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Tonight: Trump's Chance To Reset After Chaotic Start; Sources: Trump Likely Embracing GOP's Obamacare Plan; Republican: Trump "Needs To Do More" In Legislating; Ryan: No Stone Will Be Left Unturned In Russia Probe. Aired 11-11:30a ET

Aired February 28, 2017 - 11:00   ET

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


KATE BOLDUAN, CNN ANCHOR: Thanks, John. Thanks, Poppy. Hello, everyone. I am Kate Bolduan. Nine hours and counting to President Trump's address joint session of Congress. We've says this before, but this time we really, really mean it. This is the biggest day yet in Donald Trump's presidency.

The White House says the president will lay out a bold first year agenda in his primetime address. He'll strike an optimistic tone, and will outline specifics on everything from military spending to immigration and the fate of Obamacare. So how has he been doing so far? President Trump himself this morning gave himself mixed reviews. Listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA: Now in terms of achievement, I think I'd give myself an "A" because I think I've done great things but I don't think -- I and my people, I don't think we've explained it well enough to the American public. I think I get an "A" in terms of what I've done but in terms of messaging I'd give myself a "C" or C-plus.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: How do you change it?

PRESIDENT TRUMP: Maybe I change it during the speech.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KEILAR: So much riding on that speech. CNN senior Washington correspondent, Joe Johns, joining us live from the White House now with more on this. So Joe, what are the American people going to hear tonight? What are you hearing?

JOE JOHNS, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: Well, we're told the president is going to strike an optimistic tone, Kate. I think that's pretty obvious, at least he's going to try to. We are also expecting him to talk about some of the broad areas that he wants this Congress to cover most during the next year.

Of course, among those things, tax cuts, which is a program he has yet to roll out. The repeal and replace of Obamacare, we're being told in the view of many on Capitol Hill is in lock step with many of the ideas they have for the replacement of Obamacare. We'd like to hear more from him about specifics. Members of Congress need that. Sort of policy guidance as they come forward on a very difficult subject. We're also expecting to hear quite a bit, of course, about immigration. Another signature issue for this president on the campaign trail.

And we do know he's going to talk about it simply by the fact that among the people in the audience, as his guests will be three members of families of people who were victims of violence involving immigrants who came to the United States. So we expect him to talk about immigration.

We're being told it's going to be an upbeat speech but we've been told that before. Of course, some of the open questions, things like Russia, which both the House and the Senate committees are trying to get a handle on through investigations.

And there's also that issue of leaks. The president has that as a real sore spot. It will be interesting to see how he deals with that, if at all tonight -- Kate.

KEILAR: What does upbeat and optimistic look like right now for President Trump? We will see. Joe Johns, thank you so much.

One of the big topics tonight and probably the big topic on Capitol Hill right now is what are the Republican majorities in Congress and the president going to do about Obamacare?

Sources are telling CNN that it appears right now that the president and Republican leaders at least are getting on the same page. You may not want to tell that to some of the rank and file Republicans in the House, who have come out to say they're ready for a fight. House Speaker Paul Ryan is sticking by the plan. Look.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REPRESENTATIVE PAUL RYAN (R), HOUSE SPEAKER: People who do not get health insurance from their job are discriminated against right now in the tax code. Let me say that again. The current tax code discriminates against people who don't get health care at work.

We want to end the discrimination in the tax code against people who don't get health care through work and equalize the tax treatment of health care so that everybody, regardless of whether you get health care at work or don't has an opportunity to get a health care plan that's affordable for you.

That is what we've always been working on. That's the plan we've always been looking at and that's what we're working on with the administration. I feel at the end of the day when we get everything done and right, we'll be unified on this.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KEILAR: All right, let's go to Congressional correspondent, Sunlen Serfaty, on the Hill for more on this. So Sunlen, where do things -- that's what we're hearing from House Speaker Paul Ryan. But what are you hearing in the halls of Congress? Where do things stand for Obamacare right now, specifically amongst Republicans?

