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White House, Spicer Apologize for U.K. Surveillance Claim; House Republicans Meeting Right Now On Health Care; GOP Health Care Plan Could Fall Short Of Votes; HHS Secretary Price Speaks On GOP Health Care Bill; White House: Spicer Apologized For U.K. Surveillance Claim. Aired 9-9:30a ET

Aired March 17, 2017 - 09:00   ET


[09:00:00] JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning, everyone. I'm John Berman.

We begin with breaking news on what has now become an international incident over the President's claims on wiretapping. Not only are they without evidence, not only have members of both American political parties said they are not true, but now the United Kingdom, America's closest ally with whom the U.S. has a special relationship, it just made a special request. A special demand really -- stop it! They seemed bloody upset.

This after White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer provided a dramatic reading of claims from a Fox News commentator, not a reporter, claiming that President Obama used British intelligence to spy on Donald Trump.


SEAN SPICER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: On Fox News, on March 14th, Judge Andrew Napolitano made the following statement, quote, "Three intelligence sources have informed Fox News that President Obama went outside the chain of command. He didn't use the NSA, he didn't use the CIA, he didn't use the FBI, and he didn't use the Department of Justice. He used GCHQ."

What is that? It's the initials for the British intelligence-spying agency. This was simply by having two people saying to them the President needs transcripts of conversations involving candidate Trump, conservations involving President-elect Trump. He's able to get it and there's no American fingerprints on this.


BERMAN: All right. Well, Britain has reacted, putting it mildly, this morning. And we just got word that the U.S. has apologized to U.S. officials. The President could face questions on this, he no doubt will, when he holds first news conference since he made his own evidence-free wiretap claims. He will be side by side with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in just a few hours.

We have a lot to cover this morning. Let's begin with the overseas reaction in London. Nic Robertson is there. Quite a night, Nic.

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN INTERNATIONAL DIPLOMATIC EDITOR: Absolutely. And the first we heard from was from GCHQ, the Government Communications Headquarters. And I have to stress how absolutely rare it is, and almost unheard of, that they would comment on any sort of allegations, so the fact that they came out and called this ridiculous is an indication of just how strongly they feel.

And we've heard from the British Prime Minister Theresa May spokesman this morning, and I'll quote you what she has had to say. And, again, this is very, very strong language here. She says, "We've made clear to the administration that these claims are ridiculous and they should be ignored, and we've received assurances that these allegations will not be repeated."

That's what the spokesman told reporters just there an hour or so ago. The British say that they have used both their ambassador in Washington and their national security adviser to contact officials at the White House and to seek assurances, that they say they have now got, that Sean Spicer won't make these allegations again.

This is a special relationship between Theresa May and President Trump. This is something that Theresa May has invested a lot of political capital in, going to Washington, the first world leader to meet face to face with Donald Trump.

She's got a huge amount on her plate here, Scotland trying to break away from Britain, Britain trying to break away from the European Union. She doesn't need this distraction and that -- and also because the allegations, as they say, are ridiculous -- is why this is being addressed in such a strong manner -- John.

BERMAN: And, apparently, Britain got the response it wanted from the United States. Nic Robertson, thank you so much.

As we said, we may hear more on this a bit later from President Trump when he speaks, side by side, in his first press conference since the wiretap claims. He will be with Angela Merkel.

But we are getting word that two of the President's top advisers did apologize overnight. Jeremy Diamond at the White House with the latest on that.

Sean Spicer, the national security adviser, Henry McMaster, both placing phone calls, Jeremy.

JEREMY DIAMOND, CNN WHITE HOUSE REPORTER: Yes, good morning, John. Words have consequences, that's what the White House is learning this morning, particularly when those words are said from the podium here in the White House briefing room.

We're told that Sean Spicer, the White House Press Secretary, and H.R. McMaster, the national security adviser, apologized to their British counterparts for what Sean Spicer said yesterday when he cited these comments from a Fox News commentator, alleging that GCHQ, the British intelligence service, had wiretapped Trump Tower. And obviously, that is not true. One White House official described the conversations as cordial and said that Spicer's comments were unintentional.

But clearly, we're seeing here that, while President Trump's wiretapping comments have had political consequences, they are now also having diplomatic consequences. And while the British are a close U.S. ally and clearly, things are being patched up here, this is an international incident. Had it not been with the British, had it been with a country that was, perhaps, less friendly to the U.S., we might be seeing a very different scenario playing out right now.

BERMAN: The White House says that Spicer's comments were unintentional. How did he unintentionally read aloud from a piece of paper he brought to the lectern with him for the press conference? I suppose that's a question we can ask them later.

