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THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER

Romney: I'm Voting for Ted Cruz; Obama Taking Trump Bid Seriously; Sanders: If I Drop Out, It Would Be "Outrageously Undemocratic"; Is Lindsey Graham First Of Wave To Back Trump?; The Wonder List Tours Cuba Prior To Obama Visit. Aired 4:30-5p ET

Aired March 18, 2016 - 16:30   ET

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


JIM SCIUTTO, CNN ANCHOR: Bill, maybe I can start with you. So, he says -- Romney says he's going to vote for Ted Cruz in the Utah caucuses.

[16:30:04] In effect it sounds like strategic voting. Not an expression of support but really the only path forward is a brokered convention. Is that a good strategy?

BILL KRISTOL, THE WEEKLY STANDARD: Yes. I think he's saying he prefers Ted Cruz to Donald Trump, which I think is a very reasonable position to take.

And I admire Mitt Romney for stepping up. He didn't have to do this. A lot of the professional types here in Washington are, oh, he didn't -- he shouldn't -- he's not the good face for the anti-Trump effort.

It's all nonsense. He's one of the few national Republican politicians who's had the nerve to say it should not be Donald Trump. I'm willing to give a speech explaining why not. I'm willing to say I will vote for Ted Cruz, although he certainly wasn't Mitt Romney's first choice among this field, you know? So, I admire Romney for what he's doing.

SCIUTTO: Mary Katharine Ham, let me ask you, because there's often this talk about strategic voting, right, to sort of support one candidate to the other. It doesn't always work. I mean, it's obviously Right now it's just about keeping Donald Trump below that threshold, majority threshold. Is this a workable strategy to bring about this brokered convention?

MARY KATHARINE HAM, SENIOR WRITER, THE FEDERALIST: I think in general strategic voting can be in danger of being a little too clever by half. But as we've seen, many different things can happen in 2016 and this can be one of them. I think for Mitt Romney's part, first of all, I think a tweet storm from Donald Trump is exactly what our founders envisioned for this country. It's a beautiful thing. It's tremendous.

SCIUTTO: Explicit references in the constitution.

HAM: Right. But for Mitt Romney's part, I appreciate him speaking out. I do wonder sometimes like had he come out and endorsed sort of pre-Nevada caucus for instance before the momentum had really taken off, maybe that would have made a bigger difference. But many are guilty of ill-timed criticisms of Donald Trump in this race.

SCIUTTO: Hilary Rosen, I got a quote from Romney's statement. This is what he said about Donald Trump, "Through his calculated statements of its leader, Trumpisms has become associated with racism, misogyny, bigotry," stay with me here, "xenophobia, vulgarity and most recently threats and violence." This, of course, this idea that if he's not the nominee, that you're going to have --

HILARY ROSEN, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: All those things that Mitt Romney spoke out against when he was running for president. Not.

SCIUTTO: Well, there you go. But talk about it from the Democratic side as you watch this battle heat up. Is that only good for the Democratic candidate in the general election?

ROSEN: Well, you know, I'll leave it to these guys whether or not he's a spokesperson who can get Republicans excited as an alternative to Trump. Strategically, going for Cruz is actually the only way you get to a brokered convention right now. So, if that's the goal, then that's what they're going to do.

But, you know, I think that he is a flawed national spokesperson for this. On the other hand, no other Republican elected official -- I mean, Romney has nothing to lose. That's why he's doing this. He's like, nobody else will do it, I might as well do it.

None of these other people want to be the victim of the Trump attacks.

HAM: He also has -- I'm sorry. He also has what very few have which is the power to control a media news cycle. And that's Donald Trump's perhaps most powerful asset.

SCIUTTO: He knows when he says it will get out there.

HAM: It will get attention.

SCIUTTO: But, Bill, you and I were talking earlier.

ROSEN: But there are other leaders. Sorry, you know, Mitch McConnell could do this, Paul Ryan could do this. There are other leaders in the party, but they're all afraid to do it.

SCIUTTO: So, let's talk about another, because, Bill, you and I were talking about this before the show, a third party, you know, getting a third party candidate out there. I asked you to give a possibility for who might fill that road and you said Mitt Romney. Is he setting himself up for that?