SUNLEN SERFATY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, there is some concern up here on Capitol Hill, Kate, among Republicans. Notably at this very critical juncture for repealing and replacing Obamacare because this is crunch time. He can't get on board with the draft Republican plan in its current form at this time.

And in the middle of this we have like Mark Meadows and Mark Sanford who just told my colleague, Manu Raju, that he can't get on board with the draft Republican's plan in its current form at this time.

And so certainly this is something that's sending shock waves through Capitol Hill in anticipation of the president's address tonight. That's why there is so much emphasis from the Republican leadership here calling for the president in essence to get specific, to lay out a path forward, give some leadership there, and embrace the House plan that's been going around.

[11:05:11]We know that Speaker of the House Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell did sit down with President Trump yesterday at the White House and aides say leaving that meeting, Speaker Ryan was left with the impression that the president indeed would embrace the House plan for repealing Obamacare tonight.

So certainly trying to, in advance of the speech, say that they are on the same page, but emphasis there on left with the impression that's what would happen -- Kate.

KEILAR: Can that impression change? I guess that's the big question right now. Sunlen, thank you so much. A lot happening on Capitol Hill, including this. Joining me now also from Capitol Hill, Republican Congressman from Oklahoma who brought a crowd with him tonight right behind him --

REPRESENTATIVE TOM COLE (R), OKLAHOMA, WANTS TRUMP TO GET "ACTIVE" IN LEGISLATION: I wish they were here for me, but they're really not. They just want to see the capitol.

KEILAR: It's a wonderful place. I enjoy it very much when I was working there. Thank you so much for coming on. I appreciate it, Congressman.

So you had quite a bit -- let's talk about tonight, you've had quite a bit to say about what you want to hear tonight from President Trump. You laid it out very publicly in "The New York Times" today and part of it, Congressman, you wrote this.

"That the president will need to do more than merely wait upon a Republican Congress to produce the legislation he has championed. He must become an active participant in the legislative process."

Later on in that op-ed, Congressman, you wrote that presidents must lead. Are you saying, Congressman, that he hasn't led so far? COLE: I don't think he's had a chance to lead. Frankly, he's been busy putting together his administration. I actually agree with his grade. I agree very much with the actions he's taken in terms of deregulatory activity.

Obviously the nomination of Neil Gorsuch was a brilliant stroke. So he's been a pretty busy guy, but now to actually move legislation across the floor, you literally have to sit down with the various members of the Republican Party.

We're not going to get a lot of Democratic votes on something like repeal and replace and work out the differences. Frankly, the president is very well suited to do that.

He's a master dealmaker. Now he'll be able to put some of that skill to good use because it's going to be very necessary to unite the party and move his legislative agenda.

KEILAR: You can always say that, of course, behind closed doors to the president at any time. Why did you want to go to the pages of "The New York Times" to lay out not what the country needs to hear tonight, but what Republicans need to hear tonight?

COLE: Well, I think I was asked to do so and I was happy to do so. I don't think there's any big mysteries in there. Certainly not an attack on the president, but quite frankly, again, you have to get engaged. He knows that. That's why he's coming up in the Hill tonight.

KEILAR: Who are you asking -- who are you asked to write by, "The Times" or Republican leaders?

COLE: Yes, "The Times." They'd like to have a piece. So we produced one.

KEILAR: You say you also said in this piece that tonight you want to hear how he's going to pay for these big spending items that he's laid out in his kind of budget proposal or highlights of his budget proposal. More money, of course, going to the Pentagon. Big money for infrastructure. That's the little bit that we know. Here's what the president has said about how he was going to pay for all of this this morning. Listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

PRESIDENT TRUMP: I think the money is going to come from a revved up economy. You look at the kind of numbers we're doing. We were probably GDP of a little more than 1 percent and if I can get that up to 3 percent or maybe more, we have a whole different ball game. It's a whole different ball game and that's what we're looking to do.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KEILAR: That of course is he says on top of cutting federal -- money from federal agencies. Is that good enough of an explanation for you?

COLE: It's a start.

KEILAR: Getting the economy revved up.

