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White House Angrily Defends Trump's Wiretap Claim. Aired 6- 6:30a ET

Aired March 17, 2017 - 06:00   ET



SEAN SPICER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: First of all, he stands by it. He was very clear about that.

[05:58:39] DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: You know, when I say "wiretap," those words were in quotes.

JIM ACOSTA, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: You and the president are saying now, "Well, we don't mean wiretapping anymore." That's not true.

REP. PAUL RYAN (R-WI), SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE: I have not seen any evidence that this occurred.

TRUMP: Let's see whether or not I prove it.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The director will be asked to respond very directly.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This budget reallocates and reprioritizes spending.

REP. NANCY PELOSI (D-VA), MINORITY LEADER: I can't see how this budget can survive the light of day.

MICK MULVANEY, DIRECTOR, OFFICE OF MANAGEMENT AND BUDGET: Meals on Wheels sounds great. We can't spend money on programs just because they sound good.

REP. CHRIS COLLINS (R), NEW YORK: That's not my plan. I would never vote to cut even one dollar.


ANNOUNCER: This is NEW DAY with Chris Cuomo and Alisyn Camerota.

CHRIS CUOMO, CNN ANCHOR: All right. We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. This is NEW DAY. It's Friday, March 17, 6 a.m. here in New York. Alisyn is off. Poppy Harlow, the one and only, here once again.


CUOMO: Once again, a lot of news. The White House standing by President Trump's unproven claim. That's more unproven than ever, now that the idea that Trump Tower or that President Trump was wiretapped by President Obama. That was the notion he put out there. No one has backed it up.

But his press secretary, Sean Spicer, was angry, defending the president. Again, despite intelligence officials and congressional leaders from both parties saying there is no proof.

HARLOW: No proof. And this controversy is overshadowing the president's agenda as he faces growing resistance on a number of fronts. Republican lawmakers, blasting his budget for proposing major cuts to programs that many in his base rely on.

Also, the GOP's plan could sink as more Republicans say they are against it.

We are now in day 57 of the Trump presidency. Let's begin our coverage this morning with Joe Johns at the White House. Good morning.


This administration appears to be in crisis mode on multiple fronts with members of the president's own party flatly contradicting his wiretapping claims. Some other members of the president's own party approaching open revolt on the issue of health care. So far, the response from the White House has been digging in.


SEAN SPICER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: Hold on. Hold on. Let me -- I am trying to answer your question, Jonathan, if you can calm down.

JOHNS (voice-over): White House press secretary Sean Spicer defiant and combative.

SPICER: He stands by it, but again, you're mischaracterizing what happened today.

JOHNS: Angrily, defending the president's unsubstantiated claim that former President Obama wiretapped phones at Trump Tower, despite leaders from both parties saying there is no proof.

RYAN: We cleared that up. We see no evidence of that.

JOHNS: Spicer continuing to cite media reports to try to justify the president's baseless accusation.

SPICER: There's widespread reporting that, throughout the 2016 election, there was surveillance that was done on a variety of people.

JOHNS: The leaders of the Senate Intelligence Committee rejecting Spicer's claim in their strongest statement yet, stating, "Based on the evidence available to us, we see no indications that Trump Tower was the subject of surveillance." The Republican chair of the House Intelligence Committee firm in

saying the president's wiretapping claim is wrong.

MANU RAJU, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Do you have any evidence to suggest that any collection may have picked up Trump's -- Donald Trump's communications at all? Do you have any evidence to suggest?


JOHNS: The ranking Democrat on that committee tells CNN he expects FBI Director James Comey to debunk President Trump's accusation when he testifies before Congress on Monday.


JOHNS: This as the Trump administration confronts sharp criticism over the president's budget proposal.

MULVANEY: We can't spend money on programs just because they sound good.

JOHNS: Congressman Harold Rogers deeming the budget "draconian, careless and counterproductive." Senator Marco Rubio says proposed cuts to the State Department "undermine America's ability to keep our citizens safe." The budget aims to slash billions from government agencies to boost military spending, hitting hard social services like afterschool programs for children and programs that feed the elderly.

MULVANEY: Meals on Wheels sounds great. Again, that's a state decision to fund that particular portion, to take the federal money and 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.

COLLINS: Meals on Wheels is a wonderful program. It is one I would never vote to cut even one dollar.

JOHNS: The White House also facing another sobering reality. The GOP's healthcare bill may fall short of the votes needed to pass in the House. CNN's whip count now has 21 Republicans saying they will vote no or are leaning against it. House leadership can't afford to lose another vote.


