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THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER

Police: Suspects Swabbed Victim's Face With Nerve Agent; Five Top Russian Diplomats Have Died Since December; Tips Pour In As Police, FBI Hunt For Killer; NASA Weighs Risks Of Crew On Orion's First Flight; CNN & Others Blocked from White House Media Briefing; Police: VX Nerve Agent Used to Kill Kim Jong Nam. Aired 4:30-5 p.m. ET

Aired February 24, 2017 - 16:30   ET

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


(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEAN SPICER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: We have a respect for the press when it comes to the government, that that is something that you can't ban an entity from.

[16:30:09] Conservative, liberal or otherwise, I think that's what makes a democracy a democracy versus a dictatorship.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: So, that was then, this is now. Today, they are banning CNN, "New York Times", "L.A. Times", "Politico" from this White House briefing.

You're a communications director. You have had anger towards various media organizations. Have you ever felt tempted to ban an organization the way that Spicer and Co. did today?

JEN PSAKI, FORMER OBAMA WHITE HOUSE COMMUNICATIONS DIRECTOR: No, and I will say and as you already said earlier in the show, we had our rows with FOX News, I have rows with FOX News at times. The president ultimately did an interview with Chris Wallace in his last year in office.

But the reality is banning is a slippery slope to what you see in a lot of countries where freedom of the press is restricted, and that's a troubling trend from this administration.

TAPPER: A.B.?

A.B. STODDARD, ASSOCIATE EDITOR & COLUMNIST, REALCLEARPOLITICS: You know, what's interesting is, if you combine what the president said today at CPAC with this thing they did this afternoon which I think was actually designed to distract away from the story about Chief of Staff Reince Priebus talking to an FBI deputy director about news stories --

TAPPER: A story CNN broke.

STODDARD: Right, your exclusive reporting, right. TAPPER: Maybe part of the reason.

STODDARD: Maybe part of the reason, but what it says when you listen to what President Trump said today and then you think about the conservative organizations that were -- that are being favored in terms of who gets into the gaggle and who is getting kicked out, it's really an intent to speak only to a small portion, under 40 percent of the country.

I mean, it is really a statement about a lack of interest on the part of the White House in talking to the other side, the people they haven't won over. Is there anyone left that's persuadable that either voted for Hillary or voted for someone else or stayed home and didn't vote? There just doesn't seem to be an effort underway to talk to those people and when you do something like this, when you -- when you're inviting these organizations in that few Americans have ever heard from, you're thinning your coverage, you're speaking to a smaller universe of people, people who only agree with you and you're not reaching out to the middle.

PSAKI: That maybe their goal.

TAPPER: Yes. Well, except -- Salena, you're kind of like an expert on the opposite of this which is Democrats not speaking to certain groups or media organizations not trying to appeal to certain groups.

SALENA ZITO, REPORTER, THE WASHINGTON EXAMINER: Right.

TAPPER: What's your take on this?

ZITO: I don't think it's a good idea. I don't think it's ever a good idea to pigeon hole and place -- and separate media organizations.

We're all there to do a single job. Some of organizations have a bent more one way or the other, but the most important job for the White House is to get their story out, to get their information out. And, you know, and some times it's really different filters.

But, you know, banning the press, it becomes -- this is one time. If it becomes a pattern of behavior, then it's something we should really be concerned about.

TAPPER: Let's move on to other news because I want to talk about CPAC. You were there today and there seemed to be a lot of red meat that the president offered for his audience.

STODDARD: No vegetables.

TAPPER: Still talking about -- he doesn't seem to be a veggie guy in general -- still talking about Hillary Clinton, talking about the media.

Conservative journalist Charles Cooke tweeted, "There is nothing in the speech, it's pure outsider anger, but Trump is the president and the GOP controls almost everything. Bizarre."

Do you think Charles Cooke has a point? He's a conservative writer for "The National Review".

ZITO: You know, Trump's speech was perfect for that room. There's a couple of things going on there. First of all, he didn't really make a big hit in 2011 when he was there. And, you know, also all these attendees have sort of been in the wilderness for the past eight years. They haven't had, you know, a conservative hero.