COLE: It's a start and he's exactly right. If you can be running consistently at 3 percent growth, it makes an enormous difference to the amount of federal revenue coming in. But I don't expect to hear everything tonight. I don't think he's going to present his infrastructure program tonight.

In this speech or speeches going forward, and then you do, look, I wouldn't say disagree, but sooner or later, if the president wants to put the country on sound fiscal footing, he'll have to deal with the entitlement program. That's where 70 percent of the federal budget is.

It's Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, and the likes. So you have to sit down at some point and do it. Tonight, I would expect he'll focus primarily on building up the military, something I agree with, on repeal and replace, again, some place that I agree with the president very strongly and ultimately on tax reform.

Those are the big items in the opening few months of his administration. That will be the focus, but there are other issues he'll have to deal with down the road.

KEILAR: I mean, one of the big issues is entitlements. You want to hear him talk about reforms to entitlement programs, but over and over again on the campaign trail and he's been president, he's promised, President Trump has promised that he is not touching entitlements like Social Security. Who is going to budge on this one then?

COLE: Well, frankly, I would recommend the president look at a bill that John Delaney, a Maryland Democrat, and I had. We'll be dropping shortly. We've had in previous Congress to set up something like what Ronald Reagan did with the Greenspan Commission back in 1983 and address Social Security that way.

[11:10:01]Tonight, frankly, the president will in some measure talk about entitlements because if you're talking about Obamacare, you have to talk about Medicaid because that's a big part of that system. So look, I think, piece by piece, the numbers force you toward entitlement reform if you're serious about balancing the budget. There's no simply no other way to do it.

KEILAR: So you think in the end even though he has promised very clearly he's not touching things like -- he's not going to touch things like these entitlement programs, you think in the end he's going to be forced to?

COLE: Look, I think what the president needs is to project to people that are on Social Security and Medicare right now, your benefits are safe. You made a deal and frankly everybody's benefits need to be safe. Doing nothing ensures bankruptcy of all these programs in the not too distant future.

So you really do need to sit down. We've done this before. Again Ronald Reagan, Tip O'Neill, Howard Baker did it back in the '80s. So it's not unprecedented or impossible to do, but it is politically challenging.

Now again, I don't expect the president to lay out everything tonight. I think he's going to focus on the big three, military spending, repeal and replace, and the tax code.

I think that's a lot for one speech, but I think down the road, we'll be dealing with other problems.

KEILAR: You also have a lot on your plate. Real quick on Obamacare, repeal and replace. You have some problems within the Republican Party on the conservative side right now on pushing through a repeal and replace. You've got the House Freedom Caucus and House Republican -- the Republican Study Group. They have come out against what was leaked last week. Can Republicans pass repeal and replace without those members on board?

COLE: Well, no, obviously not. The Republican Study Group is 170 members. I'm actually one of those members and that's not my position, frankly, just because it's been announced. But I don't have any problem with members saying what they think.

But sooner or later, people have to get together on the same sheet of music and frankly the conductor here is going to be the president of the United States. He's going to make a lot of tough calls and then people have to decide whether or not their individual opinions are more important to keeping a commitment to repeal and replace.

And again, I don't begrudge my colleagues making that decision, but we'll be judged harshly if we don't move legislation across the floor. They also need to remember there is something called the United States Senate. They'll have a role in this, too, has to pass them and the president has to sign it.

So there's going to be a lot of compromising along the way. A lot of people stake out positions. My guess is we'll move together over the course of this. I share Speaker Ryan's optimism in that regard.

KEILAR: Congressman, you make it all sound so easy. We'll talk to you soon.

COLE: It's not easy.

KEILAR: I'm kidding.

COLE: The system works.

KEILAR: The system works. It just works very slowly to say the very least. Congressman Cole, great to have you. Thank you.

COLE: Thank you.

KEILAR: All right, moments ago, Paul Ryan, the House speaker, he spoke out. He also said this, "No stone will be left unturned in the investigation of President Trump's ties to Russia. But both parties don't exactly agree on that.

