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THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER
Interview With Iowa Congressman Steve King; Closing Gitmo; Nevada Caucuses; Clinton & Sanders Battle in South Carolina. Aired 4- 4:30p ET
Aired February 23, 2016 - 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: Time for Republicans to show their cards in a state that knows all about high stakes.
THE LEAD starts right now.
It is decision day for Republicans in Nevada, and things are getting intense, with Donald Trump saying he'd like to punch a protester in the face, and Marco Rubio saying we're running out of time, it's no time for patience.
The Democrats' side, Spike Lee telling voters, do the right thing, get behind Bernie Sanders. Could he help crack the bond between Hillary Clinton and black voters with just four days to go until South Carolina and one week until Super Tuesday?
Plus, it's one of his biggest unfulfilled campaign promises, today President Obama giving Congress his plan to close the detainee center at Guantanamo Bay. We will ask the former head of the CIA if moving these terrorists is the safe play.
Hello, everyone. Welcome to a special edition of THE LEAD.
I'm Jake Tapper on what could be one of the most critical days in Republican Party history, a day that could literally turn the anti- establishment wing of that party into the new normal and make the Tea Party revolution look like a cup of Sanka, as Donald Trump goes for this third straight election win.
Tonight, in Nevada, a victory that could chart him on an unstoppable path to the nomination, could we be in for another night where the second and third finishers are somehow trying to give victory speeches, as Trump towers over both of them?
Our political reporters are out in the field tonight. Sunlen Serfaty is in Las Vegas, Jeff Zeleny with the Democrats in Columbia, South Carolina.
Sunlen, you have been covering the Cruz campaign, and Ted Cruz has been taking fire from every direction. How is he responding today?
SUNLEN SERFATY, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, he's trying to hold the line first, Jake, and then push back much more aggressively. Today, we saw Ted Cruz launch the most direct attack yet on Donald Trump's character, trying to stop his momentum going forward.
DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: But we have a big lead and we don't want to blow it.
SERFATY (voice-over): Donald Trump looking to extend his winning streak.
TRUMP: South Carolina, absolutely perfect, and hopefully by tonight we will all be together and we will say this one was absolutely perfect.
SERFATY: Eying a third win in a row to cement his front-runner status.
TRUMP: These other guys, they're all gone. You know what? They made their little speech this morning and they ran away. And you shouldn't be voting for people...
SERFATY: The brash billionaire not holding back in the final hours of campaigning in the Silver State, ratcheting up his rhetoric at a protester Monday night.
TRUMP: He's walking out like big high fives, smiling, laughing. Like to punch him in the face, I'll tell you.
SERFATY: Trump also laying into rival Ted Cruz.
TRUMP: This guy is sick. There's something wrong with this guy.
SERFATY: Cruz returning fire today, accusing Trump of lacking core principles.
SEN. TED CRUZ (R-TX), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I frankly don't care what position Donald decides to support today or tomorrow or the next day. They change every day. I don't care what they are. But pick one and defend it.
SERFATY: Cruz is also in a bruising battle for second with Marco Rubio, as the two freshman senators fight for the mantle of Trump alternative in the race.
Rubio today making the case that he's the candidate conservatives can coalesce behind.
SEN. MARCO RUBIO (R-FL), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: We cannot nominate someone who cannot win because they cannot unite us.
SERFATY: The Florida senator is leaving Nevada before the start of the caucuses, looking ahead to March contests, with stops tonight in Minnesota and Michigan.
RUBIO: I'm not waiting in line because there is no line for president. And we're running out of time. This is no time for patience. People have now realized, look, all right, he wasn't our first choice, but now he's our best choice.
SERFATY: Today, John Kasich's campaign indicating that they are switching up their strategy and are now going after their rivals, releasing a memo today calling Marco Rubio another teleprompter- dependent senator -- Jake.
TAPPER: Sunlen Serfaty, thanks.
It's a three-man race in Nevada, and joining me now, representatives of all three of those campaigns, Sam Clovis, national co-chair for the Trump campaign. Jason Roe is a senior adviser to Marco Rubio And with me in studio, Congressman Steve King of Iowa. He's Ted Cruz's national co-chair.
Mr. Clovis, let me start with you.
Mr. Trump has won the last two primaries, but he lost the previous caucuses in Iowa. He blamed this on not having a good ground game in that state. How is the ground game in Nevada? That's another caucus state.
SAM CLOVIS, DONALD TRUMP NATIONAL CAMPAIGN CO-CHAIR: Well, I think a lot of it depends on how much we have done. We have been out there a long time. We have got a lot of great people in there.
