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THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER

Romney, Trump Spar Over Future of Republican Party; U.N. Imposes New Sanctions On Kim Jong-Un's Regime; CNN Series On Campaign Schemes And Tricks. Aired 4:30-5p ET

Aired March 3, 2016 - 16:30   ET

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


BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: He really sort of turned that around on her, targeting her husband, back when he was just starting to get on the campaign trail, and it effectively undercut him.

[16:30:02] He really had to kind of stay away from rope lines, he wasn't talking to reporters as much, he wasn't able to be that effective surrogate that he was trying to be.

Donald Trump really sort of I think wounded that strategy.

JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: Yes, no, it's interesting and it stopped Hillary Clinton from criticizing him as strongly on that front.

KEILAR: Right.

TAPPER: It's going to be an ugly showdown.

KEILAR: Oh, yes.

TAPPER: Brianna Keilar, thanks so much.

A reminder that you can see Clinton and Sanders face off in the next Democratic debate live from Flint, Michigan. That's this Sunday night at 8:00 Eastern, right here on CNN.

Sticking with our politics lead in a presidential race already defined by firsts, Mitt Romney's stinging rebuke of Donald Trump is something out of this world. But who benefits from it and could it actually back fire on Romney? Our political panel will break it down, next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:35:07] TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD.

The world awoke to another round of headlines about Hillary Clinton's e-mail server and yet all of it was overshadowed by the Republican civil war over Donald Trump.

Joining me now to talk about it all, CNN political commentator, S.E. Cupp, former George W. Bush advisor and co-host of "The Circus" on Showtime, Mark McKinnon, and Democratic strategist Steve McMahon.

Thanks so much for joining me. S.E., your response to Mitt Romney's speech today.

S.E. CUPP, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, look, let me say -- Mitt Romney is a very good man. I think he cares deeply about the country, about the Republican Party, about the conservative movement.

TAPPER: There's a "but" coming here.

CUPP: I share his frustration. I share his frustration with the faithful.

TAPPER: Get to the but.

CUPP: However, I thought that his prescription today was wrong and, frankly, a little offensive.

This is how democracy works. We in the media sadly don't get to pick a president. You know, we don't have king makers. And when the people choose a person that you don't like, I don't think that the prescription is to try to rig another outcome.

I also don't think that appealing on strategy is how we're going to change hearts and minds. This isn't about strategy. This is about the soul of the conservative movement, the Republican Party and the country. And I don't think that that message to find a strategy to sort of wriggle around a Trump nomination, I don't think that's how you get people out to vote for Rubio or Cruz or Kasich.

TAPPER: Now, Mark, what's interesting about the Romney prescription of everybody stay in the race and just try -- everybody go to the state where you can beat Trump and then we'll force a contested convention, people did talk about it. It didn't get as much attention as 2012.

In fact, here's Marco Rubio talking about the possibility of a contested convention in 2012.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. MARCO RUBIO (R-FL), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: They have said the only way they can win is a floor fight in Tampa. I think that would be the worse possible thing we could do in terms of winning in November.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: Now, the Rubio team has a different view and they say it's different because Donald Trump in their view is such a horrific character. But what do you think of all this?

MARK MCKINNON, FORMER CAMPAIGN ADVISER TO GEORGE W. BUSH: Well, first of all, I think that Romney's speech today is not going to change a single vote. If anything, it will probably harden the support that Trump supporters have because it's just another example of the establishment that all the supporters are against circling the wagons. And any time a presidential campaign you hear people talking about a contested convention, that means that people are running out of options, right?

TAPPER: Yes.

MCKINNON: And so, we had a funny meeting last night that will be on the show Sunday where we found the establishment and took them out to a restaurant last night. And the six of them who are there now left.

There's no clear consensus at all from the establishment about what to do. All six had a different idea. So, there's no -- this is 52-card pickup time. You know, there's no clear lane out of here.

