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Trump's Infrastructure Plan; Congress Meet on Obamacare; GOP Skeptical of Immigration; White House Travel Ban; Trump Decries Racism; Pentagon May Greenlight Raids. Aired 2-2:30p ET

Aired March 1, 2017 - 14:00   ET


[14:00:00] WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: "Newsroom" with Brianna Keilar starts right now.

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN ANCHOR: Hi, there. I'm Brianna Keilar, in for Brooke Baldwin.

One day after President Trump's best reviewed speech ever, the stock market hits a historic high, Republicans are riding high. Well, one question is high on the nation's mind. Was his address to Congress a performance or a true pivot? Even some Democrats praised his address. And why wouldn't they, observers note, since the president pushed for what many consider to be Democratic policies, including a 13 digits investment in infrastructure, along with the most popular parts of Obamacare, and then immigration reform. All are likely to lead to some epic showdowns on Capitol Hill.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I believe that real and positive immigration reform is possible. If we are guided by the wellbeing of American citizens, then I believe Republicans and Democrats can work together to achieve an outcome that has eluded our country for decades.

To launch our national rebuilding, I will be asking Congress to approve legislation that produces a $1 trillion investment in infrastructure of the United States, financed through both public and private capital, creating millions of new jobs.

First, we should ensure that Americans with pre-existing conditions have access to coverage and that we have a stable transition for Americans currently enrolled in the health care exchanges.

Secondly, we should help Americans purchase their own coverage through the use of tax credits and expanded health savings accounts.


KEILAR: Joining me now is senior White House correspondent Jeff Zeleny.

And, Jeff, we should tell our viewers, the president has had lunch with Republican leaders. He's meeting with them. How are they responding, both to his address, and also to some of the news about his policy proposals?

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Brianna, the president is sitting down for a lunch with Speaker Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. He, of course, needs both of these Republican leaders to help him get through the agenda that he talked about last evening.

But I can tell you, the central question hanging over Washington, certainly hanging over Capitol Hill and the White House here is, how will he pay for all of these plans. You have fiscal conservatives wondering, the infrastructure bill in particular, a trillion dollars. Now, some of that is public money, some of it is private money. But before all of that, they want to do health care reform, tax reform. But there is no simple way to get this done.

So right now the White House is meeting with leadership. And then throughout the day I'm told there are going to be phone calls, there are going to be other meeting with legislators as well as the legislative staff here. The question is, how does one enact all this. How do they keep the Republican party together and get some Democrats on board? It is a tough, tough sell.

So it's the beginning here, not the end of the process. There's no question people here at the White House are optimistic. They think it was the best speech the president has yet had. But in the words of one advisor, now the tough work actually begins. And, Brianna, that's not an understatement. That is reality, as you know, here in Washington.

KEILAR: Yes, governing is very tough work, and we're starting to see that.

ZELENY: Right.

KEILAR: Jeff Zeleny at the White House for us. Thank you so much.

As President Trump rallies behind a House GOP plan to repeal and replace Obamacare, House and Senate Republicans plan to meet behind closed doors in just a few hours here and their goal is this, to try and get on the same page as they work to overturn former President Obama's signature health care legislation.

Senior congressional reporter Manu Raju spoke with some lawmakers who are going to be at that meeting today. He's joining us now live from Capitol Hill.

So what are they - what are they telling you? What do we expect to come out of this, Manu?

MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL REPORTER: Well, there's going to be more discussion. It's unlikely they're going to be able to reach consensus today because there's one major element of this emerging plan that is causing a lot of concern among conservatives, and that is to give refundable tax credits to people to purchase health insurance. Some conservatives believe this is essentially another entitlement program and they're threatening to vote against it. I talked to one of those conservatives, Senator James Lankford of Oklahoma, who had this concern.


SEN. JAMES LANKFORD (R), OKLAHOMA: It comes across as a new entitlement. We're trying to figure out the mechanics of how it would work. Whatever we do in that area, we can't make the same mistakes we made in the structure of how that's done. So there's not only entitlement issue, there's how it actually operates, to be able to make sure it operates efficiently.

RAJU: Could you support something that has those tax credits?

LANKFORD: I've got to actually get a chance to see the final text of how it works because that does make a difference in how it works.


RAJU: So non-committal from Senator Lankford, but other conservatives, including in the House, have come out and said they'd be opposed to any plan the way it's structured right now, including leading conservatives in the House Freedom Caucus and the Republican Study Committee, two conservative wings of the House Republican Conference.

