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THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER

Trump Examines Border Wall Prototypes in California; President Trump Fires Rex Tillerson; CIA Chief to Replace Tillerson. Aired 4- 4:30p ET

Aired March 13, 2018 - 16:00   ET

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


[16:00:15]

JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: The man made famous for telling people "You're fired" doesn't seem to actually be able to say that to directly to people's faces.

THE LEAD starts right now.

He would not deny that he once called President Trump, his boss, a moron. And now months later, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is out, and bets are being made on who might be next on the chopping block.

Also right now, after firing his secretary of state, President Trump steps foot in California for the first time as president to sample prototypes for his big, beautiful border wall.

Plus, people voting right now, and Republicans sweating in an election, posing a major test for President Trump. Could Democrats turn a once solid piece of Trump country blue?

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

We Gates begin the politics lead today.

It wasn't quite the Red Wedding, but three top Trump administration officials have been axed in just the past 24 hours or so, most notably, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, and more significant administration departures are expected, according to a White House official.

Stunningly, Tillerson learned of his professional demise via Twitter, along with the fact that the CIA director, Mike Pompeo, would be nominated to serve as his replacement. President Trump telling reporters that Tillerson will be -- quote -- "much happier now," acknowledging that they never saw quite eye to eye, especially, one might imagine, on that whole moron thing.

The tensions between the two have been building for months, with CNN reporting last November that -- quote -- "The White House is contemplating a scenario to replace Secretary of State Tillerson with CIA Director Pompeo within the next few months."

One day after CNN and others reported that, President Trump tweeted -- quote -- "The media has been speculating that I fired Rex Tillerson or that he would be leaving soon. Fake news. He's not leaving. And while we disagree on certain subjects, I call the final shots. We work well together. And America is highly respected again" -- unquote.

Another reminder that the president uses the term fake news to mean news that is accurate, but I don't like seeing it reported.

The firing today came just hours after Tillerson went much farther than the White House did by joining the U.K. in pointing a finger at Russia for the brazen poison nerve agent attack against a Russian defector and his daughter on British soil.

The president tweeting about the Rex exit at 8:44 a.m. today Eastern time, about an hour before Air Force One took off to take the president to California, where we expect to hear from him again within an hour.

And who knows what he might say.

I want to get right to CNN's Jeff Zeleny. He's at the White House.

And, Jeff, this tension between Tillerson and Trump, it's been simmering for some time now, as you have been reporting for months. Why fire him today?

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: Jake, we talked to a lot of officials about this, and the consensus is simply the president wanted to.

The president also wants someone by his side as the White House begins these discussions about a possible sit-down with North Korea leader Kim Jong-un. The president wants someone at his side who is in sync with him on foreign policy.

But, Jake, all of this is raising questions around the world today about the stability of the U.S. government.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ZELENY (voice-over): The bad blood between President Trump and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson finally reaching a boiling point Tuesday, as the commander in chief fired his top diplomat in yet another staff shakeup at the White House.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We got along actually quite well, but we disagreed on things.

ZELENY: That hardly does justice to the roller-coaster relationship between Trump and Tillerson that repeatedly spilled into public view over the last 14 months.

TRUMP: when you look at the Iran deal. I think it's terrible. I guess he thought it was OK.

I wanted to either break it or do something, and he felt a little bit differently. So, we were not really thinking the same. ZELENY: The president announced his decision to the world on Twitter

and didn't speak directly to Tillerson until more than three hours later.

REX TILLERSON, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: I received a call today from the president of the United States a little after noontime from Air Force One. And I have also spoken to White House Chief of Staff Kelly to ensure we have clarity as to the days ahead.

ZELENY: The move caught the secretary off-guard, which was clear as he briefly spoke from the State Department. He took no questions and didn't thank President Trump.

TILLERSON: What is important is to ensure an orderly and smooth transition during a time when the country continues to face significant policy and national security challenges.

ZELENY: The former ExxonMobil CEO once praised by Trump as a world- class player had only arrived in the U.S. at 4:00 a.m., called back early from a trip to Africa.

CNN has learned White House Chief of Staff John Kelly did call Tillerson last Friday to tell him the president planned to replace him, but didn't say when.

[16:05:02]

The president tapped the CIA Director Mike Pompeo for the post, praising him for being perfectly in sync on policy and personality.

TRUMP: We're always on the same wavelength. The relationship has been very good, and that's what I need as secretary of state.

ZELENY: The president suggested today more changes are coming.

TRUMP: I'm really at a point where we're getting very close to having the Cabinet and other things that I want.

ZELENY: To lead the CIA, the president nominated Gina Haspel, currently deputy director of the spy agency. Lawmakers say her role in the CIA's controversial torture program 15 years ago will be explored at her confirmation hearings.

