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THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER

North Korea Nuclear Fears; White House Refuses to Discuss Potential Oval Office Taping; Calls Grow for Special Prosecutor in Russia Probe. Aired 4-4:30p ET

Aired May 15, 2017 - 16:00   ET

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


[16:00:02]

JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: The White House refusing to go there when asked about possible White House recording devices.

THE LEAD starts right now.

President Trump says the effort to find a replacement for James Comey at the FBI is moving rapidly, but Democrats want to slow it down and they want any tapes that the president threatened could exist.

Kim Jong-un celebrating his latest missile launch. His experts now say North Korea's new missile could hit U.S. soil, so what is President Trump going to do about it?

Plus, a 10-year-old boy asked for and got an apology from the vice president after the V.P. accidentally hit the child in the face, but that boy's military mom is furious, and not at the vice president. Who is she mad at? She will be here live.

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

The White House today is trying to contain the fallout from the most potentially damaging week of Donald Trump's presidency, just in time for another high-stakes undertaking when he travels abroad for the first time since taking office.

President Trump's actions and firing the FBI director and the subsequent White House bedlam could have long-term consequences, as lawmakers on Capitol Hill begin to push for any recordings the White House may have made, and debate begins about who will take Comey's place and whether he or she will be asked to pledge personal loyalty to the president, as a source close to Comey says happened to him.

CNN's Sara Murray is live at the White House for us.

And, Sara, what is the White House's timeline for replacing the FBI director?

SARA MURRAY, CNN NATIONAL POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, ideally, the administration would like to figure out their candidate to select someone this week, before the president leaves for his foreign trip.

And they would certainly rather have everyone paying attention to that search for a new FBI director than focusing on something the president raised himself last week, the notion that he may be secretly taping conversations in the White House. But, today, the administration faced more questions about it, and again they dodged.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

MURRAY (voice-over): The Trump administration's hopes of moving beyond the James Comey backlash hampered by another controversy at the president's own making, Press Secretary Sean Spicer refusing to say today whether the president is secretly recording conversations in the White House.

SEAN SPICER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: I think I made it clear last week that the president has nothing further on that. I said I was very clear that the president would have nothing further on that last week.

MURRAY: After Trump took to Twitter last week to suggest he had taped conversations with former FBI Director Comey, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle pounced.

SEN. CHUCK SCHUMER (D-NY), MINORITY LEADER: If there are tapes, the president should turn them over immediately. Of course, to destroy them would be a violation of law.

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: And if there are any tapes, they have to be turned over. You can't be cute about tapes.

MURRAY: The White House is still grappling with the fallout of Trump's sudden firing of Comey, a move that just 29 percent of Americans support, according to a new "Wall Street Journal"/NBC News poll.

The decision to fire Comey, who is overseeing a probe into potential ties between the Trump campaign and Russia, also raised alarm among some in the intelligence community, as the former director of national intelligence said on "STATE OF THE UNION" Sunday.

JAMES CLAPPER, FORMER U.S. NATIONAL INTELLIGENCE DIRECTOR: I think, in many ways, our institutions are under assault, both externally -- and that's the big news here, is the Russian interference in our election system. And I think as well our institutions are under assault internally.

MURRAY: Congress has made clear it will move forward with its own investigations into Russia's interference in the 2016 election.

But that's cold comfort to the American people. Just 15 percent of Americans say Congress should conduct that investigation, compared to 78 percent who say an independent commission or special prosecutor should lead it.

Meanwhile, the White House wants to talk about anything other than Russia. Today, Trump addressed law enforcement officers at a ceremony in Washington. DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I will always support

the incredible men and women of law enforcement as much as you have always supported me, and you did, big league.

MURRAY: Welcome the Abu Dhabi crowns prince to the White House, and the search for a new FBI director is moving swiftly.

TRUMP: I am moving rapidly.

MURRAY: The pick is sure to face intense scrutiny, and some on Capitol Hill are already warning Trump to avoid an overtly political pick, like Texas Senator John Cornyn or former Congressman Mike Rogers.

