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Trump Vs. Congress: How Will He Advance Agenda? NYT Reports Senate Committee To Question Kushner On Russia Meetings; U.S. & Iraq Investigating Civilian Deaths From Airstrikes. Aired 7:30-8a ET

Aired March 27, 2017 - 07:30   ET

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


[07:32:45] CHRIS CUOMO, CNN HOST: All right, President Trump is facing an uphill battle as he moves forward with his agenda now that Republicans' attempt to repeal and replace Obamacare has failed, so what is next? Working with Congress seems to be essential, Democrats and Republicans. How can he do that?

Joining us to discuss, host of CNN's "SMERCONISH" and CNN political commentator, Michael Smerconish. And, writer-at-large of "The New York Times Magazine," Robert Draper. Draper, you have a very exhaustive and good article about exactly this subject. You come to some conclusions in it. You spent a lot of time with Trump. What is your take? Can he work with Congress and what must he do to work with Congress?

ROBERT DRAPER, WRITER-AT-LARGE, "THE NEW YORK TIMES MAGAZINE": Well, Chris, for one thing, we've got to see -- I mean, we've already seen his difficulty in working with House Republicans. We have not yet seen him work with the Senate, we have not yet seen him work with Democrats. So he's going to clearly have to forge coalitions that he wasn't able to do with what was supposed to be -- or at least what they thought would be a very easy lift, the repeal and replace of Obamacare.

And tax reform -- there's going to be some contentious issues. Infrastructure, for sure, is going to require bringing Democrats on board. And he's already begun certain overtures with Senate Democrats, particularly the ones that are regarded as endangered for the 2018 midterm elections. But, you know, it's -- at this particular moment when he's demonizing Democrats, saying that they're the ones to blame for not repealing a Democratic bill, he's going to have to change his tune.

ALISYN CAMEROTA, CNN HOST: Robert, I just want to stick with you for one more second because you did spend so much time with Mr. Trump. Why did they think this was going to be an easy lift? I mean, health care is one of the most complicated -- it's bedeviled various administrations for decades. Why did they think this one was going to be easy?

DRAPER: Well, clearly, Alisyn, the president was led down a primrose path. I mean, he thought that with a simple push of a button he could vaporize this bill on day one. He also assumed, and not, you know -- not unreasonably -- that given that it's been nearly seven years since the passage of the Affordable Care Act, the Republicans would have a pretty coherent sense of what they wanted to replace it with. That turned out not to be the case.

CUOMO: You know, Michael, it's interesting, those eight or so senators -- Democratic senators who are in states that Trump won, they're actually being helped by Trump right now, right? I mean, they are regalvanizing their own base as a resistance effect to the current president, so what do you think his leverage is?

[07:35:14] MICHAEL SMERCONISH, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR, HOST, CNN "SMERCONISH": Well, I think his leverage is the fact that he was elected by such significant margins among so many blue-collar, working-class white guys who aren't used to voting for Republican presidents, and if he can energize them to come out in the midterm election then that's a stick that he can wield against some of these partisans.

I don't think he's the problem, though. I mean, I really don't think that it was President Trump who was the issue this past weekend. It's those recalcitrant, obstinate -- use whatever word you'd like to use -- they would use principal -- members of the Freedom Caucus. You just had Charlie Dent on the program. You can work out a deal with the Charlie Dent. He's a reasonable guy. He's there to accomplish things. The same can't be said, in my opinion, for many members of that Freedom Caucus. So the president's got a choice, you know. Either all the Republicans come together and they can get things done or he cuts his losses and tries to work with the likes of a Chuck Schumer.

CAMEROTA: So Robert, I mean, based upon your reporting what is the course correction now? After the health care debacle does this mean that -- well, I mean, inside. Is Steve Bannon not as powerful? Does he rely more on Ryan or does Trump rely more on himself? What happens now?

DRAPER: Well, OK, first of all, further to what you'd said, Alisyn, I mean -- that this was -- this was not going to be a difficult thing, the replacement of Obamacare. And yes, Charlie Dent may sound like a reasonable guy, a guy you can work with, but Charlie Dent wanted to preserve Medicaid expansion to the states. That is -- that is a deal killer for conservatives. And going forward, President Trump is going to find, just as President Obama did, that it's very difficult dealing with conservatives and moderates at the same time.

I think when it comes, for example, to infrastructure -- and it does not appear that they will go to that immediately, though some have suggested, like Congressman Dent, that that would be a good course of action -- then that's going to require, once again, bringing on board conservative Republicans who do not want to spend a lot of money on tax reform. President Trump endorses the border adjustment tax that is favored by Steve Bannon and by Speaker Ryan, but there are an awful lot of people on K Street who are going to push back against that. The Koch brothers are against it, as well. Both in the Senate and the House there don't appear to be numbers for that.

