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THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER

North Korea Crisis; Train Derailment Investigation; House Passes Historically Unpopular Republican Tax Bill; U.S. Blames North Korea for "WannaCry" Cyberattack; NTSB: Train Going 80 in a 30 MPH Zone When It Derailed. Aired 4-4:30p ET

Aired December 19, 2017 - 4:00   ET

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


[16:00:10]

JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: Has there ever been a piece of major legislation passed by the Congress with less public support? Our new poll numbers have stark numbers about the tax bill.

THE LEAD starts right now.

Just moments ago, the House passed a historic tax overall which would change how every American and corporation pays Uncle Sam, and President Trump is halfway to his first major legislative win. But our new poll shows most Americans are not sure this is going do be a win for them.

Then, President Trump lashing out, slamming new reporting that he discussed pulling the plug on the nomination of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court. Did the president almost undo what would end up one of his biggest accomplishments?

Plus, more than double the speed limit. That's how fast officials say the Amtrak train was traveling when it jumped the rails and careened on to a highway below, killing at least three people. Did the mayor of a nearby town predict something like this would happen?

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

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

We're going to begin with the breaking news. After passing the House of Representatives by a vote of 227-203, the Republican tax bill now heads to the U.S. Senate and could be on President Trump's Resolute Desk by tomorrow, the first major legislative success for the Republican Party this year.

The legislation proposes sweeping changes to the nation's tax code, significant cuts to the corporate tax rate, and if it passes the Senate as well, according to one analysis, this will be the most deeply unpopular piece of legislation to do so in 30 years.

House Republicans this afternoon celebrated the hard-fought victory. Two big questions loom, of course. Will this bill indeed spur economic growth? And, second, will, as House Speaker Paul Ryan predicted, will voters change their minds about this legislation once it begins to take effect?

A new CNN poll finds that 55 percent of the American people oppose the tax overhaul, with only 33 percent supporting it. And 66 percent of those polled say the bill will benefit the wealthy more than it will the middle class.

That is a view supported by two nonpartisan government analyses of the legislation.

We have a team of experts ready to break down all parts of this story, but let's begin with Jeff Zeleny. He's at the White House for us.

Jeff, the CNN poll today also found President Trump's approval rating hitting a new low in a CNN poll. Possibly passing this tax bill could help him get that number up.

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: Jake, that certainly is the hope of the White House, that any big accomplishment would improve his ratings, but that is an open question here.

Of course, his approval is based on the full picture of his presidency. But one question here today at the White House, will this bill benefit the president more or the middle class?

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ZELENY (voice-over): President Trump on the verge of tasting victory on a $1.5 trillion tax plan.

REP. PAUL RYAN (R-WI), SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE: Today, we are giving the people of this country their money back. This is their money, after all.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: You're lying! You're lying!

ZELENY: Despite protests in the House chamber, Republicans finally flexed their muscles and relied on their congressional majority to help deliver what will be the GOP's biggest legislative victory of the year.

Yet the tax bill scheduled for a final vote tonight in the Senate remains deeply unpopular. Opposition to the plan has grown 10 points over the last month. A new CNN poll today shows 55 percent of Americans oppose it, while 33 percent support it.

At the White House today, Press Secretary Sarah Sanders defended the plan, insisting the president wouldn't unduly benefit.

SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: In some ways, particularly on the personal side, the president will likely take a big hit, but on the business side he could benefit. But the biggest focus for this White House has to make sure all Americans are better off today after this tax package passes than they were beforehand.

ZELENY: The president has been wearing his salesman hat for months, pushing the biggest tax overhaul in three decades, but the public remains deeply skeptical.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We want to give you, the American people, a giant tax cut for Christmas. And when I say giant, I mean giant.

ZELENY: So far, that pitch has not worked with a majority of the American people. The new CNN poll finds two-thirds of Americans believe the bill will do more to benefit the wealthy, while 27 percent say it will benefit the middle class. And nearly four in 10 believe their family will be worse off because of the Republican tax plan.

In lockstep today, House Democrats voted against the bill blasted by their leader, Nancy Pelosi.

REP. NANCY PELOSI (D-CA), HOUSE MINORITY LEADER: This GOP tax scam is simply theft, monumental, brazen theft from the American middle class and from every person who aspires to reach it.

[16:05:00]

ZELENY: The fight over tax cuts and tax reform will now become a soundtrack of the 2018 midterm campaign, with both parties racing to define the debate.

Despite a soaring stock market and booming economy, the new CNN poll shows the president's approval rating at 35 percent, the lowest for any modern president at the end of his first year in office.

All this as the president pushed back today on a story first reported the by "The Washington Post" that he considered rescinding his nomination of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court in February, fuming over Gorsuch privately criticizing Trump's attack on the judiciary as "demoralizing."