TAPPER: Steve, I've got to say I know there are a lot of Democrats out there licking their chops at the prospect of a Trump nomination. They think he'd be easy to bet. But there are also a lot of Democrats who are really, really worried about this FBI investigation and what it might mean. What do you think?

STEVE MCMAHON, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: Well, I mean I think obviously the FBI investigation is a serious matter. Depending upon what they find or perhaps importantly what they don't find, this thing is going to get resolved one way or another, hopefully soon.

I think the fact that the e-mails weren't classified at the time they were received and sent and the fact that others have done this before her is pretty persuasive to most voters. They haven't abandoned Hillary Clinton at all in the primaries. Bernie Sanders is running against her. Even though he says he's tired of hearing about her damn e-mails, voters are making their own judgment and reaching their own conclusion.

So, I don't think it's nearly the problem on our side that the Republicans have on theirs. And, you know, frankly as a Democrat, you're right, there are a lot of Democrats who are enjoying watching it, even as we watch some of our friends squirm.

TAPPER: So, here's the big question. For the Republican establishment what is the best case scenario if they don't want Donald Trump to be the nominee.

S.E., Mark, Steve, stick around. You'll answer that when we come back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:43:08] TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD.

I'm joined again by our political panel, CNN political commentator, S.E. Cupp, former George W. Bush advisor and co-host of "The Circus" on Showtime, Mark McKinnon, and Democratic strategist Steve McMahon.

S.E., you do not want Donald Trump to be your nominee. What is your best hope?

CUPP: I mean, I guess the best hope is that either Cruz, or Kasich, or Rubio would somehow, you know, find a way to the nomination.

TAPPER: On the back of a unicorn?

CUPP: I mean, I know.

(LAUGHTER)

CUPP: I've surrendered. I've waved the white flag.

What I don't understand though, Jake, and, you know this better than anyone, you know, we were able to find all of Romney's Bain victims, right?

TAPPER: Yes.

CUPP: We were able to find Carly Fiorina's HP victims. Where are the victims of Trump University and Trump mortgage? You know this guy has got to have --

TAPPER: Rubio has some ads out there.

CUPP: -- a wake of carnage.

TAPPER: Yes.

CUPP: I just don't know why that hasn't been more of a story to put a face to the policies that Trump would have in the White House.

TAPPER: Mark, there are some Republicans like Bill Bennett and others who are starting to say, look, this can be the way that we can win the White House, with Donald Trump. We've been trying to get white working class voters to join our party more.

Take a look at some of the turnout numbers for Democrats and Republicans this primary cycle so far. First, look at how many more Republicans have voted in early contests than Democrats. I mean, that's a lot more, 5 million to 2.6 million. And on Super Tuesday, Republican turnout was up compared to 2008, while Democratic turnout dropped.

I guess the question is, isn't there an upside, Republicans can win the White House? Theoretically with Trump, that's his argument if you look at these numbers.

MCKINNON: I tell my Democratic friends, beware of what you wish for. It's not until you go to a Trump rally that you really can see it, because it's not just what you typically might think would be Trump voters, but it's young people, lots of millennials out there. But also a whole lot of white, blue collar men. It's definitely the Reagan Democrat coalition. You think about the options that they are going to have, Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump, there's a lot looking at Trump.

CUPP: A lot of labor. He pulls from a lot of different coalition.

TAPPER: Donald Trump, when I asked him about the need and the old way of looking at election math, the need for Republicans to win at least 30 percent of the minority vote. Something that George W. Bush was able to do with the support of Latinos, and Trump's answer was, in addition to the fact that he will get some more minority vote than people think was that he's going to make states like Michigan, Pennsylvania, Ohio competitive, Steve. Are you at all worried about that?

MCMAHON: I think any smart Democrat would listen to Mark McKinnon's advice and be worried about it. There's no question that the core of the sanders' message is very similar to the core of the Trump message, which is you're not getting what you deserve. The money that you work so hard is being taken.

The villain is in a different place. For Trump it's overseas and Mexico, but for Sanders, it's Wall Street, but the core of the argument is the same. And Bill Clinton understands that Donald Trump would not be an easy general election opponent.

