Return to Transcripts main page

THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER

Supreme Fight; Republican Fight Heats Up; Democrats Vie for African-American Vote Ahead of S.C.; President Obama to Address Supreme Court Vacancy; Senate Committee Chair: Waiting on Name of Nominee. Aired 4-4:30p ET

Aired February 16, 2016 - 16:00   ET

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


[16:00:10]

JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: The first snapshot of the South Carolina presidential race in months, we're releasing it right here in seconds.

The lead starts right now.

It's dirty, it's raw, it's personal, it is South Carolina politics. And in just four days, it could be a battle for the Republican Party's very soul.

Plus, the other battle for the future, President Obama coming out to speak this hour about replacing Justice Antonin Scalia, who died suddenly on Saturday. It's shaping up to be one of the big of the battles of his entire presidency.

Conspiracy theories in overdrive, blaming everyone from President Obama, to the Clintons, to Dick Cheney, to Mr. Spock for the death of Justice Scalia at age 79. Which presidential candidate just added some tin foil to the proverbial hat?

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

TAPPER: Welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

We have the breaking news because we have breaking news right here in our politics lead, some brand-new CNN polls laying out the state of the race in South Carolina.

As the Republicans like to say down there, South Carolina picks presidents. So, if your name is Donald J. Trump, you might be grinning right now, because just four days before Republicans vote in the Palmetto State, you have a big lead there. Hillary Clinton also has a big lead, but with more than a week until South Carolina Democrats flood the poll, and so many undecided Democrats, a Sanders supporter might, might see some evidence all is not yet lost.

Let's get right to CNN chief political correspondent Dana Bash with these poll numbers.

Dana, Ted Cruz and Jeb Bush have really been going after Donald Trump ever since his victory in New Hampshire. But none of the attacks against him seem to have affected his standing in the polls in South Carolina.

DANA BASH, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Not as of right now. This is a huge lead, to quote the front-runner. He has 38 percent, Donald Trump, in South Carolina. Ted Cruz is behind him, but pretty far behind him. Look at that 22 percent, and then Marco Rubio is in third. Jeb Bush at 10. And then it goes on.

The other key issue which could give Donald Trump some smiles is the fact that people on the Republican side in South Carolina think he's electable; 53 percent think that he has the best chance to win. Jake, look at that, nobody even comes close to him on that. Ted Cruz is way behind at 19 percent.

TAPPER: And, Dana, evangelical voters obviously helped propel Ted Cruz to a victory in Iowa. There are also a lot of evangelical voters in South Carolina, as opposed to New Hampshire, where Trump won. Where are they lining up?

BASH: It is absolutely counter to everything you and I learned in politics. The evangelicals are not going for the guy who is one of them. They're going for Donald Trump. Look at that.

To me, this is the most stunning number in this entire poll; 42 percent of evangelicals, who, as you said, they're a huge portion of the Republican electorate in South Carolina -- they are going for Trump. Ted Cruz has only 23 percent.

TAPPER: That's astounding.

BASH: It really is.

TAPPER: He's obviously the son of a preacher, an evangelical preacher.

Let's turn to the Democrats now. If you're in Hillary Clinton's campaign right now, probably feel pretty good. Dive beneath just the overall horse race there. What's in there that makes the Clinton people feel good today on this poll?

BASH: The Clinton people, as you know, they have been calling South Carolina their firewall, and it looks like, at this point, it still could be.

This is the overall, 56 percent say they support Hillary Clinton, 38 percent Bernie Sanders. But to your point, let's look at another reason, two reasons why she should be pretty happy now. More than 50 percent of the Democratic vote in South Carolina is African-American, and she is crushing Bernie Sanders.

TAPPER: Wow, look at that, 65 to 28.

BASH: And 65 percent, that's right, to 28 percent.

And then another thing that should make her happy, 54 percent choose her over Bernie Sanders on the question of who would do the most to help the middle class? That, of course, has been Bernie Sanders' calling card. Right?

So, she's doing better.

TAPPER: Pretty astounding.

Now, the Republican primary in South Carolina is this Saturday, the Democrats a week from this Saturday. There is still time to change minds. Are there any numbers in here that the Sanders people might hold on to?

