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THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER

White House Stands By Trump Wiretapping Allegations; Without Proof, White House Stands By Trump Wiretap Claim; Fired Trump Adviser Paid Thousands by Russian TV. Aired 4-4:30p ET

Aired March 16, 2017 - 16:00   ET

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


[16:00:00]

SEAN SPICER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: -- about tweets or interpreting something that happened during the campaign trail is not in keeping with their -- how they're supposed to interpret the law.

I'm not gonna continue to comment. We tailor that additional -- that second executive order to comply with the judge's order. I think so to go back now and to say, well, based on how the first order was conceived, makes absolutely no sense. But I'm going to let the Department of Justice litigate that, how they do it.

But that's -- the second order literally was tailored to the concerns that were rendered by the 9th Circuit in the first executive order. So for them to then turn around and make arguments that are non- germane seems kind of odd. But I'll let the Department of Justice do that.

Zeke?

QUESTION: Thanks, Sean. One quick followup on the (inaudible) yesterday.

Is the president concerned that comments made by his staff came up in the -- in this lawsuit? (inaudible) comments by Stephen Miller (ph) saying that the second (inaudible) would have (inaudible) same policy outcome as the first. That was the (inaudible) that was used by the judge in that case to sort of (inaudible) get that (inaudible) yesterday. Is he concerned that that -- is he concerned that the (inaudible) that there's mixed messaging coming out of the West Wing?

SPICER: No, he's not. And I think that the Department of Justice will be pursuing avenues that will seek to remedy this. I think when you read through the -- the court's ruling, in Hawaii in particular, it just doesn't seem to make sense.

As I mentioned to Kathy (ph), I mean the -- the executive order -- the second executive order was literally tailored. So to go back and talk about statements that occurred, you know, in some cases well before even the first one, seems to not be an accurate reading of the law. But I'll let the Department of Justice, you know, be the ones that argue this and make the appropriate legal argument.

Hunter? (CROSSTALK)

SPICER: Yeah?

QUESTION: (inaudible) your long list of (inaudible) these reports you mentioned. One that (inaudible) accusation that perhaps the PCHQ (ph) was involved. Did the president ever raise this with his conversation with Theresa May? And if this -- if that were to pan out, would that imperil the special relationship between (inaudible)?

SPICER: Again, these are just -- that happened I think two days ago. It was something that was, you know, reported on air. I think the point is that there's been a...

(CROSSTALK)

SPICER: No, no, it has not been raised. But I do think that, again, we're not -- I'm just -- all we're doing is literally reading off what other stations and people have reported. And I think that cast a concern of some of the activities that may have occurred during the '16 election.

We're not casting judgment on that. I think the idea is to say that if these organizations, if these individuals came to these conclusions, they merit looking into.

Olivier (ph).

QUESTION: Thanks, Sean. I've got a couple for you. There's a news report about the president's meeting with the Saudi defense minister/deputy crown prince, that says that the defense minister told the president about a plot, a terrorist plot against the United States. Did that happen? What's the nature of that? How worried should Americans be?

SPICER: We're obviously never going to comment on any kind of specific threats to the homeland. We're obviously committed to ensuring the safety of every American. But it should be no secret that we share intelligence amongst a variety of countries. And so we would never comment on a potential threat or not that existed, but we appreciate several countries that we work with closely to make sure that we do what we can to protect the homeland.

QUESTION: And one more. Secretary Tillerson in Asia said that 20 years of diplomatic efforts have failed to get North Korea to denuclearize. That's plainly true, but the question I guess that comes up is does the president plan a break from diplomacy altogether? Are we looking now at only the use of force or some other coercive measures?

SPICER: I'm not going to comment. I think the president never takes anything off the table. That's something that he's been very clear about. And -- and that -- Blake?

QUESTION: Sean, over the course of the campaign, the president made a couple of different -- many comments about the budget and the deficit. At one point, he said he thought that he could get rid of the national debt over the course of eight years. At another point, he said that he would insist on a balanced budget relatively soon.

Now, the baseline that the administration is giving out is, "Well, at least we're not adding onto the deficit," which is nearly a half- trillion dollars. So I'm curious as to how we got from that point to now, to where he was talking at one point about eliminating a bunch, and now it's adding onto...

(CROSSTALK)

SPICER: I think Director Mulvaney addressed that. I think, look, a couple of things. Number one, the Senate dragged its feet on getting Director Mulvaney confirmed and in office. So I think we're way -- we were behind the curve on having a director of OMB. We got in here. I think we produced a blueprint that is consistent with the president's principles and priorities.