GRAHAM: I think it's now time to pick somebody that comes from within the ranks or has such a reputation that has no political background at all that can go into the job on day one.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

MURRAY: Now, some Democrats have said that they do not want to see a vote on a new FBI director unless the White House is willing to back a special prosecutor. Today, Sean Spicer was asked about that. He says the White House still sees no need for a special prosecutor in the Russia investigation -- Jake.

TAPPER: Sara Murray, thank you so much.

Topping our world lead, the nuclear dangers and threats posed by North Korea may have entered a new stage. Over the weekend, the Kim Jong-un regime test-fired a new type of missile on Saturday, which analysts confirm was Pyongyang's most successful missile test yet, unlike other missiles of the SAME category, which blew up within seconds of the launch.

[16:05:10]

CNN is learning that the new missile not only flew farther than any previous attempts, going as far as 435 miles, but it also reached the highest altitude yet, a terrifying, yet significant sign that North Korea may be one step closer to a working intercontinental ballistic missile.

Let's bring in CNN Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr.

And, Barbara Starr, North Korea of course has a long history of bombastic statements, but its new claim of its missile topped with a nuclear warhead being able to reach the U.S., that cannot be taken lightly.

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Not taken lightly at all this time, Jake. It is, in fact, the altitude and distance that this missile flew that poses such a danger.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) STARR (voice-over): North Korea's latest ballistic missile launch is potentially more dangerous than any previous launches, U.S. officials say.

The missile flew higher and longer than any previous tests. Just days earlier, the director of national intelligence sounded a warning.

DAN COATS, U.S. DIRECTOR OF NATIONAL INTELLIGENCE: North Korea is an increasingly grave national security threat to the United States because of its growing missile and nuclear capabilities, combined with the aggressive approach of its leader.

STARR: The U.S. intelligence community believes Kim Jong-un, who directly supervised the latest launch, is trying to prove he can strike the U.S.

COATS; He has taken initial steps towards fielding a mobile intercontinental ballistic missile, but it has not yet been flight- tested.

STARR: The U.S. trying to determine if the missile was in controlled flight the entire time. That would make it much more dangerous.

North Korea claiming it's now within striking range of the U.S. and can put nuclear warheads on this missile.

JI JAE RYONG, NORTH KOREAN AMBASSADOR TO CHINA (through translator): We will do test launches at any time anywhere upon the decision of the supreme leadership.

STARR: This latest launch does take Kim one step closer to an intercontinental strike capability.

JOSEPH CIRINCIONE, PRESIDENT, PLOUGHSHARES FUND: They fired it straight up about 2,000 kilometers before it came down, so even though it traveled only about 700 kilometers, if they had stretched it out, it would have gone about 4,000 kilometers. That's getting very close to ICBM range.

STARR: Analysts warn, even at this range, it could someday threaten the U.S. military base in Guam.

The missile fell into the ocean just 60 miles off Russia's coastline near the city of Vladivostok, home of Russia's Pacific fleet, according to the U.S. Russia has put the far eastern region on high alert, even though Moscow says the missile fell hundreds of miles away, all of this happening while Russian President Vladimir Putin was in China, the incident embarrassing Chinese President Xi, who has pressured North Korea on its weapons program, and Putin for having a missile so close to his coast.

VLADIMIR PUTIN, RUSSIAN PRESIDENT (through translator): This missile launch presented no threat to us, but, of course, it escalates the conflict, and there's nothing good about that.

(END VIDEOTAPE) STARR: Washington may be churning in politics these days, but a grim remind that security threats out there, North Korea not going away anytime soon -- Jake.

TAPPER: All right, Barbara Starr at the Pentagon for us, thank you so much.

Should North Korea's latest test missile change the United States' approach to keeping Kim Jong-un in check? The former head of the CIA and the NSA will join us next to weigh in. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:12:38]

TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

Topping our world leader today, North Korea warning, the mainland of the United States is within striking distance. This comes a day after the Kim Jong-un regime successfully tested a mid-range ballistic missile which could theoretically eventually carry a nuclear warhead.