KRISTOL: He will be an independent candidate, I think it's doable, the mechanics are doable. I'm looking to this a little bit. It's a little bit of a challenge.

But the question is who would be -- we can all invent a million different candidates but someone has to step forward. Romney is not perfect in all kinds of ways, but despite Hilary's -- she couldn't resist the cheap shot. He is a decent and honorable man. I think people on both sides

acknowledge that. He's a serious person. If you're a moderate or conservative, he would be an acceptable president of the United States. In that respect, Romney or Paul Ryan I would say are the obvious men to step forth and try to save the honor of the Republican Party and conservative movement from Donald Trump.

Now, there are many others, there are younger people, there's Ben Sass, young senators, congressmen, retired, generals, you can think of a lot of -- Condi Rice, you can think of a lot of other interesting people. But I think the first person you'd like to see if they would be willing to do this, the first people are probably Romney and Ryan.

SCIUTTO: I want to get back for a moment because this Twitter storm continues to heat up. But responding to Mitt Romney on Twitter just now, Donald Trump has just said, "Going to Salt Lake City, Utah, for a big rally. Lyin' Ted Cruz should not be allowed to win there. Mormons don't like liars. I beat Hillary."

I mean, what do you make -- I'll give you all a chance to respond to that.

KRISTOL: Republicans don't like liars either. That's kind of a strange statement by Trump.

SCIUTTO: What's the reaction going to be to this? I'll give you all a chance to respond to this. Let's start with you, Mary Katharine.

HAM: Well, I mean, it's classic Donald Trump, lots of exclamation points. No, I think, first of all, he doesn't beat Hillary, if you look at the head-to-head polling. That's something he continues to repeat, but it doesn't make it true yet.

[16:35:02] I do think he's capable of scrambling a map and Democrats should not count their chickens because this is a very unpredictable situation that everyone is in. So, it's hard top what the general will look like. But -- eh.

SCIUTTO: That says a thousand words right there.

HAM: This is my comment.

HILARY ROSEN, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: I think Mary Katharine is exactly right, Democrats should not be so confident about a Hillary- Trump race not because we don't -- I don't think Hillary can win, I do. It's just I think he will be enormously unpleasant to run against.

On the other hand, I think that all of this Republican hand wringing is going to go away when Donald Trump starts going after Hillary because they're going to like it, and they're going to say things about Hillary that are indecent and inappropriate, and a lot of Republicans are going to wish they had the gumption to do it and say it. And I think he's going to end up coalescing Republicans around him in an anti-Hillary campaign. SCIUTTO: Do you -- David Brooks wrote the same in "The New York

Times" today that he could see them beginning to line up. Do you see that happening already?

KRISTOL: I think some are. And I think it's -- I've made my never Trump argument to other Republicans. The strongest counterargument is oh, you're electing Hillary. I don't think that's correct. I think the nomination of Donald Trump is what is going to elect Hillary. I think having a strong alternative conservative would actually help Republicans down ballot and actually ultimately maybe help in the presidential election as well.

But I think that is going to be -- it's an argument that will be used against people like me. And maybe -- there will be a certain, of course, rallying to the nominee and all that and there is right now going on a real rationalizing of what Trump has said. Steve Hayes has a very good piece (INAUDIBLE) saying, you know, can we just remember what Donald Trump has said and what he has done and what it would mean for him to be the spokesman of the Republican Party.

It's not like having someone who's a little too conservative or who's not a great candidate or is rich, or he's not -- I mean, having -- people really need to stop and think do you want Donald Trump to be the national spokesman through an entire presidential election for the Republican Party and the conservative movement, it's not acceptable.

(CROSSTALK)

SCIUTTO: We'll see -- we'll see the answers in the coming weeks. Bill, Hilary, Mary Katharine, please stay here. We're going to come back to this right after this break. We've got a lot more to talk about and the Twitter storm continues.

Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:41:28] SCIUTTO: Welcome back to THE LEAD.

The breaking news in our politics lead, Mitt Romney says that he will vote for Ted Cruz, and Donald Trump tweeting Romney right back.

Our panel still here with me, but we've also got news from the Democrats just now.

Just look at their schedules and you'll get an idea about which candidate thinks they need to make up ground. Hillary Clinton has a down day. Bernie Sanders, however, out in a big way with events in Idaho and Arizona. The next two states, as it happens, voting for the Democrats.