Jeremy Diamond, the President has a packed schedule today, a high stakes meeting with one of the world's most important leaders.

[09:05:05] DIAMOND: Yes, absolutely. You know, we're expecting the President to hold a joint press conference today with the German Chancellor, and this will be the first time that we have the President answering questions since he made these wiretapping allegations. Now, of course, the question is whether he will actually answer those questions.

In the past, he's called on friendly conservative outlets who have not asked news of day questions. But, you know, this comes as Sean Spicer, yesterday, was contorting himself, once again, to try and defend the President's allegations, and it really turned into quite a combative news conference. Check out a clip an interaction between Sean Spicer and our CNN's Jim Acosta.


SPICER: I know you want to cherry pick it, but --


SPICER: No, no. But you do. But where was your concern about the "New York Times" report? You didn't seem to have a concern with that.


JIM ACOSTA, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: We have done plenty of reporting on all of this, about the --

SPICER: No, no, but you want to cherry pick one --

ACOSTA: -- these connections between the --

SPICER: -- one piece of commentary.

ACOSTA: -- these connections between the aides of the President, associates of the President to the Russians. That has all been looked at and it's -- SPICER: No, but how do you know all this?

ACOSTA: That --

SPICER: How do you seem to be such an expert on this?

ACOSTA: I'm saying that this has been looked at, Sean, and through all of that --

SPICER: How do you know it's been looked at?

ACOSTA: -- that there have been --

SPICER: Hold on, hold on.


DIAMOND: And that was just one snippet of the combative interactions which, as you know, John, came after the Chairman of the Senate and House intelligence Committee said there was no evidence to back up the President's wiretapping claims. John.

BERMAN: All right. Jeremy Diamond with a lot of going on at the White House this morning. Great to have you with us, Jeremy, and we have a lot to discuss.

Joining me now Errol Louis, CNN political commentator, political anchor at Spectrum News; Betsy Woodruff, politics reporter for "The Daily Beast"; and Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics.

Professor, great to see you.

Errol, I'm going to start with you because, you know, now not only does he have the evidence against him, now not only does he have members of both parties in the U.S. Congress against him, but it's the British who say that the claims coming from the President and the White House just aren't true. And overnight, the White House forced to apologize on this.

ERROL LOUIS, POLITICAL ANCHOR, SPECTRUM NEWS NY1: Yes, that's right. I mean, this is where you meet some of the limits of presidential power. It's fine to sort of blow off members of Congress, and you can certainly brow beat your own employees. Poor Sean Spicer obviously being directed to go out and say whatever he has to, to sort try and make true something that is clearly false, namely the President's tweet and his outrageous accusation that he still won't back down from.

So you can do that with all of those folks, but now you get into a different sphere. You have an independently elected sovereign nation -- the head of a sovereign nation who's got her own set of concerns, not just the diplomatic ones we just heard about but, you know, we've got ongoing operations in which British and American forces have to work together, intelligence agencies have to cooperate. Trust has to be established and has to be maintained. There's a lot more at stake. And of course, the simplest, easiest thing that the President can do,

which he refuses to do, is simply say, yes, I made it up. I was completely off base, and I won't do it again.

BERMAN: Yes. And now, he decided to have his sash on Sean Spicer and General H.R. McMaster, the national security adviser, apologize overnight. That happened overnight.

And, Betsy, today, he's going to be standing right next to German Chancellor Angela Merkel, one of the most important leaders in the world with whom he needs to have a very good working relationship. And no doubt, there are going to be -- I hope people ask questions about this. You know, he's going to face questions about something as ridiculous as Sean Spicer reading, you know, fake news from the podium.

BETSY WOODRUFF, POLITICAL REPORTER, THE DAILY BEAST: It's really an extraordinary situation to be in. And I think what's important for context here, of course, is that this is something that just doesn't happen. This hasn't happened with previous administrations. We're sort of breaking new ground when it comes to finding unusual and atypical ways to damage relations with our allies.

I think, particularly, in the case of Spicer's comment, the larger indication here is that, in the White House, based just on what's been publicly said, there is, in some cases, more credence given to reports from opinion commentators on conservative T.V. shows than to the actual consensus of the intel community, which is, right now, based on what the Chairs of the House Intelligence Committee are saying, is that there's just no reason to think this happened.

Despite that, the President's spokesman, Spicer, still went ahead and actually bashed one of our allies. It's really extraordinary. It's a very unusual situation.

