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THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER

Alabama Senator-Elect Doug Jones Speaks Out; Republicans Suffer Stunning Senate Loss in Alabama. Aired 4:30-5p ET

Aired December 13, 2017 - 16:30   ET

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


[16:30:01]

QUESTION: What message would you give to the people of Alabama and maybe encourage everyone that voting is your right and you should take part?

DOUG JONES (D), ALABAMA SENATOR-ELECT: Yes, I -- you know, look, I think you just answered your own question there.

It is, elections have consequences. We have been getting that message out for the last five or six months, since we have been involved in this campaign.

And it's not just in a bitter way. I don't mean it that way. Some people are going to be upset, and they're thinking, oh, my gosh, my candidate didn't win, I should have gotten more people to the polls.

But the fact of the matter is, that is one of the most sacred rights that we have in this country. And there are people in this state in particular who lost their lives trying to get that right to vote, so you don't have to count jelly beans in order to get that right, so you don't have to pay a tax in order to get that right to vote.

So it's important that I think that -- and I would like to see there be some effort to get more people registered, to make it easier to vote in this state.

We have a period, other than absentee ballots here in this state, which are fairly cumbersome to do. I would like to make it easier for people to exercise their right to vote. And I think we can do that over the course of time.

But it's going to take -- in order to do that, it's going to take people putting aside, how is this vote going to affect this political party or that political party? We need to be thinking about the right to vote for everyone, and not just how it will enrich one party or another to give -- because that is so fundamental to everyone in this country.

Back to you.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) culminating on your 25th wedding anniversary, did you guys get to celebrate at all?

JONES: I'm going to take the Fifth on that one, I think. Let me say -- let me just say this. This was -- you know, last night

was probably the best anniversary present anybody could have. We had when we were married probably the best wedding party that I have ever been to. But it didn't come close to the wedding -- to the anniversary party that we had last night with about 2,000 of our closest friends.

So, thank you.

Yes, sir?

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) Cory Booker, he said President Trump should resign over (OFF-MIKE)

JONES: I'm going to just let Senator Booker and other senators make that judgment right now. I have been focused so much on the state of Alabama. I'm not going to go there on this right now.

I thank President Trump for his call today. And I look forward, if he's putting forth things that help the state of Alabama, for me to work with him. And then I will talk to him -- I will talk to him as I can only talk to him if he's -- if those issues don't affect the state.

Yes, sir? We will go back to you again. All right. We're starting to recycle here, folks.

QUESTION: You campaigned with Randall Woodfin, who is the mayor of Birmingham.

JONES: Yes.

QUESTION: Do you -- he just won, and that was...

JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: All right.

That is senator-elect Doug Jones, Democrat of Alabama, taking questions from the press. He continues to take them.

But let's turn to our panel and talk a little bit.

Symone, you heard him say there -- he was asked about how media reports were, in his view, wrong about how there wasn't enough of a ground game in Alabama from the Democratic Party.

SYMONE SANDERS, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Yes, I mean, I knew the media reports were also wrong, but I also -- frankly, I just -- I thought it was a long shot.

But the DNC, the Democratic National Committee, had 30 staffers on the ground. The Jones campaign ran their own operation. And then there was a coordinated operation of allied Alabama groups, 27 groups across the state, that were particularly focused on getting out African- American voters.

And that included folks like Woke Vote, but also the Working Families Party, Indivisible Group, Righteous Vote.

And then you had folks like Priorities USA and the Senate Majority PAC that put $1.5 million separately into African-American digital turnout program.

TAPPER: He has this seat for three years. He's just filling out the remainder of Jeff Sessions' term. That's going to be a difficult seat for any Democrat to try to keep in 2020, especially with President Trump on the top of the ticket.

And he remains very popular, generally speaking, although not with last night's electorate in Alabama. You heard him there trying to sound as if he wanted to build bridges and wanted to be a problem- solver. I'm not necessarily going to caucus, vote all the way all the time with one party or the other.

But I guess we will see if he can actually pull that off.