CNN senior political correspondent, Brianna Keilar, is here in Washington.

So, Brianna, it looks like Sanders is still fighting this out. BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, he really

is. The math is certainly in Hillary Clinton's favor, she has that going for her, and perhaps she also has some help from President Obama. He publicly is trying to remain neutral but he's also giving us a preview of how he's planning to rally Democrats in the general election.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

KEILAR: President Obama weighing in on the 2016 race as he looks to protect his legacy, telling NPR today he thinks the Republican-led Senate's refusal to hold hearings on his Supreme Court nominee will motivate Democratic voters.

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: It is in part because of the circus that has been the presidential campaign season so far.

KEILAR: Obama, once dismissive of Donald Trump in January --

OBAMA: You know, talk to me if he wins.

KEILAR: In February.

OBAMA: I continue to believe Mr. Trump will not be president. And the reason is because I have a lot of faith in the American people. It's not hosting a talk show or a reality show.

KEILAR: Now with Trump the clear front-runner in the Republican field, the president is sounding a warning about the heightened rhetoric on the campaign trail.

OBAMA: The longer that we allow the political rhetoric of late to continue and the longer that we tacitly accept it, we create a permission structure that allows the animosity in one corner of our politics to infect our broader society.

KEILAR: Obama has met with both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders this primary season, speaking especially highly of his former secretary of state.

But the White House is pushing back on a "New York Times" report that Obama told Democratic donors to rally behind Clinton.

JOSH EARNEST, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: The president did not indicate a preference in the race.

KEILAR: But Obama has made a pick. Press Secretary Josh Earnest says he is just keeping it to himself.

EARNEST: I did not say that he couldn't make up his mind. The president has cast ballot.

KEILAR: As Hillary Clinton fund raises today, Bernie Sanders is campaigning out west, ahead of Tuesday's contest in Idaho, Utah and Arizona. SEN. BERNIE SANDERS (I-VT), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: What this

campaign is about is urging the American people to think outside of the box.

KEILAR: Sanders is trailing Clinton considerably in the delegate count. His patience wearing thin Thursday as he abruptly cut off an interview with a Phoenix television station.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

KEILAR: And in a rather unusual move, Bernie Sanders will be skipping this parade of presidential candidates that you see each year -- or not each year, each of these cycles for AIPAC, the pro-Israel lobby. You'll see Hillary Clinton there, the Republicans who are -- but Bernie Sanders, we expect, will be staying out west to concentrate on campaigning, not here in Washington.

SCIUTTO: That's right. AIPAC here in Washington starting Monday.

Brianna Keilar, thanks very much.

More in our politics lead coming up. Bernie Sanders says it would be outrageously undemocratic if he dropped out. But does the rest of the Democratic Party, including the president, agree? We'll be back to our panel right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SCIUTTO: Welcome back to THE LEAD. I want to get right back to our political panel. Hilary, there are a lot of charges of outrages to democracy on both sides, but would it be outrageously undemocratic as Bernie Sanders said for him to leave the race now?

HILARY ROSEN, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: I think from our perspective, if Bernie Sanders left the race, the media would leave too, right. But the only thing they would cover would be trump insulting Hillary. I'd rather have them -- I'd rather have us cover real issues.

But here's the other thing. Hillary Clinton deserves a lot of credit for not trying to push Sanders out of the race. This time in 2008 when Barack Obama had less of a lead than Hillary has now, there were a lot of people on the Obama team pushing her out, saying go away, you've had enough now.

[16:50:09]And she's not doing that. She's letting him make his own decision.

SCIUTTO: So Mary Katherine, Clinton already turning to some degree to the general election, does it hurt Republicans, because their fight is pretty nasty as you know and getting nastier, does it hurt republicans in the general if this drags out?

MARY KATHERINE HAM, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: One, I don't think she can turn entirely to the general election because Bernie still has rationale and money and excitement from young people, right, but - yes, it does hurt the party but welcome to 2016. The question is whether the soul of the party is worth giving away to have a quickly sewn up primary, which we don't have. That's out the window. We're moving on.

SCIUTTO: So Bill, I want to ask you, because you're talking on the Trump side of people changing their tune now, who said never Trump, might be lining up. Lindsey Graham is another who said -- he had some nasty things to say about Ted Cruz, but now he is voting for Ted Cruz. What kind of flips do those say?