And I think, as the President heads to his meetings with Angela Merkel, that context is really valuable also, in part because, remember, Merkel and the website Breitbart, which has a lot of connections to the White House, also have a very fraught relationship. Breitbart has been highly critical of her. Trump, himself, we know gets a lot of news from Breitbart.

The fact that he is so reliant on some of these sources that have, you know, troubling, a little bit of a sketchy backgrounds perhaps, is important.

BERMAN: You know, Professor, one of the lingering questions, and this is one of the questions that candidate Trump faced or we asked of candidate Trump or about him during the election, and now it's seeped into the presidency is, yes, all this is happening. The circus is going on, but does it affect his base? The Trump supporters, will they turn?

I think the question now is bigger, which is, does the circus that seems to surround the President, will it affect his ability to legislate? Does it get into the important business of being President of the United States? Have you seen any sign of that? What signs are you looking for there?

[09:10:12] DR. LARRY SABATO, DIRECTOR OF THE CENTER FOR POLITICS OF UNIVERSITY OF VIRGINIA: Well, I think that's a very good question. And, of course, it will play out over time, but it's already clear that, in terms of credibility, which is very important in the legislative process, which is very important in terms of public opinion, world public opinion as well as well as domestic public opinion, President Trump has been hurt, I think badly, by a whole series of events, including these malevolent, irrational tweets.

He has only himself to blame. He cleared them with no one. You can say all the bad things you want about Sean Spicer -- although I think he should Google the name Ron Ziegler, who was the Press Secretary for Richard Nixon, who suffered greatly because he tried to defend the indefensible, which is what Sean Spicer is trying to do -- but on the whole, when you look at what the Trump administration has said and done and what President Trump has said and done, it can't possibly help him with all the legislative battles ahead.

These people do look at popularity polls. They do pay attention to where the President is in the polls and in case people haven't noticed, he's not doing terribly well.

BERMAN: Yes, he slipped five points in the Fox News poll. That's the most recent poll from February to March, five points in his favorability rating.

Errol Louis, on Monday, we have this key hearing. The House Intelligence Committee holding public hearings. And it seems to me, that's where the rubber meets the road here, at least from a public sense.

People are going to be able to watch the FBI Director James Comey answer direct questions about what's been going on and if in fact there were wiretaps. I mean, everyone who has seen the evidence says, no, there weren't wiretaps there. But does this end on Monday?

LOUIS: Well, I think, hopefully, if we are lucky as a country, it ends before Monday, that the President figures out a way to dial all of this back. That he communicates with Congress and says, you know, my request to have you look into this, I withdraw that request. Please let's make this go away. Please, let's move on with the business of running the country. That's if we're lucky, because it will be a spectacle and it's unfortunate.

And to pick up something that Larry said, I mean, in democracies like great Britain, like the United States, public opinion does matter. And so it's not enough to say, well, I won the election, I still get to be President whether I tell outrageous lies and implode on those lies or not. It's not that simple.

People have to believe in you and people have to believe in your words, or else you sort of burn through a lot of credibility and it becomes hard to govern not this country but other countries as well.

BERMAN: You know, Betsy, what are you hearing from Republicans on Capitol Hill? Publicly, we heard from Devin Nunes, who yesterday I called David -- apologies, Mr. Chairman -- but you heard from Richard Burr, the chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee. Republicans, when they speak publicly on this now, say they've seen no evidence. They seem to be sending a signal that they want the President to stop with this.

WOODRUFF: Right, exactly. That seems to be the general consensus. I had a conversation with top Republican Hill staffer a little while back who said that, for upwards of a decade, Hill Republicans in Congress got bashed as the craziest people in Washington.

And he said, now that Trump's here, they're actually getting less criticism because, comparatively speaking, some of the perhaps more open, more curious comments that House Republicans make are overshadowed by comments that are made by the President. In this situation, of course, his allegation that hasn't been substantiated, that he was being wiretapped during the campaign.

And that just kind of goes to show, I think, that Trump has really changed the way that the discourse works in D.C. by making claims like this. In some ways, he attracts criticism that House Republicans would be getting. And based on that conversation, it seems like there's some comfort with that, a bit of gratefulness that they're a little out of the spotlight.

BERMAN: Professor Sabato, if I can, one question on health care, because right now, CNN estimates 20 or 21 Republicans are leaning or set against the current Republican health care bill to repeal and replace ObamaCare.

"Politico's" reporting the President may make some kind of declarative statement over the next few days, saying that, you know, we need to get behind this bill. We need to get this through. You know, where do you see things right now?