JOHNS: And another big day on tap at the White House today. The president will play host to German Chancellor Angela Merkel, among other things hoping to get some tips on how to handle Russian President Vladimir Putin -- Poppy.

HARLOW: It's going to be interesting to see what reporter she calls on and what questions they ask and if they ask about the wiretapping claims. Joe Johns at the White House, thank you.

White House press secretary Sean Spicer's combative and angry defense of the president's unproven claims is really nothing short of extraordinary. Here's more of that contentious press briefing.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: 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?

SPICER: First of all he stands by it, but again, you're mischaracterizing what happened today. The Senate -- no, no.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: ... exactly from their statement.

SPICER: I understand that. And at the same time, they acknowledge that they have not been in contact with the Department of Justice.

So, again, I go back to what I said at the beginning. It's interesting -- hold on, hold on. It's interesting how at the same time where were you coming to the defense of that same Intelligence Committee and those members when they said there was no connection to Russia? You didn't seem to report it then. No, no. So, you want -- hold on. You want to comment and you want to perpetuate a false narrative when...

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Actually, I did report that Clapper said that.

SPICER: When those individuals have gone out time and time again, when Chairman Nunes has said, No. 1, that there was no information that he's aware of that that existed, that got zero reporting.

[06:05:07] No. 2, when he went out yesterday and said, quote, "I think it's very possible," you don't include that in the question Mark.

The bottom line is that the president said last night that he will be providing -- that there would be additional information coming forward. He -- there's a ton of media reports out there that indicate that something was going on during the twenty-six [SIC] election.

And I think it's interesting. Where was the questioning of "The New York Times" or these other outlets when that was going on? Where was the question...

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Do you believe he's going to be vindicated?

SPICER: I believe he will. Jim.

JIM ACOSTA, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: You were just quoting Sean Hannity there. The House and Senate Intelligence Committees are...

SPICER: I also quoted -- I get you're going to cherry pick.

ACOSTA: You're the -- you're citing Sean Hannity.

SPICER: You also look over -- you also tend to overlook all of the other sources -- because I know you want to cherry pick it. No, no. But you do. But where was your concern about the "The New York Times" report? You didn't seem to have a concern with that.

ACOSTA: We have done -- we have done plenty of reporting on all of this.

SPICER: No, no, but you want to cherry pick one comment, one piece of commentary.

ACOSTA: The connections between the associates of the president to the Russians, that has all been looked at.

SPICER: How do you know all this? How do you seem to be such an expert in this?

ACOSTA: I'm saying that this has been looked at, Sean. We've all looked at it.

SPICER: How do you know it's been looked at? Hold on, hold. Where is -- I'm sorry. I'm afraid to -- where -- can you tell me how you know that all of this has, quote, "been looked at"?

ACOSTA: You're asking me whether or not it's been looked at.

SPICER: You made a statement and you said, quote, "All of this has been looked at."

ACOSTA: Other outlets have reported...

SPICER: OK, so we're supposed -- so when your outlet says it's all been looked at...

ACOSTA: The contact between associates of the president and the Russians during the 2016 campaign. It sounds like, during the context of that investigation, there might have been some intercepted communications. The House Intelligence Committee chairman did mention that, and we have reported that. Others have reported that on our air and in various publications.

But, Sean, what you are -- what you are refusing to answer, the question that you're refusing to answer is whether or not the president still believes what he believes...

SPICER: No, I just said it to Jonathan. I didn't refuse to...

ACOSTA: You have a Senate and House Intelligence Committee, both leaders from both parties on both of those panels, saying that they don't see any evidence of any wiretapping. So how can the president go on and continue...

SPICER: Because that's not -- because you're mischaracterizing what Chairman Nunes said. He said, quote, "I think it's possible." He is following up on this.

So to suggest that is actually -- and you're stating unequivocally that you somehow...

ACOSTA: Literally, you said if you take... SPICER: Right. And I think we've already cleared that up. And he

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

ACOSTA: But that sound like -- but it sounds like, Sean, you and the president are saying now, "Well, we don't mean wiretapping anymore, because that's not true anymore."

SPICER: No, no.

ACOSTA: "So now we're going to use 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 the, quote, "wiretapping" in quotes. He was referring to broad surveillance, and now you're basically going back. We've 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 -- hold on.

ACOSTA: ... information from news reports, not evidence...

SPICER: No, no. What I -- I think what the president addressed that last night and said there's more to come.


CUOMO: A tour de force of the concept of strong and wrong. That's what you just saw on display right there.

Let's bring in our panel: politics editor for The Root and professor of politics and journalism at Morgan State University, Jason Johnson; CNN political analyst David Gregory; and CNN political analyst for the -- and reporter for "The Washington Post," Abby Phillip. She was at yesterday's White House briefing.

