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THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER

Lingering Doubt Over Cease-Fire In Syria Between U.S. And Russia; Several Tornado Warnings Between Virginia To Carolinas; Possible Tornadoes Blamed For Two Deaths In Virginia; Can Donald Trump Be Stopped?. Aired 4:30-5p ET

Aired February 24, 2016 - 16:30   ET

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


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[16:33:10]

JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: Welcome back to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper, coming to you live from Houston, Texas.

If you see and hear stuff going on behind me, it's because they're rehearsing for the big Republican debate tomorrow. They're blocking. They have candidates -- stand-ins for candidates, testing the microphones, testing the lighting, making sure everything will be perfect for you when you tune in tomorrow night.

Let's turn to our world lead now, lingering doubt over a cease-fire agreement in Syria between the United States and Russia, officials telling CNN that the Pentagon is considering a plan B in case the truce fails.

The Pentagon is growingly suspicious of Moscow's motives. That's because, while pursuing the agreement, Russia has also been stepping up airstrikes in Syria, gaining key ground within the war-torn country. Still no word yet on what the plan B would look like.

But let's talk about it with Admiral James Stavridis, the former supreme allied commander of NATO, currently dean of the Fletcher School at Tufts University.

Admiral, good to see you again. Thanks so much for being here.

The U.S. and Russia agreed to a temporary cease-fire in Syria, which is supposed to take effect this weekend. Now, the cease-fire does not include ISIS or the al-Nusra Front, which has affiliation with al Qaeda.

So, in reality, without those terrorist groups involved, how important or effective could this truce be?

ADM. JAMES STAVRIDIS (RET.), FORMER NATO SUPREME ALLIED COMMANDER: I think, unfortunately, Jake, it's neither one.

It has, I suppose, a minor symbolic value, but, in reality, when the major players here, the United States and Russia, Iran and Saudi Arabia, are at opposite sides, it's highly unlikely we are going to get this thing to take at this point.

TAPPER: Do you believe, Admiral, that the Russians will uphold their end of the bargain? And, if not, as the Pentagon is discussing a plan B, what might that look like for the U.S.?

[16:35:00]

STAVRIDIS: I am not confident that Russia will hold their end of bargain, because they haven't held their end of the bargain, for example, in Ukraine over the last year or so. Highly unlikely they will do so here in Syria.

I think they will continue to strike against the moderate opposition. Why? Because they're supporting Assad. So, plan B, I think, is a campaign without Russia, and I think it probably at some point has a no-fly zone in a safe area that we can really build out a moderate opposition.

It's probably going to include Jordan, perhaps Jordanian ground troops. I'm sure that was a conversation with the president and the king today. And it will include a lot of work, Jake, coming from Iraq over into Syria.

So it's going to be a complicated and messy campaign. Let's hope we can get the Russians on side, but I'm not confident.

TAPPER: Let's turn from ISIS in Syria and Iraq to ISIS in Libya. As you know, U.S. airstrikes took out an ISIS training camp in Libya Friday and they killed a top operative, according to the Pentagon.

But the so-called Islamic State, ISIS, it's growing its ranks there, with more than 6,000 fighters. How can the U.S. slow the expansion of ISIS across the Middle East and Africa?

STAVRIDIS: Jake, I think there's a short game, which is hard power. We're going to have to use that. We're using it pretty effectively in Iraq, in Syria, in Raqqa against the Islamic State.

I think the first strike that you saw in Libya will not be the last strike in Libya. So there's a hard power short-game component. Medium term, we have got to go after their financing, and the long game is going against their recruiting efforts, their proselytizing, using strategic communications to try and shift this dialogue.

And that really entails partnering with the Arab world, again, back to the conversations today between the king and the president. That's the long game, but you're going to need all three, from hard power to soft power, to get this thing done.

TAPPER: President Obama announced plans yesterday to close the detention center at Guantanamo Bay. He said it does not advance our national security, it serves as a recruiting tool for terrorism. Republicans say that these are the worst of the worst. They should not be housed on American soil.

You were in charge of U.S. Southern Command, which was responsible for Gitmo. You were in charge from 2006 to 2009. What do you think of the president's plan? Is it a mistake? Do you agree with it?

STAVRIDIS: Well, first of all, I think we all want to close Gitmo. There's no real debate about that.

But I think, over the long term, the question is, have we done the detailed work to come up with a plan that will take this last 100 detainees? And these really are the worst of the worst. Let's remember, we started with 800 detainees there. We're down to about 100. These are people like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who personally decapitated journalist Danny Pearl.

