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THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER

Trump Leaves Open Possibility of Pardoning Flynn; Corker, Rubio to Vote "Yes" on Final Tax Bill. Aired 4:00-4:30p ET

Aired December 15, 2017 - 16:00   ET

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


[16:00:11] JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: Thanks, Brooke.

Did President Trump just suggest to Mueller's star witness that a pardon is possible?

The LEAD starts right now.

We will see. President Trump refusing to rule out whether he will pardon the now felon general Michael Flynn. It's suggesting a pardon might be in the future is not obstruction of justice, and it is not, what is it?

Breaking news. In the last few minutes, Republican holdouts Marco Rubio and Bob Corker say they are now yes votes on the tax bill. Do Republicans finally have the votes to historically alter the way you pay or do not pay Uncle Sam?

Plus, showdown between the U.S. and North Korea at the United Nations. Will Kim Jong-un earn his way back to the table or bring us closer to the brink with another nuclear test?

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

Stunning but no longer surprising remarks from the President of the United States this morning in which he seemed to dangle the possibility of a Presidential pardon for a cooperating witness who has already pleaded guilty to the crime of lying to the FBI.

Earlier today, President Trump was asked about former national security adviser Michael Flynn who has admitted he lied to federal law enforcement agents about conversations he had with the Russian ambassador.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I don't want to talk about pardons for Michael Flynn yet. We'll see what happens.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: We will see what happens. He doesn't want to talk about pardoning Michael Flynn yet. We will see what happens. It's a remarkable thing to say about special counsel Robert Mueller's star cooperating witness. Now, the fact that Mueller only charged Flynn with one count of lying

when he possibly has much more to charge him with if he wants suggests that Mueller may be holding additional federal crime charges over Flynn in exchange for information. And, of course, a Presidential pardon would change the game.

Now that might not be obstruction, but the comments are not currently in support of the judicial process. It's worth noting that the President through this part of consideration grenade into the FBI's most high-profile case on his way to a commencement address at the FBI academy. With any luck, attendees were already seated with their phones off when the President continued with the rest of what he had to say this morning.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TRUMP: I can say this, when you look at what's gone on with the FBI and with the justice department, people are very, very angry. Thank you very much, everybody.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: People are very, very angry. People are very, very angry. Who? What people? Well, I will tell you who, those whom the President pays closest attention to, his supporters.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Forget about -- do we need to shut down the FBI because it was turned into a KGB-type operation by the Obama administration?

JUDGE JEANINE PIRRO, FOX NEWS HOST: The stench coming out of the justice department and the FBI is like that of a third-world country where money and bullies and clubs decide elections.

SEAN HANNITY, FOX NEWS ANCHOR: It would be Watergate on human growth hormone and steroids combined at massive levels.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's a banana republic, Sean.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: You're the one who had to untangle it, Sean. Not the federal government.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: A KGB-type operation. Third-world country. Worse than Watergate. A banana republic. So by people who are very angry, the President is referring to those who are true believers in him and/or those who have a career interest in such decidedly pro Trump biases, they think nothing of this incredibly extremist rhetoric. Impugning the integrity of Bob Mueller and the justice department officials and the entire FBI.

A hearty congratulations to all the graduates out there at the FBI academy in Quantico. Good luck out there. My panel is here with me. We should note that White House attorney Ty

Cobb says there is no consideration being given to a Flynn pardon.

But, honestly, Scott, it's really only the President of the - we have learned this all by now, it doesn't matter what Ty Cobb says or Rex Tillerson says, or whatever, it's what President Trump says.

SCOTT JENNINGS, FORMER SPECIAL ASSISTANT TO PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: Well, and there is a need to be consideration. I mean, the President pardoned Joe Arpaio, you know, on a whim or without going through the normal process, as is his right to do under the United States constitution.

So I think we are making a lot of this today because that is what we do, you know. We go through the daily outrage because the President can't stop talking about these issues. That's sort of I wish he would cease discussing these matters and talk about the amazing successes of the day. This guy is getting the big ticket item today, tax cuts and tax reform and, you know, we are dangling out on pardons.