Plus, who does President Trump blame for the leaks from the White House and the protests at Republican town halls? It's a president, but not him. That's next.

And he risked his life to stop a gunman. The hero who says he was just doing what anyone should have done for another human being.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He opened fire and it definitely was a life- changing event.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[11:17:26]

KEILAR: The House Intelligence Committee is moving ahead with its investigation into the Trump adviser's contacts with Russia. The committee just now signing off on the scope of its investigation. But make no mistake, they remain deeply divided, the members of that committee, over other big details.

Democrats and at least one Republican in Congress still are calling for a special prosecutor to be brought in instead of the attorney general to lead the way. Jeff Sessions and some of his first comments, though, as the new AG spoke to reporters about this.

Let's bring in justice correspondent, Evan Perez, for much more here. so Evan, what is Attorney General Sessions saying about all of this?

EVAN PEREZ, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Kate, that was a very interesting thing that happened yesterday at the Justice Department. Several reporters met with the new attorney general. It's the first time we've had an on the record with him and we did asked him that question and his answer was sort of noncommittal.

He said, "I will recuse myself from anything I need to recuse myself from." He declined to really address the central question of whether or not he plans to. I can tell you just from the context of the situation, he has no plans to recuse himself, at least not until there's more pressure from the Republicans.

As you mentioned there's only Republican, Darrell Issa, who is even mentioning that that possibility right now. Certainly they'll have to be a lot more Republicans calling for that and they would have to be some evidence that will be turned up that would maybe push him in that direction.

That is not -- we're not there right now. Paul Ryan, the House speaker, addressed some of this this morning. Take a listen to what he had to say about this investigation.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) RYAN: Look, we have an ongoing investigation. I'm not going to get ahead of that investigation. We have seen no evidence so far based upon the investigations that have already been conducted. Remember, there was an intelligence community investigation last year.

The House Republicans have been doing an investigation for quite a while on Russia itself through the intelligence committee and we have a bipartisan investigation through the House Intelligence Committee. I think just last night they finished their oversight plan to go forward.

So I'm not going to get ahead of the investigation that's occurring right now, but just so you know, this has been investigated. We've been investigating it and we'll continue to investigate just to make sure no stone is unturned.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

PEREZ: And Kate, what you heard there is a little bit of a cleanup from what happened yesterday with Devin Nunes, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, who left the impression that frankly he didn't see there was much there to investigate.

He did say that they were going to be taking a look with the Democrats to try to see what they could find out. And certainly that was the -- at the end of the day yesterday, that's where they arrived at. That they now put a scope of their investigation.

[11:20:01]They're going to try to move forward both sides, Democrats and the Republicans. But Paul Ryan there sort of suggesting that, look, once we see more here, we'll follow all the leads that turn up. But again, this is very early in the process for both the House and Senate investigations and the FBI investigation that is also ongoing -- Kate.

KEILAR: Yes, Evan, thanks so much. Great to hear from you. Let's talk more now joining me from Capitol for more on this, a member of the House Intelligence Committee, which of course is one of the five committees now in charge with investigating Russian contacts and the leaks of this information. Democratic Congressman Jim Himes is joining me now. Congressman, thanks so much for coming in.

REPRESENTATIVE JIM HIMES (D), CONNECTICUT, HOUSE INTELLIGENCE COMMITTEE: Hi, Kate.

KEILAR: So the committee as Evan perfectly laid out, the committee has agreed on the scope of the investigation now. Are you satisfied with the way things are headed at this point?

HIMES: Well, you know, inside the committee is sort of trundling along. I would very much disagree with Speaker Ryan's characterization that the Republicans in the House have investigated. He said have investigated.

We're in the very early stages of a terribly important investigation and so, you know, generally speaking, that investigation is getting off the ground. We're getting documents. Staff is starting to look at them.

The concerning thing is the way that these things are being led. We learned a week ago the White House reached out to Senator Burr and Congressman Nunes and said help us with the press.

These are the people who are running those investigations and an investigation is like a trial in a court of law and that you hope there really isn't any prejudice, any prejudging of the results.

