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THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER

Steve Bannon Out at Breitbart; Democrats Release Trump-Russia Probe Testimony; Trump Holds Bipartisan Meeting; Interview With Arizona Senator Jeff Flake; Aired 4-4:30ET

Aired January 9, 2018 - 16:00   ET

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


[16:00:08]

JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: How is that for reality TV? A rare look inside a bipartisan presidential meeting.

THE LEAD starts right now.

Fly on the wall. President Trump letting cameras into critical talks to keep the government open and keep thousands of undocumented immigrants in the only country they have ever known. Was it all theater, or was this the actual art of the deal?

One of the men in the room is one of the toughest critics of President Trump from inside the Republican Party. Did he see a showman or a serious effort today? We will talk to Senator Jeff Flake this hour.

Plus, breaking news in the Russia investigation. Democrats defying the GOP and releasing testimony from the firm behind that Trump-Russia dossier, including fears that Donald Trump was being blackmailed.

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

We begin with the politics lead today. Call it the art of the presidential deal. President Trump allowing cameras to capture negotiations today with Democratic and Republican lawmakers in pursuit of reaching a compromise on some major immigration issues and to keep the federal government open.

Those cameras allowed in at the surprise of even the Republican lawmakers, according to a source. Now, at the heart of today's discussion, 800,000 undocumented immigrants brought to the United States illegally, but when they were children, so through no fault of their own, the so-called dreamers, to whom President Trump Obama granted temporary legal status, which will expire in March because of President Trump.

President Trump continues to say there can be no dole on the dreamers, also known as DACA, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, without a border wall, and an end to chain migration, the process through which immigrants with legal status bring in their relatives to this country.

The president also said he would leave it all up to the bipartisan lawmakers he met with today and sign whatever they bring him, even if a compromise brings consternation from conservatives. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I feel having the Democrats in with us is absolutely vital, because it should be a bipartisan bill. It should be a bill of love. Truly, it should be a bill of love, and we can do that.

If we do this properly, DACA, you're not so far away from comprehensive immigration reform. And if you want to take it that further step, I will take the heat. I don't care. I don't care. I will take all the heat you want to give me.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: The president throughout the 55-minute on-camera session seemed even for Democrats affable, reasonable and fully in command.

After a week in which new questions have been raised about the president's fitness and stability prompted by that tell-all book "Fire and Fury," with which the president and the White House cooperated, if you're wondering if pushing aside those concerns was as least partly the point of these on-camera negotiations for the bill of love, you're not being cynical, you're being correct.

And, in fact, the Republican National Committee rapid-response director sent out this take on the meeting -- quote -- "Many in the media have spent the last week hyperventilating over a phony writer's opinions. But the American people just witness President Trump lead arguably the most transparent, substantive policy discussion with Congress maybe ever."

For more on all of this, I'm joined by my panel, including Joan Walsh, in her CNN debut. She's now a CNN political commentator, in addition to her role as national affairs cooperate for "The Nation."

Joan, great to see you. Welcome to CNN.

JOAN WALSH, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Thank you.

TAPPER: Also with me, Republican strategist Kevin Madden and Washington bureau chief for "USA Today" Susan Page.

Joan, before we knew the White House would allow cameras to stay, a Republican congressional source told then CNN that the purpose of the meeting was to show Trump was negotiating with Democrats. Now, that's imagery and it seemed fairly effective, but they need more than imagery.

WALSH: Right. I don't think that we saw what's actually going to happen down the road in that room today.

And, you know, I guess the optics were reasonably good for the president. He did look like a warm and affable person. But there were a few loopy things, and I think I saw Ann Coulter and other anti- immigration folks freaking out on social media today that he was by promising, I will sign anything you bring me. You know, the thing about -- we're not talking directly about the

Wolff book, but since that's still in the backdrop, you saw the Trump who really wants to be liked. You saw that he wants Democrats to like him, he wants the media to like him, so he said things that he cannot follow through on.

And it took Kevin McCarthy to kind of bring him back from the brink with Dianne Feinstein.

TAPPER: Interesting.

I want to play the president today when asked today if the border wall had to be part of an agreement. Listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TRUMP: John, you need the wall. It's wonderful. I would love not to build the wall, but you need the wall.

And I will tell you this. The ICE officers and the Border Patrol agents, I had them just recently up. They say, if you don't have the wall in certain areas, obviously, that aren't protected by nature, if you don't have the wall, you cannot have security. Just can't have it. It doesn't work.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

[16:05:04]

TAPPER: But the president, in addition to saying you need to have the wall, you have to have the wall, otherwise you don't have security, he also said this:

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TRUMP: This groups come back hopefully with an agreement, this group and others, from the Senate, from the House, comes back with an agreement, I'm signing it. I will be signing it. I'm not going to say, oh, gee, I want this or I want that. I will be signing it.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: So the president says, you need the wall. You have to have wall. There is no security without the wall. And then he says whatever you bring me, I'm going to sign.