J.D. VANCE, AUTHOR, "HILLBILLY ELEGY: A MEMOIR OF A FAMILY AND CULTURE IN CRISIS": Yes, one of the most interesting things about what he said is that he doesn't seem in a special hurry to actually take his seat.

And that's interesting because, of course, we have tax reform, which is pretty controversial in the national Democratic Party. There is almost a piece of me that wonders...

SANDERS: For everyone.

VANCE: For everyone, sure.

But there is a piece of me that wonders if Doug Jones would like to get seated after the tax reform vote, so he doesn't necessarily have to take a controversial vote as his first act as U.S. senator.

[16:35:02]

TAPPER: And what did you think about him, his first display of himself as senator-elect?

KRISTEN SOLTIS ANDERSON, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: So, I think I noted when we were discussing as he was talking, that he almost sort of struck me as sort of a small-C conservative, temperamental conservative.

Hey, there is a process for how you get seated in this seat. And we're just going to go through the process and I just want to follow the rules and do things the right way and build brides. Not a bomb- thrower, not a fire-breather, which there has been this notion in politics as of late, I think pushed by the sort of Steve Bannons of the world, that it's all about the fire-breathers who say they're going to bring down the establishment and tear up the rule book.

And that's kind of the opposite what we just saw from Doug Jones. And maybe it is that there are voters that say I'm willing to go for someone who is just kind of a nice, maybe a little bit of a boring guy, and I would rather have that than a fire-breather.

You saw that, by the way, in the Virginia election with Ralph Northam...

TAPPER: Oh, Ralph Northam, the governor, yes.

SOLTIS ANDERSON: ... being kind of just a nice guy.

Maybe voters are not necessarily looking for the fire-breather. And if we take the lesson from the Trump era to be that that's what voters really want, I think these two special elections prove differently.

SANDERS: Jake, this tax bill is historically unpopular.

And what we have is Mitch McConnell bending and changing the rules to fit his agenda. They did it with Merrick Garland and now they're attempting to do it with the tax bill.

No one in the streets of the United States of America are taking to streets with signs saying, please, cut taxes for the wealthy. No one is doing that. And that is what this tax bill does. And so I actually don't think it's dangerous or even politically problematic for senator-elect Doug Jones to be seated and have to vote on the tax bill.

But I just want to reiterate that the process...

TAPPER: I think J.D.'s point is, he wasn't like eager to take a position on that, right?

SANDERS: He wasn't eager to get to it, because I don't think he also wants to get caught up in the Beltway bickering that's currently going on, with the Republicans literally trying to change and bend the rules to fit their agenda, and the Democrats asking for some decorum and decency and returning to the regular order of the Senate.

But this tax bill is not popular. It is absolutely a tax cut for the wealthy, and Republicans are going to have to answer for this thing.

TAPPER: You heard the senator-elect talk about a nice, gracious phone call he got from President Trump.

I want to bring in CNN's senior White House correspondent Jeff Zeleny who, has some new reporting about that phone call between President Trump and senator-elect Doug Jones.

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: Jake, we are getting some new information on the timing of that phone call.

And I'm told this happened shortly before the president gave his speech earlier this afternoon on the tax reform plan, before he walked into the Grand Foyer and into the East Room of the White House. They spoke privately on from the phone in the Oval Office for a short period of time.

But you heard Doug Jones say there it was a gracious phone call and he said they talked about moving forward. That will be a test for this president and a test for this White House if they indeed are serious about working with Democrats.

The president, of course, a former Democrat himself, has talked oftentimes about working with Democrats. Doug Jones could be a central example of that. He could be. He's an extinct creature in some respects, a Democrat from a conservative red state. That, of course, gives the White House an opportunity here.

But even in this divided town, it's hard to imagine that, but Doug Jones said the president invited him over here to the White House. Jake, that's what used to happen all the time. When Barack Obama, that freshman senator, was first sworn in, President Bush had him right here to the White House -- Jake.

TAPPER: All right. Jeff Zeleny, thanks so much.

I guess it is possible that this could be an opportunity for a reset for President Trump. I doubt it, just based on the past is prologue, but he could seize this moment.

VANCE: Yes, I don't expect that.

