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THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER

Trump Administration Finally Sanctions Russia; Special Counsel Demands Documents From Trump; Bridge Collapse in Florida; Any Moment: Officials Update on Deadly Bridge Collapse. Aired 4-4:30p ET

Aired March 15, 2018 - 16:00   ET

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


JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: Did Robert Mueller just basically dare President Trump to fire him?

THE LEAD starts right now.

[16:00:00]

Major breaking news in the Russian investigation. The special counsel has subpoenaed President Trump's business, demanding documents related to dealings with Russia. What surprises might be in those books?

And in the better-later-than-never department, the Trump administration finally announcing sanctions to punish the Kremlin for attacking the 2016 election. Does this mean President Trump finally thinks this is all more than a hoax and a Democratic excuse?

Also, breaking right now, at least one person dead, many other injuries after a brand-new pedestrian bridge collapsed, crushing and trapping cars in South Florida, the massive rescue effort unfolding right now.

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

TAPPER: Good afternoon, and welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

We are monitoring that deadly bridge collapse in Florida right now. The mayor just said there are eight vehicles that they know of that are currently trapped underneath the rubble. We are expecting a press conference any minute now. We are going to bring that to you live as soon as it starts.

But we are going to begin with the breaking news in our politics lead today, and the Russia investigation moving another step closer to President Trump, a source telling CNN that special counsel Mueller has subpoenaed the Trump Organization for business documents.

"The New York Times," which first reported the news, says the subpoena includes documents related to Russia. CNN reported back in January that the Trump Organization had voluntarily provided documents on a range of events, conversations, and meetings to Mueller and congressional investigators, according to three people familiar with the matter.

CNN's Evan Perez joins me now.

And, Evan, what records might the Trump Organization have that Mueller would be interested in?

EVAN PEREZ, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Jake, I think, at the top of the list, it has to be the 2015 deal that the Trump Organization tried to pursue to build a Trump Tower in Moscow.

Now, as you know, this is sort of Donald Trump's great white whale. He's been chasing a deal in Moscow for many, many years, for decades. He's been trying to build a real estate project there. And so that deal never went through, as you know.

And now we expect that is part of what Robert Mueller wants to know about. Now, what's interesting, Jake, is that, as you noted, the special counsel has documents already from the Trump Organization.

They said in January that they that had turned over a lot of documents, some of the stuff that they already turned over to Congress. So this means that there is something else that the Mueller investigators believe that is missing from those documents perhaps, or they just want to make sure that there is nothing is missing -- that they're missing in their investigation.

We got a statement from Alan Futerfas, who is the attorney for Trump Organization. He says that: "Since July 2017, we have advised the public that the Trump Organization is fully cooperative with all investigations, including the special counsel, and is responding to their requests. This is old news, and our assistance and cooperation with various investigations remains the same today."

Now, it's not old news, because the fact is -- when we talked to them in January, they said that they had voluntarily turned over these documents that they said they had. This, the fact that they received a subpoena, is definitely new.

TAPPER: And also we should just bring back the context that President Trump has in the past talked about firing special counsel Mueller.

PEREZ: Right.

TAPPER: And remember when in an interview with "The New York Times," the president was asked -- quote -- we will take a look at this from "The New York Times."

"Asked if Mr. Mueller's investigation would cross a red line if it expanded to look at his family's finances beyond any relationship to Russia, Mr. Trump said, 'I would say yes.'"

So by asking for these documents, it's not clear if this would cross that red line for President Trump, but it seems likely it would.

PEREZ: I think Mueller doesn't believe that there's a red line, certainly, and so I think you can imagine the president is going to be probably steaming at the idea that they are digging through his financial matters from the company. But the fact is that this is very much part of what the investigation is about. Mueller was appointed to look into Russia, and so if there's -- as "The New York Times" is reporting, that this has to do with Russia, this is very much within his purview.

Now, if you talk to people close to the president, they believe that this investigation is wrapping up. And even today, I think they believe that this is just a sign that things are cleaning up. I think I would look at this and the fact that they are getting a subpoena now, even, you know, at this stage of the investigation, that there's a lot more investigating to be done here.

TAPPER: All right. Evan Perez, thank you so much.

My panel is here with me to break this down.

And, Laura, let's start with you.

What might the subpoena of the Trump Organization, what might it mean as to the status of the Robert Mueller probe?

LAURA COATES, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Well, it means two things. One, it's not going away, because a subpoena, you could actually request and just ask nicely for documentation, but if you subpoena, it's a much more aggressive, assertive way.

And the reason you would do so is because either, A, you believe that voluntary handing over of documents would not be very comprehensive, or you don't believe that what's been handed over already is going to be thorough and comprehensive.

