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Combative White House Defense of Wiretap Claims; Budget Facing Harsh Criticism; Republican Health Care Plan in Jeopardy?; Tillerson Visits South Korea; March Madness Light on Upsets. Aired 5-5:30a ET

Aired March 17, 2017 - 05:00   ET



SEAN SPICER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: You're mischaracterizing what happened today. Where was your passion and where was your concerned when they all said that there's no connection to Russia? Where was it then?


CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN ANCHOR: A press briefing for the ages. A defiant and combative White House defends the president's wiretapping claims despite the fact the bipartisan members of the House Intel Committee say there is no evidence.

DAVE BRIGGS, CNN ANCHOR: Some of the White House budget proposals hitting the needy where it hurts. But despite the backlash, the White House is standing by its case.

ROMANS: And then there's the health care overhaul. A growing number of House Republicans oppose the GOP health plan.

[05:00:04] Critical moment now for Speaker Ryan who may have already lost more support than he can handle to pass this bill. But, what, 21? Twenty-one leaning --

BRIGGS: Razor thin margin.

ROMANS: All right. Good morning and welcome to EARLY START. And I'm Christine Romans.

BRIGGS: And I'm Dave Briggs. It's Friday, March 17, 5:00 a.m. in the East.

It was an epic back and forth struggle and I'm not talking about the NCAA tournament, though it was really good.

ROMANS: Didn't you say that press briefing trump the NCAA talk on Twitter yesterday?

BRIGGS: What a surreal social media moment yesterday. #Pressbriefing trending.


BRIGGS: The White House lashing out on all sides, defending President Trump's unfounded wiretapping accusations. The most combative stance yet unleashed in a White House press briefing for the ages. One Christine Romans calls epic.

Press Secretary Sean Spicer pushing back hard against reporters, quoting the House speaker and congressional intelligence leaders who all say there is no evidence President Obama ordered a wiretap of the Trump campaign.

Later, Speaker Paul Ryan not mincing words on this subject.


REP. PAUL RYAN (R-WI), SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE: We have not seen evidence that there was a wiretap or FISA court order against Trump Tower or somebody in Trump Tower.


ROMANS: All right. That was Paul Ryan on CNN after that press briefing.

Ryan backed up by Senate Intel Committee Chairman Richard Burr and the ranking Democrat on the panel, Mark Warner. Their statement says, "Based on the information available to us, we see no indications the Trump Tower was the subject of surveillance by any element of the United States government either before or after Election Day 2016."

Our friend Jim Acosta, CNN's Jim Acosta, was right there, in the line of fire at the White House. Here's his report.


JIM ACOSTA, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Dave and Christine, the White House is still digging in, trying to explain President Trump's baseless claim that former President Obama wiretapped him at Trump Tower during the 2016 campaign. During a testy news briefing over here at the White House, Press Secretary Sean Spicer predicted the president will still be vindicated after the Intelligence Committees up on Capitol Hill investigate the matter. Here's what he had to say.

SPICER: The president has already said clearly when he referred to wiretapping, he was referring to surveillance. So, that's --

ACOSTA: It sounds like, Sean --


ACOSTA: -- that you and the president are saying now, well, we don't mean wiretapping anymore, because that's not true anymore. So, now, we're going to say other forms of surveillance. What's it going to be next? SPICER: No, no -- Jim, I think that's cute, but at the end of the day, we've talked about this for three or four days. What the president had to, quote, "wiretapping," in quotes, he was referring to broad surveillance. And now, you're basically going back. We talked about this several days ago.

The bottom line is that the investigation by the House and the Senate has not been provided all of the information. And when it does -- but where was the concern --


SPICER: -- hold on. I just --


ACOSTA: -- not evidence --


SPICER: No, no. What I -- I think the president addressed that last night, said there's more to come. These are merely pointing out that I think there's widespread reporting that throughout the 2016 election, there was surveillance that was done on a variety of people. That came up --


ACOSTA: -- investigation going on as to whether there was contact between the president's campaign and the Russians --


SPICER: Jim, I find it interesting that you -- you somehow believe that you --


COSTA: Of course, they're going to be looking at these various --


SPICER: OK. OK. I get it. Somehow, you seem to believe that you have all of this information. You've been read-in on all of these things, which I find very interesting.

ACOSTA: And President Trump will have another opportunity to sound off on this controversy when he holds a joint news conference with the German Chancellor Angela Merkel later on today -- Dave and Christine.


BRIGGS: Thank you, sir.