We have seen a couple of situations early in the Trump presidency where people have said, is this where the pivot's going to come? And, of course, the pivot never really comes.

I do think, to Symone's point about the unpopularity of the tax legislation, it's important to keep in mind that one of the things that made Donald Trump, especially the nominee of the Republican Party, but then eventually the president of the United States, is that he connected with middle- and working-class voters in a way that past Republican nominees hadn't, in a way that certainly Mitt Romney hadn't only four years earlier.

And I do think one of the critical problems that the Roy Moore election or the controversy over Roy Moore's candidacy overshadows is that the president has lost a little support with that core demographic of working-class and middle-class voters.

And unless you repair that problem, then Democrats are going to have a pretty successful 2018.

TAPPER: Everyone, thank you. We have a lot more to talk about. We're going to take a quick break.

We're also going to talk about Steve Bannon and how he's reacting to last night's loss for his candidate. That's next. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:43:38]

TAPPER: We're back with the politics lead.

A blow to Steve Bannon's war on the Republican establishment yesterday, after Republican candidate Roy Moore was defeated in deep red Alabama.

I want to bring in CNN political reporter Rebecca Berg and former chief of staff for the Majority Leader Mitch McConnell Josh Holmes to talk more about Bannon.

Bannon responded to the election upset today. Take a listen.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)

STEVE BANNON, FORMER WHITE HOUSE CHIEF STRATEGIST: Huge turnout yesterday. And that's because of Democrats hustled. And people have to understand, you don't turn out, they're going to turn out.

They did -- hat tipped to these guys at the DNC. They slipped in here under the radar scope and did a great job of ground game.

(END AUDIO CLIP)

TAPPER: Josh, do you agree? Is that what happened?

JOSH HOLMES, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: No. No.

What happened was that Steve Bannon worked to nominate a candidate who was an alleged pedophile. I don't know of very many Republicans, Democrats or independents who were excited to vote about with something like that.

He was pretty controversial before all of this happened. You will recall when Steve Bannon first endorsed Roy Moore, he was up against Luther Strange, who President Trump endorsed, and, by the way, had a 100 percent voting record with President Trump.

At that point, we knew that Roy Moore was going to be a tough sell, even in the state of Alabama. You had Steve Bannon push forward. And look what we got, a Democratic senator in Alabama.

TAPPER: What is the view from Bannon world, beyond, oh, it's the Democratic ground game?

They must know that this candidate that they picked and -- and that Steve Bannon helped convince President Trump to support was troubled, to say the least.

REBECCA BERG, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Right.

And I think some of his allies would admit in private conversations, Jake, that they weren't a perfect match in terms of ideology. I mean, Roy Moore was not a populist nationalist in the Steve Bannon mold, he was this Christian conservative warrior but they aligned in the first place. Steve Bannon's right-hand man Andy Surabian told me originally, because he saw this as a proxy fight with McConnell. He saw it as an opportunity to take on the Washington establishment as he might call it and make a point. Obviously, he fell short in this case but that doesn't mean that his greater war against the establishment is going to be over. And in fact, a source close to him told me last night after the result that the war inside the Republican Party is only going to get more vicious and bloodier. So that's the way they see it. They see this as a battle they lost, not losing the war.

TAPPER: And in fact, speaking of getting more vicious and bloodier, take a listen to New York Republican Congressman Peter King talking to CNN this morning about how this election was the manifestation of the revulsion by the American people against Bannon.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REP. PETER KING (R), NEW YORK: This guy does not belong on the national stage. He looks like some disheveled drunk that warned on to the political stage. He does not represent anything I stand for. I consider myself a Conservative Republican. I consider myself an Irish Catholic and he sort of parades himself out there with his weird alt- right views that's he has, and to me, it's demeaning of the whole governmental and political process.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: Now, we should point out, I'm sure Steve Bannon would say that's Republican establishment attacking him personally and not on the fact he's in touch with the populism that he thinks he stands for.

