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THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER

Britain Expels Russian Diplomats; Blue Wave?; Larry Kudlow Tapped as New White House Economic Adviser; Sessions Considering Whether to Fire Ex-Deputy FBI Director McCabe; Interview with Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona. Aired 4-4:30p ET

Aired March 14, 2018 - 16:00   ET

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


[16:00:03]

JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: President Trump branching out, going from hiring FOX News personalities to CNBC personalities.

THE LEAD starts right now.

Chaos in the White House, panic in the party.

President Trump now said to be looking to get rid of the "dead weight" and getting closer to firing one of the faces of his FBI rage, as the GOP deals with wakeup call in the wake of an election shocker.

Also, breaking news moments ago, the Trump administration put the poisoning of an ex-spy in Great Britain squarely at the feet of Vladimir Putin.

Plus, new details on the alleged affair between the porn star and the president. A close friend of Stormy Daniels this afternoon saying he heard the phone calls, the offers, the plans, and he knows the truth.

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

Chaos and concern for Republicans on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue today. In Congress, Republicans are reeling after Democrat Conor Lamb, congressman-elect Conor Lamb, seemed to eke out a victory in a special election in a district that President Trump won by almost 20 points.

GOP lawmakers are raising concerns about what this might mean for their majority, if a blue wave will soon drown dozens. On the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, White House and Trump administration officials are frankly worried that their jobs as well, what with the harsh firing via Twitter of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and President Trump signaling even more senior staff changes to come.

Those thought to be especially in danger, National Security Adviser General H.R. McMaster, Chief of Staff John Kelly, and Veteran Affairs Secretary David Shulkin.

But the president is bringing at least one new person on. Just moments ago, the White House confirming that Larry Kudlow of CNBC has agreed to be the new director of the National Economic Council. The TV personality will replace Gary Cohn, who resigned over the

president's implementation of steel and aluminum tariffs. And though the president has spoken about wanting to make sure his team is all on the same wavelength as he, we should point out that Kudlow also vocally and strongly opposed Trump's tariffs.

With White House trade adviser Peter Navarro telling me 10 days ago that Kudlow has "never, ever" supported the president on trade and is "dead wrong" on the economics.

CNN's Kaitlan Collins is in St. Louis, where the president has been touring a Boeing facility and where he will hold a fund-raiser later.

Kaitlan, White House officials are telling you that they're on edge amid all this turmoil.

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Yes, they are, Jake.

They're in an uneasy atmosphere in the West Wing, my sources tell me. They say that they feel uncertain of what is going to happen next with the string of departures and firings that we have seen over the last few weeks in the Trump White House.

And staffers say that they feel that they're left in the dark and they don't know who is going to be fired next or who will be walked off the White House grounds tomorrow. The White House is trying to downplay any rumors, any speculation of an impending shake-up in the West Wing, but there's one person who isn't. That's the president.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

COLLINS (voice-over): A day after firing Secretary of State Rex Tillerson by tweet, sources say President Trump isn't finished with his West Wing shakeup.

The president is expected to get rid of even more staffers he is said to have clashed with and surround himself with people more aligned with his style and populist agenda.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I'm really at a point where we're getting very close to having the Cabinet and other things that I want.

COLLINS: The president isn't happy with several of his remaining Cabinet members.

Veteran Affairs Secretary David Shulkin over pure management and misuse of taxpayer money, National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster over areas of foreign policy, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke over excessive spending on travel, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt over using pricey hotels and planes, HUD Secretary Ben Carson over that $31,000 dining set, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos after a poor performance in a recent television interview, Attorney General Jeff Sessions over the Russia investigation, and even his chief of staff, John Kelly, for trying to exert too much control over the West Wing, leaving many wondering who is next to go. Now Trump has offered economist and TV personality Larry Kudlow the

role of chief economic adviser, after Gary Cohn resigned over a disagreement on tariffs, something Kudlow and the president also disagreed over.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I have known him a long time. We don't agree on everything. But in this case, I think that's good. I want to have a divergent opinion.