BASH: Yes, we will pour a little bit of rain on Hillary Clinton's parade, and that is that the majority have not decided. And 43 percent say they have definitely decided. But you see 16 percent say they're leaning, and 40 percent say they're flat-out still trying to decide.

And that is quite different from what we saw going into Iowa and New Hampshire. The Democrats were much more comfortable in who they were going to look for and who they were going to vote for about this far out.

TAPPER: All right. Some glimmer of light for Bernie Sanders supporters, but generally much, much better showing for Hillary Clinton in this poll.

Dana Bash, thanks so much.

BASH: Thank you.

TAPPER: Yesterday on the show, Donald Trump admitted that all of the nastiness between he and his rivals -- quote -- "will probably wind up hurting" whomever the Republican presidential nominee is. Mr. Trump must be toning it down today, right?

[16:05:10]

No.

CNN's Sunlen Serfaty is in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina. That's where Ted Cruz was this morning.

Sunlen, usually politician avoid using the L-word, liar, or lie. They say their opponent is being misleading or misrepresenting their record. But I think just in the last week or so, I have heard the word liar used more by Republicans than in the previous four presidential races I have covered combined. Things, as they might say, things are going to L. in South Carolina.

SUNLEN SERFATY, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: That's right. They are.

this race is turning very quickly -- very ugly very quickly here, Jake. The accusations on the campaign trail are about today who is the biggest liar? The race is quickly turning into a Republican bloodbath.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Ted holds up the Bible and then he lies about so many things. These are lies.

SERFATY (voice-over): Tonight, all-out war erupting in the Republican presidential race, and Donald Trump is leading the charge.

TRUMP: This guy is so strident and so nasty, he's going to lose every single state.

SERFATY: Trump and Marco Rubio accelerating their full-scale attack on Ted Cruz, slamming the Texas senator as a liar.

TRUMP: I have never seen a human being lie so much. He lies about everything. He will take your record. Like, I talk to you about Obamacare, he will say Trump loves Obamacare. How do you fight that? The guys he says loves Obamacare. I hate Obamacare.

SERFATY: Rubio and Trump accusing Cruz of distorting their records on a litany of issues, same-sex marriage, abortion, immigration, and health care to raise questions about their conservative credentials.

SEN. MARCO RUBIO (R-FL), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: He's lying and I think it's disturbing. I said that at the debate. He's now literally just making things up.

SERFATY: And Trump is stoking the fire even more, doubling down on a potential lawsuit against the Canadian-born Cruz over his eligibility to be president, unless Cruz backs off and apologizes.

TRUMP: I'm thinking about it very seriously.

SERFATY: Cruz's response to Trump, don't hold your breath.

SEN. TED CRUZ (R-TX), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: As conservatives continue to coalesce behind our campaign, Donald gets angrier and angrier and he simply begins yelling insults whenever anyone points to his record.

SERFATY: But it's not the only scrum sparking the South Carolina brawl.

JEB BUSH (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: South Carolina politics is rough and tumble for sure.

SERFATY: Jeb Bush today hammering Trump's temperament.

BUSH: I will be a commander in chief, not an agitator in chief, not a blowhard in chief.

SERFATY: And dismissing Rubio's claim that he has the best foreign policy credentials in the GOP field.

BUSH: Having dealt with world leaders is a far better experience than going to some committee hearing at the Foreign Relations Committee or something like that.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SERFATY: Jeb Bush will get a little extra help from his family here in South Carolina tomorrow. His mom, Barbara Bush, is set to campaign with him. Bush, of course, as our new poll just showed, is polling at fourth place, barely reaching double digits.

The Bush campaign, Jake, really hoping that will give him a boost going into primary day here Saturday.

TAPPER: All right, Sunlen Serfaty, thanks so much.

Joining me now from Columbia, South Carolina, is that state's Republican Party chairman, Matt Moore.

Sir, thanks for joining us. Appreciate it.

MATT MOORE, SOUTH CAROLINA REPUBLICAN PARTY CHAIRMAN: Good to be here, Jake.

TAPPER: You just heard the breaking news here, our brand-new CNN poll showing Donald Trump 16 points up against his next rival, Senator Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio in third, Jeb Bush in fourth. Does that square with what you're seeing on the ground and what you're hearing from voters?