KEVIN MADDEN, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: And the key to good negotiations, negotiations, smart negotiations is leverage.

And I think many of the worries that Joan talked about amongst leaders up on Capitol Hill is that they lost a lot of that leverage right now. The next step for this, as the president somewhat indicated is, this all gets kicked back up to Capitol Hill.

Some of the other leaders on the Hill are going to be meeting tomorrow, and that's Durbin, it's McCarthy, all the number twos in their respective chambers. A lot of that is going to drive -- that dynamic is going to shape those conversations.

And when Democratic leaders know that, hey, if we get something out of here, the president's going to sign it, they can force them into saying that you don't have to have that hard line on the actual wall. The other part of this is, I think the president has a firm belief that he can sell to his most ardent supporters what border security is and whether or not he actually won on the wall.

I think they believe that delivering on that is at the president's word. So he's going to claim any sort of border security funding as money for the wall.

TAPPER: And, Susan, listen to this exchange. It's kind of important. I don't know if this is what Joan was referring to when she said there were a couple of loopy exchanges. But it was clearly a moment where people were talking past each other.

Senator Dianne Feinstein of California, a Democrat, said bring up a clean DACA bill, meaning just bring a bill that just protects the dreamers, nothing else attached to it. Take a listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. DIANNE FEINSTEIN (D), CALIFORNIA: I would like to ask the question. What about a clean DACA bill now, with a commitment that we go in to a comprehensive immigration reform procedure, like we did back when -- remember, when Kennedy was here?

And it was really a major, major effort. And it was a great disappointment that it went nowhere.

TRUMP: I have no problem. I think that's basically what Dick is saying. We're going to come out with DACA. We're going to do DACA. And then we can start immediately on the phase two, which would be comprehensive...

FEINSTEIN: Would you be amenable to that?

TRUMP: Yes, I would like to...

(CROSSTALK)

TRUMP: Go ahead.

I think a lot of people would like to see that, but I think we have to do DACA first.

REP. KEVIN MCCARTHY (R-CA), HOUSE MAJORITY LEADER: Mr. President, you have to be clear, though. I think what Senator Feinstein is asking here, when we talk about just DACA, we don't want to be back here two years later. You have to have security, as the secretary would tell you.

TRUMP: But I think that's what she's saying.

(CROSSTALK) (END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: So what was going on, it seemed to me was, when he says just DACA, he means DACA and a border wall and ending chain migration and maybe a couple of things, and Feinstein meant just DACA.

SUSAN PAGE, WASHINGTON BUREAU CHIEF, "USA TODAY": It depends on how you define clean.

And the way everybody in Washington defines clean is that it would just be DACA. It wouldn't be all these other things. That was not obviously what President Trump intended.

But I think the other important issue is what do you mean by the wall? And I actually think it was pretty clear in this meeting by the wall President Trump means some money for border security, which would be acceptable to Democrats.

He calls it the wall, it's hard for Democrats to swallow it. You say you're going to strengthen border security, that's something Democrats could accept. And I thought the interesting thing about this meeting was, Trump was in command. I thought that was impressive.

And you saw the outlines of the deal I bet they end up with.

TAPPER: I want to bring in CNN's Jeff Zeleny now.

And Jeff, you have some breaking news about staffing inside the White House and who may potential be heading for the exit door. What are you learning?

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: Jake, this is typical at the end of a first year that has been anything but typical.

But I'm told today that John Kelly, the White House chief of staff, has said if you're going to leave between now and some time this year, do it before the end of January. Give us a sense of this before the end of January.

He is trying to get things in order here before this second year begins. Now, several people have already said they are leaving. A couple people are very much considering it. One -- at least a pressure on him is Don McGahn, the general counsel at the White House. The president has expressed his displeasure with him in some ways.

A friend of his expects him to stay actually because that gives him the protection of the White House around him. He's a potential witness in this case. But he is one person who is mentioned, of course. Several other aides as well.

So, as we report this out this afternoon, Dana Bash and I are hearing from some aides who are explaining why exactly they are leaving. I think one aide put it like this, it's been a year, but doesn't it feel like a decade?

(LAUGHTER) ZELENY: One senior official who is planning on leaving.

And then Dana heard this earlier today, said, "John Kelly is eating bullets every day by himself and he doesn't have a lot of help," said one person who is familiar with this personnel situation.

This is developing. Again, common for there to be a revolving door, but very uncommon for there to be so many people leaving so early. The bigger problem here is that fewer people are waiting to take these jobs.

[16:10:02]

In every second year of an administration, if it was Obama, or Bush, or Clinton or before them, there was always a full bench.