Imagine in a trial if you're on trial for something, the judge comes out about one-third of the way and says the defendant looked pretty isn't to me. That would obviously compromise the objectivity of that trial and that's the position we're in here in the Congress with chairman --

KEILAR: And to that exact point, with what you just said, do you trust that the committee chairman can lead a fair, impartial, objective investigation into this?

HIMES: Well, again, this is nothing personal against Devin Nunes or Senator Burr. I think their comments were wildly unwise and do raise basic questions about whether these investigations, even though there are people who are on the other side of the partisan aisle on this issue, you know, whether these investigations can be as good as they should be.

So the answer is what we've been saying from the very start here, which is the answer is an outside independent commission to do this investigation of elder statesmen and stateswomen, none of whom are involved in the political fray worried about what their standing is --

KEILAR: But right now that's not happening and it's your committee led by Devin Nunes that is investigating. Do you trust him to lead this investigation?

HIMES: Well, you know, look, obviously, given the comments made. Those of us on the other side of the aisle and hopefully the people on his of the aisle are going to watch him that much more closely. But we're all participating in this investigation.

To date there's no evidence that, you know, a route of inquiry has been blocked. We haven't been able to depose somebody. The documents have been refused to the committee. So, look, those comments were I think very, very unfortunate.

Point to why this should be investigated outside of the committees, but you know, we have what we have so we need to march forward with the investigation that we've got.

KEILAR: Do you agree with the chairman's assessment when he said yesterday seeing no evidence of so far Trump advisers speaking to Russians? Do you agree with that?

HIMES: I'm not sure that I do. I think regardless of whether that's true or not, that is, obviously, a statement that is saying, as I said earlier, golly, the defend looks innocent to me. You don't make characterizations about an investigation whether you are the FBI, a trial judge. You don't make -- if you want to maintain any credibility, you don't make statements about the outcome of a trial or an investigation until it has been completed. So I just think it was --

KEILAR: So has he lost his credibility saying that statement?

HIMES: He's damaged his credibility in saying that, as have the senator. That's why you have a guy like Darrell Issa saying this needs to be done by a special prosecutor. You do have some senators being particularly aggressive. So I think it was a very unfortunate statement that's going to cast questions over the investigation being undertaken by my committee.

KEILAR: How long do you think it's going to be before you have answers? Any answers that you guys can talk about?

HIMES: You know, an investigation like this with as much material as we're going to be looking at is definitely going to take months. This is not days or weeks kind of thing. It's going to take months, and, you know, all along the way because so many people, including the White House by the way have lost their credibility.

It was three, four weeks ago that the White House was saying, gosh, National Security Adviser Flynn when he called the Russians -- the Russian ambassador was only wishing him a happy holiday. That turned out not to be true. So there's obviously --

KEILAR: Have you seen those transcripts?

HIMES: I'm sorry?

KEILAR: Have you seen those transcripts?

HIMES: I have not yet seen those transcripts.

KEILAR: Are you going to?

HIMES: We better. They're pretty important to this investigation.

KEILAR: Congressman Jim Himes, we've got a lot to talk about with this now months-long investigation. Look forward to having you back on. Thanks so much, Congressman.

HIMES: Thanks, Kate.

KEILAR: All right. So just new moments ago, House Republicans just got a warning about decorum for tonight's speech by President Trump. Here is what -- you will hear what's expected from lawmakers tonight.

[11:25:04]Plus, President Trump says he thinks he knows who is behind the White House leaks and the angry town halls. Here's a hint. It's someone who worked in the White House but doesn't anymore.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) KEILAR: President Trump believes President Obama is behind leaks in his administration and the angry town halls that Republican lawmakers face back home in their districts. This is what President Trump said about it on Fox News this morning.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA: I think that President Obama is behind it because his people are certainly behind it and some of the leaks, possibly, come from that group. Some of the leaks, which are really very serious leaks because they're very bad in terms of national security. But I also understand that's politics and in terms of him being behind things, that's politics and it will probably --