Today, the president tweeted: "I never even wavered and am very proud of him and the job he is doing."

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ZELENY: So, again the question of how much the president would benefit here, Sarah Sanders said he would not benefit on the personal side, but, Jake, that is impossible to answer or fact-check. This is the reason why.

The president, of course, still has not released his tax returns, so we cannot go through them and see if he will benefit or how much he would benefit on the personal side. And Sarah Sanders did say again today he has no plans of releasing those tax returns, saying again they're under audit.

Of course, every other president and presidential candidate has done so. Jake, we're also getting word the White House is making plans for some type of ceremony here tomorrow at the White House around noontime or so either to sign that bill or a rallying ceremony of some kind to crow about their first legislative accomplishment of the year.

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

Let's discuss with two presidential experts.

Joining us, Maggie Haberman and Doug Brinkley.

First, Doug, let me start with you. Can you recall a less popular major piece of legislation headed to victory?

DOUGLAS BRINKLEY, CNN PRESIDENTIAL HISTORIAN: No.

And the fact of the matter is, it's being jammed in and done right before Christmas, so there is something desperate about it. It's happening when people are calling Trump's first year a slow-motion disaster.

Everybody's saying there was no legislative victories all year long, and here at the last minute they're getting this pushed through. And, as Jeff just mentioned, the fact that, you know, Donald Trump isn't transparent. He isn't showing people his taxes. It seems to be a sweetheart deal for rich people.

The one thing Obama was able to do in his first year was the Affordable Care Act, and that was a big blowback because it was all Democrats that pushed it, Jake, as you know.

He's got the problem, Trump, now with this that it's just a Republican bill. There is no unity or bipartisanness about it. He owns the economy now.

TAPPER: Maggie, earlier today, the White House press secretary, Sarah Sanders, was asked why, after she had listed a whole bunch of accomplishments of President Trump, including this tax bill which should soon hit his desk, why the president's approval ratings were so low if he was doing such a great job.

Take a listen to what Sarah Sanders said in response.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

HUCKABEE SANDERS: Ninety percent of the coverage is negative about this president, when, as you just said, I listed off a number of things that have been pretty historic in nature in this first year.

And if people were focused a lot more on those things in the media, I think that his numbers would be a lot higher.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: What do you think, Maggie?

MAGGIE HABERMAN, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: I mean, I think this is a version of what we hear from the president himself through his Twitter feed over the course of the year.

This is what he viewed the job as being when he became president -- remember, he has no previous electoral experience of his own -- was that he would do something, make a deal or sign legislation or have some accomplishment and then he'd get praise, because he believes that that is what the media is supposed to do.

The concept of what the White House press corps does is pretty foreign to this president. He has not really tried to understand what the role is of the press here.

I understand this is how they view it, but the reality is that this president's rhetoric is extremely divisive. He has done all kinds of things that have helped him get to the position where he is in terms of his own approval ratings.

Look, this, however, if you were in favor of this tax bill, which as we know a majority of Americans are not, but if you were in favor of it, this is a real accomplishment. It is certainly his first legislative victory this year. I understand why they want to celebrate it.

But, again, I think that there is a substantial argument to be made from its critics about why this could be an albatross for Republicans in the 2018 midterms. And that's something the president will have to own, too.

TAPPER: And, Doug, you know better than anyone, presidents always complain about their media coverage. Even somebody like John F. Kennedy, who got fairly glowing media coverage comparatively, complained that his coverage wasn't very positive.

What do you think of Sarah Sanders blaming it on the media?

BRINKLEY: Well, it's absurd.

I mean, Kennedy did complain in his first year about the media, but he had a 77 percent approval rating. Donald Trump, at 35 percent after the end of his first year, means two-thirds of the American people think he's doing a terrible job.

Scapegoating the press happens. Richard Nixon tried it in his first year. He unleashed Vice President Spiro Agnew to rip into reporters, attack people like Walter Cronkite. And it failed on Nixon. Of course, Agnew gets driven out of office, meaning it's not a good strategy.

[16:10:05]

The great presidents learn to live with the press and even like them. Reagan, who many liberal reporters didn't like, the press ended up personally liking him. And so they were able to tolerate him.

What he's doing by demonizing the press is Nixonian, and it doesn't really score real well in the history books.

TAPPER: The big question right now about -- not the big question, but a big question, Maggie, about this tax bill is how much will it benefit President Trump personally.

HABERMAN: Right.

TAPPER: Sarah Sanders said it could actually cost President Trump a lot on the personal side, although she acknowledged he could benefit on the corporate side.

"Forbes" took a look and estimated that President Trump might benefit on the business side actually to the tune of $11 million, based on the most recent tax return from 2005. What do you think?

HABERMAN: I mean, I think, until we see his tax returns, this is essentially them saying, take our word for it, and they have refused to release his tax returns, citing an audit that no one has actually confirmed is taking place.