Joining me now to talk about this is the former director of the CIA and NSA in the George W. Bush administration, retired four-Star General Michael Hayden.

General, thanks so much for being here. We appreciate it.

GEN. MICHAEL HAYDEN (RET.), FORMER CIA DIRECTOR: Thanks, Jake.

TAPPER: So, do you buy that this test means that, in the near future, the North Koreans will be able to hit the United States? And, regardless, what should President Trump be doing about this escalation?

HAYDEN: Well, it depends on your definition of near.

They have proven something in the last 48 hours, a real step function. If that thing had been suppressed, it had gone over a normal trajectory, it goes out 2,800 miles, it can reach Guam.

But it's not intercontinental yet. And so the North Koreans are -- and here's the word I would use, Jake. They are inexorably moving in the direction of a missile that can hit the Pacific Northwest of the United States with one of their own indigenously produced nuclear weapons.

I actually think that is inevitable, barring some dramatic change in course. And, Jake, I don't know what causes a dramatic change in course. If that was obvious, several administrations would have already taken that course of action.

I mean, the Trump administration, I think appropriately, has turned up the heat. They have postured. We have demonstrated. We have said an awful lot of things, and yet the beat goes on. The North Koreans have not changed their development program. TAPPER: And the missile landed in the sea 60 miles off the coast of

Russia. Vladimir Putin called the test dangerous, but he also said that the North Korean regime should not be -- quote -- "intimidated" and that we need to find peaceful solutions.

HAYDEN: Right.

TAPPER: Can Russia play a role in finding a solution?

HAYDEN: No, I don't think the Russians have a real sense of influence, a real lever here that they can push.

I used to go to the four-party talks in Geneva. The Russians are part of the six-party talks. I don't think they were big players. I think it was out of respect that they were in the neighborhood that they were included, but it's the Chinese that have the levers on the North Koreans.

And, Jake, we need to be careful here. That's not an unlimited lever. I think the North Koreans are willing to withstand an awful lot of pain that we or the Chinese could inflict on them to keep this program, because they view it to be a matter of regime survival.

[16:15:07] TAPPER: President Trump is obviously saying the Chinese need to do more.

HAYDEN: Right.

TAPPER: The Chinese need to do more.

Do they need to do more? And is there more to do?

HAYDEN: Yes, there is. There are some things that they can do. For example, an awful lot of the gear that the North Koreans are now using to go get these steps forward in their missile program comes through China. It's coming from European and other firms, sold to the Chinese and then the Chinese are forwarding it on to the North Koreans. I don't think that's government policy, but obviously the government can do more to stop it.

Jake, I guess the bottom line is the height of the possible here might be to slow the program, maybe even cap the program, but we're not going to push these guys out of their nuclear identity.

TAPPER: I want to turn to Syria for a second. I want to show you these handouts that came from the State Department which now believes that Syria's President Bashar al Assad is using a crematorium at a prison to dispose the remains of murdered dissidents. The acting assistant secretary for the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs says as many as 50 prisoners could be killed there each day. In your view, does this escalate the need for the United States to do more, or is this status quo, we know he's a barbarian and this is more evidence?

HAYDEN: Yes, sadly, it's probably more the latter than the former. This is not surprising when I first read about it. By the way, this seems to be pretty well-sourced. We've watched them

build this over several years. We have other intelligence information. Human Rights Watch has enriched our understanding.

This is eerie for me, Jake. I've actually been able to see World War II reconnaissance photography. We were taking pictures of the IG Farben works for a future bombing raids, the cameras were left on. And we actually saw the trains in Birkenau and recorded in American reconnaissance imagery. So, when you see this it's just an incredibly uneasy feeling.

TAPPER: Crematorium to cover up and hide the mass murder that Assad is committing.

Stay right there, General, if you will. We're going to take a quick break. A lot more to discuss, including growing calls for a special prosecutor to oversee the investigation into any possible collusion or coordination between the Trump campaign and Russia.