Another shakeup today, Johnny McEntee, an aide the president's side throughout the campaign, also fired. The Department of Homeland Security is investigating him for financial crimes, CNN has learned, unrelated to the president.

But it was quickly announced McEntee was appointed senior adviser to the Trump 2020 reelection campaign.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ZELENY: Now, Secretary Tillerson said he would suspend his authority at midnight tonight and would officially resign at the end of March. Now, Jake, all of this is coming exactly 12 hours after he landed at

Joint Base Andrews just outside Washington from that week on the road in Africa. There are questions about who is next. Some signs point to the national security adviser, H.R. McMaster. The president, of course, has not said yet -- Jake.

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

My political panel is here with me.

Mike Rogers, let me start with you.

Tillerson is an internationalist, a believer in international organizations, NATO, the U.N., et cetera, what disparagingly might be called a globalist. Pompeo is regarded as more of a nationalist type, like Steve Bannon, like Donald Trump.

The argument can be made that the nationalists are ascendant and this is a sign of it with Pompeo going to the State Department, with McMaster possibly on his way out, Gary Cohn on his way out. Do you see that trend?

MIKE ROGERS, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Listen, one of the things I think a lot -- the reason this happened now is that Pompeo has played an outsized role.

He wasn't just CIA director. He was giving a lot of political advice to the president. I think he found some comfort level with him. It was completely unfortunate, the way the secretary of state had to find out about this, which just is shockingly bad to me in format, in any position anywhere.

But I think the reason you see Pompeo in there is there is going to be this comfort level. They're going to be more aligned on international policy than they are today. If it is nationalists ascending, I'm not sure I can get there.

I think he happened to be there on the day. I have a relationship. I would like to think they had a bigger strategy to put people that they want in these positions. I just don't think they think that way. I think the president, just as he said I'm going to go meet Kim Jong-un and shocked everybody, including the secretary of state, including his National Security Council, I think the same thing.

I'm firing him and I'm putting him in because that's what I want to do today. I wish there was a strategy around it. I'm not sure there is.

TAPPER: It does look very impulsive, especially firing him by Twitter, which though apparently he had been given some sort of heads up that the president would be making a decision, he did not know it was coming today.

NIA-MALIKA HENDERSON, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes.

And he finally talked to the president by phone, and I guess they discussed this. It was a long time coming in many ways. It was also thought that he wouldn't even last a year last year. And it was somewhat of a surprise when he said that he told Elise Labott that he planned to stay around and last through this year.

That of course didn't happen. It's almost like the president -- this is sort of season two of the Trump administration. He had a cast in that original season of people who he didn't really know, as you talked about, people who were recommended to him by other people. People who could fill the establishment holes in terms of the administration and kind of be a moderating voice.

Now he is bringing people that are more simpatico with him in terms of I think certainly a more kind of nationalist view. I think if you're Bannon, he is probably happy with the ascension of someone like Pompeo and the exit of Rex and the exit of people like Gary Cohn.

So we will see if this is finally the cast that the president wants.

TAPPER: The president said he's getting very close to the Cabinet he wants. It's only the second year of his presidency.

Jen Psaki, when Secretary Tillerson gave his farewell address, he did not thank President Trump, but he did call Russia out.

Take a listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TILLERSON: Much work remains to respond to the troubling behavior and actions on the part of the Russian government.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: Your response?

JEN PSAKI, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: And he's been more outspoken than most members of the Trump team on Russia.

That is surprising because, when he was coming in, the suspicion was and the criticism was that he would not be. The reason he has been ineffective at his job is because he is not seen as speaking on behalf of the president. And that is a death knell on the global scene.

So, in that sense, Pompeo would likely be seen as speaking on behalf of the president. But in the addition to the nationalist piece, I'm not actually sure if Bannon would be thrilled, Pompeo is more of a military interventionist. He is somebody who has spoken out about that as it relates to Iran. That certainly could raise questions on the international stage.

[16:10:13]

But he is more aligned with Trump on that front as well. And that's where they're a little bit more simpatico on foreign policy issues.

TAPPER: He is a Tea Party Republican congressman, so in that sense, he's more of a nationalist. PSAKI: Sure. Yes, he is, absolutely.

But he also is someone who has talked very aggressively about military action as it relates to Iran, as has Trump. Obviously, we haven't taken that step yet, thank goodness. But is something that I think will raise questions on the international stage as well.

TAPPER: Of course it was last summer when Secretary Tillerson reported to have in a private meeting referred to the president as a moron.

I tried to get him to answer questions about that back in October.

