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THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER

Interview With Former New Hampshire Senator Kelly Ayotte; Supreme Court Fight; Trump Son-in-Law in Iraq; At Least 10 Dead, Dozens Hurt in Russia Metro Bombing. Aired 4-4:30p ET

Aired April 3, 2017 - 16:00   ET

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


[16:00:06]

JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: I know a few dads who would like to send their sons-in-law to Iraq.

THE LEAD starts right now.

One of President Trump's closest confidants is right now inside Iraq, but where does Jared Kushner's expanding diplomatic role leave the secretary of state?

Democrats hitting the magic number, leaving Republicans with no choice, they say, but to go nuclear to confirm Neil Gorsuch on the Supreme Court. And Republicans are already predicting a bloodbath for any Supreme Court nominees.

Plus, sex slaves bought and sold with ease right here in the U.S., many of them children. And now the pope is addressing the global epidemic, saying there doesn't seem to be much interest in stopping it. Today, we will talk to an attorney general who's trying to do just that.

Welcome back to THE LEAD, everyone. I'm Jake Tapper.

President Trump promised to change how America deals with other countries and put America first. And today he applied these principles to the U.S. relationship with Egypt and its president, Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, who seized power in 2013 military coup.

President Obama had sharply criticized al-Sisi's human rights record and harsh crackdown on dissent in his country and would not invite him to the White House. President Trump changing course today, welcoming the Egyptian leader and congratulating him on doing a "fantastic job" and proclaiming the two "very close."

President Trump, who famously asked if the U.S. is so innocent when confronted with the quote that Putin is a killer, has signaled that the United States will not focus as much on human rights around the world, as have previous presidents.

Mr. Trump was silent during the crackdown on anti-corruption protesters in Russia, is lifting all human rights requirements for a sale of fighter jets to Bahrain. And as for Syrian dictator/murderer Bashar Assad, well, the Trump administration has signaled it is OK with them for him to stay in power.

CNN White House correspondent Sara Murray joins me now.

Sara, how does the White House explain what seems to be a clear backing away from the notion, a Republican notion as well as a Democratic one, that the U.S. is a shining city on the hill?

SARA MURRAY, CNN NATIONAL POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Jake, I think this president has made very clear that if he sees a world leader that could be a potential partner in counterterrorism, then that person and that country could become a friend and ally of the U.S.

And it was telling that Sean Spicer, the White House press secretary, in his briefing today would not even say whether the president raised human rights concerns in what was a very friendly meeting today with the Egyptian president.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

MURRAY (voice-over): President Trump kicking off a week of high- stakes diplomacy by lamenting the terrorist attack at a metro station in Russia.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Terrible, terrible thing happening all over the world. Absolutely a terrible thing.

MURRAY: Trump's warnings on terrorism sure to drive the discussion in a series of sit-downs with world leaders this week.

TRUMP: We will fight terrorism and other things. And we are going to be friends for a long, long period of time.

MURRAY: Today, Trump welcoming Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El- Sisi to the White House, before meeting with King Abdullah of Jordan on Wednesday and he will round out the week at Mar-a-Lago with China's President Xi.

Trump's warm welcome for al-Sisi today.

TRUMP: And I just want to say to you, Mr. President, that you have a great friend and ally in the United States and in me.

XI JINPING, CHINESE PRESIDENT: Thank you very much.

MURRAY: An early sign of the starkly different approach Trump will take to foreign policy compared to his predecessor.

Former President Obama had a frosty relationship with the Egyptian president, after delivering sharp criticism of Al-Sisi's human rights record. Obama never invited al-Sisi to the White House.

For Trump, counterterrorism is the priority, while human rights concerns are on the back burner. An administration official said they would be dealt with discreetly.

But the new president's most highly anticipated meetings this week is sure to be his two-day with the Chinese president, after serving up harsh rhetoric on the campaign trail about China's trade policies.

TRUMP: We can't continue to allow China to rape our country. And that's what they're doing. It is the greatest theft in the history of the world.