The demographics, the geography of the state are quite different from Iowa. I think a lot is going to be in the proof in the pudding tonight. I don't think anybody really knows how it's going to turn out. We have been polling well, and we will have to wait and see.
TAPPER: Congressman King, Donald Trump just said something about the candidate you support. I want to get your reaction. Let's take a listen.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
TRUMP: This guy Ted Cruz is the single biggest liar I have ever dealt with in my life. I mean it.
I have never seen -- he will lie about anything. And you meet some -- now, I have met much tougher people than Ted Cruz. He's like a baby compared to some of the people I have to do -- he's like a little baby, soft, weak, little baby, by comparison.
But for lying, he's the best I have ever seen. He's the best.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
TAPPER: Your reaction?
REP. STEVE KING (R), IOWA: There's your presidential demeanor of Donald Trump right there.
Now, can you imagine that giving the State of the Union address to the United States Congress or can you imagine that demeanor standing behind a podium with the great seal of the United States on it out in maybe the South Lawn or maybe in the East Room making a major foreign policy speech, that kind of demeanor, calling someone a liar when he knows full well that he's not?
And he's hurling accusations that come out the other two campaigns. I will say this. I know better. I think Sam Clovis knows better. I'm not sure about Jason.
TAPPER: Jason, I want to bring you in, in a second.
But, Sam, it just want to give you an opportunity to respond. Do you think that that is presidential demeanor?
CLOVIS: Well, I think it's the campaign right now.
And Steve King's a dear friend, and I don't -- I'm not going to argue with my buddy on national television. But I do think that Steve is not correct in this. I think that we have a pattern of behavior on his candidate's side that indicates that perhaps there are some character issues there as well.
So, before we start slinging accusations out here, let's take a look and do a little introspection.
TAPPER: All right, I will come back to that in a second, but I do want to bring Jason in.
Jason, Senator Rubio, he lived for some of his childhood in Nevada. He attended an LDS church during that period. Shouldn't he be able to win in that state?
JASON ROE, SENIOR MARCO RUBIO ADVISER: Well, we expect to do very well. And I think you're exactly right, Jake.
He is a former member of the Church of Latter Day Saints. Add to that that he grew up in the Las Vegas area for a period of his life. And Senator Dean Heller, Senator Orrin Hatch, the lieutenant governor, prominent political leaders who are Mormons as well, have come out in support of him. We feel very good about where we are and have very high expectations for how Marco will do tonight.
TAPPER: Sam, as we just heard, the establishment is lining up for Marco Rubio in a lot of ways. Is that a problem for Donald Trump or do you wear that as a badge of honor?
CLOVIS: No, I think it's a problem for Senator Cruz. I think that the math indicates to me that we're really looking at one of those two guys has to leave the stage in order for them to combat, be able to compete with -- I think that the issue is not Donald Trump, as I think it is between Senator Cruz and Senator Rubio.
I think they're going to have to sort that out. I do think that the establishment is coming in behind Senator Rubio. I think Senator Cruz is probably going to be caught in the squeeze here as we go forward.
TAPPER: Congressman, I want to ask you about what Sam Clovis was saying about Ted Cruz. And, specifically, Cruz, just yesterday, had to fire his communications director for putting forward a false video about Marco Rubio, suggesting he said something about the Bible that he never said.
Is this starting to become a problem for Ted Cruz, this -- whether or not you buy that it's true, this concept, this meme that is he untrustworthy?
KING: Well, I missed most of Sam's audio. My connection wasn't working. So, I have to guess what that is, Jake.
TAPPER: You probably have a good idea of what he said.
KING: Well, yes, a fair idea, I do.
As I said, I have been in the middle of the campaign for a long time, since the 16th of November. I have been on the bus for at least two weeks. I spent the better part of a week in South Carolina. I have watched Ted Cruz make decisions.
I understand what his principles are. I also understand political gamesmanship. And when I see what happened with Ben Carson in Iowa, if Ted Cruz made any mistake there, it was hearing from Ben Carson that he wanted an apology and then giving it to him, thinking Ben would accept it and that would be the end of it.
But if he made a mistake, that's it. Other than that, what came out of there was true. It was a reflection of what came out of the news. It wasn't embellished. And, by the way, speaking of how things get interpreted, I heard the press conference when Ted Cruz said that he had asked for the resignation of Rick Tyler, but it took five minutes for the news to report that he had fired him.