COLLINS: Meanwhile, the blame game over the special election in Pennsylvania begins, a race widely seen as test of the president's political clout, with sources close to the White House blaming the Republican Rick Saccone for being a "weak candidate."

Democrats have already declared victory over Saccone, with Conor Lamb holding a slight lead.

[16:05:00]

CONOR LAMB (D), PENNSYLVANIA CONGRESSIONAL CANDIDATE: It took a little longer than we thought, but we did it.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

COLLINS: Trump carried the district by nearly 20 points in 2016, and held a rally alongside Saccone ahead of Tuesday's race.

The White House now saying Lamb won because he embraced the president's policies.

REP. PAUL RYAN (R-WI), SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE: The public polling wasn't looking so good, and president came in and helped close this race, and got to it where it is right now, which is within a few hundred votes.

COLLINS: But at their private caucus meeting, the chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee warned lawmakers, "This is a wakeup call," a sentiment echoed by some members.

REP. CHARLIE DENT (R), PENNSYLVANIA: If you are just simply going to try run on, say, the president's coattails or the national environment, you're going to get swept up and swept out.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

COLLINS: Now, Jake, Republicans are already circulating talking points about that race.

And some of them were shown to my colleague Jim Acosta, namely that Saccone was outspent in this and this was a unique set of circumstances.

Meanwhile, the president is here in Saint Louis. He is going to tour this Boeing facility behind me with the one Cabinet member who has not been under the spotlight lately. That's Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin. And he is going to attend a Republican fund-raiser here in Saint Louis

tonight, where he is expected to raise $2 million before he has to head back to a very chaotic West Wing in Washington -- Jake.

TAPPER: All right, Kaitlan Collins, thank you so much.

My political panel is here with me.

I want to start by playing what President Trump said about his Cabinet back in October.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TRUMP: There are those that are saying it's one of the finest group of people ever assembled as a candidate -- as a Cabinet. And I happen to agree with that. Of course, I should agree with that.

But I think we have an extraordinary group of people.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: Well...

KRISTEN SOLTIS ANDERSON, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: Some people are saying.

Look, there have been some bright spots in the Cabinet and there have been some weak links.

You just had Ambassador Nikki Haley speaking in front of the U.N. being unambiguous about the belief that Russia is behind these chemical attacks that occurred in the U.K.

At the same time, there have been some that have put up a lackluster performance. I don't think necessarily seeing turnover in a position is inherently a bad thing if it means that the president is finding folks that are more aligned with his agenda, he's getting his feet under him.

But certainly you can't escape the feeling that this is a little more chaotic than it probably should be.

TAPPER: We're not used to this much turnover.

JEN PSAKI, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: No, we're not.

And the truth is, it can be a good sign when a new person is put in place. Certainly, President Obama, President Clinton, President Bush, others moved Cabinet officials out from time to time. But many served for six, eight years even.

Certainly a four-year time serving is a normal period. Now, what we're seeing with the Trump team here is that not only does he want to kick people out, but there's a lot of uncertainty about who on earth will replace them. And it doesn't mean that they're going to be better options for the public or for getting the job done. And that's really I think where the concerns should lie.

JACKIE KUCINICH, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: It seems like dissent is one of the reasons that people are being booted from this Cabinet, which is fine if you're running a private business. Get rid of whoever you want. Surround yourself with people who tell you you're great.

As president, it's a little bit more complicated. You would think that they would want someone who would challenge their decision and have a little bit more of a murder board when you're talking about policy.

Not with this president. Doesn't seem to tolerate that in the same way although.

SOLTIS ANDERSON: Although I feel like it's less about you have to agree in 100 percent lockstep with the president all the time, and more are you someone that makes the president look good?