But he's already made it very clear that we'll have a budget probably sometime in May that will outline the more specifics of the revenue piece, the entitlement piece, and the full details of all this.

But that's -- eliminating a $20 trillion debt and tackling the current deficit is something that's going to take a little bit of time. It's something the president is committed to reducing, and I think we've talked very extensively about the president's commitment to protecting taxpayer dollars and using them more efficiently.

This budget and a lot of the action the president has took on, you know, on other projects including the F-18, the next generation of Air Force One, show that the president's committed on very, very personal basis to getting involved in programs and policies to reduce the deficit and to respect taxpayer money. So this is step one and it's a down payment on that goal.

QUESTION: As for future steps, there are lots of cuts in here but no matter which way you splice the numbers, anyone will tell you, if you want a drop it somehow, you've got to get to entitlements.

SPICER: I understand.

QUESTION: Is that on the table potentially, yes or no?

SPICER: Look, as Director Mulvaney put it, look, there's been -- he was chosen for this job because of his commitment to fiscal austerity and respect of taxpayer dollars and budgeting skills and I think that we've got to get past today, let us get down that, and we'll have more -- but again, I think this budget is a huge down payment on the president's goal of showing his commitment to fiscal responsibility and respecting the taxpayer.

QUESTION: Sean, tax day is coming up. A lot of Americans putting together their tax returns. When the president puts together his tax return this year, will he release it publicly? Presuming it's not under audit. SPICER: Well St. Patrick's Day is tomorrow, that's what I'm more focused on. QUESTION: Presumably his 2016 returns are not under audit yet. So will he release...

SPICER: ...Right. Well, again, we'll -- we'll cross that bridge when it comes to it. I think the president's been very clear about his position on his tax returns and we'll have to see where it goes from there but the president has been very clear throughout the campaign and consistent that he's under a routine audit.

QUESTION: Reading the draft of the budget, listening to Director Mulvaney comments yesterday and today, it would appear that the national endowment for the arts would be phased out entirely in two years. Can you name any other government programs or even cabinet departments such as housing and urban development and education in which its entire function may be phased out or reduced to another agency and government or even the state.

SPICER: John (ph), who's here from OMB, is the appropriate person to ask on that. He can -- I know that they've done several briefings on the budget. We could have OMB definitely get back to you on this if you can -- if you can contact him after this.

QUESTION: You keep going back to the fact that the president used wiretap in quotes and last night he said it was very important that it was in quotes. But out of the four tweets where he accuses Barack Obama of wiretapping him, he only used quotes in two of them. In two of them he specifically said that he tapped his phones. He didn't use the term wiretapping.

And just minutes ago you said it was communications being swept up. So can you definitively say that he still feels like Barack Obama wiretapped Trump Tower? Or does he feel like it was broadly surveilled? Which is it?

SPICER: Look, he was very clear about this last night. He talked about it as you said.

QUESTION: He wasn't clear about it (ph)...

SPICER: Yeah, he was. He said that he meant it, he put it in quotes, it was very broad, and so that's what he meant by the use of the term.

QUESTION: So was it phone tapping?

SPICER: No, it was surveillance and I think we've covered this like 10 times.

QUESTION: But it hasn't (ph) -- there's no specific answer what it was. What President Obama do...

SPICER: ...I understand that but that's the point of them looking into this, Caitlyn (ph). I think the idea is to look into this, have the House and Senate Intelligence Committees look into this and report back.

QUESTION: So I want to follow up on that. If all of this comes out and there's no proof that President Obama had any role in any wiretapping, that there was no wiretapping, will President Trump then offer an apology?

SPICER: I've had this like three times this week and I think the answer is, we're not going to prejudge where the -- where this -- where the outcome of this is. We've got to let the process work its will and then when there's a report that comes out conclusive from there, then we'll be able to comment. But to jump ahead of this process at this point would be inappropriate.

QUESTION: Sean for taking questions from a talk radio host right here in Georgia and not in the D.C. swamp. First I have two questions. On the leaks of the president's tax returns and classified information, President Trump campaigned on draining the swamp. The American people then want to know why the FBI Director Comey (ph )and Commissioner (inaudible) have not yet been fired by the Trump Administration.

My second question is with regard to, there are many conservatives are really concerned that Paul Ryan, the speaker of the House, is leading President Trump down a very wrong (ph) path on healthcare. How do you react to that?