So, these semantic games go back and forth. And we have seen Donald Trump pile up, when it should have been something between Ben Carson and Ted Cruz. And, by the way, I went to visit Ben 50 hours after that happened. We got it straight. And I believe that Ted Cruz and Ben Carson could have gotten it straight, if it hadn't been for the interference of Donald Trump.
Now we're seeing Trump and Rubio ganging up on Cruz for the very reasons that we have heard from right now. They want to squeeze somebody out and then get it to be one-on-one. Look at the polling. Cruz beats Trump one-on-one in all the polling that I have seen.
TAPPER: I want to just bring in Jason Roe for one last thing. I do take issue with your characterization of CNN, but we don't have time for that right now.
Jason, doesn't Marco Rubio at some point need to win a state?
ROE: Well, yes, that's how you win the nomination. There's 54 primaries and caucuses amongst the states and the
territories. We have only had three so far. So, absolutely, Jake. We expect that we're going to start winning some. In the next week, we have got 14 that we're going to be competing in.
And I think you can see by any measure that the momentum is on the side of Marco Rubio. He's collecting endorsements from conservative leaders from around the country. And I really think he's the only candidate out there that can unify the conservative movement.
He was one of the original Tea Party leaders in 2010, when he ran against the establishment choice, Charlie Crist. He has a 98 percent conservative vote record with the American Conservative Union. And so for anyone out there that is looking at these candidates and can't decide, think about which of these conservatives can win. And that's Marco Rubio.
TAPPER: All right. Sam Clovis, Jason Roe, Congressman Steve King, thanks to one and all of you.
Stay with CNN for all of this week's big political events. Tonight, Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders taking questions from South Carolina voters in CNN's Democratic town hall that will be moderated by Chris Cuomo. That begins at 8:00 Eastern.
And then Thursday night, it's the CNN Republican presidential debate in Houston moderated by Wolf Blitzer. That begins at 8:30 Eastern. Tonight, I will say, after the town hall, we're going to have coverage of the Nevada Republican caucuses.
But before that, the town hall, will it have any impact on the race, South Carolina Saturday, Super Tuesday in one week?
And then closing a chapter in American history or moving dangerous terrorists to the homeland? What the candidates are saying about President Obama's plan to close Gitmo -- back after this.
[16:15:14] TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.
More in our political lead, Spike Lee's movies literally and figuratively tell his audiences to wake up. It's how he ended "School Days" in 1988.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Please, wake up.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
TAPPER: And that's how he started "Do The Right Thing."
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Wake up! Wake up, wake up, wake up. Up you wake, up you wake, up you wake. This is Mr. Senior Love Daddy, your voice of choice, the world's only 12-hour strong man --
(END VIDEO CLIP)
TAPPER: And now, Spike Lee's delivering the exact same message to voters of South Carolina on behalf of Senator Bernie Sanders whom he has endorsed.
(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)
SPIKE LEE, DIRECTOR: Wake up! Wake up, South Carolina! This is your dude, Spike Lee.
(END AUDIO CLIP)
TAPPER: Just four days to go until South Carolina's crucial Democratic primary, Sanders hopes the Spike Lee endorsement will make inroads in the African-American community where Hillary Clinton enjoys strong and long time support.
Tonight, Clinton and Sanders will each make their case to Democratic voters in the Palmetto State by answering questions in CNN's town hall, which begins at 8:00 Eastern.
CNN senior Washington correspondent Jeff Zeleny is in Columbia, South Carolina.
Jeff, it sounds as though the Clinton campaign isn't giving any ground in South Carolina.
JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: I mean, Jake, that's right. If you thought Hillary Clinton coming out of Nevada was going to take her foot off the gas, you'd be wrong. She's employing what we're calling the 3D strategy, to diminish Bernie Sanders has single issue candidate, to define Bernie Sanders as someone who has, quote, "pie in the sky proposals", and to finally defeat Bernie Sanders.
Bernie Sanders is feeling a little pressure this week as well. He's escalating his attacks against her. In a few moments, Jake, he sent out this e-mail to his supporters. He said, "It's no exaggeration to say this is the most important stretch of our campaign."
ZELENY (voice-over): The Clinton campaign leaving nothing for chance in South Carolina. From the walls of her campaign offices, to the message at her campaign rallies.
HILLARY CLINTON (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: If the numbers don't add up, it's wrong to make those promises.
ZELENY: Bernie Sanders is front and center on the minds of Clinton world. JACQUELINE DEBOSE, HILLARY CLINTON VOLUNTEER: Bernie is not the man.