MOORE: It very much matches what we have seen here in South Carolina for the past few months.

What we have seen nationally, the polls nationally very much match the South Carolina polls. I do know that poll that you were mentioning from CNN was taken four days before the debate and two days after. I'm interested to see if the debate here in South Carolina had any impact on any of those numbers as we go into the end of the week here.

TAPPER: South Carolina is an open primary, I believe. Voters, regardless of how they're registered, can vote in whichever primary they want. A lot of observers have suggested that Trump, especially at the debate on Saturday, he may have been trying to win independents and maybe even some Democrats by doing things like attacking George W. Bush for, in his words, lying about weapons of mass destruction, allowing 9/11 to happen on his watch.

If that is Trump's strategy to win over independents and Democrats by going after George W. Bush, could that work?

MOORE: That's one theory of it.

Here in South Carolina, we lack a lot of proof that people cross over and vote in our primary. In fact, the Democrats have a primary here in South Carolina that is actually maybe just as consequential on their side seven days later between Clinton and Sanders. So, again, not much proof of that in South Carolina history. Could be a risky strategy, in my opinion.

TAPPER: Responding to Mr. Trump's proposed Muslim ban several weeks ago, you tweeted, "Donald Trump's bad idea and rhetoric send a shiver down my spine." Just last night, President Bush told voters in your state that -- quote -- "We do not need someone in the Oval Office who mirrors and inflames our anger and frustration."

Do you agree with what former President Bush said, and do you think it's part and parcel with what you tweeted?

[16:10:05]

MOORE: Well, my tweet was back in November, more than a few months ago.

I don't think it's reasonable for every person to agree with every candidate all of the time. I have spoken out different times about various different things throughout this campaign. I respect President Bush. He's a well-respected figure here in South Carolina, and, of course, the last Republican president. His father was the last Republican president before that.

So, again, there's a bit of risk, I think, in attacking the Bush family here, regardless of your feelings on Jeb's campaign and how he's doing here. So, we will see where it all goes.

TAPPER: You say it's a bit of a risk. And, obviously, President Bush is still hugely popular among Republicans in your state. A lot of people turned up to see him last night, far more than typically show up for a Jeb Bush rally. Do you think that affection for George W. Bush can transfer to Jeb Bush?

MOORE: That's the 50-delegate question here in South Carolina as we head into Saturday. What is the percent of undecideds? Does anyone really know? Are people willing to change their votes from someone to Jeb Bush or vice versa? So we're just not sure. I'm not looking forward to 7:00 p.m. on Saturday night and finding out.

TAPPER: All right, we will be covering it live, of course.

Matt Moore, thanks so much. Good look.

MOORE: Thanks, Jake.

TAPPER: Will luck be a lady for Hillary Clinton this Saturday as she focuses on courting the African-American vote in the South? Her campaign has new cause for concern in a different state where they're going to the polls Saturday as well.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:15:46] JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome back to THE LEAD. More on our politics lead. We're not done yet.

Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders continuing to court African- American voter today, critical -- critical -- to the South Carolina primary, which Democrats are holding a week after the Republican contest there this Saturday. This Saturday, in fact, Democrats have a different contest and altogether different state, Nevada. And that state Hillary Clinton once considered that a lock but it's now looking much more competitive.

CNN senior Washington correspondent Jeff Zeleny is in Charleston, South Carolina, where Bernie Sanders is speaking right this very minute.

Jeff, Sanders and Clinton fighting a war on two fronts right now, South Carolina where you are, and Nevada.

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: They sure are, Jake. Both fronts are critical. South Carolina is going to provide the first test for the Clinton campaign to see if that southern fire wall will hold. Bernie Sanders is trying to break through the cracks, at least a little bit.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ZELENY (voice-over): Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders in fierce competition to win over black voters.

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS (I-VT), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Instincts for justice.

ZELENY: As Sanders' campaign today in South Carolina --

SANDERS: Count me in as a -- somebody who is elected president will help lead this country in the fight against institutional racism.

ZELENY: Clinton was in Harlem, meeting with Al Sharpton and other leaders. She cast her bid for the presidency as another chance to break history in America.