SABATO: Well, the RyanCare bill is obviously in trouble. There are defectors from all sorts of Republican factions. You know, what's interesting though is that Ryan and Trump have something in common. The Republicans, as a whole, in their races for the White House and for Congress in 2010, in 2012, in 2014, in 2016, ran mainly on opposing ObamaCare.

What is going to happen to all of them if they can't do something about it now that they've been given everything, the White House, both houses of Congress, the large majority of governors and state legislators? There's going to be a reaction in 2018 in the midterm elections.

[09:14:59] That's what draws Ryan and Trump and for that matter, Mitch McConnell and the Republican caucus in the Senate, together. They have to find a way out of this that doesn't just drop the whole issue.

BERMAN: Professor Sabato, Errol Louis, and Betsy Woodruff, you gave me a good segue way, Larry, into my next segment here because he is the speaker of the House, but now he needs to be the vote whisperer, how is Paul Ryan sweet talking Republican hold outs on this health care bill? We are staking out a key meeting.

Plus a major development in U.S. policy towards North Korea. The new secretary of state says military action is an option.

And the president will face questions on all of this wiretaps to the new back and forth with Britain when he holds his first meeting with one of the most powerful leaders. The stakes really couldn't be higher.


BERMAN: All right, right now, House Speaker Paul Ryan is behind closed doors presumably twisting arms trying to get members of his own party on board with the Republican plan to repeal and replace Obamacare.

[09:20:01]According to CNN's latest count, 21 Republicans say they are voting no or leaning in that direction. Can any of them be swayed back? I want to get right to CNN's Suzanne Malveaux on Capitol Hill where a lot is going on this morning -- Suzanne.

SUZANNE MALVEAUX, CNN WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: Hi, John. Well, it's certainly a flurry activities here on the Hill. As expected, of course, you have the House Speaker Paul Ryan behind closed doors working his magic if you will trying to make this happen. It is a very tough sell.

Publicly what we just saw is the HHS Secretary Tom Price here on the Hill just had a press conference. He's also been meeting with House Republicans and the White House believes that he's the perfect person to really make the hard sell.

As you know he's a physician and long-time Congressman here on the Hill from Georgia and also a former chair of the House Budget Committee and what his argument was made today, the case he was making, this is much more flexible than people see.

That there's a little bit of something for everyone and that the main concerns about the states and about the amount of Medicaid is something that will be addressed. Take a listen.


TOM PRICE, HEALTH AND HUMAN SERVICES SECRETARY: This plan which is in three phases, the reconciliation bill, the kinds of things we're able to do at the department and then more legislation is an overall plan that makes it so we can move in the direction of patient centered health care.


MALVEAUX: So that is his main point. One of the other things that we'll be hearing from President Trump, excuse the noise in the background there, is the fact that this is not something that he has given up on, as a matter of fact that he thinks there is a way to satisfy the conservatives particularly those on the Senate side who believe this does not go far enough. Take a listen.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA: In a way I'm an arbitrator, I want to see it happen but it has to be great for the people. I want to make it really good. I want to make it really strong. It's tough because we're not going to get Democrat votes, even if we gave you the greatest health care plan in the history of the world. The Democrats won't vote because they don't want the Republicans to get credit, which is a very serious thing. They are selfish.


MALVEAUX: And John as you know the next step of this goes to the Rules Committee next week that is where it can be amended. We'll see if those amendments are good enough to satisfy those who do not support the legislation before we go onto the full house -- John.

BERMAN: What are the changes? That's what we want to know. It could be being decided right now in these meetings. Suzanne Malveaux, thank you so much. We'll check back in with you when we learn more.

Joining me now is Republican Congressman Ken Buck of Colorado. He is a key member who will vote on this and also a member of the House Freedom Caucus.

Congressman, I do want to get to health caring in just a moment. But first the breaking news, we're just learning that the White House apologized to Great Britain overnight for the fact that Sean Spicer, the White House press secretary, read these claims that Britain spied on Candidate Trump during the election, based on comments from a Fox News commentator.

The report aside the fact that the White House had to apologize overnight for these comments, does that concern you?

REPRESENTATIVE KEN BUCK (R), COLORADO: You know, I didn't hear Sean Spicer's comments and I didn't see the apology, so I really don't know what was going on in that situation.

BERMAN: It gets to the president's, you know, so far evidence free claims that he was wiretapped and you certainly know the back and forth on that. Are you satisfied that the White House is being straight with the American people on what happened?

BUCK: I'm very satisfied. I think there are allegations going all over the place and I think it's unfortunate because we should be focusing on our budget and health care and immigration and tax reform and instead the Democrats are talking about Russian conspiracies and talking about other things that are just taking us down a path that we don't need to go down.