SPICER: Well on the first one, there's no personnel updates with respect to -- with the exception of the ones that I mentioned today.

On the second, Donald Trump's not one to be led down a path by anyone. I think he is -- he talked today at the lunch with T Shuck (ph) and Speaker Ryan, he is working hand in glove with -- with the speaker. He talked about it last night.

This is a commitment that he has to enacting healthcare. This is a process that he has to -- to enacting healthcare. This is a -- a process that he is committed to, wants to see through because of a goal that he wants to achieve, which is making more patient centric healthcare system that lowers the cost and increases the options.

But, he doesn't get led down any paths. He leads very clearly. And I think if you listen to Speaker Ryan today, he's in agreement that there's been a strong partnership between the House, the administration, and I think the Senate so far to make sure that we get this bill done.

And that's what our goal's going to be. And that's, you know -- so I would argue that we've actually done a pretty good job of getting that done. Jonathan?

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) to cut the National Institute of Health budget by 19 percent. It's, as you know, very important part of the government funding medical research.

SPICER: Yeah. QUESTION: Budget Director Mulvaney yesterday acknowledged that the private sector can't fill that gap when there are rare diseases. We do need a really robust government presence. The president invited a rare disease patient to his speech to Congress so he could talk about medical innovation and new cures. How do you square those things when you're cutting in -- in our hedge by 19 percent? And many conservatives actually wanted to increase the budget?

SPICER: I -- I think Director Mulvaney actually -- somebody asked him during the Q&A period how -- the same question. And ...

(CROSSTALK)

QUESTION: (Inaudible) that it wouldn't -- my outtake from listening to him yesterday was that it wouldn't (ph) be cut. I mean, I almost (ph) wrote (ph) that.

SPICER: But -- but again, there's this assumption in Washington, Jonathan, that if you get less money, it's a cut. And I think that the reality is that in a lot of these there's efficiencies, duplicity, ways to spend money better. And I think if you're wasting a lot of money, that's not a true dollar spent.

And I think when you look at the way that Director Mulvaney and the president approached this budget it was can we ask, can we get more with the same dollar, can we find duplicity, can we find efficiencies, can we combine, you know, facilities in some cases at NIH to enhance a better experience?

Whereby we actually have an outcome that's reduced savings. But to assume that because you spend a ton of dollars, you're going to get a better outcome -- I mean, with all due respect, you look at the District of Columbia. They spend by far more per capita than any other city in the country on -- on education.

And I think they have, you know, tremendous issues that are constantly being dealt with in their education system. So, to assume that just because you throw money at a problem, it somehow magically solves is a very Washington way of looking a -- a budget problem.

QUESTION: But they believe ...

SPICER: I understand that, and I think a lot of the issues that we're working as the director outlined a couple weeks ago during the pass back process is to work with them to talk to each of these agencies and departments about how to walk through their budget in a way that ensures that they can continue to do the core functions that they want while finding ways to reduce waste, get rid of -- enhance efficiencies, and get rid of duplicity.

But that is a very Washington way of looking a problem when you say let's just look at how much we spend as a measure of how much we care, or how much we're going to get done. And I think that the president's been very clear about as to what his priorities on this budget are.

And the outcomes that we expect from every dollar that we spend. So, for being in office for 55 days, or 50 some odd days or whatever it's been, we've had a unique ability to go forward so far and make a very strong commitment to enhancing our national security, to protect the country, to keep America safe and its citizens safe, while at the same time, making sure that we don't ask for people to work harder to spend more to Washington -- send more to Washington that gets alternately wasted.

I just don't see how that's showing respect to the American people or the American taxpayer. Especially when so many people are working two sometimes three jobs or, you know, or both parents are working just to -- to -- to get by and pay the mortgage. And we're saying, hey, don't worry, keep sending more money to Washington and we're not going to take the time.

But there should be a review of all these agencies. Director Mulvaney was pointing out how many, you know, unauthorized agencies and departments and programs we have throughout the government. If we're going to do that, at some point, there should be a debate on whether or not these agencies and programs are achieving their mission.

And if they are, then great, fund them. But if they're not, then we shouldn't be asking hard working American taxpayers to send more money to Washington to fund things that don't further those goals. Thank you, guys, very much. I look forward to seeing you all tomorrow. Take care. Have a good one.

[16:14:30]

JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: All right.

That was Sean Spicer, the White House press secretary, taking questions there.

Welcome to THE LEAD. I am Jake Tapper.

We're going to begin with politics.

You heard Mr. Spicer there just wrapping up a rather contentious White House briefing. We witnessed several rather interesting exchanges.