And while Trump has won and he's not really the conservative hero, they had something to celebrate. They were very happy. Usually, CPAC events are like they're agitated, they're annoyed, they're anxious because what's going to happen to the party.

And today, they had what they wanted and, you know, Trump gave it to them. Like you said, red meat, no vegetables.

TAPPER: One thing that's interesting, in Ronald Reagan's first appearance at CPAC, at first year, you were there? OK.

(CROSSTALK)

TAPPER: But I wasn't there, but Paul Begala said he went back and looked at it, and it was a big appeal to get out the vote for the 1982 midterm elections. That really wasn't that, it might have been a squandered opportunity for the president to expand his majority.

STODDARD: Actually, Matt Schlapp, who has run the entire event and he's head of the American Conservative Union, was telling people that conservatives want to know, attendees at CPAC want to know what they can do to help the administration and that was a missed opportunity. 2018 is a big moment and while you heard them talking before he was inaugurated about this, Kellyanne Conway described it as a surround sound outside group that would bring together so much grassroots support they would end up electing 16 Republican senators in order to enact his agenda in 2018.

[16:35:01] They're going to get to work because the August recess is coming. They've got a big ambitious agenda, and they need grassroots on the ground to mobilize.

TAPPER: So, I want to talk about the next generation of Democrats, the DNC election is tomorrow. The front runners are Congressman Keith Ellison, Democrat of Minnesota, and Tom Perez, the former secretary of labor for President Obama.

Jen, you wrote a favorable op-ed for Peter Buttigieg, the 35-year-old mayor of South Bend, Indiana. He's a military veteran, he's openly gay, he talks a lot about needing to appeal to white working class voters.

Are you worried that the Perez or Ellison pick might be squandering an opportunity in the way that maybe the Democrats have done before?

PSAKI: Democrats have definitely done that before. And I think we've learned a lot of the wrong lessons from the outcome of the 2016 race. Tom Perez would be a good chair. He may be a great chair. But I think this is a time where it's not -- we shouldn't be making a safe choice. And Mayor Pete, I'm still practicing how to say his last name.

TAPPER: Yes, they phonetically spelled that for me.

PSAKI: He has an amazing bio, which you just outlined. But also, he's somebody who recognizes it's not just opposing Trump and opposing the Republican agenda. It's about presenting our own positive optimistic agenda that people want something to vote for. And I think we're not doing enough of that and I was really encouraged to see him talk about that in the CNN debate the other night and recently as he's been running.

TAPPER: Do you think he's the man?

STODDARD: I think they need a clean break and they need to just break all the plates and start over and he is really, according to many, kind of this ideal makeup of everything that you need in term of a fresh face, but someone who understands the middle of the country. I think that Jen is right, you know, Perez might be a good establishment pick, sort of keeps everything sane for a while. But Howard Dean is supporting the mayor.

TAPPER: Mayor Pete.

STODDARD: You know, Mayor Pete. If the party doesn't come around and support him, they will regret it five years from now.

TAPPER: Salena, what do you think?

ZITO: I interviewed him a couple weeks ago. He had the right tone, the right appeal. He has the support of Ed Rendell, former DNC chair, who griped a lot during the Clinton campaign about, we need to be more appealing to a bunch of different kinds of Democrats.

And he also has the support of John Fetterman, the progressive from Pennsylvania that ran for U.S. Senate. You know, he wants to embrace the 50-state program and that's what the Democrats need. They were so successful with that in 2005 and 2006. They expanded the party, they expanded their universe.

And that's what the Democrats need right now. They've lost 1,060 seats. It's an important moment for them.

TAPPER: You're counting all the state legislatures and House and Senate and president and everything.

(LAUGHTER)

TAPPER: I want people at home to know what the thousand were. State legislature seats mainly.

Jen, Salena, A.B., thank you one and all. Appreciate it.

PSAKI: Thank you.

TAPPER: It can kill in just minutes through the skin, through the eyes, through the lungs. A frightening look at the nerve agent police say was used to kill Kim Jong-un's half brother.