The tax return issue died during the election, the American people elected Donald Trump and we should put some of those things aside and get to the important issues. BERMAN: To be fair, it was the president himself who launched these wiretap claims not the Democrats. But I do take your point, and we do want to talk to you about the important issues, one of them is the Republican plan to repeal and replace Obamacare. Where are you? As this bill stands now, are you a yes vote or no vote?

BUCK: I'm leaning against this bill as it stands now. My understanding is there are going to be a number of important amendments and issues brought up. One, next week, I understand that we may be dealing with an antitrust bill that removes antitrust exemptions from health insurers.

It's a bipartisan bill. It came up seven or eight years ago. It's an important piece of legislation and I think it's an important step towards making health care more affordable in America and making insurance companies compete for the consumer's dollar.

So I think that's important. I want to see whether that passes. I also want to see whether we have a work requirement in Medicaid that requires individuals if they are going to receive benefits from the United States, if they are able bodied, if they don't have childcare responsibilities or other responsibilities in the home, that we put them to work and make sure they are contributing to our country.

So I think there are a number of things that are out there that could move me to yes. I want to get to yes. I think it's a really important step that we replace the awful Affordable Care Act.

[09:25:08]It is really something that the American people I'm not sure -- at least when I go to my town hall meetings, I don't think they understand the death spiral that this piece of legislation is in.

BERMAN: Well, again, I mean, right now, Obamacare as it were is polling net positive, but I do want to give you some credit on something you've done, which is you've put on a show or at least you did a video, Congressman, one that I thought was actually really entertaining. And you're talking about the national debt and the need to address it. Let's play a short clip of that.


BERMAN: OK, first off, let's just say you're a better actor than Congressman Gowdy, I think we can all agree on that.

BUCK: Thank you.

BERMAN: When you're dealing with the deficit and the national debt, the president just proposed his budget for next year with a lot of cuts in some areas that are controversial. But one thing it doesn't do, is cut the deficit and you know because you've worked on this for some time. The only way to do that is address Social Security and Medicare and those are areas the president hasn't been willing to touch.

BUCK: I agree with you. It is unfortunate Congress has the power of the purse. This is a step in the right direction and president is addressing with discretionary programs in the right way. But it seems like everybody was dissatisfied, the people that want to see the military budget increased, claim that the military budget wasn't increased enough.

The people that want to see environmental programs increased were upset that environmental programs were cut. The reality is we have about $600 billion of annual debt in this country. We don't have a major war going on. We don't have a recession.

It is time that we get much closer to balancing our budget and Congress is going to have to take responsibility. That's where the Constitution gives the authority and we're going to have to do a better job.

BERMAN: One of the areas the president suggested cutting is eliminating $3 billion from the Community Development Block Grant Program, CDBG, which as you know helps fund programs like "Meals on Wheels." We checked in Greeley, which is in your county, you know, several thousand people, 55,000 meals are delivered every year and 87,500 meals delivered every year. Are you concerned that these seniors who get these meals could suffer if this program is cut?

BUCK: No, I'm not concerned about that. You know, we have an incredibly charitable community and the charities in our community will step forward and churches in our community will step forward and make sure that our seniors have healthy meals.

The federal government has no role in serving a meal in Greeley or Longmont or any other town in my district or in America. It has no business in education. We have to do the things that are federal, set out in the Constitution that require us to spend money.

We're in so many areas doing so many things that we shouldn't be, doing them so inefficiently, that we are creating this huge debt. I'm much more concerned about $20 trillion of debt for our grandchildren than whether the federal government should be overseeing and mismanaging programs that are better left to local government.

BERMAN: Well, they are not managing "Meals on Wheels," they are providing money to a program that gives money to "Meals on Wheels," which I imagine --

BUCK: John, let me disagree with you. They are spending a lot of money on regulations and spending a lot of money on oversight. The federal government never just gives money. They give money with strings attached and require reports and require a certain amount of accountability. That money should not be coming from China and should not be coming from major corporations through bonds that we sell in the United States government.

BERMAN: Congressman Ken Buck, great to have you with us. Thanks so much for your time, sir.

BUCK: Thank you.

BERMAN: All right, very soon President Trump meets with a key U.S. ally, German Chancellor Angela Merkel on her way to the White House right now. There was a lot on the table and they will hold a news conference.

They'll be asked about many things and one issue that popped to the forefront the fact that the U.S. had to apologize to Great Britain overnight about some of the wiretap claims coming from the White House.