[16:05:05]

Either way, it is showing too the muscular strength of the investigation and saying that we need not worry about what red lines you want to draw in the sand or whether we have to tiptoe around requests for how the interviews are taking place.

We are able to use that grand jury subpoena power to get whatever we want. And it's a very strong message to the people at the Trump Organization, don't think about destroying any documents or getting rid of anything, because we will need those too.

TAPPER: And, Kaitlan, as we just talked about, President Trump has talked in the past about his displeasure with this probe. He's talked about firing Mueller. He's talked about firing Jeff Sessions, the attorney general. He's talked about firing just everyone else affiliated with this.

Do you think in the president's mind, as a seasoned Trump reporter, this crosses the red line he talked about?

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, that's the question, is what is his reaction to this going to be?

Because, as we have reported for months now, the president's lawyers have promised him in investigation is coming to an end, and his officials who go on TV have constantly and regularly said they believe that it's wrapping up, even though there's been zero indication that that's happening.

And as she just pointed out, this is exactly showing that it's not only coming to an end. It's expanding and it's expected to go on for at least several more months.

So the question is, how does the president react to that, now knowing that they can no longer promise him, hey, this is going to wrap up here in the next month? Because we have constantly seen them move the goal line for that, from December to January, to -- and now here we are in the middle of March and this is very much still going on.

But it also -- you look at what else has happened in the last few weeks, and that's the House Intelligence Committee saying that there was no collusion, coming out with these findings, the Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee saying that, something the president said he felt vindicated by.

And then the third thing is, it raises the question of, will we see the president lash out at his attorney general, Jeff Sessions, once again? Will this take him to fire Jeff Sessions? Because as the reporting this week has shown, the president very upset with several members of his Cabinet, but the one who has been at the top of the list for the longest is Jeff Sessions, and he's been very frustrated with him for exactly this reason relating to the special counsel.

TAPPER: And, Laura, the president's lawyers and, I guess, I don't know if this is -- they're actually convinced of it or they're just trying to get him to not get too excited about this, but they keep telling him this is going to wrap up, whether it's going to wrap up by Thanksgiving, it's going to wrap up by Christmas.

Your reading is, it's not wrapping up anytime soon.

COATES: No. Those are probably efforts to placate him and probably pat him on the head, and give him a glass of water, and go to bed.

But, in reality, there's no one who has the ultimate exercise of authority over this other than Robert Mueller, and ultimately Rod Rosenstein as well.

But remember, just earlier in the week in reporting and late last week, there was discussions that he was hoping to be able to negotiate the terms of his interview, as long as Mueller would provide him assurances that it would wrap up.

This is the response that Mueller's essentially team has, which is, you don't get to dictate the terms of this. My edict that is from the statute will do everything with that respect.

So it's a placating effort by the attorneys, but not one that carries any weight into the special counsel's office.

TAPPER: All right, we have a lot going on. As Mueller's investigation moves forward, President Trump makes what may be his boldest move yet targeting Russia. That's next.

But, first, we are following breaking news in Miami, where that brand- new pedestrian bridge has collapsed on top of a busy road, including cars and trucks on the road. We are awaiting a press conference from local authorities, which could happen any moment, the Miami mayor now saying that at least one person has been killed, six others taken to the hospital, first-responders trying to reach several vehicles that continue to be trapped under the 950-ton bridge.

The president has been briefed, as has Florida Governor Rick Scott, who is on his way to the scene now. The NTSB is also sending a team to investigate the collapse.

It's important to note that this pedestrian bridge was actually installed just on Saturday. It was called an instant bridge. It was not even open yet. It was supposed to be completed in 2019. We're going to continue to monitor the breaking news and bring you the latest information as it becomes available.

Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:13:11]

TAPPER: We're back with the breaking news.

Special counsel Mueller has subpoenaed the Trump Organization's business records related to Russia, according to "The New York Times."

This comes on the heels the Trump administration finally imposing sanctions against Moscow for interfering in the 2016 presidential elections. Those sanctions were overwhelmingly passed by Congress last fall, but the administration waited months to implement them.

CNN's Jim Sciutto joins me now.

And, Jim, it's worth noting that special counsel Robert Mueller indicted all of the individuals and the entities that were sanctioned back in February of this year.

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: That's right.

And as you look at this, it's almost as if that indictment was cut and pasted inside this Treasury announcement, but a very strongly worded announcement that blames Russia not only for interference in the 2016 election, but for cyber-activities against the U.S. that continue today.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SCIUTTO (voice-over): Tonight, the Trump administration acknowledging that Russia meddled in the 2016 election, interference that the president has repeatedly questioned, and taking its toughest action yet, enacting sanctions on Moscow to finally meet a congressional mandate to impose the penalties.