MURRAY: Trump said he would use this visit to put China on notice about North Korea's nuclear program, telling "The Financial Times": "China will either decide to help us with North Korea or they won't. And if they do, that will be very good for China. And if they don't, it won't be good for anyone."

Even warning the U.S. will act unilaterally if necessary, saying: "Well, if China is not going to solve North Korea, we will. That is all I'm telling you."

On domestic issues, this week, Trump is hoping to finally score a win. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell insisting Neil Gorsuch will be confirmed as the next Supreme Court justice, even if they have to rewrite the Senate rules to do it.

[16:05:05]

SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY), MAJORITY LEADER: What I am telling you is that Judge Gorsuch is going to be confirmed. The way in which that occurs is in the hands of the Democratic minority.

MURRAY: This as Trump's first major legislative push, health care, still appears to be stalled. Over the weekend, Trump golfed with Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, a harsh critic of the health care plan that collapsed last month. But so far sources say no real breakthrough appears imminent.

SEN. RAND PAUL (R), KENTUCKY: And I remain very optimistic that we will get Obamacare repealed.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

MURRAY: Now, if you want a sense of just how much the tone has changed in this White House from the previous president, just look at the photo-ops today.

President Trump had five with the Egyptian president. Compare that of course to President Obama never even inviting him to the White House -- Jake.

TAPPER: All right, Sara Murray at the White House for us, thank you so much.

High drama on Capitol Hill today in the fight over Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch. As of this afternoon, 41 Senate Democrats will vote no on procedural motion to allow a vote on the Gorsuch confirmation. That means essentially Democrats are threatening to filibuster the nomination.

And now Republicans are poised to change the rules and blow out the way the Senate operates. CNN's Sunlen Serfaty is live for us on Capitol Hill.

And, Sunlen, both moves are rather historic, both the threatened filibuster of Gorsuch and the detonation of the Senate rules.

SUNLEN SERFATY, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Jake.

Democrats and Republicans here have both essentially forced the other's hand here, underscoring just how partisan it is up here on Capitol Hill. Now, back in 2013, you will remember Democrats did lay some groundwork on this when they were in the majority.

They invoked the nuclear option. They changed the Senate rules to require a simple majority for non-Supreme Court justice nominees.

But certainly there is a sense that this is a Supreme Court nominee, a potential lifetime appointment, so we are entering some uncharted territory here.

We saw Democrats throughout this debate, yes, really going against Gorsuch, saying they have questions about his record, and a lot of them today saying that he had not been forthcoming enough.

But we saw them at the same time really railing against the fact that Merrick Garland, President Trump's Supreme Court nominee, was never held up for a vote. Here's some rhetoric coming from both sides today really underscoring how much all of this really is steeped in politics.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: I am going to vote to change the rules because I'm not going to be part of a Senate where Democrats get their judges and a Republican can never get theirs.

SEN. CHRIS COONS (D), DELAWARE: I question what a seven-month refusal to hold a hearing or a vote is, if not the longest partisan filibuster on this committee ever.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SERFATY: What happens on all of this next?

We expect Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to set up a key procedural vote for Thursday morning. We expect that the filibuster will not be broken. That's when and if likely he invoke the nuclear option, Jake. This sets a potential final confirmation vote for Neil Gorsuch on Friday, importantly, with only 51 votes, if they invoke the nuclear opposition necessary.

TAPPER: All right, Sunlen Serfaty up on Capitol Hill for us, thank you so much.

She helped the White House get Judge Gorsuch to this point in the Supreme Court nomination process, the Sherpa for the Supreme Court nominee. Former Senator Kelly Ayotte joins us live next. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:12:07]

TAPPER: Welcome back.

Senate Democrats have as of this afternoon the votes they need to filibuster or block a vote on Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch. Republicans' response likely could change the way the Senate works.

Here for more, former Republican Senator Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire. The White House recruited her to be the judge's Sherpa on Capitol Hill and help get him confirmed.

Senator, thanks so much for joining us.

KELLY AYOTTE (R), FORMER U.S. SENATOR: Good to be with you, Jake.