So I sort of what the White House to be on the economic message because it will be much better for his job approval.

TAPPER: Now we will talk about taxes later on in the show, absolutely.

But, Bill, why even open himself up to this criticism? This is an ongoing investigation? Flynn is a cooperating witness. And yet, instead of saying it would be inappropriate me to say anything so I'm not going to say anything or just ignoring the question. He dives in there and says we are not talking about that yet. We will see what happens. A lot of people are very angry. All but saying that they are giving it thought.

[16:05:013] BILL KRISTOL, EDITOR AT-LARGE, THE WEEKLY STANDARD: He wants to lay the ground work for possible pardons or for possibly firing Mueller or minimally to discrediting among his supporters the Mueller investigation enough so he can sustain a fight against whatever results, whatever Mueller finds out.

I mean, that stuff, (INAUDIBLE) when Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general testified and House Republicans were reading statements basically saying this investigation is illegitimate. It's been so corrupted by those text messages, by those FBI agents that it should stop. That was not just happenstance. Fifteen House Republicans just decided, hey, let's say this. That was coordinated. I assume with some coordination, maybe not directly with President Trump, but President Trump's supporters. President Trump's supporters (INAUDIBLE) earlier. It is not that President Trump's supporters are attacking the investigation because Trump has attacked the investigation. It's not vice versa.

So this is not a -- he wants to discredit, delegitimize and maybe end the investigation. That's what minimally with some pardons and stuff like that. And that's why he said that today.

TAPPER: Neera, I want you to listen to something else President Trump said today about the Russia investigation.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TRUMP: There is absolutely no collusion. That has been proven. So now even the Democrats admit there is no collusion. There is no collusion. That's it.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: Take a listen to democratic senator Ron Wyden of Oregon on CNN just last night.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. RON WYDEN (D), OREGON: I think when you look at Donald Trump Jr. and what is On the Record, I think there was clearly an intend to collude.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: And that's where Democrats are hanging their hat right now, there is an intent to collude, but that is not collusion.

NEERA TANDEN, PRESIDENT, CENTER FOR AMERICAN PROGRESS: You know, I think we have evidence of collusion. What has basically happened is we have evidence of the Trump campaign getting help from the Russians, we have the WikiLeaks data where they are exchanging text messages about what's happening when it's happen. So that's the quid. And then we know on the other side when they got into the office, they were undoing the sanctions. We actually have to have more data about it, but there is circumstantial evidence of collusion itself.

The idea that Democrats say there is no collusion is ridiculous. That's what the investigation is for. Let me just say one thing about the President's actions. It is all designed to basically make it impossible for people to act, for Republicans to act on anything Mueller finds. That's what I think he's doing. It would just say to people, you know, innocent people do not tend to just attack prosecutors. You wait for the results.

TAPPER: I want to bring in CNN's Jeff Zeleny right now into the conversation. He is at the White House.

Jeff, so President Trump today slammed the FBI and then he went to go speak to a graduating class at the FBI's national academy for law enforcement managers. And thankfully he did take a somewhat different tone there, I understand.

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: Jake, he took a different tone, indeed. But he, you know, just not that long after, you know, saying it's a shame and people are angry, very angry at the FBI, he did arrive in Quantico, Virginia, and he took a different tone entirely, of course, talking to the law enforcement community. Many of whom have been supportive of him throughout the years. But this is what he said once he arrived in Quantico.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TRUMP: I am here not only to congratulate you but to honor you for your courage and for your devotion. And I want you know that with me as your President, America's police will have a true friend and loyal champion in the White House, more loyal than anyone else can be. I tell you.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ZELENY: So maybe that's a case of counterprogramming, double programming, of course, reaching out to the law enforcement. But the message again and again and again here at the White House and in some Republican and conservative circles has been to delegitimize and question the investigation. And they have been helped along with that with all of those text messages that we have seen that are, you know, have certainly been uncovered in the subject of debate now on Capitol Hill. But definitely a sense of two messages, I guess, if you will, today from the President and the FBI, Jake.