Here, there is not, some people aging out with the legal bills, and other people simply are afraid to go in here. So, that is the challenge facing the president right now as he weighs through all of these things.

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

And speaking of shakeups, breaking news right now. Breitbart is running this headline, "Stephen K. Bannon steps down from Breitbart News Network."

Obviously, Steve Bannon, who was the top honcho at Breitbart and then went to run the Trump campaign, and then became the chief strategist for Trump at the White House, and then was ignominously fired by Trump and is in a big brouhaha with him.

He has been -- he is stepping down. I guess we don't know exactly the terms. But one would expect this was not necessarily a willing parting, because that was that was his baby, his -- he loves Breitbart.

WALSH: That's what he was going back to run. That was going to be where he ran the loyal opposition, where he took aim at Mitch McConnell, supported the president's agenda, but called him on things if the president wavered.

It's shocking. It's not shocking, because it's been rumored, but I can't imagine any scenario in which this was a voluntary move by Steve Bannon. This is not what he was hoping for.

But, you know, we have seen in the last few days he's lost the support of the Mercer family. And the amazing thing, Jake, is that in the last six months, every time President Trump tried to move or thought about moving against Bannon, he would worry that he could lose the Mercers' support, that they that they might go with Bannon.

And so the way that this has tumbled out is so strikingly different than the way it would have looked even six months ago. Right?

(CROSSTALK) PAGE: Two weeks ago.

(CROSSTALK)

MADDEN: Actually, it was really only less than a week ago we were reading the statement that the president put out about Steve Bannon.

And I think the question we all asked ourselves then is, what happens to those that are allied with Steve Bannon? Do they choose the president or do they choose Steve Bannon? Clearly, they have chosen the president.

And then also there was a bit of a tug-of-war between the president and Steve Bannon over who was responsible for creating this base of support for the president? Was it Steve Bannon and Breitbart or was it the president? And clearly now we're seeing that this is the president's base and he owns it.

TAPPER: Everyone, stick around. We have a lot more to talk about coming up.

Republican Senator Jeff Flake, who was at today's bipartisan meeting with the president, he will give us his take and tell us what was said after the cameras left. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:16:43] TAPPER: Welcome back.

In a remarkable peek behind the curtain into Washington deal-making, we all just watched President Trump and congressional leaders, Democrats and Republicans, meet to try to hammer out a deal on immigration.

Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona was at the table for that meeting. He joins me now.

Senator, as always, thanks so much for joining us.

SEN. JEFF FLAKE (R), ARIZONA: Hey, thanks for having me.

TAPPER: Was having that meeting with cameras rolling, what were you expecting?

FLAKE: I didn't expect the cameras to stay that long. Obviously, the more productive part of the meeting was after the cameras left. But, frankly, I went in with pretty low expectations. You don't put 22 people around the table and expect to really negotiate.

We're at a point now where we really need to negotiate and where at a point now where we really need to negotiate. But I was surprised that, you know, when the cameras left at the president's flexibility on the matter. And that he actually went in and explained what he meant by a wall and border security, and that's helpful. It really is. TAPPER: So, he was actually even more flexible on the issue of what

needed to be attached to the DREAMers' bill once the cameras left the room?

FLAKE: Yes, and I don't know if I can define one rather than the other. I can't remember what was what, but certainly after the cameras left Kevin McCarthy and a few others said, all right, let's really set these parameters. What are the four items that need to be there? And we really narrowed it down to that.

Now some of these -- some of the four items could be expanded certainly within them, but just setting those parameters helps a great deal.

TAPPER: I want to get to the substance of the bill in a second, but --

FLAKE: Right.

TAPPER: But our White House correspondent Jeff Zeleny is reporting that one of the reasons that the White House invited the cameras into the room and let it roll -- let them roll for so long was to beat back against the narrative in the new book "Fire and Fury" and this idea that the president's mental fitness is deteriorating, he's not up to the job.

He did seem rather reasonable and in command in the meeting. I'm just wondering, separate and distinct from the -- from the negotiations you just attended, have you ever had concerns or heard anyone around the president having concerns about his fitness?

FLAKE: No, no, I'm not going there. I've dealt with him on some issues. I disagree with him certainly on some issues and agree with him on others, but I've not experienced that.

TAPPER: OK. You say both Republicans and Democrats need to give on something in order to reach a deal on immigration to help the DREAMers.

Where do you think President Trump is willing to give?

FLAKE: Well, we got a list, the so-called punch list that I had asked for back with a meeting in early December with General Kelly. We had a series of two meetings with General Kelly and some of us on Capitol Hill. And at that point, we were asking, you know, what constitutes border security and can you give us a list?

And we waited and waited and waited. Finally, a few days ago that list came. It was later than we wanted it, but it came, the problem is it was pretty expansive. It was just throwing basically everything in.

And the value of the meeting today was shelving some of that or saying, yes, this is important, but it's important as part of comprehensive reform, which we can do in phase two.

