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THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER

Interview With Virginia Senator Mark Warner; North Korea Purge; President Trump's Budget?; Investigations Into Possible Trump-Russia Ties Continue; White House Weighs Sending Ground Troops to Syria. Aired 4-4:30p ET

Aired February 27, 2017 - 16:00   ET

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


[16:00:02]

JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: I guess, if we have learned anything this year, from the World Series to the NBA finals, the Super Bowl, election night, now the Oscars, the words of Yogi Berra, it ain't over until it's over, ring loud.

THE LEAD starts right now.

What's it going to cost to make America great again, in President Trump's eyes? Today, the president putting the final touches on his critical speech to Congress as we find out what in his budget is going to get whacked.

He was the candidate who said, "I love WikiLeaks," but now Donald Trump's press secretary is asking his staffers to hand over their phones in an effort to keep information and leaks from the media.

Plus, reports of a new brutal purge in North Korea, as investigators try to trace the poison that killed Kim Jong-un's half-brother.

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

We are going to begin today with the politics lead.

It seems to be one of the most packed days so far of Donald Trump's presidency. The president today speaking with the nation's governors, with health insurance executives, with congressional leadership. He's also simultaneously preparing with his team what could be the most pivotal moment of his presidency to date, his address to a joint session of Congress and to the American people tomorrow night.

There, he's expected to explain just how he plans to replace President Obama's health care law and what will happen to those millions of Americans who only have insurance now because of the law the president seeks to repeal.

And as if all that were not enough, the president also is anticipated to explain how he plans to "do more with less" in his federal budget, while also boosting defense spending by 10 percent.

CNN's Sara Murray is live for us at the White House today. Sara, the president's budget rector said today -- quote -- "We are

taking President Trump's words and turning them into policies and dollars in this budget."

What does that mean?

SARA MURRAY, CNN NATIONAL POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, the president certainly will be making a lofty request from Congress. Remember, this is the beginning of a long process of wrangling between the president and between Congress.

Just because it is what President Trump wants does not mean it's what President Trump will get. By his initial top line, what we see is a big increase in defense spending and big questions about what's going to be on the chopping block.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

MURRAY (voice-over): Donald Trump is aiming to ratchet up U.S. defense spending as he prepares his first presidential budget.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: This budget will be a public safety and national security budget and it will include a historic increase in defense spending to rebuild the depleted military of the United States of America at a time we most need it.

(APPLAUSE)

MURRAY: A budget official telling reporters today that Trump will ask for an additional $54 billion in defense spending. That's a 10 percent increase and more than the total discretionary spending for the entire State Department and Environmental Protection Agency combined.

But, so far, there are few details about how the administration would pay for the sharp increase in military spending. Most federal agencies will see their budgets shrink, a budget official said. And both the EPA and foreign aid are expected to face sharp cutbacks.

TRUMP: We are going to do more with less and make the government lean and accountable to the people.

MURRAY: Trump's security-focused budget sure to be a key topic in his address to Congress on Tuesday. But all eyes are on what Trump will say on repealing and replacing Obamacare and whether he will finally serve up some specifics.

TRUMP: You will be hearing about that tomorrow night in great detail.

MURRAY: As Trump huddled with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan today, the two GOP leaders plan to press him to publicly tout the House GOP plan on health care. The president regularly blasts Obamacare.

TRUMP: People hate it. But now they see that the end is coming and they're saying, oh, maybe we love it. There is nothing to love. It's a disaster, folks, OK?

MURRAY: But the political risks of the repeal and replace process appear to be weighing on him.

TRUMP: Let it implode. Politically, I think it would be a great solution, because, as soon as we touch it, if we do the most minute thing, just a tiny little change, what's going to happen? They're going to say, it's the Republicans' problem.

MURRAY: His meeting with GOP leaders comes amid rising concern from Republicans on the Hill that Trump has not embraced the role of salesman in chief for a health care overhaul, which could put plans to repeal Obamacare in jeopardy.

REP. PAUL RYAN (R-WI), SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE: Obamacare is collapsing under its own weight right now.

MURRAY: After meeting with insurers today, Trump joked, if health care overhaul goes awry, he won't be the one shouldering the blame.

TRUMP: If things aren't working out, I'm blaming you anyway.

(LAUGHTER)

(END VIDEOTAPE)

MURRAY: Now, in recent years, many Republicans have made clear they think the only way that you can cut into the nation's debt is if you are willing to take on entitlements.

This president said he will protect them. It was interesting to see House Speaker Paul Ryan leaving this meeting. He has been a champion of trying to repeal some of these entitlement programs. He would say that when you repeal the president's health care law, President Obama's health care law, that is peeling back entitlements -- Jake.

