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Bill O'Reilly Under Fire; Republicans Attempt to Revive Health Care Talks; Trump-Russia Probe Continues. Aired 4:30-5p ET

Aired April 4, 2017 - 16:30   ET



JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: Speaker Paul Ryan also offered something of a reality check.

REP. PAUL RYAN (R-WI), SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE: I don't want to put in some kind of artificial deadline, because we're at that conceptual stage.

ZELENY: That's legislative-speak for going back to the drawing board.

One idea floated by the White House would allow states to opt out of some Obamacare regulations, including the requirement to cover essential health benefits like maternity care or substance abuse.

Another involves opting out of preexisting conditions.

John Cornyn of Texas, the number two in the Senate, explained it to reporters like this: "God bless them," he said. "I think they have got a way to go."

With Russia investigations under way in the House, Senate and at the FBI, the White House made certain the president heard something today that put a smile on his face, campaign-like applause, as he addressed union leaders one group at a time.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: And electricians, now, that's better -- bricklayers, boilermakers.


ZELENY: The president didn't mention his infrastructure plan is stuck behind other items on his agenda in a Congress that has shown more skepticism than support.

TRUMP: We're a nation of builders and it was about time we had a builder in the White House. Right?


ZELENY: So, how seriously is the White House pushing this tonight?

We saw the president a couple of times today, didn't say a word about health care. But the vice president is leading the charge on this right now. He was up on Capitol Hill earlier today and he's going back this evening to try and make some more deals on this.

But, Jake, the clock is ticking until Friday. Even under an agreed- upon scenario, it will be hard to get a vote before Friday. That is very unlikely. But sometimes on Washington talking about action is actually almost as good or the second best thing you can get than actually getting action -- Jake.

JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: All right, Jeff Zeleny, thank you so much.

Let's bring in our political panel.

We have with us Tom Nichols, senior contributor at "The Federalist" and author of the new book "The Death of Expertise," something we're all dealing with this year. Jonathan Martin is also with us. He's national political correspondent at "The New York Times." We also have with us Anne Gearan, "Washington Post" political correspondent.

There is something that is confusing me, and I'm hoping you guys can help clear it up. The White House issued a very strong statement today condemning the reprehensible chemical attack in Syria and blaming it -- he said: "It's a consequence of the past administration's weakness and irresolution. President Trump said in 2012 he would establish a red line against the use of chemical weapons and then did nothing."

But it's interesting because President Trump in 2013 wrote this: "President Obama, do not attack Syria. There is no upside and tremendous downside. Save your powder for another and more important day."

And again, "Again," this one in all caps, "to our very foolish leader, do not attack Syria. If you do, many very bad things will happen. And from that fight, the U.S. gets nothing."

Tom, basically, this is President Trump telling President Obama don't follow through on the red line threat. And then today he's faulting him for doing the exact same thing that he suggested.

TOM NICHOLS, "THE FEDERALIST": Well, there is plenty of blame to go around.

This is now two administrations in a row where Bashar Assad received the same message, which is he can pretty much do whatever he wants. And he's going to do whatever he wants.

The inconsistency I think comes from the fact that everybody wants Assad gone. No one actually wants to be the guy to do it because of all of the externalities that come with that, all of the problems that come with that.

And so I think a lot of bad things came from the red line. It probably shouldn't have been drawn. And if it was drawn, it should have been fulfilled. But the American people -- I think the president probably think that he was elected to not get involved in any more of these situations.

Unfortunately, as we just found out, the world doesn't cooperate with your campaign promises.

TAPPER: Anne, what's also interesting is I think there is no political blowback for not getting involved in a foreign war.

ANNE GEARAN, "THE WASHINGTON POST": Certainly, right. Republicans on the Hill are saying the same thing about this is a consequence of walking up to a red line, drawing a red line, walking up to it in 2013 and then stepping back.

But what they're not saying and what Trump's statement doesn't address is the fact that Assad is doing exactly to him what he did to Obama in 2013. There is no military reason to use chemical weapons. Chemical weapons are a show. And that show is designed to tell the world accurately that there is nothing they can do.

Unless they're willing to go in and bomb, unless they're willing to go in and do some sort of political assassination, any number of things that it's clear the United States is not going to do on its own, and there is no will elsewhere in the world to do, then Assad is free to do this or anything else.


JONATHAN MARTIN, "THE NEW YORK TIMES": Jake, the president wears the mantle of being consistent pretty lightly.


MARTIN: But I think, more broadly, what's striking here is if you look at Trump's instincts on a variety of issues, he's a very unconventional political figure, whether it's health care, whether it's interventionism.


He tends to be more of a kind of populist, nationalist figure, as we all know. But when it comes to these sort of staff-produced statements, he sounds much more like a conventional Republican.