So I think we need a much better and much more coherently thought-out plan than was presented by the administration today. That's what Senator McCain is saying, and I think I stand with him on this one. Let's figure out a way eventually to close it, but let's have a better plan than what we have seen so far.

TAPPER: Admiral James Stavridis, it's always good to have you on the show. Thanks so much for coming on.

STAVRIDIS: Thanks a lot, Jake.

TAPPER: Breaking news: sirens going off in North Carolina and Virginia, tornado warnings, and lots of them. And these twisters could be headed right towards the nation's capital -- more on these potentially deadly storms right after this quick break.

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[16:42:54]

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

TAPPER: We have some breaking weather news for you now. We have several tornado warnings right now stretching from the Carolinas up into the Commonwealth of Virginia. Let's show you some live images from Waverly, Virginia, where there are reports of a tornado that touched down and caused damage.

Let's go to meteorologist Tom Sater. He's in the CNN Severe Weather Center.

Tom, what can you tell us?

TOM SATER, CNN METEOROLOGIST: Jake, Waverly, Virginia, is about 40 miles south of Richmond, Virginia.

And we have confirmed two fatalities and possibly a third, as authorities are working hectically to try to figure this out. It's an unconfirmed report. But by looking at the damage, most likely, that has occurred.

This is a very unusual February event, where after three fatalities late yesterday in the Deep South, tornado watches are now in effect from central areas of North Carolina all the way up into areas of Virginia, including Washington, D.C., area, also over toward areas of Philadelphia.

So, to have tornado watches this far north is extreme. Already, we have seen numerous tornado warnings in the last hour-and-a-half. We have got about six of them now moving into the Raleigh-Durham area, moving in toward Richmond. And it won't be long until they move in toward the D.C.-Baltimore region as well.

The Waverly, Virginia, tornado, which, again, 40 miles south of Richmond or 60 from Virginia Beach, has moved so fast, at 60 miles per hour, it has already made its way near the Bay Bridge. So, again, if the winds aloft get down to the surface, even without tornadoes, Jake, there's going to be a lot of damage with this, so, again, an extreme situation.

I mean, sure, there's blizzard conditions right now from Chicago to Detroit, but when it comes to life-threatening weather, this is where we're going to find it. Numerous tornadoes confirmed on radar or unconfirmed will most likely be confirmed as damage reports will start filtering in.

And, again, we're going to watch this line move to the east-northeast, but the individual storms, Jake, are moving at 55 to 65 miles per hour, so a life-threatening event moving into Washington, Baltimore, Philadelphia.

The storms will reach New York City a little bit later, but they should not have the severe elements, such as isolated tornadoes, but, still, some pretty damaging winds will be associated with these.

[16:45:02] TAPPER: And, Tom, how long do you anticipate this tornado threat will last this evening?

SATER: Well, I think it's going to go on for at least a couple more hours. We could see this going into maybe 7:00. Again, as it makes its way northward into the cooler air, I think we're going to lose the elements needed for the tornadoes, but the event continues back to the north.

Look at the great lakes getting buried. In fact several inches expected there. But as far as the tornadoes, again, from Raleigh, D.C., Baltimore up towards just south of New York, probably until 7:00, maybe 7:30, possibly 8:00 tonight. They're moving very fast -- Jake.

TAPPER: All right. Two fatalities already confirmed. Tragic. Tom Sater, thank you so much.

It's the Republican establishment's worst nightmare. Donald Trump looking as if he is the prohibitive nominee. So will they ever actually rally around him? That story next.

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TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD. We're live from Houston where they're preparing for tomorrow night's Republican debate. [16:50:00]If you are a Republican and you don't want Donald Trump to be your party's standard bearer in the general election, if you happen to think that he is a pox on your own house, well, speak now or forever hold your piece because Trump just won Nevada and Super Tuesday is on the horizon.

He looks like the inevitable nominee, quite frankly. Joining me now to talk about the nominating race, CNN political commentators, S.E. Cupp and Ana Navarro.

S.E., let me start with you. Are you ready for Nominee Donald Trump?

S.E. CUPP, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: You know, I think I have accepted that Donald Trump could be the nominee. I still don't believe that he could become the president.

TAPPER: Why not?

CUPP: Well, he's got the highest unfavorables in Gallup polling history of any political figure on either side. That leads me to believe that he would have a really tough time in a general election.