TAPPER: All right. Jeff Zeleny.

Let's talk more about this. Scott, you worked for George W. Bush. And I'm old enough to remember that there was an investigation into the Bush administration. The FBI was involved. The special prosecutor was involved. Pat Fitzgerald, was that his name? And I don't recall, and refresh my memory if I'm wrong, I don't recall President Bush ever attacking the FBI, even though his administration was under a microscope and ultimately there were indictments.

JENNINGS: Yes. There was no campaign going on the way there is today. Although we have had special counsels in the past, namely during the Clinton administration, where there was a huge campaign to discredit a special prosecutor.

TAPPER: Ken Starr. Absolutely.

JENNINGS: What I would say about all of this is, I don't think it's a bad idea to give the American people more information about the people who are conducting this investigation. Ultimately whatever comes out of it, the American people need to have 100 percent rock-solid idea that it was conducted fairly and impartially in a credible way. And I think Americans are smart. So if you give them information, they can make up their own mind.

[16:10:07] KRISTOL: So how would you do that? Every text message sent by every FBI agent? JENNINGS: No. But I think some of the --.

KRISTOL: So how are you going to give more information? What does that mean?

JENNINGS: Some of the things that are being said are over the top, but I don't think it's wrong for people to know if people have personal motivations inside these investigations.

KRISTOL: And how would you know that? How would you find that out? JENNINGS: We are finding it out today.

KRISTOL: How did we find that out today? Because Robert Mueller fired those people whether an internal investigation. There is zero evidence that Robert Mueller's investigation is going to produce public charges. We will be able to see if those charges are substantial or not. You are going down a very dangerous path. Stick with President Bush. President Bush banned the White House staff from discussing the special counsel and the FBI investigation.

JENNINGS: And it would be the smart thing to do. But I would say I don't disagree with what you are saying. I think Mueller did the right thing. I think the American people getting more information is not a bad thing. People are smart. They can get all the information, put it out on the table and let them decide if they think the investigation was fair.

TAPPER: That's the Clinton White House rationale.

KRISTOL: We need to know everything about it.

TAPPER: It's bad for Clinton and it is bad for Trump.

Are you at all troubled by the fact that the justice department called reporters there and gave them copies or showed them copies, rather, of these text messages? And my understanding is that they were text messages attacking Trump, they were also attacking Chelsea Clinton, Eric Holder, Paul Ryan, you know, the way that we all talk. Now maybe it's not appropriate for an FBI agent, but -- not that I have ever attacked any of those people.

TANDEN: I was going to say --

TAPPER: But I mean, does that bother you at all or do you believe the justice department is just trying to share information kind the way Scott was saying?

KRISTOL: I think they should follow their own rules and procedures. They have mechanisms to investigate their own people. And you know, I don't think they should call in reporters and give them some text messages and not others of some agents and not others. That's not a reasonable way to run an agency.

TAPPER: So you don't think that the President is getting ready to fire Mueller? You think he is just like trying to get Republicans, especially House Republicans, on board?

TANDEN: I think the President could do any one of these things. He could pardon people. I think he is definitely sending messages about pardoning, which to me looks a little bit like obstruction itself. He could fire Mueller. I do think what we know he is doing, what he know he is already doing, is trying to delegitimize the investigation. And, again, if you are innocent, you would say I look forward to the findings. And my innocence will be shown.

TAPPER: But let me ask you what Scott is saying, which is there are people who are in this investigation who have sent anti-Trump text messages. Beyond that, there are people who were part of the Clinton justice department or supported Hillary Clinton, gave her money. Wouldn't you be troubled if people who had given Donald Trump money were investigating Hillary Clinton?