Bernie was really running, he said, to push her to the left. OK, so he's done that.
ZELENY: But Jacqueline Debose is working the phones to bring this Democratic race to a close.
DEBOSE: If he was a wise man, he'd step away.
ZELENY (on camera): You think he should step away?
DEBOSE: I think he should step away, like she stepped away graciously when Obama got the nomination.
ZELENY (voice-over): But Sanders says he's just getting started.
SEN. BERNIE SANDERS (I-VT), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: They are getting very, very nervous.
All over this country and Virginia and everyplace else, we're taking on the entire political establishment.
ZELENY: In the fight for delegates Clinton and Sanders are nearly tied in pledge delegates her advantage, when you add in supporter from party leaders or superdelegates. On his way to South Carolina tonight, Sanders swung through Virginia, one of the Super Tuesday states he's eyeing.
SANDERS: You guys, you guys are getting me revved up here. It's going to be a long afternoon.
ZELENY: Sanders is stepping up his attacks on Clinton. And his supporters are following suit, including an endorsement and this radio ad from director Spike Lee.
LEE: Wake up! Wake up, South Carolina! This is your dude, Spike Lee, and I know that you know the system is rigged.
ZELENY: The Clinton campaign hopes to answer criticism with a strong win in Saturday's South Carolina primary, making an extra push for young African-American women.
MORGAN FREEMAN, ACTOR: She says their names, Trayvon Martin.
CLINTON: Trayvon Martin --
ZELENY: Those mothers whose children have been killed in gun violence are campaigning here for Clinton, drawing a contrast with Sanders' position on gun control.
ZELENY: And, Jake, you can count on that's exactly what she's going to do tonight as well. Gabby Giffords is out campaigning with her today. Why? Some 61 percent of the Democratic electorate are women, many of them are mothers, Jake. That's her target, target audience -- Jake.
TAPPER: All right. Jeff Zeleny in South Carolina, thanks.
Joining me now is Robby Mook, Hillary Clinton's campaign manager.
Robby, thanks for joining us. Welcome to THE LEAD.
In our CNN poll of polls, Clinton leads in South Carolina by 25 points, a commanding lead. And yet, she's there in the state every day, right up until Saturday. Meanwhile, Senator Sanders is already on the ground in some of the Super Tuesday states. Why is she still in South Carolina?
ROBBY MOOK, CAMPAIGN MANAGER, HILLARY FOR AMERICA: Well, as you know, when we started this campaign, Hillary said that we are not going to take a single vote for granted, that's why she fought hard in Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and now, South Carolina, and she's going to keep fighting for every single vote until the polls close.
[16:20:04] TAPPER: So, you know Spike Lee came out for Bernie Sanders today. Listen to some of the case he makes for Sanders in this radio ad playing in South Carolina.
(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)
LEE: Bernie takes no money from corporations. Nada. Which means he's not on the take. And when Bernie gets in the White House, he will do the right thing. No flipping, no flopping. Enough talk. Time for action.
(END AUDIO CLIP)
TAPPER: It seems to be suggesting that Hillary Clinton is on the take and that she does flipping and flopping.
MOOK: Well, it's interesting that Bernie Sanders says he doesn't take money from corporations because actually no federal candidate under law is allowed to take any money whatsoever from corporations. So, he's part of a very big club in that regard and Hillary Clinton doesn't take money from corporation either.
You know, it's interesting, Jeff was talking about the issue of guns and South Carolina, it's actually Bernie Sanders who voted five times against the Brady Bill, voted against universal background checks, voted for the Charleston loophole, voted to give immunity to gun makers. He's started to imply that may have been a mistake and he's changing his position.
So, I think he has some explaining to do as well about what his real position on guns is.
TAPPER: Robby, Hillary Clinton won in Nevada. She looks strong in South Carolina Saturday.
Let's look ahead. Will she run the table on Super Tuesday? What states do you think her must-win states?
MOOK: Well, this is a delegate battle, as you know, and so we're less focused on what state we might win or lose, and more on how many delegates we are winning. As you saw in Nevada, we pulled ahead in the pledged delegate race which we're proud of and expect that lead to grow as we go into Super Tuesday.
TAPPER: Robby, I want to ask you about the news just now of a new development in the e-mail case, judge in D.C. opening the door to future subpoenas for Clinton, for her longtime aide, Huma Abedin, looking to get a hold of personal e-mails that were not turned over to the State Department. Do you have any response to this news?
