, Jake.

TAPPER: So, is there some new way of responding to this North Korean crisis, whether at the U.N. Security Council, or working with our allies, that we have not seen from previous presidents beyond military action that you think might work?

KING: I don't know if there's anything dramatic. I think there should be more action with the allies. I think the president may consider increasing military exercises in that region, may again hold high level talks with countries like Japan, sending signals also to China, raising the issue with the U.N., even though I don't hold too much promise for what would happen with the U.N.

I don't think there's an overnight answer. I think there has to be steady involvement, steady and consistent. Also, again, if more sanctions can be imposed, that could help. Again, perhaps military exercises in that region would send a signal. But again, it's not something that can be done overnight. This has to be a long, sustained effort.

TAPPER: The photos that have surfaced of President Trump handling one of his first international crises out in the open over dinner at his Mar-a-Lago resort -- obviously we don't know the degree to which he discussed sensitive or classified information or looked at sensitive or classified documents, but does that concern you at all what we've seen?

KING: No. Again, it would depend on what was said. If there's nothing sensitive or classified that was discussed, I don't think it's particularly inappropriate. Obviously, Abe didn't seem upset by it. He's a major ally.

Again, unless there was something really sensitive or classified, to me, it was not inappropriate.

TAPPER: Kellyanne Conway just said that, quote, "General Flynn does enjoy the full confidence of the president." CNN's Jim Acosta also reports that General Flynn and Vice President Pence who he apparently misled have smoothed things over. But beyond how President Trump and Vice President Pence feel about what General Flynn did, there are obviously important questions here about what he discussed with the Russian ambassador during the Obama presidency about potentially lifting those sanctions.

As a member of the intelligence committee, do you want to see the transcript of that phone call?

KING: I think we should. First of all, I do support the sanctions. I also have had a very good relationship with General Flynn. I first met him when he was head of the DIA, the Defense Intelligence Agency, and he testified before the Intelligence Committee. He was one of the first people who was really onto ISIS and I thought he was extremely, almost prophetic in that.

As to what he, again, discussed with Vice President Pence, that to me obviously does raise an issue.

As far as dealing with the Russians, to me, there is a fine line. I'm well aware of the Logan Act and I know the civilians can't be negotiating with foreign governments. On the other hand, if you're coming into office on January 20th, there should be some prior discussion. Now, again, you shouldn't be undermining the current administration at the time, the Obama administration, as I said, I support the sanctions. So, a lot would depend upon what the content of their conversation

was. If it was a general conversation saying, you know, wait until we're in, we'll discuss it more then or something along those lines, that may have been appropriate. But again, I know what the Logan Act says and I don't think any government official should be undermining a current administration. On the other hand, you do want to send some signal to foe -- friends and adversaries as the general position the administration is going to be taking. So, again, there's a fine line there and I would like to see the transcripts.

TAPPER: So, you would like to see the transcripts. And as a member of the Intelligence Committee, I have to ask you, are you concerned at all that these actions by General Flynn might affect the way that the intelligence community shares information with the executive branch?

KING: Again, we'll have to see the full story. Obviously, there's a lot of palace intrigue going on here between members of the Intelligence Committee, the administration and people within the administration itself. So, I hope that can get sorted out and we can start dealing in a very adult and mature way. The issues here are too serious for this type of sniping to be going.

But, again, a lot depends on what's in that transcript.

[16:20:03] TAPPER: I want to turn to the president's travel ban. Take a listen to what White House policy director, Stephen Miller, had to say about the battle between White House powers and others. Take a listen.


STEPHEN MILLER, WHITE HOUSE POLICY DIRECTOR: Our opponents, the media and the whole world will soon see, as we begin to take further actions that the powers of the president to protect our country are very substantial and will not be questioned.


TAPPER: Will not be questioned. Not by the legislative branch perhaps, not by the judicial branch, certainly not by the media.

Does that kind of language bother you at all, sir?

KING: Yes, I fully support the entire intent of the executive order. I thought the court decision was wrong. Having said that, going back to Marbury versus Madison, the courts do have the final stay and I accept that. We have to find a way to work through that, work with it. They have to change the executive order to get court approval. That's fine.

But I don't think we should be questioning the supremacy of the courts in these areas.

TAPPER: It's actually called the Supreme Court ultimately, is it not?

Congressman Peter King, thank you so much. Appreciate it. KING: Thank you.

TAPPER: President Trump's friend says White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus is in over his head. Is the president already considering a staff shakeup?

And sad to say, the name Sandusky is back in the headlines. Only this time, it's Jerry Sandusky's son and, yes, he is being charged with horrific crimes involving children.

Stay with us.


[16:25:48] TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

Stick with politics now. We have lots to discuss with my panel. So, let's dive right in.