As to exactly what the problem is inside the White House, I don't -- I think Steve Bannon's there for as long as he wants to be there. He clearly has the president's ear. It's Reince Priebus who's on the hot seat. If he doesn't deliver on tax reform I don't expect to see him much longer as chief of staff.

CUOMO: Michael, what do you think tax reform will mean? Obviously, it has to change after health care went the way it did because they have a different revenue structure than they were anticipating.

SMERCONISH: I think it depends what it says for the middle-class. If it's perceived as something that's going to cause great benefit to the wealthiest among us, then I think it will be a stone-cold loser much like the reform of the Affordable Care Act was. Again, I don't think the dynamics are all that complicated. Difficult to achieve but either you try and bring all GOP members on board -- and I don't think you can bring the moderates and the conservatives in at the same time. So the way to achieve success and to grow that pie is to attract some Democratic support.

If I were President Trump or whispering in his ear, I would say -- and that tweet that he sent suggests that maybe he's thinking in the same terms -- you're not going to be able to do business with the Freedom Caucus, so better to keep the Dents and the moderates together and try and call some Democratic support. That'sthe solution.

CAMEROTA: Hey, Robert, in terms of the president's mood and temperament in light of this defeat, he seems fairly tempered. He, you know -- he, as you know, prides himself on being the ultimate dealmaker, but is it you win some, you lose some?

DRAPER: I think that's basically it. I think that the people around him, Alisyn, made sure that he understood that no, this was not his fault. Yes, of course, Democrats are to blame. Yes, it was a failure as well on the part of Speaker Ryan but let's give him this one and hope he does better the second time around. Tax reform, they've told him, is going to -- is going to be much, much easier. And it's something, frankly, that the president's heart was in all along. He never really cared much about the particulars of Obamacare replace and repeal. That was campaign mop-up work for him.

Tax reform is something that I think he feels a lot jauntier about the prospects for because it's something he understands a little bit better and it's something, as well, that I think that he believes he faces tailwinds on because Republicans, at least in principle, are all for tax cuts and that's going to be a centerpiece -- corporate tax reform, in particular.

CUOMO: It's one big part of the intrigue right now is that he seems to be playing the blame game and doing what he usually does, does that mean he didn't learn any lessons? We'll see with the next bill.

DRAPER: Yes.

CAMEROTA: Robert, Michael, thank you very much. Thanks for all the insight.

DRAPER: Sure thing.

CAMEROTA: All right, here's a new development. Jared Kushner has a new role at the White House and it could put the president's son-in- law in the spotlight before Congress this week. So, "New York Times" reporter Maggie Haberman broke the story. She's going to join us next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[07:43:35] CAMEROTA: We are following some breaking news for you right now. "The New York Times" is reporting that a Senate committee will ask to question President Trump's son-in-law, Jared Kushner, over his meetings with the Russians. We have CNN political analyst and "New York Times" reporter who's breaking this story, Maggie Haberman. She joins us on the phone. Hi, Maggie.

MAGGIE HABERMAN, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST, REPORT, "THE NEW YORK TIMES" (via telephone): Hi, how are you?

CAMEROTA: Fine. What have you learned about what the Senate Intel Committee wants to ask him?

HABERMAN: Yes, I have a story with two of my colleagues, Matthew Rosenberg and Jo Becker, that the Senate Intel Committee is seeking to interview Jared Kushner. (Phone breaking up) the initial meeting that we're aware of that he had with the Russians that --

CAMEROTA: Maggie, you're breaking up a little bit, hold on. Repeat that. This is about an -- this is about an initial interview --

HABERMAN: An initial --

CAMEROTA: Meeting that he had with the ambassador.

HABERMAN: Correct, and then there are two additional meetings that the White House has now acknowledged. One was a second meeting with the ambassador that Jared Kushner sent an adviser to instead of going himself and the Russian ambassador suggested that Jared Kushner meet with a Russian banker. That Russian banker had worked for Russia's largest state-owned bank -- I apologize for the honking, I'm on the Acela -- and he had also worked for a different bank which drew sanctions from the Obama administration after Vladimir Putin annexed Crimea and began meddling in the Ukraine.

[07:45:00] Look, this is -- this is the highest person to be touched by this investigation so far and the person closest to the president. He's also the only person, so far, still serving in the administration with the exception of Jeff Sessions. We don't know what will happen with him now that he's recused himself from any potential investigation. But Kushner represents sort of the highest profile person so far.