Does this mean North Korea could have a weapon of mass destruction?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:42:19] TAPPER: In our world lead today, an international murder mystery has taken something of a terrifying turn. Malaysian authorities now confirm that a highly potent and lethal nerve agent called VX was used to kill the North Korean dictator's brother Kim Jong-nam. The chief of staff for Korea's spy agency said last week that North Korean leader Kim Jong-un was responsible for the assassination of his estranged half brother.

If that t is true that VX was used and that North Korea was behind it, that would logically mean one of the most dangerous unstable regimes in the world now has its hand on a weapon of mass destruction agent.

Let's bring in CNN Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr.

And, Barbara, what can North Korea do theoretically with VX nerve agent if they have it?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, Jake, VX is a kill agent pure and simple. And the real question now may be, how did the attackers get it all the way into the airport in Malaysia and what threat might it have posed along the way -- just one of many unanswered questions.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

STARR (voice-over): It's one of the deadliest chemical agents in the world, VX. The Malaysian government says it was used to assassinate Kim Jong-nam, the estranged half brother of Kim Jong-un, and local authorities believe North Korea may have been behind the murder.

A U.S. official tells CNN, quote, "It certainly appears North Korea attacked using a weapon of mass destruction agent when two women approached Kim Jong-nam in the airport in Kuala Lumpur and attacked with a substance they put on his face."

STEVE HALL, FORMER CIA OFFICER : Given the fact that VX is not only one of the most lethal agents out there, nerve agents out there, it's also something you just can't make in your basement. It's something that you almost certainly need the resources available to a nation state to be able to actually come up with this. It is a step across a line.

STARR: Intelligence services worldwide are watching closely.

HALL: Exact methodology as to how it got into a controlled area of an international airport, I think would be the subject of continued intelligence collection.

JIM WALSH, M.I.T.: They had a active storage site with VX that they could have confidence in, they would not have to transport very much of it and no one would know what it was without opening it unfortunately and dying from it.

STARR: Malaysia has already asked Interpol to put out an alert for four missing suspects. But the fear is they are already back in Pyongyang. The Malaysian police report details that after he died, Kim Jong-nam's eyes and face were swabbed by investigators. They found VX nerve agent.

[16:45:00] The organization for the prohibition of chemical weapons which represents 192 nations, issued a statement saying, "Any use of chemical weapons is deeply disturbing." And offering technical assistance to the Malaysians.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'm only saying that the cause of his death is by that chemical.

(CROSSTALK)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This will be subject of our investigation.

STARR: VX is an internationally-banned chemical weapon that can kill in minutes. It causes convulsions, paralysis, loss of consciousness, and death due to respiratory failure. While North Korea has not acknowledged it has chemical weapons, South Korea estimates the regime has a stockpile of up to 5,000 metric tons. The U.S. says it's always prepared for a North Korea attack, and the 28,000 U.S. troops in South Korea regularly practice operating in a chemical assault.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

STARR: Now, North Korea continues to push back saying it is not responsible for this death and it is making the point that if the two women did have such a deadly substance on their hands when this attack was launched, how could they have possibly survived? Just another unanswered question, Jake.

JAKE TAPPER, CNN THE LEAD ANCHOR: Troubling. Barbara Starr, thank you so much. Speaking of intrigue, a funeral for a Russian ambassador today marks the latest death in an unlucky period for senior Russian diplomats. Five have died since December. You may remember the shocking photographs of the assassination of Russia's ambassador to Turkey, Andrei Karlov in Ankara on December 19th. A Turkish man shot Karlov in front of reporters at an art exhibition. Then another death, Andrey Malanin, a senior Russian diplomat who was found dead in his apartment in Athens January 9th. A police source said he died apparently from natural causes. A few weeks later, Alexander Kadakin, the Russian Ambassador to India was said to have died of a heart attack in New Delhi on January 26th.

On that same day, top Russian diplomat in Kazakhstan, Roman Skrylnikov died. And lastly, Vitaly Churkin, the long-time Russian Ambassador to the United Nations, who died unexpectedly of a heart attack in New York on February 20th. Churkin as we said was laid to rest today. So, that's a lot of Russian diplomats dying in a short period of time for those keeping track.