Democrats who have watched the partisanship in this country had seen the last three presidential campaigns or more know that this thing is going to be very close either way.

And he is unpredictable, which makes him actually harder to run against because he'll say and do things that you can only imagine and even after you imagine them, you think nobody would say or do those things and he does.

TAPPER: And it helps them.

MCMAHON: Well, usually, but so far it's helped him with some. But the general election is going to be I think a little more challenging in that respect.

TAPPER: Do you think, Mark, that as Mitt Romney said today the interview that I had with Trump on Sunday in which he struggled to condemn the KKK, although he has subsequently done so, do you think that that that's going to be replayed by Democrats over and over and over?

MCKINNON: Yes, to some extent, although I think that thanks to your show I think that message got out pretty widely.

CUPP: Don't waste the money.

MCKINNON: I think most Americans have heard that message to the extent that it bothers people, it's kind of baked into it. So, you know, I think there are greater issues. I think her general election framing about how she came out and talked about the barriers, that's kind of the right direction for her to go.

So I mean, I think that they're heading in the right direction. But, you know, as Steve said, Bill Clinton has got everybody on alert, which is a smart thing.

MCMAHON: He gets it.

TAPPER: All right, S.E., Mark, Steve, thanks so much. Great job, appreciate it.

Turning to our World Lead now, North Korea defiantly test firing six short-range missiles off the Korean peninsula according to South Korea. The provocative act coming just hours after the United Nations imposed tough new sanctions against Kim Jong-Un's regime for its recent nuclear test and missile launch.

Let's get right to CNN's chief national security correspondent, Jim Sciutto. Jim, what do U.S. intelligence officials believe the main purpose would be of firing these missiles?

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Well, the timing with North Korea is always telling, coming a day after the U.N. votes unanimously, the Security Council, to impose these sanctions. There's virtual certainty that they're connected.

Now the missiles that they fired. They're short range. They are not ICBMs, not intercontinental ballistic missiles, not like the space rocket that was fired last month so not the things that are typically banned under U.N. Security Council resolutions, but still provocative.

Keep in mind they fired them in effect in the direction of South Korea over the sea and South Korea extremely nervous about this. They say North Korea is the greatest threat to security in Asia today.

TAPPER: And what is the focus, Jim, of these new sanctions?

SCIUTTO: So it's important because these are directed here, directed specifically at North Korea's weapons programs. They're directed at rocket fuel, at jet fuel. They're also banning North Korea from shipping out of the country selling any of its national -- natural resources, which are a key source of funding for its weapons program.

So they're going right after what backs their weapons programs here. Listen to what Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., had to say.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SAMANTHA POWERS, U.S. AMBASSADOR TO UNITED NATIONS: We fully anticipate that they will try to drive a truck through any loophole that they find. But this resolution is so comprehensive, there are so many provisions that leave no gap, no window.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SCIUTTO: So the question now really is does China enforce these new sanctions? Does it stop North Korea from in effect driving that truck through any holes left here? But I will say this, Jake. These sanctions were the result of weeks of negotiations between particularly the U.S. and China.

That's a rare victory of sorts, so to speak, and China certainly alarmed now to a greater degree than it has been for some time about North Korea. If they enforce these sanctions, it's possible it could make a difference. TAPPER: Jim Sciutto, thanks so much.

Closed door meetings, calculated moves, dirty tricks, but we're not talking about the 2016 race. A darker look at the darker side of politics that's been around for generations. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:54:36]

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: Joining me now from Capitol Hill, CNN's chief congressional correspondent, Dana Bash. Dana, what is the mood at the capitol?

DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Jake, we already have several senators publicly saying that they're going to vote against --

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: How about that for a little throwback Thursday. That's THE LEAD in the middle of all the suspense on "House of Cards" last season. Netflix is dropping Season 4 at 3 a.m. Eastern tomorrow or midnight Pacific.

[16:55:00]Tonight, the plot behind this drama and others like it are not farfetched. Later this week, CNN will debut its own series called "Race for the White House" narrated by "House of Cards" star, Kevin Spacey.