And so, for instance, his selection of Larry Kudlow, they disagree vehemently on the issue of trade. And this is an issue that is front and center right now. But I think the president believes choosing someone like Kudlow is not going to make him look bad. It's going to be a -- it's going to be a good thing for his administration

So, I think we can accept some level of dissent, as long as it's not someone attacking him personally or making -- embarrassing his administration.

(CROSSTALK)

TAPPER: I just want to play the sound and have your react to it, Jen.

This is Republican Congressman Charlie Dent of Pennsylvania talking about all this turnover.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DENT: There's a lot of chaos and anarchy. And this is just more of it. This type of instability and uncertainty is really not helpful for America or for the administration.

GOV. JOHN KASICH (R), OHIO: I mean, you have to have some stability to get things done. So I look at it and I'm just like, wow. I mean, where is this going?

SEN. JEFF FLAKE (R), ARIZONA: To find out you have been fired by tweet is not exactly reassuring in terms the conduct of government.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: Three Republicans. And certainly those are three critics of the president's, but three Republicans.

PSAKI: They have a point.

And if you look at just the national security team, President Trump is approaching what would be the biggest moment in his presidency as it relates diplomacy and perhaps at all with a meeting with Kim Jong-un.

There is not going to be a secretary of state, unless it is a very rapid confirmation. And the guy he nominated is very pro-military action in North Korea.

There's not an envoy, there's not an ambassador. He may fire his national security adviser.

We can all talk about what that means and the chaos here. But if you're a country, if you're a country in Asia, if you're Japan, if you're China, if you're South Korea, you're thinking, who on earth is in charge? Is this a serious thing that they're doing? Who is going to be getting the work done?

[16:10:08]

And that's when you start to see the impact of the chaos beyond just the Washington debate.

TAPPER: It is not the obviously all this turnover in the Trump administration and the Trump Cabinet.

I want you to take a listen to House Speaker Paul Ryan trying to talk about the Republican loss in that special election last night in generally what was considered a safe Republican district.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

RYAN: The candidate that is going to win this race is the candidate that ran as a pro-life, pro-gun, anti-Nancy Pelosi conservative. That's the candidate that is going to win this race. So this is something that you are not going to see repeated.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: Do you buy that explanation?

SOLTIS ANDERSON: I think in this case, look, one race is not enough to tell me, this is what I think is going to happen in November. This is everything I have decided that is going to happen to every Republican.

But this is part of a pattern where you have got Republicans running for offices in red states, in red districts, and they're losing, because in part they're relying on the Trump train to pull them across the finish line, and it's not enough.

The candidate in this race, Rick Saccone, was not a great candidate. He raised very little money, in contrast with his opponent. The outside groups had to come in, spend all this money on the airwaves trying to save him. So you can have someone who is a bad candidate and also say that this is a race that should have given Republicans concern. Republicans in our R-plus-10 safe Republican seats should run as if they are 10 points down, I have heard from some very sort of skilled consultants on this, that everyone needs to be running scared in the cycle, because you can't be a lackluster candidate and just think it's going to be OK.

TAPPER: And though it is true -- it's not true that Conor Lamb is pro-life, as I think Paul Ryan described him.

He said he might be personally, but I think he's is pro-abortion rights in terms of legislation. But that kind of Democrat, that conservative Democrat or moderate Democrat, there were a lot of them back when Nancy Pelosi was the speaker of the House.

I mean, there used to be a lot of conservative Democrats. And if there are more Conor Lambs, Nancy Pelosi or whomever could be the next speaker of the House.

KUCINICH: Absolutely.

And because of that -- one of the reasons in 2010 that you saw a lot of Democrats lose was because of cap and trade and because of Obamacare. There was this huge groundswell.

So if you Nancy Pelosi ends up speaker again, it's not an easy caucus to govern. And Paul Ryan is seeing that with his conservative caucuses.

So there will be -- they will be a lot to unpack from that caucus and they're going to have to govern a lot differently than what they're talking about right now.

TAPPER: Everyone, stick around.

We got a lot more to talk about.