Among the Russian targets on the list, all 13 people and three entities indicted by special counsel Mueller last month for interference in the election, including this man, Yevgeny Prigozhin, who has deep ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Also sanctioned, the company that Prigozhin financially backs, the Internet Research Agency, a Russian troll farm that produced divisive political posts on American social media platforms to incite discord during the campaign.

Trump initially resisted the sanctions, signing them into law only in the face of veto-proof majorities in both houses. At the time, he lashed out at lawmakers on Twitter -- quote -- "Our relationship with Russia is at an all-time and very dangerous low. You can thank Congress."

The new sanctions also add more weight to Robert Mueller's investigation.

[16:15:15]

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The entire thing has been a witch hunt.

SCIUTTO: Which the president has repeatedly dismissed.

TONY BLINKEN, CNN GLOBAL AFFAIRS ANALYST: The president's been dragged kicking and screaming to this moment. What happened today with Treasury validates the Mueller indictment which the administration was running away from.

SCIUTTO: Today, the U.S. also publicly blamed Russia for a nerve agent attack that left a former Russian spy and his daughter critically ill in Britain, deeming the action a clear violation of international law.

TRUMP: It certainly looks like the Russians were behind it. Something that should never, ever happen, and we're taking it very seriously as I think are many others.

SCIUTTO: Despite today's moves against Russia, however, Democrats say the president must do more.

SEN. BOB MENENDEZ (D), NEW JERSEY: It's far past time that they did it. There is a series of provisions of the law that are pretty mandatory that the administration has not pursued against Russia on financial institutions on arms transfers and other things. So, there's a much more robust response to be had.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SCIUTTO: The Treasury Department mentions other Russian activities they are working to counter through sanctions. It mentions Crimea, occupation of Ukraine, as well as human rights abuses.

But again, it's notable, in much stronger terms and criticism than you hear from the president himself.

TAPPER: Of course, from his own mouth.

Jim, thank you so much.

Is the Russian President Vladimir a friend or foe of the United States? We'll talk about that next. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:20:41] TAPPER: Welcome back.

Our world lead: escalating tensions between in Washington and Moscow over new sanctions imposed by the U.S. against Russia today, as well as the poisoning of a Russian ex-spy and his daughter on British soil. It comes at the same time that President Trump is making significant changes to his national security team.

Joining me now to talk about this and much more is Stephen Hadley. He served as national security adviser under President George W. Bush.

Mr. Hadley, always good to see you. Thanks so much for being here.

STEPHEN HADLEY, FORMER NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER TO PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: Nice to be here.

TAPPER: So, it took more than a year for the Trump administration to implement these sanctions against Russia for interfering in the election. Among those sanctions are the entities and individuals named in the Mueller indictment from last month. Does today's response go far enough, do you think?

HADLEY: Well, it's a start. I think the president has moved. He's now acknowledging the fact that Russia was behind the interference in the election. He's now calling for us to harden our electoral system. It is, after all, critical infrastructure in advance of the 2018 elections. So, I think the administration is moving. I think Congress is still ahead of them.

You hear Democratic voices suggesting that more needs to be done in terms of sanctions, but as the Mueller investigation proceeds, they probably will be further opportunities for the administration as well.

TAPPER: We heard from the White House today and from the Republican National Committee today a list of ways that the Trump administration has been tough on Russia including arming Ukrainians, fighting off Russian backed separatists, et cetera. But it's also true that President Trump it seems has never really condemned or said a bad word publicly about Russian President Vladimir Putin.

I want you to take a listen to the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Robert Menendez, on CNN today.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. ROBERT MENENDEZ (D), NEW JERSEY: The president should be leading a whole of government response to Russia. Putin only understands strength, and that's strength comes through a robust response.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: Is that true, and do you think that Putin might view President Trump as weak?

HADLEY: I don't think so. He understands that President Trump is operating in context. Look, the problem for President Trump is this has been pretty politicized, and the more people emphasize Trump that Putin is intervening in the election in favor of Trump, the more it undermines the legitimacy of President Trump's election, and he doesn't like that. Surprise, surprise.

But the administration aided by Congress has been pretty tough on Russia. You mentioned the arming of the Ukrainians against Russian- backed separatists in Ukraine. They have certainly been trying to do more in terms of backing the Kurds in Syria. I think we've now got these sanctions going on.

I think it's been a pretty tough policy against Russia, and you heard Ambassador Nikki Haley talking today about the accessibility of what Putin did in London. So, I think on balance, it's been a pretty tough American response and pretty clear it is bipartisan across the board, and if you look at some of the overwhelming votes in Congress, I don't think Putin has any illusion that Americans are soft on Russia any time soon.

TAPPER: Would you like to hear as a former national security adviser to George W. Bush, would you like to hear rhetoric from President Trump to match rhetoric we hear from, for example, Ambassador Haley?