FBI Director James Comey will testify before the House committee on Monday. The ranking Democrat on the committee, Adam Schiff, telling CNN he expects Comey will also say he has seen no evidence to support the president's wiretapping claim.

ROMANS: Jim Acosta asked the White House Budget Director Mick Mulvaney if the deep cuts in the new White House hard power budget are also a hard-hearted budget.


MICK MULVANEY, WHITE HOUSE BUDGET DIRECTOR: I don't think so. In fact, I think it's probably one of the most compassionate things we can do. This budget simply reallocates and reprioritizes spending as any family or business would do.


ROMANS: All right. The federal government is not a family and it is not a business. While supporters say it cuts wasteful and inefficient programs, there is a lot of backlash against some of the things they're cutting.

For example, Meals on Wheels. The White House says there is no evidence that Meals on Wheels works.

The program and many independent studies obviously disagree. This started in 1954. It supports 5,000 community organizations. Helps 2.4 million seniors get meals and safety checks and friendly visits. They say it is an investment. You know, every dollar you spend there is hundreds and hundreds of dollars you are not spending in an emergency room if the person slips and falls or is malnourished.

Another move that's getting a push back is the $5.8 billion cut to the National Institute of Health. That's a 20 percent budget reduction. American Medical Association says this, "We have grave concerns with proposed deep cuts to the NIH and their impacts on public health. NIH conducts vital research into cancer, chronic diseases and other illnesses, all of which are major drivers of health care costs," end quote.

BRIGGS: The bill to replace Obamacare hanging in the balance this morning, with the growing number of Republicans voicing opposition to the plan.

[05:05:04] House Speaker Paul Ryan clinging to hope his measure will survive. He cannot afford to lose support from more than 21 Republicans. Right now, exactly 21 Republicans have gone on record to oppose the measure or are leaning against it. President Trump is still sounding hopeful, tweeting great progress on health care, improvements being made. Republicans coming together.

ROMANS: Let's bring in political economist Greg Valliere, chief strategist for Horizon Investments and a friend of the show.


ROMANS: He has been with us this whole Trump ride and here we go with health care. The president tweeting support for it. Paul Ryan two days in a row on CNN saying, praising this president for his leadership, saying they are working hand in gloves together.

Are you concerned about the health care overhaul that it won't make it? And if it doesn't, what does that mean for his legislative agenda?

VALLIERE: Well, a lot of implications. First of all, I'm half Irish and do not own a green tie. So, I apologize.


BRIGGS: Come on, Greg.

VALLIERE: So, let me just say this -- I think that this wiretapping story is now starting to metabolize in other issues. Republicans are now criticizing the president with impunity on the wiretapping stuff. That means they can criticize him on Obamacare. They can criticize him on the budget, which is dead on arrival.

So, I think all of a sudden people who are scared to take him on in his party feel that they can.

BRIGGS: So, you've got the wiretapping allegations. You have the health care struggle. And, of course, the travel ban which was shot down by two federal judges. How desperate do you feel the president is for a win? Any win? A man who is consumed, who is obsessed by that word winning?

VALLIERE: Yes. I think they're going to have really good Gorsuch hearings, the Supreme Court nominee. I think that would be a plus.

I don't rule them out winning in the House. The Paul Ryan bill, it's going to be very close. The Senate, of course, is the big issue. That's a much tougher fight.

So, he may get a win or two. But again, the critics are all out in force in his own party.

ROMANS: Let's talk about the Sean Spicer press briefing yesterday. I mean, it was really -- you watched these for years. So, have I. I mean, never can I remember, except maybe in the run-up to the war in Iraq, do I remember there being appointment viewing of the press secretary and the press secretary being a household name.

I want you to listen to a little bit of Sean Spicer yesterday.


SPICER: You are mischaracterizing what happened today. Where was your passion and concern when they all said there was no connection to Russia? Where was it then?

Crickets from you guys. Hold on, hold on, let me -- I'm trying to answer your question, Jonathan, if you can calm down. Jonathan, you can ask and you can follow-up.

I know you want to cherry pick it. No, no, but you do. Where was your concern about the "New York Times" report? You didn't seem to have a concern with that.

How do you know it has been looked at? Hold on, hold on. Jim, I think that's cute. But at the end of the day, we talked about this for three or four days.


ROMANS: Sean Spicer does own a green tie, by the way. There are a lot of green ties in Washington yesterday.