The White House is trying to distance itself from the Pennsylvania loss. Are the Republican nightmares about a blue wave in November actually justified?

That's next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:16:49] JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: And welcome back.

Sticking with the politics lead, sources telling CNN that Attorney General Jeff Sessions is considering whether he should fire former FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe. McCabe is just days away from official retirement. He would lost his pension if he doesn't make it until Sunday, if he gets fired.

An internal review is expected to show that McCabe misled investigators who were looking into press leaks, apparently he authorized some at the FBI to talk to reporters about a Clinton Foundation probe after his wife's ties to the Clintons had been revealed.

Joining me to talk about this and much more is outgoing Republican Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona. He serves on the Judiciary Committee and the Foreign Relations Committee among others.

Senator, thanks for joining us. What do you make of this whole thing of firing McCabe ahead of his official retirement just a few days so he loses his pension because he misled investigators, allegedly?

SEN. JEFF FLAKE (R), ARIZONA: This is the first I've heard of it. So, it's been a busy day, I'm sorry. I haven't heard of it. It would seem to be odd to fire somebody just to deprive them of their pension, unless there was just cause and I just don't know if that just cause is there. I haven't seen it.

TAPPER: Fair enough, sir.

This was last night, a stinging defeat for Republicans in Pennsylvania. What lessons do you take away from the loss of what was considered a safe Republican seat?

FLAKE: I think it's a big lesson. It's a lesson that you can only drill down on the base so far. We've got to broaden our appeal and that's why I've been worried about what direction Republican Party is going. We can't win statewide elections like this. We can't win in purple districts like this.

So, it should be a big wake-up call for Republicans.

TAPPER: You said over the weekend that perhaps a Republican should challenge President Trump in 2020. You're heading to New Hampshire next week.

What do you think the odds are that you might be that Republican to challenge President Trump? Fifty percent?

FLAKE: Oh, no. Long odds. It's not in my plans. I haven't ruled it out. But I do think and I do hope that a Republican will challenge the president and just to remind Republicans what Republicans stand for -- limited government, economic freedom, free trade, immigration. These are things that appeal to a broader base of the party and I think can win elections in the future.

But if we continue to just drill down on the base, I don't think that our electoral fortunes are very bright.

TAPPER: Is there anyone you can think of who will deliver the message other than you? John Kasich? Ben Sasse?

FLAKE: Yes, John Kasich, Ben Sasse, would be great representatives for that message. There are a number of people, a number of governors out there as well. So -- but I just think that traditional Republicans, and it's not just, you know, believing in the principles of conservatism, but being conservative in demeanor and comportment as well. And not insulting people. Not going to a rally and hoping to feel a broader base to win an election by making fun of the Democrats, or tamping down criticism of Kim Jong-un, while encouraging criticism of our free press.

[16:20:08] These are things are just going to make it very difficult for Republicans to win in the future if we embrace that kind of message.

TAPPER: You and I have talked about this before, about how during a different era in this country, during McCarthy era, which you wrote about in your book, there were a lot of Republican who thought that they could straddle these words of the indecent and the decent by just not taking position you obviously feel that you have to take a position.

Why are so few Republicans willing to criticize things that are just on their face outrageous, like attacks, very personal attacks on Democrats, on the free press, et cetera?

FLAKE: Well, I can tell you, as a member of Congress that gets the questions daily, hourly from the press, whenever you get outside of your office in the hallway. It gets tiresome to answer these questions. And you can't answer them all and you can't respond over the tweet or statement out of White House.

Having said that, when the president makes certain statements, or insults people, or takes certain actions, then it is our responsibility as elected officials to stand up and say, this is out of bounds. This we cannot stand for. And I hope that we have more people who will stand up and say that.

TAPPER: You've criticized President Trump for firing Secretary of State Tillerson via tweet. It is interesting considering the president's catch phrase is you're fired, that so seldom is he able to actually deliver that to somebody's face. Why do you think that is?