[14:05:08] But, Brianna, they've got to make some decisions very quickly because they want to have these votes in the House in March and there's no consensus yet, no - and there's still questions about whether they have the votes to pass it out of their chamber. That means the White House will have to do a pretty aggressive sales job to get their party in line.


KEILAR: Can I ask you about immigration, Manu, because yesterday we heard coming out of the White House from a senior official that there was potentially a comprehensive immigration plan that Donald Trump was going to get behind. It sounds like there's some Republican skepticism because there had been talk of that, including a pathway to legal status, which, of course, as you know, a lot of Republicans just, you know, they loathe that idea.

RAJU: Yes, that's right. And, you know, Trump did not mention that in his speech to Congress last night, whether he would be open to that legal status for undocumented immigrants, something he did float in a meeting with journalists yesterday. And a lot of Republicans are unsure of what Donald Trump actually wants in that regard. So there is that skepticism. One key Republican, Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley told me, we can't even talk about giving legal status until we secure the border first. So some pushback on that idea from Donald Trump's own party.


KEILAR: All right, Manu, stand by for us there on The Hill.

We're going to go right back to the White House and Jeff Zeleny. We have some breaking news that we're learning about the travel ban. Catch us up here, Jeff. This is a big development.

ZELENY: It is a - it is a big development, Brianna. We're talking about the travel ban, which was supposed to be signed this afternoon we thought. Now it is coming later in the week. One of the reasons is three top advisers to the president, the defense secretary, the national security adviser, as well as the secretary of homeland security are asking for some specific changes to be made to the seven countries. These majority Muslim countries that have been discussed in this. And they are concerned about the lineup of some of these countries specifically because of some military interpreters and things who are coming from some of these countries. So they believe that Iraq should not be on this list of countries. So the White House has not yet said if it will be or not. But, of course, it was included on that early list a couple of weeks ago.

But the White House says that the reason that this travel ban was not signed this afternoon is that simply they wanted to let the speech play out. But there are also still some final considerations that need to be made on this. It is not all yet completed. And perhaps that is because of these objections from three top advisers, three top senior advisers here, on the country of Iraq.


KEILAR: And on that issue of Iraq, one of the critics who said, why is Iraq on this list, would make the point that the U.S. has had such a big footprint there for years -

ZELENY: Right.

KEILAR: That they actually are able to vet people. That they're very familiar with them. Unlike with Syria, where there has been very little U.S. involvement and really getting to know people on the ground. So that was the case, right, they said that Iraq is a very different animal when it comes to having people come over than say Syria.

ZELENY: Sure. Indeed. I mean we're talking about, you know, essentially a 15-year presence there, a military presence there. And, again, a lot of the people affected by this - there are some of the people affected by this who are trying to come over to the U.S., worked for the military in some capacity as interpreters, as other people. So top commanders actually knew people who were blocked by this.

But you're absolutely right, the U.S. military presence there means extreme vetting already going on in Iraq. So we'll see what the outcome of that determination is, Brianna.

KEILAR: So you said three top - three top officials, is that right, Jeff?

ZELENY: It is indeed, the secretary of defense, James Mattis, the homeland security secretary, John Kelly, as well as the new national secretary advisor, H.R. McMaster. We are told that all of them were making the argument to exclude Iraq for that list, Brianna.

KEILAR: Yes, all with a military perspective on that.

ZELENY: Of course.

KEILAR: All right, Jeff Zeleny at the White House, thank you so much for that breaking news.

I want to bring in a couple folks to help break this down with us. Domenico Montanaro is the lead political editor for National Public Radio, and Karen Tumulty, national political correspondent for "The Washington Post."

So that's - that's what we're hearing, Karen, is there may be, one, a delay because don't steal the thunder of a speech that is getting good reviews, but also when it comes to this travel ban, that there are objections from the - from the Department of Defense, Homeland Security, and the president's new national security adviser about having Iraq on this list. What's your reaction to this and certainly their influence on this?

KAREN TUMULTY, NATIONAL POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT, "THE WASHINGTON POST": Well, I think what we're seeing is, you know, President Trump is finally getting his cabinet, a full cabinet, and they are functioning as a cabinet should function. I mean they are - they are the - the voices of experience and the perspective from outside the White House.