TAPPER: It looks as though Republicans will go nuclear to get Judge Gorsuch confirmed. I understand that you're going to lay the blame on the Democrats, but is changing the Senate rules ultimately good for the Senate?

AYOTTE: Well, Jake, it is really disappointing that we are where we are.

But the fact that they will not allow an up-or-down vote on Judge Gorsuch, who's exceptionally qualified to serve, I think the question that has to be asked by Senate Republicans is then who would you actually allow an up-or-down vote on that this president would nominate?

And I think the answer is no one. And so they're left in this issue where they don't really have a choice. Judge Gorsuch was exceptionally qualified, highest rating from the ABA. He's got support from President Obama's former solicitor general. There is no doubt that he's qualified to serve on the court.

TAPPER: You, if memory serves, did criticize then Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid when he decided to change the rules back in 2013 for lower court judges, requiring 51 votes instead of 60.

AYOTTE: I did.

TAPPER: How is this any different?

AYOTTE: I did.

And I would say that Majority Leader Harry Reid that at the time laid the groundwork, unfortunately, Jake, for this situation. I did not like that. And I know many of my colleagues I served with at the time did not think it was the right move when he changed it for all the lower court judges, the Cabinet members. But now they are blocking this exceptionally qualified nominee,

leaving Republicans no choice. They are in a situation where if you are going to block Judge Gorsuch, then that means you are going to block anyone that a Republican president would nominate.

TAPPER: Well, the Harry Reid argument would be, as you know, that Republicans were blocking all sorts of judges, and that's why he had to do what he did.

AYOTTE: That was so debunked and so not true.

In fact, it was really to pack the D.C. Circuit, unfortunately, where most of the Obama administration rules were going through. But it did not need to happen. I was a very bipartisan senator. There were many of us who were trying to work to make sure that would not happen.

TAPPER: Let's talk about being bipartisan, because before everything gets blown up, is there not an opportunity here for, say, 10 Democrats and 10 Republicans to arrive at a deal where perhaps Democrats would allow the vote on Judge Gorsuch to go forward and in exchange Republicans would agree that the next Supreme Court nominee who can get 60 votes?

Is there not room for compromise there?

AYOTTE: I just don't see it, Jake, because, under that agreement, essentially, what Republicans are agreeing that unless it is completely satisfactory, look it, they're trying to block a very, highly qualified individual, probably one of the most qualified, if not the most qualified, on that list that President Trump put forward.

[16:15:01] So, I think the Republicans are in a position where they are like why make this deal because they're essentially going to back us in a corner. I don't think Republicans want to change these rules but they're being left with no really opportunity for a different path here.

TAPPER: Some Senate Democrats however, I have to say, do seem legitimately opposed to Judge Gorsuch on principle. First of all, they're upset still about Merrick Garland, second of all, they say that Gorsuch wrote the Hobby Lobby case. They see him as having been evasive during his hearings, I can go on and on.

But is there not the possibility that some of these Senate Democrats actually think he wou8ld be bad for the court?

AYOTTE: Well, I think if they're not -- if they're looking that they want someone that a President Clinton or a President Obama would have nominated, I would agree, that he's someone that President Trump nominated. But if you want to just go on qualification, he's been on the Tenth Circuit for 10 years. He's no doubt a mainstream judge or President Obama's former general wouldn't be out supporting him. Democrat Governor Bill Ritter, former governor from Colorado, across the political spectrum, he has support, and he's no doubt in the mainstream. He's an excellent judge, and exceptional qualifications on this court. TAPPER: Senator Kelly Ayotte, thank you so much.

AYOTTE: Thanks.

TAPPER: Good to see you again.

AYOTTE: Thanks Jake.

TAPPER: Just minutes from now, the House Intelligence Committee will try to move forward on its Russia investigation. Will the chairman, Devin Nunes of California, continue to lead the inquiry?

Then, an explosion tears through a busy subway, killing at least 10 people and injuring dozens. And now, Russian authorities have disabled a second device. What clues could that give them?

Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:21:00] TAPPER: We have some breaking news on our world lead now. In Russia, a frantic search is underway for a suspect or suspects behind a deadly explosion at the St. Petersburg metro this morning. I want to warn any parents watching with children. You may want to ask the child to leave the room. We do have some new video from the scene and some viewers may find the video disturbing.