CUOMO: Well, meetings all by themselves are meaningless, right?

HABERMAN: That's right.

CUOMO: I mean, it's all about the context of what they were for. One of the paragraphs in here pops out. "The Russian ambassador asked for a second meeting to deliver a message" it says in quotes. That was according to Hope Hicks. Mr. Kushner sent the representative, Avraham Berkowitz -- a White House aide, longtime associate -- at that session. The ambassador told Berkowitz that he wanted Mr. Kushner to meet Mr. Gorkov, the Russian banker.

And this is all according to Hope Hicks from the White House. That's where the intrigue leads for the committee, right, which is not that you met, but why did you meet and what happened as a result of the meeting.

HABERMAN: That's exactly right. and one thing that's worth noting, Chris, is that when Jared Kushner had that meeting with the banker in question, his company, which he had not yet stepped away from, was looking for additional financial help for one of its overleveraged properties. The White House says that there was no discussion of that property or anything related to it during that meeting. Again, to your point, a meeting on its own is not a big deal. There is no suggestion that he did anything wrong but it is yet another in a series of drip drips related to Russia and questions about the Trump team and Russia that have just been a low-grade fever for this White House.

CAMEROTA: Well, there you go, I mean. So what are the broader implications of this from the administration that obviously wants to move on and past this?

HABERMAN: I think that, again, that is the big question, Alisyn. The question is a) when does this happen? How much attention does it get? What kind of questions does he get asked? You know, do the answers spark a further inquiry or any kind of a different interview, and does it lead them to anything else?

Again, to Chris' point, on its own there is nothing wrong. There's certainly nothing wrong with administration officials meeting with foreign officials -- meeting with, you know, people who work in -- at entities that are not in the U.S. And Jared Kushner was the person who was in charge of most of the policy and the meetings and engagements related to international issues during the transition, certainly before there was a Secretary of State in place. So on its own there is no issue, it is just yet another touching of the administration on this Russia question that has bedeviled them for a long time.

CUOMO: And there's a dovetail, right, because you have the Russia question and you then have another persistent issue which is even more real than the Russia one right now, which is conflicts. You know, people misunderstand this one all the time. Maggie's been so helpful in clarifying it throughout the campaign. It's not will there be conflicts. There are conflicts.

HABERMAN: Right.

CUOMO: Kushner's a business guy. He's meeting with all these top people who have money, and bankers. The conflict is an obvious one. Maggie, appreciate this. Thank you very much for the headlines.

HABERMAN: Thanks for taking the time to talk to me. CUOMO: Oh, always, especially if you're just going to be on the phone. Very easy that way. All right, it's time for CNN Money Now. The Trump administration shifting the focus to tax reform. Does the president have the details to make reform work? "EARLY START" anchor Dave Briggs joins us now with a look at the big cuts and potential problems ahead. What do you see, my friend?

DAVE BRIGGS, CNN ANCHOR, "EARLY START": This is a big question, isn't it, Chris? First up, will the Trump administration push for a total tax overhaul or just targeted tax cuts? Regardless, a political battle lies ahead. Now, let's talk about, first, the cornerstone of either plan. This will be three tax brackets you see here, depending on income levels. Currently, in our tax code, there are six. The main criticism, though, among tax experts on these new brackets, give huge cuts to the wealthy, smaller relief to the middle-class.

But the president has said he's thinking of a fourth bracket. That's zero percent, meaning lower-income Americans would not pay taxes at all. But as many of you know, that is already the case in the current tax code because of these standard deductions. Some 45 percent pay no federal taxes. The other big piece will be reducing the corporate tax rate. You've long heard Trump rally about that. It's currently 35 percent and, of course, the sticking point there is that is the highest among developed nations. Few companies, though, actually pay that due to deductions, to credits, other tax moves as well. So those are your potential cuts.

Reform, a much bigger undertaking. That would involve completely rewriting the tax code. It could include some controversial elements, in particular, that border adjustment tax -- perhaps removing tax credits, even changing deductions. And special interest groups are at the heart of this. They had a big impact on the health care bill and just wait until they get their hands on tax reforms. Chris, as you know, tax reform has not been done since the Mets won the World Series. It's a monster to take on.

[07:50:10] CUOMO: True. Dave Briggs, appreciate it. Thank you very much, my friend.

BRIGGS: Indeed.