[16:05:10]

TAPPER: Sara Murray, thank you so much.

White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer, alarmed apparently at the number of leaks coming from inside his own building, called his communications team into his office, and with the White House counsel there, checked their cell phones to make sure they were not using encrypted apps such as Signal or Confide.

CNN senior White House correspondent Jeff Zeleny is live on North Lawn.

Jeff, or I guess not. You're inside in the Briefing Room.

Jeff, let me ask you. Sean Spicer also told his staff not to leak news of his anti-leaking meeting. So, how do you and I know about it?

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: Jake, it leaked. That is an example here of journalism 101 or how you do Washington journalism 101 perhaps.

Some leaks are sanctioned. Some leaks are not sanctioned. All leaks are not created equally. No one knows that more perhaps than the president himself, who has spent a lifetime in New York dealing with tabloid reporters and others.

But I am told that the president signed off personally on that meeting last week of Sean Spicer deciding to ask some of his staffers to see their phones, to see if any of them were using those apps like you mentioned, Signal and Confide, which basically allow you to send messages and they disappear, sort of like Snapchat, but slightly different.

But I am told that that was sanctioned by the president, he knew about this, and it was designed to send a signal across the government entirely, not just here in the White House, that they do not want leaks to happen. Sometimes, to send those signals, smaller leaks have to happen.

But, Jake, the bottom line is that the president is frustrated by this. And Sean Spicer, his role, among many, is to enforce what the president wants on these press reports here. So that's why he had the meeting last week.

TAPPER: All right, Jeff Zeleny at the White House for us, thank you.

The effort to plug leaks comes at the same time calls are getting louder to investigate whether Trump campaign advisers' repeated contacts with Russians known to U.S. intelligence last year crossed any sort of legal or ethical lines.

Today, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, who was on the Trump transition team, said he had seen no such evidence of any U.S. contacts. He focused his attention on the leaks coming from the intelligence community about the contacts to the press.

CNN's Manu Raju joins me now.

Manu, this comes as a top Republican says a special prosecutor should handle this.

MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, that's right. That was Darrell Issa over the weekend saying there should be a special prosecutor looking into the situation.

But you are not really hearing much support from other Republicans, including Devin Nunes himself, who believes it can be done through the House Intelligence Committee. Today, Jake, he really tried to reassure the public that he was moving forward in a deliberative, bipartisan manner.

But he significantly tried to downplay reports of Russian contacts with the Trump campaign during the elections, even as his committee has just begun to look into the issue. Here is how he described it to reporters earlier today.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

RAJU: Can you say categorically there were no contacts whatsoever between any officials affiliated with the Russian government and the Trump campaign?

REP. DEVIN NUNES (R), CALIFORNIA: Yes, not that I am aware of. We still have not seen any evidence of anyone from the Trump campaign or any other campaign, for that matter, that's communicated with the Russian government.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

RAJU: Now, Jake, just a few hours later, Adam Schiff, who is the top Democrat on the committee, came out and talked to reporters, actually raising concerns about Mr. Nunes' comments, hoping they could discuss these things together.

He disagreed that there is really no evidence or nothing really to look into regarding those contacts. Here is what he said.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REP. ADAM SCHIFF (D), CALIFORNIA: I just want to make something clear, and that is the committee has reached no conclusion on whether the Trump campaign colluded with Russia, Russian officials or any Russian contacts, nor could we.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

RAJU: Now, Jake, this comes as the White House has actually spoken with both Devin Nunes and Richard Burr, the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, behind the scenes in an effort to rebut reports about Russian contacts with Trump campaign officials.

And since that has been revealed, a lot of criticism, particularly from Democrats, about whether or not this can be an independent investigation going forward. I talked to one Republican on that Senate Intelligence Committee, Susan Collins of Maine, who told me that: "I think all of us have to be careful to not create a perception that the White House may have a role in this investigation."

And other Democrats, some Democrats on the committee, including Ron Wyden of Oregon, suggesting that perhaps this investigation could be compromised if Richard Burr is discussing these matters or pre-judging the outcome of this investigation.

So a lot of discussions happening right now, as the investigations are just beginning on Capitol Hill, Jake.

TAPPER: All right, Manu Raju on Capitol Hill for us, thank you so much.

Are the investigations into contacts with Russia being conducted fairly?

We will ask the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, Senator Mark Warner, next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:10:03]

TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD.

Sticking with politics, before the break, we were talking about congressional efforts to investigate possible Trump campaign ties to individuals in Russia known to U.S. intelligence.