It was a hugest precedent break, as you know, for them not to release his tax returns and for him not to release his tax returns. He's essentially asking people to go with, you know, an honor system here, when it is clear that, in terms of businesses, his business and other businesses of his friends and of his donors would qualify for pretty substantial benefits under this tax bill.

And that is something that people can just see in front of their eyes. That's not the media spinning it, as the White House would suggest.

TAPPER: All right, Maggie Haberman, Doug Brinkley, thank you so much. Appreciate it.

Is the only option left with North Korea to starve its people to death? That's what President Trump's homeland security adviser suggested when it comes to applying pressure to Kim Jong-un -- that story next. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:15:57] JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: And we're back with our world lead.

My panel is here.

But first, the U.S. is now accusing North Korea of an attack. Thankfully not with the nuclear weapons that the U.S. government has been so concerned about, but rather with a cyber attack. And while it happened earlier this year in May, the fact that the Trump White House is finally pointing the finger at North Korea could only increase tensions in the current environment.

I want to bring in CNN's chief national security correspondent Jim Sciutto.

And, Jim, why now? Why is the U.S. assigning blame now?

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: It's not clear why they're going public now. This has been the belief for some time privately in the intelligence community and U.K. intelligence and Microsoft actually have come out with this conclusion blaming North Korea. But there is a different standard for the U.S. government to come out

and publicly declare North Korea. You saw that with Russian interference in the election. That was the belief for some time before they went public with their assessment. And this may be part of a broader attempt here to apply as much pressure on North Korea as possible.

TAPPER: So, this was according to Tom Bossert, the homeland security adviser, this was a major attack. Does the U.S. have any plans to retaliate?

SCIUTTO: Well, it's interesting, it was a revealing comment from Tom Bossert who is in charge, of course, of the administration's cyber security, for him to basically delineate how limited U.S. options are to deter North Korea. Listen to how he said that earlier today.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TOM BOSSERT, HOMELAND SECURITY ADVISOR: At this point, North Korea has done everything wrong as an actor on the global stage that a country can do and President Trump has used just about every lever you can use short of starving the North Korean people to death to change their behavior. And so, we don't have a lot of room left here to apply pressure to change their behavior.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SCIUTTO: Now, what's interesting there is in effect he is teeing up what is the remaining option which, of course, is military action. And you heard the president's national security adviser, H.R. McMaster, make some comments that were interpreted at least as opening the door to pre-emptive military action. Because he said in so many words, we cannot tolerate the risk of North Korea having a nuclear weapon.

The fact is, all the evidence shows that North Korea may very well have a nuclear weapon, that they may very well put atop a missile that could hit the U.S.

So, the question is, was he telegraphing that the administration is prepared to use military action? Not clear. But some people took alarm at those remarks.

TAPPER: All right. Jim Sciutto, thank you so much.

The president's national security adviser, General H.R. McMaster, whom Jim just referred to, he responded today to a harsh criticism against President Trump the former director of national intelligence made here yesterday on THE LEAD yesterday. James Clapper, the retired general, said that Russian President Vladimir Putin has been manipulating President Trump.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JAMES CLAPPER, FORMER DIRECTOR OF NATIONAL INTELLIGENCE: I think this past weekend is illustrative of what a great case officer Vladimir Putin is. He knows how to handle an asset, and that's what he's doing with the president.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: Today, McMaster appeared on CBS News and was asked about what Clapper told us.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

H.R. MCMASTER, NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER: Well, it's just not true. What the president's asked us to do with Russia, though, as well is to make sure we can deter conflict.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: Let's talk about this with our panel. And let me start with you, Symone.

General Clapper wasn't saying that President Trump was an asset in the traditional sense, like he was a plant or a mole, but just that Putin was playing him. Do you think that's -- there is a case to be made there?

SYMONE SANDERS, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: I mean, I absolutely think there is a case to be made that, you know, President Putin has some sophisticated way of dealing with President Trump, that President Trump does not necessarily have with him. And that's just not something that Director Clapper has said. Other folks have echoed that.

So, I think this White House is clearly a little bit sensitive for obvious reasons about President Trump. Any assertions that President Trump is kind of under the thumb of President Putin, but it's not out of the ordinary to suggest that.

TAPPER: Kevin, yesterday, the president released his national security plan. But despite evidence of Russia interfering with the U.S. election and almost it seems the unanimous opinion of all of the national security leaders in the country, including in the Trump administration that he did, the president did not call out Putin by name for election interference in his speech.

[16:20:01] Why not?

KEVIN MADDEN, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, I think it's a mistake not to. I think, you know, the -- if you look at the document itself, the national security blueprint, as a codified policy, it's a pretty strong one. And I think in many ways, I think it's conventional GOP or conventional Republican national security policy.