HADLEY: I think it in a way, it does not matter. I think the president is moving in the right direction. He, obviously, wants to maintain the option down the road of seeing if he can improve the relationship with Russia. A lot of things have to happen before that. We've got to get this Russian intervention in the election through the political system.

We need to get some kind of resolution of Russian activity in Donbas, and get Ukraine back in control. Those things happen, we might have an opportunity to improve relations with Russia. Until then, not much prospect.

TAPPER: "The Washington Post" reported this morning that President Trump acknowledged in a private fundraiser when he met with Prime Minister Trudeau of Canada, he simply winged it, he was making stuff up about trade imbalance with Canada.

[16:25:00] Does that concern you especially as the White House prepares to meet with Kim Jong-un?

HADLEY: Look, my reading of the press reports is that the president just assumed there was a trade deficit with respect to Canada. That's what he said. When he was challenged on it by Prime Minister Trudeau, he asked his folks to go out and take a look at the facts. They came back and told them, well, there's a deficit taking into account energy and lumber.

You know, these kinds of things happen. I'm not too worried about the upcoming meeting with North Korea because I don't believe this is a negotiation. I think it's for the opportunity for the two leaders to meet and President Trump basically to say, you know, there is a good prospect for North Korea in terms of ending the Korean War, improving relations with the United States if you will get rid of your nuclear weapons program. That's the message he needs to send.

And other than that message and then, perhaps, setting up a framework for further conversations, and potentially negotiations, that it seems to me is for another day. So, I think this -- it will be interesting to see how it plays out, but I'm not particularly concerned about it.

TAPPER: I do want to ask you about the Mueller investigation, especially now that he is subpoenaing records of the Trump Organization that have to do with Russia. What's your response to somebody who is tasked with making sure that the tenor and tone of President Bush's relationship with Vladimir Putin was on track to seeing all this manpower and investigative effort looking into how closely the Trump team had a relationship with Russia whether or not they interfered with the election?

HADLEY: Look, it's a serious issue, and the country needs to get to the bottom of it. We need to know what happened, how it happened, and we need to have to harden our electoral system so it does not happen again, whether it's by the Russians, Chinese, the Iranians, or anybody else.

So, there's no alternative to getting this through the system. Congress has been active, Mueller's been active. We need to bring those things to a judicious conclusion, see what the results are, and then take appropriate action. There's just no way around it.

TAPPER: Stephen Hadley, a pleasure to have you on. Thanks so much.

HADLEY: Nice to be here.

TAPPER: So, I'm going to turn to the national lead now. And we're waiting for the press conference down in Florida where, obviously, this pedestrian bridge collapsed. Awaiting a press conference any moment.

I want to bring in CNN government regulation correspondent Rene Marsh.

And, Rene, the National Transportation Safety Board is going to send down a team. What can you tell us? What's the latest about the bridge that was just erected days ago?

RENE MARSH, CNN REGULATION CORRESPONDENT: Right. And, I mean, when you look at even the press release from the university announcing that this bridge, which will essentially be a foot bridge from an area called Sweetwater to the campus of FIU, Florida International University, who were really excited about the bridge. It was designed to withstand category 5 hurricane. I can tell you that this bridge was made out of self-cleaning concrete. They describe it as an engineering marvel.

And then you have these images today, witnesses say it happened so quickly. One minute, the bridge is up, the next, it came crashing down. We know the latest from the mayor there. At least one person dead, of course, those numbers always change. It's rather early, and we are waiting on a press conference, obviously, there on the scene, where they'll fill us in on the very latest.

But what we know preliminarily is that six people were taken to the hospital. And at last check, at least according to officials on the ground, eight vehicles were trapped under that bridge.

But back to the investigation because when people hear this bridge was erected, just on Saturday, and we're not talking about an issue of ageing infrastructure, the only question people have now, is how in the world could this happen? And that's what the NTSB has set out to try and figure out.

Some of the key questions that investigators with the NTSB will want to figure out is the structural integrity of this bridge, how was it constructed, were there any design flaws, perhaps, that may have contributed to this.

Those are all things they want to know, and it looks like -- you know, the officials are here, and starting to walk up to the microphones. Jake, so we'll listen in.

TAPPER: Let's listen in to Miami-Dade officials.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Miami-Dade Fire and Rescue.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: And MHP mayor, and we have MBPD.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Can you please step closer to the microphone.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Sure. We have MBPD Director Juan Perez, and we have Sweetwater Mayor Orlando Lopez, and then Commissioner Martinez is present, but he will not be answering any questions at this time.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: OK.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And we also have a representative from FIU who will be providing a statement. OK?

So, with that being said, please hold your questions to the end.