CUOMO: All right, so there's some confusion over deadly coalition airstrikes in Mosul. Dozens of civilians, maybe hundreds. At the latest count they have over 100 bodies that the Iraqis say that they have counted. Why did this happen? What does this mean about the U.S. role going forward? We have a journalist who was on the scene just moments after the strike. We'll take you there.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

CUOMO: All right. So there's a big investigation going on right now to figure out how many civilians got killed in this bombing and why they got killed after a coalition airstrike in Mosul -- western Mosul -- earlier this month. An Iraqi health official tells CNN so far they've recovered more than 100 bodies and the work is very slow going. The devastation is almost complete. This comes as the U.S. is planning to send more troops to Mosul to help Iraqi forces in the fight against ISIS.

[07:55:00] Let's discuss. We have CNN Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr. We've got CNN senior international correspondent Arwa Damon who is just south of Mosul. And we have Molly Hennessy-Fiske, a foreign staff writer for the "L.A. Times."

Right now, we're looking at video of Molly shot by her and her crew in the aftermath of that airstrike. You can see the rubble left behind. Video of them trying to do some hand digging and get bodies out. Molly, we heard that it's very slow going and that they're only able to recover six bodies in an entire day. What were you able to see on the ground?

MOLLY HENNESSY-FISKE, FOREIGN STAFF WRITER, "LOS ANGELES TIMES": Well, when we were there -- this was on Friday, so it was a week after the incident had happened -- residents -- families were leading us through the rubble and showing us remains, some of which had been zipped into blue body bags, some of which were still in the rubble -- some trapped in the rubble. We could see hands and feet.

The neighbors -- people who knew the victims were pointing out and saying this is a woman, this is a baby, a boy, a girl. A lot of -- a number of women and children among those who had been killed. We saw about 50 remains and then I was speaking to some more residents today who said more have been recovered since then.

CUOMO: All right, Molly, and obviously you're there for the "L.A. Times." Appreciate you giving us that access. Tough scene to behold for sure. And Arwa, as you know, this is an especially vicious type of attack for the people who live there. Everybody knows they're in the middle of a war but when non-combatants -- when women and children who are not part of the conflict get killed that is a real fuel for the fire of hate against the coalition forces, against people who are coming in. It feeds propaganda about what this war's really about and who's trying to be killed by the United States. What is the effect of something like this, in your opinion?

ARWA DAMON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, it certainly makes it a lot more difficult for the U.S.-led coalition -- for the Iraqi forces to ultimately convince the people of Mosul that they are here to liberate them, bearing in mind that this is, as you're mentioning, they're on an incredibly difficult battlefield. I mean, on that particular day we were hearing from an eyewitness that in one of the homes that was leveled in this explosion that happened, there were six families sheltering.

This is a civilian population that doesn't know how to keep itself safe that ISIS is holding hostage. Of course, they want to be saved from it but you can just imagine what it must be like to try to keep yourself safe in this kind of a scenario as the forces are advancing. The battle is continuously ongoing and you feel as if you're not only caught between both sides but, perhaps -- and you can see these plumes of smoke still rising behind us, that is western Mosul back there -- that you feel that perhaps to a certain degree both sides are targeting you. CUOMO: The state of play on the ground where you are right now, Arwa, do the people there feel that they need the United States to come in and help them?

DAMON: Look, the Iraqis will tell you this time and time again. They could not have gotten this far without the assistance that they're getting from the United States, whether it's advise and assist, whether it's air assets, whether it's other enablers that are being brought on the ground. The Iraqis are also very well aware of how sensitive the situation is and that they cannot afford to lose the population which, right now at this stage, especially when it comes to people who have lost loved ones or residences in these particular areas where these strikes that are currently under investigation have taken place, there is a lot of anger. Of course, there is. People are losing those who they love.

This is a population that has already suffered through two and one- half years of ISIS, waiting to be liberated, only to find themselves victims of the very process of liberation, so there's a lot of anger. And given what we know about Iraq one has to take into consideration just how easily manipulated that anger may be and how delicate this situation is for this predominantly Shia-led government that has to convince the population of Mosul that they are on their side.

CUOMO: Barbara Starr, you know, there's something going on right now with U.S. involvement that is escaping debate by our lawmakers. There are additions to troops that are being made. We heard about it reshuffling in Syria. We're hearing about the potential more boots on the ground in Iraq. What do you know?

BARBARA STAFF, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, over the weekend the U.S. military very quietly let it be known that, indeed, several hundred additional U.S. troops from the 82nd Airborne at Fort Bragg are on their way to Iraq. They will go to the Mosul area to beef up the so-called advisory role -- advise and assist teams for those Iraqi forces trying to move on Mosul. We've seen additional forces go into Syria to help there.

But I think there is an underlying problem emerging for the United States. They are now moving into these areas in Mosul and Raqqa that are very densely populated. These are neighborhoods full of civilians. ISIS taking human shields, taking hostages.