Stick around.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:21:24] TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD.

Let's turn to politics now and the growing fallout over President Trump's decision to fire the director of the FBI, James Comey.

Back with me is General Michael Hayden, former head of both the CIA and the NSA.

Take a listen to what former Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, had to say to me on -- yes, say to me on "STATE OF THE UNION" yesterday.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JAMES CLAPPER, DIRECTOR OF NATIONAL INTELLIGENCE: I think as well our institutions are under assault internally.

TAPPER: Internally from the president?

CLAPPER: Exactly.

TAPPER: Because he's firing the checks and balances?

CLAPPER: Well, I think, you know, the Founding Fathers in their genius created a system of three co-equal branches of government and a built-in system of checks and balances, and I feel as though that's under assault and is eroding.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: Built-in system of checks and balances includes the notion, of course, that we're a government of laws and not a government of men as John Adams put it. Do you agree with him?

HAYDEN: I do, and as a citizen I totally agree with what Jim told you yesterday, and you can get a lot of citizens in here and you could probably get a range of views, but they talked a little bit, Jake, about being a professional, an intelligence professional. In addition to those fundamental constitutional questions that Director Clapper raised, I've got a problem with regard to good judgment on the part of our government.

What happened last week will chill the bureaucracy, let me call it the permanent government, you know, the experts, the ones on which most presidents rely to help them make wiser policy, that will chill their efforts to make this president as well informed as he should be.

It's not a lack of courage. I think Dan Coates and Mike Pompeo and others are going to go in and talk to the president, but there's going to be a delay, all right? If that's what you get when you bring unhappy news to the president, you're going to want to make sure you're really, really sure that the unhappy news is true, and the body of evidence you require for that is going to be a really big stack, so I fear what will happen is the president is either not going to learn things or he's going to learn things later than he would otherwise have learned and that's going to be detriment not just to the nation but to the president.

TAPPER: So, a source close to Comey told me last week that in this dinner that they had when the president requested that he meet with James Comey, he -- the president asked Comey for a pledge of personal loyalty, and Comey would not give it to him. He said he would be honest with him but couldn't be loyal to him. I've never heard of such a thing in government.

HAYDEN: No, particularly from the kind of the power ministries, the three-letter agencies, FBI, CIA, NSA. What you want those guys to be is honest and direct. Loyalty is something different.

Look, I took very bad news into President Bush with regard to the Iranian nuclear program that actually stopped an aspect of the program. We agree with the president. We should sanction these people, and we knew that that intelligence finding was going to make it harder for him to achieve international consensus but we had to tell him the truth.

TAPPER: General Hayden, thank you so much as always. Appreciate your time, sir.

HAYDEN: Thank you.

TAPPER: Tune into CNN tomorrow night. Anderson Cooper has an exclusive interview with Sally Yates, the acting attorney general, the one that President Trump fired. That's only on CNN Tuesday at 8:00 p.m. Eastern on "AC360."

This is one way to influence the commander in chief. Slip him a fake news story. That's what we're hearing from "Politico", and now, the chief of staff issuing a warning to the president's aides -- stop slipping him fake news stories.

[16:25:02] Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

TAPPER: Welcome back. My political panel is here to break down all the news.

So, just in the last week, Karen, let me start with you. So Michael Hayden who was just here, he changed his mind and says there should be a special prosecutor. He was before a congressional panel. Him, Admiral Stavridis and someone else, all three of them said -- and Clapper -- said there should be a special prosecutor.

Clapper yesterday on my show says this country is being threatened by the Russians and internally by President Trump for this move. It seems like for a lot of national security directors, the firing of the national security director was a bridge too far.

KAREN TUMULTY, NATIONAL POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT, THE WASHINGTON POST: And I do think that there are going to be a lot of people making these calls that for this investigation to have any kind of credibility it probably needs to be taken out of the hands of anyone who was involved in James Comey's firing. And that's why I think one event to watch very, very carefully this week is what happens when the deputy attorney general goes up to Capitol Hill and has this all-senators briefing.