And there is that distance. And it's not just this issue. It's a variety of issues where, when he's asked off the cuff, of when he's tweeting himself, his instinct is to be a very different figure than what he actually sounds like when he's speaking from a staff-scripted statement when he's now the president of the United States.

And that is sort of the bigger tension here going on. And his presidency is how is he going to govern? Is he going to govern as what his instinct is, which is very unconventional, or is he going to let the folks around him, the vice president and his chief of staff, who are very conventional figures, push him more toward being a standard issue GOP president?

It happened on health care, and here we are. Is that experience on health care going to push him, Jake, to be a different kind of figure that is not the sort of standard issue GOP president? TAPPER: Tom, I'm wondering what you think, what you make of the focus by the White House on Dr. Susan Rice and whether she behaved inappropriately in any way.

She says she did not. She says there is no evidence. We haven't seen any evidence one way or the other about the unmasking, which is not the same as leaking, but it can be the first step in leaking.

What do you make of it all?

NICHOLS: I think each sides wants to present a very coherent narrative.

The president's supporters want to present a narrative of domestic surveillance, abuse of power, the use of the intelligence community against one's opponents, which also isn't what happened.

And I think then partly because -- lost in this whole debate is fudging the difference or either that or people don't know the difference between intentional collection and incidental collection.

TAPPER: Right.

NICHOLS: Meanwhile, I think the president's opponents want to put forward a narrative that says this is a heroic action that finally reveals all of the nefarious Russia connections.

The problem is, those connections aren't clear yet. Each side keeps saying they've got the goods on the other and they've each found the silver bullet. But there is no there there yet.

TAPPER: Anne, it might be true that, at the end of the day, the Senate Intelligence Committee, the House Intelligence Committee, the FBI aren't able to prove anything other than a whole bunch of coincidental and circumstantial evidence.

GEARAN: Right, something that doesn't look like a cohesive org chart here.

It already doesn't look like a cohesive org chart. And that's not the way the Russians work. The Russians work by sidling up to people across a spectrum, getting to know them in a way that doesn't necessarily seem like spying.

And there were a whole lot of people connected to Trump who seem to have had those kind of acquaintances and contacts, things that on their own are not illegal, but taken together can show a picture of suspicion. The question is, does it lead to anything?


NICHOLS: The people who are waiting for a video of a suitcase of cash being dropped on a street corner like Robert Ludlum novel, that's not going to happen.

(CROSSTALK) TAPPER: Jon, any last thoughts on this?

MARTIN: If they have that video, it's


TAPPER: Tom Nichols, Anne Gearan, Jonathan Martin, thank you all.

Coming up, more trouble for FOX News and Bill O'Reilly, more advertisers pulling out of his top-rated show after a report that millions of dollars were paid out to women for sexual harassment and other settlements -- that story coming up.



TAPPER: We're back with our world lead now.

A suspected chemical weapon attack today in Northern Syria, and again we want to warn you that some of the images in the report we're about to bring you are graphic and difficult to watch. If you have children, you might want to ask them to leave the room.

Activist groups say that at least 70 people, including children, have been killed in the attack, hundreds more injured. Videos from the aftermath show innocent people being treated, many with oxygen masks struggling to breathe. One doctor told CNN that he's never seen anything like this before and the memory will stay with him forever.

CNN's Barbara Starr is at the Pentagon for us.

Barbara, the Obama administration heralded the supposed removal of all of Assad's chemical weapons in 2013. But since last year, we have seen his opponents, Assad's opponents, attacked with chemical weapons, including what we have seen today.


And international investigators are looking at this, trying to determine exactly what agent was used. So through most of the day, we have seen these statements of world condemnation about all of this, but is there any real change in the works? Doubtful.


STARR (voice-over): CNN will not blur out the horror, activists say dozens of civilians killed and hundreds injured, including children, when airstrikes hit in Northern Syria's Idlib Province.

Eyewitnesses say victims were short of breath, joking, foaming at the mouth. People died of asphyxiation, symptoms of a chemical attack.

DR. FERAS AL JUNDI, TREATED ATTACK VICTIMS (through translator): I saw children dead. I saw an entire family, a mother and three children, all dead. STARR: Secretary of State Rex Tillerson ignoring shouted questions

about the attack from reporters just days after he made clear the Trump doctrine is to no longer aim to push Syrian President Bashar al- Assad to be removed from power.

REX TILLERSON, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: I think the status and the longer-term status of President Trump Assad will be decided by the Syrian people.

STARR: This may be the new reality.

MICHAEL O'HANLON, BROOKINGS INSTITUTION: There is no plausible way to get rid of him, and we're all going to have to hold our collective nose and accept that and come up with a strategy that minimizes his ability to hurt Syrians in the future.

STARR: White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer also blaming both the Assad regime and President Obama.