Bill, obviously many reports of frustration and division inside the Trump White House. Although we just had a message a few minutes ago from Kellyanne Conway saying General Flynn does enjoy the full confidence of President Trump. Is that real or is that the statement you hear right before you get fired?

BILL KRISTOL, EDITOR, THE WEEKLY STANDARD: It could be either. It could be either.

I was struck by the Chris Ruddy statement you played earlier, the guy who runs Newsmax. He's known President Trump pretty well for 10 years. He's a member of Mar-a-Lago.

The one time I was at Mar-a-Lago, he sort of snuck me in there about six, seven months ago. He didn't tell Donald Trump. I got to look around. Nice place, I guess.

Anyway, when he saw, I think it's being reported, he saw President Trump Friday, late Friday afternoon in Florida --

TAPPER: Let's play the clip. I want to play this clip. Here's Newsmax's CEO Christopher Ruddy talking to Brian Stelter over the weekend.


CHRISTOPHER RUDDY, CEO, NEWSMAX MEDIA INC.: I think there is a lot of weakness coming out of the chief of staff. I think Reince Priebus, good guy, well-intentioned, but he clearly doesn't know how the federal agencies work. I do think the president is not getting the backup he needs in the operation of the White House and sometimes the pushback that he needs, which you would have with a stronger White House counsel, a White House chief of staff.


TAPPER: Bill, go ahead. KRISTOL: Chris lives in Florida. He is not here in D.C. obsessed

with the inner tick-tock of things. How would he know that about Reince Priebus. Who was the last person he talked to familiar with the workings with the White House? A man named Donald Trump.


TAPPER: I think he had a half hour drinks or something with Donald Trump late Friday.

KRISTOL: And then he's on TV Sunday morning saying that. So, if I were Reince Priebus, I'd be a little nervous.

TAPPER: More so that Mike Flynn. What about -- what do you think?

RON BROWNSTEIN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, no, I think there are mixed impulses on the part of Donald Trump. Clearly, he likes chaos. I mean, he thinks it benefits him both in terms of his allies and his adversaries.

So, I think he enjoys a situation in which nobody totally feels, you know, the ground secure under them. And he has also shown himself very willing to shake up his staff. He did it repeatedly in the campaign.

On the other hand, when you are three weeks into your presidency and you're looking at a 55 percent disapproval rating by far the highest ever for a president this new. Any kind of change looks like retreat, like you're conceding to the opponent. So, I am guessing his natural instinct to think that things aren't working exactly right is being offset somewhat by his reluctance to seem to give credence to the argument of his critics.

TAPPER: Amy, what do you think? Do you think President Trump is delivering a message through his friend Christopher Ruddy?

AMY DAVIDSON, STAFF WRITER, THE NEW YORKER: Well, you have to remember what Reince Priebus was supposed to do for the Trump White House. He was supposed to be the more professional, more experienced politician. So it's -- when Ruddy says that, you sort of wonder, Priebus compared to whom? It's almost like Trump is saying, I tried the more standard person who they told me I needed. Maybe I should just go with my instincts, with my own people.

And that's the concern, not that Priebus is -- that Trump wants to really replace him with somebody more professional. He was supposed to be that professional.

BROWNSTEIN: You know, the individual comparisons are not precise but there is a certain similarity to what we saw under Ronald Reagan where you had Jim Baker, who was the professional, as Amy said, kind of the liaison to the professional traditional party. You had Ed Meese, who was the true believer, sort of in the Steve Bannon role. And then you had Michael Deaver, who like Jared Kushner today, basically had no ideological dog in the fight and had a constituency of one, he was there for the president. I think the difference is that Jim Baker was such an unparalleled

political operator who was able to kind of pull this all together and point it in one direction. That was the first White House I covered. You worked in that administration. I think today, we don't have that. I mean, there aren't many Jim Bakers. You have the sense that all the planets are kind of spinning into space without a sun to hold them into gravitational orbit.

KRISTOL: But who is the most Jim Baker-like figure in the senior level of the White House? Gary Cohn, I would say. No government experience. His title was CEO at Goldman Sachs. Well respected on Wall Street, but also thought to be a very tough guy, tough manager on Wall Street. Apparently impressed Trump very much with the kind of business-like, get to the bottom line type attitude. Not ideological.

I think Gary and there are a couple of nice pieces I notice by accidents in the newspaper this weekend about, hey, Gary Cohn is really the adult in the White House. So, I wouldn't bet against him being chief of staff --

TAPPER: Amy, let me ask you -- White House policy adviser Stephen Miller repeated President Trump's evidence-free claims of voter fraud in New Hampshire, saying that people from Massachusetts were bused in by the thousands.