Despite leaders from both the Democratic and Republican parties, including the House speaker and the House, Senate and -- the House and Senate Intelligence Committee leaders all saying that they have seen zero evidence and have no reason to believe that President Trump's claim that President Obama had him wiretapped at Trump Tower is true.

[16:15:12] Well, despite that, today, the White House stood by the president's claim.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REPORTER: Are you saying that the president still stands by his allegation that President Obama ordered wiretapping or surveillance of Trump tower despite the fact that the Senate Intelligence Committee says they see no indication that it happened? Does the president still stand by the allegation?

SEAN SPICER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: First of all, he stands by it, but again, you're mischaracterizing what happened today.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: He wasn't mischaracterizing what happened today.

Let's bring in CNN's Jeff Zeleny and Manu Raju.

I just -- it's been almost two weeks, gentlemen, since this wild and apparently baseless claim has been made. The White House has gone through several responses.

First, they were trying to find out just what it was the President Trump had been tweeting about. Then they demanded a congressional investigation to find out what happened. Then, they switched to no comment with people including Vice President Pence refusing to say that they agreed that this allegation had happened.

Then, when it became clear that both the former director of national intelligence and the current FBI director were saying this did not happen, they started trying to walk it back by claiming that wiretapping was in quotes, and therefore, what President Trump was referring to was any kind of surveillance, and moreover, not only did President Trump not mean, hey, I was wiretapped at Trump Tower, me personally. It now, of course, the definition had been expanded to include there was surveillance conducted and maybe somebody, somebody talked to had something to do with somebody on the Trump campaign.

Then, last night, President Trump told his favorite channel FOX News that there are going to be some very interesting items coming to the forefront over the next two weeks.

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Right.

TAPPER: And now, we have this, just anger from Sean Spicer who cannot defend the indefensible so he is trying to change exactly what happened.

Jeff?

ZELENY: Well, Jake, I think when the president said last night something very interesting would be coming out, I do not think what he had in mind was the fact that yet another set of congressional leaders, Republican and Democrat alike, from the Senate Intelligence Committee would release that joint statement this afternoon about an hour before the briefing saying that, look, there's no evidence of any of this, that it just simply didn't happen.

So, what is happening tonight is -- this afternoon, rather, the president is increasingly isolated in this belief and we saw Sean Spicer there in a frenzy going for ten minutes straight reading fringe news accounts trying to answer this question. But as you said, it's indefensible here.

This has hung over this White House like a storm cloud for the last two weeks or so. Never mind the fact that they're trying to get health care through, the budget through, other things. Not exactly sure why Sean Spicer decided to engage like that. He tried to move on after engaging for so long in that back and forth. But the reality is, you can engage all day long, for the rest of the

presidency here, there's no evidence. This is coming from both sides, both parties, both sides of Capitol Hill. And there simply is not an end to this here.

So, Jake, again, I think as you pointed out, it was the president who started this two weeks ago on Saturday, and he called for a congressional investigation the next day. Again, he started this. I'm not sure who is going to end it quite frankly.

TAPPER: And, Manu Raju, we have now heard from both the Democratic and Republican House and Senate Intelligence Committee leaders and they're saying there is no evidence that Trump Tower was wiretapped. There is no evidence that Donald Trump was wiretapped.

MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL REPORTER: Yes, that's right. And Sean Spicer mischaracterized what Devin Nunes, the Republican chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said yesterday at the press conference that I was at. He said this specifically.

I'll quote Devin Nunes. He said, I don't believe based on the people that they spoke with, he said, "I don't believe there was an actual tap at Trump Tower." Those are Devin Nunes' exact words.

Now, what Sean Spicer continued to point to at that briefing was the comment that said, Nunes said afterwards when he was asked by a reporter, is it possible that any Trump communications could have incidentally been swept up by surveillance? And Nunes said, "Well, possibly, we're going to look into it." He didn't say definitively, he didn't go nearly as far as President Trump did in his tweet where he said that President Obama ordered wiretaps of Trump Tower. Nowhere near that has the House Intelligence Committee has gone.

And Speaker Ryan today when I asked him, do you believe President Trump, when he said that Trump Tower was wiretapped, he said no. He said that, "I don't believe any such wiretap exists."

And also today, Jake, Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, told me that he expects James Comey to say at a Monday public hearing that Trump Tower was not wiretapped. And Schiff himself has had conversations with James Comey in a classified setting. So, we'll see if Comey actually does that.