Complicating that right now, White House efforts to control what you might be hearing about the story.

I am joined now by Senator Mark Warner of Virginia. He's the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee.

Senator, thanks so much for joining us.

SEN. MARK WARNER (D), VIRGINIA: Thank you, Jake.

TAPPER: So, the White House acknowledged today that it reached out to the chairman of the Intelligence Committee, Senator Richard Burr, to talk to journalists to shoot down "The New York Times" story about Trump campaign advisers talking with Russians known to U.S. intelligence.

You say this has caused you to have grave concerns about the independence of the Senate Intelligence Committee inquiry into this matter.

How grave? Do you feel Senator Burr is too compromised to lead the investigation?

WARNER: Well, even today, Jake, we have bipartisan members of our committee staff going through intelligence.

We have had very good cooperation from the intelligence agencies. I believe the investigation is making appropriate progress.

[16:15:01] We've had very good cooperation from the intelligence agencies. I believe the investigation is making appropriate progress.

I've also been very pleased to see bipartisan statements from members of the committee, not just Democrats but members like Susan Collins and Marco Rubio, and I think you'll see others, saying this investigation should be bipartisan, it shouldn't have political interference, it can't go where the White House wants it to go. It needs to go where the facts lead.

And that's the thing that's so remarkable, is, if the White House is correct -- let's even give them the benefit of the doubt for a moment. You know, by trying to bring in others to interfere with a news -- investigations, then they're going to color any results that would come out. So, I'm not going to get into my individual conversations with members of the committee. The committee will -- a number of us are meeting this afternoon. We'll have an open hearing tomorrow.

But we need to get this resolved, because this is the committee that has the jurisdiction. We've have started this investigation. It's been moving forward bipartisan. The American public deserves answers. And there's a lot to investigate, I can assure you.

TAPPER: Senator, your leader, Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer, Democrat of New York, he just told CNN, quote, "Senator Burr is on notice because what he did was wrong and this is not the way to conduct a fair and impartial investigation. It certainly gives the appearance if not the reality of lack of impartiality."

Do you agree? What does that mean, being on notice?

WARNER: Well, as my statement was on Friday night, I agree that this is not the way that we should be moving forward. You know, the validity of this investigation depends upon it being bipartisan. And we've seen -- I have been very complimentary of the chairman prior to this time, that he had been moving this forward in a bipartisan way, that we're going to go after the information, wherever the facts lead us.

And the best news I have seen since that very disturbing news Friday night is to see the overwhelming bipartisan support from other members of the committee, Democrats, Republicans, the like, who are committed to getting the job done. And I'll again, I'll just remind your listening audience, we have not brought this investigation to a halt. We've got people, professional staff, today reviewing intelligence. This has been ongoing. We're already into this process, getting deeper every day.

And my hope is that we're going to have a product that, one way or the other, we'll be able to share with the public and remove some of these clouds, or turn information over to the Department of Justice.

TAPPER: I don't know if you saw it, but over the weekend, Congressman Darrell Issa, a Republican, a Trump supporter, the former chairman of the Government Oversight Committee in the House, said that a special prosecutor should be appointed to probe the potential ties between President Trump and his associates with Russia. You don't agree?

WARNER: Well, listen, there would be any kind of special prosecutor, you'd have to have the attorney general recuse himself because of his relations with the president. That is another route to go.

I've said from the outset that I think this committee is the way to go. But if there is any indication that there is an effort to try to stymie or stop us from getting access to information, then we've got to look at other options. That's the ironic thing here. We've been getting the access to the information we need to do this investigation. And the screwy thing about this White House is, if their version of the facts is true, why would they try to mess this up at this point? Because now, this puts in doubt any resolution that, in effect, would clear them because it would appear that they tried to have undue political influence.

TAPPER: Senator Warner, thank you so much. Stick around.

WARNER: Thank you, Jake.

TAPPER: I want to get your reaction and your thoughts on the Yemen raid and the Navy SEAL who was killed in that operation.

Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:23:42] TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

Let's turn to our world lead now and a possible blueprint to defeat and destroy ISIS. The White House has received potential plans from the Pentagon to accelerate the fight against the terrorist group in Iraq and Syria. CNN has learned that the options include military, diplomatic and financial measures, as might be expected.

CNN's Barbara Starr joins me now live from the Pentagon to talk more about this.

Barbara, what's the process from here? What next?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Hi, Jake.

Well, what we know is this afternoon at the White House, top officials already having their first meeting, but it is very preliminary. They say they're not yet ready to make decisions about the way ahead.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

STARR (voice-over): The Pentagon plan, according to a senior U.S. official, lays out how to rapidly destroy ISIS in less than ten months.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I have also directed the defense community to develop a plan to totally obliterate ISIS.