SEAN SPICER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: These heinous actions by the Bashar al-Assad regime are a consequence of the past administration's weakness and irresolution.

STARR: Europe taking a much tougher public line, the British foreign minister focusing on Assad's crimes.

BORIS JOHNSON, FOREIGN AFFAIRS SECRETARY OF STATE: It would be another reason to think they are absolutely heinous outfit that is an - it is a war crime.

STARR: An emergency meeting of the United Nation Security Council now scheduled for Wednesday morning. Bana al-Abed, the eight-year-old Syrian girl who tweeted from Aleppo during the government siege had a message for President Donald Trump. This is today in Syria, in Idlib, "Hi Donald Trump, do you love this?" She says with a photo of the children of her country.


STARR: Now, President Obama of course, came in for years of criticism about his so-called "red line", no chemical weapon, she is in Syria. Assad steps over it, nothing happens. Obama criticized for that. Today silence from the Trump administration for hours about all of this, and then finally late in the day, written statements both from the President and the Secretary of State condemning the attack, but again, any sign of any kind of shift in U.S. policy, there is not. Jake.

JAKE TAPPER, CNN THE LEAD ANCHOR: Barbara Starr at the Pentagon, thank you. Let's bring in CNN's Senior International Correspondent Arwa Damon. Arwa, you spent a lot of time covering the poor innocent people of Syria, and this today is just the latest example of world leaders, every holocaust remembrance day they say never again and every year we watch the wholesale slaughter of innocents happening all over the world. ARWA DAMON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: We do, and it's

beyond heartbreaking, Jake, it's beyond devastating. In fact, I do believe that history is going to have to create a new word to describe what is that's happening in Syria when this kind of atrocities take place in plain sight. It's as if a moral compass was broken and the power that have the capacity to put it back together again either don't have the will or the desire to do so. There is no way at the stage to answer a question that's repeatedly asked of all of us all the time when we speak to Syrians, and that is why is this happening to us over and over again? What is it going to take to stop the wholesale slaughter of the Syrian population?

TAPPER: The White House today saying that the attack is a result of President Obama's weakness and how he didn't follow through on the red line threat back in 2013, ignoring the fact that President Trump then private citizen Trump at that time was telling Obama not to follow through. But we should point out first of all that the statement from the White House does not mention Russia which is obviously a big patron of Bashar al-Assad. And second, of all, this attack comes just a few days after Trump administration officials basically announced the change in U.S. policy essentially accepting Assad as the leader of Syria. Does the Trump administration, even though it's only day 74, 75, do they not also bear some responsibility?

DAMON: I think the Syrian population would most certainly say yes. At the end of the day, it's not necessarily about who is leading the United States but America's broader position when it comes to wanting to remain a global leader and take on at least on a superficial level of moral high ground when it comes to certain levels. Additionally to all of that, I would also say that the Trump administration may be criticizing the Obama administration, may be blaming them for the situation that Syria finds itself in for allowing red lines to be crossed with absolutely no accountability, but then the responsibilities on the Trump administration at this stage to then be the strength that America needs to be in this situation to not allow history to repeat itself. Jake.

TAPPER: Arwa Damon, thank you so much. As always, appreciate it.

You've been hearing about officers cracking down on undocumented immigrants when they show up for regularly scheduled check-ins, now the family of one army veteran is facing an impossible choice.


[16:50:00] TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD, I'm Jake Tapper and our "MONEY LEAD" today as of this afternoon, at least 11 companies are pulling ads from the top-rated O'Reilly Factor on Fox News Channel. This comes after the New York Times reported O'Reilly and 21st Century Fox have spent at least $13 million to settle various harassment claims. Let's bring in CNN Senior Media and Politics Reporter Dylan Byers. Dillon, are these companies organically pulling their ads or are there progressive and liberal and feminist groups pressuring them?

DYLAN BYERS, CNN MEDIA AND POLITICS REPORTER: In fact, they very much are organically pulling their ads. In a very often - in cases like this, you do see outside pressure from liberal watchdog organizations sort of forcing advertisers hands, that's not the case here. Advertisers came to the network, they said we have to reassign our ads, which we should note different from pulling the ads altogether. What that means is companies like Mercedes Benz, BMW of North America, All-State, T. Rowe Price, they will not air their ads on the O'Reilly Factor, they will - many of them at least will continue to air those ads on Fox News, which sort of reduces some of the financial debt that this boycott puts on Fox News and its parent company 21st Century Fox, but it's significant nonetheless. And the number of advertisers pulling out continues to grow.

TAPPER: And of course, the ads cost more for O'Reilly show than they do for others because it's such a high rated show. After Roger Ailes, the CEO of Fox was fired, the company said they had a zero tolerance policy when it comes to sexual harassment. But we should also know, the O'Reilly show brings in more than $100 million in ad revenue.