FLAKE: I don't know. But I think somebody who has served honorably as secretary of state for over a year deserves better. And Rex Tillerson certainly deserved better than that. I think anybody who served a government in that way and gives it their all and maybe doesn't agree with the president on everything and they shouldn't agree on everything, but to be fired that way, without even a conversation, just -- that's one thing that's kind of out of bounds. And we ought to say, you know, that's just not right.

TAPPER: Sources tell CNN that President Trump is considering replacing his national security adviser, General H.R. McMaster, so that he can build a team more in sync with his thinking on issues such as Iran or North Korea. One name being floated is John Bolton, a notable hawk and interventionist.

What do you make of John Bolton?

FLAKE: Well, I just know that H.R. McMaster has served I think the president well and the president would do well, if not a team of rivals, certainly people who will question some of the moves that he wants to make or will slow down to say, hey, it's fine and good to sit down with the North Korean leader. But before you do, here are the things need to take place first.

Those are kind of the things that an H.R. McMaster or a Tillerson bring to the table that I'm concerned if others get there and simply, you know, agree the president on all these moves, that's not good for the country. We ought to -- you know, it takes more to do foreign policy than just have a meeting with a foreign leader. I'll be talking about some of these things tomorrow at the National Press Club.

TAPPER: All right. Senator Jeff Flake, Republican of Arizona, thanks so much for your time as always. We appreciate it.

FLAKE: Thank you.

TAPPER: Senator Flake will be talking about many of these themes when he gives a speech tomorrow at the National Press Club on truth, falsehoods and the dangerous state of our politics and the way forward.

Russia is believed to be behind a, quote, military grade chemical weapons. That's what the U.S. ambassador said about a poison attack in the U.K. Will that be enough to get President Trump to go after Vladimir Putin?

Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:27:53] TAPPER: We're back with the politics lead.

Let's continue the conversation with my panel. So, there are a lot of people in the cabinet to talk about. One of the stories out there is apparently, according to reports, President Trump has grown irritated with his V.A. secretary, Dr. David Shulkin, and thinking about replacing him with his energy secretary, former Governor Rick Perry.

Your thought?

JACKIE KUCINICH, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: You know, Rick Perry would be a lot more qualified than perhaps the Department of Energy for the Department of Veterans. When he was governor of Texas, he passed a law that would have allowed some vets who were disabled to write off their property taxes. Also, on a lighter note, when he was on "Dancing with the Stars," he said he did it to raise awareness for veteran issues and he himself is a veteran.

So, it is a cause is that a group of people very close to his heart, probably a little bit more than, you know, nuclear codes.

TAPPER: On the other hand, David Shulkin, he's been -- first of all, he is an Obama holdover, the only one in the cabinet I think. And he is somebody that knows the V.A. very well. He has gotten some trouble with some of the travels and all those infighting at the V.A. But he does know the system very well, and that's a tough system to reform. JEN PSAKI, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: That's true. And I think what

often presidents look at is whether they are liked or beloved even by their institution, and whether how important that is. And I think he is someone that has built a rapport. He's had some controversies.

But it does go back to the question of, what makes Trump want to make changes? And it's things that embarrassed him and they're usually public things. Not things that are happening behind the scenes or in confidence or, you know, controversy behind the scenes. It's when things are public, and that's what people in the chopping block.

Now, surprisingly, the person who's not in any of these conversations is Betsy DeVos, who is perhaps the worst education secretary in history and yet she doesn't seem to be on the chopping block, so it's a little confusing.

TAPPER: Now, John Kelly was brought in to be chief of staff, he said it was a punishment from god to be chief of staff as opposed to his former job at homeland Security. But now, CNN has some reporting that outside advisers have been talking to potential successors for John Kelly. It doesn't seem as though his departure is imminent, but that's kind of odd that they're already talking to people about maybe replacing him.

KRISTEN SOLTIS ANDERSON, WASHINGTON EXAMINER COLUMNIST: That's kinds of odd is sort of the theme of the last year and a half, is it not?