STARR: Part of the 30-day review, significantly increasing the U.S. military presence and risk to U.S. troops inside Syria. Options being explored include sending U.S. artillery units into Syria for long- range support for local units moving on the city of Raqqa and putting U.S. spotters near the front lines to look for ISIS targets.

[16:25:05] It's already happening inside Iraq.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: If we go ahead and bring out the smoke for 40 mike-mike (ph), they can take it now, move up and try to mark the location.

STARR: The plan also includes diplomatic and financial options. But the Pentagon leaves stepping up the military campaign, something President Trump has long advocated.

TRUMP: I know more about the ISIS than the generals do, believe me. I would bomb the (EXPLETIVE DELETED) out of them. STARR: But top U.S. generals warn, even with more than 50,000 ISIS

operatives killed, the international reach of the threat is a worry.

GEN. JOSEPH DUNFORD, JOINT CHIEFS CHAIRMAN: We estimate probably over 100, 120 countries have provided 45,000 foreign fighters just to Syria and Iraq alone. So, that's one element that makes it a trans-regional threat.

STARR: National security adviser, Lieutenant General H.R. McMaster, breaking with his boss, cautioning the term "radical Islamic terrorism" isn't helpful for U.S. goals.

President Trump seemingly, with a vote of no confidence so far on the military campaign.

TRUMP: Everybody used to say we never lost a war. We never lost a war. Your remember. Some of you are right there with me, and you remember, we never lost a war. America never lost.

And now, we never win a war. We never win. And we don't fight to win.

STARR: The coalition has liberated about 60 percent of ISIS-held territory in Iraq and is pushing to get ISIS out of its stronghold in Raqqa, Syria.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

STARR: Whatever options President Trump does approve, they will be costly and they will add to the risk for U.S. troops -- Jake.

TAPPER: Barbara, I have to ask you about the other story in the news today. We cover Gold Star families a lot on the show as you know.

Bill Owens, the father of Navy SEAL Ryan Owens, who was killed in Yemen last month, spoke to the "Miami Herald" and was quite critical of the raid in Yemen and of President Trump. He said, quote, "Why at this time did there have to be this stupid mission when it wasn't even barely a week into his administration? Why? For two years prior, there were no boots on the ground in Yemen. Everything was missiles and drones because there was not a target worth one American life. Now, all of a sudden, we had to make this grand display?"

And he is also, Barbara, calling for an investigation.

STARR: This father, this Gold Star father, is calling for a much deeper investigation than what is currently going on. Right now, there is, if you will, a fact-finding investigation that's done on the death of every troop who falls on the battlefield. What exactly happened?

They are also investigating how it was that one of the aircraft involved went down, and they are investigating civilian casualties in Yemen. But none of that really goes to what this Gold Star dad wants. He would like the answers, what was the White House decision-making inside the White House that night about deciding to move ahead with this mission.

Let me read you one more thing that Mr. Owens said. And he said, "Don't hide behind my son's death to prevent an investigation. I want an investigation. The government owes my son an investigation."

I think it's fair to say, when the White House was asked about this today, there was no sense that they are going to meet Mr. Owens' requests anytime soon, Jake.

TAPPER: Barbara Starr, thanks so much.

Let me bring back Senator Mark Warner, he's the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee.

Senator, your reaction to what William Owens, this Gold Star father, had to say about the Yemen raids. Do you think the Trump administration rushed this operation?

WARNER: I think we need to get a full briefing. And I understand why this father, who my understanding from the press, wasn't that anxious to meet the president since the president had been so disrespectful to another Gold Star father, and he deserves the answers, because one of the things that we need to make sure is, there were questions that there was a lot of valuable information gathered from this raid.

Beyond the whole question of the safety and the planning, was there really valuable information gathered? We have not had that briefing yet. We'll expect to get that briefing I believe within the next week.

TAPPER: There is, as you know, anytime there is loss of life in a military operation, there is an automatic investigation by the Pentagon. Is that enough? Or should there be a more robust investigation, and who should be in charge of it?

WARNER: Well, let's go ahead and look at what the Pentagon finds but then also, for the intelligence committee, if part of the purpose of this raid was to gather valuable intelligence and there have been reports from the White House that valuable intelligence was gathered, we need to get that report. We need to see how thorough it is. We need to see whether that intelligence, in effect, warranted the kind of risk that this raid appeared to take.

TAPPER: Senator Mark Warner, Democrat of Virginia, vice chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee -- thanks so much for joining us today.

WARNER: Thank you, Jake.