[14:10:05] I do think that as we listen to these kind of debates, it does sort of underscores the degree to which the strength of the speech last night were primarily about tone. That, in fact, there are a lot of issues ahead, that it really did not sort of provide many details of the president's vision for handling them or even give a nod to the fact that there are some really big, thorny debates ahead as, you know, not only this report on the travel ban, but also the report right before it on health care.

KEILAR: And, Domenico, there's, like Karen said, people are, even from both sides of the aisle, they are commending Donald Trump on that tone, but on the substance maybe there's not a lot of details. The question is, even on tone, because that's been such a divisive element already of Donald Trump's presidency - and it may be too soon to ask this, but I wonder at least if you can tell us, is there this intention by the White House for this to be a pivot - I mean it's hard to tell if it really is a pivot - or was this just kind of a one-time thing?

DOMENICO MONTANARO, LEAD POLITICAL EDITOR, NPR NEWS: Not for anything. I think we should stop talking about pivot. You know, Donald Trump -

KEILAR: I know. I know. You're right.

MONTANARO: Donald Trump has done this throughout the campaign. Remember the time in Pensacola, Florida, a week before the election, where he said, you know, stay cool, Donald, you know, be nice, stay calm and then, you know, he's back to Twitter. So, you know, the past is usually a pretty good predictor, an indicator of what's going to happen in the future, you know? And I think that Republicans in Congress, Donald Trump needed to give a speech to them to feel like this - that they could work with him and that he could stay within some normal lanes. And that was reassured for them and probably for a lot of Trump supporters who are maybe jittery, their nerves were a little unsettled seeing some of these Twitter spats. And every time we go out in the country and we talk too folks about Trump and we ask his supporters, what do you think about Trump and how he conducted himself, and is there anything that concerns you at all, they'll always come back to, well, I don't know if he's presidential enough and I just wish that he would - you know, I really like him, but I wish that he would, you know, stop with the Twitter fights.

KEILAR: So, Karen, one of the things that we heard - and right off the bat from President Trump was, he spoke out against bigotry. He spoke out against anti-Semitism and racist attacks. And many of his opponents and even people in his corner have said he needed to do this. This is what they've been calling on him to do. Let's watch.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Recent threats targeting Jewish community centers, and vandalism of Jewish cemeteries, as well as last week's shooting in Kansas City, remind us that while we may be a nation divided on policies, we are a country that standings united in condemning hate and evil in all of its very ugly forms.


KEILAR: So that was full throated. But you look back on his record of tweeting and anti-Semitic visual during the campaign, which he had borrowed, but then he didn't really denounce that. Not denouncing - disavowing the support initially of David Duke. I mean there's a whole litany of things. So this is was very vociferous. But does this redeem this list of things that he has done in the past?

TUMULTY: Well, I think that it certainly was the sort of most sure- footed message he has given on this issue, but it came just hours after he had made statements about the very same episodes of vandalism in Jewish community centers and cemeteries where he had said that, in fact, you know, this may have been done to make somebody look bad. That, in fact, as he put it, the opposite may be true. His - the implication there having been that this was one of these sort of false blag (ph) hoaxes. So the president also has a tendency to step on his own message a lot and he did that even in the hour leading up to this speech. So as Domenico said, you - it's hard to talk about a true pivot with this president, especially a president - one of his favorite phrases is, I will make your head spin. And he does tend to keep people off balance.

KEILAR: Yes, maybe it is a pivot, and then he pivots right back, right? That's the thing. It's a pivot, the pivot, the pivot, the pivot.

TUMULTY: It's a pirouette.

KEILAR: Right. Exactly. All right, Domenico Montanaro, Karen Tumulty, thank you so much to both of you.

And next, the Pentagon may greenlight terror raids without President Trump's approval. How this move would change war.

Plus, emotions high as Congress honored the widow of the SEAL who died in the Yemen raid. Just hours before, Trump was pointing the finger at his generals. We'll discuss that.


[14:19:06] BALDWIN: In its bid to step up the war on ISIS, CNN is learning that the White House is considering giving more authority to the Pentagon to independently green light operations like last month's raid in Yemen that cost the life of a Navy SEAL. And this would mean that President Trump would not have to give the OK first. But a senior defense official insists this does not mean that the president would not be briefed.

Joining me now is Kimberly Dozier, CNN global affairs analyst and senior national security correspondent at "The Daily Beast." And we also have CNN military analyst, Lieutenant Colonel Rick Franconia.

Kimberly, you first reported on this story. So tell us what U.S. officials are telling you.