JOSH HOLMES, FORMER CHIEF OF STAFF, SEN MCCONNELL: Yes, well, look, Steve Bannon's problem is not the populism that he stands for. He doesn't know what the heck he's doing. I mean, this is a guy who he showed up in the last two months of the Presidential Election and declared himself the world's greatest strategist. And his first (INAUDIBLE) here in 2017, we lost an R plus-25 state. I mean, that's almost impossible to do. I mean, this guy showed up at the plate with a football helmet and a basketball. I mean, it has absolutely totally unmasked this idea that he has any clue what he's up to at this point.

TAPPER: And, Rebecca, where else can we see some of these races? I know there's an insurgent candidate running against the incumbent Republican Senator in Nevada. Where else might Bannon try to wage this war against the establishment?

BERG: Well, Arizona's another big target. You have Kelly Ward who was supported previously by the Mercer family, who are a family of donors close to Bannon, close to President Trump. She is probably going to be facing a more establishment candidate in Arizona. Those are the two key races where the question now for Republicans, including President Trump, is what can you do to ensure one of those candidates that maybe isn't going to be as strong in a general election setting doesn't advance, how can you insert yourself into those contests?

TAPPER: Fascinating. Thanks so much guys. I appreciate it. Coming up, questions about the Robert Mueller Russia investigation after some eyebrow-raising texts from an FBI special agent about President Trump are made public by the Justice Department. We're going to talk to the Vice Chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:50:00] TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD. Sticking with politics and the man who oversees Robert Mueller's Special Counsel investigation, today on defense. Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein pushing back at House Republicans who say Mueller's team is on a witch-hunt and incapable of being unbiased. Some of the strongest evidence so far, 375 politically charged anti-Trump text messages sent by a top investigator who and no longer on Mueller's team. One of those messages by Peter Strzok to FBI lawyer Lisa Page read, "I want to believe the path you threw out for consideration in Andy's office that there is no way, he -- meaning Trump -- gets elected, but I'm afraid we can't take that risk. It's like an insurance policy in the unlikely event you die before you're 40." Andy, in that text apparently in reference to a Deputy FBI Director Andrew McCabe.

This message was sent a month after Strzok helped close the Clinton e- mail probe. Although we don't know the exact context of the text, he does seem to be weighing in on the election and candidate Trump. Another exchange in March 2016 during the primaries, Lisa Page wrote, God, Trump is a loathsome human and Strzok replied, yet he may win. Another exchange, Strzok wrote, oh, my God, he's an idiot, he's awful. Yet today Rosenstein insisted he's standing by Mueller and the work of his team. He was also repeatedly asked about optics of political bias on Mueller's Special Counsel team and at one point asked about 9 of 16 members who have made various political contributions. Here is how Rosenstein responded.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REP. STEVE CHABOT (R) OHIO: How with a straight face can you say that this group of Democrat partisans are unbiased and will give President Trump a fair shake?

ROD ROSENSTEIN, DEPUTY ATTORNEY GENERAL: We recognize we have employees with political opinions and it's our responsibility to make sure those opinions do not influence their actions. Pardon me. And so I believe that Director Mueller understands that.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: The Senate Intelligence Committee is also closely watching Mueller's work. Earlier today on Capitol Hill, I spoke with Senator Mark Warner. He's the highest-ranking Democrat on the Committee. I asked him specifically about the Republican claims of bias on Mueller's team.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

TAPPER: Republicans in the House today in their committee hearing testimony from the Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein expressed some serious concerns about what they perceived to be biased in the investigation by -- headed by Bob Mueller. What's your response? Do they not have reason to be concerned when an investigator is referring to the President using such derogatory language?

SEN. MARK WARNER (D-VA), SENATE INTELLIGENCE COMMITTEE: Well, let's step back and take a look at this investigation. We have an FBI Director that's been appointed by President Trump, who has a history of I believe giving north of $30,000 to Republican candidates. We have the Special Prosecutor himself Bob Mueller, a very distinguished Vietnam vet, but also a known Republican. And the one individual that indicated some preference towards Ms. Clinton, my understanding is Bob Mueller when that news came to him, he immediately fired him. So I worry that there seems to be this drumbeat.