HILLARY CLINTON (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: My campaign is about breaking every barrier.

ZELENY: Their eyes fixed on South Carolina where next week's Democratic primary will test the strength of Clinton's southern fire wall and the breadth of Sanders' appeal.

African-American voters are a critical constituency, making up 55 percent of the Democratic vote in the 2008 presidential primary. Clinton/Sanders battle shining a light on criminal justice reform and racism.

CLINTON: Ii believe, absolutely, that America can't live up to its potential unless every single person has a chance to live up to theirs.

ZELENY: Sanders said racial injustice is rooted in economic inequality.

SANDERS: When we talk about inequality it goes without saying, that the African-American community is suffering even more.

ZELENY: It's an uphill climb for Sanders. In South Carolina, Clinton leads by 18 points, according to a new CNN poll. Among black voters, the poll gives Clinton a 37-point advantage. Sanders believes his economic arguments will resonate with black voters.

SANDERS: The African-American community suffered more and has recovered if a much less significant way.

ZELENY: He campaigned today with Erica Garner, whose father's death helped inspire the Black Lives Matter protest.

Eric Garner died in 2014 after a New York police officer placed him in a chokehold during an arrest.

ERICA GARNER, BERNIE SANDERS SUPPORTER: A fearless public servant that is not afraid to stand against the establishment for the people, the next president of the United States, Bernie Sanders.

(CHEERS)

ZELENY: She's also the subject of a powerful campaign video.

GARNER: That's why I'm for Bernie.

ZELENY: The Clinton campaign is fighting hard for South Carolina, collecting far more endorsements, including from Eric Garner's mother.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We love you, Hillary.

ZELENY: They hope a strong win will solidify her position as the party's front-runner.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ZELENY: Now, there is no question Sanders is running behind here particularly as the new poll shows among black voter. What Senator Sanders is trying to do is win over younger voters. You're going to hear him just wrapping up his final argument here. He's hoping that his economic argument resonates with young voters.

And, Jake, that's why he's going to Morehouse College tonight in Atlanta, of course, a historic black college, trying to show that there's more than one Democratic candidate in this race -- Jake.

TAPPER: All right. Jeff Zeleny, thank you so much.

The world lead now: for the first time today, Obama administration said that it is looking at how it might respond if Russia does not obey a cease-fire agreement. Airstrikes hit two hospitals and a school in northern Syria. The bombings killed 22 people.

Today, the Pentagon would not confirm whether it believes Russia carried out those airstrikes, only saying it would respond if necessary.

[16:20:05] But the State Department went further and indirectly did place blame.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MARK TONER, STATE DEPARTMENT SPOKESPERSON: We're pretty confident in our assessment that this was Russia that carried out these strikes.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: Russia has denied bombing of the hospitals. The cease-fire would be a pause in Syria's 5-year-old civil war and would allow humanitarian aid to bombarded areas.

Coming up, plans for saying good-bye to Justice Scalia being released. But questions swirling over his death by conspiracy theorists. The ranch owner whose comments sparked a series of odd comments explains what he meant.

And we are minutes away from President Obama's presser where he will talk about his plan for filling the vacancy that Scalia leaves behind and how he plans to get Republicans to allow a vote on the nominee.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

TAPPER: We're back with the politics lead.

Right now, you're looking at a podium, and in a matter of minutes, President Obama will undoubtedly respond from that podium to all the pushback from Republicans, candidates and members of Congress, who insist that it should be the next president who should be the one to fill the new Supreme Court vacancy, not the current president.

The death of Justice Antonin Scalia set off a political firestorm this weekend, along with the mourning.

[16:25:06] Republicans initially appeared to be in lock step saying that no nominee will even be heard, though there may be some cracks in that veneer of unanimous opposition.

In moments, president will no doubt take on his critics. He's holding a news conference after wrapping up a two-day retreat with the heads of 10 Southeast Asian nations.

CNN's Michelle Kosinski is traveling with President Obama. She is in Rancho Mirage, California.

Michelle, what do we expect to hear from the president when he comes and speaks and takes questions?

MICHELLE KOSINSKI, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Hi, Jake.