Let's go with that present-sense impression. Abby Phillip, you're sitting in there; and this is -- I get it. They're upset. They don't like it. Spicer doesn't like being chased. He feels that they're being chased more than -- on this than on the Russian contacts, that that's getting more deference than this is. I get it all.

But he did not introduce a single piece of information, a single fact to back up anything he was upset about in substance about this claim by the president, which has been proven time and again to be baseless. What was it like to witness it?

ABBY PHILLIP, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, first of all, it's worth mentioning that we'd all been sitting there for about an hour before Sean Spicer came in, partly because he was probably trying to figure out how to deal with this issue. The statement from the congressional leaders had just come out not that long before that. And what happened when he finally did start answering those questions was -- was really just an attempt to distract from the main issue at hand, which is that there is no proof of what the president is saying. And he really confirmed that there is never going to be a time, it seems, that the White House will be willing to acknowledge that the president may have been wrong or that he misspoke or that he maybe spoke without knowing all the facts.

And Sean Spicer made that very, very clear. Every time he was pressed on the substance of what the president said, the subject was changed to something else about why we should have been outraged about some other unrelated issue. And that went on for -- you know, there was a ten-minute reading of news clips, none of which bolstered the president's claims. It went on for quite some time.

[06:10:11] HARLOW: That's right. I mean, he's fighting his own party on this one, Spicer and the president. Just look at this. Right? These are the Republicans and Democrats, who have said unequivocally no evidence of wiretapping. On the Republican side, House Speaker Paul Ryan, Rep. Devin Nunes, Senator Richard Burr; also, I should note, Attorney General Sessions said no when he was asked. On the Democratic side, you've got Representative Adam Schiff and Mark Warner.

David Gregory, to you. You've been in plenty of these press briefings. Have you ever seen anything like this one?

DAVID GREGORY, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Yes. I've been in the middle of a lot worse than what that was. Certainly, you know, this is the -- this is a press corps at work, and this is a White House with a credibility problem on the defensive.

And so I thought this was pretty respectful, all things considered. It got a little bit heated, but only got heated, as Abby said, because Sean Spicer has -- is both in and has put himself in a very difficult position. To be the spokesman for a president who has uttered something that was completely unsubstantiated, for which there is no evidence; and for a president who is not willing to be accountable when he says something that is demonstrably untrue.

So there is an investigation that's going forward. Presumably the intelligence committees will pick up, will report out, will continue to investigate whether there was incidental surveillance or incidental information that was picked up as a result of any sort of surveillance, that was germane to an investigation of whether the Trump campaign had contacts that were inappropriate with the Russian government in a time when the Russian government was trying to manipulate the election.

Everything else is a waste of time. Sean Spicer is trying to defend something for which there is no defense. And he's just diverting. He's trying to attack the press, cherry pick other aspects of coverage that the -- this White House, which hates the media, pays such close attention to.

Any scrap to suggest that there was something nefarious going on by the government. But what we know by those investigating, absolutely no indication that the Obama administration ordered surveillance of Trump Tower. That was the claim; it's garbage. Move on to the rest of the investigation.

CUOMO: Right. But as you know, David, I see these opportunities as a gift, because when the White House wants to make it about, "Hey, let's talk about what is fact and what is being spun or what is fake," in their parlance, it's an opportunity for journalism.

You know, Spicer provided a lot of them yesterday, Professor. He said, "Hey, you guys didn't cover when they said there's no connection to Russia," nobody has said there's no connection to Russia. Nobody in the know. They said "proof of collusion."


CUOMO: Words matter. "Collusion" means you were working with the Russians. We've see no proof of that. They're continuing to look. They're early in that process, but no connection? We see nothing but connection.

HARLOW: I mean, when Clapper, when DNI -- former DNI Clapper said no evidence of collusion, that was covered all over the place.

CUOMO: Right. Sure, no question. He said, "You didn't go after 'The New York Times' as wrong." That piece in "The New York Times" didn't mention anything like what the president is talking about.

That's why I said "strong and wrong." The problem they're going to have here, though, if they stick to this, what happens?

JOHNSON: I see a man going through a breakdown. Like, I wonder -- I'm all serious about this. You know, Sean Spicer has been a communications guy. I've met him several times. He's a smart guy. I wonder if he goes home and flogs himself every day after these meetings. Because his anger and frustration, I don't think it's entirely with the press. I think it's with the realization that he has to put his reputation out there every day to defend dishonest things that his boss is saying.