TANDEN: You know, we had actually people who were pro-Trump investigating Hillary Clinton during the last election. You know, I think the reality of this is we are going to find out -- Mueller doesn't just indict or not, he issues a report. The American people are going to have to decide for themselves whether he has the evidence to back up his claims. That I think is the most important thing. I think the fact that conservatives who lecture everyone else on law enforcement and supporting police are actually attacking the FBI harder than any political group I have ever seen, it shows you what's happening.

TAPPER: Don't go anywhere. We got lots more to keep talking about.

The defense secretary now responding to a report that says aides are tip toeing around President Trump when it comes to bringing up Russia. We will talk to a man who has briefed prior Presidents on classified intelligence.

Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:17:41] JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: We're back with our politics lead.

President Trump today leaving open the possibility of pardoning his fired national security adviser Michael Flynn. Just two weeks ago, of course, Flynn pleaded guilty to lying to FBI about conversations he'd had with the Russian ambassador to the United States.

Joining me now is the former director of the CIA and the NSA, retired Four-Star General Michael Hayden.

General Hayden, thanks so much for joining us.

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

TAPPER: What kind of message do you think President Trump sent to Michael Flynn today?

HAYDEN: You know, I think that was a very bad answer -- frankly, bad on the president's behalf. It was a bit of an ambush. He had gone out there. He intended to say some things and some other things from that press off were clearly messaging on his part. That was a grenade thrown at him and I don't think he handled it very well.

And the right answer is we have to let the judicial process take its course and we'll see what happens and walk away from the question.

So, he tosses that out there which can be read in many different ways. It's just not helpful -- frankly, it's not helpful for him. But it's certainly not helpful to Bob Mueller and the investigation. TAPPER: He spoke to the FBI National Academy today. He praised their

work. Before getting there, he said the following about the FBI and the Justice Department, take a listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TRUMP: When you look at what's gone on with the FBI and with the Justice Department, people are very, very angry.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: What he's obviously referring to are those text messages from that FBI agent who has since been reassigned and is off the case, Peter Strzok. He worked on the Clinton investigation and was part of the special counsel team looking into the Russia collusion potential. He bashed President Trump to another agent. He bemoaned the possibility of Trump winning while he was investigating Hillary Clinton.

Do you worry about bias in the middle of this investigation?

HAYDEN: Not with Bob Mueller in charge. Look, I don't want to be reflexive here, all right? So, it's a stupid thing for folks like that to be exchanging those kinds of messages, all right? And it creates the impression that there could be bias or prejudice.

On the other hand, we're all human beings. I wouldn't want you or every press account looking at every message I've ever sent because you do some things in a personal context that you can and should separate from your public context. What I took from that, though, was a great sadness, Jake, and that's the right word, a sadness, because once again in his own self-defense it appears, the president rather than arguing the facts or letting the process run its course, he attacks American institutions.

[16:20:06] And that harms those institutions and also sets in motion something, Jake, that we really ought to take account of. These institutions will attempt to protect themselves and sometimes in doing that, they will break their own norms. And so, we get a double destructive effect on the institutions we actually rely on for the health of the democracy.

TAPPER: Such as what, such as leaking information?

HAYDEN: Yes, particularly leaking information. We've got courts. I've read some opinions that seemed a little over enthusiastic in turning down some of the president's executive orders. Things along those lines.

TAPPER: "The Washington Post" had a bombshell story on the president's unwillingness to listen to evidence of Russian interference in the U.S. election. This passage was particularly illuminating. It said, quote, the result is without obvious parallel in history, a situation in which the personal insecurities of the president and his refusal to accept even what many in his administration regard as objective reality have impaired the government's response to a national security threat, the repercussions radiate across the government.

What might those repercussions be?

HAYDEN: So what we have here, Jake, I think is a question of degree. I've played this game. I've been in that room. I've gone in there with messages that cut across the president's policies or preferences or even personality. So you've got a heavy lift walking the president from where he really wants to be to where he really has to be.