KIMBERLY DOZIER, CNN GLOBAL AFFAIRS ANALYST: Well, this is in service of stepping up the fight against ISIS. The idea would be instead of having to go all the way to the Oval Office to get approval for sensitive raids in places like Somalia or Yemen, that for a certain target set like certain ISIS fighters who have already been identified, that Secretary of Defense Mattis or all the way down to the three-star general who runs the joint special operations command would be able to say, we see the person we've been hunting. He's popped up in a different location in a place that we don't have combat operations, but we can go after him and just let the White House know we're doing it because this has all been preapproved.

[14:20:26] KEILAR: And so, colonel, and Kimberly explains this very well in her piece, if you're talking about some place like Afghanistan, there is some autonomy that the military has in launching these because the U.S. is involved in a campaign there. But like she said, Somalia, Yemen, it's a different story. And there has been a case made by generals who have been frustrated by feeling slowed down by this process.

LT. COL. RICK FRANCONA, CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Right. But - and I think - I think the key is preapproved raids against preapproved targets. If the president has already signed off on it, if the White House has already signed off on that particular target set, it makes sense that you would push down the execution order as low as you can. But, at the same time, you have to retain some control over this. You know, the president could delegate the authority, but he still bears the responsibility. So he's going to have to really take good control of this. And I think that will rest mainly with the national security adviser. But I really think that they need to keep real tight control over

anything that is not in that set of countries in which we - we are operating or we have permission to operate. If you're going to go into other countries, you really need to get the president's approval.

KEILAR: I want to play something that Donald Trump said to Fox News. This is about where the responsibility lies for the raid in Yemen that killed Navy SEAL Ryan Owens.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: This was a mission that was started before I got here. This was something that was, you know, just - they wanted to do. And they came to see me. They explained what they wanted to do, the generals, who are very respected. My generals are the most respected that we've had in many decades, I would - I believe. And they lost Ryan.


KEILAR: So he seems to be, I think, partially explaining it, but also shifting some of the responsibility there, colonel. Is this a fear among the generals that while they may want control, that if Donald Trump isn't making the final call, they're more accountable, or does this really just come down to, he's president, he's responsible?

FRANCONA: He's president and he's responsible and he authorized that mission. Now, you can't come back and blame Donald Trump because the mission failed. These are very, very risky operations. And some of them are going to work and some of them are not. Unfortunately, we lost a Navy SEAL and we had other injuries as well. They got into a fire fight they were not expecting. These things happen. And I think we have to accept that when we conduct these special operations. By their very nature, they are just inherently risky.

KEILAR: Kimberly, how are military officials weighing this wanting to speed up the process, but also as Rick said, needing for the president to really be involved here?

DOZIER: Well, there's a debate going on between the national security council, the Pentagon, other agencies that are involved in the counterterrorism fight asking, you know, how much authority do we need to act rapidly. Is it just maybe are they going to limit this to what they call the high-value target list? That's a list of people that all of the agencies have already weighed in on, made their case, and put them on a capture or kill list. Is it going to start with Mattis? Is it going to go down to the lower level generals? That's being debated. And that's why everyone I've spoken to has said, you know, they haven't seen the paper with the details on this yet. They just know that this White House has more confidence in the military doing its job and being left alone to do its job and has asked to see a way to speed things up without them having to be as involved at every step of the process.

KEILAR: All right, Kim Dozier, thank you so much. Lieutenant Colonel Rick Francona. Really appreciate both of you talking to us about this. And next, from boosting the military budget to infrastructure

spending, is the president looking to write checks that Congress won't cash? My next guest, a fiscal conservative congressman, is he ready to open the checkbook?

Also, the story behind this emotional moment when the widow of the Navy SEAL killed in that deadly Yemen raid was honored by Congress, by the president. The backstory on how this all came together. We're back in a moment.


[14:28:53] KEILAR: President Trump delivered a memorable speech in his first address before Congress, but the dominating moment wasn't that of a wall or a ban, but of the emotional tribute that he gave to a grieving widow and mother of three, Carryn Owens. She lost her husband, Chief Petty Officer Ryan Owens, in the raid that turned shoot-out in Yemen last month. The first military operation approved by President Trump. And last night she fought back tears as the president spoke directly to her loss.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Ryan died as he lived, a warrior and a hero, battling against terrorism and securing our nation.

[14:29:57] I just spoke to our great General Mattis, just now, who reconfirmed that, and I quote, Ryan was a part of a highly successful raid that generated large amounts of vital intelligence that will lead to --