But then there are the actions. What has the president done to actually show that he's taking action against Russian meddling? Other Russian involvement, whether it's in Eastern Europe or elsewhere, and I think that has been lacking. And I think that there is an important domestic audience here with allies up on Capitol Hill on how we develop a much more robust structure against Russia, but then there is also our allies. Our allies want to see clarity and they do want to see us back up

tough talk with actual actions. And we -- there has been a void there on that front.

TAPPER: Jackie, "Politico's" reporting that Trump's allies are attacking Mueller, not because they think that president Trump is going to fire Mueller and not because they're trying to encourage President Trump to fire Mueller but to give the president some political cover for any pardons that he might grant against anyone who has criminal charges, whether it's Manafort or any of the other -- Gates, Papadopoulos, General Kelly.

Is that a smart strategy?

JACKIE KUCINICH, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: I think he's going to need a lot more political cover if he starts pardoning people that are involved with this Russia prosecution. I don't think a couple members of Congress saying he's cool is really going to do a lot because it would just bring him even closer to something that his advisers and he -- don't want to be anywhere near.

TAPPER: Speaking of the Russia investigation, today, FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe is on Capitol Hill. He's talking behind closed doors to House Intelligence Committee members. He's sure to get a lot of questions about those text messages sent by the FBI agent who was taken off the case that seemed to show anti-Trump feelings and also especially talking about how they needed an insurance policy.

But I want to play something that ran on Fox News earlier today in which they were discussing what McCabe would testify about and also about that FBI agent and the insurance policy. Take a listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: What else do you want to know?

KEVIN JACKSON, FOX NEWS CONTRIBUTOR: Well, I think they're going to say what was his intend, right? Because that's exactly what former FBI Director Comey said when he was letting Hillary Clinton off the hook. And his intent, regardless of whether it was an assassination attempt or whatever, was definitely something --

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Whoa.

JACKSON: Well, I'm just saying. We don't know what it was.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: So just to underline this --

KUCINICH: That's inflammatory.

TAPPER: This is a network that has been talking about coups and talking about how the FBI is like the KGB. And today, they had a guest. We should point that the other people on the panel there pushed back against this, but today, they had a guest suggesting with zero evidence and based only on social media nonsense that there was an FBI plot perhaps to assassinate Donald Trump.

SANDERS: That is not only inflammatory, it is absolutely ridiculous and it's dangerous, because we do know that there is a large segment of people in the United States that only watch a particular network and they won't watch other networks such as ours or any of the other folks out there. And if you're only getting your news from one source and that source is ginning up the worst conspiracy theories and the inflammatory parts of the Internet, that can only spell trouble.

So, I just would hope that the people over at Fox News or the American people for that matter understand that this is not normal and that's not how we should be operating. It's crazy.

MADDEN: It's terribly irresponsible. Look, I think there are genuine substantive problems that people have that need to be focused on as a part of any investigation. But when you start to float conspiracy theories like this and try to inject that into the conversation, you lose a whole bunch of people who care about the substance and where there may be validity some of that substance. So, it's highly irresponsible.

KUCINICH: It's like watching an episode of "24", I think.

SANDERS: Oh my God. Yes, I thought Jack Bauer was going to pop out.

TAPPER: Well, it's the right network.

Don't go anywhere. We have a lot to talk about today, including new information about the tracks themselves where the deadly train crash occurred and the testing that Amtrak did before opening up the knew route to passengers. Stick around.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:28:45] TAPPER: We're back with the national lead. New details about that speeding Amtrak train that crashed in Washington state, killing three people. As a crane carefully moved pieces of the wreckage today, we learned the event data recorder clocked the train going at 80 miles an hour yesterday in a 30-miles-per-hour zone.

We're also getting the identity of one of the three victims killed. Zach Willhoite was an IT specialist for a local transit company. He happened to be on the Amtrak train when it derails.

CNN's Rene Marsh joins me now.

And, Rene, you just got some new information about testing along the train's route. What did you learn?

RENE MARSH, CNN AVIATION AND GOVERNMENT REGULATION CORRESPONDENT: That's right. So, the company that owns the rail tracks, they spoke to us. Their name is Sound Transit.

They tell CNN that the rail signals as well as the tracks, they were all new. They were replaced within the past two years. The company also says they tested an Amtrak train without passengers on board at all speed limits along the route.

But tonight the question remains, what caused this deadly derailment?

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

MARSH (voice-over): Amtrak train 501 was traveling at 80 miles per hour, nearly three times the 30-mile-per-hour speed limit as it approached the curve where all but one of the train's cars jumped the tracks, plummeting on to the highway and vehicles below.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We'll be we hope interviewing the crew to find out if they have more information that can help us figure this out.

MARSH: Besides looking at whether a mechanical malfunction played a role, investigators are now focused on the crew controlling the train and whether human error caused the deadly derailment.