Usually, a press secretary is only two or three years in the job anyway, but there's some sort of work between them and the president. "OK, this is what you want me to say."

Every morning, it seems like he gets thrown into the deep end of the pool to explain behavior that is patently untrue. And as a fundamentally honest man -- and I do believe Sean Spicer is an honest man -- he is frustrated that he has to continue to defend dishonesty.

HARLOW: Abby, do you agree with -- with Jason's assessment?

PHILLIPS: Well, I think that Sean is definitely in a tough spot. I mean, he's always out there, as the spokesman for the White House, for the U.S. government, for the president, needing to defend what his boss wants him to defend. And he's out there doing this -- this performance every day with his boss watching very, very closely and making sure that he is doing the right thing.

So yes, I mean, this is an audience of one a lot of times for both Sean and for virtually everybody else who goes out there on behalf of this White House. This president is very uncompromising about this idea of loyalty. Are you going to go out there and defend me at all costs?

And the president himself has talked about the question of will he ever acknowledge when -- when maybe something is wrong? Maybe he has something wrong. And he said, "You know what? When you do that, you give your enemies ammunition."

[06:15:10] So I think it will be really hard for someone like Sean Spicer to go against this sort of motivating force of his own boss that says, "You know what? If we let them have this inch, they will take a mile. And we can't afford to have that."

CUOMO: David, final button.

GREGORY: I just think what's important here is, in the media, we don't have to make such ironclad judgments about all of this. This is good journalism at work. Pounding away, asking questions, asking follow up. You say you've got evidence of surveillance, where is it? You keep promising. Where is it? Day in, day out.

And what has it revealed? We've got all the major chiefs of the Intelligence Committee saying there is no substantiation of this. And so the president's credibility is at stake. We keep investigating. As journalists, we keep working. We don't have to go toe to toe with them on these issues. We can just keep doing the job that reveals itself.

CUOMO: And remember, the person who could get these answers the fastest is the president. He has chosen not to do so.

Thanks to you all. Appreciate it. The president's budget proposal also a big deal, once again triggering bipartisan outrage over deep cuts to social programs that impact a lot of low-income people who are Trump voters. Why? Is this just a starting point or are we going to look at another war? Next.


[06:20:20] CUOMO: All right. Onto the GOP health care bill, clearly a key hurdle in the House Budget Committee but just barely, a reflection of the tension within the GOP, let alone with Democrats, about whether or not this is the right way to move forward.

The CNN whip count, OK, is at 21 as of 11 p.m. Eastern Time last night. That is relevant, because it means if that many Republicans don't vote for it, they would not have enough votes to pass this bill. So what does the White House do now?

Let's bring in the panel: Jason Johnson, Abby Phillip, David Gregory.

David Gregory, the whip count, we're going to have the whip on later today. And he's going to be talking on the show this morning about how he feels about his own count and his ability to get people there. This is unusual to be fighting with your own on something like this that is so fundamental. But assuming that they're anywhere near 21, what does that mean about what needs to get done?

GREGORY: Well, they've got to negotiate over this bill, and the speaker has got to exercise his leadership. I keep thinking in recent days about what former Speaker John Boehner said, about why there would never be a replacement to Obamacare. He said because Republicans have never agreed on the way forward for health care. And you're seeing this. And of course, that disagreement extends over to the Senate, as well.

I think the only problem to me with the whip count now is that it's capturing a moment in time that can move. I think there's going to be changes to the health care law. I think ultimately, the White House would drive some of that. Whatever the path is to getting agreement.

And I do think this would ultimately test Speaker Ryan's leadership on this. I think as it keeps moving through committee, like it has in the Budget Committee, despite disagreement, the more he's going to get members to get on board. If they want to see anything like tax reform or if they want to see changes down the line and some of that implicit promise will be looking, some of these things will be dealt with once we get to a conference committee.

HARLOW: I mean, Professor, to you, I mean, I think it's a very important point. It made it through these three committees so far. And what lawmakers on the House side right now and what the Senate then later want to be the lawmakers that break this. I mean, you saw Lisa Murkowski of Alaska running away from Manu Raju, because she did not want to answer the simple question of how this is going...

CUOMO: And then getting all up in his grill, right.

HARLOW: ... how she was going to vote, right? I mean, they may not love this bill or even like it, but they also don't want to be the one to break it.

JOHNSON: They don't want to be the one who breaks it, but here's the other thing. They're also the ones who will suffer the consequences at the voting booth. And that's why they're concerned. That's why John Boehner was right when John Boehner said, "They're not going to be able to figure this out." That's why I've said before that the replacement bill will come out on, you know, Wednesday, the 7th of November 2018, after the midterm.