Yes, this is the first time he's going to take questions since this happened and he's going to want to emphasize points he made shortly after Scalia's death. I mean, he's going to say that, you know, he has this constitutional duty to choose a nominee, and by the same token, the Senate has a constitutional duty to give this person -- whomever it may be -- a fair shot.

Just yesterday we heard the White House make the same points but say, look, the constitution makes it very clear what needs to happen in the situation and they called that ironclad. But in these questions, this is where it could get interesting. I mean, we hear the president talk about how he feels about what's going on, where he is in the process, does he think there is a fair shot to be had right now, Jake.

TAPPER: All right. Michelle, stick around. We'll come back to you when the president comes out.

As we wait from the president today, we learned Justice Antonin Scalia will lie in repose at the Supreme Court, this coming Friday. His funeral will follow on Saturday, exactly one week after he was found dead in his bed on a hunting trip in Texas.

As several names are being floated as potential successors, today, Senator Chuck Grassley, who's chairman of the Senate judiciary committee which oversees confirmation hearings, Grassley said he is waiting to hear the president's nominee, who it is, before deciding whether or not to move forward with any hearings.

Let's bring in CNN justice correspondent Pamela Brown.

Pamela, a weird spot in which a potential nominee may find him or herself. The president picks you, but because Republicans don't want to replace Scalia with an Obama pick, especially not during an election year, you might not even get a hearing.

PAMELA BROWN, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Yes. And from what we can tell, Jake, that would be extremely unusual, to say the least. But both sides today continue to dig in their heels and this is no doubt just the beginning of what will be a very long fight. All of this, even before the justice is laid to rest.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BROWN (voice-over): Justice Antonin Scalia's seat on the Supreme Court sits draped in black, a reminder of the void the conservative giant has left behind.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: When the court gets back to business, his absence will be felt very strongly and perhaps no more so than in the courtroom where he was a larger than life figure.

BROWN: Scalia's death put President Obama on a collision course with Senate Republicans for the next Supreme Court nominee. Today, Republican Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley told Radio Iowa he has not made up his mind about whether there will be confirmation hearings for any potential candidate.

SEN. CHUCK GRASSLEY (R-IOWA), JUDICIARY COMMITTEE CHAIRMAN: I would wait until the nominee is made before I would make any decisions. In other words, take it a step at a time.

BROWN: Democratic leaders came out in full force to defend the president's position. Minority Leader Harry Reid warned in a scathing op-ed, Republicans risk being, quote, "remembered as most nakedly partisan, obstructionist and irresponsible majority in history." Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, also chimed in, firing off 11 tweets calling any vow to block President Obama's nominee as disgraceful.

Behind the scenes at the White House, the president's legal team is already whittling down a list of possible nominees, some names being mentioned by court watchers include D.C. Circuit Court Judges Sri Srinivasan, an Eighth Circuit Court Judge Jane Kelly, both unanimously approved by the Republican-led Senate. Also, Merrick Garland, chief judge of D.C.'s Court of Appeals and Paul Watford, an Obama appointee to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

The White House is expected to announce a nominee within a month.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BROWN: And some questions have been raised about Justice Scalia's death, in part, because there was no autopsy done, as requested by the family. And even though it was determined that he died of natural causes that didn't stop Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump from weighing in on the conspiracy theories. Take a listen.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I just landed and I'm hearing it's a big topic -- the big question. And it's a horrible topic but they say they found a pillow on his face which is a pretty unusual place to find a pillow.

I can't tell you what -- I can't give you an answer. You know, usually, I like to give you answers, but I literally just heard it a little while ago. It's just starting to come out now.

(END AUDIO CLIP)

BROWN: So, Donald Trump sort of fueling the fire there. But the owner of the ranch tells CNN that when he found Scalia. He looked like he had a restful night sleep. There was nothing out of the ordinary. We also spoke to a law enforcement official familiar with the situation. And we've learned that there were no signs of foul play in Justice Scalia's room and any conspiracy theories are baseless, bottom line.

TAPPER: Yes, the owner said that the pillow was on his head, up here, not on his face.

BROWN: Yes.

TAPPER: A little different.

BROWN: That's a big detail.

TAPPER: A little different. Yes.

Pamela Brown, thank you.