MOOK: Well, Jake, we all know that the right wing sees Hillary Clinton as the Democrats' best chance to hold on to the White House and continue to build on the progress that President Obama has made. That's why this right wing group filed this lawsuit.
Of course, they're trying to subpoena people. Of course, they're trying to get this into the news. And we're just --
TAPPER: But, Robby, this judge was appointed by Bill Clinton, I believe.
MOOK: Well, it's the judge's decision to make. My point is that this is promulgated by a right wing group. Our campaign is accustomed to right wing attacks and they're going to continue. Hillary's going to keep talking about issues that she hears about in South Carolina and other states like how we help people afford college, how we bring health care premiums down, how we help people afford prescription drugs.
So, we're going to stay focused on what Americans care about. Right wing is going to make their attacks. We're just going to stay focused.
TAPPER: All right. Robby, thanks so much. Good luck on Saturday.
MOOK: Thank you very much.
TAPPER: Let's bring a representative from Bernie Sanders' campaign, Tad Devine, is his senior media advisor.
So, Tad, thanks for being here.
Senator Sanders is in Virginia today, he was in Massachusetts yesterday. Why isn't he in South Carolina? Are you writing it off?
TAD DEVINE, SENIOR MEDIA ADVISER, BERNIE 2016: No, he's on his way there to do the CNN town hall meeting tonight in South Carolina.
DEVINE: We can't wait to get back.
TAPPER: But he hasn't been campaigning 24/7 in South Carolina. He's looking ahead.
DEVINE: That's right, because there's 12 contests in the next week, including South Carolina. It's a very important state. We'll be there tonight. We'll be tomorrow morning. We've been there a lot. We've got a great campaign on the ground and we're looking forward to competing for delegates in South Carolina.
TAPPER: So, I know you have this new ad, that you hope Spike Lee is able to reach African-American voters. It doesn't seem like he's moving the needle so much, Bernie Sanders, when it comes to black voters. Hillary Clinton won 76 percent of the black vote in Nevada, and South Carolina, it's 65 percent for Clinton, 28 percent for Sanders, among African-Americans in the recent poll. So, you are trailing with black voters by 40 points.
DEVINE: Yes --
TAPPER: Is the Clinton firewall holding up here?
DEVINE: Well, you know, I don't think so. Nevada, it was close race in Nevada, Robby Mook did a conference call saying they were 25 points ahead, we made it closer, down to five points, we won Latino voters in Nevada, I know there's question about the entrance poll. But everything that we saw, including our own tracking, said we were going to win Latino.
So, I think, you know, brick by brick, we'll take that firewall down. This is going to be a long process, Jake. This isn't going to end Saturday in South Carolina. It's not going to end next week in Super Tuesday.
We're going to go all the way through California. And I think once we go through this process and prove Bernie Sanders is our strongest candidate, I think we're going to win the nomination.
TAPPER: I want to ask you about Texas, because in one week, we'll be competing in the Texas primary.
Some of Clinton supporters have been talking about a push that Sanders made back in 1998 to dump nuclear waste from Vermont and Maine in a poor predominantly Hispanic community in Texas called Sierra Blanca. An article about this issue in the "Texas Observer" at the time was headlined "Sanders to Sierra Blanca: Drop Dead."
[16:25:00] Now, ultimately, this didn't happen because Texas pushed it and contested it.
TAPPER: But Clinton is saying, how does this push square with Sanders' reputation for standing up for the disenfranchised?
DEVINE: Well, listen, the only dump going on here is oppo dump, OK, right before the primary. Bernie Sanders has a very strong record of protecting people standing up for people, the way he stands up for them taking on powerful institutions and not taking money from them, OK? So, you know, he also has an extremely strong record on the environment.
Today, we started advertising in Colorado about the fact that Bernie Sanders and Bernie Sanders alone opposes fracking. Hillary Clinton put out an energy paper that said fracking's OK. Bernie believes if you want to take on climate change, you have to recognize that fracking is not for our future, that we need to get rid of it.
So, I think Bernie's record on issues like is very strong and, you know, oppo dumps are going to happen before a primaries, we get that.
TAPPER: All right. Tad Devine, thank you so much for being here. Appreciate it. Good luck on Saturday and also Super Tuesday. Appreciate it.
DEVINE: Thank you.
TAPPER: Coming up -- what's next? Growing calls for John Kasich and Ben Carson to drop out of the race. That is really going to happen anytime soon. And Senate Republicans throwing down the gauntlet, saying they will not even consider hearing from any Supreme Court nominee from President Obama. They won't even meet with a nominee.
Stay with us.