A new lead in the murder of two teenagers. Police say one of the girls might have captured the voice and possibly an image of her killer on a cell phone. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:50:00] TAPPER: We're back with the "NATIONAL LEAD" and a heartbreaking story out of Indiana that's now on the radar of FBI Director Jim Comey. Police in the City of Delphi, which is about 80 miles north of Indianapolis, are hunting for the person who killed two teenage girls, 13-year-old Abigail Williams and her friend, 14 Liberty German. They disappeared last Monday. One day later, their bodies were found in the woods. Now, evidence on German's phone could break this case wide open. Let's bring in CNN's Jean Casarez. And Jean, what did the victim capture on her phone?

JEAN CASAREZ, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, a lot more than they are releasing, Jake, at this point. The law enforcement is saying that one of the girls actually took video on her iPhone, they say it was right before she was murdered. The girls were never heard from again. The FBI is only releasing a still photo and some audio they say not necessarily of the same person, but they're telling the public help them catch a killer or killers on the loose.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

CASAREZ: It is this picture and this audio.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Down the hill.

CASAREZ: That Indiana Police and the FBI say provide the biggest leads yet in who murdered 13-year-old Abigail Williams and her 14- year-old friend Liberty German. Listen to the voice again.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Down the hill.

CASAREZ: "Down the hill", the voice says. Abigail and Liberty went hiking Monday, February 13th along the Delphi Historic Trail, 70 miles Northwest of Indianapolis. They were dropped off by a family member about 1:00, and Liberty posted this photo of Abigail at approximately 2:07. The last time she was seen alive. Their bodies were found the next day on private property close to the trail and, yes, down some hills from where the trail was located. With no leads to go from, police soon realized Liberty's iPhone could provide the biggest help. She may have captured her own killer on video before she died. That video is of a man who authorities now say is the prime suspect. At this point, only a still photo has been released.

TONY SLOCUM, INDIANA STATE POLICE: This young lady is a hero, there is no doubt. To have enough presence of mind to activate the video system on her cell phone, to record.

CASAREZ: Law enforcement say they cannot confirm the voice on the tape and image in the picture are the same person.

SLOCUM: We don't know if we're looking for one suspect or multiple suspects.

CASAREZ: The FBI is asking people across the country as they look at the image and listen to the audio, ask yourself the following questions.

GREG MASSA, FBI SPECIAL AGENT: Did this individual travel unexpectedly? Did they change their appearance? Did they shave their beard, cut their hair, change the color of their hair?

CASAREZ: The stunned community of 3,000 has never before had a double murder, but authorities are desperate to find their prime suspect before it happens again.

DOUG CARTER, INDIANA STATE POLICE SUPERINTENDENT: Who's next? I hate to ask you that question. I'd give my life to not have to.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

CASAREZ: And the Illinois State Police tells me that it has now transferred the public tip line to the FBI's major case contact center in Washington, D.C. It's currently received almost 6,000 tips from people who believe they can help - they can help authorities in catching whoever did this. And Jake, you can remain anonymous and there is a $50,000 reward.

TAPPER: All right, Jean Casarez, thank you so much. We will provide a number later on for anybody who has information for this case. The plans to send astronauts to Mars just got a little bit more real. That story next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:55:00] TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD. If you have any information on the case we just reported, the murder of those Indiana teenagers, please call the Delphi, Indiana homicide tip line. The number is 844-459-5786. To repeat, 844-459-5786, and I will be tweeting the number in a few minutes if you missed it.

Now, to today's, shall we call it an "OUT OF THIS WORLD LEAD"? The Trump administration is giving NASA a go-ahead that could make Matt Damon's mission to Mars something of a reality. Today, real NASA engineers say they're moving forward with tests ordered by the Trump administration to possibly send astronauts on the next Orion flight in 2019. Of course, first, NASA needs to finish building its heavy lift rocket that can push Orion to Mars or theoretically beyond. Be sure to watch - tune in to CNN this Sunday for State of the Union. My guess --