At least ten people were killed and dozens were wounded when the explosion tore through the train. The horrific images show now passengers desperately climbing out of the snapped windows and prying the doors open.

CNN's Paula Newton is outside the scene of the explosion right now for us.

Russian officials are calling this an act of terror.

Paula, any indications who might be behind the attack?

PAULA NEWTON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Not so far. And, of course, authorities are saying that, look, we can't rule anything in and out at this point. Investigators are at the station below me right now trying to comb the area and look for clues. But at the same time, you can imagine, it's already been almost nine hours since this happened and they are losing time. They are scouring the CCTV videos.

From the video, you can see though there, Jake, I mean, people in this city are incredibly rattled. We're at vigil right now where they continue to lay flowers and light candles. I mean, they are feeling profound shock here.

This is a very busy subway stop and many people in the city come through here on a daily basis and they're still trying to get over exactly what happened. In the car itself, people describe the scene of carnage, everybody saying to themselves, there's no way I'm going to make it out here alive, people breaking windows, trying to pry open doors, trying to run away from the scene.

And many saying that, look, while Russia has always been a target for terror. This hasn't happened in this city to this extreme. It is still quite really terrifying for them to think that their President Vladimir Putin was in this city, this is his hometown. He doesn't live here, he was here for a political summit. And it happened. At least one lawmaker here in Russia saying that, look, that can't be a coincidence -- Jake.

TAPPER: And there was a second bomb that did not explode, Paula. What did we know about the connection between the two explosives?

NEWTON: We don't know if there is a connection, but safe to say it is neighboring station stop. So, obviously, they are looking at that CCTV footage.

What's really chilling here though is that, that was at much as one kilogram of TNT, and I'm sure you understand the kind of explosion, the kind of effect that would have had if it had detonated. And that is another reason with authorities here still having no idea who the suspects might be or what the motive might be why this city remains quite shaken indeed.

TAPPER: All right. Paula Newton in St. Petersburg, Russia, thank you so much.

Can the House Intelligence Committee move forward with its investigation into Russian government interference in the U.S. election? In just minutes, the members will meet to discuss just that.

Stick around.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:27:59] TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD.

Continuing with our politics lead today. President Trump and his team have been spending a lot of time and effort in an attempt to distract you from the intelligence community assertion that Russia interfered in the 2016 U.S. election and from the FBI investigation into whether any members of President Trump's campaign team colluded with the Russians in that task.

The president last month put forward the false accusation that President Obama had had his phones tapped at Trump Tower. The FBI director later testified that there is no evidence to support that claim. National security officials tell us what is most important for the media and for the public to focus on is the role Russia played in interfering with the U.S. election, as well as in other countries' elections.

At the Senate Intelligence Committee hearing last week, we learned that e-mails from the DNC and the Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta that were hacked and or phished and stolen and released to the public were just a mere fraction of what the Russians possessed. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

CLINT WATTS, FOREIGN POLICY RESEARCH INSTITUTE: What no one is talking about is the information nukes that Russia sits on right now because they hacked 3,000 to 4,000 people. So, any time anyone rises up they choose against, whether it's Republican or Democrat, congress or executive branch or state official, they got the ability to do the same thing they just did over the past few years.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: That means that there are plenty of other politicians and others, perhaps some of those helping to distract from this real story, at risk here, that this threat of the Russian stealing and weaponizing information remains ongoing. Now, in addition to that, real information that was stolen and released, the Russians also pushed false information. Untrue stories on spurious websites specifically targeted at key parts of the country.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. MARK WARNER (D-VA), INTELLIGENCE COMMITTEE VICE CHAIRMAN: The last week of the campaign and certain precincts in Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, there were so much misinformation coming, talking about Hillary Clinton's illnesses or Hillary Clinton stealing money from the State Department. Would the Russians on their own have that level of sophisticated knowledge about the American political system if they didn't at least get some advice from someone in America?

(END VIDEO CLIP)