ROMANS: Look, this is the administration that's going to try to do tax reform, that's going to try to do infrastructure spending. I mean, they cut infrastructure out of the budget because they are so confident that they'll be able to do it well and better later on.

What do you make of this relationship here?

VALLIERE: Well, it's really toxic, isn't it? And I don't think that's going to change all that much. I guess "Saturday Night Live" is going to go daily. So, the criticism and drum beat will continue.

On the short term, I was stunned yesterday by the reaction to the Trump budget. Republican after Republican said no. We're not going to cut NIH, National Institutes of Health. We're not going to cut Meals on Wheels.

He will get defense increases, but I think a lot of the budget which maybe pleased his base is dead among Republicans right now.

BRIGGS: Yes, that Meals on Wheels cut really resonated at least online, on social media yesterday, with people picking it apart. Here is Budget Director Mick Mulvaney explaining, justifying the cut.


MICK MULVANEY, WHITE HOUSE BUDGET DIRECTOR: You can't spend money on programs because they sound good and great. Meals on Wheels sounds great. Again, that's a state decision to fund that particular portion, take the federal money to give it to the states and say, look, we want to give you money for programs that don't work. I can't defend that anymore.


BRIGGS: Now, look, Congress handles budgets. What does this budget tell you about President Trump's priorities overall?

VALLIERE: Well, I'll give him some credit, he kept his promises. He said during the fall, he would increase defense, he'd cut a lot of domestic spending. He would not touch Social Security and Medicare, and he didn't.

So, I give him credit for keeping promises. But what the problem, though, is, is that budget writers in both Houses are Republicans who don't like this, and they're going to change it.

ROMANS: But, Greg, he didn't keep his promise that was going to get rid of the national debt in eight years, and he would balance a budget. He knows how to do that, he knows that better than anybody else and he could just fix it and make it happen.

[05:10:02] I mean, this is -- you know, people on the left and progressives are just horrified by what this says, this budget says about his priorities. But people on the right are like, wait a minute, this is the same big pile of money, we're still running a humongous deficit. He doesn't touch that at all.

VALLIERE: And this is one of many reasons, to bring it back to the markets, which I follow, one of the reasons interest rates are going up because the deficit is going to go up. There is nothing in this budget that will significantly reduce the deficit.

ROMANS: Some hard choices. Nobody makes the hard choices yet. I mean, you think there are hard choices in this budget? Wait until we have to get rid of the deficit.

BRIGGS: And I want to talk about what's happening at the White House later today. A fascinating meeting between President Trump and Angela Merkel. What do you expect out of this meeting and how crucial is that for our standing and our relationship in this world?

VALLIERE: Well, I think Germany feels isolated now. He has been critical of her. She, of course, has been roundly criticized for being too generous with immigrants.

So, it could be one of the testier meetings. Maybe they'll paper over their differences, but the differences between Trump and Merkel are significant.

ROMANS: I have been told that she has been reviewing his speeches and watching interviews, trying to get a sense of what it is that Mr. Trump represents and believes.

BRIGGS: What is the common ground you think they find? U.N., NATO, refugees, they oppose each other on all those fronts? What is the common ground that they find?

VALLIERE: Well, I think fighting terrorism. They will probably talk about that. But I think on many other issues, economic issues and defense of Western Europe, I think Trump would like to push Western Europe into, you know, a more self reliance stance than they're willing to do.

ROMANS: All right. We'll talk to you in a few minutes, Greg. Come back. Thank you.


BRIGGS: All right. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in South Korea today amid rising tensions with North Korea. But why does Tillerson believe diplomacy has already failed? We'll go live to Seoul, next. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[05:16:04] BRIGGS: Secretary of State Rex Tillerson arriving in South Korea, the second stop in his six-day visit to Asia. Tillerson sending a clear message, the Trump administration is abandoning diplomatic efforts to talk North Korea out of a nuclear confrontation. The secretary says after two decades of trying, it's time for a new approach.

For more on what that means, let's go little to Seoul, South Korea, and bring in CNN's Alexandra Field.

Good morning to you. You are one of the few reporters that got to ask a question of our secretary of state.

My question to you, first, though, is how do you reconcile North Korea should not fear the U.S. and then today saying all options are on the table? Tough to put those two in the same context.

ALEXANDRA FIELD, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, it certainly is. And certainly, the U.S. is looking for a lot from North Korea right now and they said they aren't really willing to give anything in advance of that. They say this isn't the time to be sitting down for talks and North Korea isn't at that place. They have ratcheted up their missile development program. They have fairly ratcheted up their nuclear ambitions.