Now, Hillary Clinton's unfavorables are high as well but not as high as Donald Trump's. So, look, I've been saying for months that the damage that Donald Trump has done and will continue to do to the Republican Party is lasting and serious.

If he wins the nomination, it's increasingly looking like he could, that's going to take a long time to undo a lot of the damage that he's done this cycle.

TAPPER: Ana, do you agree with that? A Trump person might say damage? He's getting people excited. We have record turnout in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada. What damage is he doing? He's bringing in a whole bunch of people that are going to help Republicans win the election?

ANA NAVARRO, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: I actually think both things are true. They're not mutually exclusive. I've got to tell you, I'm slowly and begrudgingly moving from denial to grief at this point. I don't think he can be elected president.

Maybe the answer for me is that I believe in God, there is a God and he loves America and I just cannot imagine that Donald Trump could be the nominee or the president of the United States.

TAPPER: So you're saying God would support Hillary Clinton? Am I misunderstanding that?

NAVARRO: How about the Sandernista in the race?

TAPPER: You were a big supporter, a very loyal supporter of Governor Jeb Bush, who dropped out of the race. You just got off a phone call that he had with supporters. What did he have to say? Is there any idea that he's encouraging people to support his former protege, Marco Rubio? NAVARRO: He said exactly what I expected him to say which was a very sincere, heartfelt, thank you. I remember when Jeb lost the election for governor in 1994, it was a difficult experience. Losing an election is always difficult.

I can tell you as a supporter, I feel like I'm sitting political shiver. Right now, I need a few days to recover. I think for him it's even much more so.

No, what he did say was that he hoped to make a difference now in the private sector and that he hopes a conservative gets elected to the presidency of the United States.

TAPPER: S.E., "The New York Times" today is pointing out how Marco Rubio's campaign is starting to resemble what Jeb Bush's campaign looked like in terms of the endorsements.

CUPP: Yes.

TAPPER: Donors coming around, an air of inevitability. That campaign strategy didn't really work for Bush.

CUPP: Right.

TAPPER: Are you worried about Marco Rubio adopting it?

CUPP: Look, Marco Rubio has been campaigning as the candidate who can win, and certainly among Republican voters, he polls the highest. He is like Ted Cruz, like John Kasich, trying to be the last guy not named Trump standing to take on Trump in a two-man race.

I think he's positioned very well to do that. Recent polling in Virginia, for example, has Rubio creeping up to Trump. Rubio just won millennials in Nevada, the only age voting block that Trump did not win. Here on college campuses, I see a lot of enthusiasm for Marco Rubio.

TAPPER: You guys sound like -- I'm a loyal Philadelphia Phillies fans. You guys sound like Phillies fans. You're trying to figure out a way that you're going to make your way to the World Series. You don't have any pitchers.

NAVARRO: Look, it's difficult, right? It's difficult when you have yet to win one state. I think it's very important for Marco to win at least one state next week on Super Tuesday and winning Florida on March 15th is that much more important.

CUPP: For sure.

NAVARRO: Equally for Ted Cruz to win in Texas. If Donald Trump thumps them in their respective state, I think it's -- you know, it's Donald Trump or bust at that point.

TAPPER: Tuesday night I want you to know I'm going to have bottles of bourbon in my office if you need them.

NAVARRO: Can we have them on air? I know it's lent --

TAPPER: That sounds like good ratings.

NAVARRO: At this point we are in a special period.

TAPPER: I'll get some margaritas as well. I know you're a big fan.

When we come back, we'll have much more from the debate stage here and a reminder, of course, be sure to tune into CNN tomorrow night. It will be the last time that the Republican candidates face off in a debate before the all-important Super Tuesday and it all starts at 8:30 p.m. Eastern only here on CNN.

[16:55:03]That is it for THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper. I turn you over to Brianna Keilar in "THE SITUATION ROOM." We'll take a quick break. Back after this.

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BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN GUEST ANCHOR: Happening now, Trump stakes. A dominating third straight win has republicans wondering if Donald Trump is firmly on the path to the Republican nomination. Can his rivals say anything to slow his momentum during CNN's upcoming high- stakes debate?

Cruz's warning. Home in Texas and invoking the alamo, embattled Senator Ted Cruz turns up the rhetoric, telling voters the time for clowns is past.

Supreme fight. President Obama jabs back at senators for refusing to consider anyone that he nominates to the Supreme Court. Tonight an intriguing new twist. Could he nominate a Republican?