Take a listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: Is it true? Did you call him a moron?

TILLERSON: Jake, as I indicated earlier, I was asked about that. I'm not going to deal with that kind of petty stuff.

TAPPER: When you don't answer the question, it makes people think that you probably did say it. But either way whatever happened, it is serious. So can you please clear it up?

TILLERSON: As I said, Jake, I'm not playing.

TAPPER: I just want to be clear. You still haven't denied that you called him a moron. And a lot of people are going to watch us and think, he probably said it.

TILLERSON: I'm not dignifying the question with an answer, Jake.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: Now, one of the issues I was raising was, either there were people saying that he said this and they're lying, or he said it.

And either way, it's a pretty serious deal. I think it is pretty clear he said it.

ROGERS: Certainly, by his -- as an old FBI guy, I would look at that interview and say, you have some explaining to do, pal. I think you may have said something close to moron anyway.

And, listen, in a frustrating moment, to play's devil advocate for a moment, who know what could have -- exchange in a heated moment or a moment of frustration. I think did he the dignified thing by trying to not to answer that question.

TAPPER: And not lie.

ROGERS: Yes. He didn't lie about it.

He was basically -- without saying it, hey, this is a conversation I had the president. We will leave it at that. Or his senior staff. Whoever he had that conversation with. And we will move on from there.

But I think that just spelled trouble down the road. I think they had some real, fundamental and deep disagreements on what our international face should be. And you can't have the secretary of state saying one thing and the president tweeting out something different.

It confuses our allies and it absolutely invigorates our adversaries.

TAPPER: Nia, not to be forgotten in all this news, we also learned the president's personal aide, Johnny McEntee, was fired because he's currently under investigation by the Department of Homeland Security for serious financial crimes, ones not related to President Trump.

That's according to a source familiar with his firing. Two sources familiar with the firing say McEntee was pushed out because of security clearance issues. Guess where he's headed now?

HENDERSON: To the campaign.

(CROSSTALK)

HENDERSON: Clearly, that makes him qualified to work on the reelection campaign.

So, that's where he's off to. All of this today, sort of a cloud of chaos, certainly not good on a day when Republicans are going to the polls in Pennsylvania. And some of the concerns that you hear from Republicans on the ground there is the sense of chaos emanating from this White House.

So, today, with this announcement, it doesn't help the sort of reputation of this White House.

TAPPER: All right, everyone, stick around.

Coming up, you're fired, who will be the next in the Trump administration to hear those words or more likely to see them on their iPhone? That's next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:17:27] JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: And we're back with the breaking news. Outgoing Secretary of State Rex Tillerson revealing his last day on the job will be March 31st. Will that be followed by any high level departures?

Joining me now, James Clapper. He served as the director of national intelligence under President Obama. He is now a CNN national security analyst.

Sir, you served under the Bush and Obama administrations. What do you make of all the turnover in the Trump administration? JAMES CLAPPER, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: Well, it's getting to

be normal. But it does create all kinds of turmoil certainly in the organizations that are affected. In this case, the State Department with its constant turnover and, of course, people are always, you know, wondering, when is the next shoe going to drop for somebody else? So, it's certainly unconventional and I think overtime it's proving to be destabilizing.

TAPPER: There were a lot of observes, especially conservative Republicans who are not fans of the president, who were fans of a number of the people around the president, the axis of grown-ups as some people call them. Tillerson being one of them.

CLAPPER: Right.

TAPPER: Is there concern that others will be shown the door as well? There's a lot of talk about the national security adviser, General H.R. McMaster, being nudged out as well.

CLAPPER: Well, I've heard that as well. And I think he in any event is kind of in a tough place simply because he's active duty.

TAPPER: He's still in the Army, right.

CLAPPER: Right. That's a really tough position these days for an active duty flag officer.

Actually, I guess -- I think the leader I worry or think a lot about, I'll put that it way, is Jim Mattis, secretary of defense, who in my view probably carries a heavier burden than any of his predecessors, because -- just because of the way he's looked at, not only in this country but overseas.

TAPPER: What do you make of Mike Pompeo, the director of the CIA, now going to be nominated to be secretary of state? Pompeo regarded by people in the Bannon wing of the Trump and Republican Party as more of a nationalist. He was a Tea Party Republican, maybe less so of an internationalist like Tillerson, like McMaster.

CLAPPER: Well, in many ways, I think it's actually a better fit for Mike Pompeo.

TAPPER: They're certainly more on the wavelength more.

CLAPPER: Well, that and he's more of a policy activist. He's in a better position to be activist as secretary of state as he was as director of CIA.