Because I don't think anybody right now wants to push this bill through, as much as the Republicans want to do tax reform and you've got to get rid of the ACA before you can do tax reform. They see these town halls, and they don't want to face the consequences for it. And unless Donald Trump can convince them, "Look, I'll have your back, and I'll visit every single district and make sure you get reelected," they're not going to do it.

CUOMO: But debater's point. This is the first time where they've been in the crosshairs of getting it done, because they have the power. So now they're in a different situation than just not agreeing. They have to figure out what to do.

This is the same problem, Abby Phillip, that they are dealing with on the budget side. To the professor's point, yes, it sounds good when you're arguing, "Cut, cut, cut," until you have to pay for those cuts at the polls in your own district.

This got summed up really well in an interview with Pete Alexander from NBC and Mulvaney, the head of the OMB, the budget man. Listen to this.


MULVANEY: We can't spend money on programs just because they sound good.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: There's a program called the SHINE. It's in Pennsylvania, rural counties of Pennsylvania, that provides after- school educational programs for individuals in those areas, which just so happens to be the state that helped propel President Trump to the White House.

I'm curious what you say to those Americans in that community, where they tell me today that 800 individuals will no longer, children that need it most, will no longer be provided in those most needy communities, the educational care they need.

MULVANEY: Let's talk about after-school programs generally. They're supposed to be educational programs, right? And they're supposed to help kids who can't -- don't get fed at home get fed so they do better in school. Guess what? There's no demonstrable evidence they're actually doing that. There's no demonstrable evidence they're actually helping results, helping kids do better in school.


CUOMO: Now, Professor -- actually, we'll start with you, Abby. We'll come to the professor. This -- that was a very controversial thing for Mulvaney to say, because I'm sure we all had the same experience. I had tons of experts dumping information on my head all night about all these benefits they see in kids in these programs.

[06:25:05] PHILLIP: It's false. It's false. I mean, let's show you guys the evidence. You've got this Harvard study in 2008. The Harvard study clearly says it helps with attendance; lower dropout rates; better performance at schools. You've got a study from last year from the After-School Alliance that said every dollar spent on these after-school programs equals $2.50 saved in crime-related costs. You can't dispute that stuff.

CUOMO: So Abby, is this about having a number cruncher out there arguing policy or how do you explain that disconnect?

PHILLIP: Well, Mulvaney is trying to make a blanket statement that covers a wide range of cuts, and that's part of the problem with his budget, is that the administration is trying to make up funds in order to raise defense spending, so they just have to make some really deep domestic cuts and the only way to do that is to do it in a fairly draconian way.

And there is no explanation for individual programs. So it was sort of intended to be a blanket statement. But that's, in essence, the problem here. You know, Mulvaney's talking about, in some cases, community development block grants. He made a blanket statement that those block grants are ineffective. There's a lot of evidence out there that the money that -- that -- the money that comes from the federal government that goes to states for those block grants do -- do fund programs that are, in fact, effective.

And you have even Republicans saying, you know, "These cuts are arbitrary; and we can't move forward with arbitrary cuts like this," because frankly, you know, starting with Meals on Wheels, the program that feeds seniors, these are -- these are people who go to the ballot box at the midterms and the general election.

CUOMO: Chris Collis -- Chris Collins is a congressman, Republican, western New York, on the show a lot. He has shown an amazing ability to look the other way on things that Trump has said. He said, "I would not vote to reduce a single dollar of Meals on Wheels." He knows his hard-hit people up in Buffalo and those areas need this. And that's something you're going to see reflected in a lateral of places, true or false?

JOHNSON: Of course you are. I mean, look, we had years during the Reagan years and during the Bush years where people are like, "Hey, we've got to save Big Bird." Well, that's a fictional character, OK? But this is Grandma and Grandpa. These are the people that you see at retirement homes. These are the people who are community activists and regular vote.

You can't justify starving seniors, and that's literally how this is going to come across. And I think a lot of these programs that the Trump administration say they're going to get rid of, it's a crazy Christmas list. But most of this stuff isn't going to show up under the tree.

Remember, they chose to leave entitlements alone, except what they're going to do with Medicaid.


HARLOW: (UNINTELLIGIBLE) Not going to touch entitlements at all.

CUOMO: Lady, gentlemen, no, you cannot. Gregory, on St. Patrick's Day.

GREGORY: Wow, didn't I get a Spicer?

CUOMO: I'll get you back somewhere else. I'll get you in next one.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson visiting South Korea, delivering an unusually strong warning to North Korea. What is that warning? How real is the idea of military action? We have a live report from Seoul next.