[16:20:12] But right now, we need to protect these DACA kids.

TAPPER: The president said he wanted comprehensive immigration reform, as you note. That's phase two, this deal with the DREAMers and border security would be phase one. A bigger bill for phase two.

Comprehensive immigration reform, as you know perhaps better than most, has become the third rail for many in the Republican Party.

Take a listen to the president.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: You want to know the truth, Dick, if we do this properly, DACA, you're not so far away from comprehensive immigration reform. If you want to take it that further step, I'll take the heat. I don't care. I don't care. I'll take all the heat you want to give me. I'll take the heat off both the Democrats and the Republicans. My whole life has been heat.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: Here is how conservative Ann Coulter immediately responded. Nothing Michael Wolff, the author of "Fire and Fury", could say about @RealDonaldTrump has hurt him as much as the DACA love fest right now.

I guess my question is, are you worried that once the president actually feels the heat from his base, he might change his mind?

FLAKE: I hope not. And, you know, he is -- there was a famous meeting with Chuck and Nancy where he expressed a lot of flexibility there and then was pulled back immediately. So, there is that concern.

But we're closer to the deadline now. We don't have any time to spare. So, I frankly was pleased to hear what the president said.

I would disagree with him a bit in terms of how he said, you know, once we get the DACA piece done, that we're a long ways into comprehensive. Not really. I dealt with comprehensive. We negotiated that over seven months, virtually every night that we were here in D.C., and over the weekends a lot.

It was -- that was tough to negotiate. We're not going to be very far down the comprehensive road when we finish DACA, but it will be a start. And that's a good thing.

TAPPER: The president also floated the idea of bringing back earmarks, pork barrel projects to help control members of Congress, help cajole them and get them on board. The conservative group Club for Growth said about that idea, quote, bringing back the earmarks is the antithesis of draining the swamp. Earmarks will only benefit the special interest that grow government at the expense of working men and women.

What's your take? FLAKE: I share that view as one who played a bit of a role over the

past several years and finally ending the scourge of earmarks. We don't want to bring them back. That is not the price we want to pay for getting a few members to talk to each other. That just -- that was so corrupting and so awful. We don't want a return to the earmark era.

And if anybody needs a reminder of what that was like and what that did to the Republican Party, it chased us out of office in 2006. It chased us out of the majority. We don't need to go there again. We really don't.

TAPPER: Senator Flake, stay right there. I'm going to ask you after the break, why this recent turn of tide, Republicans who have had strong criticism of the president in the past, such as Corker and Lindsey Graham, now openly phrasing him. Stay with me. I'm going to ask you about that next.

FLAKE: OK.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:27:30] TAPPER: We're back with Senator Jeff Flake, Republican of Arizona, who was present in that meeting with President Trump and the other members of Congress, negotiating what an immigration bill that helps protect the DREAMers might look at.

Senator, you said after the cameras left, the president was more specific about what his demands for a border wall actually constituted. What can you tell us about that?

FLAKE: Well, I think it was very helpful, both before the cameras left and after they left, the president drilled down a bit more on what the wall means. A lot of people have envisioned a 2,000-mile, you know, structure, and, frankly, a lot of what the president said during the campaign lent itself to that kind of vision.

The president noted that there are rivers, that there are mountains that prohibit any kind of a wall, the need for any kind of wall. That it won't be a 2,000-mile wall, that we're looking at something around 700, 800 miles.

I should note that in Gang of Eight bill, we provided for 700 miles of fencing.

The president also noted and he's been talking about this more of late that, you know, an opaque kind of wall doesn't serve us well. In some of the communities across southern Arizona, we've had something approximating a wall and we've been taking that down and replacing it with fence because a fence is far more effective.

So, the wall isn't really a wall, it's mostly a fence and it doesn't stretch for 2,000 miles. That's good for people who aren't familiar with our southern border to know. And it will make it I think easier to envision what it really is, a wall system that involves some barriers or infrastructure, personnel and technology. TAPPER: Might be easier to get Democratic voters for something like

that as well.

FLAKE: It will.

TAPPER: I want to ask you in Arizona, Sheriff Joe Arpaio, whom the president pardoned last year, he's running to replace you --

FLAKE: Right.

TAPPER: -- as the senator for Arizona. He said, quote: One unwavering reason to do this, in his view, to support the agenda and policies of President Trump.

Will he get your support and could he win?

FLAKE: Well, I think you better write about it and talk about it fast because it won't last long. There has hardly been an election cycle, you know from early '90s that Sheriff Joe hasn't talked about running statewide. And he floats it out there for awhile and then pulls back. So, I don't expect that that will go very far.

TAPPER: Would you support him if he --

FLAKE: No, no, no, no. Not at all. That's the last -- that's not our best foot forward as Republicans.