[16:20:04] I do wonder, though, about whether he's going to continue to preside over the -- essentially the dismantlement of the State Department. It just doesn't strike me that he's going to preside over a funeral which is kind of what we've got going on right now in the State Department. I hope that he'll reverse that.

TAPPER: Hope, and, of course, they're talking about Gina Haspel, the deputy director of the CIA becoming nominated to be the director of the CIA. You have supported her in the past when she was nominated to be deputy. There are a lot of people raising questions including John McCain today about the fact that in 2002, she ran a black site, CIA prison in Thailand, where two terrorism suspects were tortured, and she also, reportedly, her name was on a cable ordering the destruction of tapes.

But you support her.

CLAPPER: I do. I think the world of Gina. I think she is a tremendous officer. I've worked with her, you know, occasionally when she served overseas. She had a second hat as a DNI representative and she was great.

So I think she'll be good for the agency, she's very -- highly respected there, and I think it would be good for the intelligence community because I think she'll work well with Dan Coats and Sue Gordon, his deputy.

TAPPER: What about the human rights concerns that Senator John McCain raises?

CLAPPER: Well, that's a concern and I think that's something that Gina will -- she'll have to deal with it and I think she can in the confirmation process, because there will be questions raised about it and there'll be opponents. I think she'll get confirmed but certainly not unanimously.

TAPPER: In his exit speech, his farewell address, Tillerson talked about the need to do more against the aggression shown by Russia. He also, yesterday, was -- expressed more solidarity with the U.K. when it came to the accusations that Russia poisoned a Russian defector on British soil. He's actually been much more of an advocate for more muscular response to Russia than a lot of people thought he would be.

Do you think the administration loses a voice pushing for more of a response to Russia as I know you support?

CLAPPER: Well, I do. And that to me is the overarching concern that I had from the get-go is the singular indifference, the almost aggressive indifference to Russia. And Russia is at war with us right now, right now, and had been from the election on. And this requires not only intergovernmental but intersociety response and we're not doing it. And I think the nation is in peril because of it.

TAPPER: Let me ask you a question. The House Intelligence Committee, the Republicans on the committee, have a report we haven't seen it yet. But according to their public comments and what they have said, they think that the intelligence community report put out in October, 2016, which said that the Russians were trying to interfere was departed from in January, 2017, when you and others leading the intelligence community more directly said that Russia was trying to help President Trump. And they asked whether or not you went too far and relied on intelligence that wasn't as solid as the intelligence from a previous report.

CLAPPER: Well, I don't agree with that and I stand on the assessment. I need to point out that, you know, it wasn't the four of us. Jim Comey, John Brennan, Mike Rogers, myself, put that -- wrote that report. This was done by a group of almost 30 experts across the three agencies, particularly FBI, CIA, and NSA. And they are career expert civil servants. That's who actually wrote that report.

And we at the time -- and I still feel it was very solid and do I believe that again, the first objective, sow discord. The second was to hurt Hillary Clinton as much as it possibly could, which by the way means helping Donald Trump.

And, you know, all this activity that we've seen, the indictments of the 13 Russians, for example, which I think served as a bookend to our intelligence community assessment that we published last January 6 of 2017 just reinforced that. So, things like the Internet Research Agency and all the propaganda that RT was putting out, they're not doing it on a freelance basis. That's all orchestrated. And certainly President Putin not only acquiesced in it, he fostered it.

TAPPER: All right. General Clapper, thank you so much for your time. We appreciate it.

Why did Vladimir Putin send Donald Trump a sealed letter in a glossy black box? Stick around.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

[16:29:01] DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We're very happy with the decision by the House Intelligence Committee saying there was absolutely no collusion with respect to Russia and it was a powerful decision that left no doubt.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: President Trump claiming he's been vindicated by the Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee and yet, special counsel Robert Mueller's Russia probe is far from over. However, as I said, Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee did end their investigation and they did claim there is no evidence of collusion or that the Russians tried to help Trump get elected.

That finding, of course, runs contrary to the current intelligence community's assessment which states that the Kremlin clearly did favor Trump.

Joining me now to talk about this and much more are veteran journalists Michael Isikoff and David Corn. They are out with a brand new book titled "Russian Roulette: The Inside Story of Putin's War on America and the Election of Donald Trump".

Gentlemen, congratulations. Thanks for being here.

DAVID CORN, CO-AUTHOR, "RUSSIAN ROULETTE": Thank you, Jake.

MICHAEL ISIKOFF, CO-AUTHOR, "RUSSIAN ROULETTE": Thank you. TAPPER: So, Michael, your reporting in the book mirrors in a lot of ways the intelligence community's assessments that the Russians did favor President Trump and, in fact, they were high-fiving when Trump got elected.

ISIKOFF: It does.