BILL KRISTOL, EDITOR, "WEEKLY STANDARD": Lindsay deserves credit. He deeply believes Donald Trump shouldn't be credit and he thinks Ted Cruz hasn't always worked most collegiately with his Senate colleagues, but he thinks Ted Cruz is within the acceptable spectrum.

I think very few of the never Trump people are flipping. For all the talk about the Republican establishment, it's the Republican establishment that's now exceeding to Trump. We can work with Trump.

If he wins, he's a deal maker, we're deal makers and you see these former spokesmen for Dennis Hastert and Trent Lott trying to tell people come on, get along with Trump. We'll see how well it works. I don't know.

SCIUTTO: All right, Bill Kristol, Hilary Rosen, thanks very much for sticking with us throughout the show.

In today's installment of "America's Debt and the Economy," the world pulling (inaudible) giving America the "it's not you, it's me" routine. Foreign governments are dumping U.S. debt like never before.

Figures just released show foreign governments sold close to $60 billion of U.S. Treasury debt and other notes in January. The highest monthly tally on record going back to 1978.

And China, which happens to be the largest owner of U.S. debt, is leading the way. Analysts say it's all an effort by nations to raise cash of their own and keep their economies afloat during this global economic slowdown.

For the first time in more than 80 years, a sitting American president will visit Cuba. CNN got a behind-the-scenes look at what life is really like on the island nation ahead of Obama's historic visit. That's right after this break.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:55:00]

SCIUTTO: Welcome back to THE LEAD. Time now for our Pop Culture Lead. President Obama will make history on Sunday becoming the first commander-in-chief to visit the communist island nation of Cuba in nearly a century. All part of the diplomatic thaw between our two countries.

But before Cuba becomes a top tourist destination, CNN's Bill Weir traveled to the former cold war rival for the premiere episode of "The Wonder List" season two and he found a country that is stuck in the past, nervously looking forward to its future.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP

BILL WEIR, HOST, CNN'S "THE WONDER LIST": It looks like trendy boutique you might see in Soho or Melrose District of Los Angeles. And then right across the street, you have people raising chickens on their balcony. How is life in Havana these days?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Really hard, man.

WEIR: It's hard.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SCIUTTO: Joining me now is the host of "The Wonder List," Bill Weir, otherwise known as the luckiest man at CNN. Great footage down there, just great stories. As you travel around, do you think that Cuba and Cubans are ready for this dramatic change?

WEIR: Absolutely not and they admit as much. The island, as you've been down there, you've seen it, it is so broken. The infrastructure is so under disrepair they need billions of foreign investment just to get anywhere near what most tourists, especially American tourists would be used to.

There's real apprehension. They're afraid of big foreign corporations coming in and sort of wiping out, bull dozing the Cuban soul at the same time as development comes in. But they are so warm, so open hearted, so excited about a new era in U.S.-Cuban relations.

This is where they grow the world famous tobacco leaf there. I told the guy, you should have a cigar tasting restaurant right here like Napa Valley, you'd get thousands. He said they're all welcome. They can stay in my house for free.

I said obviously you're a communist, that's not how it works. You're supposed to make some money, but it's not really even on the mindset yet. They're just getting tiny nibbles of capitalism with those home bed and breakfast, Airbnb is the biggest brand in Cuba today.

SCIUTTO: So I want to give you a chance to show the surprising place where you found this underwater lush environment in a place people might not expect it. Bay of Pigs, right?

WEIR: You can now scuba dive in the Bay of Pigs. How is that for anybody who remembers the cold war. What's interesting is that Fidel Castro loved marine life. He was such an avid diver the CIA considered killing him with poison suits and exploding sea shells.

But his love of this ocean started a (inaudible) diplomacy, which (inaudible) things. A big change is under way and we take you all over the island Sunday night. It blew my mind. I think it will blow yours as well. SCIUTTO: Bill Weir, amazing stuff, can't wait to see the rest of it. Don't miss it. The debut of "Wonder List" Season 2, Sunday night, 10:00 p.m. right here on CNN.

That's it for THE LEAD. I'm going to turn you over now to Wolf Blitzer in "THE SITUATION ROOM."