This one documents real life, America's twisted history of dirty trick and calculated political moves in politics. Case in point, attempts to hide sensitive and possibly disqualifying information that could have derailed John F. Kennedy's chances of getting elected.

(VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: Joining me now, Evan Thomas, a Nixon biographer who appears in the CNN series and author of "Being Nixon, A Man Divided." Evan, thanks so much for joining us.

Before we start on the series, I want to get your take on today, Mitt Romney's speech, the 2012 nominee, attacking the current frontrunner, essentially urging a strategy to force a contested convention. This seems unprecedented. Is it?

EVAN THOMAS, AUTHOR, "BEING NIXON: A MAN DIVIDED": It's a crazy election. I mean, the conventional wisdom already seems to be that it's going to help Trump. It's just the dying gasp of the establishment, but you don't know. It could be the moment that the Trump bandwagon does start to have problems.

There has to be a lot of skeletons in Trump's closet from his tax returns to his business records. Maybe over time those will come out and slow the bandwagon but the opposite could also be true. That the populist fervor behind Trump is so strong that it actually helps him to be denounced by the former Republican candidate for president.

TAPPER: It's quite a time. Now let's talk about this episode that you're in that documents the attempts to hide Senator Kennedy's health problems from taxes to speeches to clean bill of health reports. Does that cover-up sound familiar to what's going on with some of the things you just referred to?

THOMAS: Well, maybe, but here's the difference. In 1960, you could get away with it. The Kennedy folks could lie all they wanted about Kennedy's health and get away with it.

Today you couldn't because of cable TV, because of the internet, because of people like you, you just couldn't get away with it.

So if JFK was running today, I don't think he could make it. He would be exposed for having an almost fatal disease.

TAPPER: Not to mention some of the other things that he participated in. Racial politics are a big part of the conversation this year especially this week. They played a role in 1960, of course. John F. Kennedy calling Coretta Scott King when Martin Luther King was thrown in jail. That call worried Bobby Kennedy, why?

THOMAS: Bobby Kennedy was worried that it would offend white voters in the south. In those days, the Democratic Party, the solid south was Democratic. He was afraid that if Kennedy reached out to Mrs. King, that would offend white voters. The optics would be bad.

But Bobby Kennedy is a smart guy. He also over time realized that this would help with black voters, particularly in the north. Black voters couldn't vote in the south in those days.

But in the north they could vote and they did vote for JFK so this actually was politically advantageous but at first they didn't realize. Sometimes these decisive moments happen and you don't know that they're decisive and don't know that they're helping you until you finding out later that it really did.

TAPPER: You just referred to about how you could get away with things in 1960 that you can't get away with today. From rallies to diner visits, the media and people who are self-appointed blogger media types, they cover practically every move of a 2016 candidate different than 1960. Do you think there's still a lot going on that we don't see?

THOMAS: I'm sure there is. I was in journalism long enough to know there's things they cover up that we don't see. Historians find about this many, many years later if at all.

Frankly, we still don't really know what happened in the 1960 election. There's a lot of allegations of voter fraud in Illinois that allegedly won the election for Kennedy. We don't really know what happened all these years later. We'll probably really not know what happened in this election for a long, long time.

TAPPER: You know, it's funny, I've talked to Mayor Daley's son, the former secretary of commerce about the allegations against his father for stealing the election for Kennedy and he suggested there were also people in Illinois stealing the election for Nixon just in a different part of the state.

TAPPER: That's true. I think there were more people trying to steal the election for Kennedy in Chicago than they were trying to steal the election for Nixon downstate. But he has a point, there was vote stealing going on all over.

TAPPER: All right, Evan Thomas, thank you so much. You can see the CNN original series "Race for the White House" this Sunday night at 10:00 Eastern right after the CNN Democratic presidential debate in Flint, Michigan.

That's it for THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper, turning you over to Wolf Blitzer in "THE SITUATION ROOM." Thanks for watching.