And so, I'm pretty open-minded about the intel guys, what goes first, what gets written, what gets talked to the president in a large as opposed to a small group and so on. But what we've got here, the back-end of the story is the part that really disturbed me. Not that the intel guys have to maneuver in order to get the message across effectively.

The back end of the story is it seems as if no matter what it is they do, this story doesn't take. And I'm actually quoted in the article saying that what we had here was an unimagined vulnerability that would require a coordinated response. And, Jake, I don't see that response. And we don't get that response, until the president of the United States says we know you did it and you're never going to do it again.

TAPPER: I want you to listen to Defense Secretary Mattis. He responded to this "Post" report. He said, I have no reservation, nor has the president ever evidenced any pushback when I bring up Russia in a national security context.

HAYDEN: Yes.

TAPPER: Now, I don't think anybody was talking about General Mattis and the National Security Council.

HAYDEN: Right.

TAPPER: They were talking about intel briefers on a lower level.

HAYDEN: Right. Well, perhaps on a lower level, but also maybe in a different lane, all right? When General Mattis goes in there with what we have to do or not do, with F-22s intercepting Sukhois over Euphrates Valley, all right?

TAPPER: Right, that's Syria, absolutely.

HAYDEN: I mean, they're a receptive audience. I get that.

This is different. This is the intel community judgment. We've talked about this before. The Russians did this to affect the outcome of the election and they're still doing those kinds of things without a coordinated, empowered American response.

TAPPER: Are you expecting this to happen again in 2018?

HAYDEN: Well, yes, well, it's happening now. I mean, we can actually see the Russian bot nets and their interference with real and not real people in American social media. They grabbed on to the NFL take a knee controversy and played both ends.

All they want to do is divide us. And until we have a national response that guards against that, that educates the broader population, that has a general consensus that that's exactly what they're doing, we're going to be a weaker nation.

TAPPER: That's upsetting.

All right. General Michael Hayden, thank you so much. Really appreciate it.

Breaking news from the Capitol, with just minutes to go until the big reveal on the Republican tax bill, two key holdouts -- they've changed their minds. Who is now a yes next and what this might mean for your wallet.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

TAPPER: And we're back with some breaking news in our politics lead today.

With more Republican senators moving to the yes column, the GOP tax legislation could be close to a done deal in the Senate. President Trump is now praising Senator Bob Corker, the latest Republican vowing to vote yes. The White House saying in a statement just moments ago, quote: The president greatly appreciated Senator Corker's phone call and pledge to support tax cuts. He sees a great entrepreneurial spirit being released in our country and he is a part of that spirit.

CNN's Phil Mattingly is live for us now on Capitol Hill.

And, Phil, a source close to Senator Marco Rubio told you that the Florida Republican, he'll also vote yes and in just a few minutes, I guess we're going to see what these senators agreed to.

PHIL MATTINGLY, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, we don't actually have the final bill yet. That's going to be filed at 5:30. To waiting for what they used to get themselves to yes.

But, Jake, just track back 24 hours ago. Senate Republicans leaders were scrambling to try to get Marco Rubio on board. He set a red line related to the refundability of the child tax credit.

The idea that Bob Corker would come around to a yes vote after voting no the first time around seemed possible but maybe not super plausible. And now, here they are, both firm yeses. Now, there are still three votes out that they don't know where they are yet. Senator Susan Collins, Senator Jeff Flake and Senator Mike Lee, but leadership officials I've been talking to over in the Republican conference seem pretty confident that they're going to get there with most if not all of them.

And that underscores a key point here: Republicans feel like they're there. They feel like they have the votes and the last-minute changes appeased Senator Mike Lee and Senator Marco Rubio when it came to the child tax credit. When it came to Senator Bob Corker, I think the amazing thing is his concerns that led to a no vote the first time around, that the bill would add $1 trillion to the deficit or $500 billion, depending on the baseline you used, there hasn't been any movement on the major side of things to actually those. And he still came around. There's a lot of politics at play here, a lot of things that were happening.