But it seems as Jeff was saying earlier, that the president is isolated in his beliefs here because he's got virtually no support on Capitol Hill on this statement, Jake.

[16:20:09] TAPPER: It's amazing to watch the White House continue to argue that the earth is flat.

Jeff Zeleny, Manu Raju, thank you so much.

He was President Trump's national security advisor until he resigned over his failure to be forthright and honest about his contacts with the Russian ambassador. Today, new revelations about retired General Michael Flynn, Vladimir Putin and more than $30,000, that story next. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

TAPPER: Welcome back. Let's stick with politics.

Former Trump national security advisor, retired General Michael Flynn, is under fire yet again, this time for not reporting details of about speaking event in Moscow in 2015. At a gala in the Russian capital, he rubbed elbows with none other than President Vladimir Putin. This comes after the White House said last week that President Trump had been unaware that Flynn lobbied on behalf of the Turkish government during the campaign.

CNN's chief national security correspondent Jim Sciutto joins me now.

And, Jim, Flynn was paid by Russian television which anybody who watches it knows is essentially an arm of the Russian government and also paid -- funded by the Russian government.

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Absolutely.

Two potential issues here, one is legal, one is military.

[16:25:00] From the military side, if he took this payment, which we now have records that he did, and did not let the Army know, which it has no records of him telling them, that violates military regulations even for a retired officer. But this is more important. If he did not report these payments from Russian government on his security clearance form known as the SF-86, that breaks the law. That's a violation of the law.

I asked a spokesman today if he did report that on there, he didn't have an answer.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

MICHAEL FLYNN, FORMER NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISOR: Thank you so much for inviting me and having me here.

SCIUTTO (voice-over): Recently fired national security advisor, General Michael Flynn, was paid tens of thousands of dollars by Russian state television for this speaking engagement in Moscow in 2015, potentially violating the law and U.S. Army regulations.

FLYNN: I'm going to be really, really provocative here.

SCIUTTO: The Kremlin funded news agency Russia Today or RT, which hosted the event, paid Flynn $33,750 for his appearance. This according to documents obtained by the House Oversight Committee.

In interviews last year, Flynn acknowledged accepting payment for the speech, but denied being paid by the Russian government.

FLYNN: I didn't take any money from Russia if that's what you're asking me.

INTERVIEWER: Well, then who paid you? FLYNN: My speaker's bureau. Ask them.

SCIUTTO: Documents obtained by the Oversight Committee indicate, however, that the money was coming from RT. E-mails show an official of RT Russia first haggling over Flynn's fee. Quote, "The speaking fee is a bit too high and exceeds our budget at the moment. So, we had to negotiate it with the management. Do you think there is any possibility to reduce the price to $45,000?"

And then confirming that RT would provide the funds. Quote, "We will be covering the payment of General Flynn's fee from our London office."

The U.S. intelligence community has long assessed RT to be a propaganda tool of the Kremlin, writing in its January report on Russian interference of the U.S. election, that the organization had participated in disinformation campaigns aimed at the U.S.

U.S. intelligence first determined RT was backed by the Kremlin in 2012. When Flynn was head of the Defense Intelligence Agency.

Price Floyd, spokesman for Flynn, told CNN today, quote, "General Flynn reported the trip to the DIA, both before he went to Russia and after he returned."

FLYNN: We have created some of these problems.

SCIUTTO: However, Flynn was required to do more than simply report the speech. Representative Elijah Cummings, the ranking Democrat on the committee, has asked the White House, FBI and Pentagon whether Flynn appropriately reported the payments on his security clearance form as required by law. His spokesman declined to comment.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Michael Flynn.

SCIUTTO: Cummings also accuses Flynn of violating military regulations that prohibit retired officers from receiving payments from a foreign government. Flynn would have had to seek approval from the Army for such a payment. Something the Army tells CNN it has no record of.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SCIUTTO: The House Oversight Committee found that Flynn took two more payments from Russian companies a little over $11,000 from a Russian charter airline, a charter cargo airline, a little over $11,000 from a Russian-based cyber security firm as well, though those firms are not tied to the Russian government. But keep in mind as well, this is all happening as Russia is in the midst of an influence operation, interfering in the U.S. political process leading up to the presidential campaign.

TAPPER: So, beyond the legality and beyond Army rules, there's questions of just appearance.

SCIUTTO: Absolutely. TAPPER: Jim Sciutto, thank you so much. More on the wiretapping

claims from the president of the United States and how the White House is defending President Trump. That story next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)