The secretary of state was at the DMZ today. That is, of course, the heavily fortified border between North Korea and South Korea to get very close to the threat. Then he returned to Seoul to say the North Korean threat is no longer a regional concern. It is a concern for the U.S.

You know that the North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un has announced that he is working to test an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of carrying a nuclear-tipped warhead all the way to the United States. It is threats like that, Dave, that prompted the secretary of state to tell the press right here in Seoul that the policy of strategic patience has ended, that the U.S. and its allies in the region will look for a new and different approach to dealing with North Korea, saying that 20 years of diplomacy amounted to failed efforts and the acceleration of nuclear ambition from North Korea.

So, what exactly is the approach? Well, the secretary of state hasn't specifically outlined all the elements of it. He did come here today and say that it would include some diplomatic measures, some security measures, some economic measures.

But I had a chance to ask a question of at what point is a military option be on the table given the very real threat and obvious threat of retaliation that could impact more than 20 million people who live right there in the Seoul metropolitan area. He said that a military option would be on the table if North Korea took action that threatened South Koreans or any of the U.S. troops were stationed here, or if they accelerated their nuclear program to an extent that cause the U.S. to feel that they must consider that possibility -- Dave.

BRIGGS: Wow, fascinating trip. It will continue in China. Thank you so much, Alexandra.

ROMANS: All right. Eighteen minutes past the hour this morning.

For the first time, Northwestern reached the big dance. For the first game for the Wildcats, it was a memorable one. Andy Scholes has more in this morning's "Bleacher Report", next.

BRIGGS: Oh, it's unbelievable, Romans.


[05:23:14] BRIGGS: Day one of March Madness is in the books. If you didn't pick many upsets in your bracket, like me, you are probably doing pretty good. I'm in first place.

ROMANS: I'm in 16th.

Andy Scholes has more in this morning's "Bleacher Report".

Hey, Andy.

ANDY SCHOLES, CNN SPORTS CORRESPONDENT: Hey, you guys. You know, Dave, yes, you are doing well. You didn't pick many upsets. There were 16 games yesterday and they all pretty much went according to plan. Only two lower seeds pulling off upsets.

And Northwestern coming out on top in their first ever tournament game. It was nearly a home game for the Wildcats as tons of fans made the trip to Salt Lake City for this one. That's what you do when you wait 78 years to play the tournament.

Poor Vanderbilt really gave this game away. They took the lead with 17 seconds, but Davis thought they were still losing. So, he fouled and look at it when he realized what he just did. He knew he messed up.

Northwestern, they would make both free throws. Vandy misses the final attempt. Wildcats win 68-66. Proud parents in the stands. Julia Louis-Dreyfus in the stands, her son who's on the Wildcats and NBA commentator Doug Collins, also almost in terms as he watched his son coached Northwestern to their first ever tournament win.


BRYANT MCINTOSH, NORTHWEST GUARD: A dream come true. What a special moment for our program, four our guys in the locker room who worked so hard and the toughness we displayed today. What we're all about in the program.


SCHOLES: And Northwestern wasn't the only team with star power in the cheering section. Bill Murray on hand to root on Xavier as they took on Maryland. Murray's son Luke an assistant for the Musketeers. It was happy night for the Murray family as Xavier pulls off the upset, winning 76-65.

Now, you always have to pick a 12 seed to beat a 5. If you picked middle Tennessee, you nailed it.

[05:25:00] Despite being a 12th seed, they were a favorite to beat Minnesota. They won the game rather easily, 81-72.

Middle Tennessee, just a fourth team ever to win as a 12 seed or lower in back-to-back years. They beat Michigan State last year, 16 seed.

All right. We got 16 more games on schedule today. Action starts at 12:15 Eastern, Oklahoma State and red hot Michigan, a game on CBS. You've got New Mexico State against Baylor at 12:40 on truTV. And the action continues this afternoon on TNT and TBS.

Dave, you are winning right now, but, you know, it's not how you start. It's how you finish. And we'll see if your run continues.

BRIGGS: You are absolutely right. And I did pick an upset. I didn't get Middle Tennessee.

Iowa State did very, very well last night. Your alma mater, looking good.

ROMANS: They looked good. They looked good.

All right. Andy, nice to see you. Thank you.

SCHOLES: All right. Have a good weekend.

BRIGGS: Thanks, buddy. You too.

ROMANS: The big question in Washington, will President Trump defend his own wiretapping allegations today when he faces reporters for the first time since his Twitter charges?