My hope is that at least here in the Senate, where a number of Republicans Senators said over the fall that in fact, all hell to pay if Mr. Trump did something as irresponsible as firing Bob Mueller. I hope they will stand by their guns. I think, you know, what we've heard from Mr. Rosenstein today was he has great faith in Special Prosecutor Mueller and I think he's going about this process in an orderly way. Yes, I'd love it to move faster, but I think he's doing it in a very professional way and it would be beyond political malpractice, it would I think cause almost a constitutional crisis if Mr. Trump were to fire Mr. Mueller.

[16:56:23] TAPPER: Rosenstein today refused to define the scope of the investigation. Should there be limits? I mean, is it relevant for him to be looking into the finances of President Trump or the Trump empire?

WARNER: Well, again, if there have been allegations, and I'm not going to weigh in on those allegations because we're having our own investigation, but there have been allegations that there were extensive financial ties between Russian-backed entities and the Trump organization. That, in my mind, if it is true would be a relevant fact from a counterintelligence standpoint.

TAPPER: You're the ranking member of the Senate Intelligence Committee which questioned Donald Trump Jr. today behind closed doors. Is Donald Trump Jr., is he being forthcoming?

WARNER: Listen, I'm not going to comment about his testimony this morning. We don't talk about that testimony, but if you simply look at the public record, whether it is the case of the meeting where Russians were offering in effect dirt on Hillary Clinton that he participated in, when we look at the fact that it appears Donald Trump Jr. had some level of contact with Julian Assange and the head of WikiLeaks, which was the source of a lot of these leaked information on Mrs. Clinton and on John Podesta, you know, there are a lot of legitimate questions that this individual needs to answer.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

TAPPER: And our thanks to Senator Warner. Now to our "WORLD LEAD" today, a top counterterrorism official in the U.S. is now saying that recent anti-Muslim rhetoric is making his job and the work of his colleagues more difficult. Let's bring in CNN's Jim Sciutto. And Jim, this official specifically referenced anti-Muslim remarks by President Trump.

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: That's right. This is the head of the NCT, the National Counterterrorism Center. That's the intelligence agency charged with preventing terror attacks on U.S. soil. And while he didn't say it was one particular tweet or one statement, I was very specific with him, I pressed him. I said are you talking about Trump's for instance travel ban to Muslim majority countries? Are you talking about that kind of thing included in here? And he said very simply, yes, that makes my job more difficult. He went on, he said, I don't think it is arguable it's more difficult when the environment is contaminated by mutual suspicion. If you're increasing the amount of suspicion and distress on these communities, it places more challenges in our way.

To be clear, there when he's talking about these communities, of course, he's talking about Muslim communities. And he like many other law enforcement officials will make the point, we need these communities to give us information to help identify these people. And he was very clear here that this kind of rhetoric, these policies as well maybe that job more difficult.

TAPPER: And he's on his way out the door, though, I should note. This is a comment he may not have make if he's still --

SCIUTTO: No question. He's a very careful, very a political guy. He's on his way out the door. But keep in mind, after serving really nearly a year under the Trump administration, having served a slightly longer time with the Obama administration, he's out the door but not within 24 hours of the inauguration.

TAPPER: But it struck you. I mean, you thought that this was notable. A trump administration official saying the President's language makes fighting terrorism more difficult?

SCIUTTO: Absolutely. And to be clear, pressed him three or four times on this to make sure we knew what he was talking about here. And he's not alone in saying this. You'll hear others. I spoke to the Manhattan District Attorney two days ago who made a similar point. So the folks on the front lines of terrorism worry that this makes things more dangerous.

TAPPER: All right, Jim Sciutto, excellent reporting. Thank you so much. I appreciate it. Be sure to follow me on Facebook and Twitter @JAKETAPPER or tweet the show @THELEADCNN. That is it for THE LEAD today, I'm Jake Tapper. I turn you over to Wolf Blitzer, he's in "THE SITUATION ROOM."

WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: Happening now, breaking news, reaching a deal? House and Senate Republicans say they've reached a tentative deal on a compromised tax cut bill. The President says he hopes it will pass within days and that Americans will start seeing savings in two months.