BYERS: That's right. It's the highest rated show on cable news. It's a - it's a - rating behemoth for them. Like you said, brings in more than $100 million in revenue every single year. It's a very hard asset for them to give up. But after getting rid of Roger Ailes last year, they said they had zero tolerance for sexual harassment, zero tolerance for behavior that made female employees uncomfortable. There was a sense that Fox News based up with the conversation I've had with sources there, that the network was really serious about it and that they were going to bring about real serious change. Now, with the network standing behind O'Reilly, we should note, not just standing behind O'Reilly but as outsources have told us, actually re- upping his contract. Even knowing about the money paid, the settlements paid these women, that has been a huge blow to the faith of the employees at that company have and the commitment of 21st Century Fox to truly combat sexual harassment in the workplace.

[16:55:24] TAPPER: All right. Dylan Byers, thank you so much. Appreciate it.

Turning to our "NATIONAL LEAD" right now. A military veteran is grappling with the uncertainty of his family's future. Ricardo Pineda served in the Army for nearly six years including 14 months overseas. Now he is trying to keep his family together in the nation he served because he is married to an undocumented immigrant facing stepped up enforcement from the Trump administration. CNN Correspondent Rosa Flores is here with the story of one family's ordeal. And Rosa, he's not the only veteran that you know of whose being impacted by this issue?

ROSA FLORES, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Absolutely. I talked to a national organization that says that there are other military families going through this same issue and the fear, Jake is that they're going to walk into a federal building, check in with ICE and that they're going to get deported. They're not going to be able to go back to their families. So what are they doing? They're actually having their pastor, their lawyer, everyone they know go and support them. And so, this one military family is using this strategy and take a look at their outcome.


FLORES: Every time army veteran Ricardo Pineda walks into this Baltimore Immigration Office with his wife Veronica, he grapples with a heart-wrenching decision.

RICARDO PINEDA, ARMY VETERAN: I have to decide between the welfare of my children and my wife.

FLORES: His wife is an undocumented immigrant. If she gets deported, he has to choose between staying in the country he served where his two disabled sons have a better chance at life or move his family back to Mexico.

PINEDA: What are we going to do now?

FLORES: The family has lived together in the U.S. since 2001. Ricardo says, he was a green card holder until he joined the army in 2009 and became a U.S. citizen. Two years later he requested citizenship for his wife and two children. He says his wife got detained.

PINEDA: It was traumatizing.

FLORES: Veronica says she's been routinely checking in with immigration and customs enforcement or ICE ever since.


FLORES: And ever since President Trump took office, ICE has been using these check-ins to take some undocumented immigrants into custody. Veronica was nervous for the meeting today because the first time she tried to enter the U.S. illegally in 1998, she got caught.

After she was detained, she said, she vowed never come back to the United States.

She broke the vow in 2001 she says. When doctors in Mexico told her, her son Juan needed open heart surgery and his chances of survival were higher in America.

PINEDA: It was a life or death situation.

FLORES: Veronica says, she walked 19 hours to get to the U.S. border while her sick son was handed to a human smuggler. The family has been in the U.S. ever since.

PINEDA: We choose to stay there, he will be dead by now.

FLORES: Their son, Juan, survived the surgery, but complications left him with brain damage, unable to speak. His brother Kevin has cerebral palsy. Veronica takes care of them and their father too. In 2014 Ricardo developed diabetes and was medically discharged after serving nearly six years in the U.S. Army. An injury to his hand prevents him from giving himself insulin shots. So he relies on his wife. PINEDA: How am I going to take care of my son, that's the main problem. How am I going to take care of myself?

FLORES: Today Veronica had good news about her meeting with an immigration agent. She can check in again in another year, a crisis averted at least for now for this military vet and his family.


FLORES: Now we checked with ICE and the agency says that custody determinations are made on a case by case basis. And, Jake, in this particular case, it really looks like ICE looked at the military service, at the sacrifice from this family, at the support that this family had outside from a lot of different people. And determined that, you know, it weighed more than her one run-in at the border.

TAPPER: It's heartbreaking story and there are other veterans out there you say, in similar situations, married as well to undocumented immigrants. He had a green card and became a citizen because he had served?

FLORES: That's correct. And one of the things that's just so touching about this, is that this family has gone through so much. I asked them, what keeps you guys together? They've been through so much, you know, she could get deported, he could stay, he could stay here in the United States. And she said my eyes are no longer able to cry, it's been that painful. And that pain is what connects them.

TAPPER: Keeps us - keep us posted on this story. Rosa Flores, thanks so much. That's it for THE LEAD, I'm Jake Tapper. Turning you over to Wolf Blitzer in "THE SITUATION ROOM".